Algeria and the Corona Pandemic: Yet Another Challenge

Zine Labidine Ghebouli, NESA Alumnus, Algerian activist, blogger, and student at AUB

On February 22nd, 2019, millions of Algerians went to the streets to protest former president, Abdelaziz Botueflika’s, bid for a fifth term. For over a year, Algerians have expressed determined and rightful demands for political change. While protests have forced Bouteflika to resign after ruling the country for almost 20 years and destabilized a “resilient” political system, it has yet to achieve its ultimate aspiration – a radical change.

As the country is surfing through uncharted waters, the novel Coronavirus came as an unpleasant surprise to the ruling elite and an inconvenient new challenge for Algeria’s future. Undoubtedly, this crisis represents a significant national security threat considering the vulnerable state of the Algerian healthcare system. Consequently, it has reminded both the Algerian authorities and the people that national security, as a concept, is much wider than clear military threats. Algeria faced an asymmetric new challenge that has been testing its system of governance, economic model, social solidarity and development prospects.

The first lesson highlighted since the beginning of the crisis is the underlying and complex gulf of trust between the system and the people. Algerians did not have much faith in the government’s announcements nor its ability to successfully manage the crisis and control its fallouts. While this has been an old issue in Algeria, this new episode of mistrust proved that recent elections, which took place in December and brought Abdelmadjid Tebboune to power, were not the appropriate and most effective answer to this crisis.

Furthermore, this crisis has once again exposed the issues of mismanagement throughout the past years. The vulnerable healthcare system clearly demonstrated the limitations of Algeria’s policy priorities since its independence in 1962. The outbreak has not only been a test for the healthcare services, as is the case in many parts of the world, but also a scrutinizing tool of several governments’ financial and budgetary policies. It became evident that mechanisms of authorities’ public expenditures, focused mainly on the defense and security sectors, fell short of producing functional economic, educational, and research systems.

Moreover, since this outbreak, along with an untimely Russian-Saudi ‘oil cold war’ that caused major disruptions in the oil industry bringing the prices down to a 17-year record low, Algeria is facing one of the most challenging economic crises in its history. This serves as a warning sign to the country’s economic system that is primarily based on the hydrocarbon sector. Despite the numerous attempts to diversify the Algerian economy since it witnessed the 1986 global oil crisis, several initiatives fell short on providing an economic alternative. As Algeria’s foreign exchange reserves are sharply decreasing, the failure to diversify the economy could have bigger consequences than it did back in the 1990s.

In addition to the already destabilized political situation and the looming economic crisis, Algeria could also face the difficult socioeconomic repercussions of the pandemic outbreak. Confinement and “working from home” were a privilege that many Algerians engaged in the informal market do not have. The already unbearable life conditions for many became more exigent for those who are struggling to accommodate their families. This crisis has demonstrated an underlying conflict of social classes; as few Algerians were able to live comfortably during this confinement and afford all that they want, others were unable to even afford the basic necessities. This has demonstrated a worrying social inequality that could lead to a potential social explosion.

The Coronavirus crisis also constituted a major ethical dilemma for the ongoing protest movement that has been shaping Algeria’s politics for over a year. The “Hirak” that had maintained its impressive mobilization to defend the future of the country was prompted to suspend its demonstrations. Considering the vulnerable public healthcare system, the Hirak must find other methods of peaceful struggle. Indeed, the movement was able to continue its mobilization through social media and several initiatives, but it now faces a fundamental question regarding what forms it will take after the corona crisis is over. It is fair to say that the future of the country depends on the Hirak’s potential to become a political alternative.

Overall, the  pandemic was the unexpected existential threat for a defenseless and exposed Algeria. The outcomes of this public health issue could be determining for the country’s development in the next few years. Whether the situation improves or deteriorates remains to be seen; yet, it is certain that just like the Hirak has transformed Algeria, the corona crisis will shape the North African country’s future situation. With a heavy set of challenges already in place for over a year, Algeria’s capacity to survive this outbreak with the least damage remains questionable. The international community and its actors, especially the European Union (EU), could find its way out of this pandemic only to handle significant tensions in developing countries, such as Algeria.