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Legislation to strip Algerians of citizenship will stifle dissenting voices

March 10, 2021 at 10:02 am

Algerian women chant slogans during an anti-government protest in the capital Algiers on March 8, 2021 [RYAD KRAMDI/AFP via Getty Images]

The Algerian government is studying a draft bill which will allow citizenship to be stripped from anyone living abroad who the authorities in Algiers believe is acting against the country’s interests. This is likely to reduce further the chances of a political breakthrough in the crisis gripping Algeria.

The strict measures taken against political opponents reflect the severity of the crisis and its escalation. Minister of Justice Belkacem Zeghmati proposed the bill which will cover any Algerian citizen living overseas who acts against the interests of the state, undermines national unity, joins a terrorist organisation, and finances or defends terrorism. While the opposition sees the draft legislation as a step towards a crackdown and exclusion, government supporters consider it as a way to stop those who they claim are distorting the image of the country and conspiring against it.

The issue lies in the tension and political calculations on which relations between the government and the opposition are built. The government is thus trying to tighten its grip on opponents. For example, Amer Garash is a young man who was in the front line of the protest movement since its launch in 2019 in the state of Ouargla. No one had heard of him until a court sentenced him to seven years in prison on charges linked to “terrorism”. His lawyer says that the prosecution did not present any evidence to prove the case. Many believe that the sentence was simply a warning to young protesters who went back onto the streets with anti-government slogans, unwavering in their demands while ignoring the political alternatives offered which keep state institutions intact as the only solution.

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The proposed law to revoke citizenship focuses on Algerian activists abroad, especially in Europe, who criticise the state on social media in order to mobilise fellow citizens at home to take part in rallies and opposition groups. Perhaps the most notable of those mentioned in the media is the Rachad Movement, which is led by militants from the dissolved Islamic Salvation Front; and independents who do not belong to any known political faction but are very hostile towards the current government. Meanwhile, the separatist movement led by Ferhat Mehenni is distinguished in its demand for self-government for the Kebylia region and the fact that it is only supported by Israel.

New protest marches have taken place in Algiers. Thousands of people have called for a civilian regime, while others reject the proposed amendments to the Nationality Law. According to state-controlled and private media, the demonstrations were marred by slogans that exploited popular protests to send terrorist messages threatening Algeria’s security. The same media talk about the security agencies discovering support networks, plans to destabilise public security, and a bomb that was set to explode in the capital. Such reports are reminiscent of the 1990s, borrowing the same scare tactics and raising questions about the political present, which lacks the rationality of understanding and calm. Some stray slogans have found their way into the popular movement, such as “terrorist intelligence, down with the military mafia”. Hence, there are concerns among the more measured protesters that the wires will get crossed, and the protests will lose the gains that could have been made if a more pragmatic approach was adopted by the movement through which mutual concessions could be agreed.

An Algerian protester carries a placard during an anti-government protest in the capital Algiers on March 9, 2021 [RYAD KRAMDI/AFP via Getty Images]

An Algerian protester carries a placard during an anti-government protest in the capital Algiers on March 9, 2021 [RYAD KRAMDI/AFP via Getty Images]

Revoking citizenship is a move reminiscent of other laws that require Algerians to give up any foreign nationality before they apply for senior positions in state institutions. This is seen as systematic exclusion and a deliberate settling of political scores. There is, therefore, a question of integrity in the application of the proposed law, as the suspicion or accusation of treachery is being applied to anyone holding opinions differing from government policy, which is a characteristic of most totalitarian regimes. Advocates of the bill say that, according to official statistics, treason could be the reason for revoking citizenship in fifteen EU member states. However, those who reject the bill point out that there is a big difference between democracy in Europe, and the miserable apology for democracy in Algeria and other Arab states.

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As for the charges of “acting against the interests of the state” and “undermining national unity”, they are crimes that cannot be defined or determined easily when it comes to politics and opinions. Many fear that the proposed law will criminalise political action, limit open debate and restrict differences of opinion. In short, legislation to strip “troublesome” Algerians of citizenship will stifle dissenting voices. Thus, critics argue, it will pave the way for a security state which controls the whole political scene.

The words of the late Algerian politician Abdelhamid Mehri have particular relevance: “There will be a day when the regime in Algeria will seek an honest and responsible opposition to quell any popular anger, but it will not find any.”

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 9 March 2021

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.