The Arab Spring revolts in North Africa in 2010-2011 brought down Tunisian and Egyptian regimes, yet Morocco and Algeria escaped relatively unscathed. While there were mass demonstrations in both countries, their ruling powers managed to protect their position through concessions to the public, such as the new constitution announced by King Mohammed VI of Morocco in July 2011, and the revocation of Algeria’s emergency laws which had been in place for the previous nineteen years. While these measures were symbolically significant, they failed to bring about long-term social change and to answer the public’s demands for less corrupt, more transparent political life. By stark contrast, Morocco’s regime appeared to become increasingly authoritarian, with public discourse being closely monitored and journalists and bloggers regularly arrested.
Since then, Algeria and Morocco have both hit by major social unrest, with popular movements in both countries demanding justice and an end to authoritarian regimes. These movements, both named ‘Hirak’ (literally ‘movement’ in Arabic), have had a dramatically different impact on the political scenes of both countries. With the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 bringing its own challenges to North African countries, I propose to examine how Algeria and Morocco have dealt with these very different types of crises and what it reveals about both countries’ regimes and their grip on power, within the context of their neighbouring states. What attitudes have these regimes adopted? What are their similarities and differences? How successfully have they addressed health and political challenges? How are they approaching the announced economic crisis?
The impact of the Hirak movement(s) in the Maghreb countries
The Hirak phenomenon first appeared in the Moroccan Rif: a region deeply marked by poverty and lack of infrastructure, and with a long history of rebellion against the monarchy. It emerged after the death of street vendor Mouhcine Fikri in late 2016, who was crushed by a rubbish collection truck after an argument with the police who had confiscated his goods. His death was sadly reminiscent of that of Mohamed Bouazizi, which sparked the Arab Spring events in Tunisia, and the public responded with outrage. It led to mass demonstrations in the Northern Rif. Other protests were organized in solidarity throughout Morocco, as well as abroad led by the Moroccan diaspora. These spontaneous demonstrations then evolved into a wider movement of contestation demanding an end to the Rif’s decade-long social and economic marginalisation, and investment in basic infrastructure such as hospitals and universities for the impoverished region. The Hirak al-Rif broadly follows in the steps of the February 20th movement, which was born from the Arab Spring, but while the regime responded to some of their demands at the time, the Hirak movement was very severely repressed. Its leaders, most notably Nasser Zafzafi, were arrested and jailed, and a 2017 report from Amnesty International brought to light dozens of accusations of torture in police custody. The regime-controlled media also tried to discredit the Hirak movement by spreading rumours about its leaders and by accusing it of being under foreign influence (particularly of the Algerian polisario). In May 2017, demonstrations in the city of Al-Hoceima were the scene of violent clashes between locals and the authorities, confirming the state’s very repressive stance towards the movement. Since then, a number of demonstrations have been organised in major cities such as Rabat and Casablanca with a wider set of demands, but Hirak al-Rif’s leaders remain in jail.
Algeria’s own Hirak movement first appeared in February 2019, following an announcement that president Abdelaziz Bouteflika would present himself for elections for a fifth time, despite concerns about his ailing health and ability to rule. Week after week after Friday prayers, millions of Algerians peacefully took to the streets to call for a regime change. While the protests started spontaneously, social media helped participants to organize themselves and share information, and student associations took a very active role in leading smaller demonstrations. Frederic Volpi reports that in March 2019, an estimated 5 million Algerians took part in the protest, which was unprecedented and led to division within pro-regime parties about how to proceed. As a result, Bouteflika gave up his candidacy bid, which was a first victory for the movement but didn’t satisfy the demands of the protesters. He eventually announced his resignation on the 2nd April. Again, this failed to stop the growth of the Hirak movement. Galvanized by its success, protestors now demanded the resignation of top regime associates as well as fair elections. Elections were finally held in December 2019, resulting in the victory of Abdelmajid Tebboune, a high ranking official who had very briefly served as a Prime Minister under Bouteflika. His election was thus far from the renewal Algerians had hoped for; by contrast, it seems to confirm the elite’s stronghold on power. Weekly demonstrations thus continued until the first cases of Covid-19 in Algeria forced the country to a standstill.
Reactions to the Covid-19 pandemic: Contrasting Attitudes
As COVID-19 cases swiftly rose across Europe, the countries of the Maghreb developed different strategies to protect their citizens. Morocco implemented strict measures quite early on by declaring a state of emergency on the 20th March, placing the country on lockdown. Steps taken by the government included the closures of school and public spaces, mosques and shops (apart from food shops). All international flights were suspended, leading to tourists trapped in the country and Moroccans abroad unable to return home. A night-time curfew was put in place and police forces strictly monitored adherence to guidelines; Mohammed Masbah reports that “nearly 5000 people have been arrested for violating the state of health emergency” The country was lauded internationally for its proactive response, helping to prevent further spread of the virus; as a result, Morocco recorded a relatively low number of deaths (242 as of the 9th of July). The country also started producing a large number of facemasks and exporting them to European countries.
Algeria took a slightly more relaxed approach, only announcing measures a month after the first cases had been reported in the country, and it has a significantly higher number of fatalities compared to its neighbours (988 on the 9th July 2020). The health crisis started in the midst of political turmoil, with continued popular protest after the elections of president Tebboune, and it brought a sharp end to the weekly demonstrations which had been running throughout 2019. Following decades of poor investment in healthcare and other public services, the Covid-19 pandemic revealed the stark situation of hospitals in the country: very low number ICU beds, lack of basic hygiene conditions and in some cases, no access to clean water. Until China stepped in to offer assistance, equipment, and medical teams, the country seemed to be heading towards catastrophe. President Tebboune acknowledged the dire health situation, promising an overhaul of the health system.
Both Algeria and Morocco were forced to introduce measures to support their economy and offer relief to the millions of citizens who had lost their income because of the lockdown. The poorest parts of the population were particularly at risk, becoming reliant on food handouts for their survival: a vast proportion of the workforce holds informal jobs with no security, no access to health insurance, or pension funds. Economies in both countries are considered to be vulnerable: Algeria’s reliance on waning oil and gas revenue placed it in a particularly difficult position as the crisis developed. This financial pressure led to lockdown measures being relaxed as early as late April to allow more businesses to re-open. The government also pledged to protect public sector wages, despite offices being closed. While president Tebboune has pushed for a new economic model and announced several reforms, it remains to be seen whether these will be successful. In Morocco, two major economic sectors have been deeply affected by the crisis: tourism and agriculture. Emergency funds were introduced to support both the health and economic sectors, with a budget of 1 billion dollars. Several important business groups and holdings made large contributions to the fund, and private donations were also encouraged. This proved a very efficient to raise funds while creating a sense of solidarity across public and private sectors.
The health crisis: an opportunity for North African regimes?
In the case of Algeria, it is clear that the health emergency and the impossibility for the Hirak movement to organise public demonstrations, which had rallied Algerians together every week for over a year, is currently playing in the government’s favour. Adel Hamaizia and Yahia Zoubir call the crisis a “godsend”, noting that it allowed the new government to pass new, restrictive measures. Despite the lack of adhesion to Tebboune’s government and his personal lack of legitimacy, as an individual associated to the previous regime, he pushed ahead with controversial new laws, including one about fake news that puts freedom of press at risk. Despite the government’s reassurances, it seems determined to follow in Bouteflika’s authoritarian steps, as suggested by the arrests of Hirak activists and journalists such as Khaled Drareni and Sofiane Merakchi who had been covering the protests.
In Morocco, the government benefited from a positive response of the public to its handling of the crisis: Mohammed Masbah writes that, “the COVID-19 has increased public trust in government”, despite low confidence in the public health system. There has been an important solidarity movement both across Morocco and the Moroccan diaspora, bringing various political factions together and attenuating tensions to focus on the health emergency. However, this is likely to be short-lived unless the regime finally acknowledges the deep mistrust towards its leaders and the legitimate concerns of Moroccan citizens about corruption, human right abuses and poor governance. Ilhem Rachidi notes that, “as repression takes root, a culture of protest is slowly emerging throughout the country”. The youth in particular is using social media to great effect, to express dissent despite associated risks, signalling that the protest movement is still very much active.
The Covid-19 crisis could have been an opportunity to bring both nations together and to implement long overdue, crucial reforms in the health sector and beyond. While promises have been made, it seems clear that both regimes are determined to hold on to their privileges and protect the long-reigning elites. Despite some successes in their handling of the health crisis and the effective silencing of opposition movements, it is evident that the regimes on both sides never addressed the demands that were first made by the public during the Arab Spring demonstrations. Corruption is still rampant, public services are dire, and in many ways protections for human rights seem to be regressing. Thus, it remains to be seen how long the Algerian and Moroccan regimes will be able to prevent larger uprisings, particularly with the threat of a looming economic crisis.
1. A. Wolf, 2019, ‘Morocco’s Hirak movement and legacies of contention in the Rif’, Journal of North African Studies, 24 :1 ; 1.
2. Amnesty International, 2017, ‘Morocco: dozens arrested over mass protests in Rif report torture in custody’, Amnesty International, https://www.amnesty.nl/actueel/morocco-dozens-arrested-over-mass-protests-in-rif-report-torture-in-custody
3. F. El Malki, 2017, ‘Morocco’s Hirak Movement: The People versus the Makhzen, Jadaliyya, https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/34330/Morocco%60s-Hirak-Movement-The-People-Versus-the-Makhzen
4. F. Volpi, 2020, ‘Algeria : When elections hurt democracy’, Journal of Democracy, 31 : 2, 157.
5. M. Masbah, 2020, ‘Can Morocco effectively handle the Covid-19 crisis?’, Chatham House report, https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/can-morocco-effectively-handle-covid-19-crisis-1
6. A. Hamzaia & Y. Zoubir, 2020, ‘Algeria’s perfect storm: Covid-19 and its fallout’, Chatham House report, https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/algeria-s-perfect-storm-covid-19-and-its-fallout
7. A. Hamzaia & Y. Zoubir, idem.
8. M. Masbah, idem.
9. I. Rachidi, 2019, ‘Mroocco’s crackdown won’t silence dissent’, Foreign Policy, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/01/16/moroccos-crackdown-wont-silence-dissent-maroc-hirak-amdh/