Algeria will hold a referendum in over a week on a new constitution meant to bolster democracy by increasing the powers of the prime minister and parliament. The move is largely seen to placate the civic opposition while preserving the balance of power with government.
The opposition, better known as the hirak movement, triggered with the fifth candidacy of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, rocked Algeria for almost a year, with hundreds of thousands of protesters taking to the street to demand reforms. It brought about his resignation, but its work is not finished as the entrenched military political business complex known as “le pouvoir” remains steadily in place, while the country also battles a pandemic that is pushing it even deeper into crisis.
The parallels with the “The Plague” by Albert Camus, about one epidemic that ravages the city of Oran, simply cannot be ignored as the coronavirus wreaks havoc on the country with more than 55,000 confirmed cases and 1,800 deaths. But unlike the plague, Algerians are treating the coronavirus not as a debilitating curse but a national wakeup call to the real danger of authorities using it to suppress a popular movement.
The pandemic has, on one hand, been a godsend to a regime that uses the public health crisis as an excuse to tamp down dissent. Lockdowns and curfews were in effect, street marches were banned, and protesters were harassed and imprisoned, in addition to some wide censorship and surveillance. Since early last year, so many activists and journalists have been interrogated or imprisoned with the introduction of a controversial ban on “fake news” as the regime has recircled and proposed measures, such as the draft constitution, to consolidate power.
But the coronavirus has also strained the social contract by several ways that could backfire on the state. It exposes the shortfalls of a country that, despite billions in health care funding, is in deplorable shape. Algeria has one intensive care unit bed to every 100,000 people. Scarce resources to fight the spreading disease will clearly hamper the ability of the regime to handle such a threat. Ironically, the coronavirus could weaken the human and institutional infrastructure central to the regime.
The pandemic is also worsening the financial woes and forcing the state to examine its unsustainable economic model. Hydrocarbons generate at least 70 percent of budget receipts for Algeria, and falling oil prices have curbed the capacity of the regime to channel subsidies and more support to the vast urban middle class and workers employed by the state, while incumbent President Abdelmadjid Tebboune has announced that he will slash the budget by 50 percent to manage the crash.
Algeria suffers from high unemployment, especially among its youth. Its foreign exchange reserves are projected to fall from $60 billion last year to $44 billion this year. The International Monetary Fund forecasts that its economy would contract by 5 percent this year. Many of these indicators are the result of decades of unwise financial policies and the failure of the government to create a productive economy. If the government loses the ability to tackle increasing public alienation from the state, the country is likely to face an even greater social crisis than it has.
The hirak movement has found ways to sustain itself through emerging solidarity networks. Citizens and protesters stand at the frontline of the coronavirus to mobilize resources and to distribute supplies to hotspots. They have delivered groceries to vulnerable populations, sanitized public areas, and sent personal protective equipment, efforts that highlight this weakness of the health care system and of the government. This shows a sense of true duty and offers people an alternative source of authority for a public health response to the pandemic emergency.
Algerian activists need to use this crisis to create the kind of strategy and institutional basis for an enduring presence with the political terrain. This could take the form of ties with formal political parties and more enduring links to civil society groups and organized labor, whose unions have often depended on state support for their survival in the system. Indeed, this is a tall order with increased isolation and fragmentation.
The narrative of the protesters has sought, while criticizing the state for its lackluster response to the coronavirus, to ensure that people can view the role of the government with worsening suffering before the pandemic and intensifying the sense of alienation. Those new forms of mobilization, both in person and online, underscore the determination of Algerians to sustain social activism and political solidarity amidst this crisis.
Patricia Karam is regional director for the Middle East at the International Republican Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes democracy.