Interview with human rights activist Rabah Arkam

Algeria's protesters continue their "Revolution of Smiles"

The coronavirus pandemic brought mass pro-democracy protests in Algeria to an abrupt end. Exploiting the distraction engendered by the health crisis, the new Algerian government has launched a crackdown on opponents and activists. Can the new constitution be instrumental in bringing about change? Elisa Rheinheimer-Chabbi spoke to Algerian-American human rights activist Rabah Arkam

Mr Arkam, Algeria adopted a new constitution just a few days ago. Does this represent a step towards more democracy in the country?

Rabah Arkam: The new constitution is nothing more than a democratic facade. By boycotting the referendum, the vast majority of Algerians rejected this revision of the constitution. (Editor’s note: only 23.7 percent of the electorate cast their vote in the November 2020 referendum). The new constitution reflects the intention of the Algerian regime to establish long-term, authoritarian power. But Algerians are demanding that the old elites relinquish that power. This is the only way to ensure a genuine democratic transition.

What is especially problematic about the new constitution?

Arkam: Power has been in the hands of the military since Algerian independence in 1962. The problems in my country can’t therefore be blamed on the constitution, but on a crisis of legitimacy within the echelons of political power.

Are you seeing any improvements at all?

Arkam: No. The current situation is worse than ever. Activists are being summoned by security agencies on a daily basis; the regime is ramping up the pressure. There’s been a sharp rise in arbitrary arrests in recent months. Algerians are interrogated, beaten, insulted, humiliated and then brought before the courts to be fined or sent to prison with no regard for any article of either the old or the new constitution.

In 2019, the Algerian newspaper Liberte published a draft citizens’ charter containing constitutional articles proposed by 160 Algerian intellectuals. Were parts of this draft incorporated into the new basic law?

Arkam: Firstly, it’s important to realise that the regime has marginalised Algeria’s intellectual elite. But the people are also divided. For example, the citizens’ charter proposes articles on the separation of powers, gender equality, respect for human rights, as well as the freedom of religion and conscience bound up with a non-politicisation of religion. The charter states that all this must form the basis of the new Algeria. But not everyone agrees; some see the charter as an attack on the values and the foundations of Algeria. For them, Islam represents an inviolable element of Algerian identity.

Algiers: November 2020 referendum on the constitution (photo: Getty Images/AFP/Ryad Kramdi)
Referendum on the new Algerian constitution in November 2020: the new constitution is nothing more than a democratic facade, says human rights activist Rabah Akram. By boycotting the ballot box, the vast majority of Algerians rejected it. Only 23.7 percent of eligible voters cast their vote. Akram sees the new constitution above all as reflecting the Algerian regime's intention to establish long-term authoritarian power. "But Algerians are demanding that the old elites relinquish power. This is the only way to ensure genuine democratic transition"

Hirak split into secular and Islamist camps

Up until early 2020, hundreds of thousands of people joined the Hirak protest movement. Then weekly demonstrations were halted because of the pandemic. Can Hirak continue to mobilise support?

Arkam: The impression has arisen on occasions that Hirak (Arabic for movement) is weak, ineffective and powerless. This sense of impotence in the face of the supposed invulnerability of the system is hampering the creation of an effective opposition. The current situation does not allow for any large-scale civil mobilisation, firstly because of the pandemic and secondly due to differing standpoints within Hirak.

This is a complex movement without any explicit leadership. It is also split between progressive and conservative, secular and Islamist elements. These divisions could weaken Hirak in its opposition to the regime. There’s also in-fighting over whether or not the demonstrations should start up again.

Do you think that will happen?

Arkam: Yes, I think so. The Algerian government has exploited the outbreak of the pandemic to intensify its pursuit of political opponents, journalists and activists within Hirak. Nevertheless, in late summer and early autumn when infection rates appeared to be slowing temporarily, people resumed rallies for the most part in the regions of Kabylia, Oran, Algiers, Tlemcen, Ouargla and Biskra. This shows that no-one can stop the Algerian people. They are determined to continue their peaceful fight for change.

Algerian journalist Khaled Drareni (photo: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Str)
Clamping down on activists, journalists and opposition figures: Algerian journalist Khaled Drareni pictured here, was sentenced to three years in prison in August 2020 for reporting on the Hirak protest movement. "There's been a sharp rise in arbitrary arrests in recent months," says human rights activist Rabah Arkam. "Algerians are interrogated, beaten, insulted, humiliated and then brought before the courts to be fined or sent to prison with no regard for any article of either the old or the new constitution"

In view of the devastating economic situation, the political repression and the pandemic, it’s understandable that many Algerians are feeling desperate and frustrated. Do you think sections of the protest movement could be radicalised?

Arkam: I don’t expect that to happen. The regime wants the peaceful protests to turn violent. This would provide it with an excuse to take even tougher action against the demonstrators. But the Algerian people are showing surprising maturity; they won’t allow themselves to be provoked.  There’s a consensus within Hirak that the demonstrations must continue to be peaceful in nature.

The Algerian people have learned from past experience. The regime is now trying to steer Hirak away from its political to its social demands. The economic and social impact of the COVID-19 crisis is playing into the hands of the power elite here.

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