Reports of Algerian president’s vague health conditions and his recurrent medical trips abroad have sent a wave of uncertainty across a nation of people eager for change, as they struggle to make ends meet in an economic crisis made worse by the coronavirus pandemic, experts and analysts said.
The major energy producer has been struggling to ease financial pressure caused mainly by the sharp fall in oil prices due to reduced global demand during the coronavirus crisis.
Algeria’s unemployment rate – in a country of 45 million people, remained unchanged at 11.4 per cent in 2019, according to the World Bank’s latest report.
President Abdel Majid Tebboune, elected in December 2019, have made two trips to Germany since October for treatment of complications resulting from a coronavirus infection, according to presidency’s statements. The first one lasted for more than two months.
Mr Tebboune travelled to Germany again on January 10 to undergo foot surgery, with the presidency providing no additional details.
Concerns have mounted since Mr Tebboune’s first trip about the severity of the 75-year-old’s health, amid contradicting statements made by the presidency to explain his absence, according to Dr AbdelKader Cheref, an independent Algerian scholar based in the US.
“A video posted by Mr Tebboune, a heavy smoker, on Twitter on December 13, promising to return to Algeria in a few weeks, showed him sicker than reported, and raised questions about his capacity to carry out his constitutional obligations,” Dr Cheref added.
Mr Tebboune’s absence has reminded Algerians of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s regular hospitalizations in France and later in Switzerland, when he suffered a stroke in 2013 that rendered him incapable of speech and movement.
When Mr Bouteflika announced his intention to run for a fifth term, scores of Algerians took to the streets in February 2019 and was subsequently forced to step down in April, facing pressure from both the powerful army and the leadership of the protest movement known as Hirak.
However, Algerian political analyst and independent writer Kamel Al Mansary said that the current situation is different compared to Mr Bouteflika’s last six years in power, during which he was completely absent, and left his brother Saeed to run the country and to control the political and economic scene.
“The health conditions of the president or his absence have indeed cast doubts and even triggered discussions about finding a successor but his return and his address to the nation eased these worries for now,” said Mr Al Mansary.
But important political decisions are long overdue, according to the US-based scholar Dr Cheref, mainly due to the nature of Algeria’s political system, which concentrates much of the power within the presidency.
Mr Tebboune’s absence has put the whole country on stand-by and on the verge of an institutional crisis, said Dr Cheref.
“The pressing issue today is forming a completely new government, not a reshuffle, after the disastrous performance of the current one, and this can’t happen while Mr Tebboune is away,” Mr Al Mansari added.
“What Algeria really needs today is a government that would show that there has been a real change after adopting the new constitution.”
Last November, Algeria held a referendum on a new constitution after months-long protests demanding political and economic reforms from protesters. Mr Tebboune signed it into law in late December.
“The current cabinet has failed to deliver Mr Tebboune’s long awaited promises of reforms. Also, the measures it took to tackle the coronavirus crisis has negatively affected millions of people without fulfilling its promises of support,” Mr Al Mansary said,
Algeria has recorded since the beginning of the pandemic more than 100,000 cases, including over 2,800 deaths and around 30,000 active cases, according to data published by Johns Hopkins University.
The government has yet to detail a roll-out plan for a covid-19 vaccine to deal with rising cases. The country recently accounted that they had signed a contract with Russia to supply it with the Sputnik V vaccine, the RDIF sovereign wealth fund, but did not provide any details on the number of doses agreed upon.
The country’s overall budget deficit deteriorated to – 9.6 per cent of its GDP in 2019, as a result of a decline in hydrocarbon revenue and a rise in capital expenditure.
Oil revenues account for 60 per cent of the state budget and 94 per cent of total export revenue.
Mr Tebboune has promised to diversify the country’s oil-driven economy, but no plans have been implemented yet.