Coronavirus in Algeria: A country’s last warning

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Corona Chronicles: 30 March – 3 April
Zine Labidine Ghebouli
By Zine Labidine Ghebouli

Scholar and activist from Algeria engaged on political, security and socioeconomic issues. He is an alumni of the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies and a regular contributor to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Posted on Tuesday, 31 March 2020 15:24, updated on Monday, 6 April 2020 19:24
An empty street after a curfew was imposed from 7pm-7am to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Algiers, Algeria March 25, 2020. REUTERS/Ramzi Boudina

The coronavirus outbreak has deepened Algeria’s legitimacy crisis. This could easily become a crisis between the state and Algerians, leading to a radical revolt. But it has also given Hirak the opportunity to think about new forms of peaceful struggle and the possibility of providing an alternative to the system.

COVID-19 should be seen as one last warning to Algeria about its fundamental problems that must quickly be addressed to avoid the collapse of not only the system, but also the state as a political, popular and legitimate entity.

Although Algeria now has an official new president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, inaugurated following unpopular elections in December, Hirak protesters had refused to go home without a radical and peaceful change in the country’s system.

Oil and COVID-19

Amidst this political upheaval, Algeria’s economic prospects have added another layer to the country’s already complex challenges. Algeria has a rentier economy, so the recent fall in oil prices has constituted another threat to the economic system.

With the government’s foreign-exchange reserves dropping from $193.6bn in 2014 to $62bn in February 2020, Algeria finds itself facing another significant risk during a vulnerable time and in a very destabilised geopolitical context.

The New Year brought yet another unpleasant surprise to Algeria with the outbreak of COVID-19 and the challenges it carries as a pandemic.

This health crisis is not only an issue for the Algerian health sector, but more importantly for a delegitimised political system, a leaderless protest movement and the country’s future.

READ MORE: Coronavirus in Africa: opportunity to reshape development

COVID-19 and the government in power

For the current system in place, it was obvious from the first signs of the pandemic that the government would have little means to face such a challenge. Not only because the system is delegitimised due to weekly protests and political tensions, but also because it will bear the consequences of its policies from the past 57 years.

The government’s initial response was characterised by unnecessary delay in announcing crucial measures, mixed with a lack of direct communication and coordination followed by the exploitation of a health crisis to persecute activists and journalists such as Karim Tabbou and Khaled Drareni.

The system proved vulnerable in the face of a national crisis and unable to stabilise the situation.

Therefore the struggle for change between the current Algerian political system and Hirak remains complicated and far from over.

READ MORE: Algeria: Hirak at the time of coronavirus

COVID-19 and Hirak

The coronavirus crisis is also proving an unexpected ethical dilemma for Hirak. Considering the country’s under-equipped health care system, Hirak could potentially facilitate the spread of the virus.

Protesters who have been in the streets for more than a year defending their country and their freedom were eventually forced by the situation’s possible consequences to stop their weekly demonstrations.

The decision by Hirak to put on hold its strongest tool – its protests – has created an interesting debate among Hirak’s different groups of supporters.

The online awareness campaign aimed at convincing protesters to suspend their gatherings proved that while Hirak is leaderless, it is still able to make decisions using its unusual, atypical methods of self-organisation.

It also showed the importance of social media in fuelling the movement and how Hirak is bigger than weekly demonstrations, almost an alternative to the current dysfunctional system of governance.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Why oil-dependent economies must prepare for the worst

Distrust weakens response to COVID-19

Driven by a serious trust crisis between the system and society, the latter initially regarded the government’s announcement of the pandemic as yet another hoax to impose freedom-curtailing measures.

This proved to be a great liability to the country’s capacity to address this outbreak efficiently. For instance, when mosques were announced to be closed, many across the country showed a flagrant opposition to such measures.

The country’s economy, already fragile, is being hit by a global pandemic that has already resulted in historically low oil prices. This hit is just another warning sign of Algeria’s economic vulnerability.

In that sense, both Algeria’s society and economy will be tested on many levels during this pandemic.

The Algerian people themselves appear lost and unable to assume their own needs and responsibility in times of a crisis in the absence of efficient state policies.

READ MORE: The Hirak continues Algeria’s struggle for liberation

Post coronavirus

The rapidly degrading financial situation and Algeria’s vulnerable economic model have not helped in its dealing with the pandemic. But the outbreak is also highlighting a worrying reality for Algeria’s economic prospects in the post-COVID19 era: an urgent need to alter the state’s financial priorities, which are currently focused on the defense and security sectors.

It needs to stretch its priorities to include education, research and health care.

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