»Everyone Wants To Leave« Algerians Lose Hope for Change Two Years after Protest Movement

Many in Algeria had hoped that the country would become a democracy after the toppling of Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2019. But the repression didn't end with the new government. Now many are leaving the country: for Europe.

By Monika Bolliger in Algiers and Oran
Protests in Algiers in 2020: People are losing hope.

Protests in Algiers in 2020: People are losing hope.

Foto: Mohamed Messara / epa-EFE

In the summer months, tourists fill the cafés, bars and hotels in the Algerian coastal city of Aïn El Turk. Spain is only 160 kilometers (100 miles) across the sea, and some of the restaurants even bear Spanish names. Now, though, it's winter and the promenade is empty. A plastic bag blows through the air, snagging on a drooping palm tree. Behind it is the abandoned Hotel Hacienda.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 3/2022 (January 15th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

It’s the place from which activist Wafi Tigrine, 33, set out on a clear moonlit night in early October. Tigrine, who had never wanted to emigrate, climbed into a smuggler boat in the dark of night, risking his life to leave his home country behind.

He left his parents and sister behind, his home and everything else he held dear. And he was lucky: He successfully made the crossing to Spain.

Well-Organized Smuggling Networks

Tigrine is one of many young Algerians who have left their homes recently. No matter who you talk to in Algeria - in Aïn El Turk just as in the capital city of Algiers, they all say the same thing: We know a lot of people who wanted to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. And a number of them have made it. Some were arrested in the attempt. And still others went missing without a trace, presumably drowned.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) recorded more than 12,000 arrivals of Algerians in Europe in 2021, similar to the number from Morocco. Algeria’s coast guard said it stopped more than 4,000 migrants the same year.

In the past, it was mostly only young men who left Algeria. Recently, though, there have been more and more stories circulating of entire families apparently desperate enough to risk the crossing. The hopes raised by the 2019 revolution have since faded.

Activist Tigrine in Paris

Activist Tigrine in Paris

Foto: Julien Daniel / DER SPIEGEL

The Hirak protest movement had called for an end to the country’s military rule. But the military apparatus continues to have a stranglehold on the country. Furthermore, a cumbersome bureaucracy puts the brakes on entrepreneurs looking to try their hand at a new venture, and the country’s oil revenues alone are no longer enough to keep the economy going. Unemployment is widespread, prospects are lacking and political repression is growing.

Tigrine experienced all that firsthand. He was an active member of Hirak in 2019 and fled to avoid imminent arrest. He’s now living in Paris, where he has applied for political asylum. He shares his story by phone.

He says he paid the equivalent of 4,250 euros to make the crossing to Spain on a motorboat with 11 other Algerians. "I wish Algeria’s state-owned companies were as well organized as the smugglers," he says. He believes corrupt members of the security services are involved in the operation. One of the smugglers apparently called a contact in the Navy before the boat left Aïn El Turk – right next to a military base. It’s an open secret that boats leave for Europe at night from the bay in the nearby coastal city of Oran.

"I Am Now the Hirak."

Refugees like Tigrine are called "Harraga" in Algeria: People who burn something – mostly their identity documents – so that they can’t be sent back, or, more metaphorically speaking, the borders that separate them from Europe. The government is trying to remain silent about the issue. In October, it even went so far as to threaten to revoke the accreditation of the French news agency AFP after it reported on the Harraga.

There is probably a simple reason for it: The thousands of people risking their lives to leave the country don’t fit in at all with the "new Algeria" that President Abdelmadjid Tebboune is fond of extolling. Tebboune came to office in 2019 as a result of the protests that brought down his predecessor, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. He portrays himself as being a representative of the Hirak protest movement – as an activist at the country’s helm to a certain extent. "I am now the Hirak," he told DER SPIEGEL in an interview  in October.

But the reality is that there is no longer any room for activists like Wafi Tigrine in this new Algeria. Tigrine was a member of the youth association RAJ, a secular, left-leaning organization. RAJ had been established in the country for some 30 years, until it was disbanded in October at the government’s insistence – another sign of increasing repression.

Tigrine is from Algeria’s Kabylia region on the Mediterranean coast. But he has spent most of his life in the capital city Algiers. He was on the front lines of the Hirak protests, filming the demonstrations with his mobile phone and reporting live on his Facebook page, which quickly attracted more than 80,000 followers.

Hundreds of thousands of people across the country took to the streets that year to protest against the elderly Bouteflika and his ossified, corrupt regime. Bouteflika had to step down and he has since died. After disputed new elections, Tebboune won the most votes of the five candidates – all from the political establishment. There were calls for boycotts, and voter turnout was historically low, at about 40 percent.

As his compatriots went to cast their votes, Tigrine was sitting with 90 other men in a cell with a single toilet, he says. He had been arrested in September 2019 for "publications that could harm national interests." After Tebboune took office, he and other protesters were released. The move was intended to signal a new beginning.

Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune

Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune

Foto: Ryad Kramdi / AFP

"They wanted to make it seem like there had been a change of power," Tigrine says. In fact, though, he continues, Tebboune is just a new face for the same old regime that he and protesters took to the streets to oppose. Tigrine may have been released after four months, but his problems didn’t go away.

He had already lost his job in the marketing department of a state-owned enterprise prior to his arrest. Protesting became more difficult because of the coronavirus lockdowns and increased repression. But Tigrine continued to criticize the people in power, which didn't go down well with the authorities. They wanted to arrest him again, and security forces paid a visit to him in the village.

Tigrine explains how he ran as soon as he saw them coming and hid in the woods. He learned from a police officer friend that the authorities were seeking to link him to a terrorist organization, an allegation that could mean several years in prison.

He says he cried when he realized he had to leave everything behind. "But there was no other option. I preferred to take a risky boat trip across the sea than to end of in a jail cell again," he says.

Although it is true that high-ranking members of the old power apparatus have been arrested on corruption charges, including Bouteflika’s brother, some in Algiers say the moves were merely trench warfare within the power apparatus. That one clan had used the protest movement to get rid of the other.

Algerian novelist Adlène Meddi says the situation is more complicated than that. "In Algeria, the army is united when there are crises," he says. "In March 2019, the military realized that it could not go on with Bouteflika. That’s why they sided with the people."

Is Civil Society Too Weak?

Meddi says the Hirak movement didn’t succeed in organizing itself politically. And that you can’t just post slogans on Facebook calling for a revolution. Algeria wouldn’t be able to cope with a radical change at the moment; civil society is too weak, the country too big and the state too centralized. "After the Hirak, expectations were huge, but change doesn’t happen that fast," he says

Human rights organizations like the group Algerian Detainees count more than 250 political prisoners in the country. The pandemic has only exacerbated the economic crisis. "People have lost all hope here," says the vendor at a snack bar in Oran. "Everyone wants to leave."

It's "staggering" that Tebboune claims to be the embodiment of the Hirak, says a student in front of a library in Algiers, letting out a sigh. She, too, was on the streets during the protests, just like her fellow students sitting next to her. None of them wanted to be quoted by name out of fear. Several say they want to go abroad.

The government has appointed a minister for startups, but the students merely laugh at the notion.

And yet it is these young Algerians who give hope to lawyer and democracy activist Aouicha Bekhti. She shows up for our meeting in Algiers wearing a purple cap to protect against the cold that has wrapped the city in its grips on this winter day.

Bekhti has been representing almost exclusively political activists since the Hirak protests. "The prisons are full of people who don’t belong there," she says. Bekhti says there is a lack of political culture in Algeria, but this isn’t the fault of most of the detainees.

And yet she is still optimistic. Because the young women and men who protested against the regime during the time of the Hirak, who painted the walls of the city brightly and cleared the garbage from the streets, are still around. She says she’s counting on this courageous generation.

"And that’s why nothing is lost in this country," she says.

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