The Precarious Balancing act of President Tebboune

The Precarious Balancing act of President Tebboune

President Tebboune has undertaken several political manoeuvres since the start of the year to balance against a number of threats presented by both the Hirak Movement and internal opposition. Whilst calculated, Tebboune’s balancing act is not likely to soothe Hirak frustrations, particularly when his reforms are so shallow in nature. Coupled with the increasingly perilous economic conditions, Algeria is set to see a resurgence in the Hirak movement once again.

On the 18th of February, President Tebboune announced the dissolution of the People’s National Assembly triggering an early-round of legislative elections. The move, coupled with a cabinet reshuffle and the recent acquittal of Said Bouteflika, brother of the ousted President Bouteflika, can be viewed as a renewed attempt to pacify a number of opposed factions troubling Algeria since 2019.

The Problematic Rise of Tebboune

Abdelmajid Tebboune was launched into the Presidential office on the back of the Hirak Movement, an outburst of civic protest on a scale not seen since the 1991 civil war. Triggered by Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision to run for a fifth term as President despite being debilitated by a stroke in 2013, the Algerian people took to the streets in outrage at the prospect of continuity amidst years of corruption, economic mismanagement and autocratic manipulation.

Whilst the Hirak succeeded in ousting the ailing Bouteflika, their demand that Algerian politics be freed from the autocratic grip of the military and conservative elites ultimately went unheard. Heavily vetted Presidential elections were held in December 2019 to the people’s dismay. Tebboune was the insider who won the Presidency through a widely boycotted election in which a meagre 40% of the electorate participated. Tebboune is regarded as an illegitimate leader in the eyes of the Hirak movement. Faltered yet persistent protests are the product of this.

Factional Strife

Tebboune’s rise not only frustrated the Hirak Movement but also different factions of the elite. Trying to appease the Hirak and curtail internal opposition before the election, the influential military leader Ahmed Gaid Salah led an anti-corruption drive that imprisoned former dominant faction remnants such as Said Bouteflika, brother of the ousted President. In doing so, Ahmed Gaid Salah’s clique emerged on top with Tebboune tied to them as the candidate of choice.

Yet just weeks after Tebboune’s election Salah died from a fatal heart attack. This untimely death has left Tebboune vulnerable to oppositional manoeuvring as the kingmaker is no longer present. Already at odds with the influential commercial elite associated with the Bouteflika faction due to his targeting of them for corruption during his brief time as Prime Minister, Tebboune must seek to re-unify the Algerian elite or risk further tension and internal struggle.

As such, Tebboune’s January decision to acquit Said Bouteflika and others should be viewed as a step towards appeasing opposing factions after a long period of tension. It is expected this move will help ease tensions by signalling to the various factions that they can and must work together to maintain power.

Damage Control

However, by acquitting the former factions, Tebboune has also signalled to the Algerian population that previous corruption reforms were only cosmetic. This acquittal came in the month preceding the second anniversary of the Hirak movements emergence. Citizens no longer as concerned about the COVID-19 epidemic and enduring the economic hardship exacerbated by prolonged lockdowns are willing to mobilise again in pursuit of change. For the past two weeks, thousands of people have demonstrated in Algiers, signalling that Hirak’s momentum may be returning.

Tebboune’s recent decision to undergo a government reshuffle and a legislative election are both attempts at rectifying his low legitimacy and putting the Hirak to rest. The reshuffle has been done in order to signal a commitment to good governance after years of inertia and inefficiency. However, such changes have again been minor, leaving only inconsequential ministers on the scrapheap. Rather the move may be more damaging than healing. Instead, the meagre alterations highlight the unwillingness of Tebboune to make serious reforms – such as the removal of Justice Minister Belkacem Zeghmati, a symbol of repression to many within the Hirak movement.

Similarly, the legislative elections that Tebboune announced are problematic in and of themselves. To try and appease the largely youthful Algerian population, Tebboune stated that the elections would be both open to the young and free of corrupt money. Words can only do so much. Clientelism and electoral manipulation are embedded features of the Algerian electoral system. If elections that simply maintain the status quo persist this will likely only ignite the grievances of the Algerian population and weaken the legitimacy of Tebboune further.

Economic Woes

Further fanning the flames of a sustained Hirak resurgence is Algeria’s array of economic issues. The longstanding effects of an undiversified economy overly dependent on hydrocarbon exports and an artificially high currency rate that limits export competitiveness means that even before the COVID-19 pandemic unemployment stood at 11.4%.

However, with the onset of the pandemic and the drop of global oil prices to a low of $11.26 per barrel, Algeria has had the combined crises of forcing its economy to close whilst seeing its main source of income decimated. Further still, Algeria’s tendency for debt aversion, stemming from the constraints it placed on the state when managing the economic downturn in the build-up to the 1991 civil war has resulted in an avoidance of remedial financial assistance offered by the IMF.

As foreign currency reserves have been eaten by previous oil shocks and a bloated public sector, the government has been forced to undergo a 50% cut in public spending. Such an approach runs completely contrary to the ‘economic benefits for political passivity’ adopted by Algeria’s elite. This approach relies on providing citizens with public sector employment, fuel subsidies and other public goods in return for ignoring the elites autocratic tendencies. Further, given that there are increased local media reports that Algeria’s currency reserves are set to run out this year, the subsidised house of cards that the regime has built may topple once again.

President Tebboune is caught between a rock and a hard place. As he knows all too well, however, any attempt at structural economic reform is likely to upset the commercial elite, running contrary to his plans of easing internal tension. With time running out, feigning change through half-hearted political acts amidst worsening economic issues will only increase the likelihood that the Hirak Movement continues to pick up steam in the future.


About Author