Algeria: Democratic Aspirations and Gloomy Reality
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
In 2019, millions of Algerians took to the streets against former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika fighting largely against political corruption. The popular pressure led to the fragmentation of the solid Algerian political system which resulted in the resignation of Bouteflika on April 2, 2019. Since then, the country has witnessed unprecedented political upheaval, through the protest movement known as the “Hirak” which aimed to change the state of affairs and improve the lives of Algerians across the country. In March 2020, weekly demonstrations as part of the movement came to a halt as a result of the Corona pandemic. Today, Algeria is preparing for a constitutional referendum set to take place on November 1st, portrayed by the government as another step towards change and disregarded by much of the Algerian political class and a significant number of participants of the movement.
The past few months were critical for both the Algerian system and the protest movement. In a country going through a complex and multilayered crisis, the political and socioeconomic dynamics seem far from insuring the needed stability after the events of 2019. Algeria is back to the status quo that does not guarantee a process of democratisation, economic empowerment and social cohesion. In that context, both the Hirak and the system are engaged in their own processes and are unable, so far, to initiate a sincere dialogue that the country desperately needs in light of the worrying economic indicators and sociopolitical tensions.
Since the beginning the pandemic, the Algerian system has decided to opt for a repressive policy. For the new Tebboune administration, the pandemic looked like the perfect opportunity to crash the uprising. The Algerian government has persecuted and jailed dozens of peaceful activists, censored independent media and passed repressive amendments to the penal code. At the same time, the current political leadership continues to promise a “New Algeria” through a new constitution and panned snap legislative and local elections. In that sense, the regime is following its own roadmap, disregarding popular discontent only to renew the civilian façade of the current military junta rule.
On the other side, the Algerian Hirak which was a remarkable political movement is today struggling to survive amidst the systematic repression but also because of its own limitations. The Hirak was able to avoid cooptation and repression through its leaderless nature only to find itself undermined by its lack of organisation. Algerian protesters managed to challenge the system and impose their own political rules at the beginning of the movement. However, these protesters became victims of their lack of political tools, ideological and spatial divisions and inability, so far, to form an alternative. Consequently, the Hirak has eventually fragmented into several groups with no clear agenda besides the general “all out!” slogan.
Between the system’s stagnation and the Hirak’s vulnerability, the transition period to democracy is now postponed in Algeria, similarly to how the 1988 transition from socialism was delayed after a series of massive demonstrations. It is evident today that mass mobilisation will not constitute a real threat to the system unless it’s associated with a pragmatic and realistic alternative. The system, despite its show of strength, remains incapable to address the country’s challenges. The Tebboune administration is still ineffective in managing the popular discontent which suggests that Algeria could soon witness another wave of protests. Nevertheless, this potential wave, if unorganised and without a clear platform, will mostly turn into a socioeconomic revolt threatening the country’s stability.
Finally, Algeria, as a system and society, will have to answer the questions it has been avoiding since the 1988 democratic attempt. The system’s repression is not a sustainable policy considering the looming economic crisis. Moreover, the Tebboune administration will ultimately face the public’s anger. At the same time, the Algerian society cannot reach its aspirations for change without a sincere dialogue that considers the current ideological and spatial disputes and fears. The Hirak’s social and political actors will not achieve democracy if they remain divided. Algeria could either choose a slow and calculated process of change before its exchange reserves are depleted or opt for the current status-quo that may provide the usual “fake stability” but will lead to potential chaos. The future of Algeria will depend on the system’s respect for political and civil rights and the society’s willingness to engage in a complicated, yet vital, open dialogue.