Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s rise to the presidency was supposed to bring a degree of predictability to Algeria’s military rulers. But since he was pronounced the winner of the presidential election in December 2019, the regime has entered a new phase of uncertainty. The COVID-19 pandemic, continued dissent, political volatility, and deepening economic malaise have affected the ruling oligarchy’s calculations. Two years after the start of Algeria’s popular uprising, known as the Hirak movement, the country is stuck in the same impasse it has faced since 2019.
After years of political stagnation, the Hirak movement, which erupted in February 2019 against then-President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term, changed the dynamics of the relationship between Algeria’s ruling oligarchy and its population. Although it did not lead to profound changes in the country’s governing structures, the peaceful uprising did result in Bouteflika’s removal by the army in April 2019. And although protesters continued to regularly assemble in the streets of most of the country’s cities to contest the army’s entrenched and opaque stewardship, the regime responded through institutional mechanisms. However, to date these responses have proven to be insufficient to stem the growing popular discontent.
After getting rid of Bouteflika, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Gaïd Salah, then army chief of staff, resisted any sort of political reform. He continued to repress dissent through the judicial system while attempting to placate popular discontent by scheduling a presidential election at the end of 2019. It was meant to turn the page on the Bouteflika years. But much of the population stayed away from the polls, seeing the move as a cosmetic arrangement rather than a true reform of the ruling system. Tebboune was pronounced the winner of the December 2019 poll, in which, according to the regime’s own figures, just 40% of Algerians participated, giving him 58% of the vote. But Salah, a key architect of Tebboune’s rise to the presidency, died of a heart attack just days after the new president’s inauguration.
The theater of reform
Far from meeting protesters’ demands, the rush to presidential elections at the end of such a tumultuous year was an attempt to reinstate the status quo and stabilize the regime. Algeria’s military, in conjunction with the security services, has remained the country’s main power broker. It has always hidden behind the facade of civilian governments to appear removed from the country’s day-to-day affairs. But in reality, the army and the different ruling factions have chosen or approved most of the country’s presidents since independence. Controlling the presidency has been a way for the security apparatus to maintain its power over the country unchecked. Because of Algeria’s centralized governing system, key decisions and appointments fall exclusively to the president. But Algerian presidents are always aware that the duration of their time in office is ultimately decided by the army.
Under the new president, the regime moved to rebuild itself. The judicial system continued to repress journalists and activists involved with the Hirak movement. The jailing of several Bouteflika-era businessmen and apparatchiks allowed Tebboune’s government to promote the narrative that it had broken with the previous regime. Even as it continued to go after dissenters, Tebboune’s government occasionally praised the Hirak and claimed to be fulfilling its demands.
The start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Hirak’s decision in March 2020 to halt demonstrations due to the health risks, gave the regime some political breathing room. As lockdown measures were enacted across the country, the government had some cover to continue its political repression without having to worry about mass demonstrations. Tebboune pushed for a constitutional referendum in early November 2020. Yet the majority of Algerians, accustomed to the regime’s typical choreography of reform, did not buy it. According to state figures, only 23.8% of the population bothered to vote on the new constitution, which was approved by over 68%.
The absent president
The pandemic itself triggered the biggest challenge to the regime. In late October, a day before the constitutional referendum and days after announcing he had been infected with COVID-19, Tebboune was flown to Germany to treat severe health complications caused by the virus. Amid vague announcements by the government that he was due to return shortly, Algerians were left without a president, or any information regarding his health, for the better part of two months. This led to governmental paralysis. Key decisions were delayed and measures to fight the pandemic and bolster the troubled economy were forestalled. Tebboune’s absence also weakened Algeria’s position internationally, as tensions in the Western Sahara between Morocco and the Polisario Front, long supported by Algeria in its bid for independence, flared in November, and the Trump administration recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the territory.
After briefly returning to Algeria in late December, Tebboune was flown back to Germany for further treatment. He returned to Algiers on Feb. 12. Tebboune’s absences have destabilized the regime internally by increasing uncertainty. Although he has reportedly overcome his COVID-19 infection, his absences brought back memories of former President Bouteflika’s own health-related issues, which often forced him to spend long spells abroad for treatment. During Tebboune’s first absence in late 2020, Algerian media reported that military leaders were meeting regularly to assess the situation. They will likely be paying close attention to whether or not the president’s health allows him to perform his job. Given the challenges Algeria faces domestically and regionally, it is unlikely that the military would allow a repeat of the last few years of Bouteflika’s reign, in which a visibly ill president was often absent abroad and suspected to have no real control over the day-to-day management of the country.
Overall, Tebboune has spent a total of around three months abroad for medical treatment. Even if he fully recovers, he will likely face many challenges in 2021. Although dormant, the Hirak movement seems far from over. So far, Algeria has reported just over 111,000 COVID-19 cases and slightly under 3,000 deaths from the virus. The country has recently received its first batches of vaccines and has begun inoculating the population, but the process will likely be slowed down by the global demand for vaccine doses.
More familiar challenges will likely follow. As the pandemic recedes, demonstrations against the current government, as well as broader military rule, will likely return to Algeria’s streets. Although the government has refrained from using full-scale violence against demonstrators, it has used the security services and the judicial system to repress them, including targeting free speech on social media and arresting and harassing activists. Tebboune’s attempt to position his presidency as a driver of political change isn’t seen as credible by a majority of Algerians. He will likely attempt to push for parliamentary elections as soon as possible. But as his own election and the constitutional referendum have shown, Algerians are not too keen on promises of reform that are stage-managed by the same actors that have run the show for the past 60 years. In the short term, pressure on the regime will likely mount as the economic situation worsens.
Algerians are already feeling the mounting difficulties. During the 2011 protests, the regime was efficient at placating demands by increasing public spending. Today, the country’s finances are in significantly worse shape. The compounded effect of lower hydrocarbons revenues and restrictions on economic activity aimed at stemming the spread of the COVID-19 virus have further eroded the country’s finances. In January, the government stated that hydrocarbons exports had fallen by 40% in value over the course of 2020. This year is unlikely to see a significant improvement. Rising inflation is already making life more expensive for average Algerians. Although the price of oil surpassed $60 recently, the International Monetary Fund has projected that Algeria requires a price of around $150 to balance its budget. This is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. And although the government has claimed it intends to move the economy away from its dependence on hydrocarbons, this will likely require reforms that are difficult to implement. At present, energy exports represent 94% of export earnings and cover 60% of the country’s budget.
Under these conditions, it is not surprising to see a growing sense of economic desperation taking hold of the country. In the past several months, localized protests about working conditions and economic difficulties have brought small numbers of demonstrators to the streets of several towns and cities across Algeria. In a way this is far from new. Localized demonstrations focusing on economic conditions have been a common occurrence in Algeria over the past decade. And although these protests momentarily block local roads or highways, they tend to be limited to a specific geographic area or set of demands.
However, Algeria’s population and their willingness to mobilize have changed dramatically since the events of 2019. The Hirak movement has put the Algerian people at the center of political developments, leaving the regime with less room to peacefully deal with popular dissent. The recurrence of local protests is not only a sign of growing economic difficulties. On Feb. 16, thousands of protesters marched in the town of Kheratta to mark the second anniversary of the start of the Hirak movement. The current environment might easily accelerate the return of countrywide demonstrations that focus, once more, on the political establishment and its shortcomings. If this happens, Algeria in 2021 might look a lot like it did in 2019.
Francisco Serrano is a journalist, writer, and analyst. His work focuses on North Africa, the broader Middle East, and Latin America. His writing has appeared in Foreign Affairs, World Politics Review, Weapons of Reason, The Outpost, and other publications. His book, A Captura de Abdelkarim, about the 2011 Arab uprisings, was published in 2013. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
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