The West must tie energy cooperation with Algeria to human rights concerns
The ripple effects of Russia’s war on Ukraine are being felt across the globe, including as far afield as Algeria, where the troubled government has secured a lifeline due to Europe’s desperation for new energy suppliers. This development comes three years after the ruling military-political establishment came under real threat from the popular uprising known as the Hirak. Yet, while this may temporarily relieve pressure on Algeria’s leaders, the government could see a rapid reversal of fortune as internal tensions rise once again — and if rising domestic demand and capacity issues limit the ability to meet European energy demands.
Last month, Algeria’s renewed diplomatic clout was on full display when Algiers hosted the 31st Summit of the Arab League, despite the recriminations that preceded it and the relatively tame final declaration. This was a far cry from just three years ago, when millions of Algerians took to the streets to protest then-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s intention to serve a fifth term, successfully ousting him after two decades in power.
However, the momentum of the Hirak was stunted by the advent of COVID-19, which gave the authorities cover to ban all street protests, and restrictions on civil society have intensified in the intervening years. President Abdelmajid Tebboune’s government has implemented reforms in the penal code that criminalize the broadcast of fake news that undermines “public order and security,” allowing practically anyone to be targeted as the enemy of the state; it has rounded up many of the activists, political opposition and journalists at the center of the Hirak, using threats to national security to stifle free speech.
To date, authorities are holding more than 300 activists on vague charges of terrorism, harming national unity, conspiracy against state security or spreading false information. A recently leaked draft NGO law reveals the government’s intent to reward allegiance with financial assistance while clamping down on opposition groups by criminalizing any association with foreign entities.
Internationally, the regime’s position has been shored up by the pressures on the energy market resulting from Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Algeria boasts some of the largest oil and gas reserves in the world and hydrocarbons make up 95 percent of export earnings. As Europe attempts to wean itself from Russian energy sources, Algeria could become a more dependable partner — provided it is able to ramp up production. Enlivened by this economic opportunity, the regime has halted subsidy reforms and introduced stipends to jobless youth, the biggest potential sources of instability, to placate a citizenry confronted with economic and social woes.
This cannot last. Algeria’s overreliance on hydrocarbons inevitably will expose it to macroeconomic volatility that will require renewed austerity measures and strain the sustainability of public employment, creating further potential for unrest. It also remains to be seen whether the supply of Algerian energy sources can expand drastically in the short term to meet new European energy demands: Not only has domestic demand grown, but the Algerian oil and gas infrastructure needs significant upgrading, which will take time. And while the protest movement has abated, the demands for democratic reform that motivated the Hirak remain unmet, and have the potential to reignite social turmoil in the future.
As much as the Ukraine crisis has given the Algerian regime a lifeline, Western governments also have an opportunity to use this moment to push for democratic reforms. Algeria has an enormous amount to gain from renewed engagement with the U.S. and Europe; accordingly, the prospect of more extensive regional energy collaboration should be tied to efforts to hold the Algerian government accountable for its undemocratic policies. Such support would be a significant help to the activists engaged in the uphill battle to curb abusive practices and promote inclusive governance.
Patricia Karam is the regional director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Republican Institute. Follow her on Twitter @PatriciaJKaram.
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