If I were an Algerian citizen, I would be feeling anxious. The interview Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune just gave to his country’s national media clearly reflected the tensions felt by Algeria’s leadership. There is a sharpening in the tone of political discourse towards everyone, at home and abroad. And then there are the president’s warnings to his people that more dangers are looming ahead.
Based on the information given by Tebboune in his meeting with the press, one is led to believe that Algeria is surrounded by forces trying to destroy it from the outside and to cause its implosion from within. But Algeria is depicted as being steadfast in the face of such existential threats. No one wishes it to be otherwise, including those who are construed by Algeria to be its enemies.
Looking at what happened to next-door Libya, no one can wish Algeria a similar fate.
Tebboune was not shy of using strong terms. He accused some people of “prostration” and described the country as being “targeted” from within and from the outside. There was also talk of dubious “agendas” and references to countries and organisations which took aim at his country every five or ten years. There were accusations to these organisations were linked to intelligence agencies which had an axe to grind with Algeria.
The picture drawn by the Algerian president of his country’s regional and international situation is disturbing and does not inspire confidence. It is true that the periodic meeting with the media is necessary as a candid exercise which reflects the thinking of the Algerian leadership and its world view. The Algerian president is to be commended for being open and not concealing his policy on all issues. Now the picture is clearer and many Algerian positions and decisions are not that difficult to grasp. Or maybe they are just too easy to understand.
No one knows on what basis the Algerian leadership has arrived at the conclusion that its country is surrounded by forces with hostile intent. The era of President Tebboune, which began at the end of 2019, is one of financial abundance, primarily derived from gas revenues. Money is the essence of Algeria’s ongoing crisis and the reason for that, as explained by Tebboune in his media talk, is the development lag. The spending equation is an unresolved dilemma in Algeria, due to the ongoing decline in the country’s development-based achievements. The Algerian state has relied on a rentier mindset for decades. The economic situation in the country wavers, according to the fluctuation of oil and gas prices, between the danger of seeing its accounts in the red and their being safely in the black. This situation, which is linked to oil and gas prices, has repeated itself several times since independence. The country has never been able to achieve a level of development commensurate with Algeria’s human and natural potential, nor has it been able to keep pace with population growth.
President Tebboune is the by-product of the ruling establishment where he himself has evolved since the seventies to the present day. It is obvious that converting a rentier income into a development process is necessary to break the cycle of state expenditures based on oil exports and gas revenues. This is a problem, not a crisis, which Tebboune must resolve with the tools he sees at his disposal. The Algerian head of state does not hesitate to blame his government for its faltering approach to development and towards ensuring the welfare of the people.
However, the president’s media talk points to serious crises that are reflected in the tense tone of his words. But is there reason to believe there were any crises of the sort? Let us look at some of the crises which triggered some of Algeria’s harsh political, diplomatic and economic responses.
It is difficult to say that wildfires constituted a real crisis. They represented a full-fledged tragedy, especially for the affected areas, or for those who fell victims to the fires or died at the hands of a lynch mob through no fault of their own.
Today, with the fires behind us, can we say there was a plot to set Algeria’s forests ablaze? In reality, fires raged all over the Mediterranean. Not a single country was spared. Ravages spread from Turkey to Spain and from Tunisia to Morocco. Tensions and exaggerated interpretations of what happened, led Algeria to an economic boycott of Morocco and to disrupt gas supplies to its western neighbour and other countries in Europe and halt Morocco’s air traffic as well as that of other countries which had nothing to do with the two countries’ relations. These over-the-top reactions make you believe that whoever suggested them to the Algerian president must have had a personal issue with forests and fires.
The COVID-19 crisis also occurred on Tebboune’s watch. And if the fires were confined to the Mediterranean, the epidemic did not spare anyone, anywhere. Perhaps Algeria is one of the countries that spoke the least about the adverse repercussions of the epidemic on its economy. That economy is not based on tourism nor does it boast extensive industrial activities. In fact, the quarantines which restricted the movement of employees allowed the Algerian state to save a lot in terms of fuel costs on transportation and energy consumption in offices.
Then came the crisis sparked by the war in Ukraine. There is no doubt that food prices have increased globally as never before. And for a country that imports a lot of grain, oils and food products, the import bill was bound to soar. But before this bill increased, there was a huge rise in hydrocarbon exports. Algeria has eventually benefited from the crisis in Ukraine.
The Ukraine war also enhanced Algeria’s trade stature. Algerian gas makes up partially for the European shortage in Russian gas supplies. As President Tebboune said, a European country such as Italy is wooing Algeria, as it eagerly seeks its gas. But there is only a cautious convergence of interests, for two reasons. The first is the prevailing impression that Algeria has a propensity for hasty reactions toward its neighbours, as illustrated by its suspension of gas supplies to Morocco and its pressures on its Tunisian neighbour. The second is that investments in Algeria’s energy sector are fraught with risks, as there are no guarantees that after billions are spent to build a gas pipeline, gas supplies will not be affected by political decisions. Algeria does not separate economic decisions from political considerations when it is unhappy about something. The words of Tebboune highlighting Algeria’s affection for the Spanish people and its respect for the Spanish monarchy could not offset the political or economic damage caused by the suspension of the Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighbourliness and Cooperation with Spain.
The ebb and flow in Algeria’s relationship with France is understandable. What is not understandable is the tendency to return to square one in addressing the French colonial syndrome. The more the two countries seem to turn from their painful historical chapter, the more the colonial syndrome resurfaces in a new form. Historical syndromes cannot be underestimated, but they must be dealt with within the confines of history and not come to constitute an eternal burden which a nation has to bear on its shoulders. If there is an example of how historical syndromes are overcome on can find it in France itself. The German army invaded, occupied and humiliated France twice in less than a century. The first time was in the 1870-1871 war, when the Prussian army captured French Emperor Napoleon III. Furthermore, German unity was declared from the oddest possible palace on earth, the Palace of Versailles, the symbol of French sovereignty, as Kaiser Wilhelm I was crowned Emperor of unified Germany in the presence of the maker of that German unity Otto von Bismarck. And the second time was when the Nazi army entered Paris and Adolf Hitler ambled in front of the Eiffel Tower. Can there be more offending occurrences than these? But what mark from these two historical incidents is left in the German-French relationship today?
Fortunately, the drought is not a conspiracy, otherwise Tebboune would have described it as one.
The financial abundance that came with the increase in revenues from Algerian energy exports is a window of hope for development and prosperity for a people which has waited a long time to overcome the obstacles that have faced the country since independence. These windows of hope open and close and may not always repeat themselves. The window for oil production, for example, closed, after the Algerian oil wells were barely sufficient for domestic consumption. The candid presidential speech constituted, in reference to economic and development problems, what the Algerians want to hear. But they certainly did not want to hear the worrisome sound of tension over the perceived threat posed by the enemies of Algeria.
Dr Haitham El-Zobaidi is the executive editor of Al Arab Publishing Group. This article was originally published in Arab Weekly.
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