Algerian protesters wave the national flag during their weekly anti-government demonstration in the capital Algiers, on February 21, 2020. (Photo by Billal Bensalem/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The coronavirus crisis isn’t creating new problems for Algeria—it’s exacerbating long-ignored ones

04/09/2020 . By Yasmina Allouche

On February 22, 2019, history was made in Algeria and the country’s renowned revolutionary spirit was born again. A year later, Algerians marked 2020 in much the same conditions they welcomed 2019, with only the names of those in power having changed.

To add to their long list of woes, Algerians are now fighting a new battle threatening their lives: the coronavirus. With a poor health system in place, an economy on the brink of collapse, and a government whose legitimacy has been contested over the past year, 2020 is shaping up to be a testing year for both the state and its civilians.

The Hirak vs COVID-19

Due to its current infrastructure, Algeria is among the worst affected countries in North Africa and one of the least-prepared countries in the world to battle a pandemic, according to a 2019 Johns Hopkins study.

With over 1,400 cases of the virus recorded and over 170 deaths, the situation is growing critical daily and exacerbating long-standing issues. Slow in its response to the virus, Algeria is doing poorly in comparison with neighbors who have declared states of emergency or were quick to enforce lockdowns.

Initial responses to the virus from the popular protest movement Hirak were also questionable. At first, many dismissed the pandemic’s severity as another ploy by the government to prevent weekly mobilization on Tuesdays and Fridays. It took the Hirak’s leading activists to reassure Algerians that remaining home and prioritizing their health would not entail the end of the movement. For the first time since the onset of protests, on March 20, the streets were empty in what would have been the 57th consecutive week of demonstrations against Algeria’s political elite.

While there are genuine fears the pandemic could spell the beginning of the end for the Hirak, it is also likely the regime will come out the other side of the crisis worse for wear. With a healthcare system that is already in extremely poor condition and lacks medical supplies and testing equipment, the regime will be forced to deal with the deep-seated corruption with which Algeria is riddled.

Tebboune has made reassurances that the country has enough intensive care beds and equipment to deal with the crisis, but lack of testing kits and diagnosing centers makes it difficult to ascertain the true extent of the crisis in Algeria.

Despite Algiers managing to secure help from trading partner China, which has sent batches of protective equipment and sanitary products, as well as several millions of dollars worth of medical equipment, civil society and volunteers have filled the gaping hole left by government failure.

These actions have included hand sanitizers installed in public, food distributed to the country’s most vulnerable, and online initiatives. However price hikes of essential items and food shortages, amidst the difficulties caused by the 2.3 percent food price increase recorded last year, have still pushed Algerians to protest the government; a sight which will become more commonplace as the situation regresses.

The regime has sought to demonstrate its ability to manage the situation by adopting exceptional measures, which has contributed to a distrust among its opposition. Much public anger has been caused by the regime taking advantage of the temporary suspension of the Hirak to silence its leading voices and end its activities once and for all.

On March 24, political activist and opposition figure Karim Tabbou, who was due to be released from prison on March 26 after serving a six-month prison sentence, was summoned to court without his lawyers’ knowledge and given a year-long sentence despite collapsing during the proceedings.

Less than 24 hours later, prominent journalist Khaled Drareni, who has been covering protests since their onset, was arrested and detained, previously having been served a warning by authorities. That same week, the president of the NGO Youth Action Rally, Abdelwahab Fersaoui, was also handed a year-long sentence.

The recent sentences join a long list of political detainees who have been arrested, detained, and imprisoned since June 2019 and signals the beginning of a new crackdown. The pardoning of more than 5,000 detainees due to the pandemic will hold little significance when those unjustly imprisoned remain at great risk.

While the situation at hand may be grave, it is also an opportunity of reflection for members of the Hirak. The ongoing calls for alternative action to be adopted in order to continue provoking significant concessions from the regime are more pressing than ever. The pandemic has highlighted the Hirak’s limitations, specifically its lack of diversity in its modes of action over the last year to offset the movement’s divisions which have deepened over time.

With protests in the streets currently off the table for the Hirak, confinement at home has provided a good opportunity to map out strategies and prioritize attainable demands. The political maturity of Algerians and reasoning of its leading activists is cause for hope for the Hirak’s adaptability and longevity. There have already been alternative forms of protests; the evening after news of Tabbou’s extended imprisonment, Algerians took to their balconies and windows to bang pots and other objects to express their anger. Online, people are still honoring the weekly demonstrations’ spirit from their homes through discussions and campaigns which also serve as reminders of their shared objectives.

A ticking economic bomb

Last month, Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad raised alarm bells by highlighting the unprecedented “multi-dimensional crisis” Algeria faces, exacerbated by the recent oil market collapse.

The impending economic crash has been anticipated since 2014, after the last fall in oil prices and the uncomfortable revelation that the state coffers had greatly depleted. Buying his way out of the Arab Spring in 2011 with promises of more jobs and state handouts was not a luxury former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika had in 2019 when the people refused to accept his bid for a fifth term in office.

But without the devaluation of the dinar and continued rejection of options which involve external debt and “unconventional financing”, it is too late for short term fixes. With neighboring Tunisia requesting a loan from the International Monetary Fund, an organization which approached Algeria for financial support with $20 billion in 2012, to help during the pandemic, questions remain regarding Algeria’s options.

Its foreign exchange reserves, now below $62 billion, remain its only bulwark against financial damage from the crisis. Calls from the government for help in funding from private citizens—akin to the financial calls from the National Liberation Front after independence—begs the question of the availability of these reserves which should be utilized for such emergencies.

Thus far, Algeria has failed to introduce the economic reforms and political vision demanded by protesters. With a referendum on a new constitution, dialogue with opposition figures, and legislative elections all to be postponed, expecting anything in the current conditions is a utopian feat.

The executive decisions adopted by Tebboune have been lackluster and undermine his future prospects of a long term presidency. During that time it is likely he will see the country’s dependence on the foreign reserves through until it falls on the next head of state to create alternatives and to negotiate with international financial institutions at which point it will be too little, too late.

The state of the oil markets caused by the pandemic and Saudi-Russia oil war has completely shattered the confidence of Algerian leaders in the country’s financial prospects, who are now calling for the immediate reduction in oil production to offset further damage, and who should brace themselves for political consequences as a result. This will play out in the acceleration of the process of approving the new constitution and bringing forward the date of legislative elections as a seasoned tactic of appeasement.

The pandemic coupled with the oil crisis will likely deliver the last blow to Algeria’s weakened system which will lead to the implosion of economic and political turmoil the ripples of which will be felt far beyond its borders. What can be done to soften its blow is a question which must be addressed seriously and soon.