Covid-19 Opportunity in Algeria?

There was an interesting recent article by Dr. Vish Sakthivel for the Middle East Institute (MEI) exploring whether the Hirak social movement that has consumed the streets of Algeria over the last year could — with the right strategy — can take advantage of the coronavirus lockdown to better organize itself and ultimately assert more power in the beleaguered North African nation.

Protests erupted after the ailing president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, tried to run for a fifth term after 20 years in office. Bouteflika, who shepherded Algeria through a bloody civil war, was ousted and the military elite took power. While the ruling government has made efforts to crack down on corruption, protesters say it still represents the old guard and needs to be completely chucked out.

But the protest movement has largely remained rudderless because of a lack of leadership and direction. Sakthivel, a nonresident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, argues that the coronavirus pandemic, which has put a stop to the weekly street protests, could provide a political opening for the activists to regroup and strengthen their cause.

“With physical space unavailable for now, activists are taking to new domains, adapting established modes of action in the form of web- and balcony-based protests, dish-banging from windows, and doubling-down on social media communiques, with the intention of resuming physical occupation of the streets as quickly as possible,” Sakthivel wrote.

I doubt pot-banging and plans for more protests will accomplish much in the near term. To effect real change, it seems as if the protesters will need to establish a hierarchy and clear leadership that can engage the government in dialogue — much like Sudanese protesters did after the ouster of the country’s longtime president, Omar al-Bashir.

And if the regime fails to prepare for the pandemic, resulting in a surge of cases, the chaos could lend momentum to the Hirak movement — but only if it seized the moment by formulating a clear set of demands and plans for a democratic transition.

Protests are critical. But at some point, plans are even more critical.

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