COVID-19 in Algeria: For Whom Does the Bell Toll?

Blida, March 2020. Empty streets Copyright: Shutterstock.

Patient zero in Algeria was found in the city of Blida, on 12 March 2020. Fifty kilometres from Algiers, Blida soon became the epicentre of the epidemic. Fearing a spread of the virus in other wilayas, authorities decided that same day to close nurseries, schools, and universities. On 17 March, the state announced the closure of all the country’s land borders, the suspension of all flights to and from Algeria, and a ban on gatherings and markets. On 19 March, 90 cases and nine deaths from COVID-19 were confirmed. On 22 March, the government suspended all means of public transport and on 23 March it placed the town of Blida in total lockdown. With only 450 intensive care beds for a population of 42 million inhabitants, Algeria seems powerless to fight against COVID-19. An extensive awareness-raising campaign through social networks and loudspeakers in the streets and mosques was rapidly implemented. On 4 April, all shops, restaurants and cafés closed and taxis were banned. A curfew from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. was gradually imposed and extended in all the wilayas. For the wilayas considered to be most at risk (Algiers, Oran, Sétif, Tizi Ouzou, Tlemcen, Médéa, etc.) the curfew was extended from 3 p.m. to 7 a.m. On the therapeutic level, Minister of Health Abderrahmane Benbouzid, validated, on 23 March, the protocol of treatment with chloroquine associated with azithromycin, praised by Professor Raoult in Marseille. The Algerian strategy to fight COVID-19 also includes a ban on the dissemination of “any statistics other than those of the Minister of Health”. Faced with the spread of numerous rumours, the Ministerial Commission of Fatwa of the Ministry of Religious Affairs stated, in a fatwa, that “it is illicit to manufacture, disseminate and propagate false information... These lies are part of the deadly sins.”

In early March, as fears of an epidemic spread, demonstrators from Hirak—a peaceful popular citizens’ movement that had been calling for a democratic transition in Algeria since February 2019—did not want to interrupt their Friday marches. And on 13 March, they marched for the 56th consecutive Friday and chanted: “Neither the corona nor arrests will stop us”, but the following week (on 20 March) the streets were empty. Hirak decided to suspend its demonstrations and encouraged the people to fight the epidemic by disinfecting the streets. COVID-19 has succeeded in stopping a movement that neither arrests of activists nor intimidation had managed to halt. This pause in the monitoring of demonstrations is being exploited by the Algerian authorities not only to continue the repression of the movement [1] but also to seek to restore people’s confidence in state institutions. The fight against COVID-19 (that has caused 326 deaths in Algeria in mid-April) is used by the authorities to show the state’s ability to protect citizens.

Police and gendarmes no longer regulate Hirak demonstrations, but they work to enforce partial containment and curfew. At the same time, the army has shown its ability to import the necessary equipment for health personnel thanks to a salutary air bridge with China, an event widely broadcast on television channels and praised in the army magazine El Djeich in April 2020: “the determination of the Algerian state has enabled the country to avoid a real tragedy.” An editorial in the newspaper El Watan of 15 April also stated: “The state has met the challenge...” For the opposition press, the epidemic has prompted a “consensus for survival” which offers an unprecedented spectacle of “popular mobilisation alongside state institutions”. Through the fight against COVID-19, the authorities are seeking to restore public action and weaken the virulent criticism of Hirak against the political and military leaders.

Indeed, the unexpected irruption of Hirak in February 2019 was structured firstly around the refusal of a fifth term of office for President Bouteflika and then the demand for a “radical transformation” of the Algerian state: renewal of the elites, establishment of a civil state, dismantling of the mafia economy, etc. The Algerian government has been in a state of crisis since the end of the war. In fact, Hirak is the synthesis of the protest movements in Algeria that have emerged since the 1980s, from the “Berber Spring” to Islamist protest. Like these movements, Hirak confronts the army and its political agenda. [2] In order to defuse the movement’s “revolutionary” potential, [3] the authorities have made the “moralisation of political life” and the transformation of the state the main thrust of government action. Like the government of the reformers after the October 1988 riots, current authorities consider that the anger in the streets comes from the “abuses” of the state that need to be corrected. The army hopes that it will not be forced to intervene again to correct the “inability” of civilians to transform the state while preserving its interests.

While COVID-19 has caused the suspension of the Hirak movement and has offered the authorities a break from having to manage this peaceful popular movement, the authorities are facing the threat of financial bankruptcy due to the collapse of the oil price from $60 in January 2020 to $20 in April. The fall in the price of a barrel began in 2014 and has halved the revenues linked to hydrocarbon exports (97% of Algeria’s external revenues come from the sale of hydrocarbons). The government has drawn on the foreign exchange reserve fund ($180 billion in 2014, $50 billion in 2020) to resist the current crisis, but the reserves are running out and there will be little left to sustain spending in 2021. The budget adopted for 2020 amounts to $64 billion, and the expected budgetary revenues for this same year represent $51 billion. Now the fall in oil prices is raising fears that revenues will not exceed $30 billion. The government has announced the expected reduction of imports from $41 billion to $31 billion in 2020; the end of consultancy contracts with foreign agencies ($7 billion); and the reduction of the operating costs of the Sonatrach group (the national state-owned oil company of Algeria) from $14 billion to $7 billion.

In March 2020, the government presented an action plan to the National People’s Congress. The document states that diplomacy will be “at the service of a comprehensive policy of national renewal and of building a new Republic”. On the economic front, Algeria’s foreign policy will be oriented toward a “win-win” approach with foreign partners. On the verge of financial collapse due to the fall in the price of oil, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s Algeria deems it “imperative to put an end to the bad practices instilled during the period of financial affluence, such as wastefulness and a spirit of laziness and over-consumption”. [4] The government’s action plan is a political response to Hirak’s demands; it incorporates the observation of the necessary “moralisation of public life” as a prerequisite for financial reforms and economic renewal. The feeling that corruption and incompetence reign in Algeria is a long-standing grievance denounced by all political parties since the 1980s. Are President Tebboune and the army now ready to open up the Algerian economy?

Algeria’s main European trading partners regret the persistence of a deplorable business climate and expect far-reaching economic reforms to make this country of 40 million inhabitants attractive. Algeria's main supplier is China, which still maintains its first place with $4.86 billion (nearly 18.7% of total Algerian imports), up 18.37%, followed by France with $2.51 billion (9.65%), Spain with $1.93 billion (7.44%), Germany with $1.933 billion (7.42%), and Italy with $1.86 billion (7.17%). Each oil crisis (1986-1990 and 2000-2003) has raised the question of the necessary reforms of this rentier economy. Then, when the price of a barrel starts to rise again, the Algerian authorities favour redistribution over investment and diversification. There is no shortage of ideas for investment, however. The Hirak site, Nabni, provides a lot of them—many of which have been taken up in the government’s action plan, which puts forth projects in education, a “tourism and film industry”, and so on. Diversifying the economy, reducing the share of hydrocarbons in the GDP, and developing Algeria’s attractiveness are essential actions, in the long term. Such reforms require time and the confidence of society. Today, however, the government has neither. The country urgently needs to rebuild political life (reform the Constitution, organise early legislative elections, carry out territorial reform—increasing the number of communes from 1,500 to 15,000—and hold municipal elections), implement its action plan, and do so in a context of collapsing oil prices and now, a pandemic.

The COVID-19 epidemic in Algeria is a godsend [5] for the Algerian authorities in a way: freed from the pressure of the Hirak movement, the new president and his government can once again occupy public and media space. Yet, the fact remains that Hirak has not said its last word and the deconfinement of Algeria will probably sound the return of the Friday demonstrations. If it is impossible today to predict what the health status of Algeria will be at the end of 2020, it is almost certain that the country will be on the verge of financial bankruptcy, which could plunge Algiers into a crisis comparable to that at the end of the 1980s.

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Photo: Blida, March 2020. Empty streets after the government announced lockdown. Copyright: Shutterstock.

[1] Journalist and activist Khaled Drareni, director of the website “Casbah Tribune” and correspondent to Reporters Without Borders was arrested on 29 March 2020.

[2] Luis Martinez, “L’armée à l’épreuve du Hirak,” The Conversation, 20 February 2020.

[3] Giulia Fabbiano, “ A l’écoute de l’Algérie insurgée,” La vie des idées, 19 March 2019.

[4] AFP, 11 April 2020.

[5] José Garçon, Algérie: le Covid-19 à la rescousse des généraux, Fondation Jean Jaurès, 15 April 2020.

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