Algeria: Hirak at the time of coronavirus
Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune announced on television on Tuesday 17 March, a ban on all marches to combat the spread of COVID-19. The decision has divided Hirak militants who see it as an attempt to put an end to the protest movement.
Coronavirus in Algeria
“All together, but each one at home.”
It is with this appealing formula that the Italian daily La Republica summed up the moments when the inhabitants of a Turin neighbourhood danced, sang, and partied, each confined to their balcony or terrace because of coronavirus.
This slogan “All together, but each one at home” perfectly suits Algerians at a time when debates, controversies, polemics, accusations, and counter-accusations animate social networks and the media around the maintenance or not, of the expected Friday and Tuesday marches.
Algeria, like its immediate neighbours in the Maghreb and Europe, has been hit hard.
By mid-march, the country recorded 67 confirmed cases and five deaths.
The instruments and structures for screening for the virus are insufficient or non-existent, so the number of infected people is certainly higher than official figures.
READ MORE: Africa faces a coronavirus catastrophe
The confinement of the population is an imperative measure to slow down the progress of COVID-19. And yet despite the President’s announcement banning of marches on 17 March, hundreds of people were still meeting in the streets that same day.
If reason, common sense, living together, and the absolute imperative to preserve human lives prevailed among a large majority of those who have been calling for a regime change for more than a year, thousands of others were determined not to give up their weekly demonstrations.
Neither the calls to preserve the private and public interest, nor the scientists’ recommendations, or the Prime Minister’s appeals to reason, and even the words of some influential Hirak voices have influenced the position of these committed marchers.
An Algerian expression sums it all up. “Maaza wa law taret” (“This is a goat, and the fact that it steals does not change anything”). It describes these stubborn people, impervious to any critical spirit.
The arguments put forward by Hirak’s hardliners are flawed, stupid, populist, deceitful, and conspiratorial.
Some explain that if they had not overcome the protest through repression, the authorities would have invented this epidemic as a massive deterrent, to put an end to popular mobilization, while others swear that they are sufficiently protected by wearing masks and gloves, thereby ruling out any risk of contracting or transmitting the virus.
Finally, others fear that even a momentary halt to Hirak would mean its death and the victory of the “system”.
The prize for stupidity and irresponsibility comes, alas, from a young opposition party member, unjustly sentenced to six months in prison for carrying the Amazigh flag, and released from El Harrach prison last December.
Samira Messouci’s words are all the more irresponsible because her commitment and detention have made her the muse of the revolution.
When questioned by a local media outlet on 13 March, Messouci explained that the virus exists all over the world and that the WHO has not classified Algeria as a country at risk. The same woman maintains that the government is “taking out this coronavirus story” to kill Hirak, and the only real danger, in her eyes, is the government’s attempt to maintain power.
The video is widely relayed on social networks.
Algerians against the ruling elite
The distrust of Algerians towards those in power is so palpable that it highlights their legitimate fear of seeing the movement run out of steam or disappear altogether after a pause, despite everything.
Of course, the country needs this counter-power embodied by the marches.
Maintaining them is a sign of democratic vitality and pluralism.
But no cause is above that of preserving human lives. In football, the half-time interval does not in any way signal the end of the match.
Or in other words, making a strategic withdrawal until Algeria has overcome this epidemic does not in any way mean the death of the Hirak.
An Internet user summed up the equation with this statement, which is just as good as La Repubblica‘s formula: “Those who want to continue Hirak despite the coronavirus, I remind you that we came out to live and not to die. We were dead for decades. Isn’t a good activist first and foremost a living activist?”