Pandemic put Algeria’s protests on pause — will they now resume?

An Algerian woman wearing the national flag as a headscarf chants during an anti-government demonstration led by Hirak, or ‘Movement,’ in Algiers. (AFP/File)
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Updated 07 September 2020

Pandemic put Algeria’s protests on pause — will they now resume?

  • Last month, two journalists were jailed for 2 and 3 years respectively, including for covering Hirak protests as reporters, in sentences criticized by international rights groups

ALGIERS: For over a year Algeria’s defiant anti-government “Hirak” protesters seemed unstoppable, but weekly demonstrations skidded to a halt due to restrictions to end the coronavirus crisis.
With two months to go before a key referendum on constitutional reform — a vote the government hopes will meet their demands — many expect the protests to soon return.
“The will to change the mode of governance is still present,” said political scientist Louisa Driss Ait Hamadouche.
While the mass demonstrations in the North African nation may be on hold, the anger remains and, many believe, could soon rekindle the street protests.
“Although both hypotheses are possible, the most likely is the resumption of demonstrations,” Hamadouche said.
Anti-government protests led by Hirak — meaning in Arabic, “the movement” — last year swept ailing president Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power.
But the rallies continued afterwards, demanding the ouster of the entire state apparatus, which is reviled by many Algerians as inept and corrupt.
“By remaining peaceful and civic-minded, Algerians have shown surprising maturity,” Hamadouche said.
“This spirit of civic protest means that, with or without popular demonstrations, Hirak is here to stay.”
Mahrez Bouich, another political analyst, believes Hirak protests will continue “until the people’s demands are met.”
Not only do the original grievances driving protests remain, frustration has grown.
Anger has been compounded by a government crackdown against demonstrators, a rise in unemployment and a slumping economy.
“It is a popular phenomenon ... caused by a buildup of frustrations and attacks on freedom, by a political system that refuses to change,” said Mansour Kedidir, a political science researcher.

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With two months to go before a key referendum on constitutional reform — a vote the government hopes will meet their demands — many expect the protests to soon return.

Yet while Hirak is a grassroots movement whose lack of a formal leadership structure gives it the resilience to continue, it is weakened by internal arguments.
Ideological splits between progressives and conservatives, as well as between secularists and Islamists, mean its divisions can be exploited by the authorities.
“Twenty years of Bouteflika’s rule have damaged society to the point that no party can claim to be an alternative force,” Kedidir said.
A government crackdown on critics — including journalists, opposition politicians as well as Hirak members — has stifled some of those willing to speak out.
Last month, two journalists were jailed for 2 and 3 years respectively, including for covering Hirak protests as reporters, in sentences criticized by international rights groups.
On Sunday, Human Rights Watch condemned the treatment of detained activist Abdellah Benaoum, a 54-year Hirak protester in poor health held by police since December, on charges including “undermining national unity” and inciting an unauthorized “unarmed gathering.”
He is one of some 45 Algerians held for their role in the movement, the New York-based group said.
“His imprisonment epitomises the authorities’ determination to crush a nationwide, peaceful movement for democratic reform,” HRW’s Eric Goldstein said.
“Charges that criminalize criticism of government institutions violate the right to freedom of expression,” HRW added.
While the six months suspension due to the coronavirus crisis stripped the momentum from the movement, the pandemic also fostered the creation of community and online solidarity networks.
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, elected in December, has promised to break with the Bouteflika years, an era seen as synonymous with authoritarianism, corruption and nepotism.
Tebboune, formerly a prime minister under Bouteflika, has backed a constitutional referendum due on November 1, ostensibly as an answer to the popular protest movement.
But many groups linked to Hirak fear the referendum will simply be a means to paper over problems, without making the deep-rooted reforms they believe are needed.
It will keep the old system in place to “reproduce itself,” said political analyst Mahrez Bouich.
For many Algerians struggling to pay rent and purchase daily food, the intricacies of constitutional reform might seem of little immediate interest.
But protests against poor living conditions, especially among young people in the south of the country, may dovetail with Hirak demonstrations.
They just need a spark to light the flame, “like dry tinder,” Kedidir warned.


American G20 ‘sherpa’ Chris Olson lauds strong, long-standing Riyadh-Houston links

Updated 30 September 2020

American G20 ‘sherpa’ Chris Olson lauds strong, long-standing Riyadh-Houston links

  • Chris Olson: It began with oil but developed into a cultural and economic exchange – a lot of Saudis ended up calling Houston home
  • Olson: I’ve been impressed by how Riyadh has taken the U20 concept and moved it forward

One of the aims of the U20 — the urban track of the G20 organization that formally opens on Thursday in Riyadh — is to bring together cities of diverse backgrounds and cultures to explore common interests and challenges, rather than focusing on what makes them different.

In the case of Riyadh and Houston, Texas, that process of familiarization has been underway for decades.

Christopher Olson, director of international affairs and global trade at the offices of the city of Houston, told Arab News: “There has been a long-standing and strong relationship between Houston and Riyadh, indeed the whole of Saudi Arabia, for a very long time.”

Olson reports to the mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, but for the past year or so has been the US “sherpa” at the G20, under Saudi presidency this year.

The Riyadh-Houston affinity was based, naturally, on the oil and gas industry, with both cities owing much of their economic dynamism and growth to the energy business. Saudis and Texans share a unique heritage as pioneers of the crude business, and those links have grown and diversified over the decades.

“It began with oil but developed into a cultural and economic exchange. A lot of Saudis ended up calling Houston home,” Olson said.

Saudi Aramco, the Kingdom’s energy giant, has a big facility in the Texan city, and owns the Motiva refinery complex a short distance away on the Gulf of Mexico coast.

Until the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic hit, Saudis would travel in droves each year to the CERAWeek energy forum in Houston, the “oil man’s Davos,” not least to keep tabs on what their rivals were doing in the Texas shale industry.

Saudis also attend Texas universities in big numbers, and the Texas Medical Center — which Olson pointed out was the biggest medical facility in the world — treats Saudi patients in increasing numbers.

Oil and medicine came together during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Aramco gifted medical supplies and equipment to Houston. “We were incredibly fortunate in that. We got almost 1 million masks from benefactors, and Aramco made up a big proportion of that. It really was incredibly generous,” Olson added.

The virus outbreak led to the cancellation of CERAWeek this year, but the city hoped organizers would add some physical element to the planned virtual event in 2021, Olson said.

The city managed to avoid most of the early virulence of the pandemic that hit US cities such as New York and Los Angeles, but relaxed early restrictions, along with several American cities, in May, and suffered a resulting spike in infections, the official added. “Now the numbers are moving in the right direction — downwards. But as schools and economic activity restarts, there is the potential for a second wave.”

One of the major themes of the U20 is how big urban centers, such as Houston and Riyadh, can overcome the health and economic ravages of the pandemic. Some experts have forecast mass migration from big cities, partly to avoid infection, but also as working and social habits adapt to whatever post-pandemic “normality” emerges. There has even been talk of “the end of urbanization.”

Olson said: “We’re all going to have to adapt. For example, are we as cities still going to invest in big infrastructure projects to encourage mass transit systems? That is the thing to do from a sustainability viewpoint, but it creates a health challenge.”

The working environment also faces enforced change. “There may have been a reticence in the past about tele-meetings, but now they are ubiquitous. It’s going to fundamentally change the way business is conducted.”

Increased dependence on technology brings other challenges, which the U20 will also consider. The digital divide between those who have access to efficient communications, especially in education, has been brought into sharp relief during the global health crisis, and even impacted on affluent urban hubs such as Houston.

“But I believe the city as a concept will endure. We are urban and social animals. People will adapt, but the general concept of the urban environment will not change,” Olson added.

He said it had been “fantastic” working with his counterparts at the U20 in Saudi Arabia.

“I’ve been impressed by how Riyadh has taken the U20 concept and moved it forward. The U20 is still only in its third year, but Riyadh has solidified it as an engagement group, and created a format for an exchange of thought and ideas. This will help us come up with evidence-based proposals and solutions,” he added.

The climax of the U20 comes on Friday, when mayors from all the big cities come together virtually to approve a 27-point communique for delivery to the G20 leadership. That statement is still under wraps, but Olson said it was a “well-crafted” document that reflected the good relationships that had developed between the sherpas over the past year.

He would like to see the U20 track elevated within G20 proceedings in the future, especially in the way it addresses issues of more concern to younger people, and believes that Saudi Arabia, with its very young demographic, will assist that elevation process.

“The amazing work of Riyadh has built on what was achieved in Tokyo and Buenos Aires and has carried it forward.

“It’s the cities of the world that face the biggest challenges — such as climate change, human rights, and sustainable development. But the cities are also coming up with the solutions. That is where the opportunity lies,” Olson said.