TUNIS - Algeria’s efforts to stop the coronavirus outbreak spurred protesters to transform their movement into a “front of solidarity” against the pandemic. Echoing calls for “medical truce” by protest leaders, university students held off demonstrations March 17.
“We announce the suspension of our participation in the protests,” said a collective of student organisations. “We call on all the Hirak (pro-democracy movement)’s activists to put the greater national interest ahead of any other consideration and not go out on the street in order to safeguard their health and the country’s health.”
Calls to suspend protests came before Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune officially banned demonstrations in an effort to slow the spread of the disease.
“The lives of citizens are above all considerations even if this requires restricting some freedoms,” Tebboune said in a national address March 17.
Algeria’s protest movement erupted February 22, 2019, after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his intention to seek a fifth term in office. After Bouteflika stepped down in April, the movement expanded its demands to include an overhaul of the country’s military-dominated ruling regime.
Tebboune began his term as president by reaching out to protesters, praising the Hirak for “saving Algeria from total collapse” and encouraging demonstrators to press on with their movement as a “democratic right.”
However, facing declining oil revenue and the threat of the coronavirus, the government is in a tough spot. Tebboune said the coronavirus outbreak is a national security issue that requires the state to temporarily curb some rights.
“I want to assure you that the state remains fully aware of the sensitive situation, a willing listener to the concerns of the citizens and committed to the respect of freedoms and rights,” Tebboune said.
He noted that the state was responsible for protecting citizens’ security and health, which require it to restrict some freedoms.
Algeria has 62 confirmed coronavirus cases, including six deaths, mostly in the garrison town of Blida. It has restricted most foreign travel and closed mosques to stop the virus’s spread.
Tebboune announced a 12-point plan to combat the illness, including shutting the country’s borders to all travellers, allowing only air and maritime shipments to be let in.
“Rallies and marches are banned, whatever their forms, and any place suspected of being a hotbed of the virus has been quarantined,” said Tebboune, adding that mosques had been temporarily closed.
Tebboune said efforts were being made to disinfect “all public transport systems across the country, including every train and bus station.” He said the government would crack down on those who hoard consumer goods or profiteer from the crisis, as well as those who push “fake news.”
He said the government acquired more medical intensive care units in preparation for the virus’s spread. He said Algeria remained in Stage Two of person-to-person transmission rather than Stage Three of community transmission.
“Even when the disease evolves into Stage Three, you should know that we have taken all the necessary measures and our operational capacities are untapped,” Tebboune said.
Algerian Communication Minister Ammar Belhimer hailed protest figures for their “wisdom” in temporarily halting demonstrations to guard against the virus.”
“The Hirak is intelligent and generous,” Belhimer said. “It must remain so and it will have to be more thoughtful and willing when the nation faces an imminent danger.”
The country’s main political parties and civic associations, including three main secularist opposition groups — the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), the Rally for Culture and Democracy and the Workers’ Party — whose members were among the movement’s main organisers, agreed to suspend protests until the health threat was over. The FFS said it was time to “transform this great popular revolution into a new, collective, patriotic effort to fight the looming health peril.”
Aissam Chibane, a surgeon at Mustapha Bacha Hospital in Algiers who participated in weekly protests, said: “Stopping marches is a duty no one can argue against.”
“We can create groups of volunteers to help combat the coronavirus,” he said. “The Hirak has tremendous capacities and it will surprise those who doubt the deployment of such forces against the disease.”
Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.