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IRI Expert Examines Algeria's Response to COVID-19 for The Hill

October 22, 2020
 
 
Patricia Karam
 

On November 1, Algeria will hold a referendum on a new constitution supposed to boost democracy by increasing the powers of the prime minister and parliament. The move is largely seen as one that will placate the civic opposition while preserving the balance of power.

The opposition, better known as the hirak movement, triggered by former President Bouteflika’s fifth candidacy, rocked Algeria for almost a year with hundreds of thousands of protesters taking to the street to demand wide scale, systematic reforms. While it brought about Bouteflika’s resignation, its work is unfinished as the entrenched political-military-business complex known as “le pouvoir” remains steadily in place, while the country faces a pandemic that is pushing the country deeper into crisis.

The parallels with “The Plague,” Albert Camus’ novel about an epidemic that ravages the Algerian city of Oran, cannot be ignored as the coronavirus wreaks havoc on Algeria with more than 55,000 confirmed cases and 1,800 deaths to date. But unlike the plague, Algerians are treating coronavirus, not as a debilitating curse, but an entreaty to wake up to the real danger faced: the authorities that are exploiting this plague to suppress a popular movement.

The pandemic has, on the one hand, been a godsend to a regime that has used the public health emergency as a pretext to clamp down on dissent, dispelling all uncertainty about its intentions. Lockdowns and curfews were imposed, street protests banned and protesters tracked, harassed and imprisoned, in addition to widely imposed censorship and surveillance. Since February 2019, tens of activists and journalists have been interrogated or imprisoned with the introduction of a controversial ban on “fake news.” The regime has, meanwhile, regrouped and proposed measures like the upcoming draft constitution to consolidate power.

But Covid is an equal opportunity virus that has also strained the social contract in ways that could backfire on the Algerian government: it has exposed the health shortfalls of a resource rich country that, despite billions in health care investment is in deplorable shape. For instance, Algeria only has 1/100,000 ICU beds. The scarce resources to fight the spreading disease will hamper the regime’s ability to address the threat. Ironically, the virus could weaken the human and institutional infrastructure that is central to the regime’s repressive apparatus.

The pandemic is also exacerbating the country’s economic woes and forcing the government to re-examine its unsustainable model of economic governance. Hydrocarbons generate at least 70 percent of Algeria’s budget receipts, which is why falling oil prices have curtailed the regime’s capacity to channel subsidies and other support to the vast urban middle class and to state employed workers. Incumbent President Tebboune has already announced that he is slashing the budget by 50% percent to manage the crash.

Algeria suffers from high unemployment, especially among the youth. Its foreign exchange reserves are expected to fall from $60 billion last year to $44 billion by the end of the year; IMF forecasts that the economy will contract by 5.2 percent this year. Much of these indicators are the result of decades of poor economic policies and the government’s failure to create a productive economy. If the government, cash strapped, loses the ability to tackle increasing public alienation from the state, the country is likely to experience an even deeper social crisis.

The hirak is tapping into this and has found ways of sustaining itself through burgeoning solidarity networks. Citizens and protesters are at the front line of the coronavirus crisis, mobilizing resources and distributing supplies to hot spots. They have delivered food to vulnerable populations, sanitized public areas, and sent personal protective equipment, efforts that highlight the weakness of health care and by extension of the governance systems. These efforts demonstrate a high sense of duty and offer Algerians an alternative source of authority for a public health response to the pandemic.

Algerian activists need to use this crisis to create the kind of wider political strategy and institutional basis for an enduring presence in the political terrain. This may take the form of ties with formal political parties and more enduring linkages to civil society organizations and to organized labor, whose unions have often depended on state support for their very survival. This is a tall order, with heightened isolation and fragmentation.

But already the protests’ messaging post-coronavirus has sought, while criticizing the state for its lackluster response to the virus, to ensure that people not forget the government’s role in deepening suffering before the coronavirus and intensifying the prevailing sense of alienation. The new forms of mobilization, both in person and online, underscore the determination of Algerian activists to sustain, despite this new plague, a wider message of social activism and political solidarity.