In Algeria, the More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

More than four years have passed since the Hirak protest movement threatened to upend Algeria’s political and military leadership structure. Since then, the country has been in a state of transition under an administration that, while prone to suppressing political expression and dissent, has opted for a more assertive foreign policy after years of isolationism. As the Ukraine crisis keeps energy prices high, Algeria’s economy, which is highly dependent on oil and gas, has been bolstered by a surge in energy revenues that is giving it room to secure domestic stability and be more engaged internationally.

However, Algeria’s economy remains highly centralized and excessively bureaucratic, which altogether stifles private enterprise and entrepreneurship that would stimulate job creation and economic diversification. Despite promising moves toward economic reform and the loosening of regulations, including new rules to stimulate investment and non-oil exports, Algeria’s past inability to stay the course is eliciting skepticism about whether it can, at this juncture, move beyond its archaic economic model to turn this temporary remission into sustainable development and durable growth—and in the process create the space for popular participation.

How the Regime Silenced the Hirak

When millions of Algerians from across the country demonstrated in early 2019 in opposition to a fifth term for then president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the tenuous premises of Algeria’s social contract seemed to unravel. It was as if an earthquake had shaken the country, as disciplined masses marched with renewed patriotism and the promise of a different future. Bouteflika’s resignation on April 2, 2019 injected fresh hope for democratic change and invigorated calls for a “civilian, not military state” and demands to further revamp the political system. The Hirak movement continued to stand out for its unity despite its diverse make-up, its endurance, and its nonviolent character, in stark contrast to the violence of the civil war of the 1990s.

The COVID-19 pandemic then removed any remaining uncertainty about the calculations of the regime, which seized on the (convenient) imperative of enforcing social isolation to gradually impose nationwide lockdowns. This gave authorities a new range of powers, including the right to ban street rallies and go after activists, forcing the Hirak to retreat. The state went to great lengths to crack down on dissent, arresting and imprisoning political activists. Authorities dissolved or suspended parties, prominent civil society groups, and media outlets for “undermining national security” or unity and for “spreading fake news,” and introduced laws constraining their ability to operate. The well-known civil society organization, Rassemblement Actions Jeunesse (Youth Action Rally) was dissolved in 2021 for violating the law governing civil society associations, and its members were arrested and prosecuted (though its head was able to flee to Switzerland to seek political asylum). The Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, the oldest human rights organization in the country, was similarly shut down over dubious allegations of noncompliance with the associations law.

The Hirak movement continued to stand out for its unity despite its diverse make-up, its endurance, and its nonviolent character, in stark contrast to the violence of the civil war of the 1990s.

Receiving foreign funds without authorization would also now lead to up to 14 years of imprisonment. The government especially went after political parties that had supported the Hirak and sought to form a political opposition—the Democratic and Social Union, the Socialist Workers’ Party, the Rally for Culture and Democracy, and leaders and members of various other parties. The deplorable arrest and imprisonment of Ihsane El Kadi, who was director of Radio M and the last independent news site, Maghreb Emergent, and who was at the forefront of the Hirak, further illustrated this authoritarian thrust. Another activist, the leader of the Democratic and Social Union, Karim Tabbou, was also arrested in May 2023 for unknown reasons. A new press law further restricted the exercise of media activity, banned any media from getting foreign funds, and excluded dual nationals from ownership of media outlets.

The expansion of the criminalization of terrorism to acts that seek to “gain power or change the system of governance by unconstitutional means” ultimately brought into question the Hirak’s very demands for system-wide change. It also underscored the regime’s trepidation at the prospect of any renegotiation of the social contract that would move the country from the confines of its post-civil war parameters. The dramatic deterioration of the political climate since then, with the imprisonment of over 300 activists and critics has consequently pushed activists into exile, even despite bans on Hirak supporters leaving the country.

The Root Causes of the Protests

Algeria’s system of governance had allowed the regime, over time, to withstand domestic strife, as well as pressures for change. The end of the Black Decade—ten years of brutal civil war in the 1990s that pitted the army against an Islamist insurgency—came with the transfer of authority to a civilian government (led by Abdelaziz Bouteflika) and ushered in the phase of a civilian president selected by the army, but legitimized through a façade of democratic elections. This new normal, which became etched in the Algerian psyche, came with the certainty that turmoil and instability lead to chaos—and hence the implicit social contract that has enabled the regime to keep a lid on any unrest in exchange for its monopoly over the economy and the appearance of political legitimacy. The following decades thus saw the firming up of this elite that exercised, behind the scenes, actual power over the state, limiting the civilian government’s influence on decision-making and appeasing citizens through public spending (cash subsidies, free housing, employment, and other forms of patronage) to maintain stability. The facade of representation combined with social welfare programs and subsidies temporarily helped to counteract demands for greater participation and representation, such as the secessionism of the Kabylia region.

Algeria’s system of governance had allowed the regime, over time, to withstand domestic strife, as well as pressures for change.

Over time, the state fruitlessly attempted to spend its way out of crises without making structural changes, further entrenching Algerian economic interests and institutional rigidity. During the 2011 Arab Spring, it added new jobs and made interest-free loans in an unsuccessful attempt to foster youth entrepreneurship. When the oil market crashed in 2014, it drained the national coffers to stabilize its economy and pushed for deeply unpopular austerity reforms to shore up its national budget—and much of the infrastructure and social spending was lost to corruption among the Bouteflika-bred and sustained oligarchy.

The Hirak was, ultimately, the expression of accumulated grievances with the political and economic systems that had evolved out of the Algerian Civil War and its management of state resources. Bouteflika’s notable absence after a 2013 stroke that left him incapacitated (yet still presumably running the country), plus the perception of his cooptation by inner circle businessmen who formed extensive patronage networks, added to the disaffection that was aggravated by the absence of avenues for political participation or dissent. While the movement’s speed and size took the government by surprise, the outcry, rooted in the very environment of political stasis and near-complete centralization of power, seemed almost inevitable.

Algeria’s Diplomatic Rejuvenation

While Algeria’s economy suffers from old pains, its foreign policy has been invigorated under President Tebboune, who has opted for a more assertive regional and international diplomacy. Tunisian President Kais Saied’s visit to Algiers in July 2022 broke a longstanding stalemate with the subsequent reopening of land borders between the two countries, resulting in a tourism boon for Tunisia’s ailing economy. Algeria was then able to persuade Tunisia to reverse its neutrality in the Western Sahara conflict with Morocco. Tunisia invited Brahim Ghali, leader of the Polisario Front fighting for the territory’s independence, to an investment conference co-hosted with Japan in August 2022. In November 2022, Algeria then hosted the first post-pandemic Arab League summit in an attempt to cultivate Arab unity amid deep divisions and discord (tensions between Morocco and Algeria in particular, that severed diplomatic ties with each other in 2021, have been at an all-time high, especially after Israel’s recognition of Morocco’s claims of sovereignty over the Western Sahara).

Algeria has also made overtures to the BRICS bloc of nations. Relations with the bloc would open up alternative sources of foreign investment and access to loans, with the added possibility of decreasing the country’s dependence on dollar-denominated currency settlement systems. Indeed, the BRICS countries have been engaged in the creation of an alternative currency system (akin to a version of the Euro), turning even to the use of local currencies in their own bilateral trades in defiance of the hegemony of the American dollar. This would certainly bring Algiers closer to Beijing, with which it already has a comprehensive strategic partnership, and to Russia, which it has kept close in spite of its invasion of Ukraine, and from which it continues to import arms, wheat, and other agricultural products. Accession to BRICS would effectively help secure the combination of Algeria’s economic ambitions and regional interests, especially that Morocco does not appear to want to apply to be a member of the bloc.

 Relations with the BRICS bloc of nations would open up alternative sources of foreign investment and access to loans, with the added possibility of decreasing the country’s dependence on the dollar.

When the Ukraine war broke out in February 2022, Algeria, which was sought out for its gas resources, benefited from the serendipitous boost in global oil and gas prices. Its energy earnings, expected to reach $50 billion this year, have improved the economy’s near-term outlook and could stimulate much-needed investment, not just in natural gas, but also in renewable energy, a very promising sector given the country’s photovoltaic potential. Algiers then sought to exploit the high European demand for its gas (as an alternative to Russian gas) and as a result negotiated gas deals with European buyers—including a major partnership with Italy, which is also investing in Algerian gas field development and green hydrogen production. Algeria’s ramping up of gas exports successfully helped Europe meet 90 percent of its full gas storage target. The question is whether Algeria will seek, now that it is an essential part of the effort to diversify energy sources to Europe, to translate this positive standing into more aggressive foreign policy stances, including to pressure Morocco to compromise on Western Sahara.

Internally, Algeria’s unexpected windfall from the Ukraine war is enabling the regime, as it increases production, to use socioeconomic welfare to keep its citizens in check and maintain domestic stability ahead of the 2024 presidential election. Algeria’s 2023 budget offers extraordinary spending of $98 billion, the largest in its history—and with it, subsidy and tax reforms have been halted and stipends to jobless youth (representing nearly two-thirds of the population and the biggest potential source of instability) have been introduced to try to placate a citizenry confronted with economic and social woes. The breathing room proffered by internal and external pressures has helped the regime reassert its control for now.

Much Work for a Democratic Future

Economic conditions in Algeria are worsening, despite the energy boom, as inflationary pressures rise and non-hydrocarbons sectors stagnate, producing severe impacts on people’s purchasing power and heightening citizens’ alienation. The prioritization of economic development in coastal and urban centers—where over 70 percent of the population lives and economic activity is concentrated—has produced enduring economic and social disparities between the urban (cosmopolitan/Mediterranean) and peripheral (traditionally conservative/parochial) regions, and has led to economic deterioration of the remote interior and uncontrolled border regions. The young population of this neglected interior, absent economic opportunities, is especially prone to radicalization given the myriad threats confronting it and increasing instability at the border, especially smuggling and jihadi recruitment with the growth of terrorist threats in the Sahel region. This creates a dangerous mix that mirrors the precursors to the radicalization and violence of the 1990s.

Meanwhile, the new and rejuvenated Algeria looks very much like the old one: an authoritarian state that is run by the same military caste, but that is noticeably more repressive. Thanks to the Ukraine crisis and resulting revenue windfalls, this very state has managed to avoid responding to popular exigencies by buying peace while doubling down on repression. Its leadership has embarked on a more confident foreign policy that, while taking into account the pressures of an increasingly unstable geopolitical environment, seeks at the end of the day to rehabilitate its public image.

Hope for democratic change remains alive in Algeria. The Hirak may have died out, but its goals remain unfulfilled; the governmental and constitutional reforms that were ostensibly passed to address its grievances did little to respond to citizen demands to renegotiate an obsolete social contract. If history is any guide, the current model of safeguarding social peace through social spending is only likely to offer more than temporary reprieve as the promises of economic diversification—unfulfilled in the context of dismal economic conditions and an outdated economic model—continue to fuel the frustration and anger of a young citizenry with few outlets for demanding meaningful action from the government. And what this youth remembers today is not the Black Decade but the unprecedented mass movement from four years ago that rallied millions of Algerians against an antiquated ruling elite in demanding a voice and representation through a transition to democracy. So, while the regime may have prevailed in this instance, the idea that this young and savvy constituency will accept failure on the delivery of not just rights but of livelihood and development may be illusive. The system will continue to be tested and tried and, when faced with the next economic crunch, it may find itself compelled to look inward and make more tangible concessions to placate its population, if only to ensure that popular dissatisfaction does not undermine national stability.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Flickr/Gwenael Piaser