Coronavirus halts year-long protests in Algeria
Since mass mobilisation against the authoritarian state leadership first began in February 2019, it seemed that nothing could stand in the way of Algeria’s protest movement. Neither political concessions such as the resignation of ex-President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April 2019 – enforced by the military – nor diversionary tactics by the old elites could persuade young people pushing for genuine political change to halt their weekly demonstrations.
For 13 months, the campaign known in Algeria as “Hirak“ (Arabic for “movement“) defied government attempts to divide and discredit it, pouring rain and political repression. The mobilisation power of Hirak remained unbroken. Until the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Neither the coronavirus nor cholera will stop us”
The authorities confirmed the first case of Covid-19 in Algeria in late February, but the Hirak juggernaut rolled enthusiastically onward, acknowledging the looming threat with bare-faced sarcasm. “Neither the coronavirus nor cholera will stop us” or “We’re not afraid of corona, we grew up in misery” were just two of the slogans heard on the streets of Algiers as late as 13 March.
All the while, there was an explosion in the number of cases. Hirak was also very much aware that Algeria’s public healthcare system, run down for decades, is nowhere near ready for such a crisis and that sooner or later, it could implode under the pressure of a pandemic of global dimensions.
With fitting urgency, more and more leading voices within the movement warned of the health policy dangers of COVID-19 and argued for an immediate halt to protests. Their calls were heeded. This is why since 13 March, for the first time after 57 weeks of non-stop protests, the streets of Algeria are now eerily empty.