In Algeria, the death of a literary salon is a tragedy, the silencing of dissent, an everyday occurrence
In the new logic of repression, all evidence of the 2019 uprising must be eliminated, the first targets being the journalists, writers, artists and activists that used to gather at a literary café in Aokas.
For over three decades, the literary café of Aokas, a town in the Kabylie region, has drawn artists, writers and actors. In 2017, as the gatherings became increasingly popular and confrontational, local authorities started to restrict the meetings by withholding the necessary permits.
This April, after a series of warnings, the café was shut down. The court decision was issued following a complaint of “transgression of the law governing associational activity” and “religious proselytism” against its organizing structure Azday adelsan n weqas.
This verdict is the latest in a series of repressive measures against the country’s civil society and the few remaining spaces of free expression. In Algiers a few days before the café was ordered closed, a highly-publicised political trial ended with journalist Ihsane El Kadi sentenced to five years in prison. In June, two months later the sentence was increased to seven years on appeal – the most severe verdict handed to a journalist in recent times.
El Kadi’s company, Interface Media, which edits the news outlets Radio M and Maghreb Emergent – currently inaccessible in Algeria without a VPN – was dissolved by judicial order, marking a clear end to the country’s independent press. As the media and related spaces have shrunk over the past three years, Radio M ignored the repression and continued to host regular debates. Its prominent programme, Café Presse Politique, remained a vital space for political discussion and provided its guests with a unique platform to be able to meet and debate freely. There are hardly any actors from Algeria’s opposition and civil society who haven’t made an appearance on the programme.
During the weekly shows, they would tackle subjects considered red lines: the role of the army in politics, the democratic regression which followed the Hirak of 2019, and the latest hot topic, the upcoming presidential elections.
Since Bouteflika was toppled in 2019, the regime has arrested and arbitrarily incarcerated hundreds of protesters as well as random citizens expressing anti-government views. As soon as the Hirak started to weaken, the regime slowly and methodically extended its tentacles, silencing dissenting voices and reinforcing the old political order unchanged.
Algerian authorities dissolved opposition parties which took part in the Hirak, like the leftist Socialist Workers’ Party (PST) and Democratic and Social Movement (MDS). It also banned organisations which supported the Hirak such as the Youth Action Rally (RAJ) and the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH), as well as the more socially oriented ones like SOS Bab El Oued or even Caritas, the relief and development agency of the Catholic church.
“Repression and authoritarianism have always existed but what’s happening today is unprecedented,” asserts the leader of the dissolved PST, Mahmoud Rechidi.
“All our activities are suspended and our premises closed. No public political activity is tolerated. Even a tribute to our comrade Achour Idir, a major union figure, could only take place in a high school via a meeting organised by another union – and that, only after authorisation from the minister of education.”
The climate is likely to get heavier as the 2024 presidential elections approach, leaving only a vestige of public dissent online, Rechidi further explained.
The Hirak had led to a sudden increase in political expression, with weekly demonstrations as well as numerous debates across the country involving citizens of all social and political backgrounds. But the popular peaceful demonstrations celebrated worldwide and the spontaneous street gatherings gave way to a heavy silence. In today’s Algeria, organising a sit-in or even a public discussion has become an impossible task.
The oppressive legislative framework of the Abdelaziz Bouteflika era, assumed to have been dismantled by the massive popular mobilisation of the Hirak, remains intact. In Algiers, demonstrations have been officially banned since the Black Spring in 2001. Across the country, political parties and organisations can’t legally hold meetings without permits, usually denied, while some of their members are having a hard time coping with the physical as well as the online surveillance. Opposition parties have been under pressure simply for holding meetings at their headquarters or inviting guests.
“What has really changed for activists between 2019 and now is that being an activist has become a criminal act,” regrets Abdelkrim Zeghileche, a member of the Union for Change and Progress (UCP) opposition party who has been jailed four times and prosecuted in ten cases. “The act of opposition is criminalised. So is the activist and the opponent. The repression before 2019 never reached this level of cruelty.”
At least 60 journalists have been arrested since 2019, the majority of them on suspicion of supporting the Hirak; 17, including El Kadi, have been jailed. In June 2021, the amendment of the Article 87 bis of the penal code broadened the definition of terrorism and included calls for a change in the governing system. Although there’s no precise figure available, dozens of activists have since been charged under the new law and incarcerated. Some, including Zeghileche, have since had their charges modified once they had been jailed for terrorism or after long periods of detention.
Activists and political actors have become reluctant to express their opinions and describe a generalised sense of fear and despair. Many have stepped back and withdrawn from social media because of the numerous arrests justified by online publications. Some compare Algeria to an “open prison” they cannot leave, alluding to travel bans, and where they cannot foresee democratic as well as socioeconomic change. Even multi-partyism and the broadening of the democratic space, a consequence of the 1988 October uprising, which many consider the main achievement of the last three decades, is threatened.
“The regime closed everything, we went back to square one. We went back to the period before October 1988. The democratic freedoms wrested in October ‘88 are called into question,” regrets the president of the dissolved RAJ association, Abdelouahab Fersaoui. “For a post on Facebook, you can end up in prison. Political parties are absent. Same thing for the trade unions and associations. The media is muzzled. It is a political desert and that is very dangerous for the country and even the regime in place.”
“This is a period that Algeria has never experienced. In the middle of the civil war, there were marches, rallies. The press spoke, organisations and parties held events. We could address all issues. But we are not at war here. There is peace, but democratic freedoms and human rights are violated. This is a huge and very worrying setback,” regrets Fersaoui.
In the late 1980s and even during the Black decade, there was relative freedom of speech. The Algerian press managed to be quite outspoken. It was one of the most vibrant in the region and more or less made up for a civil society which lagged behind those of the country’s neighbours. But last year, Liberté, one of the last remaining independent dailies, disappeared from the newsstands, officially for financial difficulties. Algeria’s other major newspaper El Watan, which extensively covered the Hirak demonstrations, has adopted a conciliatory editorial line. Meanwhile, several reporters have been prosecuted, including Belkacem Houam, jailed for an article on pesticides in dates, and Mustapha Bendjama, currently in detention due to his critical coverage and after countless arrests.
So far, the regime has at least momentarily, succeeded in isolating political opponents and government critics without having to make any political concession. And the noose of the repression is tightening each day.
‘The regime is creating a spirit of betrayal,” explains Zeghileche. “It is conveying in a blatant way the idea among Algeria’s society that those who oppose the regime oppose Algeria – that they are traitors to Algeria. And it does it with everyone, whether inside or outside the country. The regime is working to establish and to fix this image in the mind of the average Algerian. Whoever is against the Algerian regime is a traitor to Algeria.”