The jury's still out on Algeria

Few would have thought that Algeria's Hirak protest movement would still be mobilising the masses 12 months on from its first peaceful demonstration. According to Isabelle Werenfels and Luca Miehe, the systemic change people hoped for post-Bouteflika has yet to materialise. External players need to brace themselves for ongoing political turbulence

Essay by Isabelle Werenfels & Luca Miehe

One year after the start of on-going mass protests, the Algerian regime has – contrary to many predictions – neither collapsed nor resorted to serious violence. Nevertheless, the situation in Africa's largest country remains volatile. The controversial election of the new president Abdelmajid Tebboune in December was unable to change this. Tebboune and several members of his cabinet served under former President Bouteflika and there are strong indications that military elites still wield more power than the president.

Meanwhile, every week, tens of thousands of Algerians demonstrate peacefully for a democratic transition and the rule of law. They march against the president – whom they do not see as the country's legitimate leader – and for the resignation of everyone involved in the corrupt networks of the Bouteflika era (1999–2019). In view of the protest movement's lack of leadership and  structure, differences of opinion on strategy and objectives, and the absence of tangible success with regard to system change, it is remarkable that people are still taking to the streets week after week.

Even though the regime has kept things firmly in hand thus far, the stamina and determination of the Hirak protest movement begs the question as to who will be more resilient, the regime or the Hirak? Moreover, it is also not clear on which side the country's "silent majority" will come down.

The government strategy: carrot and stick

Since taking office, President Tebboune has been struggling to be viewed as the country's legitimate leader both at home and abroad. Domestically, the signals he has sent out have oscillated between promises of democratic reform and continuing authoritarian practice, between co-optation and repression. He has taken steps towards constitutional reform, released just under 10,000 prisoners, and announced that he would step up the fight against corruption, streamline the administration, and foster a start-up culture. Several people who are supportive of the Hirak have been appointed to the government.

In addition, after years of paralysis, the country's engagement at international level – especially in the Libya conflict – has been stepped up, partly in order to shore up the president’s legitimacy back home. To this end, Tebboune travelled to the Libya conference in Berlin in January, while numerous heads of state and government, not to mention foreign ministers from several countries, including Turkey, Italy, France and Germany, have paid visits to Algiers in early 2020.

At the same time, however, activists are regularly being imprisoned and prominent members of the opposition are still behind bars. Just like their predecessors, Tebboune and the military’s new chief of staff have been using the exploitation of nationalist feelings, discrimination against Berber symbols, people's fear of destabilisation and the claim that external forces are manipulating the protesters – all to discredit and divide the Hirak. The regime is obviously counting on the protest movement running out of steam. That way, it won't have to soil its hands by getting the security forces to crack down on protests.

Division and ritualisation pose a threat to the Hirak

Yet, this scenanio may not materialise all that easily. One of the key achievements of the Hirak movement is the re-mobilisation and re-politicisation of a society that had been prevented from taking any kind of civilian action for many years by a ban on demonstrations, the actions of the security forces, the trauma of the civil war in the 1990s, and generous distribution of the oil rent. Bouteflika‘s resignation and corruption trials against members of the political and economic elite are viewed by the Hirak as intermediate victories in a long campaign. As long as there is no real democratic transition in sight, it intends to go on protesting.

That said, without a clear alternative to Tebboune's "reform agenda" and to the government’s action plan – christened "A new deal for a new Algeria” – and without a clear leadership, the weekly marches run the risk of becoming an end in themselves and a mere ritual, offering the regime a gateway to co-optation and manipulation. Profound differences of opinion on how to respond to the offers of dialogue made by the regime have already surfaced, as have conflicts over regionalist, ethno-cultural and thematic agendas. And last but not least, as the economic crisis deepens, socio-economic demands may come to overshadow political ones.

Unlike in the past, however, the regime can no longer buy societal peace. So far, Algeria has not been able to reduce its dependence on the income from oil and gas, which has been falling since 2014. What's more, the consequences of the anti-corruption campaign and the nationwide protests are deepening the economic crisis. Meanwhile, foreign exchange reserves are dwindling. Even if the government introduced reforms immediately, it is hardly likely that it would be able to head off a socio-economic crisis.

Outlook: the risk of a failing (rentier) state

For this reason, in all possible future scenarios, the economic situation is likely to be the most decisive factor. There are signs of a vicious circle: in order to make far-reaching and painful economic reforms, a broad political consensus is needed. However, without a programme of political reform, such a consensus is unlikely to emerge. Issues including but not limited to economic liberalisation, the role played by the military elite in the economy, and the extraction of shale gas divide both the elite and society and make dialogue – which is absolutely indispensable if political transition is to be achieved – far more difficult.

Anti-government protests in the Algerian capital Algiers on 1 December 2019 (photo: AFP/Getty Im-ages/Ryad Kramdi)
Wir sind das Volk: Vor einem Jahr hatten im größten afrikanischen Land Massenproteste gegen die Regierung begonnen. Teilweise waren mehr als eine Million Menschen auf den Straßen. Die wöchentlich anhaltenden Proteste führten schließlich zum Rücktritt von Präsident Abdelaziz Bouteflika, der 20 Jahre an der Spitze Algeriens stand. Die Demonstrationen gingen aber auch danach weiter. Viele sehen in Nachfolger Abdelmadjid Tebboune eine Fortsetzung der alten Eliten.

Divisions within the regime on how to counter the country’s challenges may propel pro-reform forces to push for a true political opening-up. The possibility of an "accident from above" – i.e. a limited reform process initiated by the president getting out of control and leading to a democratic transition – cannot be written off either. However, the mistrust on both sides is considerable and leads to a paradox: even if the regime (or parts of it) were serious about political reform, many Algerians would not believe it and could even hamper the implementation of such reforms.

Conversely, a reinforcement of the authoritarian and military character of the system is also conceivable. This might be caused by spill-over effects from Libya, massive socio-economic rebellions, or the radicalisation of the hard core of the Hirak.

Aversion to political experiments

It is, however, more likely that the country will somehow muddle through with the regime buying itself time by promising reforms. Meanwhile, the people's fear of further destabilisation and its economic grievances are likely to result in a renewed aversion to political experiments, thereby weakening the Hirak. Political blockades and a lack of legitimacy are preventing essential reforms and could result in a highly dysfunctional state and – at worst – in Algeria becoming a failing rentier state. In this case, neither the Hirak nor the regime will have proven to be resilient.

In all of these scenarios, European states are largely condemned to watch from the sidelines because of the widespread Algerian fear of external players meddling in the country's internal affairs. The balancing act facing Germany and the EU looks something like this: pursue their interest in stability in North Africa, and help the Algerian government, if this is what Algeria wants, to introduce economic reform – without undermining the Algerian people's struggle for participation, freedom, and democratisation by strengthening the Algerian regime.

Isabelle Werenfels & Luca Miehe

© 2020

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Expanded version, based on SWP 'Kurz gesagt'.