PARIS - As Algeria extends a partial coronavirus lockdown across much of its territory, a new report warns of an intensifying political conflict between the government and a months-long protest movement, urging both sides to turn to economic dialogue as a way to help the country forward.
“If political dialogue is unrealistic in the short term, the government and members of Hirak should at least engage in a national economic dialogue” to avoid “a severe economic crisis,” the International Crisis Group said in a report published Monday.
It also urged Algerian authorities, accused by rights groups of using the lockdown as a pretext for continued political arrests, to adopt a “lighter touch” towards the grass-roots movement, including some of its citizen initiatives.
Without such discussions and as economic hardship mounts, the Crisis Group warned, the largely peaceful Hirak movement risks becoming more aggressive and leaving space for more radical action by smaller groups. Such a prospect is particularly problematic in Algeria, where memories of the country’s bloody 1990s civil war — which killed some 200,000 people — remain very much alive.
“All the problems that have dogged Algeria — structural, economic, political — have been multiplied and reinforced by COVID-19,” the report’s lead author Michael Ayari said in an interview, adding, “and the national union against the pandemic is fading.”
All the more reason, the Crisis Group says, for the government to capture a fast-vanishing “moment of national solidarity” to discuss with Hirak members a more sustainable economic path for the energy exporting nation that makes it less vulnerable to fluctuating oil and gas prices.
At a crossroads
While Algeria’s coronavirus caseload remains relatively modest in global terms, it has one of Africa’s highest death rates from the pandemic, at more than 1,000, according to John Hopkins University numbers.
On Sunday, authorities announced a 15-day extension to partial lockdown measures across 19 of its 58 provinces, to prevent the virus from spreading.
Grappling with its economic fallout is less clear-cut. Algeria’s all-important hydrocarbon revenues have shrunk sharply in recent months, amid falling prices and production.
Those funds have long helped authorities ease simmering social tensions fueled by high joblessness and political stagnation, by offering housing and other subsidies. As they shrink, so do the government’s options, ramping up pressure for action.
“Each time there’s been an oil and gas crisis, they’ve announced reforms,” Ayari said. “The problem is then the prices go back up, and they drop the reforms.”
The Hirak movement faces its own set of challenges, observers say. The pandemic put a stop to massive, anti-government demonstrations that begun in February 2019, and helped topple longtime president Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
But the government has balked on broader political reforms. In December, former Bouteflika loyalist Abdelmadjid Tebboune was elected to succeed him, with 58 percent of the vote. But the poll was also backdropped by anti-government protests and a historically low turnout.
Now, as Hirak activists try to keep the movement alive on social media—and by temporarily shifting their sights to coronavirus solidarity actions—observers suggest the movement risks dwindling or radicalizing.
If, for example, Algerian authorities impose austerity measures in return for accepting external loans, they may face “a resurgent social tension as a result,” the Crisis Group said.
“Hirak may therefore resort to a more aggressive stance,” when confinement ends, it added, including street protests, strikes and civil disobedience. Should the movement lose force, the Crisis Group said, more hardline actors could step in to fill the voice.
Fears of the “Black Decade”
Other observers point to sharp divisions playing out on social media among more progressive and conservative Hirak members, with some rifts reportedly rooted in the “Black Decade” of the ‘90s. At issue are members of the Rachad movement, some of whom belonged to Algeria’s onetime Islamic Salvation Front or FIS party.
“Many democratic activists have accused the movement’s foreign-based officials of intending to hijack Hirak and of only going along with its democratic ideals so that it can establish an “Islamic caliphate” in Algeria,” the Africa Report wrote last week. Rachad members deny such claims, it added.
Ayari says the FIS, dissolved by the government nearly two decades ago, has long lost its credibility among ordinary Algerians.
Nonetheless, he said, the Hirak remains divided “between those who are open to talks with the government and those who want the system to go.”
With political dialogue between authorities and protesters unlikely for now, “why not try an economic dialogue instead?” Ayari asked. “To come to agreement on the most urgent economic and social needs to improve peoples’ lives.”