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Algeria at A Democratic Crossroads

Months after voters approved a new constitution in Algeria, President Abdelmajid Tebboune signed into law the long-awaited amendments on January 1, 2021. While the constitution marks a step in the right direction for the economically fragile country, strengthening Algeria’s democracy will not be easy, and its success requires the involvement of an empowered civil society.  

Tebboune was elected in 2019 after the resignation of long-time president Abdelaziz Bouteflika following nationwide protests known as the hirak. Almost a year into the pandemic, Algerians’ dissatisfaction with the government and its ability to address their needs, however, is as strong as ever. Today, Algeria is experiencing a recession spurred by a combination of low oil prices and a public health crisis. In addition, decades of resource mismanagement, poor economic policies and weak institutions have left power concentrated in the hands of the regime, making Algeria’s economic and political structures resistant to change.

Meanwhile, the Hirak is demanding an overhaul of the country’s governance and economic structures. And while reforms will likely happen gradually, the constitution represents a first step towards change and an opportunity for civil society to provide a much-needed government oversight role.

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic , Algeria’s crisis has been fueled by preexisting economic and political challenges in the country. On the economic front, Algeria’s dependence on hydrocarbons —and the absence of stabilization mechanisms – has made the country vulnerable to price volatility and imperiled by the global drop in oil prices. Making up more than 95 percent of exports and 60 percent of the government’s budget, oil is critical to the country’s economic growth – and without skilled management of its extractive wealth, Algeria’s economy is stalling and unemployment has risen.

Instead of developing institutions and policies that can withstand price volatility and support economic development, Algeria has relied on high oil rents to subsidize the cost of living. Yet, millions of Algerians continue to live in poverty, especially in rural areas. What’s more, with the recent fluctuations in global oil prices, high rents are now no longer available, and the country cannot even rely on foreign investment or the private sector to prevent economic collapse. This is because previous governments’ corruption and proliferation of patronage networks have stunted economic diversification. As a result, Tebboune today is in the unenviable position of having to weather what is amounting to grave economic crisis.

Another major political challenge faced by Tebboune is Algerians’ prevailing distrust in government, exacerbated by a weak healthcare system and poor management of COVID-19. The introduction of austerity measures to address Algeria’s spiraling economy only further alienated the Hirak, which was already protesting the government’s weak pandemic response. However, the government unexpectedly found, through the pandemic, an unlikely ally in civil society organizations (CSO) which formed solidarity networks across the country to raise awareness about public health management. Additionally, civil society raised money and organized food collection campaigns for families and hospitals, effectively mobilizing citizens around these cross-cutting issues and filling a gap left by the fragile, overwhelmed Algerian health system.

Despite CSO support in managing the fallout of COVID-19, the road ahead for Algeria remains fraught. Tebboune’s administration must prioritize rebuilding trust with citizens and empowering them to ensure the countries’ continued progress on the path towards democracy, stability and prosperity.

Despite the challenges of COVID-19, this moment of economic and political upheaval offers a unique opportunity to lay the groundwork for a more pragmatic, cooperative relationship between civil society and the government, building upon the organic efforts of civil society in the pandemic response. Such an outcome should open the way to increased participation and representation – critical components to a healthy democracy. Tebboune will also have to focus on economic reform that fosters diversification and private sector development by reducing subsidies and enacting legal reforms that attract foreign investment and reduce barriers to market entry.

Even with these changes, Algeria’s path to reform won’t be easy, but pessimism about the future is not what Algeria needs right now. Instead, with a new constitution in place, the government and its opposition have the opportunity, especially as the country recovers from the scars of COVID-19, to embark on a more synergistic relationship that helps ensure openness, stability and prosperity for the nation.