Coronavirus CSS Blog

The Coronavirus and Regime-Protestor Dynamics in Algeria

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This blog belongs to the CSS’ coronavirus blog series, which forms a part of the center’s analysis of the security policy implications of the coronavirus crisis. See the CSS special theme page on the coronavirus for more.

The corona crisis is a double-edged sword for the Algerian regime. The lockdown and curfew is playing in the regime’s favor by bringing temporary relief from protests. Yet, the long-term consequences of the crisis will test the regime’s ability to manage economic recovery and popular dissent.

Europeans tend to see Algeria as a pillar of stability on the other side of the Mediterranean, a supplier of oil and partner in counter terrorism, rather than a source of concern. The corona crisis could play a part in altering this, though. As much of Europe went into lockdown in late March, protestors in Algeria called off bi-weekly demonstrations. These protests had been going on for over a year, despite the departure of former President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika, as protestors doggedly pushed for political reforms and the removal of the political elite associated with the Bouteflika regime. While crisis management measures to stop the spread of the virus in Algeria might have given the regime a short-term respite from popular pressure, the coronavirus crisis could drive the country to the brink over the medium term by adding yet more dimensions to a hitherto political crisis.

The Coronavirus and the Regime’s Response

Algeria has reported one of the highest number of infections in North Africa. Algeria’s health minister announced the first confirmed case of coronavirus in the country on 25 February. The individual in question was an Italian citizen, who tested positive for the virus following his arrival in Algeria. According to the Worldometers database, Algeria has 3,007 confirmed cases and 407 reported deaths, as of 23 April 2020.

The Algerian government has taken a number of measures similar to those adopted in Europe to prevent the situation from worsening. These initially included a ban on large-scale events; the closure of schools, universities, mosques and restaurants; and a general call for people to stay at home. Then, on 23 March, the government went a step further, introducing a lockdown, a curfew from 3pm to 7am in large cities, such as Algiers, and 7pm to 7am elsewhere, as well as the closure of all land borders. Police, as well as the army in Algiers and Blida, are tasked with ensuring compliance with these measures. The government also took the decision to ban demonstrations – something that it had avoided doing up to this point.

Political Context: Le Pouvoir Versus the Hirak

Popular demonstrations began in February 2019 as anger spilled over following the announcement that the aging former president intended to run for a fifth term. The protest movement, known as the Hirak, succeeded in forcing Bouteflika not only to reverse his decision to run for yet another term but also to step down on 2 April 2019 after some two decades in power. Yet, protestors have continued to line the streets every week to push for reforms and an overhaul of the ruling elite that Algerians have long referred to as “le Pouvoir”.

Despite consistent pressure from the Hirak, the regime has largely failed to cede ground to popular pressure for fundamental change, maintaining that presidential elections should pave the way forward. Protestors have widely viewed this as a means of renewing le Pouvoir. Presidential elections originally scheduled for April 2019 were postponed to July, but did not take place after the Constitutional Court rejected the only two candidates. When they finally took place in December, the victor was Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a former prime minister and Bouteflika loyalist, seemingly confirming the Hirak’s claim that elections were little more than a veneer to legitimize the maintenance of what they perceive as a corrupt and self-serving ruling elite.

The Politics of Lockdown and Curfew

Following the government’s announcement of the prohibition of demonstrations, protestors were initially defiant. Many within the movement viewed the measure as a ruse to cripple the Hirak. However, initial suspicions about government intent eventually gave way to the decision to heed the call to stay home. On 20 March, what would have been the 57th Friday of Hirak action, protests did not take place and the streets were empty for the first time in months.

Despite the temporary suspension of protests, the Hirak is playing a role in encouraging people to abide by the regulations aimed at stopping the further spread of the virus. This is significant as the lack of trust in the government could have hindered efforts to stop the spread of the virus and placed a healthcare system ill prepared to deal with the pandemic under enormous pressure.

An Uncertain Political Future Beyond the Corona Crisis

Over the coming weeks and possibly months, the government will have to walk a tight rope between managing the corona crisis and not inciting further anger and dissent. Despite government claims to the contrary, healthcare workers warn that the healthcare system is almost at full capacity and any worsening of the situation could lead to a full-blown crisis. Yet, any misstep on the part of the authorities could fuel anti-regime sentiment and cause the protest movement to swell further once the lockdown is over.

Added to the political and health crisis in the country is a looming economic crisis. The drop in oil prices resulting from the drawn out negotiations between major producers, such as Saudi Arabia and Russia, to reach an agreement to reduce oil supply in recent weeks has hurt the Algerian economy, which is dependent on oil for some 90 percent of export earnings. This places a heavy burden on an economy that is already suffering as a result of restrictions on economic activity due to measures taken to reduce the transmission of the virus and minimize deaths.

Although the corona crisis appears to be favoring the government over the short term, the eventual emergence from the corona crisis will provide no respite as this will also test the government’s ability to manage economic recovery and social unrest. Other governments in the Maghreb and beyond that faced unrest prior to the outbreak of the pandemic will find their staying power similarly tested.

The Center for Security Studies (CSS) is investigating the medium and long-term consequences of the corona crisis through two research projects. One project focuses on national and international crisis management. The other addresses the effects of the crisis on international relations and national and international security policy. To find out more, see the CSS special theme page on corona.

About the Author

Dr. Lisa Watanabe is Head of Swiss and Euro-Atlantic Security Team at the Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zurich.

For more information on issues and events that shape our world, please visit the CSS website.

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