When Algerians protested on a wide scale in what would become known as the “Hirak,” the expectations were clear: the downfall of the regime and the establishment of a genuine democracy that more accurately reflects the popular will. The late President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was toppled, and his closest aides were arrested and put on trial.
However, optimism swiftly began to give way to concern. To be united in hatred of the regime is not the same as being united on what the path forward should be. Where protestors would assert that the Hirak’s advantage was that it had no leadership that might use popular demands for political expediency, the very absence of any leadership, or common vision, meant that the agency of protestors dissipated once Bouteflika fell.
To be united in hatred of the regime is not the same as being united on what the path forward should be.
This gave rise to significant problems. The presence of separatist Tamazight flags became increasingly prominent in the Hirak protests, raising fears of internal strife. Moreover, suggestions that a transitional government should be headed by national political figures such as Talib Brahimi and Ahmed Ben Bitour caused tensions between different civil society groups. Questions abound over who should lead such a government, what its mandate and powers should be, and whether supporting it would be counter to the aims of bringing about a true democratic transition.
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In the midst of a chaotic environment, the late general Ahmed Gaid Saleh moved to prevent a political vacuum. Fearful of the momentum of separatist tendencies in majority Kabyle areas, Saleh swiftly moved to hold presidential elections. The decision tore apart the unity of the Hirak protestors who became mired in debate. Was the move by Saleh a Machiavellian attempt by the regime to rescue itself? Could a country that only emerged from a brutal civil war in the early 2000s withstand a political vacuum? And, in the event of elections, could the Hirak transform into a serious political movement capable of translating popular demands.
The swift scheduling of the elections gave little time to settle any of these debates. A number of candidates ran, and former Prime Minister and ally of the late Gaid Saleh, Abdelmajid Tebboune, became President. The 40 percent turnout at the election was significant enough to suggest that there were enough Algerians concerned about the political vacuum and the dangers it posed for the security and stability of the nation.
Yet, fear of chaos is not the same as an endorsement. Tebboune was dealt a stinging rebuke within a year of taking power by the Algerian electorate who largely ignored his constitutional referendum held on November 1, 2020. The low turnout was seen as an early verdict on his presidency and an expression of frustration at the lack of tangible reforms. This sentiment was reinforced when only 23 percent of Algerians cast their ballots in the subsequent parliamentary elections in June 2021.
Tebboune’s government has struggled with the social and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tebboune’s government has struggled with the social and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Algeria’s health system has long been criticized for being ill-equipped, with many Algerians traditionally traveling to neighboring Tunisia for their healthcare needs. The economy has also been rocked in recent years due to the oil price crisis brought about by the pandemic and tension within OPEC+ members. Algeria is heavily dependent on its hydrocarbons industry which makes up more than 90 percent of foreign trade revenues. Disillusionment with the transition process is growing, and the political establishment is well aware of this.
Yet, despite the internal problems, Tebboune and his government have found much relief from popular discontent in matters of foreign policy where they have been able to rally public opinion behind them.
Tensions with Rabat are nothing new and are well-documented. However, relations have been particularly strained since Morocco normalized ties with Israel in exchange for US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. Yet, this in itself did not spark the current crisis. Instead, it was the provocative scene in Rabat in August of Israel’s foreign minister Yair Lapid standing next to his Moroccan counterpart and declaring that Algeria should mind its own internal affairs.
[Algeria and Morocco’s Discord is Tied to Decades-Old Grievances]
The Algerian public responded angrily. The narrative on Algerian social media was that Morocco had allowed the representative of an apartheid regime to criticize Algeria on its soil. Even those that accused Tebboune (somewhat unfairly) of political expediency would qualify their criticism by asserting the gravity of Palestine’s colonizer denouncing Algeria from a neighboring Arab state.
The narrative on Algerian social media was that Morocco had allowed the representative of an apartheid regime to criticize Algeria on its soil.
Tebboune had already been praised publicly for denouncing the scramble of some Arab nations to normalize ties with Israel. But on the issue of Yair Lapid’s visit to Morocco, Tebboune was presented with a rare opportunity to unite public opinion behind him, which he did to great effect. More importantly, Tebboune was granted a temporary reprieve from criticism over his handling of domestic issues as public debate became dominated by the issue of Morocco.
Yet, Morocco has always been considered as a brotherly Arab state. Despite the strained relations between Algiers and Rabat, there has been an assertion by the people on both sides that there must be a concerted effort to end the discord, explaining the slow but notable shift in Algerian public discourse towards the idea of reconciliation. This means that the political momentum behind the suspension of ties is unlikely to last for long.
As the public fervor behind the escalation with Morocco appeared to be slowly subsiding, another foreign policy issue soon stoke public anger in Algeria. On September 28, France announced it would reduce the number of visas granted to Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco in protest of their unwillingness to take back illegal migrants. Algiers formally protested the move by summoning the French ambassador for talks.
A week later, reports emerged that President Emmanuel Macron had made inflammatory comments regarding the history of French colonization of Algeria in a meeting with the descendants of the Harka (Algerians who fought with France against Algeria). According to reports, Macron claimed that Algeria was ruled by a “political-military system,” and then questioned whether Algeria even existed before France invaded North Africa. He went on to say that Algeria’s official narrative of colonization was “totally re-written” to something “not based on truths” but “on a discourse of hatred towards France.”
Macron claimed that Algeria was ruled by a “political-military system,” and then questioned whether Algeria even existed before France invaded North Africa.
Algeria responded by recalling its ambassador to France and banning French military planes from using Algeria’s airspace. Algiers accused Macron of political expediency and an attempt to appeal to the far-right as the French election draws near.
[France’s Reckoning with the Historiography of the Algerian War]
To ease tensions, Macron appeared to apologize for the 1961 Paris Massacre in which Algerians in France were slaughtered by French police, and had their bodies tossed into the River Seine. Macron described the event as an “unforgivable crime.” Yet, Macron appeared to be expressing regret to reconcile a furious Algeria without having to apologize for colonization. In other words, Macron was apologizing for a brutal manifestation of xenophobia without any admission of guilt for the history of systematic xenophobia that was colonization.
The issue of colonization and the stubborn refusal of France to acknowledge its crimes is a particularly sensitive topic in Algeria. Tebboune’s response has drawn praise, including from his critics. Yet, the gravity of Macron’s provocations have also put him under pressure to do more to punish France, and Macron specifically.
From Algiers’ perspective, the issue of Yair Lapid’s comments and Macron’s provocations are legitimate crises of sufficient gravity to warrant escalation. Whether the suspension of diplomatic ties with Morocco was the action required is certainly questionable and disappointing. Yet, it is too simplistic to accuse Tebboune of being driven solely by political convenience on these issues.
It is undeniable that these foreign policy crises have given temporary reprieve to Tebboune and his government from the growing discontent over domestic issues. However, this hiatus will not last. For all the validity of public anger towards the latest foreign policy crises, the main issues at the core of the Algerian conscience remain overwhelmingly related to internal problems.
Algerians are deeply concerned over civil rights, political participation and representation, constitutional and judicial reform, as well as economic matters such as persistent unemployment and the lack of diversification from an over-reliance on fossil fuels production, even as the world seeks to move away from them. Foreign policy cannot be relied on for too long to act as an opioid to distract from the very real domestic challenges.