Algeria and Tunisia Face Economic and Political Crises as 2019 Elections Near – Jean R. AbiNader

Franco-algerian Pro-Democratie demonstrators, the day after Ben Ali departure; Marseille, France, January 15th 2011 Photo: marcovdz

Jean R. AbiNader
January 29, 2019

Jean R. AbiNader, Moroccan American Center

Although very different in their political cultures, economies, and contemporary development, Algeria and Tunisia face similar crises in terms of leadership, reform momentum, and economic malaise. Algeria will have a presidential election in April, and with the announcement that President Bouteflika will seek a fifth term, it seems the outcome is already certain. In Tunisia, which will host both presidential and parliamentary elections by the end of the year, feuding among the secularists has made the Ennahda Islamic party the likely leader at the polls.

Yet Algeria’s façade of a political consensus masks deficits in its economy that may no longer be papered over by remittances from its hydrocarbon exports. As the International Crisis Group (ICG) recently reported, “Despite repeated reform promises, the political system remains paralyzed, led by an aging and ailing president who seems primed to embark on another five-year term following elections in 2019.

To resolve this conundrum, the government should pursue greater transparency and better communication about the economic challenges the country faces, greater inclusivity vis-à-vis socio-economic stakeholders, and a sharper focus on the youth demographic in particular.”

There seems to be a consensus among outside observers that entrenched political and business interests have more to gain from the status quo than by undertaking efforts to diversify the economy and put in place reforms that will open up the political leadership to greater participation by women, youth, and those marginalized due to poverty, ethnic discrimination, and regional interests. As the report noted, “Entrenched political and business interests have too many incentives against change and are squandering the opportunity to get ahead of the curve of a potential fiscal crisis that, if handled too late, will demand more painful and destabilizing policies.”

Whether or not President Bouteflika will actually survive another year is the critical question plaguing both Algeria’s leaders and international organizations and investors concerned with the country’s stability. According to a recent MENAS report, the number of rival groups vying to prominence include no less than four or five factions (“clans” in Algerian political parlance) butting heads. These include the Tlemcen clan headed by the President’ brother Said, along with a few notables left over from the revolution who have become enriched under the regime.

The report names the other contenders as:

  • General Ahmed Gaïd Salah, Chief of Staff of the Army and Deputy Minister of Defense;
  • General Athmane ‘Bachir’ Tartag: head of the Département de Surveillance et de Sécurité (DSS) which comprises about half or less of the former Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS); and
  • General Mohamed ‘Toufik’ Mediène: the former DRS head whose clan would include key people such as Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia and retired Major-General Ali Ghediri;
  • A fifth clan may be emerging around a number of former generals, especially those who were displaced by Gaïd Salah in the autumn.

These clans bring together military leaders and those who benefit from them, making each formidable yet vulnerable to any alliances among the others. This is why Algerians are holding their collective breath wishing Bouteflika good health so that the country avoids dissension that could trigger instability. His last meeting with a senior foreign dignitary was in September, and despite a sporadic upswing in energy revenues over the past year, the country remains lackluster economically. Oil and gas revenues account for 60% of the budget and 94% of export revenues, and with high unemployment among young people, there are rising concerns about demonstrations that could undermine a relatively peaceful presidential campaign.

In Tunisia, the frayed leadership of the secularists and continued economic hardship of the country are leading people to lose faith in political participation, with only about 30% turnout in the last election, dominated by the Islamic party Ennahda. As reported in Al-Monitor, “Eight years on, many of the same problems that drove Ben Ali’s fall — such as rampant graft and youth unemployment — persist, casting a dark shadow over Tunisia’s infant democracy.”

Noting a rise in anti-government protests, the article noted the return of an old formula: bring in the security services to deal with demonstrators. Even a key achievement, the work of the reconciliation commission, the IVD, which took testimony from 50,000 victims of the Ben Ali regime, has been stymied by politicians. But with parliamentary elections due to be held in November, chances of implementation between then and now remain slim.

Sihem Bensedrine, president of the IVD, noted that the hearings and testimonies will be incomplete without implementation of judicial proceedings against the most egregious violators of human rights. She was supported on this point by Amy Hawthorne, deputy director of the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) who said that “Shining this bright light on Tunisia’s past is an essential part of transitional justice. But the next phase, accountability, is perhaps even more crucial — cases need to be tried in court, perpetrators punished, and victims compensated.”

Yet pardons for offenders from the Ben Ali regime continues. Even Ennahda is defending its support for amnesty. Its head, Rached Ghannouchi defended its position. “For us, [transitional justice] is about comprehensive reconciliation, not punishment or retribution,” he said. “It is about revealing the truth and encouraging perpetrators to acknowledge, and apologize for, their crimes and for victims to have their moment and forgive.” Bensedrine disagrees, “We can’t have reconciliation without accountability. The objective is to protect the new institutions, to protect democracy, to ensure that such institutionalized evil does not recur.”

These disagreements are only a symptom of the overall discontent with the system. As reported in another Al-Monitor post, “According to most ordinary Tunisians and experts alike, the main culprits are the country’s corrupt and squabbling politicians and an oligarchic business elite — around 22 families allegedly monopolize the country’s wealth — who are loath to relinquish their privileges. Remnants of Tunisia’s pre-revolutionary deep state, a murky constellation of bureaucrats and members of the security services, among others, are said to be determinedly torpedoing attempts at reform.”

Nine cabinets have been installed since the revoluton, and all have failed to effectively deal with the country’s economic problems including high inflation, unemployment, and corruption. Last week, Essebsi’s party, Nidaa Tounes, now led by his son Hafedh, was dealt another blow when prime minister Youssef Chahed split to form his own organization, Tahya Tounes, Long Live Tunisia. How it will perform in the November elections will largely depend on its ability to overcome the negative perceptions of the prime minister, who has not been able to energize the country’s economy, and any potential alliances it may form.

Labor strikes in January and announced again for February pose a significant challenge to the government and will have an impact on perceptions leading up to the elections. Prime Minister Chahed is in a quandary. He has a budget in deficit, cannot afford to raise public wages to the level demanded by the powerful Tunisian General Union of Labor (UGTT), and simultaneously fend off conditions raised by the IMF and others regarding economic reforms.

So the recent celebration of the eighth anniversary of Tunisia’s pro-democratic revolution was, in fact, a reminder that much has yet to be done. “Even though the 2011 revolution was motivated in large part by socio-economic concerns, the governments that have held office since then have been unable to improve the situation. Growth has remained low, and unemployment is high: 15 percent of the population is without work, and the rate for those with a university degree is over 30 percent. Inequality between the more prosperous coastal region and the deprived interior of the country remains striking. Around half of all workers are employed in the informal economy. Many young Tunisians lack any prospect of being able to afford a home or a car, or of being secure enough to start a family.”

So while a great deal has changed in Tunisia since the revolution, it is now at a point where the “greatest threat to stability is no longer political rivalries around religious identity but unmet social and economic aspirations,” a challenge Tunisia shares with many other Arab and African countries.


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