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Algeria at the Hirak’s Second Anniversary

Algeria’s President Abdelmadjid Tebboune probably wishes he stayed away.

The Algerian leader recently returned to Algiers from medical leave in Germany to face growing uncertainty about the country’s political, economic, and social future. Peaceful demonstrations were held on Monday, February 22nd, marking the second anniversary of the Hirak, that uniquely Algerian protest movement which is leaderless but represents the rejection by many Algerians of a system that has failed to inspire a positive vision for the future.

Algeria is more than four times the size of France and is a leading hydrocarbons producer with sizeable reserves of petroleum and natural gas. It also has abundant other natural resources, including uranium, one of the purest reservoirs of pure silicates, a mountain range with eternal snow-caps, stunning landscapes, and a lengthy Mediterranean shoreline. Algeria’s military is among the best organized in the emerging world and the only one that decisively defeated Islamist terrorists (and their external backers) in a decade-long civil war.

Hirak’s civil society coordinators privately regret not capitalizing on the movement’s initial momentum to negotiate with the government when it would have been possible to have respectable intermediaries and personalities at the head. The reality on the ground that has dogged Hirak has been the lack of political organization and its maximalist demand to kick out the whole system. This has caused more than a little ridicule of the movement’s middle-class representatives, many of whom are workers in a dirigiste economy kept afloat by government-controlled exports of oil and natural gas.

The plot thickens as Muslim Brotherhood-linked activists have infiltrated Hirak, while the Brotherhood leaders publicly criticize the movement for being influenced by, of all people, “Masonic groups.” And regime-linked factions are also poised to hijack the movement if the regime falls.

But the greatest danger is posed by the hypocrisy of Hirak coordinators who pretend not to notice the Islamists because of fear and denial and an assumption they can deal with them later. But it is the Islamists who will eliminate them, as happened in Egypt and Libya, as the Islamists have well-funded and structured political and military groups which the secular Hirak supporters lack.

There are several reasons for the smaller crowds this year. The security forces were prepared for containment – a task they are skilled at – and Hirak coordinators did not plan COVID-19 safety measures, such as mandatory masks, which dissuaded many from joining. The demonstrations were on a weekday which made it less easy to attend for workers worried about their jobs, whereas usual weekend protests were better attended. Measures announced by the president, including a slight Cabinet reshuffle, the dissolution of the Parliament, the announcement of early elections which are an opportunity for new parliamentarians to contest elections, and the release of 60 incarcerated militants, seemed to convince enough of the population to give the president’s call for negotiated reforms a chance. There also may have been Hirak fatigue due to the lack of concrete results.

Algeria’s most serious challenges are economic, and it needs profound reforms at a time when energy prices are low, corruption rife, foreign exchange reserves are being depleted, and the quality of life is declining, contributing to the pauperization of the middle-class. The informal/parallel economy compensates for some shortcomings but it also creates greater peril for the country by creating an opening for corruption and organized crime.

What does Algeria need? To start, an upgrade of the country’s infrastructure; additional investment in the petroleum and natural gas sectors; improvements in the quality of education, healthcare, and social services; modernization of industrial and technology infrastructure; upgrades to transportation and utilities; the creation of a business-friendly environment that encourages entrepreneurship and foreign direct investment; and fiscal and monetary measures, including the convertibility of the Algerian dinar.

And threats abound in Algeria’s neighborhood. 100,000 Algerian soldiers are at the Libyan border, and Tunisia’s fledgling democracy is vulnerable to Islamic State terrorism, as is the neighboring Sahel. Trouble is brewing in Western Sahara, while relations remain uneasy with France, its former colonial power. Contact with the United States is limited mostly to security cooperation while Algeria remains a client state of Russia for military hardware. The country is captive to Chinese and Turkish interests when it comes to civilian contracting and is subject to the corrupt practices of Chinese suppliers and Turkish businesses linked to Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP political party and the Muslim Brotherhood. The country is paying the corrupting forces that contribute to political instability.

President Tebboune’s declining health and the military’s concern with stability are translating into immobility and paralysis which will actually precipitate instability. Stability will be much better safeguarded by robust reforms that inspire confidence among the citizenry than by propping up a system devoid of potential for a decent and sensible future for the country and its people.