Edited by: Mourad Hasbaoui*
*Member of the Board of Trustees of World Affairs Council of South Texas
Albert Einstein’s famous line: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Abdelmajid Tebboune’s election to the presidency of Algeria was supposed to provide a stability to the country. Yet, since his inauguration in December 2019, the country has entered an era of doubt and unreliability. The COVID-19 pandemic, political fickleness and the yawning economic anxiety have affected the regime. Since the start of Algeria’s unrest, known as the Hirak movement, the country is stuck in the same deadlock it has faced since 2019. The movement, which began on 16th February 2019, days after Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his intention to run for a fifth term, altered the relationship between the ruling elite and the population. Notwithstanding that the Hirak did not provide any real concrete results, it resulted in Boutefilka’s removal by the army in April 2019.
The Algerian top brass military’s decision to abandon Bouteflika was surprising. The military had been a staunch supportive of Bouteflika presidency. The Algerian army Lt. Gen. Ahmed Gid Salah blocked any political reforms. He tried to placate the popular anger by scheduling a president election at the end of 2019. The goal was to erase the long years of Bouteflika’s presidency. The voter turned out was significantly low because Algerians believed that the move was superficial.
The Military Rules but Does not Govern.
The government’s stability is unlikely to be at risk if it retains the support of the army. The death of General Gaid Salah, who played a crucial role in ascertaining the government’s reaction to the protest movement, and a key architect of Tebboune’s rise to the presidency is unlikely to erode the army’s influence in government decision making. Unlike his predecessor, the new chief of staff, General Said Changriha, has made no public comment on the Hirak. A long way from meeting the legitimate demands of protesters, the race to presidential elections was a weak attempt to stabilize a fragile regime. It is no secret that the army and police are the main power holder. They have been hiding behind the civilian government. In fact, the army and the elite ruling groups have chosen nearly all of the country presidents since the independence of Algeria in 1962. Controlling the executive office of the country, has been a way for the army to keep its grip over Algeria. All presidents from Ahmed Ben Bela to Abdelmajid Tebboune are always cognizant that the duration of their presidencies is decided by the army*. The current administration has initiated various refinements, including a constitutional change that was subject to a referendum in November 2020. The proposed changes are, however, unlikely to grant the government the credibility it seeks from the protest movement.
An absent president and Deja Vue
Covid 19 caused a serious challenge to the regime. In late October, the day before the constitutional referendum, the Algerian government announced that Tebboune had COVID-19 and he was flown to Germany for treatment. Amid a hazy announcement by the government that he was due to return shortly, Algerians were left without a president, or any updates about his medical status, for two months. As a result, key decisions have been postponed, and measures to fight the pandemic and deal with the troubled economy have been postponed.
After returning to Algeria in December, Tebboune was flown back to Germany for more medical treatments. He returned on Feb. 12th. Tebboune’s absences have destabilized the regime by increasing a degree of the unpredictability. Although he has reportedly his recovery, his absences certainly brought back memories of previous health issues of Bouteflika, which often compelled him to spend times overseas for medical treatment. Tebboune has spent three months overseas for medical treatment. Upon this time, the government has reported just over 170,000 Covid-19 cases and slightly under 5,000 deaths from the virus. The country has recently received its first shipments of vaccines and has begun a campaign of vaccination, but the process will likely be slowed down by the global demand for vaccine doses. More challenges will likely follow. As the pandemic expands, demonstrations against the current government, as well as the army rule, will continue. Although the government did not use violence against demonstrators, it has used the law enforcement and the judicial system to repress them, including targeting free speech on social media, arresting and harassing members of Hirak. Tebboune’s attempt to portray himself as a promoter of political change is not seen as genuine by most Algerians. They are skeptical on promises of reform presented by the same political elites that have govern the country for the past 60 years. In a simple word, pressure on the regime will likely increase as the economic situation keeps deteriorating.
* Joffé. George. “Algeria: A Country In Crisis”. Report No 3/2000. May 1st, 2000. https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/3ae6a6cac.pdf