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

By Elisa Rheinheimer-Chabbi

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 über die neue algerische Verfassung im November 2020. Die neue Verfassung sei nicht mehr als eine demokratische Fassade, meint der Menschenrechtler Rabah Akram. Deshalb habe das algerische Volk sie mit großer Mehrheit abgelehnt, indem es den Wahlurnen ferngeblieben ist. Nur 23,7 Prozent der Wahlberechtigten hatten ihre Stimme abgegeben. Akram sieht in der neuen Verfassung vor allem einen Ausdruck des Willens des algerischen Regimes, eine langfristige, autoritäre Macht zu etablieren. „Die Algerierinnen und Algerier aber verlangen, dass die alten Eliten die Macht abgeben. Nur so kann ein echter demokratischer Übergang gestaltet werden.“

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)
Das algerische Regime verschärft den Ton und geht gegen Aktivisten, Journalisten und Oppositionelle vor. Hier der algerische Journalist Khaled Drareni, der im August 2020 zu drei Jahren Haft verurteilt wurde, weil er über die Hirak-Protestbewegung berichtet hat. „Willkürliche Verhaftungen sind in den vergangenen Monaten um ein Vielfaches angestiegen,“ sagt der Menschenrechtler Rabah Arkam. „Algerierinnen und Algerier werden verhört, geschlagen, beleidigt, gedemütigt und dann vor Gerichte gestellt, die sie ohne Rücksicht auf irgendeinen Artikel der alten oder neuen Verfassung zu Haft- und Geldstrafen verurteilen.“

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.

Stoking regional differences

What are the main obstacles on Algeria’s path to democracy?

Arkam: The army must bend to the will of the people and surrender its power to civil authorities. The regime must immediately halt its persecution of political opponents. The unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience is also essential if any progress is to be made.

Moreover: for years, the Algerian government has done everything possible to sow seeds of distrust in the hearts of the people and divide society along ethnic lines. Instead of investing in the development of a nation, the ruling elite has worked to perpetuate tribalism. Their motto has basically been one of divide and rule. This makes the differences between individual regions into one of the biggest hurdles for democracy.


But under the protest movement umbrella, Algerians came together regardless of their regional differences…

Arkam: Yes, and that’s why the regime is once again raising the spectre of the enemy within by stigmatising Kabylia. Because protests have been frequent in this region for years, the government has singled out Kabylia as the source of all evil.

What needs to change within Hirak?

Arkam: Hirak needs a leader with strong democratic opposition credentials, someone with a detailed knowledge of the regime’s weaknesses, capable of radically changing or dismantling the system. After all, despite its apparent strength, this dictatorial regime does have weak spots, such as institutional inefficiency and personal rivalries. In time, these weaknesses could render the regime more susceptible to change.

Why is it that the world doesn’t appear to be interested in the Algerian "Revolution of Smiles" as you call it – unlike other civil protests in Hong Kong and Belarus, for example?

Arkam: Powerful nations worry about a de-stabilisation of the Algerian regime and in particular about the potential waves of migration that could ensue as a consequence. In addition: for Europe, it’s much easier to push through your own economic interests if you’re dealing with an illegitimate regime. That’s more favourable than a government that’s accountable to the people.

Whatever happens in Algeria has a direct impact on the entire Maghreb, the Mediterranean region and the Sahel zone. The Algerian government does not believe in change, it refuses to listen to the people. So, Algerians will need the support of all the world’s progressive and revolutionary forces.

Could this be called a forgotten revolution, in view of the West’s general lack of interest?

Arkam: A military-oligarchic elite has robbed the Algerian people of their freedom and independence. It has repressed the people for decades and ensured that Algerians became impoverished. But this revolution will not be forgotten, because it has created a fraternal bond between people consolidated by debate on the streets, on public squares and on social networks. And: forgotten revolutions tend to experience a resurgence at some point.

Interview conducted by Elisa Rheinheimer-Chabbi

© 2021

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Rabah Arkam is a Berber-Algerian human rights activist and engineer living in the United States. He comes from the region of Kabylia.