The Algerian move comes after a French television channel aired a series of documentaries about the Algerian Hirak (protest) movement.
Rabat – Algeria officially recalled its ambassador to France “for consultation” on Wednesday, May 27, citing a grave insult to Algeria in a documentary about the Hirak.
In a statement on state-owned media outlet Algeria Press Service (APS), the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the diffusion of a series of documentaries about the Algerian Hirak (protest movement) on a French television channel constitutes an “attack on the Algerian people.”
France5, one of the European country’s most prominent television stations, aired documentary “Algeria, My Love” directed by Mustapha Kessous on May 26, prompting backlash both from the Twittersphere and the Algerian government.
French-Algerian journalist Kessous’ popular documentary on the protest movement in Algeria came after the French Parliamentary channel showed a series of programs on the Hirak. “Algeria, My Love” was, for Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune’s government, the straw that broke the camel’s back.
.@France5tv Algeria, the 10th biggest country in the world, 48 states, some larger than most countries, over 40m people. Yet you thought a couple of disgruntled people represent the aspirations of the Hirak! This is lazy journalism with a circumscribed, orientalist view. https://t.co/MviR3kQSw7
— Omar Dabouz (@omardabouz) May 27, 2020
“The recurrent nature of programs broadcast by French public television channels seemingly spontaneously and under the pretext of freedom of expression, are in fact attacks against the Algerian people and its institutions, including the ANP, the worthy heiress of the National Liberation Army (ALN),” the foreign ministry emphasized.
Tebboune’s government interpreted the documentaries as an indictment of the unequal relationship between Algeria and the former colonial power and slammed France for a lack of mutual respect.
The television programs show the “malicious and lasting intentions of certain circles who do not wish the advent of peaceful relations between Algeria and France, after 58 years of independence,” the statement said.
Many members of the Hirak movement did not take kindly to “Algeria, My Love” either. The documentary, according to Algerian viewers, trivialized the protest movement and focused on the whims of youth and the societal aspects of the Hirak, rather than the serious issues of corruption and silencing of opposition entrenched within the Algerian regime.
The documentary examined the protest movement from the perspective of Algerian youth who, according to Kessous, want a more liberal society and a move towards the Western model. Many criticized the Orientalist angle and slammed the French-Algerian journalist for belittling the fundamental issues facing the Algerian people and the Hirak movement.
Algeria’s protest movement
The Algerian Hirak exploded onto the streets of Algiers on February 22, 2019, after ousted president Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his intention to run for a fifth term of office, despite his ill health and the longevity of his presidency.
Bouteflika came to power in 1999. His accession to power heralded hope across Algeria and the rest of the world for a transition to democracy and a move towards transparency and increased access to human rights in Algeria.
In a recently declassified 1999 memo to then US President Bill Clinton, National Security Adviser Samuel Berger cast doubt on Boutelflika’s true intentions. “How far he will go on the path to genuine democracy and economic reform remains to be seen,” he wrote.
Sadly, Berger’s questions about the plans behind Bouteflika’s outward calls for progress were all too pertinent. His four terms as president were characterized by corruption, cronyism, and a clampdown on free speech.
By 2019, the Algerian people were desperate for change and took to the streets to call for a complete political overhaul and the removal of Bouteflika and all vestiges of his regime from power.
Bouteflika stepped down in April 2019, leaving the presidential seat open for elections. Several key Bouteflika-era figures faced arrest on corruption charges and, on the surface, it seemed as though the Hirak may have proved successful.
Algeria still needed a new government and the military soon sidled in to organize the democratic process, vetoing a number of independent candidates on the way.
Finally, on December 19, 2019, Tebboune assumed office. The new president enjoyed a mixed reception. While some Algerians hoped he would bring a semblance of stability, others continued to protest for real change. Tebboune had previously served as prime minister under Bouteflika and was part of the political elite the Hirak movement had hoped to oust.
Protests continued on the streets until the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Algeria and still continue online amid the lockdown. Tebboune, meanwhile, launched a series of seemingly big changes in the Algerian administration, such as taking foreign policy decisions away from the military.
Human rights at risk
Tebboune’s on-the-surface overhaul came with a clampdown on dissidence, free-speech, and a flood of calls from NGOs and political bodies for an investigation into human rights breaches in the North African country.
Speaking to the European Parliament on April 29, Spanish MEP María Soraya Rodríguez Ramos reminded her colleagues of the worsening situation in Algeria. Rodriguez explained that the European Union had pledged to monitor the human rights situation in Algeria during the political overhaul and the transition to a new government. Violations, however, continue.
“The COVID-19 containment measures cannot be used as an excuse for restricting freedom of expression and dissent in the country,” she told the parliament.
Concerned about the ongoing arrests and clampdowns under Tebboune’s presidency, on April 27, Amnesty International issued a report on the repression of opposition and prosecution of Hirak activists and journalists as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on.
The report calls on Algerian authorities to put an end to arbitrary prosecutions “aimed at silencing Hirak activists and journalists amid the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Amnesty International reported that authorities summoned or arrested at least 20 activists for investigation between March 7 and April 13 alone.
Some of the activists were either held in pretrial detention or faced sentences relating to exercising their right to freedom of speech or peaceful assembly.
“The authorities must immediately and unconditionally release all peaceful activists detained solely for expressing their views online and offline and/or calling for a democratic change,” Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director Heba Morayef said.
Algeria’s defensive recall of the ambassador comes after the Algerian FM summoned Morocco’s ambassador to Algiers to reprimand him over another insult.
“The ambassador of the Kingdom of Morocco in Algiers was summoned, Wednesday May 13, 2020, by Sabri Boukadoum, Minister of Foreign Affairs to confront him with the remarks the Consul General of Morocco in Oran made while speaking with Moroccan citizens,” Algeria’s state press service reported on May 14.
The Moroccan consul categorically denied having called Algeria an “enemy country,” but the damage was done in the eyes of the Algerian government, giving Tebboune and his administration a tool with which to fan the patriotic anti-Morocco flames and reason to batten down the hatches.
The furore surrounding the French documentaries has handed Tebboune another golden opportunity to call for circling the wagons and an increased feeling of unity in Algeria, even if the motive for the anti-French outrage comes from a range of perspectives.
While this hawkish, impulsive take on politics could simply be Tebboune’s internal marketing strategy and a way to unite public opinion within his borders, the active alienation of Morocco and the door slammed in the face of French diplomacy, accompanied by the rumors of free-speech clampdowns and arrests of journalists, suggest a much more sinister strategy.
Observers and analysts can now only listen at the locked door of Algerian diplomacy and hope that there is in fact an ethical core to Tebboune’s policy.