Few Americans know much about the largest nation in Africa. Even many in Congress can do little more than locate Algeria among Northern Africa’s countries on a map, but this week’s news out of one of our most important strategic allies in Africa might teach even our own leaders a little about the leadership and courage needed to govern during a crisis.
Those who do know about Algeria remember the protests last year, but do not know that they were remarkably peaceful and that after each, the protesters themselves cleaned up after themselves to make sure no litter remained.
Although critics predicted the nation’s delayed presidential election would prove chaotic and resolve little, they were wrong. Abdelmadjid Tebboune was elected with 54% of the vote in what observers agreed was a free and fair election that included at least one of the government’s most vocal critics.
Today like most of the world, Algeria is struggling with unprecedented challenges stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. The economic crisis brought on by the pandemic is especially serious in a country largely dependent upon oil and gas production. Independent analysts say that Algeria’s budget as projected before the virus collapsed world energy prices assumed oil would sell for about 50 dollars a barrel; one can only imagine the horror as the price plummeted to less than 20 dollars.
President Tebboune, however, turns out to be a tough, capable leader who, unlike many others, realizes that it’s dangerous to pile up debt that will have to be paid off by generations yet unborn. He and his country are proudly independent and have always resisted borrowing money to live beyond their means. Last week he slashed the government budget by half to avoid mortgaging the nation’s future to other nations and got a constitutional commission to adopt measure that will impose a two-term limit on the presidency and Parliament
How many other national leaders will have the courage to take the short-term heat President Tebboune will face to guarantee that his country will not end up unable to pay its debts when the pandemic ends? Other African countries can attest to the dangers of borrowing heavily from nations like China, as Beijing uses the current crisis to leverage concessions from nations addicted to its “help.” The leaders of these nations are on their knees begging the world community for charity, grants and loans to help finance unsustainable budgets spending they are afraid to cut.
In this country, Congress and governor after governor are borrowing to mitigate revenue shortfalls. The debt piling up now will have to be paid for with higher taxes and inflation — our debt is so high that only both might cover the interest on the debt. Elected officials in other developed countries with good credit ratings are doing the same — hoping no doubt that the pain will be visited not on them but their successors.
Had previous Illinois leaders had the foresight and backbone of Algeria’s current president, their state wouldn’t be an economic basket case. But few leaders, fearful of pressure from special interests, are willing to risk budget cuts when reality says they are needed. Illinois may be further along the road to bankruptcy, but New York and California had similar policies, we know they are about to hit a wall financially and so do they.
President Tebboune’s administrations’ biggest challenge since his election has been to build public trust in the government. He was in the midst of reforming the nation’s tax and regulatory structure to create jobs and mitigate Algeria’s heavy dependence on oil and gas when the pandemic hit and forced him to postpone much of what he wants to accomplish.
Even so, the country last week adopted constitutional changes that will limit the president and members of Parliament to two terms and strengthen the independence of the nation’s judiciary. His government is also taking a stronger role in trying to bring peace to the region. Still, he must know that his critics will seize on the cuts necessitated by this situation as “proof” that he doesn’t care about the people.
As the budget cuts Algiers is imposing go into effect, domestic and international special interests will protest; The Washington Post and The New York Times will run articles about poor and minority populations in Algeria losing aid. One can only hope that reason will prevail — because there can be little doubt that as Algeria weathers this storm, it will be far better off than those that have exercised less courage and less common sense.
It seems, though, that President Tebboune is committed to a course that may make Algeria a modern example of how to both weather a crisis and come out of it stronger than when it began.
• David A. Keene is an editor at large for The Washington Times. He formerly lobbied for Algeria.