Government tries to build bridges with protesters as Algeria's 'Hirak' enters second year

Financial problems complicate the Algerian government’s efforts to address the social issues.
Sunday 16/02/2020
Demonstrators march in Algiers, February 14.  (Reuters)
A year on. Demonstrators march in Algiers, February 14. (Reuters)

TUNIS- Algeria’s government released dozens of protesters from detention, granting concessions to activists as the pro-democracy movement moved into its second year.

Demonstrators went ahead with protests in cities across Algeria on February 14 -- the 52nd consecutive Friday of protests. They chanted: “Jaybeen al houria” (“We are bringing about freedom”).

The government’s release February 13 of 40 protesters detained for involvement in demonstrations was the largest concession to their cause since President Abdelmadjid Tebboune released 70 detainees after his election December 12.

Tebboune pledged “an extended hand to the Hirak (pro-democracy movement).”

Algerians have taken to the streets since February 22, 2019, staging peaceful demonstrations to call for political reform. The protests were triggered by former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s attempt to seek a fifth term in office but expanded to include calls for an overhaul of the country’s political regime.

Authorities have used force to disperse the marches and sometimes arrested protesters, including leading organisers, to quell unrest. In areas where protests were not large enough to deter police action, authorities thwarted demonstrations altogether.

However, in what appears to be a shift in strategy, Tebboune’s government has been more tolerant of the protests, praising them for their civic action and attempting to work with them.

In the western town of Mascra, for instance, protesters were able to return to the streets to demonstrate for the first time since December 12. In Ain Temouchent, demonstrators rallied without backlash from police who had halted several previous marches.

Algerian Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad, a former university scholar who had publicly voiced support for the protesters, said the government aims to “(build) bridges of confidence with the people.”

“The government is resolute in restoring the confidence of the citizens through the revival of human values that were dismissed in the past, the consecration of the culture of hard word, responsibility and accountability and the enforcement of strict measures against corruption and mismanagement,” said Djerad.

The government had already made several concessions to protesters, including shelving plans to tap into shale gas reserves, scrapping a tax for low-income civil servants and funnelling more resources to build 1 million housing units in the next few years. It also cut spending on infrastructure projects to allocate more financial resources to education and health.

However, financial problems could complicate the government’s plans to address social issues. Tebboune had hoped to use the country’s shale gas potential to increase earnings to avoid borrowing money from abroad but that plan received criticism over fears it would harm the environment.

Last July, Algeria’s state energy company Sonatrach announced it was planning to tap into the country’s largest shale gas fields. With a projected capacity of 30 billion cubic metres in the initial stage, the plan would provide for the equivalent of 40% of Algeria’s current gas output.

However, on February 13, Djerad seemed more open to outside sources to finance the budget. Asked how the country would finance new housing units and avoid a financial crisis, Djerad said: “It is possible to seek foreign loans that do not undermine the sovereignty of the country.”

He cited soft loans from sovereign Arab wealth funds and the African Development Bank as potential options.

Algeria’s social and economic condition has been deteriorating since February 2019 as the government has turned its attention to curbing protests. Leading business figures have raised concerns about increasing bankruptcy and unemployment.

The economic decline has fuelled the rage of protesters, who blame the country’s ruling elite for wasting wealth from the country’s energy resources.

“Klitou leblad ya serakine” (“You looted the country’s wealth, you thieves”),” chanted protesters in Algiers in reference to perceived widespread corruption.

Djerad admitted that “Algeria has experienced disastrous mismanagement of the state in recent years and authoritarian practices that led to the looting and misappropriation of the wealth of the country and the systemic destruction of its institutions and economy.”

The country’s joblessness rate, estimated at 11.7% overall, is especially high among youth, reaching 28%. An even greater concern among experts is the country’s sharp decline in foreign reserves, which plummeted from more than $190 billion in 2014 to $60 billion.

Algerian experts said only a big geopolitical crisis that causes a sharp rise in oil prices could save the country from a financial crisis.

“Algeria’s economy plunged into recession since 2014. It is a long way from recovering. It is similar to the recession of 1986 when recovery came only after 16 years,” said Algerian financial expert Abdelhak Lamiri.

“Like the recession of 1986, the current economic situation is coupled with the most fragile political environment.”

Analysts said Algeria needs deep reforms to transform and diversify its economy. The country’s leaders are faced with the difficult task of peacefully ending protests so they regain stability and focus on economic issues.

“All popular protest movements in the world had been repressed or co-opted by the power holders,” said political writer Mohamed Tahar Messaoudi. “Only the Hirak in Algeria is resisting valiantly against repression and attempts to deter the citizens from participating.”