Reports of the Algerian President’s vague illnesses and his recurrent medical trips abroad have sent a wave of uncertainty across a nation of people eager for change, analysts said.
The major energy producer has been struggling to ease economic pressure caused primarily by the sharp fall in oil prices resulting from reduced global demand during the pandemic.
Algeria’s unemployment rate remained unchanged at 11.4 per cent in 2019, according to the World Bank’s latest report on the country, which has a population of 45 million.
President Abdelmadjid Majid Tebboune, who was elected in December 2019, has made two trips to Germany since October for treatment for Covid-19 complications, according to presidency's statements. The first one lasted more than two months.
Mr Tebboune returned to Germany on January 10 to undergo foot surgery. No further details were provided.
Since Mr Tebboune’s first trip, concern has mounted about the severity of the 75-year-old’s health.
Dr AbdelKader Cheref, an Algerian scholar based in the US, noted contradictory statements made by the presidency to explain his absence.
“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 said.
Mr Tebboune’s absence has reminded Algerians of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s regular hospital stays in France and later Switzerland, after he had 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. He was forced to step down in April, facing pressure from both the powerful army and the leadership of the protest movement known as Hirak.
But Kamel Al Mansary, an Algerian political analyst and writer, said the current situation is different compared with Mr Bouteflika’s last six years in power, during which he was entirely absent and left his brother Saeed to run the country.
“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,” Mr Al Mansary said.
But Dr Cheref said important political decisions are long overdue, mainly owing 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 standby and on the verge of an institutional crisis, Dr Cheref said.
“The pressing issue today is forming a completely new government, not a reshuffle, after the disastrous performance of the current one. This can’t happen while Mr Tebboune is away,” Mr Al Mansari said.
“What Algeria really needs today is a government that would show that there has been a real change after adopting the new constitution.”
In 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 last month.
“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.
Since the start of the pandemic, Algeria has recorded more than 106,000 cases. These include more than 2,800 deaths and about 30,000 active cases, according to data published by Johns Hopkins University.
The government has yet to announce a Covid-19 vaccination plan.
Algeria signed a contract with Moscow to supply it with the Sputnik V vaccine, the Russian Direct Investment Fund said. It did not say how many doses had been ordered.
Algeria’s overall budget deficit deteriorated to minus 9.6 per cent of its GDP in 2019, owing to a decline in hydrocarbon revenue and a rise in capital expenditure.
Oil revenue accounts 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 plan has been set in motion.