February marked the third anniversary of the Algerian street protests and movement that lead to the ouster of president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Bouteflika was a fixture of Algerian politics and served as President since 1999. This was a huge turning point in modern Algerian history.
The movement that lead to his ouster is called The Hirak. Joining me to discuss the impact of the impact and legacy of this movement three years on are two leading scholars of Algeria’s politics and economy.
Andrew Farrand is a senior fellow with The Atlantic Council and author of the book The Algerian Dream.
Tin Hinane El Kadi is the cofounder of the Institute for Social Science Research in Algeria and a doctoral student at the London School of Economics.
We kick off discussing the circumstances that lead to the ouster of Bouteflika three years ago before having a broader conversation about Algeria’s politics and economy today.
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Transcript lightly edited for clarity
What Caused the 2019 Hirak Protests in Algeria?
Andrew Farrand [00:02:11] 2019 was a really pivotal year in Algeria’s contemporary history because of the emergence of the Hirak protest movement in February of that year. But to understand why it happened, you have to go back a little bit earlier and look at some events in the previous years. The president at the time was Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had been in power for 20 years at the time and had steered Algeria out of a very bloody period in the 1990s when many civilians lost their lives in a civil war. And Bouteflika, among many Algerians, is credited with delivering Algeria to a more peaceful period. There was a fair degree of rising prosperity, some new consumer goods that Algerians were able to enjoy for the first time in those years. Many people get connected to the internet, so a lot changed in Algeria in those years and much of it for the better. But along with that, there was an increasing perception among many people in the country that there was just an incredible degree of corruption at the top. Inequality seemed to be worsening and so frustration was building on a number of fronts. Throughout those years, Algeria was not without protests, of course, before the Hirak. There was a lot of localized micro protests, if you will, that that were around localized issues. So, people had frustrations, but they tended to be quite atomized and distinct. And what changed in 2019 was that Bouteflika, by that time had been sick for quite a number of years. It wasn’t really clear, even if he was running day-to-day affairs in the country. Many Algerians seemed to feel very wounded pride about this, that a country with as great a history as Algeria’s shouldn’t be led by somebody in that situation. And so, this, combined with some of those frustrations around a lot of daily life issues, really kind of came to a head in the early days of 2019, when Bouteflika’s candidacy for a fifth presidential term was announced. This crystallized for a lot of people a moment of real willingness to challenge the status quo and to ask for a rewrite of the social contract, if you will, and a lot of changes in the many foundational aspects of the country.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:04:55] So was perhaps the announcement that Bouteflika would run for another term despite his ill health…there was apparently some catastrophic health event, like maybe a stroke. In other words, he was just in very ill health and very old. And despite that all it was announced, or it was decided that he would run for another term. And this is sort of the spark, right?
Andrew Farrand [00:05:20] That was the catalyst but building on a lot of deeper issues that had been accumulating over years. So yes, that’s right.
What defined the Hirak protests in 2019 in Algeria?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:29] And can you take us back to 2019 as well? You were there, you were on the streets. What was it like? Like what motivated those in the movement to take to the streets so dramatically back then?
Tin Hinane El Kadi [00:05:53] Well, to add to what Andrew was saying, in 2019, there was like a deep sense of humiliation, that you had a population, that was overwhelmingly young. In the latest statistics it seems like over 70 percent of Algerians are under 40. And there was this sense that having a sick president who is almost lifeless running the country against the backdrop of huge corruption scandals and increasing inequality was just the extra drop that made Algerians take to the streets. So, you had millions of people from all classes, social backgrounds, political orientations, ages, and genders demonstrating across the country. So it wasn’t just in Algiers, but across the whole country, and the demand was initially to prevent Bouteflika from running for a fifth presidential term but very early on, demands escalated to ask for regime change, and we had slogans such as […] which literally means ‘all of them shall be removed from power.’ Other slogans echo the slogans of the Arab Spring, such as […] which means that the people want regime change. And these protests lasted for a while and only came to a halt due to the COVID 19 pandemic, but only the protests top the spirits of the Hirak very much continued and carried on in 2021. So, there was a lot of attempts by the regime to remain in power, and there were several attempts to introduce superficial institutional change, but this very much failed to make Algerians stop protesting. However, the problem is that the Algerian political establishment is notorious for its resilience, and this is what Algerians call Le Pouvoir, ‘the power.’ And this could be maybe best described as a, you know, an opaque network of military generals and political elites and some economic elites. And this political establishment has, with some variations, managed to rule the country without interruption since independence really from France in 1962. And so, you know, there were lots of attempts to maintain the regime in place but the spirit of the Hirak is still very much present nowadays because there has been no significant change and Algerians are overwhelmingly disappointed by what happened since 2019. There was a clear road map that consisted of having presidential elections, followed by constitutional amendment that did nothing in changing the structures of power within the country and actually further entrenched the president’s power. And nowadays, you know, like most people feel disconnected from their political leaders. And yet the crisis of legitimacy has remained untouched.
Did any substantial change from the Hirak protests in Algeria in 2019?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:48] So you have this this Pouvoir, this sort of elite network of opaque power brokers as you describe them, that did, I suppose decide that Bouteflika has to go, and he went. What opportunities in that interregnum, in the days after Bouteflika’s ouster were there to impact, to influence the Pouvoir in a more meaningful way towards real reforms?
Tin Hinane El Kadi [00:10:29] So in 2019, many would argue that Algeria had a historic opportunity to really dismantle the regime and go towards meaningful structural change. However, the issue was that the military at the time, General Ahmed Gaid Salah, was adamant that the regime and the system would continue. One needs to understand that, and here, to be honest, I think both Andrew and I are quite pro-Hirak, so I’m going to try and play the devil’s advocate and present the counter argument in a very common critique that people make towards the Hirak. And it’s the idea that the popular movement actually failed to come up with representatives and that it did not put forward any serious alternative for political change or for peaceful democratic transition. And this is why it failed to achieve success and the regime was able to stay in power. But if it’s true that the Hirak is very much a horizontal movement, it is a leaderless movement it’s simply not factual to say that the movement did not put forward roadmaps for achieving a peaceful political transition. There were actually dozens of potentially fruitful political initiatives in 2019, but also in 2020, and this is just a recent one that appeared yesterday. The problem was that all these political initiatives emerging from the Algerian civil society faced a very stubborn army that perceives itself as the legitimate ruler of the country. And here I’m just going to say a little note for your audience that might not know much about Algeria. Is that the problem, if the resilience of this political system that has proven its inefficiency in developing the country and in creating decent living standards for its people’s aspirations, at least, is that it is very much rooted in Algeria’s colonial history and Algeria’s path for independence. So, the National Liberation Front, the FLN, ‘le front de liberation nationale’ emerged in 1962, mainly as the sole actor with historical legitimacy because it played a critical role in the country’s decolonization. And so, after independence, it managed to centralize power and ruled the country. And until today, more than 60 years after independence, the army still perceives itself as the sole legitimate ruler of the country. And so, it’s a very hard system to dismantle. It’s a complicated system to overthrow. So, despite the many roadmaps for achieving a peaceful democratic transition, the Hirak has so far failed to implement any significant change.
How has the Algerian regime responded to the Hirak protests?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:13:46] And Andrew, to what extent has the sort of regime’s response to the Hirak in terms of, you know, locking up leaders and imposing harsh penal sanctions on people involved in these protests and these movement leaders, contributed to regime survival? I mean, it seems that the response to this, at least in recent weeks and months, has been increasingly repressive, even as we are approaching the third anniversary.
Andrew Farrand [00:14:24] Yes, it’s an old playbook that this regime in Algiers has used for many years, and you saw many features of the pre Hirak period repeated, intensified, sometimes adjusted in the years since. And we’re certainly seeing that today because for the last year, this crackdown has intensified substantially. And many activists, many civil society leaders, journalists, political party heads have faced repression and been hauled into jail on vague charges. Things like, you know, hurting the national unity. It’s not really clear what that means. It’s not really clear how you know, a single speech by a political party leader can really touch something that deep in a country as big as Algeria. But that’s the case. And there’s also a new wrinkle to it all, which is that social media has given the powers that be in Algeria a new sort of playing ground to chase down would be dissenters. And there have been a lot of just average citizens arrested for Facebook posts and accused of similar crimes. And then, in addition, a couple of months ago, we saw some changes to Algeria’s penal code, which allows the government to essentially declare people a terrorist based again on vague criteria. So, there’s certainly been some changes that have enabled the government to upgrade, if you will, it’s mechanisms of repression and control. And they’ve been using those quite extensively, and that’s a big part of why the Hirak is not out in the streets today for the usual weekly series of protests that it was carrying on before the COVID 19 pandemic. You saw a brief return to protest early in 2021, but that was quickly stomped out through this crackdown.
Does the Algerian government have the strength to quell all protests and remain in power?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:16:38] I mean, it seems, based on what you and Tin are saying, that the regime, the government, the pouvoir that that network that upholds it, is as ensconced and as entrenched in power as ever. Is that fair?
Andrew Farrand [00:16:56] I think they’re quite strong. You do wonder sometimes when they take a 22-year-old unemployed guy and throw him in jail for writing a Facebook comment and saying that he’s shaken the foundations of the state or something like this, it doesn’t exactly seem like those moves come from a position of strength. But there are many ways in which the army has quite clearly maintained a monopoly on control of the country. It has shown as Tin Hinane said, no willingness to negotiate, and I share her belief that there were many useful proposals that were put forward by elements within Hirak and within civil society but unfortunately, they did not really get a fair hearing I think by the army, which looked at people like civil society leaders, quite disdainfully, frankly, and didn’t really take those proposals seriously. Algeria might be in a very different place today if they had, and I think it might be in a place that ultimately would be much more sustainable in the long term because the path that it is on today, while it is deeply resilient, this the system that’s in place today, as Tin Hinane has said, I believe that there are ways in which it’s going to be very difficult to continue with business as usual as global energy markets change, as climate change takes over large parts of this part of the world in North Africa and really shapes communities very strongly. So, there are big challenges ahead. And many Algerians who I know who have continued to push for change in the last months are concerned I think primarily about this medium and long term and about Algeria’s ability to weather what might come ahead. It’s quite clear where things stand in the immediate term, but further down the road, there’s a lot of challenges that that look quite daunting.
How is climate change affecting the Algerian government and protest movements?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:19:06] Well, can I ask you about one of those long-term challenges, climate change, you just referenced? How does climate change or may climate change impact the regimes long term hold on power, its survival?
Andrew Farrand [00:19:24] Algeria has significant problems with food security right now because of its oil and gas wealth for many years, it’s been able to import large quantities of wheat and milk and other staple goods that it’s not producing domestically. But those needs could rise dramatically in the future if local production is cut back by droughts. There’s currently a very severe drought in the western part of the country and in Morocco, and the country has faced quite bad drought in the last few years quite consistently. And so many people are concerned by the levels of reservoirs and the ability of the government just to provide water, to keep the pipes full across the country. And then you look at things like agriculture and the challenges are even deeper where this could considerably impact the country’s food supply. There’s a large aquifer under much of southern Algeria, but that has been consistently dropping over the years and many farmers in southern communities have expressed concern that this aquifer might be depleted, and they won’t be able to conduct the sorts of traditional agriculture they have for many centuries in a lot of these desert communities. So, there are serious challenges on these fronts that I think many Algerians have heard of and are aware of, and the government even has some plans on the table somewhere to do something about these. There are some plans to transition to green energy, et cetera, but it doesn’t seem like those plans are high priorities right now or that these concerns are being taken as seriously as they should be.
How is Algeria’s economy affected by the regime’s wellbeing and the protest movements?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:21:14] And Tin, similarly, to what extent is Algeria’s economic situation linked to the regime’s medium- and long-term survival prospects?
Tin Hinane El Kadi [00:21:28] Yeah, I think this is the most important threat at the moment for regime survival. So currently, the situation in Algeria’s economy is quite grim. Although oil prices have experienced a rebound in recent months with the Saharan blend, I think it was selling at around $90 a barrel recently, but all economic indicators are moving to the red zone. The pandemic hit the Algerian economy quite hard. Lockdown measures and the fall in hydrocarbon prices in 2020 resulted in an important contraction of real GDP growth. It was around 5.5%, or 6%, and there are very high unemployment rates at the moment, and this is a longstanding issue in Algeria and in the whole region, actually. But with lockdown measures, several jobs disappeared. Hundreds of thousands of businesses had had to close down. And so, the socioeconomic situation is really dire at the moment. There’s also a sharp fall in foreign reserves. I think at the moment […] below 40 billion dollars. And Algeria used to enjoy quite significant pouring reserves. Before the 2014 drop in oil prices, it was estimated at around 200 billion dollars and you know, people could afford a more goods and could have better living standards than they do today. There’s a lot of quantitative easing that was done over the past years. Just in July 2021, the central bank announced that it would print over two thousand one hundred Algerian dinars, and this resulted in important inflation. So, I was just in Algiers recently, and the price of products increased sharply and think recent numbers are saying that inflation is around 10% and you could see this like just walking in the streets, poverty is on the rise. Inequality is on the rise, and many people among Algeria’s youth actually are leaving the country, and this is a very apparent phenomenon. So, the Harraga, the people who cross the Mediterranean Sea without documentation, are on the rise. The shores of Spain have received hundreds, if not thousands, of Algerian young people in recent years because of a chronic lack of prospective in the country. And the government has very much shown weak capacity to implement any serious economic reform and in the current structure of power and the current crisis of legitimacy, this regime is simply structurally unable to produce development. And so, we’re in this phase where the government is just engaging in other superficial reforms that result in no meaningful economic change and is just keeping the country in an unviable, no freedom, no development situation.
What is the Algerian government doing to try to stop the protest movement?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:24:53] You know, in countries that have similar profiles as Algeria, you’ll often see the government, when the coffers are full of oil, wealth or energy wealth, to stall disgruntlement by the populace by increasing subsidies. Are you seeing that, you know, in the wake of rising oil prices, are you seeing attempts by the government to increase subsidies to ease the economic and financial burdens that they’re experiencing, as you just described, Tin?
Tin Hinane El Kadi [00:25:31] Mm hmm. Yeah, absolutely. This is very common, you know, it’s classic authoritarian, oil rich country politics. So, at some point when foreign reserves were depleting, we’ve seen many subsidies and you need to know that the Algerian economy is a heavily subsidized economy, one of the most subsidized of the region. And there were like several policies to reduce subsidies, including in energy, but also in some staples and like essential goods. But recently, with the recent increase in oil prices, the regime is trying to obviously buy social peace, and an important recent measure that was introduced in this regard was the creation of a fund for unemployed people. So now every unemployed person in Algeria can claim a stipend, like a monthly stipend, until they find a job. And you know, the measure was just announced by Abdelmadjid Tebboune, the current president last week before the third anniversary of the Hirak so it’s very symbolic but clearly the government has not thought this through. You can see that the measure is not very much applicable. It’s complicated. And you know, there is no strategy for creating wealth and diversifying the economy and creating high value-added activities in the country. They’re very problematic business-state relations in the country. And so far, we’ve seen that even though the discourse is supposedly pro-business pro-investment, on the ground, when you talk to people from the business community, the situation is quite grim. There are no large loans being given to entrepreneurs hoping to invest in the country and you have some major investors in high value-added sectors, such as the pharmaceutical industry, being jailed for their pro Hirak stance. So, it’s not a pro investment context and I think Algeria will struggle to really create the much-needed jobs for its millions of unemployed youths in the current political situation.
How might Russia’s war against Ukraine affect Algeria?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:28:13] Andrew, we are speaking Wednesday, February 23rd. By the time people listen to this recording, frankly, even perhaps even by the time we finish this call, things might have changed on the Ukraine-Russia front. Russia, for all we know, may have sent tanks over the border on the way to Kyiv or otherwise, there is just a tremendous amount of instability right now and uncertainty about what the future holds in that particular crisis. Given that Algeria is an energy exporter, and its economy and political economy is very much impacted by energy prices, to what extent do you think events in Russia and Ukraine will impact the political economy of Algeria or otherwise impact Algerian politics?
Andrew Farrand [00:29:11] It’s a volatile situation, as you mentioned, things are happening quite quickly, but what we know is that Algeria is a major producer of oil and natural gas, a good portion of which already goes to Europe. It’s not one of Europe’s largest suppliers, but it’s a significant one, and it’s one country that many in Europe are looking to fill the gap that might result if supply is cut off from Russia as a result of sanctions or some other secondary measures related to the potential conflict there, as seems increasingly likely. And we know that in the past weeks, there has been a great deal of outreach by European and US diplomats to oil companies operating in Algeria, trying to establish whether and how much extra capacity they may have to ramp up quickly and provide gas and oil to Europe. So, Algeria stands potentially to make quite a large windfall if events go that way but there’s concerns around that of course. It’s good news in many ways because it means that Algeria can have more resources to share with its people. Nobody would want otherwise, but I think the way in which those resources will come in directly into the government’s coffers to be redistributed through subsidy programs does have its downsides in that it encourages leaders to continue this kind of old school mentality in which they offer handouts to the people in exchange for loyalty and social peace and then maybe they get to keep some of the rest for themselves. The significant oil wealth of the country is certainly something that has long contributed to corruption and there were also some revelations just in the past week about some senior Algerian officials who were caught up in the Swiss leaks scandal with secret bank accounts in Switzerland that had not been reported before. So, Algerians know that that this corruption exists. I think many of them are concerned that it persists today, despite the fact that the Hirak was followed by a supposed anti-corruption drive. Many of the same patterns seem to exist today, and I think there’s reason for concern that an influx of oil wealth at this time, especially if it’s not accompanied by any sort of nudges from foreign powers to reform domestically within Algeria, might ultimately contribute to hardening the system, rather than encouraging it to adapt to challenges ahead.
What might happen next in Algeria’s Hirak protest movement?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:32:07] So I’ll have one last question for each of you then you’ve agreed to take some questions from the audience. We should have some time for a few questions from the audience. Andrew, I’ll stick with you. I’m going to pose each of you the same question. Andrew, in the coming weeks or months, are there any key inflection points or decisions or otherwise key dates or moments that you will be watching for that will suggest to you either the trajectory of the Hirak movement or the trajectory of Algerian politics more broadly, like what’s coming up in the future that you’ll be working towards?
Andrew Farrand [00:32:49] I think one obvious answer is July 5th, which will be the 60th anniversary of Algeria’s independence. It’s important to remember, as Tin Hinane was describing earlier, that Algeria is a country founded on a revolutionary movement, and it is very much a place where political legitimacy flows quite directly from the anti-colonial struggle. And so, we can expect that this will be a major event in Algeria and a celebration, but also an opportunity for those in power to try to link themselves to this this heroic struggle from the past. At the same time, I think it will be a moment when many Algerians will also have the opportunity to take stock and look back and ask themselves, ‘What have we achieved in 60 years?’ And the country has evolved in many ways, many of them positive. There’s been an incredible amount of developments on many fronts but I do think that there are many Algerians who look at the country and its incredible potential both natural resources and human resources and ask if that is really as good as it gets and as good as it could be, and if it could not be better with different leadership decisions. And this is where moments like that can really, I think, contribute to the kinds of reflection that perhaps some leaders in Algiers would rather their citizens, not be engaging in.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:34:24] Thanks and Tin, over to you: what sort of events or moments or inflection points will you be looking towards in the coming weeks and months ahead?
Tin Hinane El Kadi [00:34:37] I’m not sure I would say there’s any particular date that would be significant. I mean, surely the 5th of July is symbolic date, it marks of independence, but as much as I would want to say the opposite, I don’t see any significant change coming in the short term. However, I do think that the Algerian political system is in a fragile position at the moment. And I think the most important inflection would be socioeconomic. So, the economic situation, I think at the moment is a very weak front and the regime will not be able to rely on redistribution, as it has done over the past decade to buy social peace. So, there is very much growing anger within Algeria for the rapidly deteriorating living conditions. And I think we can see some change coming from this front. However, at the moment, we can only hope for the current divisions within the system to result in an alternative roadmap or some sort of change or decision to open up the country because currently this regime is unable to achieve socioeconomic change, and at the same time, it is imposing a very authoritarian model on the country. And so, I do think that this situation isn’t viable, you know, it’s not like in China where even though the country is extremely authoritarian, there has been a social contract based on growth and job creation and increasing revenues for the Chinese population. The Algerian system is unable to do that. And as I said, it is, I believe, structurally enabled to produce a sustainable long-term growth. And so, I do believe that at some point an inflection is going to come from that front, from the socioeconomic front. And yeah, I do not believe that a country with the potential of Algeria will remain in the current status quo in the medium and long term.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:36:59] All right, thank you all for listening. Thank you to Andrew and Tin, that was very helpful and big thank you to Andrew for reaching out to me. He’s a listener to the podcast. I always love it when the listeners are guests of the podcast, and if that’s you, please feel free to reach out to me. If you have an idea to pitch, I’d love to hear from you. You can hit me up on Twitter @MarkLGoldberg or use the contact button on GlobalDispatchesPodcast.com. All right, we’ll see you next time. Bye!