Arab stories of a plague year

More than ever, the burden that photographers carry when telling stories from their own homelands has become apparent during the pandemic. These women and men are no mere witnesses but live inside these stories, feeling their full weight. At the same time, they can capture themes and spot tales that foreign eyes may miss. Photographing home is, of course, an intimate act.

This visual project, initiated with the Magnum Foundation, supported by the Henry Luce Foundation, gives us a glimpse through this lens, be it focused on migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates or taking a glimpse into the lockdown lives of LGBTQ Palestinians.

The photographers chose to tell their own tales of home during the coronavirus pandemic. These are their stories.

Libya

Final exams

Photos by Nada Harib
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 FROM TOP: After taking their final composition exam, high school students leave al-Hurriya school in southern Tripoli in October. Damaged classroom furniture is piled in the schoolyard. A walkway near the school bears the imprint of an explosion.
FROM TOP: After taking their final composition exam, high school students leave al-Hurriya school in southern Tripoli in October. Damaged classroom furniture is piled in the schoolyard. A walkway near the school bears the imprint of an explosion.

(Nada Harib/Nada Harib) (Nada Harib/Nada Harib) FROM TOP: After taking their final composition exam, high school students leave al-Hurriya school in southern Tripoli in October. Damaged classroom furniture is piled in the schoolyard. A walkway near the school bears the imprint of an explosion. (Nada Harib/Nada Harib)

The building’s walls are riddled with bullet holes. In the schoolyard, damaged desks are stacked in a pile. And just outside, a small crater marks the spot where an explosion occurred.

Several months ago, al-Hurriya school in southern Tripoli was on the front lines of a deadly conflict between forces vying for control of the Libyan capital. But recently, high school students wearing masks to protect against the novel coronavirus sat in rows at their desks, preparing to take a final exam.

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 FROM TOP: High school students, masked and spaced as an infection prevention measure, wait to begin their composition final at al-Hurriya school in Tripoli last month. Students sanitize their hands and their temperatures are measured as they enter for the exam. Masks are worn throughout the school.
FROM TOP: High school students, masked and spaced as an infection prevention measure, wait to begin their composition final at al-Hurriya school in Tripoli last month. Students sanitize their hands and their temperatures are measured as they enter for the exam. Masks are worn throughout the school.

(Nada Harib/Nada Harib) (Nada Harib/Nada Harib) FROM TOP: High school students, masked and spaced as an infection prevention measure, wait to begin their composition final at al-Hurriya school in Tripoli last month. Students sanitize their hands and their temperatures are measured as they enter for the exam. Masks are worn throughout the school. (Nada Harib/Nada Harib)

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown education into disarray globally, but few students are facing conditions as difficult as those who are studying in Libya, where schooling had been disrupted long before the arrival of the virus.

In early 2020, UNICEF warned that more than 115,000 pupils in the Tripoli area were missing classes because of the conflict. The virus has threatened to further disrupt the education system.

The principal and the deputy principal confer in an office at al-Hurriya.
The principal and the deputy principal confer in an office at al-Hurriya.

The school where Heba Hassan, 18, once studied was among those destroyed in a conflict that forced her to switch schools multiple times to continue her courses.

Now, despite the obstacles and risks, she was among the many high-schoolers preparing for final exams. She continued to study, even through power cuts, bombings and fears that her family would lose their home. “It was the most stressful and difficult year ever,” Hassan said.

 FROM TOP: Doa, 18, is among many high school seniors who took about six weeks of intensive lessons to finish preparing for final exams. Nesreen, 18, is shown in the apartment her family rents in Tripoli’s al-Krimiya neighborhood after being displaced from southern Tripoli by fighting. Heba and Yaqeen, both 18, who were forced to change schools because of the conflict, study in Yaqeen’s living room in Tripoli.
FROM TOP: Doa, 18, is among many high school seniors who took about six weeks of intensive lessons to finish preparing for final exams. Nesreen, 18, is shown in the apartment her family rents in Tripoli’s al-Krimiya neighborhood after being displaced from southern Tripoli by fighting. Heba and Yaqeen, both 18, who were forced to change schools because of the conflict, study in Yaqeen’s living room in Tripoli.
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(Nada Harib/Nada Harib) (Nada Harib/Nada Harib) FROM TOP: Doa, 18, is among many high school seniors who took about six weeks of intensive lessons to finish preparing for final exams. Nesreen, 18, is shown in the apartment her family rents in Tripoli’s al-Krimiya neighborhood after being displaced from southern Tripoli by fighting. Heba and Yaqeen, both 18, who were forced to change schools because of the conflict, study in Yaqeen’s living room in Tripoli. (Nada Harib/Nada Harib)

Saudi Arabia

A solitary death

Photos by Tasneem Alsultan
A collage made from a photo of Fatima Alnassr. (Family Photo)
A collage made from a photo of Fatima Alnassr. (Family Photo)

Fatima Alnassr was always abundantly cheerful. At 90 years old, the Saudi woman still recited poems and joked with her grandchildren, and she offered witticisms and advice to visitors who surrounded her bed each day.

Coronavirus left her alone, the silence hanging heavy in her bedroom. “She kept asking when the lockdown and covid would leave so her life can go back to normal,” said her eldest son, Hussain.

For half a year, the only people she saw were her sons and daughters when they dropped off groceries. She went mute for her final three months. Depression had replaced her joy.

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 FROM TOP: The bed from which 90-year-old Fatima Alnassr, the photographer’s great-aunt, joyfully held court with family members and visitors before the pandemic arrived in the Qatif region and left her isolated and lonely for months, until she died in September. A bedside cupboard displays photos of her brother Mansour, her youngest son, Sami, and some of her grandchildren. Mansour and Sami died years ago. The well-worn pages on which she recorded the telephone numbers of relatives and friends are a testament to the matriarch’s large network of relatives and friends.
FROM TOP: The bed from which 90-year-old Fatima Alnassr, the photographer’s great-aunt, joyfully held court with family members and visitors before the pandemic arrived in the Qatif region and left her isolated and lonely for months, until she died in September. A bedside cupboard displays photos of her brother Mansour, her youngest son, Sami, and some of her grandchildren. Mansour and Sami died years ago. The well-worn pages on which she recorded the telephone numbers of relatives and friends are a testament to the matriarch’s large network of relatives and friends.

(Tasneem Alsultan/Tasneem Alsultan) (Tasneem Alsultan/Tasneem Alsultan) FROM TOP: The bed from which 90-year-old Fatima Alnassr, the photographer’s great-aunt, joyfully held court with family members and visitors before the pandemic arrived in the Qatif region and left her isolated and lonely for months, until she died in September. A bedside cupboard displays photos of her brother Mansour, her youngest son, Sami, and some of her grandchildren. Mansour and Sami died years ago. The well-worn pages on which she recorded the telephone numbers of relatives and friends are a testament to the matriarch’s large network of relatives and friends. (Tasneem Alsultan/Tasneem Alsultan)

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 FROM TOP: Sho’aa, left, a sister of Fatima’s; AbduIlah, one of Fatima’s sons; and Asma and Zahra, also sisters to Fatima, gather in her bedroom. “She always had her home open to anyone, and we feel that we have to extend the same tradition even after she’s gone,” Abdullah said. Hussain, the eldest son, stands at the door of his late mother’s home in Qatif. Asma, Fatima’s youngest sister, has tissues nearby as she mourns.
FROM TOP: Sho’aa, left, a sister of Fatima’s; AbduIlah, one of Fatima’s sons; and Asma and Zahra, also sisters to Fatima, gather in her bedroom. “She always had her home open to anyone, and we feel that we have to extend the same tradition even after she’s gone,” Abdullah said. Hussain, the eldest son, stands at the door of his late mother’s home in Qatif. Asma, Fatima’s youngest sister, has tissues nearby as she mourns.

(Tasneem Alsultan/Tasneem Alsultan) (Tasneem Alsultan/Tasneem Alsultan) FROM TOP: Sho’aa, left, a sister of Fatima’s; AbduIlah, one of Fatima’s sons; and Asma and Zahra, also sisters to Fatima, gather in her bedroom. “She always had her home open to anyone, and we feel that we have to extend the same tradition even after she’s gone,” Abdullah said. Hussain, the eldest son, stands at the door of his late mother’s home in Qatif. Asma, Fatima’s youngest sister, has tissues nearby as she mourns. (Tasneem Alsultan/Tasneem Alsultan)

One day, after six months of near-absolute isolation, she took a long breath and faded, her son recalled. Her children took her to the hospital, where they found out that her heart had stopped, though no particular ailment was diagnosed.

Although she had tested negative for the novel coronavirus, her children say they believe it killed her — not the virus itself, but the forced isolation that sapped her of laughter.

Fatima wanted to be buried not with family members but with her friends. Adhering to public health guidelines on crowds, only 50 people were able to gather to pay their respects. Hundreds expressed their love in online messages and calls.

Her children, wearing masks, still gather around her bed every day.

A self-portrait by Tasneem Alsultan.
A self-portrait by Tasneem Alsultan.
Morocco

The Kingdom’s empty streets

Photos by M’hammed Kilito
Abdellah, a boatman, continues to offer rides across the Bouregreg river between Rabat and Salé despite the absence of the foreign and domestic tourists who provided the bulk of his income before the pandemic.
Abdellah, a boatman, continues to offer rides across the Bouregreg river between Rabat and Salé despite the absence of the foreign and domestic tourists who provided the bulk of his income before the pandemic.
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Abdellah, a boatman, continues to offer rides across the Bouregreg river between Rabat and Salé despite the absence of the foreign and domestic tourists who provided the bulk of his income before the pandemic. (M’hammed Kilito/M’hammed Kilito) (M’hammed Kilito/M’hammed Kilito) (M’hammed Kilito/M’hammed Kilito)

Each year, Morocco’s ancient cities, bustling souks, beachside resorts and sprawling desert draw millions of tourists. But when the novel coronavirus began to spread, Morocco suspended international flights to try to contain its outbreak.

The ban was a major blow to the country’s tourism industry, which employs hundreds of thousands of people and generates billions of dollars of revenue a year.

The country’s normally lively streets turned eerily quiet. Eventually, authorities began easing some restrictions. But as the crisis dragged on and business dried up, shops that once relied on tourists were hit especially hard. In Rabat, the capital, carpets that once hung inside shops were spread out on sidewalks on a main thoroughfare by merchants hoping to attract customers. Charming street markets of the seaside city of Essaouira were practically deserted. Footage from Marrakesh, where throngs of tourists typically shop in a maze of winding alleys, showed hospitals crammed with coronavirus patients.

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 A small radio provides news and entertainment as Lahhib, the owner of a museum that displays tools used by nomads in Morocco’s Tighmert region, sits waiting for visitors month after month.
A small radio provides news and entertainment as Lahhib, the owner of a museum that displays tools used by nomads in Morocco’s Tighmert region, sits waiting for visitors month after month.
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(M’hammed Kilito/M’hammed Kilito) A small radio provides news and entertainment as Lahhib, the owner of a museum that displays tools used by nomads in Morocco’s Tighmert region, sits waiting for visitors month after month. (M’hammed Kilito/M’hammed Kilito) (M’hammed Kilito/M’hammed Kilito)

Taghazout is a fishing village on the Atlantic coast of Morocco and one of the best-known surfing spots in the country. As a public health measure, the government closed the beach to foreign and domestic tourists, leaving local hotel and cafe workers idled.
Taghazout is a fishing village on the Atlantic coast of Morocco and one of the best-known surfing spots in the country. As a public health measure, the government closed the beach to foreign and domestic tourists, leaving local hotel and cafe workers idled.
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Taghazout is a fishing village on the Atlantic coast of Morocco and one of the best-known surfing spots in the country. As a public health measure, the government closed the beach to foreign and domestic tourists, leaving local hotel and cafe workers idled. (M’hammed Kilito/M’hammed Kilito) (M’hammed Kilito/M’hammed Kilito) (M’hammed Kilito/M’hammed Kilito)

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 The landscape in Tighmert oasis, which lies inland from Morocco’s Atlantic coast, is scarred by a wildfire that broke out there in August during a heat wave. Noureddine spends his days cutting back fire-damaged vegetation and cleaning up the oasis. He and his friends are otherwise unemployed because the virus has shut down tourism.
The landscape in Tighmert oasis, which lies inland from Morocco’s Atlantic coast, is scarred by a wildfire that broke out there in August during a heat wave. Noureddine spends his days cutting back fire-damaged vegetation and cleaning up the oasis. He and his friends are otherwise unemployed because the virus has shut down tourism.
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(M’hammed Kilito/M’hammed Kilito) The landscape in Tighmert oasis, which lies inland from Morocco’s Atlantic coast, is scarred by a wildfire that broke out there in August during a heat wave. Noureddine spends his days cutting back fire-damaged vegetation and cleaning up the oasis. He and his friends are otherwise unemployed because the virus has shut down tourism. (M’hammed Kilito/M’hammed Kilito) (M’hammed Kilito/M’hammed Kilito)

In September, the country eased some travel restrictions, allowing a limited return of foreign visitors. But since then. several cities have reinforced their measures as case numbers rise.

But the coronavirus cases continued to rise in some regions, with a total of more than 311,000 recorded across the nation of 36 million inhabitants. And fears of a winter surge threaten any return to normal life — for Moroccans and aspiring tourists alike.

A vendor in Essaouira dozes in the normally busy tourist city. Essaouira, which lies on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, is a popular destination for visitors in summer and autumn, and it has an important fishing port, which was closed as a public health measure.
A vendor in Essaouira dozes in the normally busy tourist city. Essaouira, which lies on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, is a popular destination for visitors in summer and autumn, and it has an important fishing port, which was closed as a public health measure.
Palestinian territories

Errant doves

Photos by Samar Hazboun
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When Taim lived alone, he would don his red leather pants and pull on his high-heeled boots whenever he wanted to. But, as with many gay Palestinians, the upheaval caused by the coronavirus across the line in Israel has reverberated in his life.

The public health lockdown in Israel squeezed the highly dependent West Bank economy, and with money tight, he was forced to move back to his parents’ home, where he had to adjust his behavior to accommodate his conservative family.

 Up until his mother’s death when he was just 9 years old, Taim took ballet classes, an uncommon activity for Palestinian boys.
Up until his mother’s death when he was just 9 years old, Taim took ballet classes, an uncommon activity for Palestinian boys.
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Up until his mother’s death when he was just 9 years old, Taim took ballet classes, an uncommon activity for Palestinian boys.

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 Maryam suffered physical abuse and had to flee her parents’ home. The last text message she received from her mother read: “Your father knows everything. There is no return for you back home. Not even to your sister. Don’t ever call us again.”
Maryam suffered physical abuse and had to flee her parents’ home. The last text message she received from her mother read: “Your father knows everything. There is no return for you back home. Not even to your sister. Don’t ever call us again.”

Maryam suffered physical abuse and had to flee her parents’ home. The last text message she received from her mother read: “Your father knows everything. There is no return for you back home. Not even to your sister. Don’t ever call us again.”

After Maryam’s father found photos of her with her girlfriend, he rushed to her room with a knife. Her mother, clinging to his back, saved her. Because of the pandemic, shelters that otherwise could have offered her refuge did not have space to take her in.

Instead, she planned her escape. The lockdown that immediately followed prevented her family from finding her. Now, finally, she’s safe.

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 Reema lost her job and her creative drive in the pandemic.
Reema lost her job and her creative drive in the pandemic.

Reema lost her job and her creative drive in the pandemic. (Samar Hazboun/Samar Hazboun)

For Reema, financial stress and depression have colored her daily life. In late 2019, she decided to quit her job and freelance as an artist instead, a move she expected would have allowed her time to work on her own creative projects. But the pandemic killed job opportunities and limited her access to mental health support.

“You either give up to the fact that there’s lockdown, no work, no money, nothing to do,” Reema said. “Or you use all the tools you have to get out of this as best as you can.”

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United Arab Emirates

A precarious existence

Photos by Mohamed Somji
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 Jide, 46, is from Ogun State, Nigeria. He arrived in Dubai in February and because of the pandemic is stuck, living in a park. His goal was to earn enough money to open a small laundry business in Nigeria, where his wife and two children await. “I don’t want to go home with nothing to show for it,” he said.
Jide, 46, is from Ogun State, Nigeria. He arrived in Dubai in February and because of the pandemic is stuck, living in a park. His goal was to earn enough money to open a small laundry business in Nigeria, where his wife and two children await. “I don’t want to go home with nothing to show for it,” he said.

Jide, 46, is from Ogun State, Nigeria. He arrived in Dubai in February and because of the pandemic is stuck, living in a park. His goal was to earn enough money to open a small laundry business in Nigeria, where his wife and two children await. “I don’t want to go home with nothing to show for it,” he said.

When the pandemic hit the United Arab Emirates and lockdowns were imposed, and many businesses closed their doors and let employees go. Hundreds of thousands of expatriate workers lost their jobs.

The small Persian Gulf country’s economy relies heavily on foreigners, who constitute more than 85 percent of the population. The vast majority of UAE residents are in the country on visas that are tied to jobs.

A short-term visa amnesty was announced, but as the deadline passed, hundreds of thousands found themselves struggling to find work or having to pack up their lives. For many, failure to find other jobs means returning home without savings and often still indebted after borrowing money to get to the UAE.

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 Renuka Irangani, a Sri Lankan domestic worker, was laid off when the lockdown went into effect. Her job-linked residence visa was canceled when she was laid off, but her former employers paid for her to receive a visitor visa so that she could stay and look for other work. Renuka still hopes to find a job and be reunited with her 17-year-old daughter, who is in Goa, India.
Renuka Irangani, a Sri Lankan domestic worker, was laid off when the lockdown went into effect. Her job-linked residence visa was canceled when she was laid off, but her former employers paid for her to receive a visitor visa so that she could stay and look for other work. Renuka still hopes to find a job and be reunited with her 17-year-old daughter, who is in Goa, India.

Renuka Irangani, a Sri Lankan domestic worker, was laid off when the lockdown went into effect. Her job-linked residence visa was canceled when she was laid off, but her former employers paid for her to receive a visitor visa so that she could stay and look for other work. Renuka still hopes to find a job and be reunited with her 17-year-old daughter, who is in Goa, India.

Renuka Irangani, a Sri Lankan domestic worker, was laid off after the UAE went into lockdown. She spends days looking for work as a cook or nanny.

Those with jobs have become the backbone of lockdown life.

Food delivery drivers are on the front-line of the crisis, but instead of being rewarded, their commissions were dropped. During the hot months of summer into October, restaurants would not let them in to shelter from the sweltering heat. Between deliveries, some rested in shady spots — only to be doused with water by residents who wanted them gone.

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 Mohamed Ali, from Chittagong, Bangladesh, rents a room, with eight other men, for $100 a month in the Deira area of Dubai. He arrived in the UAE in 2007 working as a tailor but said he left his job late last year after not being paid for 13 months. He said he has tried in vain to get his pay. Now all he wants is to retrieve his passport, which his former employer still has. In the meantime, he washes cars to survive.
Mohamed Ali, from Chittagong, Bangladesh, rents a room, with eight other men, for $100 a month in the Deira area of Dubai. He arrived in the UAE in 2007 working as a tailor but said he left his job late last year after not being paid for 13 months. He said he has tried in vain to get his pay. Now all he wants is to retrieve his passport, which his former employer still has. In the meantime, he washes cars to survive.

(Mohamed Somji/Mohamed Somji) Mohamed Ali, from Chittagong, Bangladesh, rents a room, with eight other men, for $100 a month in the Deira area of Dubai. He arrived in the UAE in 2007 working as a tailor but said he left his job late last year after not being paid for 13 months. He said he has tried in vain to get his pay. Now all he wants is to retrieve his passport, which his former employer still has. In the meantime, he washes cars to survive.

Jordan

Staying afloat

Photos by Nadia Bseiso
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 As some Jordanians live out the lockdown at resorts on the Dead Sea, workers at the Kempinski Hotel Ishtar disinfect all surfaces and prepare the guests’ meals under strict health guidelines.
As some Jordanians live out the lockdown at resorts on the Dead Sea, workers at the Kempinski Hotel Ishtar disinfect all surfaces and prepare the guests’ meals under strict health guidelines.

As some Jordanians live out the lockdown at resorts on the Dead Sea, workers at the Kempinski Hotel Ishtar disinfect all surfaces and prepare the guests’ meals under strict health guidelines.

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 Located on the Dead Sea, normally one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country, the hotel is now suffering a lack of foreign visitors, with only a few Jordanian guests keeping the business afloat.
Located on the Dead Sea, normally one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country, the hotel is now suffering a lack of foreign visitors, with only a few Jordanian guests keeping the business afloat.

Located on the Dead Sea, normally one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country, the hotel is now suffering a lack of foreign visitors, with only a few Jordanian guests keeping the business afloat.

After reporting nearly 50 coronavirus cases in March, Jordan announced one of the world’s strictest lockdowns. But when the restrictions began choking the vital tourism sector, Jordan loosened them.

People who were desperate for the outdoors flocked to nature. But in October, after case numbers surged again, the government imposed another lockdown, and tourism took another hit.

Residents with the financial means, however, found a loophole that gave the battered tourism industry a boost: spending the lockdown in hotels.

The Kempinski Hotel Ishtar on the Dead Sea became a haven for people looking to escape their homes. Guests lounged beside the pools and ordered room service, enjoying hotel amenities that offered a brief break from the humdrum of daily pandemic life.

Housekeepers disinfected rooms and public areas to comply with strict coronavirus measures. Just months earlier, the Kempinski had been one of 34 hotels across Jordan designated quarantine centers for recent arrivals.

A year ago, Jordanians had been promised a better economy. But as 2020 draws to a close, the kingdom’s economy is struggling.

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Algeria

A little louder

Photos by Abdo Shanan
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 Some of the faces in last year’s countrywide political-reform demonstrations, whose diverse makeup included professors, lawyers, journalists and activists. Because of the pandemic, the Algerian government has imposed a ban on street protests, shutting down the movement.
Some of the faces in last year’s countrywide political-reform demonstrations, whose diverse makeup included professors, lawyers, journalists and activists. Because of the pandemic, the Algerian government has imposed a ban on street protests, shutting down the movement.

Some of the faces in last year’s countrywide political-reform demonstrations, whose diverse makeup included professors, lawyers, journalists and activists. Because of the pandemic, the Algerian government has imposed a ban on street protests, shutting down the movement.

Early last year, scores of Algerians took to the streets in anger as then-President Abdelaziz Bouteflika launched a controversial bid for a fifth term in office. Even after his resignation, the peaceful protests — called “Hirak” or “Movement” — continued as Algerians demanded reforms in their country’s entire political system.

In December, former prime minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune won a contentious presidential election, fueling concerns among many protesters that he had ties to the same elites against whom they were railing.

Soon after, the coronavirus pandemic took hold. And in late March, Tebboune announced that demonstrations would be banned under the new public health guidelines.

The ban derailed the weekly protests that had been held for more than 50 weeks in a row and robbed many Algerians of the solidarity to which they had become accustomed. Several people affiliated with the protests have been detained, including the prominent journalist Khaled Drareni, who had covered the protests. He was found guilty of “endangering national unity,” a judgment that ignited further discontent.

More than 70,000 coronavirus cases been confirmed in Algeria. A contentious vote this month on a new constitution drew low turnout. Although authorities initially lifted some restrictions, they are now enforcing strict rules after a major surge in cases — and street protests remain banned.

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