Reportage. Relations with France, Russia and Europe, clashes with Morocco, gas assets, and the Algerians' thirst for rights. We spoke with a parliamentarian and an activist about the future of their country.

The Algerians’ battle for freedom and democracy

First the gas crisis and then the grain crisis have put North Africa and the Middle East at the center of geopolitical attention. Algeria is an African giant stretching from the endless Sahara to the southern coast of the Mediterranean, and its role is becoming more important every day. The People’s Republic of Algeria has a troubled history and has had to fight to free itself from the French colonial yoke that had no intention of giving up a land it considered its own.

Today, its capital retains that decadent charm typical of those with a recent colonial past, and conveys, both in the alleys of the casbah and in the wide avenues that spread out toward the sea, a sense of ancient and profound knowledge. The lower part of the city was chosen by Paris to administer Algeria, while the older part of the casbah has always remained in the hands of the Algerians, who have made it their true capital.

It is a fascinating country, but one that has no vocation for tourism and keeps its history and treasures jealously hidden. Algeria’s wealth is its huge gas fields, which produce about 130 billion cubic meters of gas each year, with two liquefaction plants with an annual capacity of 30 billion cubic meters. However, pipelines are already becoming a problem for the Maghreb country, which closed the one that passed through Morocco because of the outbreak of a low-intensity war with Rabat that has been going on for years over the Western Sahara issue.

Europe has always been the favored customer of Algiers, which has long-standing contracts, especially with France. Paris has maintained, albeit with some ups and downs, a privileged relationship with its former colony, and this gives France some energy security. Italy has also had a presence in Algeria since the 1960s under Enrico Mattei, and ENI is a highly respected giant on this side of the Mediterranean.

More complicated is the situation with Spain, which, after the latter sided with Morocco’s ambitions in Western Sahara, has seen the suspension of the Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighborliness and Cooperation between the two countries that had been active for more than 20 years, but which, for the time being, does not involve the interruption of energy supply. In recent weeks, all European leaders have been traveling to Algiers to see President Abdelmadjid Tebboune to consolidate and increase gas supplies, but many analysts doubt the possibility that Algerian gas will be able to entirely replace Russian gas. Especially since, the week after Mario Draghi paid an official visit, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also arrived in Algiers and celebrated 60 years of friendship between the two countries together with the Algerian president, praising Algeria’s international standing and signing a cooperation agreement between Algerian company Sonatrach and the Russian Gazprom. This move immediately alarmed the European Union, which fears a diplomatic counteroffensive by Russia in a key country.

Mohcine Belabbas is a longtime politician, a member of Parliament, the founder and outgoing head of the Rally for Culture and Democracy, and above all a proud opponent of the Tebboune regime. “Algeria,” he says, “is a country that lives on exports, gas above all, of course, but our economy is in a very serious crisis. Corruption is rampant in every sector, wages are too low, and our currency is constantly losing purchasing power.”

Belabbas’s party boycotted the elections, accusing President Tebboune of being elected with a very low number of supporters. “Tebboune lacks the legitimacy of a truly democratic vote, lacks the ability to open a dialogue with the oppositions, and lacks the ability to build something for a country that is sailing by sight. We all live under surveillance here, and even I have been under tight police control, while freedom of expression, the press and associations like the Hirak Movement have been stifled by this administration.”

Belabbas is criticizing the government for its domestic management, but also for its international policy. “This problematic relationship with France has no reason to exist anymore, it is not in the interest of the Algerian people. I believe the time has come to look around and do business with all the Mediterranean countries and play an active and constructive role there.”

On the subject of international politics, the topic turns to Russia. “With Russia, relations are old and solid. The Soviet Union supported Algeria already from the time of the liberation struggle, and today this relationship remains very solid. I personally condemn the invasion of Ukraine, but I think the only way is that of diplomacy and not international isolation.”

Relations with Morocco are also a hot topic in Algiers. “The issue with Morocco is not just an issue for Algeria, it is an international issue. The Trump administration supported Moroccan claims over Western Sahara in exchange for Rabat’s recognition of Israel, and this has triggered the correct reaction from Algeria, which has found a solid ally in Moscow.”

Another hot topic is the grain crisis that has put many of the neighboring states on edge. “Algeria, unlike Tunisia and Egypt, does not depend exclusively on Russia and Ukraine, because it has diversified its sources of supply by also buying grain from Canada and France, and this has avoided hunger for our people.”

But human rights and freedom are the real problem in Algeria today, as we are told by human rights champion Zakaria Hannache, who has personally paid a price for his desire for freedom: “In February, I was arrested on very serious charges including undermining the integrity of the state, propagating fake news and supporting terrorism, when my only crime was that I denounced repression and demanded freedom for our prisoners of conscience. Today, Algeria is a police state, far removed from the people, repressing all forms of dissent.”

Hannache takes us back to 2019, when the Hirak Movement seemed likely to change the face of his country. “With Hirak, the Algerian people reclaimed their freedom, demanded democracy, but today we have taken many steps backward. Repression is the only method they know, they control social media, they surveil lawyers, journalists, free citizens – here nobody has the freedom of expression or speech. We can no longer organize demonstrations because of this unrelenting control. And take into account that the people have proven time and again that they are on our side.”

The young activist’s judgments are harsh and unsparing, and describe an alarming situation: “This presidency does not engage in dialogue with the opposition, nor with civil society, it only knows how to repress. Boycotting elections is useless; it actually facilitates the control over the votes. Algeria is a captive state, and the international community must understand that it cannot continue to pretend like nothing is happening. Our people deserve freedom and democracy now.”

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