The latest in a series of events that Algerians had witnessed since last year, was the announcement by the President’s office that the referendum to amend the Constitution would be held on November 1, 2020, the anniversary of the start of Algeria’s 1954-62 war for independence from France. President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who had been elected in December 2019 had said he would introduce political and economic reforms and seek to meet the demands raised in demonstrations that toppled veteran president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April last year.
According to the drafted changes the presidential term would be limited to two mandates. The new constitution would be designed to give the prime minister and parliament more powers. It would reduce the authority of the president and “guarantee the separation and balance of powers”. The draft would need Parliament’s endorsement before being placed before the people in the proposed referendum.
Algeria had witnessed mass demonstrations that commenced in February 2019 initially against the wheel-chair bound Bouteflika’s plans to remain in office; and the peoples anger at unemployment, corruption and an elderly elite seen as out of touch with the young. The Hirak or Revolution of Smiles movement, formed by leading opposition figures was one of the major forces spearheading the protests demanding the removal of all remnants of a political and military establishment that had dominated the country for decades and finally forcing Bouteflika to quit
With Bouteflika gone, the then Army Chief Ahmed Gaid Salah, had effectively become the country’s de facto leader. Despite protests from Hirak, he had gone ahead with the Presidential election on December 12, 2019, which brought Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who had served as Prime Minister under Bouteflika, to the President’s office. He in turn appointed Abdel Aziz Djerad a little known academic and retired diplomat as the country’s new prime minister. Djerad had been very vocal in support of the public protests and a vocal critic of Algeria’s political elite.
His appearances on political talk shows had multiplied in the weeks before Bouteflika was removed. He had also spoken out against holding the presidential elections in December 2019 stating that essential reforms needed to be undertaken first. He had said that it was crucial that the authorities work to win back people’s trust and had pledged to bring Algerians together to meet social-economic challenges and improve the country’s situation.
But the passage of one year had shown that the people remained dissatisfied. Thousands of Algerians had rallied in the capital, Algiers, to commemorate one year since the beginning of last years with calls for sweeping reforms and an overhaul of the ruling elite. The latest protests also revealed that the hard edge of governance remained intact.
The Collective for the Defence of Prisoners of Opinion had said that many students and activists had been interrogated and some detained with most of the warrants citing Facebook publications. With the advent of Covid 19 the authorities had banned protests and the Ministry of Justice suspended all hearings and appeals in criminal and correctional courts. Algeria’s Parliament had passed a draft law criminalising “fake news” deemed harmful to “public order and state security”.
Reporters Sans Frontiers had condemned the bill, describing it in a statement as “vaguely worded and draconian legislation” which is “designed to tighten the gag on press freedom”. Journalists had become a primary target. Khaled Drareni, editor of Casbah Tribune news website and correspondent of TV5 Monde and media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), was sentenced to three years in prison and fined 50,000 dinars. He had played a prominent role in covering the country’s pro-democracy movement last year and was jailed for “endangering national unity” and “inciting an unarmed gathering”.
Prosecutors cited a Facebook post in which he said the Algerian political system had not changed since the election of Abdelmadjid Tebboune as president, and that the journalist shared a call by multiple political parties for a general strike. The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement after the arrest stasting that “Algerian authorities must release Khaled Drareni from this ludicrous prison sentence and drop all charges against him.”
It had also been announced that two main figures of the Hirak movement would be freed under the powers of the President to grant a pardon. Karim Tabbou, a veteran opposition figure and secretary-general of Algeria’s Socialist Forces Front (FFS), was serving a one-year term for an “attack on the integrity of national territory”. Samir Benlarbi had been held in preventive detention since March 7.
Tabbou was suddenly brought to trial on March 24 two days before he was to be released and sentenced to six months more in prison on charges of “affronting national unity” and “affronting the morale of the army”. The prosecutor general’s office issued a statement defending the trial stating that the judgement was in conformity with article 347, paragraph 2 of the procedural criminal code, which considered the defendant present if he refused to answer. Some Algerian commentators said that the aborted release had been planned to mollify opinion particularly in France and to pre-empt the Hirak ability to use activists as a rallying call should mass protests resurge.
On the Foreign Policy Front Algeria had been very concerned about the turmoil in Libya fearing a spill over if the situation there did not stabilise. The continuing situation could allow armed groups active in the area to regroup and stage attacks on Algeria’s vital oil installations. In 2013 an al-Qaeda affiliated group had attacked the Ain Amenas gas plant near the Libyan border. The Algerian military had to intervene in an operation that left 39 foreign hostages dead.
While Egypt had backed Haftar as a force against the Muslim Brotherhood, both Tunisia and Algeria had maintained strict neutrality and insisted that there be no foreign interference in Libya. Algeria’s position had been clear: It recognised the UN backed GNA government in Libya but opposed any recourse to force while also recognising Haftar as a stakeholder. Algeria had hosted meetings of ministers from Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan, Chad, Mali and Niger following a summit in Germany’s capital, Berlin, aimed at shoring up a short-lived ceasefire in Libya. A Defence Analyst in Algeria Akram Khareif had commented that domestic politics influenced the Algerian approach to external crises, with instability in Algiers often seen by belligerents in Libya as an opportunity to revise the status quo there.
After a meeting with his Tunisian counterpart Kais Saied in February, the Algerian President had said that there had to be a political solution that should come by Libyans themselves and be protected from foreign interference and weapons flows. To the media he said Algeria has always considered the Libyan capital, Tripoli, a red line, and that its fall into the hands of renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar’s forces would have resulted in an all-out civil war, leading to the collapse of the state. He said Algeria was ready to play the part of a mediator for a peace agreement and Libya’s tribes would accept Algeria’s role.
Algeria’s economic situation had been directly affected by the international scenario. A recent World Bank report said that Algeria was facing a combined shock from the drop in oil prices, and the consequences of global economic disruptions because of COVID-19. The drop in the price of oil would been a significant decline in revenues and despite cuts to public investment and public consumption envisaged by the 2020 Finance Law, the fiscal deficit could increase to 16.3% of GDP.
Meanwhile, the sharp decline in export revenues would lead the trade deficit to expand to 18.2% of GDP and the current account deficit to peak at 18.8% of GDP in 2020, despite efforts to contain imports and weak domestic demand. GDP has currently been projected to contract by 3%, in line with contracting private consumption and investment, as well as falling public investment, which represents 44% of total investment. COVID-19 containment measures such as restriction on movement and gatherings, compounded by high economic uncertainty, are most likely to discourage private consumption and investment.
In such an economic situation the burden of unemployment and a lowering of living standards combined with the health crisis would exacerbate antagonism towards the government if it fails to deliver on its promises. Whether people would see the forthcoming referendum as a genuine attempt to improve things or merely to divert attention from their woes could impact on the referendum’s result. Growing distress among the youth could galvanise into a mass movement if they feel they have been betrayed.
Will the referendum and the proposed changes mark a significant improvement in the lives of the people and the nature of the country’s polity? The country’s constitution had been amended several times in the past with changes introduced during Bouteflika’s 20 year rule designed to serve his interests. Having tasted power leaders often take recourse to such gimmickry and pledges, less to benefit the people and more to buy time to perpetuate their rule. Perhaps Algeria’s destiny will be different.