The Algerian Government's Strike Against Democracy

February 24, 2011

By Ken Mayers, Algeria Country Specialist.

In Algeria, it’s almost proverbial. The term “hogra,” from the Arabic dialect, means contempt, and it has come to designate the face-to-face experience of the state bureaucracy which invariably adds insult to injury to its citizens. In an authoritarian state like Algeria, hogra is a universal given; however, like torture, it is generally savored in private. The rest of the world may hear of it, but can only imagine.

A man gestures towards Algerian police surrounding demonstrators in Algiers on February 19, 2011. (FAROUK BATICHE/AFP/Getty Images)

This weekend the Algerian government’s attitude of hogra was broadcast to the world. Its contempt for its citizens was shared with the international press and delivered via television and the internet to viewers everywhere. The National Coordination Committee for Change and Democracy (CNCD) had announced its march in Algiers on January 21st, to call for an end to the 19-year state of emergency, for democratic freedoms, and for a change in Algeria’s political system. Under the state of emergency, however, such peaceful protests are banned (and will continue to be banned, at least in Algiers, even if the state of emergency is “lifted,” according to President Bouteflika).

In spite of several weeks of discussion and dialogue, the government continued to insist that no demonstration would be allowed, and so on Saturday, the world had the opportunity to witness hogra on a very large scale. It amounted to a general strike against democracy in Algeria. In sporting terms, it was a full-court press. Here’s how it is done:

  1. Shut down the railroads and do not allow trains to enter Algiers.
  2. Block all of the roads into Algiers, and block the major roads between cities throughout Algeria.
  3. Cordon off the districts of Algiers with checkpoints and barricades.
  4. Refuse visas to the international press.
  5. Detain opposition leaders and members of the press, both domestic and international, including Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) leaders Othmane Maazouz and Feta Sadad, Fodil Boumala of the CNCD; for extra points, you can arrest Cherifa Khaddar, president of Djazairouna, twice.
  6. Manhandle and beat protesters, including 90-year-old veteran human rights campaigner Ali Yahia Abdelnour, honorary president of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH); female police officers can do this, too!
  7. Confiscate cameras and video cameras from anyone seen carrying them in the street.
  8. Shut down the internet (especially Facebook)

There is an alternative to this: it’s called democracy. This will require profound and wide-ranging institutional changes in Algeria, as outlined in Amnesty International’s agenda for change (drafted for Tunisia, but quite applicable to Algeria as well). Saturday’s peaceful protests were a small, but significant step in this direction – a point or two, at least, were scored for human rights, and after all is said and done, only the Algerian government was truly dishonored.

As a follow-up to this event, we’re asking everyone to join us in calling on the Algerian authorities to stop the use of excessive force and allow peaceful protests throughout Algeria, including Algiers.