Algeria’s crack-down on dissenting voices, especially those linked to the Hirak, a mass protest movement demanding drastic political change, has exposed as a fraud President Abdelmajid Tebboune’s claims of a democratic transition in the country since his election in December 2019. In protests both at home and abroad, Hirak activists have called for the end of military rule and establishment of a civil state, describing Tebboune as “illegitimate and fake” and installed by the military and saying that the government’s claims of reform are mere smoke and mirrors: the military continues to rule the country with an iron fist.

Human rights abuses in Algeria have burgeoned under the state’s systematic violations of the people’s freedom of expression and movement.

According to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, human rights abuses in Algeria have burgeoned under the state’s systematic and recurrent violations of the people’s freedom of expression and movement. The repressive measures have included unlawful disappearances, pre-trial detention, arbitrary travel bans, and prosecutions of Hirak and Kabyle activists on trumped-up charges of terrorism. Having documented the detention of many Hirak activists on false charges and repeatedly warned against the rising state authoritarianism in Algeria, the two organizations said on May 6 that Algerian authorities have imposed arbitrary travel bans on at least three activists from the Algerian diaspora.

Lazhar Zouaimia, Hadjira Belkacem, and a third person who preferred to remain anonymous for security reasons, are Algerian-Canadian citizens who, after arriving in Algeria between January and April this year, were later prevented from returning to Canada and interrogated about their alleged ties to the Hirak Movement. The authorities allowed one of the detainees to travel back to Canada on May 5 after having been confined in Algeria for three months. The other two are still unable to travel. Human rights watchdog organizations called on the Algerian authorities to immediately lift its arbitrary ban on them.

Amna Guellali, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said, “It is appalling that the Algerian authorities are preventing activists from going back to their country of residence, without even providing a legal basis for this refusal or a written justification.” She added, “All arbitrary travel bans should immediately be lifted.”

The Algerian authorities are finding it hard to take the militancy and political activism of many dissenting voices abroad whose influence, especially on social media, is significant. The reach of social media activists such as Anouar Malek, Hicham Aboud, Amir Boukhors (known as Amir DZ), Abdou Semmar, Chawki Benzehra, and Oualid Kebir, to name but a few, has weighed heavily on the president. On many occasions, Tebboune warned Algerian citizens against the power of Facebook and other social media platforms. In a televised interview with national media on August 8, 2021, he said: “I warn citizens against Facebook, it comes from a country that does not wish Algeria well.”

The reach of social media activists has weighed heavily on the president.

The Algerian president recently launched a reconciliation initiative under which he vowed to grant pardons to opposition leaders, provided that they “engage in the efforts of the Presidency of the Republic.” The initiative was revealed by the Algerian News Agency in a report which indicated that “President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s hand is extended to everyone,” and that “the word ‘exclusion’ does not exist in the dictionary of the President of the Republic, who harnesses all his wisdom to unite people and parties that did not agree in the past.”

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The report on the state-owned media is vague, however, and does not provide any detail about the presidential initiative. It is not clear who is involved in this conciliatory effort and whether icons of the former regime –– who stood in the way of the “New Algeria” project that President Tebboune adopted upon his election –– are involved. Some sources do not rule out that the declaration is just a step to relieve the pressures faced by the authority due to the lack of political and economic achievements during Tebboune’s first term. Some go even further to claim that the alleged initiative is only early preparation for the 2024 presidential elections.

Inside Arabia contacted Algerian writer, journalist, and human rights activist Anouar Malek, who has lived in exile for two decades, to get his perspective on the travel ban imposed upon Algerian dual-citizen nationals who live outside the country. He contends that “these bans come within the framework of the war declared by the Algerian regime on anyone who has a different opinion. This, in fact, reflects the regime’s intense fear of the Algerian street.” He adds that “this illogical war, which is against the principles of international law and human rights, has gravely tarnished the reputation and image of Algeria.”

“Any Algerian has the right to speak, express his political position, and oppose the established regime.”

As for the “reunification” initiative launched by President Abdelmadjid Tebboune to persuade the opposition parties both at home and abroad to enter a political dialogue that paves the way for national reconciliation, Malek told Inside Arabia: “I think, in principle, any action that aims at the reunification of the Algerians is blessed. However, we are not supposed to reach this stage and need such an initiative, because any Algerian has the right to speak, express his political position, and oppose the established regime. We are a country that is called the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria.”

The initiative so far has been “unclear and inconspicuous.” But a short message posted on social media offers certain signs that it is an official plan to reconcile with the opposition leaders abroad and let them return home. However, according to Malek, “the problem with an activist abroad is not about returning to his homeland to visit his family, because this is a right. It is rather a question of freedom of expression at home, freedom of opinion, and the opening up of the political and media scenes.” If Algeria continues to control its citizens freedom of expression and opinion, it will fail to “escape the international pressures imposed on it,” especially by the US.

In light of the deteriorating social, economic, and political conditions in Algeria, many observers believe that the regime is playing its final cards to avoid an inevitable confrontation with the people. The Hirak Movement protests have temporarily stopped due to the Covid-19 restrictions, but this does not mean that the movement is dead. Algerians are more aware than ever that their demands of a civil democratic state are not only legitimate but urgent.  As Malek told Inside Arabia, without “undertaking real, practical, and serious political change through a transparent national dialogue based in a reality of freedoms and democracy, any plan or initiative by the regime will be just a futile political maneuver.”