At the close of 2018, Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s fourth term as President was coming to an end, without any indications that the de facto power governing Algeria had any intention or desire to change how it led the country through the political crisis brought on by the president’s deteriorated health and the accumulation of economic problems engendered by the collapse of oil prices. It was widely suspected that the president was in not fact ruling, the prevailing opinion being that someone behind the scenes ruled in his name, a reality disguised by an exaggerated glorification of the person of the President. The country descended into a state of despair unprecedented since the so-called “Black Decade,” the outcome of a perfect storm of corruption among statesmen and businessmen.
To maintain public acquiescence, the regime warned of any change leading Algeria into a disastrous situation akin to what the world sees today in Syria, Yemen, and Libya. This intimidation was combined with state’s economic and social investment in winning the poorest social strata’s support, reinforcing its status as a rentier regime ensuring its own survival through “social peace buying.”
In 2018, Algeria underwent economic difficulties with rapidly eroding exchange reserves and a severe budget deficit. Nevertheless, the regime persisted with futile approaches that only exacerbated the situation, relying on simple cyclical rents and oil revenues. When oil prices collapsed the regime fell into acute economic crisis, leading it to resort to imposing or increasing taxes on essential commodities, practicing a strict policy of austerity, afflicting the most fragile social groups, freezing development projects and employment opportunities, and preventing imports. It resorted to unconventional financing, printing banknotes without a basis for returns in production, thereby worsening the suffocating crisis and pushing inflation into two figures in less than two years. The ruling power lost the ability to continue providing comprehensive social services, the purchasing power of citizens collapsed, and the stage was set in place for a massive protest movement.
Whereas it wore out its citizenry with taxation, authorities worked to protect the privileges of the nouveau rich, allied to the class of state senior officials. In this context, authorities worked to promote the general impression that they could not be held accountable for the large and unrecoverable loans they had benefited from for projects that never actually saw the light of day, or without meeting the required standards. This was an underlying reason for the summer 2017 sequestration – against a background of his statements declaring the need to separate money from politics to bring back state’s loans from businessmen and major project contractors – of Prime Minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune who subsequently was elected President of the Republic, in December 2019.
The economic crisis reduced the authorities’ ability to provide comprehensive social services, sharpening public antipathy towards the status quo. Under a severe crisis and without any ability to manoeuvre, the authorities had made the underlying power structure in Algeria unable to agree a way forward to handle the crisis. They thus played for time by trumpeting the importance of continuity, even if through a sick president. With the regime continuing with the same worn out approaches used since 1992 and considering difficult economic conditions, the Algerian “Hirak” movement was launched on 22 February 2019, without clear leadership. Its demands were initially limited to rejection of the outgoing president’s nomination for a fifth term, but rose after a few weeks to include the dismissal of all “regime figureheads” and making the election commission independent, neutral, and a reflection of the people’s will.
This report examines the popular Hirak movement in Algeria, which overthrew President Bouteflika after twenty years in power. It reviews Hirak’s causes and most prominent stages. It then forecasts the outcomes of this movement, especially after the presidential elections that brought Tebboune to power, in December 2019.
The report is divided into six sections. The first reviews the response of the ruling establishment in Algeria towards the popular protests of 2019, as reflected in the positions of the three critical governing institutions: Presidency, Military, and Intelligence. The second examines the Algerian political and social forces’ responses to the Hirak movement and its modus operandi as a forceful agent that could play an important role in bringing the de facto authority to change its approach to the crisis.
The third section considers the all-important economic context of the popular movement, with the harsh economic situation driving and accelerating the pace of popular protests. The fourth section discusses the Amazigh issue in the Hirak and how the ruling authorities dealt with the issue, seeking to co-opt it in order to overcome the overall crisis posed by the protest movement. The fifth section of the report examines reasons underlying foreign avoidance of interference in Algerian affairs, and generally favouring a cautious “wait and see” approach. Section six seeks to assess the presidential election and review the current internal and external challenges facing Algeria.