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Algerian demonstrators stage a sit-in on 5 March 2015 at Somoud Square in the Sahara desert village of In-Salah, south Algeria, against the exploration of shale gas. AFP/Farouk Batiche
Report 171 / Middle East & North Africa

Algeria’s South: Trouble’s Bellwether

As waves of protests have hit the hydrocarbon-rich Algerian south since 2013, authorities maintained a tenuous peace through handouts, repression and policing. To calm tensions, the state needs to clarify policies, communicate with local protestors and address underlying issues of governance.

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Executive Summary

Since 2013, the politically marginal but economically crucial oil-producing areas of the Algerian south have experienced successive waves of unrest over what may appear local economic, environmental and communal issues. Taken together, however, a pattern emerges: resentment is growing against central authorities in a part of the country long peripheral to its politics. Thus far, authorities have managed this burgeoning discontent with a stick-and-carrot policy that has kept a tenuous peace but not addressed underlying issues. Ahead of an uncertain presidential succession and given the painful consequences of low oil prices, Algeria should go beyond treating the symptoms to address governance shortcomings and include its peripheral populations in political decision-making. It should do so now, when the challenges are still amply manageable, rather than allow them to fester and bleed dangerously into the coming political transition.

Three separate movements in three southern cities have evolved in recent years to mobilise thousands of Algerians, both in the desert region and elsewhere in the country. The historic town of Ghardaia has seen recurrent clashes between Sunni Arabs and a Berber minority that follows Ibadism, an Islamic school of jurisprudence, in a rare instance of sectarian violence in an overwhelmingly Sunni country. In the far south, the town of In Salah has given birth to the Maghreb’s most significant ecological protest movement, with thousands mobilising against shale gas exploration the government concealed. In Ouargla, widespread unemployment has provoked unrest by local youths, who have formed a movement that demands an end to what they consider central-authority neglect.

These issues, long considered politically marginal, must be taken seriously, not only for the sake of the vast region, but also because of their growing and very real impact on the country’s political “core” in the north. Central authorities in Algiers, who tend to view local discontent with suspicion, have failed to appreciate its depth. They continue to think in terms of handouts, repression and policing, tools which have barely kept a lid on an occasionally violent cauldron. That most of the south remains calm, and the state has managed to restore order in the areas where there has been turmoil, indicates southern unrest is still manageable. Defusing the possibility of renewal and spread is an opportunity as well as a necessity: deep political engagement would pay dividends across the country.

Facing the most serious economic challenges in decades due to falling oil production and low international prices, Algeria is less and less able to substitute spending for inclusive politics and good governance. A strategy that helped secure peace in the 2000s – when it was still recovering from a conflict between the state and Islamist insurgents that claimed over 200,000 lives and pursuing national reconciliation – is no longer viable. The unrest of the last few years demonstrates that southern citizens are no longer willing to put aside their demands for improved transparency, communication and respect from their government.

The Algerian state, born of a long struggle against colonialism and an advocate for a strict doctrine of sovereignty, is certain to reject anything it perceives as meddling, which is how it often interprets outside advice. But it should listen to its citizens: much of the protesters’ outrage derives from their sense that they are neither being heard nor engaged. The government should consider several meritorious demands whose fulfilment would contribute to building greater trust. These include:

  • establishing a parliamentary enquiry, or another form of independent investigation, headed by personalities accepted by locals, to examine intercommunal relations in Ghardaia. Such an entity could look into causes of past violence, devise measures to improve community relations, assess what reparations could be made and offer recommendations to improve policing strategies and local governance;
  • creating more transparent procedures for public-sector hiring and improving guarantees of fairness in making such appointments. Encouraging responsible private investment and diversification from extractive industries in Saharan provinces would also relieve pressure on the state to create jobs that burden its finances; and
  • adopting a more transparent policy toward shale gas exploration and production, starting with clearly stating where it is pursued, and encouraging research into its potentially adverse local effects and how to mitigate them. This could take the form of dialogues with local populations as well as encouraging academia, civil society groups and private-sector partners to participate. At the national level, the authorities should encourage open discussion of fracking’s potential economic benefits and environmental pitfalls.

Southern unrest is a bellwether of a wider governance problem that jihadist groups have already sought to capitalise upon. If recognised early, it could prompt a course correction that would defuse tensions at a time of global geopolitical upheaval, regional turmoil, economic downturn and political uncertainty. The lessons learned from such an exercise would have relevance for other challenges the country faces in the years ahead.

Algiers/Brussels, 21 November 2016

I. Introduction

The Algerian south, the vast area beyond the Atlas Mountains and the High Plateaux that border the Mediterranean, comprising 85 per cent of the national territory and virtually all its oil and gas reserves but less than 9 per cent of its population, was long sheltered from the mass protests and armed insurrections that have flared up sporadically in the north since the 1980s. But spurred by the Arab uprisings and local grievances, politics in the south has grown increasingly contentious since 2013, and the region has overtaken the north as the epicentre of protest.

Three sites, each with local specificities, have demonstrated over the past few years the potential for seeding wider unrest. Since 2013, intercommunal clashes between Ibadi Mozabites and Sunni Maliki Arabs in the Mzab Valley have led to dozens of deaths, the burning and looting of thousands of businesses and homes and the destruction of cultural heritage sites, including a UNESCO-classified Ibadite shrine.[fn]The Mzab Valley Mozabites are Amazigh followers of the Ibadi school of Islamic jurisprudence, common only in Oman and Zanzibar, but with followers in Algeria, Libya and Tunisia. Malikis follow the school of Islamic jurisprudence founded by Imam Malik Ibn Anas, one of Sunni Islam’s four main schools and dominant in the Maghreb.Hide Footnote The remote Saharan town of In Salah became the site of a large mobilisation against shale gas exploitation after the government announced successful test drills nearby in December 2014. Peaceful unemployment protests in the towns of Laghouat and Ouargla were met with arrests and intimidation in 2013.

As Crisis Group has advocated regarding foreign policy, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s fourth-term administration needs to build a long-term strategic vision.

The state so far has managed to contain tensions through familiar carrots – including dhamanat (literally “guarantees”, in this case of various reforms), patronage and largesse – and sticks, such as intimidation and harassment of protest leaders. However effective in the short term, these measures, by failing to address the underlying political causes of unrest, risk exacerbating them in the long run. Conflict and violence are already expanding, overlapping and deepening. New forms of contestation are emerging as the state’s welfare role shrinks.[fn]Cuts to electricity subsidies, one of a host of moderate austerity measures passed in the 2016 and 2017 budgets, are already sparking new rounds of protests across southern cities such as Biskra, In Salah and Ouargla. See “Algérie: Le Sud grogne contre une facture d’électricité salée”, Jeune Afrique, 27 October 2016.Hide Footnote As Crisis Group has advocated regarding foreign policy, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s fourth-term administration needs to build a long-term strategic vision.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°164, Algeria and Its Neighbours, 12 October 2015.Hide Footnote

The Algerian state often represents itself as a model of security and stability in troubled times, while critics at home and abroad say that plummeting oil prices and uncertainty about the presidential succession are pushing it toward a new crisis. Contestation in the south could herald promise or peril, depending on how it is managed. If well, it could encourage political inclusivity and transparency; if poorly, it could emerge as a major vulnerability when, as likely in only a few years’ time, oil money runs low.

II. Why the South Matters

Algeria took shape as a unified territory only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, after waves of conquest (by the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth and France in the nineteenth centuries) and the settlement of territorial disputes with its neighbour Morocco (in the twentieth). Historically, control over the regions that today comprise the south focused on trade routes; authority was concentrated around the coast, stretching only weakly to the interior and barely to the Sahara.[fn]Y. Kouzmine, J. Fontaine, B.E. Yousfi and T. Otmane, “Étapes de la structuration d’un désert: l’espace saharien algérien entre convoitises économiques, projets politiques et aménagement du territoire”, Annales de géographie, no. 670, 6 (2009), pp. 659-685.Hide Footnote The French started to define the southern border in the mid-1800s, a process finished only in the early 1900s. Since independence in 1962, the state has worked unevenly to integrate the south into the national fabric.

The central authorities have long had an ambivalent relationship with the southern regions. Weak control there has posed security dilemmas, with, for example, the region famously providing sanctuary for nineteenth century anti-colonial rebel leader Emir Abdelkader in his struggle against the French. Swayed more by wishful thinking than a clear understanding of reality on the ground, the state – first French, later Algerian – has seen southern populations as more amenable to its control than those of the north; this perception was reflected in the mid-nineteenth century notion of “pénétration pacifique”, which evolved into the idea of “le sud tranquille” in the late twentieth, when the north was awash in violence.[fn]See Benjamin Claude Brower, A Desert Named Peace (New York, 2009), pp. 22, 207. See Appendix C below for a glossary of terms and phrases, including English translations, for those given only in French in the main text.Hide Footnote  But while political activism long has been more energetic in the north, the misperception of southern passivity has had real and dangerous consequences, arguably contributing to policymakers overlooking the region’s needs and grievances.

A. The Algerian Sahara

The central authorities have long had an ambivalent relationship with the southern regions.

As independent Algeria constructed a national identity based on socialist and Arab nationalist ideologies, it sought to reduce inter-regional disparities, with limited success. The south’s hydrocarbon reserves, discovered in the 1950s, shaped the region’s infrastructure, which was built around the extraction and transport of oil and gas. State policy formally emphasised regional equality, but security, particularly but not only since the civil war of the 1990s, has been trump. So too has the Arabisation policy; pursuit of the ostensible goal of national cohesion and social integration by imposing Arabic as the language of education and administration has come at the expense of speakers of French and Amazigh (Berber) dialects, inciting protest among the latter.

In the early 2000s, the contradictions between the Algerian Sahara’s resource wealth and its residents’ relative deprivation grew sharper. The Mouvement des Enfants du Sud pour la Justice (MSJ), founded in 2004, demanded greater economic opportunity and fairer wealth distribution. At a time of rising foreign investment and job growth, southerners saw few of the benefits, even as their region produced most of the nation’s wealth.

At the same time, jihadist activity expanded. Abdelmalek Droukdel, leader of the Kabylie-based jihadist Groupe pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC), an Algerian body founded in 1998, shifted his focus from the north, curbed his ambitions of striking Europe, which his group had failed to do, and concentrated on forming Saharan katibas (brigades). Under Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Abdelhamid Abu Zeid, these carried out attacks against Western targets in parts of the Algerian Sahara and the wider Sahel region, such as Mali and Mauritania, where security was weak.[fn]The Sahara Desert includes most of North Africa east of the Atlas Mountains and south of the fertile regions of the Mediterranean coast. In this report, “Algerian Sahara” means the part in Algeria, and Sahel refers to the semi-arid region on the Sahara’s southern edge stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, including southernmost Algeria and parts of neighbour states.Hide Footnote They grew rich off smuggling as well as ransoms for Western hostages.[fn]See Jean-Pierre Filiu, “The fractured jihadi movement in the Sahara”, Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, 10 January 2014. AQIM Emir Abdelmalek Droukdel, an “Arab Afghan” and former GSPC commander, is believed to still be based in the Kabylie region. His Sahara deputy, Abdelhamid Abu Zeid, was killed in a French airstrike in northern Mali in February 2013. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, mastermind of the In Amenas attack, commands the al-Morabitoun jihadist group, which has links to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) and is responsible for attacks as far west as Ivory Coast. Despite repeated reports of his death, including in a U.S. airstrike targeting him in Libya in June 2015, he is believed to be alive.Hide Footnote

The GSPC formally affiliated with al-Qaeda in 2007, when it was renamed al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Jihadist interest in the Sahara, which during the 1990s was mainly a logistical and support hub, culminated in AQIM’s 2012 seizure of northern Mali, in cooperation with the trans-Sahelian jihadist groups Ansar Dine and the Movement for Monotheism and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). France’s Operation Serval, launched in January 2013, led to the recapture of northern Malian towns, but attacks on military and civilian targets there remain common, while implementation of the Algiers peace agreement signed between non-jihadist northern rebels and the Malian authorities in June 2015 has stalled.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Report N°226, Mali: An Imposed Peace?, 22 May 2015; Africa Briefing N°115, Mali: Peace from Below?, 14 December 2015.Hide Footnote

B. A Resource-rich Region

Longstanding southern frustrations have grown sharper in the past decade and a half as a result of mismanagement and changes in the global economy. In the early 2000s, President Bouteflika’s administration raised expectations of rising wealth when he liberalised the oil and gas industry.[fn]Unemployed urban youth recalled their expectations that new jobs and investments would benefit them. Crisis Group interview, southern activists, Ouargla, May 2015.Hide Footnote A new Hydrocarbons Law in 2005, which aimed to attract foreign investment by loosening ownership requirements, set off a wave of exploration and production in the south.[fn]The 2005 law ended Sonatrach’s monopoly on exploration, production and transportation, forcing it to compete with international oil companies investing in the liberalised activities.Hide Footnote But Bouteflika, for reasons that remain unclear, backtracked when the 2006 Hydrocarbons Order reinstated the requirement that the state oil company, Sonatrach, have a majority stake in almost all upstream, midstream and downstream activities.

Over the next years, culminating in 2013, southern hopes soured. Even as oil prices soared, enabling Algeria to amass foreign exchange reserves of $200 billion in 2012, social investments failed to materialise, and corruption scandals multiplied. Many southerners came to perceive national authorities and multinational companies as at best reckless and at worst criminal. A southern activist said, “Bouteflika authorised them to come, all kinds of companies with all sorts of activities, and they dug in the south without protecting the environment and do nothing for the society. They don’t even create local jobs: they bring their own employees”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, southern activist, Adrar, May 2015.Hide Footnote

In 2010, after a six-month investigation by the Départment du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS) – the now-defunct but then-powerful intelligence agency often at loggerheads with the presidency in the last decade – corruption charges were brought against Sonatrach CEO Mohamed Meziane, his two sons and several top managers. Corruption at the highest levels of the company, which is involved in every oil operation in the country, is alleged to have cost Algeria billions of dollars in annual revenue in the oil sector alone.[fn]Aomar Aouli, “Algeria oil corruption trial begins after 5-year delay”, Associated Press, 15 March 2015. For background on the rivalry between the DRS and President Bouteflika, see Crisis Group, Report Algeria and Its Neighbours, op. cit. ENI subsidiary Saipem is on trial over allegations it paid $200 million in bribes to Sonatrach, 2007-2010, in exchange for seven contracts worth €8 billion. In early 2016, a criminal court sentenced six, including Meziane and his two sons, to jail for corruption offences ranging from embezzling public funds to accepting bribes. “Affaire Sonatrach 1: sursis pour Mohamed Meziane, prison ferme pour son fils”, TSA, 2 February 2016.Hide Footnote

Over the past five years, oil production has declined, as bureaucratic hurdles and poor management of oil and conventional gas reserves have driven investors away. Algeria depends on hydrocarbon exports for 98 per cent of its foreign earnings (70 per cent of national revenue). Declining production for export, rising domestic demand due to population growth and the vertiginous drop in oil prices in 2015 mean that a fiscal breaking point looms on the three-year horizon: at current spending levels, the Fond de regulation des recettes, the revenue regulation sovereign wealth fund created in 2000 to manage surplus hydrocarbon revenue, is expected to run out in 2016, and foreign exchange reserves, which fell $35 billion in 2015 to $143 billion, are expected to be exhausted by 2018.[fn]British Gas and Total have each abandoned a field within the past two years, due to obstacles such as a new three-year exploration license when five to ten years is the industry standard. Response to bidding rounds since 2007 has been “dismal”. Crisis Group interview, international oil company executive, Algiers, May 2015. George Joffe, “Fracking won’t fix Algeria’s oil woes,” al-Araby al-Jadeed, 13 March 2015. “Le fonds de régulation des recettes s’épuisera dès la fin de l’été 2016, selon des experts”, Maghreb Emergent, 5 March 2016.Hide Footnote

The government has sought a solution in shale gas exploration. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that Algeria has almost 20 trillion cubic metres (707 trillion cubic feet) of technically recoverable shale gas and 5.7 billion barrels of technically recoverable shale oil, placing it third after China and Argentina in technically recoverable shale gas resources.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior oil company analyst, Algiers, June 2015. “World Shale Resource Assessments”, EIA, 24 September 2015.Hide Footnote A long-time analyst of its hydrocarbon sector said:

Shale is Algeria’s get-out-of-jail-free card. The industry perspective right now is that Algeria is an also-ran – they’re there producing oil and gas but not in any interesting or competitive way. But if they become a shale producer then they can meet their domestic energy needs and export to Europe.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Geoff Porter, CEO, North Africa Risk Consulting, June 2016.Hide Footnote

Industry specialists also say improvements in management, anti-corruption measures and red-tape reduction could raise conventional gas and oil production enough to make up for lower oil prices, with less political impact than developing unconventional sources such as shale.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior foreign oil company adviser, Algiers, June 2015.Hide Footnote

C. The Transformation of the South

As oil prices and production have dropped, so too has the state’s ability to buy social peace, but banking on a rentier system, even when it functions smoothly, could prove risky. Excessive reliance on rent redistribution alone can obscure reasons for discontent and demands for justice, equality and dignity.[fn]Naoual Belakhdar, “‘l’Eveil du Sud’ ou quand la contestation vient de la marge”, Politique africaine, no. 137, March 2015, pp. 27-48.Hide Footnote Generous patronage might temporarily satisfy enough people to calm an upsurge of resentment but is at best a temporary solution as the economy worsens – especially when jihadists in neighbouring states have proven adept at exploiting social crises and even more adept at exploiting the inadequate, often heavy-handed government responses to them. The south’s sense of exclusion ultimately can be solved only through better representation and integration at the national level, recognition of region-specific needs and challenges and a more equitable distribution of resources.

The south is undergoing a far-reaching transformation, propelled by almost 2 per cent annual population growth nationally, rapid urbanisation (69 per cent of the population was rural at independence; 70 per cent live in cities today) and rising expectations born of education and the internet.[fn]“National Report on Housing for the Conference on Housing”, République Algérienne démocratique et populaire, July 2014. The expansion of education and infrastructure in the 1970s, combined with sedentarisation policies and population transfers, set the stage for the glut of unemployed graduates in Ouargla and spread oil and gas expertise in In Salah.Hide Footnote The region has just 10 per cent of the total population but 36 per cent of the country’s impoverished municipalities.[fn]Luis Martinez and Rasmus Alenius Boserup (eds), Algeria Modern (London, 2016), p. 24.Hide Footnote

Further complicating social dynamics is the south’s ethnic composition, which includes significant ethno-linguistic Amazigh communities such as Tuaregs, Ouarglis and Mozabites.[fn]Numbers are unclear because the state abolished ethnic categories in the 1966 census.Hide Footnote The national ruling party, the Front National de Libération (FLN) has long pursued a policy of co-opting traditional political and religious leaderships of southern groups, such as zaouiyas (Sufi brotherhoods), Tuareg amenoukals (traditional tribal and regional chiefs) and the organised Mozabite political leadership known as the majlis al-qurthi. Local administration in the southern provinces, perceived to favour Arabs and co-opted Amazigh elites, tends to be run by northerners.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local residents, Ghardaia, Ouargla, In Salah, May 2015, May 2016.Hide Footnote Co-opting elites creates the appearance of inclusion but tends to spread resources narrowly; many socially influential southerners, including urban youths, unionists and even traditional elites, feel outsiders run their lives according to their own priorities.

Occasional protests, strikes and violence in the north in the 1970s and 1980s demanding economic and minority rights peaked with the October 1988 riots over rising prices, unemployment and austerity. Contestation faded in the 1990s, as the security crisis overshadowed social questions.[fn]Belakhdar, “‘l’Eveil du Sud’”, op. cit.Hide Footnote It resurfaced in the south over the first decade and a half of the present century, however, when the newly formed Mouvement des Enfants du Sud pour la Justice (MSJ) demanded solutions for unemployment and regional inequality, putting southern concerns, for the first time, on the national map; the Comité National pour la Défense des Droits des Chômeurs (CNDDC) formed in Ouargla after a decade’s incubation; citizens in In Salah launched a national movement against fracking, sparking protests in Algiers, Oran, Constantine and across southern cities; and intercommunal fighting in Ghardaia led to the first-ever strike of security forces in Algiers, who marched on the president’s office.

The sustained if sporadic unrest at these sites suggests the emergence of specifically southern political dynamics. Governance shortcomings in the oil-rich zones are felt particularly forcefully. The south – far less populated, far more strategically important in terms of natural resources and far more difficult to control given its geography – has replaced northern regions like Kabylie as the epicentre of contestation. Its grievances are tightly wound social, economic, political and environmental concerns, in part specific to their communities, in part reflective of national sentiment, particularly resentment of a rentier state in crisis.

III. Southern Unrest: Three Case Studies

The coincidence of unrest at In Salah, Ouargla and Ghardaia, particularly given relative calm elsewhere, demonstrates the centrality of the Sahara to peace and security in Algeria today.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Dida Badi, research director, National Centre for Prehistoric, Anthropological and Historical Research, Algiers, May 2015. Nevertheless, while the nucleus of sustained unrest has transferred to the south, an official gendarmerie report recorded 429 “disturbances to the public order” during 2016’s second trimester (a five-a-day average), with interventions in northern urban centres such as Medea, Algiers, Boumerdes, Blida, Annaba and Skikda. “La gendarmerie s’inquiète d’une situation sociale qui reste préoccupante”, TSA, 8 August 2016.Hide Footnote While top officials tend to depict southern activists as separatists, they are fighting, in different ways, for more inclusion and voice in the state.[fn]“[Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal] accuses us of being separatists. We won’t negotiate with him …”. See “Ouargla: les organisateurs de la marche du 14 mars refusent de rencontrer l’envoyé spécial de Sellal”, Algerie-focus.com, 11 March 2013.Hide Footnote Fuelling the protest movements in Ouargla and In Salah are demands for greater benefits from the extraction of natural resources – what an analyst calls “resource regionalism” – as well as environmental concerns.[fn]“If resource nationalism was about states insisting on greater benefits from the extraction of the natural resources by foreign firms, then resource regionalism is about local communities demanding greater benefit from those same industries but at the expense of the central state”. Geoff Porter, “The new resource regionalism in North Africa and the Sahara”, Dossiers du CERI, Centre de recherches internationales, July 2013.Hide Footnote Exclusionary politics and weak governance in a resource-rich zone helped enflame tensions in Ghardaia, where they manifested as intercommunal conflict.

The coincidence of unrest at In Salah, Ouargla and Ghardaia, particularly given relative calm elsewhere, demonstrates the centrality of the Sahara to peace and security in Algeria today.

The crisis in Ghardaia is distinct in that it weaves the issue of ethnic and religious minorities together with political and economic concerns felt elsewhere in the south.[fn]The “Berber spring” was a period of activism in the Kabylie region and Algiers in 1980 that was violently put down by the military.Hide Footnote The Mozabites of the Mzab Valley, Amazigh followers of the Ibadi school, say they face structural discrimination in Arabisation policies as well as attacks on their homes, religious symbols and businesses by Arab Maliki groups.[fn]Algeria’s Mozabites are the founders of a 1,000-year-old pentapolis (a five-city aggregation that includes Ghardaia, Beni Isguen, El-Ateuf, Melika and Bounoura, and subsumes as well the more recently established Berriane and Guerrara) 600km south of Algiers. On allegations of discrimination against Mozabites, see below.Hide Footnote Their historical demographic predominance in the Mzab Valley has been undermined by a rapid population shift since the 1980s, in part due to state settlement of Arab tribes and designation of Ghardaia as the provincial capital in 1985. This, they say, multiplied official administrative posts that were filled primarily by Arabs and deepened class tensions, pitting relatively wealthy urban Mozabites against poor Bedouin Arabs who used the Arab national parties and their influence for social mobility.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Mozabite residents, Ghardaia, May 2015. Nacer Djabi, “Solving the tensions in Algeria’s Ghardaia region”, Arab Reform Initiative, July 2015.Hide Footnote More recently, takfiri preachers in the region have accentuated the stigmatisation of Mozabites as “Shia apostates”, justifying violent attacks on them.[fn]Takfir is the act of a Muslim declaring another Muslim to be a kaffir (unbeliever). Takfiris are radical Islamists (including most contemporary Sunni jihadist groups) who practice takfir, often to sanction lethal violence against other Muslims that otherwise would violate a Quranic injunction. Some takfiris erroneously consider Ibadis to be Shia.Hide Footnote

A. Ghardaia

1. Ethno-sectarian conflict: Mozabites vs Arabs

Since 2013, local flare-ups between Mozabites and Arabs have been quick to ignite and nearly impossible to extinguish.[fn]Outbreaks have occurred in Ghardaia, Berriane and Guerrara. The current violence broke out in 2013, but clashes date to 1985, when land in Ghardaia belonging almost entirely to Mozabites was appropriated and distributed to Arabs as part of the sedentarisation process of extending control over remote and often nomadic southern populations.Hide Footnote Ghardaia province (wilaya) has a dozen towns and some 360,000 residents. In October 2015, after hundreds of riot police were stationed there for ten months under difficult conditions, they returned to the capital and, with others who remained in Ghardaia and a few dozen in Oran, launched the country’s first-ever strike by security forces, demanding improved working conditions and an end to long deployments.[fn]The Compagnies républicaines de sécurité (CRS) riot police unit was responsible for the strike, demanding better working conditions, the right to unionise and departure of the managing director of the Direction générale de la sécurité nationale (DGSN), Major-General Abdelghani Hamel.Hide Footnote When those in Algiers marched to the presidency’s El Mouradia palace, they found themselves in a standoff with the presidential guard. Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal met with them that evening, promising to respond to their demands, though not their leading one, the departure of police chief Major-General Abdelghani Hamel.

Destruction des mausolées berbères de la vallée du Mzab en Algérie


The escalation between Mozabite and Arab groups began in November 2013, when 150 people were arrested during clashes over a football match in Guerrara, 100km north east of Ghardaia. Neutral observers supported the Mozabite perception that security forces intervened on the Arab side.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Mozabite activists, local journalists, Ghardaia and Algiers, May 2015; Ghardaia, May 2016.Hide Footnote The next month, Mozabite protesters shut down Ghardaia’s centre, demanding that authorities divulge public housing and land allotments. After the police reopened the area, the Mozabite businesses there were burned, leading to more reprisals and counter-reprisals. In the end, fifteen people were killed, mostly Mozabites.[fn]Mozabites say the wilaya security head, Abdelhak Bouraoui, is clearly visible in a cellphone video of the desecration of a Mozabite cemetery and destruction of the mausoleum of the Mozabite Sheikh Ammi Said, a UNESCO world heritage site sacred to Mozabites. See ImazighenLibya, "Destruction des mausolées berbères de la vallée du Mzab en Algérie", YouTube, 6 Feb 2014 and mzab europe, "attaque des criminels chaamba et mdabih sur la cimetière Ammi Said vandalisé encore une fois", YouTube, 14 April 2014.

For the next two years, amid sporadic deadly violence, the community’s mixed neighbourhoods self-segregated. Long-term residents were driven out by neighbours’ threats and their own fears. Mozabites and Arabs who ventured from their streets or neighbourhood risked danger; only Sub-Saharan migrants, seen as neutral, could confidently cross the invisible boundaries. Armed with knives and Molotov cocktails, Mozabites formed self-defence groups and filmed and distributed videos of police sheltering Arab protesters, proof, they say, of authorities’ bias.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local journalist, Ghardaia, June 2015. “We started forming self-defence groups when we noticed our houses were being burned, and the police intervened on the side of the Arabs”. Crisis Group interview, Mozabite self-defence group leader, Ghardaia, May 2015. He said dozens of neighbourhood patrols have since formed, and even high school students had units with light weapons. “En Algérie, Ghardaïa enflammée par les violences communautaires”, Le Monde, 19 February 2014.Hide Footnote

Violence crested in 2015. In June, at Ramadan, Arabs threw Molotov cocktails into a car in Berriane, leaving four Mozabites gravely burned. The next month, dozens on both sides were killed and hundreds wounded in less than a week. The military was deployed to contain the situation, but by then thousands of homes and businesses had been burned and schools closed for long stretches.[fn]“Ghardaia: nouvelles échauffourées entre jeunes à Berriane”, Algérie Press Service, 17 June 2015. The most intense, sustained fighting was in mixed neighbourhoods such as Thienniet al-Makhzen and Hajj Massoud, and around the al-Qurthi housing block, which 1,000 Arab residents could access only via a Mozabite area, where they were pelted with rocks and Molotov cocktails.

2. Intra-communal differences

Tensions highlighted differences not just between the two communities, but within them as well. As social and economic conditions have worsened, Mozabite elites – who form highly structured, interlocking spiritual, political, tribal and neighbourhood networks – have lost traction with the community’s youth.[fn]There are roughly 200 tribal groupings in the Mozabite community, split among seven main cities – the Ghardaia pentapolis plus Guerrara and Berriane – each with a tribal authority (majmua ashair) responsible for social issues such as education. The Majlis al-Qurthi groups together elites of the seven cities and serves as the political interface with the Algerian authorities.Hide Footnote Traditional authorities, unable to protect their people and seen as co-opted by the state, are losing ground to fiery activists like Fekhar Kameleddine, the doctor-turned-activist who founded the Mouvement pour l’Autonomie du Mzab and wrote the UN Secretary-General denouncing an “ethnic cleansing” campaign by the Algerian state.[fn]Appel de détresse et demande d’intervention urgente!!”, open letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon by Dr Kameleddine Fekhar, 3 July 2015, as published by siwel.info.Hide Footnote

Many Mozabite youth, framing their predicament in communal terms, have concluded their only realistic option is to fight back.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Mozabite self-defence groups, Ghardaia, June 2015. Pro-Amazigh websites like siwel.info and tamazgha.fr portray Mozabites as facing campaigns of eradication; some Facebook groups openly incite violence.Hide Footnote This contrasts with the community’s traditional conservative bodies such as the Majlis al-Qurthi, the regional council that maintains strong links to the state, has called for calm and explains the climate of insecurity as a product less of ethnic violence than the breakdown of law and order. Explaining its preference to negotiate, a member said:

It’s not our point of view that these are inter-community incidents. There are repeated attacks by organised criminal mafias. But we have tried first on our side, aware that most of the damages suffered has been on our side, to take a moment to reflect and observe. And we reminded the state of its duty according to the constitution to preserve the security of citizens and their goods.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Majlis al-Qurthi leadership, Ghardaia, May 2015.Hide Footnote

While the council claims satisfaction with how the state is handling the situation, a member recently left his house of 40 years in the once-mixed, now self-segregating Ghardaia neighbourhood of Tahnia el-Makhzen after Arabs ransacked it and lamented: “All we can do is to swallow the indignity and smile”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, members of Majlis al-Qurthi, Ghardaia, May 2015.Hide Footnote

Message to the Algerian government

سقلاب ابوالبراء

Arab communities are also fragmenting, though differently. Compared with Mozabites, the Arabs of the Ghardaia region lack unifying structures. They are an amalgamation of regional tribes – the Chaamba, Medebi, Said and Mokhadema – in addition to economic immigrants from elsewhere in Algeria. On the whole, they are becoming more Salafi, with some militant elements among them.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Dida Badi, research director, National Centre for Prehistoric, Anthropological and Historical Research, Algiers, May 2015.Hide Footnote Incitement to violence came from, for instance, Ahmed Seqlab, a young, Saudi-trained preacher from Berriane with a significant online following. Also, the privately-owned Saudi satellite television channel Iqraa, popular among Algerian Salafis, broadcast a fatwa from an Algerian cleric declaring Ibadis “enemies of Allah”.[fn]سقلاب ابوالبراء, “Message to the Algerian government”, YouTube, 4 August 2014. “Ghardaia: les tenants et aboutissements d’une fitna organisée”, Algerie-Focus.com, 9 July 2015.Hide Footnote

Arab antipathy for their Mozabite neighbours has other sources, too. Having long ago settled in cities, built trade links and invested in education, Mozabites tend to be more commercially successful. They also benefit from certain exclusive minority rights; their private schools and mosques, for instance, are not subject to state control of teaching and content, unlike those of Arabs. Yet overall, Arabs tend to feel represented by the Algerian state.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Moustapha Rebbahi, Arab professor of sociology, University of Ghardaia, Ghardaia, June 2015.Hide Footnote In this sense, Mozabite cultural autonomy is less something for Arabs to emulate than a threat to be contained, and the state is an ally in doing so. An Arab community leader said:

Mozabites who pass through private schools have complexes against Arabs. The Ibadis call themselves the only group that is on the right path; they consider themselves superior. The state should put these schools under its control.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Arab community leader, Ghardaia, June 2015.Hide Footnote

3. A confused response

Neither local nor national authorities have been able to negotiate an end to the impasse. Appeals for peaceful dialogue by traditional Mozabite and Arab authorities failed to stem the violence, and national authorities have yet to respond to calls by Arabs, Mozabites and parliament for an official public investigation into the clashes. Calm was restored only with the militarisation of the province, which in July 2015 was placed under the authority of Major General Abderrazak Cherif.[fn]Algerie – La wilaya de Ghardaia passe sous l’autorité de l’Armée”, Canal Algérie, 8 July 2015.Hide Footnote However, the deployment of thousands of police, gendarmes and soldiers is at best a temporary solution. At worst, it risks creating more violence, as evidenced by clashes between police and Arabs in Arab-majority neighbourhoods, and between gendarmes and Mozabites in mixed neighbourhoods like al-Qurthi.

Political parties, in capitalising on the growing sectarianism, have worsened it. The city’s FLN, the national ruling party, has long been dominated by the powerful Chaamba Arab community, which combines Arab nationalist and cultural identities with sometimes thuggish behaviour.[fn]A Ghardaia-based source recalled local FLN politicians turning a blind eye to Arab-led expropriation of Mozabite land. Crisis Group interview, Algerian journalist, Ghardaia, May 2015.Hide Footnote Radicals have weakened traditional Mozabite elites who have sided with the moderate mainstream discourse of the second ruling party, Rassemblement National Démocratique (RND).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, members of the Majlis al-Qurthi, Ghardaia, May 2015.Hide Footnote Fekhar Kameleddine, for instance, established ties to the Front des Forces Socialistes (FFS), a historical pro-Amazigh opposition party, before founding his own militant separatist movement. Only Islamist parties – Nahda and the Mouvement de la Société pour la Paix (MSP, the Algerian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood) – span the communal divide and count members of each among their ranks.[fn]The Ghardaia mayor is an Ibadi member of the Islamist Green Alliance coalition, for instance.Hide Footnote

Accusations of responsibility for the chaos flourish. The government has sought to pin the blame on various outsiders: Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, President Bouteflika’s chef de cabinet, Ahmed Ouyahia, and Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra have blamed Morocco for stirring up trouble, while Religious Affairs Minister Mohamed Aissa attributed the violence to a Salafi conspiracy.[fn]Ghardaia: Lamamra prend le relais de Sellal et Ouyahia pour accuser le Maroc”, yabiladi.com, 1 August 2015; “‘Un pays frère a financé ce qui s’est passé à Ghardaia’ selon Sellal”, algerie1.com, 12 July 2015; “Ghardaia: Mohamed Aïssa met en cause des salafistes extrémistes liés à l’école yéménite de Dammaj”, Huffington Post Algerie, 19 July 2015.Hide Footnote Mozabites say the government has stoked fears and created discord to keep Bouteflika in power and perpetuate his camp’s control, pointing to the promotion of several security officials who presided over periods of chaos in Ghardaia. Still others from Mozabite and Arab camps, trying to show that his promises to maintain stability are hollow, allude to a DRS conspiracy to stoke violence in Ghardaia.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Mozabites, Ghardaia, May 2015.Hide Footnote

Such theories underestimate the complex roots of communal conflict. Though national and regional factors ought not to be discounted, local causes are more important, among which Mozabite lack of trust in the authorities and the secrecy of government operations figure prominently. As a first step, the authorities should publicly investigate the clashes, especially the role security forces may have played.

B. In Salah

1. From a peaceful grassroots movement …

There was little reason to think In Salah, 1,200km south of Algiers, with fewer than 40,000 inhabitants, would become the centre of a nationwide environmental movement. In December 2014, the day after Energy Minister Yousef Yousfi announced Algeria’s first successful shale drilling test, 30km from In Salah, some 5,000 townsfolk occupied the central square, Sahat Soumoud, and closed roads. The town, like the rest of the country, learned of the drilling from the news; even local officials had not been informed. Mobilisation was spontaneous, the result of high levels of education, particularly about the hydrocarbons sector; a traditional environmental consciousness, especially among women; and social media forums like Facebook, which spread information on fracking risks.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Mohamed Belamine, parliamentarian, Front National pour la Justice Sociale, May 2015. Two of the movement’s most vocal leaders, Hacina Zegzag and Fatiha Touni, led the town’s women in marches and sit-ins and spoke with the press. Women, traditionally tasked to provide water in Saharan societies, are especially sensitive to fracking’s potential to pollute groundwater. The U.S. documentary “Gasland”, in which a woman holding a lighter under her faucet triggers a gas explosion, was widely disseminated on social networks.Hide Footnote  That the authorities permitted the French company Total to test unconventional extraction techniques outlawed in France was met with acute resentment in In Salah, partly because the area previously had been used as a laboratory for testing new and dangerous technology, including French nuclear weapons in the 1960s.[fn]Total acquired a 47 per cent stake in the Ahnet basin in 2009. Officially, Sonatrach undertook the pilot shale gas drilling project, but Total’s involvement was an open secret and confirmed when it announced in January 2015 it had not been at the site since June 2014. “Total Algérie: Nous n’avons jamais eu de license de gaz de schiste”, Algerie-Focus.com, 3 March 2015. Hydraulic fracturing has been banned in France since 2011, due to public pressure fuelled by environmental concerns. See Tara Patel, “The French public says no to ‘le fracking’“, Bloomberg Businessweek, 31 March 2011.Hide Footnote

Rassemblement Anti-Gaz de schiste à Alger

DZ Militant

The night the test drill was announced a local Sonatrach engineer and renewable energy activist, Abdelkader Bouhafs, organised students and geology, hydrogeology and drilling engineers to go door-to-door warning households that fracking would pollute the water table.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Hacina Zegzag, founding member, Committee for a National Moratorium on Shale Gas, Adrar, June 2015.Hide Footnote  These activists, most of whom worked in the hydrocarbons sector, subsequently formed the “Committee of 22”, which steered and represented the thousands who turned out the next day at Sahat Soumoud. The atmosphere was joyful and family friendly, with men, women and children reading poetry and singing and volunteers in yellow vests leading hundreds through the streets. The gathering became the nucleus of the anti-shale drilling movement, drawing support from elsewhere in the country.[fn]See, for instance, DZ Militant, “Rassemblement anti-gaz de schiste à Alger”, YouTube, 18 January 2015.Hide Footnote

By contrast, zaouias, Sufi brotherhoods with strong religious, cultural and political influence in the area, have refused to take a position on shale gas, cementing their image as co-opted by state patrons.[fn]In the late 1980s, Algeria went from repressing to reviving zaouias in an effort to co-opt them. “The official portrayal is remarkably simplistic and essentialist: the zaouias are portrayed as ‘sanctuaries of peace’, allegedly ‘unchanged for centuries’, ‘remote from worldly affairs’ and ‘profoundly apolitical’. However, both the state’s instrumentalisation of them as well as the zaouias’ proper interests and activities stand in stark contrast to such ascriptions”. Isabelle Werenfels, “Promoting the ‘good Islam’: the regime and Sufi brotherhoods in Algeria”, Eurasia Review, 12 September 2011.Hide Footnote  Their retreat on the highly politicised issue has opened space for others: activists have encouraged proactive use of conventional and social media – long feared as instruments of meddling, foreign and domestic – to spread the idea that activism, including with civil disobedience, can block government policy.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Mohad Gasmi, anti-shale gas protest leader, Adrar, June 2015. A dozen prominent anti-shale gas and anti-unemployment leaders attended 2013 training by Laghouat CNDDC co-founder and activist Yacine Zaid on using information technologies and interacting with media. “Our activism is not centralised, but each of us benefited from this training”. Ibid.Hide Footnote  New information and communications technologies were instrumental both in coordinating actions and building support within the south and nationally: after the first In Salah protests, solidarity protests occurred in Tamanrasset, Timimoune, Metlili, Adrar, Touggourt, Ghardaia and Ouargla, which share common traditions, family relations and dependence on the same water aquifer, as well, further north, in Tizi Ouzou, Bejaia and eventually Algiers.

2. … to violence and politicisation

Surprised by the immediacy and intensity of the popular response, the government dispatched Energy Minister Yousfi to appease the Committee of 22, without success. Participants, many themselves experts in various facets of natural resource extraction, felt him condescending, especially because, they say, he questioned their grasp of fracking basics. After the sit-ins and marches continued peacefully for another two months, President Bouteflika sent a delegation to In Salah, led by national police chief Abdelghani Hamel. That too ended with failure, when he responded to the Committee of 22’s call to stop exploratory drilling (as a condition for further talks) by listing the security risks the country faces. Days later, Prime Minister Sellal’s assurances on state television that fracking was in a strictly exploratory phase and no exploitation license had been granted led protests to swell, since activists were demanding a moratorium on all fracking.[fn]Crisis Group interview, anti-shale gas protest leaders Mohad Gasmi and Hacina Zegzag, Adrar, June 2015. “Gaz de schiste: le DGSN Abdelghani Hamel quitte In Salah sans régler le probleme”, El Watan, 18 January 2015. “Quand Sellal fait flamber In Salah”, Algérie1.com, 23 January 2015.Hide Footnote

A moratorium was the central demand of an unauthorised march by the political opposition in Algiers on 24 February 2015, the 44th anniversary of the nationalisation of natural resources.[fn]On the anniversary of the 1971 nationalisation of resources, political opposition coalitions Instance de suivi et de coordination de l’opposition (ISCO) and Coordination nationale pour les libertés et la transition démocratique (CNLTD) defied the protest ban and marched through the capital with slogans linking anti-fracking mobilisation to their democratic-transition demands.Hide Footnote  It figured prominently again on 14 March with the some 8,000 demonstrators at Ouargla’s second millioniya (literally “million-man march”, a term popularised by the 2011 Arab uprisings).[fn]Des milliers des personnes au sit-in d’Ouargla”, leconews.com, 14 March 2015. Slogans included “Non au gaz de shiste” (“no to shale gas”), “samidoun, samidoun, lil ghaz essakhri raffidoun” (“steadfast, steadfast, we will remain steadfast against shale gas”), “la shamal, la janoub, el-jazair fil quloub” (“no north, no south, Algeria is in everyone’s heart”), and “el-wihda wa essiyada, li-iqqaf el- ghaz essakhri” (“unity and sovereignty, for a stop to shale gas”).Hide Footnote

The Committee of 22 succeeded for two months to keep protests peaceful. Demonstrators warmly greeted and gave cigarettes, shade and cool drinks to the hundreds of police dispatched from the north to monitor the square.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Mohad Gasmi, Hacina Zegzag, anti-shale gas protest leaders, Adrar, June 2015.Hide Footnote  But frustrated by officials’ non-committal response and encouraged by the wider support they enjoyed, protesters at In Salah four days after the February Algiers opposition event more confrontationally tried to close the access road to a second exploratory drilling site for shale gas Sonatrach and Halliburton managed 10km north of the town. This led to the first violent clashes with security forces. Gendarmes fired teargas and live ammunition, wounding three protestors seriously, and set fire to the tent encampment in Sahat Soumoud.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, witnesses, Adrar, June 2015.Hide Footnote

The Algiers protest brought another development unwelcome in the south. During its first two months, the movement there had more or less remained above the political fray.[fn]A popular slogan was, “No political parties and no politicisation of the movement”. Crisis Group interview, Mohad Gasmi, anti-shale gas protest leader, Adrar, May 2015.Hide Footnote  Wary of being co-opted by the main opposition political parties and sceptical of their intentions since they had not opposed the 2013 hydrocarbons law authorising shale gas exploitation, leaders characterised their movement as purely social.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, anti-shale gas activists, Adrar, June 2015. “Loi no. 13-01 …”, Journal Officiel De La République Algérienne no. 11, 24 February 2013.Hide Footnote  It became harder to maintain that line after the 24 February event in the capital, as activists allied more broadly with opposition parties, linking their cause with wider criticisms of national governance.[fn]“The fact that the government is not responding to our demands means that it is the population’s right to use the opposition to assert its rights”. Crisis Group interview, Mohad Gasmi, anti-shale gas protest leader, Adrar, June 2015.Hide Footnote

The authorities eventually quelled the protests by intimidating and co-opting the Committee of 22.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Hacina Zegzag, founding member, Committee for a National Moratorium on Shale Gas, Adrar, June 2015. She added: “I don’t think they left [the square] because of the jobs. I think they left because they were afraid. They were pressured effectively”.Hide Footnote Energy Minister Yousfi, on 23 February 2015, announced creation of an independent, albeit state-funded, observatory at In Salah, where many committee members, were offered senior posts. The observatory has not been implemented. Others obtained jobs or promotions at the Sonatrach subsidiary Naftal, the pro-regime TV station Ennahar or in the wilaya of Tamanrasset.[fn]Gaz de schiste: vers la creation d’une Observatoire independent”, El Watan, 24 February 2015. Crisis Group interviews, anti-shale gas protest leaders, Adrar, June 2015. Bouhafs did not accept any post or promotion and continues his ecological activism. Crisis Group email correspondence, Abdelkader Bouhafs, November 2016.Hide Footnote

With the committee defunct, pressure on the government to change direction on shale gas evaporated. It has not replied officially to the moratorium demand.[fn]“The statement that fracking was frozen, that they would stop drilling and fracking, evaluate potential and decide by 2019 whether or not to pursue, was false, an attempt to calm the population. In reality, production is still scheduled for 2022”. Crisis Group interview, Algerian legal counsel for multinational oil company, Algiers, September 2015. The government has issued contradictory statements on the future of shale gas drilling and replaced Yousfi soon after the protests. The Collectif national pour un moratoire sur les gaz de schiste, a splinter movement of the committee, has used meetings and social media to keep up pressure for a moratorium.Hide Footnote  Oil industry executives affirm that shale gas activity was never suspended, and President Bouteflika came out clearly for exploitation when he described shale gas, alongside oil, conventional gas and renewable energies, as “gifts from God”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior foreign oil company adviser, November 2015. “Bouteflika: ‘Le gaz de schiste est un don de Dieu”, algeriepatriotique.com, 24 February 2015.Hide Footnote

Yet, what activism did not accomplish, the high cost of production and the oil-price crash have. In January 2016, El Khabar revealed that faced with rising costs and decreasing revenue, Sonatrach had decided to suspend shale gas production pending a price return to $80 per barrel. (Crude-oil has not exceeded $60 per barrel since November 2014; in the first nine months of 2016, the price hovered between $30 and $50 per barrel.) The government is, however, preparing for that day: Prime Minister Sellal, meeting his Russian counterpart, Dimitri Medvedev, on 27 April 2016, offered cooperation with Russia’s Gazprom on shale gas.[fn]Algérie: Sonatrach suspend l’exploitation du gaz de schiste”, Radio France Internationale (RFI), 21 January 2016. “The Algerians suspended shale gas not because they care [about environmental effects] but because it’s not profitable. Companies think [they] will eventually go ahead with shale gas when the price is right”. Crisis Group interview, Geoff Porter, CEO North Africa Risk Consulting, June 2016. “Algeria could cooperate with Russia’s Gazprom on shale gas”, Sputniknews.com, 27 April 2016.Hide Footnote

C. Ouargla: The Movement of the Unemployed

1. The men behind the millioniya

The largest southern demonstrations have been in Ouargla, a strategically important town of about 140,000 near the major oil fields of Hassi Messaoud and gas fields of Hassi Rmmel that hosts a military base for the central and north-east Saharan zone. Grievances there have mixed in ways difficult to disaggregate and no easier to solve. These include rapid population growth, agricultural decline and decreasing cross-border commerce following closure of the borders with Libya, Tunisia and Mali due to security concerns. They have inflamed a countrywide socio-economic crisis that is worse in the south, where unofficial unemployment rates are as high as 30 per cent, especially among youth.[fn]Crisis Group interview, labour expert, Algiers, March 2014. Officially, unemployment fell from 30 per cent in 2000 to 11.2 per cent in 2015, according to the National Office of Statistics (ONS).Hide Footnote

The anti-government mood around the Arab world in 2011 found fertile ground in this environment. Among the first manifestations was the Ouargla-based, largely male CNDDC youth movement. Its leaders transcend the party lines that typically pit Islamists against secular activists. Its most visible leader, Taher Belabbes, a ten-year veteran activist, recruited Yacine Zaid, a trade union and human rights activist in his 40s, and Khencha Belqacem, an Islamist dedicated to broad-based social organising.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Yacine Zaid, 12 August 2016.Hide Footnote The group sought, with fair success, to build a peaceful and inclusive movement, with wide support among liberals, Islamists and students. They united around shared beliefs that unemployment was driving southerners toward fatalism, religious radicalism and extreme acts; handouts might temporarily assuage but not eliminate grievances; the state’s economic mismanagement had created dependency for southerners, not opportunities; and the south was a “disgraced territory” due to extreme neglect in comparison with the north.[fn]Crisis Group interview, CNDDC activist, Ouargla, May 2015.Hide Footnote

On 8 June 2011, several hundred protesters clashed with security forces in Ouargla, after several months of peaceful protests, sit-ins, suicides and self-immolations there and in Hassi Messaoud brought no official response. More clashes broke out six months later 260km away in Laghouat, between security forces and residents denouncing unemployment, public-housing corruption and hiring practices said to favour northerners. The CNDDC led southerners, for the first time in memory, to demand a say in distribution of national resources and call on the government to account for its economic policies.[fn]Luis Martinez, “Algérie: le calme avant la tempête?”, Le Monde, 10 January 2012.Hide Footnote

By 2013, the CNDDC’s mobilising capacity had grown. On 14 March, between 5,000 and 10,000 protesters assembled in front of Ouargla’s city hall for a millioniya carrying flags and banners and shouting slogans demanding jobs and development of the south. Belabbes said:

With [the millioniya] we were seizing our right to protest and express ourselves publicly … all across Algeria, with the exception of Algiers, which remains to be conquered. It was also our response to the slanderous and insulting declarations of the prime minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, and of Daho Ould Kablia, then interior minister. The people of the south will always remember this unfortunate phrase of Sellal who described the young unemployed as chirdhima [insignificant] or minor terrorist groups. The outrageous words of Ould Kablia who spoke of “neutralising” the protests and controlling the security situation in the south in order to protect oil installations still resonate in my ears.[fn]“‘Je démissionne pour couper court aux subterfuges du gouvernement’, Taher Belabbes, ex porte-parole de la Coordination nationale de défense des droits des chômeurs”, El Watan, 21 February 2014.Hide Footnote

The 2013 millioniya, which went off peacefully in the presence of security forces, led the state to take the protests seriously, implementing a series of emergency measures.[fn]Sellal ordered emergency measures: making zero-interest development-oriented bank loans available in the south, pressure on foreign and domestic contractors as well as national agencies to recruit locally and raising public-employee salaries. Belakhdar, “‘l’Eveil du Sud’”, op. cit. The governor received and offered jobs, mostly in the gendarmerie, to a delegation of unemployed.Hide Footnote  Leaders felt they had established the movement as an interlocutor for local and national authorities on resource distribution in the south.[fn]Protesters said that after the event they had more self-respect and felt that by challenging those perceiving them as docile, insignificant or criminal, they had begun to play a productive role in society. Crisis Group interview, Ouargla, June 2013. Belakhdar, “‘L’Eveil du Sud’”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  However as with other protest movements in the south, their hopes were soon disappointed. Deep reform – rooting out corruption and nepotism in hiring and effective training for lucrative local jobs in the oil and gas industry – never materialised. Leadership schisms weakened the movement and slowed its momentum.[fn]A centre created in 2014 demonstrated training shortcomings: Sonatrach hired none of the 40 trainees who completed the first six-month course; only twelve found jobs. The second class of 30 was still unemployed six months after training. “Ouargla à bout de patience”, El Watan, 13 March 2015. Crisis Group interviews, Ouargla, May 2013. Belabbes began denouncing political and military figures and demanding more radical change on the national level. Zaid focused on the CNDDC itself and local goals.Hide Footnote  Perhaps most important was the constant surveillance, harassment and intimidation of organisers, whom the media, with no evidence, accused of drug or alcohol addiction, acting as foreign agents and secretly pursuing southern autonomy.

By 2015, Belabbes had left the leadership and Zaid the country, and Belqacem was in prison.[fn]Starting in 2011, Belabbes was summoned for questioning and beaten. In January 2013, he was sentenced to one month in prison for unauthorised gathering and breach of state security. “Taher Belabbes interpellé par les RG de Batna”, Quotidien d’Algérie, 17 October 2011; Syndicat national autonome des personnels de l’administration publique (SNAPAP), “les policiers frappé Taher Belabbes”, YouTube, 4 May 2011; communiqué de SNAPAP, 7 January 2013. In October 2012, Zaid was given a suspended six-month sentence for assault of a security agent. In 2014, he fled the country after threats against himself and his family. “Yacine Zaid condamné à six mois de prison avec sursis”, Le Matin d’Algérie, 8 October 2012; Crisis Group interview, Zaid, Laghouat, 2014. Belqacem was arrested in January 2015. The First Instance Tribunal of Laghouat sentenced him and eight other leaders of the unemployed movement to prison terms from twelve to eighteen months for “unauthorised gathering” after they protested for an independent judiciary before the Ouargla tribunal. Months after release, he received another six months for a Facebook video criticising imprisonment of a fellow activist. “Algeria: prison for criticizing judiciary”, Human Rights Watch, 7 June 2016.Hide Footnote  The CNDDC had grown so weak by that year’s millioniya that the national political opposition, which shared the regime’s tendency to disregard local concerns, was able to co-opt the event, diluting its unemployment and anti-fracking messages to focus instead on democratic transition.[fn]National political opposition participants included the Coordination nationale pour les libertés et la transition démocratique (CNLTD), which includes ex-Prime Minister Ahmed Benbitour and Jil Jadid (New Generation) party President Sofiane Djilali, and representatives of the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) party and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Movement of Society for Peace (MSP).Hide Footnote

2. Security risks of mishandling the “southern question”

Repression in Ouargla, a constant since 2011, has led some activists to embrace extreme measures. In February 2013, days after police arrested more than a dozen CNDDC activists who had come together in Laghouat to burn their diplomas in front of the employment agency, clashes broke out between security forces and demonstrators gathered in solidarity with detained colleagues. More recently, protestors have adopted new and disturbing tactics, such as stitching their mouths shut and cutting their arms and chests.[fn]“Violentes émeutes à Laghouat: les jeunes réclament du travail”, Liberté, 24 February 2013. “Les nouvelles formes de protestation des chômeurs à Ouargla”, TSA, 24 February 2016.Hide Footnote

The path of a previous generation of leaders should give the government pause before ignoring local demands. The MSJ, founded in 2004 by Abdesslam Tarmoune and Lamine Bencheneb to demand economic opportunities and improved wealth distribution in the south, is a cautionary tale. After nearly a decade of unfruitful peaceful protest, it split into a faction (CNDDC) that stayed mostly peaceful and two radicalised factions that took up arms. Bencheneb’s faction collaborated with Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al-Mourabitoun group to plan and execute the attack on the In Amenas gas complex in the south in January 2013; Tarmoune fled to the maquis and threatened to violently restore southern youths’ “usurped rights”.[fn]Hannah Armstrong, “The In Amenas attack in the context of southern Algeria’s growing social unrest”, CTC Sentinel, vol. 7, no. 2, 24 February 2014. “Enquete sur la disparition des jeunes du Sud suspectés d’avoir rejoint les rangs du MSJ”, Echourouk Online, 17 June 2013. On 2 February 2014, residents of the southern town of Djanet, along the Tassili n’Ajjer mountain range where Tarmoune was hiding, held a sit-in in his support, asking authorities to stop military operations and open a dialogue for his surrender. “A Djanet, on veut que l’armée dialogue avec Abdessalam Tarmoune”, El Watan, 7 February 2014.Hide Footnote

Continued failure to engage with and effectively respond to southerners’ demands is particularly dangerous given the proliferation of jihadist groups and the smuggling networks that sometimes assist them. Beyond the January 2013 In Amenas attack, AQIM claimed responsibility for an 18 March 2016 rocket attack on the British Petroleum (BP) - and Statoil-operated Krechba gas facility in In Salah province. AQIM’s statement claiming responsibility said it aimed not only to wage “war on the interests of the crusaders”, but also to protect the environment and discourage shale gas exploration – evidence that jihadist groups are attuned to and seek to exploit southern grievances.[fn]Situation on Krechba plant in Algeria clarified”, statoil.com. “Algerian army kills militants behind Krechba gas plant attack: source”, Reuters, 20 March 2016. Clifford Krauss, “BP and Statoil pull employees from Algeria gas fields after attack”, The New York Times, 21 March 2016. None of over 600 employees were injured.Hide Footnote

Moreover, the Algerian Sahara, in the midst of an increasingly troubled region and connecting Libya and West Africa with Mali and Niger, is vulnerable also to flourishing networks of illicit commerce. Smuggling can attract young southerners without jobs who feel abandoned by the authorities. Arms smuggling in particular is on the rise: the army seized more large-calibre weapons between February and April 2016 than at any time since the “black decade” began in 1992.[fn]“Dans le sud algérien, le spectre de la radicalisation des mouvements de protestation”, tsa-algerie.com, 5 March 2015. “Saisies d’armes: du jamais vu dans l’histoire de l’Algérie”, El Watan, 15 April 2016.Hide Footnote

IV. State Responses

A. Managing Southern Unrest

Algerian authorities are taking some measures to improve administration in the south and pursue dialogue. In May 2015 for instance, they announced an administrative redistricting, creating ten new districts, each under a delegate wali (provincial governor), including Ghardaia and Ouargla, as well as Tamanrasset, where In Salah is located. Local elected officials welcome the move, which could strengthen administration, though there is some wariness that it also will expand and refine security structures and control.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Mohamed Hadou, regional deputy, Assemblée populaire de la Wilaya d’Adrar, Adrar, May 2015. The reform, which began as a 2014 Bouteflika campaign promise, is meant to develop public services, increase public sector employment and improve citizen-state relations in the south, taking into consideration the vast territory a single central wilaya manages and the expense of doing so. It is also to make monitoring citizens and cross-border traffic easier.Hide Footnote Also well received have been Education Minister Nouria Benghebrit’s efforts since 2016 to close the gap between educational indicators in south and north, though this long-term project will not soon solve the former’s challenges.[fn]“Education: Benghebrit au secours du Sud”, El Watan, 27 May 2016.Hide Footnote  Dialogue between local stakeholders and high-ranking officials has led to fulfilling certain protester demands, such as job creation.[fn]In Ouargla, the millioniya established the unemployed movement as an interlocutor with local authorities, with negotiations around distribution of jobs. See Section III.C above.Hide Footnote  The unrest has had some intangible benefits as well, such as elevating the visibility of southern populations, which has helped them push their agenda and argue that solutions can come only through engagement, not top-down imposition.

While positive, the state’s responses so far have largely been tactical and tentative and do not address issues that require far-reaching policy changes,

It is unlikely, however, that this will be enough. While positive, the state’s responses so far have largely been tactical and tentative and do not address issues that require far-reaching policy changes, such as rooting out corruption and nepotism and consulting on controversial drilling techniques. Southern activists are even more pessimistic that the state will go further to recognise their “dignity as citizens”, code for building an inclusive national society that takes full account of their cultural identity and provides broadly for their economic well-being. Without that, small steps, though appreciated, come off as a way of managing dissent.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, CNDDC activists, Ouargla, May 2013. “They [the authorities] react as they always do to a socio-economic crisis: they send a high-ranking government official, commit funds, then vanish. There’s no security when there’s no development. Development would be tourism, marathons, bringing people here. It’s not happening”. Crisis Group interview, Western diplomat, Algiers, May 2015. “When there is a problem that may have political consequences, it’s insufficient to give directives to recruit the people of the south. More must be done, for example a Marshall Plan …. Does the government not realise this? … To force an American company to hire in the south does not work and does not solve the problem”. Crisis Group interview, Moustapha Bouchachi, ex-FFS parliamentarian, Algiers, May 2015.Hide Footnote  Dida Badi, an anthropologist from Tamanrasset, argues:

There’s no strategy. First they tried to use local elites, because they thought it was a problem of the youth. When that didn’t work, they used police, force, repression, in Ghardaia, in Ouargla, in In Salah. Then they saw that wasn’t working, because these movements were becoming national, and even international. Now what will they do?[fn]Crisis Group interview, Algiers, May 2015.Hide Footnote

The recent government response indicates its direction, as well as the difference from three decades ago: 1980s protests in the north were brutally put down; today’s more nuanced tactics target protest leaders and favour co-optation.

B. The South as Bellwether

The fourth-term Bouteflika administration has undertaken sweeping measures, first promised in 1999, in the name of promoting rule of law, culminating in dismantling the powerful DRS in January 2016 and ratifying an amended constitution in February. But while these measures have radically circumscribed and even eliminated security agency meddling in politics and might indicate new guarantees for civil liberties and minority rights, the future remains in doubt.[fn]The amended constitution enshrines Tamazight as an official language (Article 4) and eliminates mention of press offences. For the full text, see Journal Officiel de la République Algérienne N°14, 7 March 2016, joradp.dzHide Footnote  The presidency has been strengthened and a rival power centre removed, but whether this will lead to the institutionalisation of rule of law remains to be seen. Ultimately, the government must strengthen reforms if it is to convince citizens it is working on their behalf, particularly given the most serious economic crisis in decades and turmoil on most borders.

The historical context has imbued southern concerns with national political significance for both government and opposition. The latter sees potential leverage for rejuvenating its fortunes and pushing for democratisation, starting with a transparent transition.[fn]“We’re starting to understand that in order to be more effective, it is necessary to coordinate our actions and move in the same direction, at the right moment”. Crisis Group interview, Salah Dabbouz, president, LADDH national bureau, and member, Instance de suivi et de concertation de l’opposition (ISCO), Algiers, May 2015.Hide Footnote  The opposition bloc CNLTD initially gathered steam as it united Islamist and secular parties for the first time, against Bouteflika’s fourth term in 2014. It has lost relevance, however, because it has come to be seen as hijacked by pro-regime figures and internally fragmented. Most coalition members are veterans of past governments, lack a platform for change and focus their critique narrowly on the president rather than the broader system.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Western diplomat, Algiers, May 2015.Hide Footnote  By joining the millioniya in Ouargla and sending a delegation to In Salah in 2015, the CNLTD was trying to regain some of its lost credibility.

Southern activists are wary of co-optation but seem willing to risk cooperation with the opposition given its substantial resources and the visibility it brings their cause.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, activists, Ouargla, In Salah, Algiers, May 2015.Hide Footnote  The opposition itself has yet to garner much support in the south; isolated appearances are insufficient either to win a broad base or convince its populations that their commitment is genuine rather than opportunistic.

Perhaps more importantly, the south has become a bellwether for regime intentions. The protests offer an opportunity to show what movement toward democratic civilian rule and improved governance would look like. Signs are not encouraging. The combination of security measures, buying off or prosecuting protest leaders on flimsy charges does not inspire confidence that the state will address the most consequential national issues.

V. Conclusion

Southern unrest is acutely sensitive in and for Algeria not only because of the resource reserves located there, but also because of longstanding national sovereignty concern. Recent geopolitical reconfigurations, such as an increasingly autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, an independent South Sudan and a fracturing Libya, have fuelled concern, some would say paranoia, about Western designs to partition Arab states to control their energy reserves.[fn]Algeria favours preservation of national unity and post-independence borders and has worked to ward off partition talk in Mali, Libya and Syria. Crisis Group Report, Algeria and Its Neighbours, op. cit.; interviews, Algerian diplomats, security officials, Algiers, 2015.Hide Footnote  But the authorities imagine separatist inclinations where there are none among southern protesters, whose issues are unfairness and mismanagement: that the state hides shale gas drilling, exacerbates intercommunal tensions and does not engage effectively with legitimate southern grievances such as unemployment. The security-centric government approach treats protesters as a public order risk, not a party to engage substantively.

After armed forces put down the violence in Ghardaia without addressing underlying factors, the calm is brittle. Compensating merchants for sacked and looted stocks is a start but will not prevent future clashes. As requested locally, authorities should appoint a committee to investigate recent violent outbreaks and ensure accountability among both Mozabite and Arab communities and security forces.

Southern demands for jobs and environmental protection, embodied in the movement of the unemployed in Ouargla and the anti-shale gas protesters in In Salah and beyond, raise challenges of inclusion and representation that authorities must address. A start might be to improve communication with protest leaders and their constituencies. Dialogue efforts should begin with the state clarifying its policy where there is ambiguity. If economic exigencies mean shale gas is its only option, it should declare so. Tunisia announced in June 2016 the “total and immediate” publication of all its oil contracts in response to the “Where is the oil?” campaign and clashes with security forces.[fn]La Tunisie entame la publication des contrats pétroliers en ‘open data’”, Jeune Afrique, 17 June 2016.Hide Footnote  Likewise, if Algeria has a good case that shale gas can be extracted without harming the environment, it should make it transparently. The same applies to the discussion of job creation.

Such efforts should be carried out, where relevant, together with Sonatrach and its partners operating in the area, since they are major employers and directly affected by local unrest. Foreign oil and gas companies complain that the state makes corporate social responsibility difficult if not impossible. This is a problem because sustainable investment relies on social engagement and requires not only formal operating licenses, but also a “social license” from local stakeholders.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior foreign oil company analyst, Algiers, June 2015. The secrecy and bureaucracy imposed by the state ensure that the gulf between companies and residents remains wide. “In corporate social responsibility, you talk about social license operators …. You want local stakeholders to see your presence and your operation as something positive that they can benefit from. When it comes to shale gas, you have protests against fracking but not against conventional projects, which means that it will be more challenging to receive this kind of social license to operate. But unconventional [projects] of course are seen as the future”. Ibid.Hide Footnote

The challenge for both government and opposition is to understand the south and its grievances on its own terms, rather than as a foreign tool of destabilisation or a popular groundswell to be co-opted. This is also a wider opportunity to rethink governance and seize the moment as the country enters a transition or at least a leadership change. Adding urgency is the risk that southern discontent could become an instrument of an opposition seeking to paint the current system as illegitimate and ineffective, or worse, exacerbate the anti-state sentiment and feelings of neglect and exclusion upon which radical groups prey.

Algiers/Brussels, 21 November 2016

Appendix A: Map of Algeria

Map of Algeria. Courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin

Appendix B: Map of Oil and Gas Fields in Algeria

Map of Oil and Gas Fields in Algeria Mike Shand/Crisis Group

Appendix C: Glossary of Terms

Ansar Dine: Tuareg-led jihadist group in northern Mali with ties to AQIM.

AQIM: al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

CNDDC: Comité National pour la Défense des Droits des Chômeurs (National Committee for the Defence of the Rights of the Unemployed).

CNLTD: Coordination nationale pour les libertés et la transition démocratique (National Coordination for Freedoms and Democratic Transition), opposition coalition.

CRS: Compagnies républicaines de sécurité (Republican Security Companies), riot-control police.

DRS: Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité, once powerful military intelligence agency disbanded in January 2016.

FFS: Front des Forces Socialistes (Socialist Forces Front), historic opposition party with a stronghold in the Kabylie region.

FLN: Front National de Libération (National Liberation Front), historical post-independence ruling party.

GSPC: Groupe pour la Prédication et le Combat (Group for Preaching and Combat), precursor to AQIM.

ISCO: Instance de suivi et de coordination de l’opposition (Authority for Follow-up and Coordination of the Opposition), opposition coalition.

Mourabitoun: Jihadist group led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, affiliated with AQIM.

MSJ: Mouvement des Enfants du Sud pour la Justice (Mouvement of the Children of the South for Justice), southern activist group.

MSP: Mouvement de la Société pour la Paix (Movement of the Society for Peace), leader of the Alliance Verte Islamist coalition, the largest opposition group in parliament.

MUJAO: Mouvement pour l’Unicité et le Jihad en Afrique Occidentale (Movement for Monotheism and Jihad in West Africa), AQMI offshoot focused on West Africa.

Nahda: Islamic Renaissance Movement, part of the Alliance Verte Islamist coalition.

RND: Rassemblement National Démocratique (National Democratic Rally), junior partner in the governing coalition led by the FLN.

Sonatrach: The state oil company.

People attend a demonstration in Paris on July 5, 2020 in support of Algeria's Hirak key protest movement as Algeria celebrates today the anniversary of its 1962 independence from France. FRANCOIS GUILLOT / AFP

Algeria: Easing the Lockdown for the Hirak?

Les retombées économiques et sociales de la crise de Covid-19 et les mesures de confinement risquent de multiplier les défis auxquels l’Algérie est confrontée. Les autorités devraient desserrer leur étau sur la contestation populaire et établir un dialogue économique avec le hirak.

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What’s new? Algeria is now facing more challenges due to the social and economic fallout from the COVID-19 crisis and the country’s official lockdown measures.

Why does it matter? The Algerian government could react to this situation by taking on external debt and increasing austerity in its budget. However, such an approach could stir up social tensions and intensify the conflict between the Hirak movement and the state.

What should be done? The authorities should capitalise on this moment of national solidarity created by the pandemic by responding to popular protests with a lighter touch. The government and Hirak should sit together to discuss the country’s economic conditions and propose specific ways of reducing its exposure to fluctuating oil and gas prices.

Executive Summary

The economic and social fallout caused by the COVID-19 crisis and the Algerian authorities’ lockdown measures risk radicalising the Hirak protest movement. To avoid such a scenario, Algerian state authorities should take advantage of the national solidarity created by the pandemic to use a lighter touch in their dealings with the Hirak and support some of its citizen-led initiatives. If political dialogue is unrealistic in the short term, the government and members of the Hirak should at least engage in a national economic dialogue to find a way to implement the structural changes needed to ward off a severe economic crisis. International financial organisations and friendly nations should stand by to offer the country financial support specifically for economic reforms, but without imposing overly-strict conditions. If Algeria accepts them, such reforms could weaken the powerful clientelist networks that profit from the oil and gas industry, and in turn possibly trigger more violence, repeating what happened in the 1990s.

The Hirak is a largely non-violent and citizen-led movement set up in February 2019 when President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced he was running for another term in office. Faced with the COVID-19 health emergency, the movement demonstrated civic responsibility by respecting the restrictions on movement put in place by the government in its attempt to curb the spread of the virus; it suspended its street protests and set up a solidarity network to reduce the lockdown’s social impact.

Despite the promises of constitutional reform made in response to the Hirak’s demands, there has been a noticeable security clampdown.

Although the Algerian government has taken emergency measures on social and economic issues, politically it appears to have called an end to its détente with the Hirak, in effect since Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s election on 12 December 2019. Thus, despite the promises of constitutional reform made in response to the Hirak’s demands, there has been a noticeable security clampdown. Moreover, Algeria is facing a wide range of social and economic challenges due to the global economic slump and tumbling oil prices. The country’s macro-economic outlook is grim given its dependence on oil and gas exports and the impact of lockdown.

In the short term, the Algerian government may need to resort to taking on external debt and tightening its austerity measures, and possibly face a resurgence of social tension as a result. When lockdown restrictions are lifted across the country, the Hirak may therefore resort to a more aggressive stance. Conflicts with the government could flare up since the conditions are right for a resumption of fortnightly protest marches, as well as for general strikes and outbreaks of civil disobedience. The standoff between the authorities and the Hirak since February 2019 could then become more entrenched. Or the Hirak could dissipate and, in the absence of measures that address the grievances expressed by the movement, leave a vacuum. This could lead to small groups taking an increasingly hardline approach and more radical actions in the not-too-distant future.

To prevent such unwelcome developments and broaden support for President Tebboune, the authorities should implement the new head of state’s promises of greater political openness. Such a response could include, for example, releasing political detainees, ending media censorship, and putting an end to arbitrary arrests. The government could also give increasing support to – but not seek to co-opt – the citizen networks set up by the Hirak’s leaders to help fight the pandemic and reduce its social impact.

An immediate resolution to the conflict through political dialogue is improbable; however, a sustained and far-reaching national economic discussion could achieve this aim by bringing together leading political groups, unions and organisations, along with government representatives and the country’s most influential businesspeople, even from the informal sector. The objective would be to identify the obstacles in the way of genuine economic reform and to propose realistic and broadly accepted solutions to overcome them.

Finally, if the Algerian government decides to make a request, international financial organisations and friendly nations should provide financial backing, in particular to support an eventual economic reform strategy. In that case, donors should provide financial assistance without imposing excessively strict conditions (all-out liberalisation and severe austerity). Lacking an alternative, the authorities would either turn them down or feel obliged to accept them. The latter scenario could destabilise important clientelist networks involved in controlling profits from the oil and gas industry, as happened in the 1990s when this was a contributing factor to the spiralling violence of the “black decade”.

Tunis/Algiers/Brussels, 27 July 2020


Since February 2019, the Algerian authorities have faced a popular uprising of unprecedented size and scale. Within two months, the movement, known as the Hirak, had grown so strong that it prompted the chief of staff and deputy minister of defence, Ahmed Gaïd Salah, to demand President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s resignation on 2 April. In the course of subsequent weeks, the uprising compelled the authorities to arrest more than 100 senior government officials, as well as businessmen who were close to them, and to postpone the presidential election twice, on 18 April and 4 July.[fn]See “La liste des ex-hauts responsables et hommes d’affaires actuellement en prison”, Algérie 360, 4 November 2019.Hide Footnote On 12 December 2019, the balloting finally proceeded, with Abdelmadjid Tebboune emerging as the winner.[fn]Abdelmadjid Tebboune received 58 per cent of the vote with an official participation rate of 40 per cent (though, according to several Hirak activists, the real participation rate was no higher than 9 per cent). A member of the National Liberation Front (FLN), the main party in power, Tebboune is a former housing minister who was briefly prime minister in 2017. He was deposed after denouncing the corrupt practices of businessmen close to Bouteflika and his brother Saïd. Crisis Group interviews, Hirak demonstrators, Algiers, December 2019-February 2020. See also Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°192, Breaking Algeria’s Economic Paralysis, 19 November 2018.Hide Footnote

The Algerian regime is far from collapsing, but the Hirak persists, and the socio-economic fallout of the global COVID-19 crisis has added to the authorities’ challenges.

This report assesses those challenges, as well as the government’s response to the largest social movement in the country’s modern history amid the coronavirus pandemic. It is based on interviews conducted between February 2019 and May 2020 with state representatives (mainly former administration officials), Algerian academics, local elected officials, leaders of political parties, citizens involved in the Hirak movement, and members of international organisations. It is also informed by regular, in-person observation of twice-weekly demonstrations, especially in Algiers.

The Dilemma Posed by the Hirak A Largely Peaceful Citizens’ Movement

The Hirak movement emerged in February 2019 following the “humiliating” announcement of Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s candidacy for a fifth term. It presents itself as a peaceful citizen-led movement, though protesters have clashed with police a few times at the end of marches.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Hirak activist, Algiers, March 2019. Many Algerians called the announcement “humiliating” due to Bouteflika’s poor health (he has partial paralysis and difficulty speaking). They felt that the country deserved a younger, more dynamic executive, and that his candidacy showed that he was hostage to an unelected circle governing in his place. Crisis Group interviews, former state representatives, economists, journalists, Hirak activists, Algiers, Tunis, Marseille, Paris, March-October 2019. Crisis Group observations, Algiers, February 2019-March 2020. According to its members, the Hirak expresses the collective desire to reclaim public space, a space that the regime has closed by banning demonstrations and stifling almost all forms of opposition.[fn]Since the beginning of the uprising, traditional opposition parties have attempted to form a coalition, but they have found little support among the demonstrators. Crisis Group interviews, journalists, academics, Algiers, March 2019. Crisis Group observations, Algiers, February 2019-March 2020.  The movement advocates a vision of citizenship that seeks to transcend the political, social and regional divisions that have led to civil strife in the past.[fn]Islamism and assertions of Amazigh identity have caused particularly salient divisions in the past. See “Socialités et humanités. La citoyenneté en mouvement”, Revue des sciences sociales, n°7 (2019).Hide Footnote

The hugeness of the crowds – millions of people assembled across the country in the first half of 2019, with hundreds of thousands continuing to gather every Tuesday and Friday thereafter – gave participants a sense of security.[fn]Ibid. Hide Footnote The demonstrations allowed them to regain the status of political actors, something they felt the authorities had denied them.[fn]As one of the first leaders of the movement in Kheratta noted: “It was difficult to mobilise people on 16 February because so many have lost hope. Society has lost trust in all organisations. The people must build change themselves”. Crisis Group interview, Hirak demonstrators, Kheratta, February 2019. See “Socialités et humanités. La citoyenneté en mouvement”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

As one protester noted, these ritualised twice-weekly gatherings in the country’s major cities allow people to behave as true citizens.[fn]Crisis Group interview, protester, Algiers, March 2019. Hide Footnote From the movement’s first weeks, open debates flourished in universities and public spaces. Algerians who were not politically active before February 2019 organised themselves into local committees and set up neighbourhood initiatives. They raised awareness among their neighbours of the movement’s pro-democracy agenda and launched discussions of what it means to be a citizen (such as fighting petty corruption and trying to engage with young people).[fn]Crisis Group observations, Algiers, March-November 2019. Crisis Group interviews, Hirak demonstrators, Algiers, February-November 2019. Hide Footnote

These peaceful expressions of citizenship allowed Algerians to shake off the stigma of violence and incivility with which many of them felt unjustly associated.[fn]Crisis Group observations, Algiers, March-November 2019. Crisis Group interviews, Hirak activists, Algiers, Kheratta, March-December 2019.Hide Footnote

Hirak activists say their movement is a durable opposition force.

Hirak activists say their movement is a durable opposition force – albeit with a durable internal divide.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Hirak activists, Algiers, Kheratta, March-December 2019. See also Amel Boubekeur, “Demonstration Effects: How the Hirak Protest Movement is Reshaping Algerian Politics”, European Council on Foreign Relations, 27 February 2020. Hide Footnote While divergences based on Amazigh identity and religious conservatism regularly reappear within the movement, only to fade away, there is a permanent confrontation between two groups that rally small opposition parties and activist associations.[fn]See Mohan Tilmatine, “Interdiction des emblèmes berbères et occupation des espaces symboliques : amazighité versus algérianité ?”, L’Année du Maghreb, n°21 (2019). See also Ryad Hamadi, “Islamistes et hirak : Saïd Sadi met en garde contre les dangers de la ‘confusion’”, Tout sur l’Algérie, 29 February 2020. Hide Footnote The first, the Pôle démocratique (Democratic Pole), favours negotiations with authorities and a search for consensus; its representatives notably supported the work of the National Dialogue Commission headed by diplomat Karim Younes, which fizzled.[fn]See Fayçal Métaoui, “Le pôle démocratique plaide pour le dialogue et dénonce les atteintes aux libertés”, Tout sur l'Algérie, 26 June 2019. Hide Footnote The second, the Forces du pacte de l’alternative démocratique (Forces of the Democratic Alternative Pact), refuses any discussion with the authorities and demands utter dissolution of “the system”, followed by a democratic transition including election of a constituent assembly.[fn]See “Algérie : pacte politique pour une véritable alternative démocratique”, Blog Ensemble, 1 July 2019. See also “Réunies hier au siège du RCD : les Forces de l’alternative démocratique rejettent l’agenda de la présidentielle”, El Watan, 10 September 2019.Hide Footnote

The Hirak has a horizontal structure, refusing all forms of hierarchy. It has no official spokespeople, although its members include opinion leaders and social activists, including former representatives of the Front des forces socialistes (Socialist Forces Front, or FFS, the traditional opposition party) such as Mustapha Bouchachi and Karim Tabbou. Also among its ranks are socially engaged artists whose work inspires the slogans chanted at demonstrations and broadcast on social media networks.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Hirak activists, Algiers, Kheratta, March 2019-March 2020. Hide Footnote

A Power Structure that Must Maintain Its Equilibrium

The power structure, which many Algerians have called “the regime” or “the system” since its consolidation after independence in 1962, has experienced several serious crises. Thus far, it has overcome them all through a combination of economic and political reforms, in effect purchasing social peace, while both co-opting and repressing opponents.[fn]The system notably escaped a crisis in 1976, by which time the hope and confidence born of independence had withered away. The regime dissolved the Revolutionary Council created in 1965, organised a presidential election, established a national assembly and drew up a new national charter. It evaded crisis again in 1988, when, following the oil counter-shock and the October riots, army officers left the FLN’s central committee and the regime authorised a multiparty system. A violent confrontation ensued between the military government and Islamist groups, with the government eventually prevailing. In 2011, amid the Arab uprisings, the regime authorised new opposition parties and managed to buy social peace until 2014. See Miriam R. Lowi, Oil Wealth and the Poverty of Politics(Cambridge, 2009). See also the Algerian chronicles of the Annuaire de l’Afrique du Nord (1962-2003) and L’Année du Maghreb (2004-2019).Hide Footnote It has managed to maintain its equilibrium by surpassing internal divisions and conflicts between its three main institutions: the army, in particular the chief of staff, the military and civilian intelligence services, and the presidency of the Republic.[fn]See Hugh Roberts, The Battlefield: Algeria, 1988-2002 (London, 2003).Hide Footnote

But with the crisis sparked in February 2019 by the Hirak, and the economic slump following the COVID-19 outbreak, the system is weakening and maintaining this balance is becoming increasingly difficult.[fn]See Section III of this report. See also the intervention by Louiza Dris Aït Hamadouche, “La lutte de clans, Tebboune-généraux de Gaïd Salah, réalité ou intox ?”, Radio M, 22 April 2020. Hide Footnote The conflicts between and within the regime’s main institutions are more pronounced than usual, albeit far less violent than during the “black decade” of the 1990s.[fn]Hamadouche, “La lutte de clans”, op. cit. The expression “black decade” refers to the period of conflict (1991-2002) between the military government and armed Islamist groups, which claimed between 100,000 and 200,000 lives. Hide Footnote The authorities must manage this crisis while its two main sources of income are running out: the annuity conferred by the revolutionary legitimacy of the war of liberation, and the revenue derived from hydrocarbon production and export.[fn]See Nadji Safir, “Algérie 2019 : une crise majeure”, Diplo Web, 3 April 2019. Hide Footnote

Faced with this two-fold crisis of legitimacy, the authorities must respond wisely to the Hirak’s challenge.

Faced with this two-fold crisis of legitimacy, the authorities must respond wisely to the Hirak’s challenge. On one hand, given the scale, duration, popularity and peaceful nature of this movement – hundreds of thousands of Algerians taking to the streets every week for over a year – a forcible clampdown could prove very risky. It is notably to avoid exposing itself to such repression that the Hirak remains largely peaceful and does not venture off its set path (with, for instance, general strikes lasting days or weeks, civil disobedience and sabotage).[fn]See Section II.B of this report. Hide Footnote On the other hand, the government is reluctant to give in to the Hirak’s main demands: full rejuvenation of the political class; an army that safeguards republican institutions but absents itself from politics; genuine respect for freedom of association; creation of a “truly independent” electoral commission; establishment of an independent Constitutional Court; and elections for a constituent assembly.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, president and spokesperson for opposition parties, associative leaders, Hirak activists, Algiers, March 2019. See also “Is a Democratic Transition Possible in Algeria? Fourteen Experts Respond”, POMED, December 2019; and “Algérie : pacte politique pour une véritable alternative démocratique”, Blog Ensemble, 1 July 2019. Hide Footnote These demands in fact endanger the regime’s s survival.

Not all citizens support the Hirak, however, and the government can still count on part of the population. Some, including those who voted for President Tebboune, believe that Algeria’s main democratic achievement is popular sovereignty and see the shadow of foreign influence hovering over the uprising. They fear that outside actors will encourage a transition that promotes sectional interests (regional, tribal and corporatist) to the detriment of the national interest.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, executives, doctors, anti-Hirak voters in the 12 December 2019 presidential election, Algiers, October-December 2019. See the 2019 editorials of El Djeich, the monthly periodical of the National People’s Army, and the weekly speeches by Gaïd Salah, particularly in April and September 2019. Also Crisis Group interview, public-sector executive, Algiers, December 2019. Hide Footnote The unity of the country would suffer, and so would the state, at a time when Algeria needs a strong state “in a regional context plagued by violence” (such as in Libya, Mali and Niger).[fn]Crisis Group interview, public-sector manager, Algiers, December 2019. Crisis Group interviews, executives, doctors, anti-Hirak voters in the 12 December 2019 presidential election, Algiers, October-December 2019. Hide Footnote Others, mainly public-sector executives, fear the effects of extensive economic liberalisation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, management-level public-sector employees, Algiers, October-December 2019. Hide Footnote One academic notes that free trade on an international scale would mean that senior army officers, certain senior officials and politicians would lose “the monopoly over managing the oil and gas revenue, or would at least risk giving greater autonomy to the businessmen with whom they are affiliated, as occurred in the late 2000s. And those who uphold the system do not want this”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, academic, Marseille, March 2019. See also Crisis Group Report, Breaking Algeria’s Economic Paralysis, op. cit. Hide Footnote

The Authorities and the Hirak: National Unity in the Face of COVID-19
In terms of trying to protect public health, the Algerian government has been quite responsive.

In terms of trying to protect public health, the Algerian government has been quite responsive. On 17 March 2020, when the country had 80 diagnosed COVID-19 cases and eight confirmed deaths, authorities imposed social distancing measures: a ban on all forms of assembly, closure of places of worship, schools, cafés, restaurants and retail stores except those stocking food and/or hygiene and pharmaceutical products. They closed the country’s land borders and suspended incoming flights and maritime vessels, aside from those bringing in food, medicine and essential raw materials or repatriating citizens.[fn]See Executive Decree N°20-69 of 26 Rajab 1441 (corresponding to 21 March 2020), relating to measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Hide Footnote An Algerian industrial group began manufacturing protective masks.[fn]See “Covid-19 : le groupe Getex lance la fabrication de masques de protection”, Algeria Press Service, 25 March 2020. See also “Soutien. La Chine à la rescousse d’une Algérie reconnaissante”, Courrier International, 31 March 2020. In mid-May, the authorities facilitated imports of medical products. See Executive Decree N°20-109 of 12 Ramadan 1441 (corresponding to 5 May 2020), relating to exceptional measures intended to supply the national market with pharmaceutical products, medical devices and detection equipment in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Hide Footnote

The government encouraged voluntary isolation, though it placed repatriated Algerians in compulsory quarantine. On 24 March, as the disease’s toll rose to 264 confirmed cases and nineteen deaths, it decreed lockdown measures that were partial or total depending on the local epidemiological situation.[fn]See Executive Decree N°20-69, op. cit.Hide Footnote In the wilaya (province) of Blida (south west of Algiers), for instance, there was a major cluster of cases. The High Security Council chaired by President Tebboune ordered a full lockdown accompanied by a curfew, prohibiting Blida’s residents from leaving their homes except in cases of necessity or with police authorisation.[fn]See Executive Decree N°20-70 of 29 Rajab 1441 (corresponding to 24 March 2020), setting out additional measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Hide Footnote On 4 April, the authorities instituted a partial lockdown and curfew, from 3pm to 7am, in the rest of the country.[fn]See Executive Decree N°20-92 of 11 Chaâbane 1441 (corresponding to 5 April 2020), amending and complementing Executive Decree N°20-72 of 3 Chaâbane 1441 (corresponding to 28 March 2020), extending partial lockdown in certain wilayas.Hide Footnote

On 24 April, shortly before the start of Ramadan, the toll stood at fewer than 2,700 diagnosed cases and 375 deaths. That day, after several reassuring messages from the head of state and the health minister declaring that the epidemic had peaked, the government shortened its curfew by two hours – so that it lasted from 5pm to 7am.[fn]See Executive Decree N°20-102 of 29 Chaâbane 1441 (corresponding to 23 April 2020), extending the partial lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and reorganising its schedule.Hide Footnote On 20 May, the government decreed the compulsory wearing of protective masks in public.[fn]See Executive Decree N°20-127 of 27 Ramadan 1441 (corresponding to 20 May 2020), amending and complementing Executive Decree N°20-70.Hide Footnote On 28 May, the partial lockdown was extended until 13 June, except in the country’s sparsely populated southern provinces (Saida, Tindouf, Illizi and Tamanrasset).[fn]See Executive Decree N°20-131 of 5 Chaoual 1441 (corresponding to 28 May 2020), extending the partial lockdown, reorganising its schedule and renewing measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Hide Footnote On 13 June, it was eased in 29 of the country’s 48 wilayas, including Algiers – with the curfew remaining in place from 8pm to 5am – and lifted in the rest of the country, including in Tebessa, Tlemcen and Tizi Ouzou.[fn]See Executive Decree N°20-159 of 21 Chaoual 1441 (corresponding to 13 June 2020), on the reorganisation of measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Hide Footnote

In early July, following an increase in the number of cases diagnosed (to nearly 300 per day), the government toughened its measures. It once again extended the partial lockdown and reinstated it in several regions where it had been lifted. It also allowed the walis (governors) to put additional measures in place to deal with public health developments in their provinces.[fn]See the prime minister’s press release of 1 July 2020. See also Nabila Amir, “Confinement partiel prolongé au 13 juillet : nouvelles charges pour les walis”, El Watan, 1 July 2020. Hide Footnote In Sétif and Ouergla, regional authorities took it upon themselves to suspend all commercial, economic and social activities as well as pedestrian and car traffic in most municipalities.[fn]See the press releases from the interior ministry and local authorities, 7 and 9 July 2020. Hide Footnote A new measure was instituted on 9 July when the government banned travel between the 29 most affected regions.[fn]See “Coronavirus en Algérie, durcissement du confinement dans 29 wilayas”, Dzair Daily, 10 July 2020. Hide Footnote

Hirak leaders largely approved of the authorities’ response to COVID-19. Among protesters, the idea that the government was exploiting the coronavirus to “break the popular movement” was present but not widespread.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Hirak activists, Algiers, March-April 2020.Hide Footnote The Hirak’s protagonists criticised its last demonstration in central Algiers, on 13 March, calling for a pause to fight the pandemic, including a full lockdown of the country.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Hirak activists, Algiers, March-April 2020. See Rosa Djaz, “L’Algérie se confine toute seule”, Politis, 1 April 2020. Hide Footnote Only a few protested budget cuts in the health sector or equated partial lockdown with socio-economic disaster.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Hirak activists, Algiers, March-May 2020. Hide Footnote Comparisons with the “black decade”, a time when Algeria experienced much worse in terms of travel restrictions and economic paralysis, undoubtedly played a role. Hirak activists stressed that there is no shortage of essential goods like there was in the 1990s.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Hirak activists, Algiers, April 2020.Hide Footnote It is also reassuring that the state budget is not burdened by an unsustainable external debt. One activist said there is “a lot of money in the coffers. The COVID-19 crisis will not ruin the country”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Hirak activist, Algiers, April 2020. Hide Footnote The activists hope that when the “system” gives way to a new generation of democratically elected decision-makers, the economy will flourish.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Hirak activists, Algiers, April-May 2020.Hide Footnote

The vast majority of protesters agreed to cease demonstrating in the streets.

As of March, the vast majority of protesters agreed to cease demonstrating in the streets. The “regulars” (those who took part in every march) simply started sharing their views and defending prisoners of conscience on social media networks.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote One said it was necessary to “pause the Hirak to come back stronger”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Hirak activist, Algiers, April-May 2020. Hide Footnote   

The government has nevertheless received plenty of criticism. Some think that the authorities are underestimating the number of COVID-19 deaths and have created websites to track the “real” number of cases.[fn]See Vish Sakthivel, “Algeria’s Hirak: A Political Opportunity in COVID-19?”, Middle East Institute, 1 April 2020.Hide Footnote Others denounce the lack of equipment in certain hospitals, such as in Biskra.[fn]See “Rassemblement à l’hôpital de Biskra : Le personnel de la santé exprime son ras-le-bol”, Algérie 360, 8 July 2020. Hide Footnote Still others advocate for social solidarity in the face of the pandemic without “expecting anything from the state”, as one activist explains. Activists have violated curfews to distribute free meals and personal protective equipment as well as run disinfection campaigns in Algiers and Blida.[fn]As a trader from Algiers explains: “I started to prepare meals as soon as businesses closed. I saw that many people no longer had anything to eat. I was given access to the kitchen of a restaurant closed due to lockdown. I prepare and distribute up to 250 meals in the evening. The authorities told me that I need a permit, but no one can tell me how to get one. Since then, I have been preparing meals discreetly at home and distributing them before the curfew. I identified up to 1,000 people who did not have enough to eat in the centre of Algiers”. Crisis Group interview, Algiers, April 2020. See Faiza Kissi, “A Alger, les bénévoles s’organisent pour pallier les déficiences de l’Etat”, Le Desk, 26 March 2020. See also Sakthivel, “Algeria’s Hirak: A Political Opportunity in COVID-19?”, op. cit.Hide Footnote In Kabylia, villagers have set up their own version of lockdown: a roadblock at the village’s entrance where residents disinfect the car before allowing it in.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Kabylia villagers, Tunis, April 2020. Hide Footnote Activists sometimes coordinate their actions with the central and provincial administrations, as in Algiers, where the latter has made warehouses available for storing medical equipment.[fn]Hirak activists have set up a solidarity network that includes 600 volunteer doctors. Their network has distributed more than 10,000 masks in Algiers and Blida. As one of its organisers notes: “We anticipated the situation since the start of the epidemic in Wuhan in January 2020. We put in place an action plan to raise awareness and consolidate initiatives. The state has taken our plan into account”. Crisis Group interview, Algiers, April 2020.Hide Footnote

Power Shifts in the Face of the Uprising

Following the presidential election at the end of 2019, authorities inaugurated a period of détente with the Hirak. They could have extended this period in view of the movement’s civic-mindedness, as seen in its contribution to the national COVID-19 response.[fn]The presidential election was finally held on 12 December 2019, after two postponements, despite opposition from the streets and a climate of tension unprecedented since the start of the movement.Hide Footnote Yet the opposite occurred.

A period of détente

Following President Tebboune’s election, the government increasingly began to display good-will toward the protesters. On the evening of 12 December 2019, the new head of state called the Hirak movement “blessed” and expressed his desire “for a serious dialogue”.[fn]In addition, when taking the oath of office, Tebboune affirmed that he no longer wanted the words “his excellency” (the standard expression since independence) to precede his name, saying the phrase encourages a “cult of personality”. See Zeinab Filali, “Algérie : le président Tebboune met fin à une expression aussi vieille que l’indépendance”, Financial Afrik, 23 April 2020. Hide Footnote Between late December and mid-January, he met with a series of former heads of government and political opponents, all Hirak supporters, including Abdelaziz Rahabi, Ahmed Benbitour, Taleb Ibrahimi, and Soufiane Djilali.[fn]Abdelaziz Rahabi is a former diplomat and minister of culture. In 2019, the authorities instructed him to lead a dialogue initiative with Hirak representatives. Ahmed Benbitour is another former minister who was briefly head of government in the late 1990s. He was also a candidate in the 2014 presidential election. Taleb Ibrahimi was minister of foreign affairs from 1982 to 1988, then president of the small Wafa (Loyalty) party and a candidate in the 1999 presidential election. Mouloud Hamrouche was leader of the FLN’s liberal wing in the 1980s, and then served as prime minister from September 1989 to June 1991. Sofiane Djilali is president of an opposition party involved in the Hirak, Jil Jadid (New Generation). See “Le président Tebboune reçoit l’ancien chef de gouvernement Ahmed Benbitour”, Algeria Press Service, 29 December 2019; “Dialogue : rencontre Tebboune et Rahabi”, Express, 10 January 2020; “Le président poursuit les consultations : Tebboune reçoit Hamrouche et se rend chez Taleb Ibrahimi”, El Watan, 14 January 2020; Abdelghani Aichoun, “Soufiane Djilali revient sur sa rencontre avec Tebboune : ‘Les intentions semblent aller dans le bon sens’”, El Watan, 18 January 2020. Hide Footnote On 2 January, the new president abolished the post of deputy minister of defence, the last civilian position occupied by a member of the military and created in September 2013 for the army chief of staff, Gaïd Salah.[fn]Salah died in December 2019, after having forced Bouteflika to resign and encouraged the purge of political, administrative and economic circles earlier in the year. See “Algérie : Tebboune supprime le poste de vice-ministre de la Défense”, Dzair Daily, 2 January 2020. Hide Footnote On 18 January 2020, as if to symbolise a rejection of presidentialism, Tebboune gave the newly appointed Prime Minister Djerad the power to nominate senior officials in the administration.[fn]See “Transfert du pouvoir de nomination de certains cadres de l’Etat au Premier ministre”, Algeria Press Service, 19 January 2020. Hide Footnote

Furthermore, on 1 January 2020, the public prosecutor released Issad Rebrab, one of the richest businessmen in Algeria and an early Hirak supporter, after he had spent eight months in prison for “false statements about the movement of capital to and from the country”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, social activists, Algiers, April 2020. See also “Algérie : plusieurs industriels arrêtés”, Agence France Presse, 22 April 2019. Hide Footnote The next day, 67 of the 180 Hirak activists still in detention were released on parole, including Lakhdar Bouregaa, a veteran of the National Liberation Army who is very popular among protesters.[fn]Some of these activists had been arrested following clashes with police at the end of rallies. Others had been detained for their political opinions. As is typical in Algeria, the courts accused them of contrived offences like “attacks on the integrity of the national territory”, “recruitment of volunteers or mercenaries on behalf of a foreign power in Algerian territory”, “attacks on national security” and “distribution of leaflets likely to harm the national interest”. Crisis Group interviews, journalists, Algiers, April 2020. See also Nadir Idir, “Ils ont été interpellés à la fin de la marche populaire du vendredi 1er mars […]”, El Watan, 13 January 2020; “Près de cinquante détenus d’opinion dans les geôles algériennes”, Algeria-Watch, 9 April 2020; and the Facebook page of the National Committee for the Liberation of Prisoners.Hide Footnote

Other political actions reflect a desire for reform.

Other political actions reflect a desire for reform. On 8 January 2020, in accordance with his campaign promises, the new head of state set up a commission of experts tasked with formulating proposals for a new constitution that would guarantee greater public freedoms, judicial independence, and checks and balances.[fn]See “Algérie : le président nomme une commission pour réviser la Constitution”, Reuters, 8 January 2020.Hide Footnote One month later, on 6 February, the government published an action plan for the president’s program. This document echoes the demands of the main opposition parties and associative groups participating in the Hirak.[fn]The document notably includes references to an “overhaul of the legislative system for electoral organisation”, “the moralisation of public life”, “the freedom of assembly and demonstration”, “the independence of the justice system”, and “the advancement and empowerment of women”. See “Plan d’action du gouvernement pour la mise en œuvre du programme du président de la République”, People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria, 6 February 2020.Hide Footnote It advocates for “the establishment of a new republic responding to the legitimate aspirations of the people, and whose foundations will be based on the entrenchment of democratic principles and the protection of rights and freedoms”.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Finally, in May 2020, the presidency presented six main axes for the constitutional revision project, including the right to free association and freedom of assembly.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, journalist, Tunis, May 2020. See also “Avant-projet de la Constitution 2020”, 2020. See also “Révision de la Constitution : la mouture de l’avant-projet prête pour le débat”, Algeria Press Service, 7 May 2020.Hide Footnote

Tougher security measures

This period of relative détente waned with the approach of the movement’s first anniversary on 22 February 2020 and ended during the COVID-19 crisis. On 20 February, nearly 1,400 people from across the country – student groups, the Coordination of Hirak Activists, the Collective of United Journalists, the Coordination of Diaspora Groups and the Collective for Democratic Transition – gathered to call for a unitary conference (the 22 February Initiative) aimed at coordinating the movement’s actions. The authorities banned it, though it had allowed similar meetings a few months earlier.[fn]Crisis Group observations, Algiers, 2019-2020. See also Tarek Hafid, “Le pouvoir algérien interdit une conférence du Hirak”, Sputnik, 20 February 2020.Hide Footnote

Tougher security measures have been especially evident since 17 March and the suspension of demonstrations due to COVID-19. In the eyes of many activists, the justice ministry is taking advantage of the lull in demonstrations to “turn things back”; some, rightly or wrongly, even compare the political situation to that which prevailed on 21 February 2019, the day before protests began.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Hirak activists, member of an international organisation, Algiers, April 2020.Hide Footnote

Between March and July 2020, a number of people were arrested and released on parole.

Between March and July 2020, a number of people were arrested and released on parole: on 24 March, prosecutors secured a longer prison sentence for Karim Tabbou, the former FFS leader and a “credible and respected figure” in the Hirak, and then paroled him on 2 July.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Hirak activist, Algiers, April 2019. See also “Algeria, Events of 2019”, Human Rights Watch, 2020.Hide Footnote On 27 March, Khaled Draréni, a Reporters Without Borders correspondent involved in the protests, was placed in pre-trial detention.[fn]See the Facebook page of the National Committee for the Liberation of Prisoners.Hide Footnote On 20 April, the Sidi Mhamed court in Algiers sentenced Abdelwahab Fersaoui to one year in prison (he was released on 17 May); Fersaoui is president of Rassemblement action jeunesse, an association working to unite the Hirak behind a “democratic transition” including election of a constituent assembly.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rassemblement action jeunesse officials, Algiers, March 2019. See also “Abdelouahab Fersaoui condamné à un an de prison ferme”, Algérie Eco, 6 April 2020. His sentence was reduced on appeal. See “Algérie : libération d’Abdelouahab Fersaoui, figure du hirak, en prison depuis octobre 2019”, Agence France Presse, 18 May 2020. Hide Footnote On 21 June, the Chéraga court in Algiers sentenced Amira Bouraoui, a Bouteflika opponent in the 2010s and Hirak activist, to one year in prison on charges including “insulting the president … through an outrageous or defamatory expression”; the Tipaza court west of Algiers released her pending a new judgement at the end of September.[fn]See Arezki Benali, “Tribunal de Chéraga : les accusations retenues contre Amira Bouraoui”, Algérie Eco, 21 June 2020. See also “Amira Bouraoui retrouve sa liberté”, Algérie 360, 2 July 2020.Hide Footnote In Algiers, journalists have seen daily arrests that create a “climate of paranoia”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, journalist, Algiers, June 2020. Crisis Group interviews, journalists, Algiers, June 2020.Hide Footnote   

Despite conciliatory gestures on the authorities’ part, such as the presidential pardon granted to six Hirak activists on 5 July (Independence Day), freedom of expression appears to have been undermined.[fn]See “Grâce présidentielle pour 6 détenus”, 24h Algérie, 1 July 2020.Hide Footnote In mid-April, the courts blocked access to several online media, including Maghreb Emergent and Radio M, for their overly harsh criticism of President Tebboune’s record.[fn]See Nabila Amir, “Inaccessibilité des sites Maghreb Emergent et Radio M en Algérie : polémique entre l’éditeur et le ministre de la Communication”, El Watan, 16 April 2020.Hide Footnote According to journalists, the communication ministry is threatening the press with a ban on foreign funding in order to remind them to “moderate their criticism of the government”, lest the government file “cases against them”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, journalist, Algiers, May 2020. See also “Tous les dossiers de financements étrangers de la presse nationale seront ouverts”, Algeria Press Service, 16 April 2020.Hide Footnote Another sign of potential tension among authorities is the proposed penal code revision to “criminalise the dissemination and propagation of false information that threatens public order and security”.[fn]See “APN : présentation du projet de loi modifiant et complétant le Code pénal”, Radio Algérienne, 22 April 2020. See also “Criminaliser les actes qui menacent la sécurité et la stabilité du pays”, El Djeich, no. 82 (May 2020). One member of an international organisation in Algiers fears that the authorities will use this reinforced legal arsenal to “intensify repression of associations and individuals highly involved in the Hirak”. Crisis Group telephone interview, Algiers, April 2020. Furthermore, on 26 May, the broadcast of a documentary on Algerian youth and the Hirak on a French channel sparked outrage among Algerians, including within the Hirak, as well as a diplomatic crisis with France, heightening suspicion of the media, especially foreign outlets, among the authorities and many citizens alike. Crisis Group interviews, Hirak activists, Algiers residents, Algiers, May 2020. See Lyes B, “Les démons de l’Algérie ne lâcheront pas prise”, Algérie Eco, 3 June 2020.Hide Footnote

A sceptical Hirak

Despite the promises of democratic openness, Hirak activists remain suspicious of the government’s intentions. Several protesters believe that the facts contradict these promises and fear that the liberal provisions planned for the future constitution will never see the light of day.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Hirak activists, Algiers, May 2020. As one activist put it: “The population must take the government at its word because it has no say”. Crisis Group interview, activist, Algiers, May 2020.Hide Footnote One of them quipped: “The current constitution is already the most liberal in the world. A text is just a text. What’s more, it is imposed from above by a committee of experts, which shows that it is not made to be discussed by the people, even if it were to be approved by referendum”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Hirak activist, Tunis, May 2020.Hide Footnote

In addition, after approving of the authorities’ initial COVID-19 response, many activists now fear that they are exploiting the pandemic to tighten their grip.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Hirak activists, Algiers, April 2020. See Hamdouche, “La lutte de clans”, op. cit. See also Sarah Haidar, “Coronavirus et Hirak algérien : des effets secondaires à haut risque !”, Middle East Eye, 1 April 2020.Hide Footnote A former senior official also describes his impression that the government is, once again, imposing its roadmap as if the Hirak did not exist.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Algiers, November 2019.Hide Footnote The president’s recent declarations are cases in point. On 2 June, speaking at the defence ministry headquarters, Tebboune denounced the “lobbies” that seek to sap the army’s morale, an implicit reference to Hirak activists who disdain the constitutional reform project.[fn]See Akli Ouali, “Tebboune et Chengriha sur la même longueur d’onde”, L’Est Républicain, 4 June 2020.Hide Footnote At the heart of this project – rejected by several protest movement factions – is territorial reform, which aims to increase the number of municipalities and provinces.[fn]See the draft law amending Act N°84-09 of 4 February 1984 relating to the country’s territorial organisation. See also Luis Martinez, “L’armée algérienne à l’épreuve du hirak”, Le Point, 20 February 2020.Hide Footnote The project also envisions a referendum at the end of 2020, which, according to the presidency’s spokesperson, will allow Algerians to agree on a constitution that will prevent it from “falling into the trap of authoritarianism”.[fn]See Ali Boukhlef, “Belaïd Mohand Oussaïd : ‘La présidence veut une Constitution consensuelle’”, Liberté Algérie, 14 May 2020.Hide Footnote The municipal and legislative elections planned for 2021 or 2022 are also included in the project.[fn]According to the presidency of the Republic, legislative and local assemblies can be dissolved in 2021 after the constitutional referendum at the end of 2020. Their legal mandate ends in 2022. See “Tebboune : le référendum sur la nouvelle constitution aura lieu avant la fin de l’année”, Algérie Eco, 23 February 2020. See also Mouhand Ouamar, “Algérie : pas d’élections législatives et locales cette année”, Observ'Algérie, 14 May 2020.Hide Footnote

The Socio-economic Fallout of COVID-19 Emergency Measures
The government made a series of proactive decisions.

In order to limit the pandemic’s socio-economic impact, in particular that of a partial lockdown, the government made a series of proactive decisions. On 17 March, the Tax Division postponed the payment of income taxes and value-added tax for two months; one month later, it exempted humanitarian and charitable associations from customs duties. The government also decreed the payment of a premium to health professionals.[fn]See Presidential Decree N°20-79 of 6 Chaâbane 1441 (corresponding to 31 March 2020), establishing an exceptional premium for health personnel.Hide Footnote On 22 March, due to the closure of non-essential public services, half the public sector’s management staff and employees were placed on exceptional paid leave for a renewable period of fourteen days.[fn]See Executive Decree N°20-69 of 26 Rajab 1441 (corresponding to 21 March 2020), op. cit.Hide Footnote Following the suspension of sea fishing, on 23 March the authorities of the wilaya of Algiers set up a crisis unit to coordinate assistance to fishermen.[fn]See “Installation d’une cellule de suivi des marins pêcheurs confrontés aux retombées de la crise sanitaire”, Algeria Press Service, 6 April 2020.Hide Footnote

Other support measures followed for businesses and the underprivileged. On 7 April, the Bank of Algeria required financial institutions to reschedule their clients’ debt payments.[fn]See Zahra Chenaoui, “Après le Hirak, le coronavirus : en Algérie les entreprises tirent la sonnette d’alarme”, Le Monde Afrique, 17 April 2020.Hide Footnote On 13 and 15 April, respectively, the government announced an allowance of 10,000 dinars (72 euros) for needy families and suspension of late payment penalties for works and services provided under public contracts.[fn]See “Une allocation de 10 000 DA aux familles impactées par la crise sanitaire”, Tout sur l'Algérie, 13 April 2020.Hide Footnote

From the end of March, the authorities guaranteed the country’s food security and sought to reassure citizens. To avoid panic buying and the resulting shortages, the government boosted its wheat orders on international markets. The president announced that semolina production would be increased three-fold.[fn]See “L’Algérie multiplie les achats de blé sur les marchés internationaux”, El Iqtisadiya, 3 April 2020. See also Tarik Hafid, “Algérie : la semoule de la colère”, Sputnik, 2 April 2020.Hide Footnote Many Algerians received text messages from the government and public companies reassuring them of the availability of essential goods.[fn]Crisis Group observations, Algiers, March 2020.Hide Footnote The agriculture minister also declared that state support for basic food products would continue, while the trade minister made field visits to food storage facilities to show that the government was preventing speculation on food commodities.[fn]See “M. Rezig inspecte des espaces commerciaux à Alger et Tipasa : respecter les mesures de prévention”, El Moudjahid, 3 May 2020.Hide Footnote

Finally, authorities entered into a tacit agreement with several workers in the informal sector, from wholesalers to retail sellers, asking them to facilitate the delivery of foodstuffs and maintain price stability in exchange for the legalisation of their activity.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, executive in a large company, Algiers resident, Algiers, March 2020.Hide Footnote

Pessimistic Macro-economic Projections

Despite these emergency measures, most projections remain pessimistic about the ability of Algeria – which derives most of its tax revenues from hydrocarbon exports – to face macro-economic challenges that have become colossal in the wake of the global economic slowdown.[fn]In Algeria, hydrocarbons (oil and gas) account for 97 per cent of exports, two thirds of state revenues and one third of GDP.Hide Footnote The figures speak for themselves, and the medium-term scenarios are alarming.[fn]See “Confronting the Covid-19 Pandemic in the Middle East and Central Asia”, International Monetary Fund, April 2020. See also Gita Gopinath, “The Great Lockdown: Worst Economic Downturn Since the Great Depression”, IMF Blogs, 14 April 2020.Hide Footnote

The origins of the crisis go back several years.

The origins of the crisis go back several years. Since the fall in the price of Brent crude in 2014, which serves to index the price of long-term natural gas contracts that represent the majority of export revenues, public spending has increased relative to state income.[fn]See Abderrahmane Mebtoul, “Les six impacts de la baisse du cours des hydrocarbures sur l’économie algérienne”, La Nouvelle République, 3 May 2020.Hide Footnote This ratio has become more imbalanced as the volumes of hydrocarbon production and exports steadily decrease.[fn]In the early 2000s, the country exported 65 billion cubic metres, against only 51.4 billion in 2018. The gap can be explained by the increase in domestic energy consumption (gas is used to produce electricity) and international competition. In this competitive environment, Algeria is having difficulty maintaining its long-term contracts, many of which expire in 2024 and will be renegotiated at less advantageous conditions given the fall in the price of Brent. See Crisis Group Report, Breaking Algeria’s Economic Paralysis, op. cit. See also “En dépit du renouvellement de ses contrats : les exportations gazières de l’Algérie en baisse”, El Watan, 26 November 2019; Khelifa Litamine, “Gaz algérien : les clients européens réduisent de moitié leurs demandes”, Algérie Eco, 29 January 2020; Nadija Bouaricha, “Dr Mourad Preure : ‘s’engager dans un véritable patriotisme économique’”, El Watan, 4 April 2020.Hide Footnote To limit this budget deficit, which leads the state to borrow from national banks, Algiers implements two different approaches: at times, it adopts unpopular measures, such as reducing spending, increasing the tax burden and varying the exchange rate; at other times, it favours economic measures that are less painful for citizens in the short term, such as increasing the money supply and limiting imports.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Breaking Algeria’s Economic Paralysis, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The crisis accelerated sharply with the historic fall in the prices of Brent and Sahara Blend (the varieties of oil exported by the country), and then the effects of COVID-19, which caused oil prices to plunge to their lowest levels in 40 years in constant dollars. The resulting budget and trade deficits cannot be absorbed without external debt and austerity measures likely to fuel social tensions.[fn]Brent and Sahara Blend fell respectively from $70 and $65 per barrel in January 2020 to $19 and $15 in April 2020. Their prices rose in June – reaching $42 each – but remain very volatile and depend on the prolonged reduction in supply decided by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). See “L’OPEP+ poursuit sa stratégie de baisse de l’offre pétrolière”, Connaissance des énergies, 8 June 2020.Hide Footnote Even though the cost price of oil is very competitive, especially in the Hassi Messaoud oil fields where it sometimes falls to under $3 per barrel, to balance its budget the country requires a minimum price per barrel that is one of the highest in the Middle East: over $100.[fn]See Breakeven Oil Prices, IMF Data, 2019.Hide Footnote As a result, budgetary and trade deficits will continue to grow.[fn]In 2019, the former was already above $75 billion and the latter nearly $4 billion. See “Les indices de valeurs unitaires du commerce extérieur de marchandises 2019”, N°888, Office national des statistiques. See also Karim Zeidane, “Algérie, loi des finances 2020 : financer le déficit budgétaire, un vrai casse-tête”, Le 360, 7 November 2019.Hide Footnote It is therefore probable that if the price per barrel of Brent and Sahara Blend remains low and volatile – between $20 and $45 over five years (2020-2025) for the first, and between $10 and $45 for the second – foreign exchange reserves will decline sharply.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former head of security for an oil company based in Algeria, former CEO of an oil company active in Tunisia, Tunis, April 2020. See the analyses and forecasts published on oilprice.com.Hide Footnote

Algeria could soon be forced to allow its currency to depreciate and resort to exter-nal debt.

For the time being, the absence of external debt shows that the state has some financial room for manoeuvre, which makes the Lebanese scenario of a payment default with a fall in the value of the national currency unlikely in the short term. But there is a risk that Algeria could soon be forced to allow its currency to depreciate and resort to external debt.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°214, Pulling Lebanon out of the Pit, 8 June 2020.Hide Footnote Despite President Tebboune’s repeated statements dismissing this possibility, the country may need to seek support from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in order to replenish its foreign exchange reserves.[fn]The authorities seem keen to avoid this scenario, which recalls the economic collapse of the “black decade”, “camouflaged”, notes a former senior official, by “the violence of the army and Islamist groups”. It is nevertheless mentioned in the 2020 finance law. Crisis Group telephone interview, former senior official, Tunis, April 2020. See also “Le président algérien exclue le recours au FMI malgré la chute des cours du pétrole”, Agence France Presse, 2 May 2020; “L’entretien exclusif : le président algérien Tebboune croit à un apaisement de la situation avec la France”, France 24, 4 July 2020. See article 108 of Act N°19-14 of 14 Rabie Ethani 1441 (corresponding to 11 December 2019) on the finance law for 2020.Hide Footnote If these reserves run dry – a plausible scenario by 2023 – basic food and social security would no longer be guaranteed, a situation that the government will try to avoid.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, analysts, Tunis, Algiers, January-March 2020. Foreign exchange reserves fell from $179 billion in 2014 to $62 billion at the end of 2019. On 3 May 2020, the government spokesperson announced that they would drop to $44 billion, the equivalent of a single year of imports. See Ali Benouari, “Crise économique : rompre impérativement avec les méthodes de gestion du passé”, Le Soir d’Algérie, 16 April 2020.Hide Footnote

Other factors are likely to harm the national economy. According to the Confederation of Algerian Industrialists and Producers, the purge of political, administrative and economic circles launched by authorities at the end of 2019 in response to the Hirak movement’s demands led to liquidation of over 60 per cent of public-sector construction companies, some of the most important firms aside from hydrocarbon ventures.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Briefing N°68, Post-Bouteflika Algeria: Growing Protests, Signs of Repression, 26 April 2019. See also “Crise politique en Algérie : près de 60 pour cent des entreprises BTP ont déjà mis la clef sous le paillasson”, Radio Algérienne, 6 October 2019; and Chenaoui, “Après le Hirak, le coronavirus : en Algérie les entreprises tirent la sonnette d’alarme”, op. cit.Hide Footnote And construction is not the only sector affected by such closures. Since the epidemic broke out in Algeria in March, nearly 65 per cent of companies operating in the country have frozen their activities.[fn]See “Abdelwahab Ziani, président de la CIPA : ‘60 pour cent des patrons sont inquiets sur l’avenir de leurs entreprises’”, Radio Algérienne, 30 April 2020.Hide Footnote On 7 July, the president of the National Association of Algerian Traders and Craftsmen declared that nearly 50,000 cafés and restaurants were threatened with bankruptcy due to lockdown measures.[fn]See “Plus de 50 000 restaurants et cafés au bord de la faillite”, El Watan, 7 July 2020.Hide Footnote The steep downturn in the formal economy risks drastically reducing tax revenues.[fn]The International Monetary Fund predicts a 5.2 per cent recession in 2020. See “Confronting the COVID-19 Pandemic in the Middle East and Central Asia”, op. cit. See also Younes Saadi, “L’Algérie fait face à quatre grandes crises en 2020”, Maghreb Emergent, 8 April 2020; Mathilde Blayo, “Un dialogue national pour une sortie de crise en Algérie”, La Croix, 26 July 2019.Hide Footnote

A further difficulty: some countries are slowing exports of agricultural raw materials, in particular wheat, which could generate a surge in their prices on international markets.[fn]See Ali Idir, “Blé et riz : les prix flambent sur les marchés internationaux”, Tout sur l'Algérie, 6 April 2020. See also "Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Food Security and Nutrition”, UN, June 2020.Hide Footnote To use the expression of a finance minister from the mid-1970s, this eventuality would lead the country to “eat up” more oil and gas revenues, given its heavy food dependency (over 45 per cent).[fn]See Hubert Michel, “Chronique politique Algérie”, Annuaire de l’Afrique du Nord, 1975. See also Akli Rezouali, “L’Algérie ne couvre ses besoins alimentaires qu’à 55 pour cent”, El Watan, 30 January 2019.Hide Footnote Furthermore, a disruption in the supply of industrial and agricultural inputs (such as fertilisers, pesticides and spare parts) would lead to a significant drop in productivity and thus to an increase in prices.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, businessman, UN Food and Agriculture Organization official, Tunis, March 2020.Hide Footnote

Finally, over 10 million informal workers (roughly half the work force), notably in agriculture but also in construction, commerce, hospitality, manufacturing, transport, communications and the foreign exchange market, saw their income drop significantly during the partial lockdown.[fn]See “L’emploi informel en Algérie : tendances et caractéristiques (2001-2010)”, Les Cahiers du MECAS, no. 12 (June 2016). See also “Le secteur informel à Alger représente 45 pour cent du PNB”, Algérie Eco, 4 March 2017. These workers would have been even more affected by a total lockdown, as was the case in Tunisia. According to an official from an international organisation in Algiers, the authorities opted for a partial lockdown for this reason, “in order to avoid propelling this large segment of the population into extreme poverty”. Crisis Group telephone interview, Tunis, April 2020. Crisis Group observations, Tunis, April-May 2020.Hide Footnote The number of unemployed people and families in need is therefore likely to grow considerably.

From Austerity to Social and Corporatist Tensions

Given the critical economic situation, the government seems to have no option but to drastically reduce public spending, which it will have to do gradually.[fn]See Zeinab Filali, “Pétrole : l’Algérie, obligée de revoir sa loi de finance”, Financial Afrik, 17 March 2020.Hide Footnote The authorities will have to decide which sector to tackle as a priority, something that will no doubt give rise to numerous social and corporatist tensions. At the end of March and in early May 2020, President Tebboune announced a reduction of the state’s operating budget by one third, then one half, before abandoning the idea.[fn]See “Coronavirus : Alger taille dans son budget pour faire face à la chute des cours”, Agence France Presse, 23 March 2020. See also "La baisse du budget de fonctionnement portée à 50 pour cent, hausse du SNMG”, Tout sur l'Algérie, 3 May 2020; “PLFC 2020 : le gouvernement abandonne l’idée de réduire de 50 pour cent le budget de fonctionnement”, Algérie Eco, 26 May 2020.Hide Footnote The government also predicted that imports would be reduced by one third and that the budget of the state-owned oil and gas company, Sonatrach, would be halved, as confirmed by its CEO on 2 July 2020.[fn]Operating expenses – which represent more than 60 per cent of total government spending – largely go toward wages. Crisis Group telephone interview, economist, May 2020. See “Coronavirus : Alger taille dans son budget pour faire face à la chute des cours”, op. cit. See also Act N°19-14, op. cit. See also “Réduction de 50 pour cent des dépenses de Sonatrach sans impacter l’activité de production”, El Watan, 2 July 2020.Hide Footnote

The situation is complex. The Supplementary Finance Law for 2020 already cuts operating expenses by 6 per cent and capital expenditure by 10 per cent.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Algerian economist, Algiers, May 2020. See Act N°19-14, op. cit. See also Act N°20-07 of 12 Chaoual 1441 (corresponding to 4 June 2020) on the complementary finance law for 2020.Hide Footnote Given the operating budget’s distribution by ministerial department, it is highly likely that in coming years the government will have to reduce defence ministry funding (28 per cent of the total budget) if it wants to avoid disproportionate spending by the army. Such an imbalance would give rise to fierce controversy over the security sector’s cost, notably among professionalbodies aggrieved by unevenly distributed austerity. Finally, the government plans to eliminate certain social housing schemes and to reduce the loans granted by the National Agency for the Support of Youth Employment. It appears that few young people have repaid these loans, with which the regime bought partial social peace in the 2000s.[fn]Crisis Group interview, analysts, former senior Algerian official, Marseille, March 2020. Some economists believe that the Hirak resulted in part from the reduction in National Agency loans and the increase in legal proceedings for non-repayment following the decrease in public spending from 2014. See Yassine Baccouche, “Le gouvernement annonce l’abandon progressif du logement social et AADL”, Tout sur l'Algerie, 10 May 2020. See also “Une nouvelle formule en faveur de l’ANSEJ 2000 milliards de dinars injectés dans un fonds spécial”, Le Maghreb, 26 November 2019.Hide Footnote The loans could be replaced by tax incentives, but these are unlikely to be sufficient to socially reintegrate unemployed youth.[fn]See Mohammed Fouzi and Sidi Mohammed Benachenhou, "La Contribution du dispositif Ansej au développement de l’entreprenariat”, Les Cahiers du MECAS, vol. 4, no. 1 (2017).Hide Footnote

Le défi du pouvoir et sa grande préoccupation seront certainement d’éviter que la contestation populaire ne revête une dimension plus sociale et offensive.

When lockdown measures, including the ban on public gatherings, are lifted across the country (a decision regularly postponed since June), the authorities’ main concern will certainly be to prevent the uprising from becoming more militant and aggressive in its tactics.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Hirak activists, Algiers, March-November 2019.Hide Footnote There are already some indications: according to the National Committee for the Liberation of Prisoners, 50 per cent of those in jail have been arrested since the lockdown began. They largely consist of young people from disadvantaged areas affected by the economic slowdown, who may be among the first to rise up after the lockdown ends.[fn]Crisis Group interview, academic, Algiers, May 2020. See also the Facebook page of the National Committee for the Liberation of Prisoners.Hide Footnote

Already there have been incidents that indicate the depth of youth discontent. On 15 June, clashes broke out among youths from Tinzaouatine, a town on the border between Algeria and Mali, following the installation of barbed wire that limits movement across the border, especially that of small-scale smugglers.[fn]See Arezki Benali, “Tinzaouatine : ce qui s’est passé”, Algérie Eco, 16 June 2020.Hide Footnote On 19 June, several demonstrations took place in the regions where the lockdown had been lifted six days earlier. They brought out several hundred people.[fn]See Khelifa Litamine, “70e vendredi : reprise tendue du Hirak dans plusieurs villes”, Algérie Eco, 19 June 2020.Hide Footnote

Addressing the Challenges Could the Hirak Go on the Offensive?
The end of the partial lockdown could mark the start of a period of greater social unrest.

The end of the partial lockdown could mark the start of a period of greater social unrest. The current modus vivendi between the authorities and Hirak could therefore dissolve, leading to a more heated struggle with unpredictable consequences. On one hand, the national unity brought about by the pandemic is unlikely to withstand macro-economic challenges. Several activists say the looming economic crisis could provide them with political opportunities. As one notes, “Many of us are waiting for the fall in oil prices and the bankruptcy of Sonatrach. This will hasten the end of a revenue which only benefits a small circle and not all the Algerian people”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Hirak activist, Algiers, April 2020.Hide Footnote Another adds: “This crisis could finally allow the economy to diversify and citizens to work freely. But to achieve this, the current political leaders, who hail from a bygone era, must give way to new national potential, especially that of young people”.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote On the other hand, the relatively stricter security measures being put in place are leading more and more activists to consider stepping up “to phase 2” of protest, with a general strike and civil disobedience complementing the twice-weekly marches.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Hirak activists, Algiers, April 2020.Hide Footnote

This strategy is debated within the Hirak whenever tensions with the regime become palpable. Activists mulled it over in September 2019, after the announcement that the presidential election would take place two months later, and again after the shock that followed an election held despite popular resistance. For the time being, strikes and civil disobedience have remained marginal, but new demonstrators, hit hard by the economic impact of COVID-19 (especially young workers in the formal and informal trade sectors), could encourage the Hirak to resort to such tactics more often.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, young private-sector workers, Algiers, May-June 2020.Hide Footnote Many young people with unstable employment in the private sector claim to have had no income in three months, contributing to their mistrust of institutions and potentially pushing them down the path of delinquency and petty crime.[fn]Ibid. A young informal worker noted: “Lockdown is like prison. It’s not easy for everyone. Some are playing for time, but others are not. Some young people are getting up to no good because there’s no more money going around. I’m tempted, too. Even before this, there was no work, but now we can’t even make a bit of money on the side. People who never stole start stealing; others start fighting; others start selling drugs. I have quite a few friends who were robbed”. Crisis Group interview, Algiers, June 2020.Hide Footnote

Thus far, job actions have not met with the success that their advocates, notably far-left activists, expected. From 10 to 15 March 2019, Hirak leaders in contact with autonomous trade unions called a general strike. Education and transport were virtually the only sectors to observe it. On 8 December 2019, a call for a general strike to protest the presidential election four days later attracted little support, except in Kabylia, and particularly in Bouira and Tizi Ouzou.[fn]Crisis Group observations, Algiers, March and October 2019.Hide Footnote

When lockdown measures are lifted across the country, the right socio-economic conditions could be in place to render such attempts successful. The movement’s leaders, now experienced in organising demonstrations, could seize the opportunity to push the Hirak’s central demands: systemic change entailing removal of all political figures. The regime might be forced to engage in a defensive dialogue, or it might feel cornered and use more repressive force. The uprising might then turn violent itself, given the number of impoverished young workers joining its ranks.[fn]As a former central bank official noted: “The informal sector represents over 40 per cent of our economy. Since the lockdown began, most workers have lived off family solidarity, but many are hungry. Once the lockdown is lifted, things will change for sure. In what way? We don’t know. But present conditions could give rise to all sorts of scenarios: a violent end to the Hirak or a return to the massive demonstrations of April 2019, which brought millions of Algerians into the streets”. Crisis Group telephone interview, May 2020.Hide Footnote

Could the Hirak Wear Itself Out?
Neither the authorities nor the movement seem ready to suffer the consequences of an ill-prepared confrontation.

Another scenario with similar medium-term consequences is the Hirak’s exhaustion. Neither the authorities nor the movement seem ready to suffer the consequences of an ill-prepared confrontation. The government has over 50 years of experience in managing dissent, and those who support a harsher response to the Hirak are reportedly losing ground. In 2019, those said to be “close to Gaïd Salah” – the former army chief of staff – tended to preach about national unity, advocating for a firm response “to enemies of the fatherland”, including violent repression of demonstrators and large-scale imprisonment. This view, however, appears to be losing out to the opposing camp, made up of “former officials from the Department of Intelligence and Security”, which favours a subtler approach to handling protests.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, former senior Algerian official, May 2020. Crisis Group interviews, former Algerian state representatives, journalists, Hirak activists, Algiers, Tunis, Paris, March-December 2019. See “Bengrina accuse les partisans de la transition d’être ‘les alliés de la bande’”, Algérie Eco, 21 November 2019.Hide Footnote

Several events suggest that this shift has occurred. In mid-April, the Central Division of Army Security raided the premises of the Central Division of Internal Security and arrested its head, General Wassini Bouazza, who was known to be close to Gaïd Salah. Army Security also arrested General Abdelkader Lachkham, head of communications at the defence ministry, who has a similar profile. In addition, General Ghernit Benouira, Salah’s former private secretary, is said to have fled the country.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, journalists and analysts, April-May 2020. See Nicolas Beau, “Services algériens, les couteaux sont sortis et Bouazza écarté”, Mondafrique, 14 April 2020. See also Ihsane El Kadi and Wassini Bouazza, “Quel sens cache la mise sous écrou de l’héritage de Gaïd Salah ?”, Blog Radio M, 17 April 2020; Jean Pierre Sereni, “Algérie. Grand lessivage dans l’appareil militaro-sécuritaire”, Orient XXI, 4 May 2020.Hide Footnote

The ex-intelligence official camp calls for neutralising Hirak figures through various means: co-optation; blackmailing activists who have criminal records; imprisonment followed by conditional release; reclamation of democratic and populist tenets; infiltration of trade unions and other organisations; and instrumentalising their sources of funding.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former Algerian state representatives, journalists, Hirak activists, Algiers, Tunis, Paris, March-December 2019.Hide Footnote

Several Hirak activists claim to be familiar with such methods, having personally experienced them in the 2000s.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former far-left and Amazigh activists active in the Hirak, Algiers, March 2019.Hide Footnote For precisely this reason, the Hirak has never designated any official representatives and it remains unlikely to do so. As one sociologist explains, “How can there be a negotiation, with whom and on the basis of what prerequisites, when any negotiator trusted by the movement risks being co-opted by the system?”[fn]Crisis Group interview, sociologist, Algiers, April 2019.Hide Footnote

The lack of official leadership has led the movement’s most influential participants to refuse all political dialogue proposed by the authorities. As such, the Hirak could stay entrenched for a long time and wear itself out. In the ensuing vacuum, minority groups within the movement could both harden their discourse and become more militant in their tactics.

Taking Advantage of National Unity in the COVID-19 Era

In the immediate future, it is unlikely that the Hirak and government can initiate a sincere political dialogue to avoid a harsher conflict or prevent the emergence of a more violent uprising in the more distant future.

The government should, at a minimum, take advantage of the sense of national unity generated by the COVID-19 epidemic.

In the absence of such dialogue, the government should, at a minimum, take advantage of the sense of national unity generated by the COVID-19 epidemic. It should encourage the initiatives of Algerian citizens who previously were marching every Friday to demand the system’s downfall – but without reducing them to a tool in co-optation schemes.[fn]According to a senior official, the interior ministry and local authorities already favour this strategy. Crisis Group telephone interview, senior official and FLN supporter, May 2020.Hide Footnote The authorities could, for example, financially support the solidarity networks stemming from the Hirak, which fight the epidemic and the lockdown’s socio-economic consequences.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, senior official and FLN supporter, May 2020.Hide Footnote They could also help these projects gain the status of official institutions, even if some activists will be unwilling to collaborate with the authorities for fear of being co-opted. Such an initiative could take various forms: assistance with starting businesses or charities offering health care, internet services or home delivery of groceries and cooked meals.  

At the same time, and even though social instability might increase, the regime could loosen its grip on the Hirak. It could release prisoners of conscience; lift censorship, especially on online media; end arbitrary arrests; authorise meetings of various activist groups; and involve protest organisations in the drafting of the new constitution. Any of these steps would lend substance to President Tebboune’s promises of democratic openness and broaden his support base.

Overcoming Obstacles to Exit from the Rentier Economy
In the medium term, and assuming that there is no structural reform, Algeria may face a major economic shock.

In the short term, authorities should keep in place emergency socio-economic measures in line with those adopted between March and May 2020. Nevertheless, in the medium term, and assuming that there is no structural reform, Algeria may face a major economic shock. 

The country is largely stuck in the rentier economy.[fn]See Lowi, Oil Wealth and the Poverty of Politics, op. cit.Hide Footnote Its budget and trade deficits bear witness to the strains of dependence on hydrocarbon exports, low food self-sufficiency, and restrictions on entrepreneurship such as a lack of access to credit.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Breaking Algeria’s Economic Paralysis, op. cit. See also Tin Hinane El Kadi, “Développement ou gain de temps ? ”, Friedrich Ebert Foundation, April 2020.Hide Footnote If international demand for fossil fuels does not bounce back to pre-coronavirus levels, in a few years the country could either be driven to bankruptcy or forced to set up an austerity policy with a deleterious social impact. 

For decades, reform initiatives aimed at reducing vulnerability to oil and gas market fluctuations and stimulating competitive business have been little more than wishful thinking. The resistance from special interest groups that benefit from the status quo has simply been too great.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, economists, state representatives, Algiers, Paris, Marseille, Tunis, March-October 2019.Hide Footnote Such initiatives have included: diversifying the economy; reforming agriculture; restructuring the banking system (for instance, increasing private-sector loans and improving the governance of public banks); legalising part of the informal trade sector; and lifting bureaucratic obstacles to youth entrepreneurship and the Maghreb’s economic integration.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, economists, state representatives, Algiers, Paris, Marseille, Tunis, March-October 2019. See also Rabah Arezki, “How to liberate Algeria’s economy”, Project Syndicate, 9 April 2019.Hide Footnote As one economist said: 

Whenever the regime is faced with a significant drop in oil revenues, it seems to have its back to the wall. It then embarks upon structural reforms to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. Then, before these reforms can see the light of day or produce the expected effects, the price of oil and gas goes up and the country manages to conquer new export markets, which leads it to suspend the reforms.[fn]Crisis Group interview, economist, Marseille, March 2019.Hide Footnote

In order for reforms to occur in the medium term, the authorities and the Hirak should begin an in-depth national economic dialogue, which should continue even in the (extremely unlikely) case that the prices of Brent and Sahara Blend cross the $100 mark in 2021-2022. According to officials from the FLN and the National Democratic Rally (Rassemblement national démocratique, or RND), the two main ruling parties, the Hirak is focusing too much on political issues to the detriment of economic and social ones.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, FLN activist and RND official, May 2020.Hide Footnote They also note that the movement seemingly refuses to select representatives who could enter into dialogue with authorities. They claim to be prepared to hold consultations, including with the autonomous unions in the Hirak, which have thus far refused to participate in any such discussions.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Although the Hirak is driven by a political agenda, it could accept a dialogue focused on socio-economic issues, provided that the authorities present it as an initiative to save the nation while also relaxing their pressure on protesters.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Hirak activists, Algiers, 2019-2020.Hide Footnote

The goals would be to identify the obstacles to exit from the rentier economy and to propose realistic ways to overcome them and thus avoid a major economic shock. This dialogue would bring together: the main political, trade union and associative actors, in particular those involved in the Hirak; representatives of the government, the presidency and perhaps the military; and the country’s most influential officials and businessmen, including from the informal trade sector. It would thus convene both the actors who champion these reforms as well as those who repeatedly sabotage them.

It is urgent to begin a national dialogue that can find a compromise path of economic development without posing too great a threat to the status quo. The need is all the greater since the government might have to resort to the temporary fix of external debt – despite the president’s repeated denials – and face great difficulty in justifying it to Algerians. The government is sticking to a deeply pro-sovereign discourse, and does not hesitate to brandish it to silence dissent.[fn]See editorials from El Djeich in 2019.Hide Footnote

Finally, international financial institutions and partner countries will also have a role to play if Algerian authorities find themselves compelled to turn to them. They should provide long-term support to Algeria, in particular for an economic reform strategy. But they should avoid imposing overly rigid conditionalities, notably excessive liberalisation and budget austerity. Either Algeria will refuse them or it will have no choice but to accept them. In this second scenario, donors could, at worst, help destabilise the powerful clientelist networks that participate in managing revenue, with the effect of intensifying violence, as was the case in the 1990s.[fn]See Roberts, The Battlefield, op. cit. See also Luis Martinez, La guerre civile en Algérie, 1990-1998 (Paris, 1998).Hide Footnote


A more contentious struggle between the authorities and the Hirak would be harmful to Algeria – but so would the protest movement’s frustration or exhaustion. In the absence of political dialogue that can help end mistrust, the authorities should take advantage of the national unity in the COVID-19 era to loosen their grip on the uprising. The regime and the Hirak should participate in a national economic dialogue to identify the obstacles to exit from the rentier economy and propose concrete courses of action for overcoming them. The challenges posed by the global coronavirus crisis make such an initiative increasingly necessary. 

Tunis/Algiers/Brussels, 27 July 2020

Appendix A: Map of Algeria