Zine Labidine Ghebouli, NESA Alumnus, Algerian activist, blogger, and student at AUB
As the entire world is facing the corona pandemic and preparing itself for the socioeconomic and political repercussions, Algeria and Lebanon are also struggling to find their way back to stability. Both countries have been witnessing popular protests over the past months; Algerian streets were filled with protesters since February 22nd, 2019 and Lebanon is facing a political crisis since October 17th, 2019. Regimes in both countries are fighting for their survival as they are facing popular uprisings, economic crises and political tensions. Understanding the impact of the corona crisis requires a careful analysis of what is happening in Algeria and Lebanon.
As for Algeria, its crisis did not start with the current pandemic. The country has witnessed a popular protest movement that has been going on for over a year. This protest movement led to shifts within the system that became suddenly destabilized. Signs of these shifts included the resignation of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the dismembering of Bouteflika’s elite as two Prime Ministers are in jail for corruption charges and most recently, changes within the leadership of the military intelligence body.
Aside from this turbulent political environment, Algeria is also facing an economic collapse. Being a rentier state, the majority of its revenues come from the oil and gas industry and go to significant spending in the defense and security sector. Algerian foreign exchange reserves have sharply dropped from over 160 billion dollars in 2014 to an expectation of less than 60 billion dollars by the end of 2020; which allows the Algerian government less than 24 months of imports. The corona crisis has exacerbated this crisis as it caused a sudden fall in oil prices making Algeria, which needs a price of at least 135 dollars per barrel to balance its budget, facing a price less than 20 dollars.
In the midst of these challenging issues, the corona crisis brought some changes to the Algerian scene. The protest movement decided to halt its demonstrations to safeguard public health. However, this has not stopped systematic repression against activists and journalists. The socioeconomic conditions of Algerians became more difficult as the government announced a lockdown resulting in increasing social tensions.
Overall, the situation in Algeria has developed into a complicated, multilayered crisis that will likely have serious consequences. It will be interesting to observe any potential organization of the protest movement to form an alternative. Equally important, the capacity of the government to survive this pandemic will determine for the system’s resilience. The coronavirus outbreak is only the beginning of popular pressure that could be more significant than the 2019 episode.
The situation in Lebanon is not any more simple nor promising. The deteriorating socioeconomic grievances drove the Lebanese to the streets on October 17th, 2019. Since then, this revolt has reshaped Lebanese politics and constituted the first pan-Lebanese independent political uprising. This revolution brought down the government formerly led by Saad Hariri and fractured the post-civil war Taif-based political system. It has also reconnected the Lebanese, both of Lebanon and the diaspora, with their country’s future and paved the way for a discussion on a secular Lebanon free from sectarianism. Today, the country is ruled by what seems to be a one-colored government led by Prime Minister Hassan Diab, which essentially lacks popular support and even political consensus.
This political upheaval is perhaps a “second priority” compared with the nearing economic and financial collapse. Lebanon has been struggling with an economic crisis that is exacerbated by the current political situation, but is actually the result of decades of policies. Lebanese have been attempting to survive with a set of worrying economic indicators. The country’s public debt increased to over 90 billion dollars in 2020; this led to a 152 percent as a public debt to GDP ratio. Additionally, poverty rate went up to 30 percent while unemployment rate increased to 20 percent, as per the World Bank. Foreign exchange rate, officially set at 1515 LBP to 1 dollar, became almost 4000 LBP to 1 dollar. These factors bring a dangerous set of socioeconomic results.
Political and economic indicators suggest a bumpy road towards stability in the post-corona era. The coronavirus may have delayed a wave of popular discontent, but it seems impossible to prevent it. Several spontaneous protests erupted in Tripoli and Beirut; Lebanese staged a car convoy protest as parliament was convening. People’s patience seems to be ending which suggests the government will face significant pressure in the future that could end its rule. This set of challenges will also lead to the country’s worst socioeconomic crisis in decades.
For both Algeria and Lebanon, the post-corona era will provide a final answer on whether protest movements succeed or not in making a change. The fate of both countries will largely depend on three factors. First, both governments’ response to socioeconomic grievances. Second, both protest movements’ ability to form an alternative. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the reaction of the international community and its true engagement for stability in both countries.