The Algerian regime hoped that a referendum on constitutional changes would draw a line under two years of mass mobilisations from below, writes Shelagh Smith, but the low turnout and continuing strikes tells a different story.
November 1 is the celebration of the start of the Algerian war for independence from the French in 1954. The government cynically chose this date for the referendum on changes to the constitution, using the slogan “November 1954: liberation, November 2020: change”, hoping that promises of a ‘New Algeria’ would mobilise popular support.
Despite 66.8 percent of voters approving the amendments the turnout was only 23.7 percent, so the changes were in effect approved by less than 14 percent of the electorate. This represents a historic defeat for the regime, despite heavy promotion by government machinery and the media, while opponents of the referendum were stopped from campaigning and meeting publicly.
There was a massive boycott in Kabylia, where only 0.7 percent voted in Tizi Ouzou for example. There were boycotts in cities elsewhere and in the diaspora. But there was also a huge abstention in the High Plains and in the south of the country, areas traditionally the electoral reserve of the regime, with a turnout of 13 percent in the east and 16 percent in the west.This shows the regime is losing its base.
The “New Algeria” proposed in the referendum looks remarkably like the old Algeria. The President and the executive retain the same exorbitant powers, including over the courts and the judiciary. Controversially, the army could now be deployed outside the national territory to support international peacekeeping missions, for example in Libya. While the new constitution favours freedom of speech and assembly, the regime has intensified its repression of the population. Journalists, bloggers, activists, and ordinary citizens are continuing to be jailed. Access to news websites such as RadioM, Maghreb Emergeant, Interlignes, and Tout Sur l’Algérie has been blocked.
by Shelagh Smith
In Algeria the military retains a firm grip through its preferred presidential candidates, and every president writes a new constitution to try to strengthen his power. Tebboune wanted a popular plebiscite to strengthen his illegitimate regime, but unlike his predecessor Bouteflika, he has been unable to improve living standards due to severe economic conditions magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic. Thousands of workers have lost their jobs, and millions of people are in real distress.
[Box: Since February 2019 Algeria has been rocked by a peaceful mass movement which forced president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down after 20 years in power, after he proposed to stand for a 5th term. Against widespread opposition and boycotts, Abdelmadjid Tebboune was declared elected president on 12 December 2019.
Protesters want the removal of an entrenched political class that has held power in Algeria since independence in 1962. They demand a civil, not a military state, based on the rule of law. The eruption of the Covid-19 pandemic has forced protesters to leave the streets for now, but the struggle continues.]
The authorities initially hid the fact that Tebboune was flown to a specialist hospital in Germany at the end of October to be treated for Covid-19, and the state of the 75 year old’s health is still unknown.
The Islamist parties, weakened in recent times, were split over the referendum, but united in their rejection of Tamazight, the Berber language, as the second language of the state confirmed in the new constitution. They claim this is against national unity. An extreme right wing current uses TV and radio channels to incite racial hatred. For example the MP Naïma Salhi, President of the Fairness and Proclamation Party (PEP), said she was ready to kill her daughter if she dared to “speak Kabyle”.
But Kabylia’s boycotts and activism are part of one national mood. This infuriates certain political institutions which have tried to drive a wedge between Kabylia and the rest of the country by banning the Amazigh flag, and stopping demonstrators joining marches in the capital. The regime sees Amazigh identity as a threat to Algeria’s pan-Arabism and Islamism, which is encouraged and supported by the Emirates and Qatar in particular.
The economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic is combined in Algeria with a public health emergency and continuing social unrest. President Tebboune’s response package included a 50 percent cut in public spending and investments, and reduced imports.
But the economy was already in trouble due to the collapse in oil prices – Algeria depends on oil and gas for 95 percent of its export revenue. The government has been drawing on its reserves, which are now severely depleted. The surplus accumulated during the 2000’s was spent on buying the population off and at the same time allowing an elite to get rich at people’s expense.
With increasing unemployment and poverty, and the repression with which their protest movement has been met, the Hirak is bound to reassert itself during 2021. The regime has no economic room to manoeuvre, and certainly no political will to give up any of its power.
Tebboune has tried for the whole of 2020 to demobilise the movement, on the one hand calling it the “blessed Hirak”, seeking to co-opt elements of the opposition, and on the other hand using the Covid-19 pandemic to massively increase repression. But the popular movement has not been defeated. Algerians no longer want to live as before. The question of popular sovereignty, respect for democratic freedoms and social justice remain the main aspirations of a people in struggle since February 2019.
Despite the Algerian people’s rejection of the referendum, Tebboune can count on strong support from outside the country. President Macron of France declared: “I’ll tell you frankly: I will do everything in my power to help President Tebboune in this period of transition. He is courageous. You don’t change a country, institutions and power structures in a few months. There was a revolutionary movement, which is still there, in a different form. There is also a desire for stability, especially in the most rural part of Algeria. Everything must be done for this transition to succeed.”
This intrusion into Algeria’s affairs, on the side of a discredited and authoritarian regime, has caused immense anger. It is seen as support for the continuity of the system guaranteeing French and other Western interests in the country. It comes just after the historic defeat of the regime during the referendum elections of November 1.
As Samir Larabi of the Parti Socialiste des Travailleurs (PST) has written, “The French regime was only waiting for this moment to put pressure on Algeria for more concessions and in a few weeks we will see other powerful countries, such as the USA, Great Britain, the Russians, Chinese and the Gulf monarchies, align with the French position to have its share of the pie.”
Three years ago Macron talked of enhancing Franco-Algerian relations by forging new economic ties and boosting investment in renewable energies, innovation, the digital economy, the automotive industry, and pharmaceuticals. With its low wages, Algeria has attractive labour costs for investors. It’s not all one way: the French home equipment company FragorBrandt was saved from bankruptcy by the Algerian group Cevital, saving jobs in both countries.
Algeria’s economy is dominated by the hydrocarbon sector, accounting for around 28 percent of GDP, 58 percent of government revenues and 98% of all exports. The EU is Algeria’s biggest export market for oil hydrocarbons and natural gas, with Turkey in 6th place, and Algeria is the EU’s third largest supplier, after Russia and Norway.
The largest imports come from the EU, but China has now overtaken France as Algeria’s number one source of imports, and has also been involved in heavy development of state infrastructure, including roads, nuclear power and car assembly plants. Turkey has also been investing heavily in Algeria, and there has been a greater interest from Gulf investors.
The EU and Algeria also cooperate on security and migration, which is crucial to France, especially in mediation efforts in the “fight against terror” in the Maghreb-Sahel region, including Libya, Tunisia and Mali. France relies on Algerian assistance in its fight against armed militancy, organized crime, and illegal immigration in the Sahel.
These policies, and the strong support of key member states such as France, underpin EU relations with Algeria, despite the European Parliament sometimes amplifying criticisms of the Algerian regime’s human rights abuses.
On 26 November, the European Parliament adopted an urgent resolution highlighting “The deteriorating human rights situation in Algeria, in particular the case of journalist Khaled Drareni,” who was sentenced to two years in prison on 15 September 2020. It “calls on the Algerian authorities to unblock media outlets and to halt the arrest and detention of political activists, journalists, and human rights defenders, as well as any person who expresses dissent or criticism of the government.”
Under the Treaty of European Union and the EU-Algeria Association Agreement, the EU and its Member States are to place human rights, including respect for international human rights conventions, at the centre of their collective and bilateral cooperation with Algeria.
However, far from supporting the Algerian people who are fighting for their democratic rights, it has been revealed by Privacy International, a data rights charity based in London, that during the height of the protests in 2019, the EU was training police and security forces in open source intelligence (OSINT) surveillance techniques including harvesting data from social media sites and mobile phones, including creating fake online identities which have been used to spread disinformation. The agency funding this is the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Training (CEPOL).
In the absence of a free press, social media plays an important role, but is plagued by what Algerians call “les mouches électroniques” – electronic flies. The EU is helping unaccountable security agencies that arbitrarily target activists, journalists and others: this is against the EU’s own policies on disinformation.
Over 90 people are currently in prison in Algeria for acts related to the Hirak, according to the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees (CNLD) with charges based largely on publications on Facebook. On the day of the referendum “preventive” arrests of activists took place in Algiers, among them photojournalist Zoheir Aberkane, whose photos Middle East Solidarity Magazine has been pleased to publish. Other journalists have been arrested for “insulting the president” and filming a gathering of women activists. Independent news sites like Radiom.info and maghrebemergent.info have been censored. Lawyers recently observed a two-day strike to denounce the serious abuses of the justice system, where control over all the jurisdictions of the country has reached such a point that it has been nicknamed “Justice by telephone”, since sentences are dictated by a political police out of control.
*** This article is a reprint from Middle East Solidarity magazine issue 15. Download your pdf of the current issue here. Scroll down for previous issues. During the Covid-19 crisis we are suspending our print publications temporarily, but you can help support our work by making a donation for your copy below. Click to take out an annual solidarity subscription. ***