The Algerian parliament last week approved the draft constitutional changes proposed by the government, setting the stage for a national referendum on Nov. 1, the anniversary of the start of the Algerian revolution against French rule in 1954.
Amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and the attendant economic crisis, the constitutional changes are being presented by the government as meeting the demands for political reform expressed in widespread popular protests — referred to as the Hirak movement or the “Revolution of Smiles” — that wracked the country from February last year.
Hirak brought thousands of demonstrators to the streets every Friday for more than a year. They called for thorough reform of the political system, with a new order enshrining democracy and transparency. The 57th Friday demonstration was suspended on March 20 in keeping with social distancing norms due to the pandemic. But, earlier, the Hirak demonstrations had caused Abdulaziz Bouteflika, president for 20 years, to step down, followed by most of his close associates being dismissed and jailed.
The armed forces, ignoring the protesters’ pleas, went ahead with presidential elections in December last year. Amid a low turnout of just 40 percent, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a former prime minister under Bouteflika, became president with 58 percent of the vote. Tebboune sought to win Hirak’s favor by describing it as the “foundation of democracy” and affirming that he was “personally committed” to achieving all its demands. But Hirak sees his government as an “illegitimate regime.”
Hirak’s concerns are not misplaced. The Tebboune government is obviously taking advantage of the pandemic to curb popular dissent. The government has banned demonstrations, suspended hearings and appeals in criminal cases, and approved tough measures to criminalize “fake news” to “safeguard national security.” In March, the government released a few thousand prisoners, but not the activists who are being held. Since then, a number of high-profile opposition figures have been arrested, largely under the fake news law.
To add to the country’s woes, Algeria’s health system has been found seriously deficient in coping with the pandemic. Following several years of neglect, the country’s health sector was in 2019 ranked 173rd out of 195 countries on the Global Health Security Index. As the country was hit by the pandemic, it had only 400 ICU beds, the equivalent of one for every 100,000 people. With more than 48,000, it now has the sixth-highest number of COVID-19 infections in Africa.
Most observers believe that, even with the proposed amendments, the political order will remain intact.Talmiz Ahmad
Containment has wreaked havoc with the Algerian economy. The country has been hit hard both by the global economic downturn and the collapse in oil prices. The economy was already experiencing pressures before the pandemic: It had grown only 0.7 percent in 2019, as against 1.4 percent in 2018. In April, the International Monetary Fund estimated a gross domestic product decline of 5.2 percent in 2020, with possible growth of 6.2 percent next year, subject to the global economic recovery.
Algeria depends on hydrocarbon exports for 93 percent of its export revenues and 60 percent of its national income. Amid falling oil prices, the country has been dipping into its foreign exchange reserves: From about $194 billion in 2013, they declined to $82 billion in 2018 and are likely to be below $60 billion this year. About 700,000 jobs are expected to be lost due to reduced economic activity.
In response to the pandemic, the government has announced some tough measures, such as reducing government spending by 50 percent, halting public projects, reducing the import bill by 25 percent, and cutting oil investments by half to $7 billion. On the positive side, the government plans to develop the agriculture and mining sectors and support business development.
This parlous economic situation is expected to sustain popular dissatisfaction and, in time, revive the Hirak movement. Even now, amid the pandemic-related restrictions, the movement has been kept alive through widespread community services by its activists and robust social media messaging.
The proposed constitutional changes are hardly likely to change the public mood. The government has described them as bringing about a “radical change” in governance, guaranteeing the separation of powers, ethics in political life, and transparency in the management of public funds. This is disputed by several commentators.
What is now being proposed is not a new constitution but amendments to the existing 2016 text. While the presidential tenure has been restricted to two terms, the system will still have a strong president: He or she can appoint and dismiss the prime minister and other ministers, as well as the heads of the audit organization and the high court, and can dissolve parliament at will. The parliament can dismiss the prime minister through a vote of no-confidence, but a daunting two-thirds majority would be required.
While the list of fundamental rights has been extended, including the right to water, this is largely meaningless since these rights can be and are easily curtailed through administrative action, as is being done at present to curb dissent and activism. Most observers believe that, even with the proposed amendments, the political order will remain intact.
The plea from the Algerian street is for popular participation in a transparent and accountable democratic order, but this continues to fall on deaf ears. Hirak demonstrators will be back on the streets very soon.
Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies at the Symbiosis International University in Pune.