After the Referendum: Reviving Dialogue in Algeria

Main Image Credit Algerian protesters during an anti-government demonstration, 2019. Courtesy of Ammi Louiza/PA Images.

A November constitutional referendum has failed to address the Algerian protest movement’s demands for political change. The need to establish a dialogue mechanism to tackle the country’s growing economic problems remains as urgent as ever.

Far from achieving Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s expected goals of propping up his weak legitimacy and successfully reabsorbing the 2019–20 protest movement (hirak), the November constitutional referendum highlighted widespread scepticism towards the latest reform proposals. Even though 67% of voters approved the constitutional amendments, the turnout rate fell to a record low of 24% – the lowest participation level since Algeria’s independence in 1962.

A Feeble Return

This dim outcome was not for lack of trying on the part of the ruling elite. President Tebboune, government officials and friendly media outlets presented the referendum as a new beginning for Algeria that would usher in an era of transparency, democracy and economic prosperity. Indeed, the constitutional amendments were meant to meet at least some of the demands put forward by the hirak. These reforms include the possibility of ‘cohabitation’ between a president and a parliamentary majority of a different political orientation, increased government accountability towards parliament, more powers for the constitutional court, and constitutional provisions for an independent election authority and an authority tasked with guaranteeing transparency and fighting corruption.

However, these measures failed to convince hirak activists and sympathisers. The protest movement and, in particular, some of its more radical groups have long advocated for a wholesale renewal of the political class, the election of a constituent assembly, an end to military interferences in politics, and getting rid of Algeria’s rentier economy and patronage networks. Inevitably, the rather timid set of reforms included in the latest constitutional amendments has left most hirak supporters disappointed and disenchanted with the presidency’s approach.

Other factors also contributed to widening the gap between the ruling elite and the protest movement. Only three days before the ballot, Tebboune was hospitalised in Germany, after he was infected with coronavirus. In the admission to a foreign hospital and the lack of information around his health status, Algerians saw a parallel with the last years of Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s presidency. This situation only reinforced the widespread perception that there was no clean break from the past, but just continuity in the presidency’s reform strategy.

In addition, the socio-economic outlook has been steadily deteriorating since the beginning of the year due to the current pandemic. The global recession and coronavirus-related restrictions have meant that business activity has recorded a sharp downturn, while lower oil prices have severely reduced government revenues. The combination of these events has eroded incomes for a large number of Algerians, heightening the feeling that the country’s trajectory is only worsening.

After the Referendum

In the aftermath of the disappointing constitutional referendum, Algeria remains in a state of uncertainty regarding its immediate future. Almost a month after his admission to hospital, Tebboune has not yet gone back to Algeria or spoken to the media. Official information regarding his health remains very limited, with the latest communique dating back to 30 November, when it was announced that the president completed the anti-coronavirus treatment as expected and will return to the country in the coming days. Algerians are left guessing, while some journalists claim that the next step could be the application of Article 102 of the constitution. This provision states that, if the president becomes incapacitated, their powers should be transferred to the Council of the Nation (upper house) speaker, who is currently the 93-year-old Salah Goudjil or, if the latter’s health prevents him from taking this position, to the president of the Constitutional Court, a job currently held by Kamel Fenniche.

Regardless of this possibility, if and when Tebboune returns to Algeria, he will face an increasingly complex political scene. In his absence, the army’s chief of staff, Saïd Chengriha, has tried to fill this void by increasing his appearances on television and the main national outlets, often in civilian clothes. While the presidency and army leadership seem to share most key policy objectives (which include stabilising the country, neutralising the hirak, rejuvenating the army and marginalising Bouteflika loyalists), there is still the risk that divergences on other issues could emerge. In particular, the management of army-related issues, such as the composition of the military staff, could prove difficult to handle for a president with no security background and less familiarity with this sector than his predecessors.

The president will also need to deal with the recent military escalation in Western Sahara between Morocco and the Algeria-backed independence movement, the Polisario Front. In mid-November, this long-frozen conflict was rekindled, with both sides engaging in a series of skirmishes inside the buffer zone that separates them. The Polisario claims that Rabat has violated the 1991 ceasefire by sending troops into the buffer zone to protect a road connecting Morocco to Mauritania that pro-Polisario civilians had previously blockaded. Algeria has issued a statement encouraging both parties to end hostilities and resume talks, but it is unclear how far it is willing to go in its support of the Polisario in view of the escalation risks that the current situation presents.

Reviving Dialogue to Overcome the Impasse

Meanwhile, the protest movement has not yet resumed its activities due to pandemic-related restrictions, which ban street demonstrations. The threat to the Algerian political system has subsided, at least in the short term. This lull has reduced pressure on the presidency and government to enact political and economic reforms and on the army to disengage from decision-making. Yet, social and economic conditions continue to deteriorate, as unemployment is rising, incomes are falling, private sector activity is drying and the budget deficit is still widening. The risk for the Algerian leadership is that this short-term quiet could turn into a longer-term storm, with a radical protest movement even less inclined to strike a compromise with the current political class.

Rather than attempting to buttress their weak legitimacy, the president and the government should restart talks on what is shaping up to be Algeria’s most pressing issue, the economy. The authorities should devise an in-depth dialogue mechanism, which could bring together hirak and government representatives, as well as trade unionists, civil society actors and businessmen, including from the informal economy. These talks would convene both supporters and opponents of economic reforms that aim to restructure Algeria’s rentier economy and patronage system. This would allow them to find realistic compromises that could support long-term development while accommodating vested interests.

These reforms could offer the president and the government a way out of the current deadlock and, most importantly, a chance to limit external borrowing, which seems increasingly inevitable in the current circumstances, despite repeated denials by the authorities. Tapping foreign financing would be difficult to justify in a country as deeply attached to its sovereignty as Algeria. Nonetheless, should Algeria need to turn to the main international financial institutions, these should provide long-term support for the country’s economic reform strategy and avoid imposing overly rigid conditions, notably excessive liberalisation and budget austerity, which could destabilise patronage networks and even lead to violence.

Riccardo Fabiani is Project Director North Africa at the International Crisis Group.

Michael Ayari is a Senior Analyst for Tunisia and Algeria at the International Crisis Group.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors', and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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