Economy

In Algeria, Ramadan Comes With COVID And Water Shortages

With water rationing, soaring food prices and an economic crisis brought on by COVID-19, Algerians begin the month of fasting in difficult conditions.

People buying food in a market on the first day of the month of Ramadan in Algiers
People buying food in a market on the first day of the month of Ramadan in Algiers
Safia Ayache

ALGIERS — "We have a president who talks to us about oil, meat and Semolina," says Hafid. Speaking from his farm in eastern Algeria, the comments refer to an interview given by Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a week before the start of Ramadan on April 13. The Head of State assured that food products would be available, but also warned against speculators, accused in recent weeks of forcing the price of certain basic products — including oil — to soar.

The words apparently have not reassured ordinary Algerians, as the holy month of prayer, fasting and family gatherings begins. "It is not at the time of Ramadan that I will restrict myself," says Hafid, citing the additional expenses for the various dishes — dates, fermented milk, dried fruit, cheese — that will garnish the family table to break the daily fast. "Fortunately I have my sheep, so I will not have to buy imported meat."

After oil, it is the rising meat prices that has upset consumers, and led to calls for a national boycott. In an attempt to reduce prices, the authorities proceeded in early April to issue exceptional authorizations for the import of frozen red meat from Spain. And to fight against speculative practices, the government intends to deploy 20,000 control agents throughout the country of 43 million.

The rise in consumer prices, normal at the time of Ramadan, is extreme this year.

The rise in consumer prices, normal at the time of Ramadan, is extreme this year in large part because of the impact of COVID-19 on businesses, production and manufacturing networks, says Hadj Tahar Boulenouar, president of the National Association of Merchants and Artisans. But there is also the devaluation of the national currency, the dinar, which pushes up the prices of foreign imports. This trend is directly reflected in consumer prices, as "more than 70%" of household needs "depend on imports," the economist Smaïl Lalmas told the daily El Watan.

Since the beginning of the health crisis, nearly 500,000 jobs have been lost, according to initial estimates made in December by the Algerian authorities. In the construction sector alone, the country has lost 150,000 jobs, while a reported 70% of companies are operating at less than 50% of their capacity.

This month of Ramadan could also suffer from another crisis: that of water, with rationing required despite denials by the government. On April 5 in Bordj El Kiffan, located in the eastern suburbs of Algiers, dozens of residents blocked the national road that crosses the town as well as the tramway lines to express their frustration.

Distribution of food during Ramadan in Algiers in May 2020 — Photo: Ammi Louiza/Abaca via ZUMA Press

"The water is cut off from the beginning of the evening until the next morning, but sometimes the cuts are not made at fixed times' says Latifa, a resident of downtown Algiers.

On March 22, the director general of the Algerian Water Company, Hocine Zaïr, warned that the country will move towards a distribution system of "every other day" if the water reserves are not replenished. Algeria has faced a growing decline in rainfall and a filling rate of dams to 44%, said the official.

Minister of Water Resources Mustapha Kamel Mihoubi has ensured "maintaining the supply to the population in a continuous manner during the month of Ramadan." But in the capital, inhabitants are not very confident and some have already taken measures into their own hands, installing additional water tanks on balconies or roofs of buildings.

As for small towns that are not connected to running water, locals have been relying on community solidarity for many years. On his farm, Hafid had an underground tank dug that can hold hundreds of liters.

"Whenever I need to fill it or irrigate my trees, I call my neighbor and cousin who has a well," he says. "I ended up installing pipes that connect directly to his tank, and I pay him by the hour to compensate for the electricity consumption of the water pump." Yes, family bonds are important all year round.

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Geopolitics

Erdogan And Boris Johnson: A New Global Power Duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too.

Johnson and Erdogan in NYC on Sept. 20

Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung

-Analysis-

BERLIN — According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. The agreement covers billions of euros' worth of military equipment, and the two countries have committed to come to each other's aid if they are attacked.

Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey.

Officially, the Turkish government is unruffled, saying the pact doesn't represent a military threat. But the symbolism is clear: with the U.S., UK and Australia recently announcing the Aukus security pact, Ankara fears the EU may be closing ranks when it comes to all military issues.

What will Aukus mean for NATO?

Turkey has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

Europe's approach to security and defense is changing dramatically. Over the past few months, while the U.S. was negotiating the Aukus pact with Britain and Australia behind the EU's back, a submarine deal between Australia and France, which would have been worth billions, was scrapped.

The EU is happy to keep Erdogan waiting

Officially, Turkey is keeping its cards close to its chest. Addressing foreign journalists in Istanbul, Erdogan's chief advisor Ibrahim Kalin said the country was not involved in Aukus, but they hope it doesn't have a negative impact on NATO. However, the agreement will have a significant effect on Turkey.

"Before Aukus, the Turks thought that the U.S. would prevent the EU from adopting a defense policy that was independent of NATO," says Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkey at the Brussels think tank Carnegie Europe. "Now they are afraid that Washington may make concessions for France, which could change things."

Macron sees post-Merkel power vacuum

Turkey's concerns may well prove to be justified. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey, partly because it is an important trading partner and partly because it has a direct influence on the influx of migrants from Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

Merkel consistently thwarted France's plans for a stricter approach from Brussels towards Turkey, and she never supported Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU.

But now she that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

Ankara fears the defense pact between France and Greece could be a sign of what is to come. According to a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the agreement is aimed "at NATO member Turkey" and is damaging to the alliance. Observers also assume the agreement means that France is supporting Greece's claims to certain territories in the Mediterranean which remain disputed under international law, with Turkey's own sovereignty claims.

Paris is a close ally of Athens. In the summer of 2020, Greece and Turkey were poised on the threshold of a military conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. Since then, Athens has ordered 24 Rafale fighter jets from France, and the new pact includes a deal for France to supply them with three frigates.

Photo of French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

Sadak Souici/Le Pictorium Agency/ZUMA

Erdogan’s EU wish list

It's not the first time that Ankara has felt snubbed by the EU. Since Donald Trump left the White House, Turkey has been making a considerable effort to improve relations with Brussels. "The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is peaceful and the migrant problem is under control," says Kalin. Now it is "high time" that Europe does something for Turkey.

Erdogan's wish list is extensive: making it easier for Turks to get EU visas, renegotiating the refugee deal, making more funds available to Turkey as it continues the process of joining the EU, and moderniszing the customs union. But there is no movement on any of these issues in Brussels. They're happy to keep Erdogan waiting.

Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU

Now he is starting to look elsewhere. At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense.

 Turkey's second largest export market

The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016. Unlike other European capitals, London reacted quickly, calling the coup an "attack on Turkish democracy," and its government has generally held back in its criticism of Turkey.

At the end of last year, Johnson and Erdogan signed a new free trade agreement, which will govern commerce between the two countries post-Brexit. Erdogan has called it "the most important treaty for Turkey since the customs agreement with the EU in 1995."

After Germany, Britain is Turkey's second largest export market. "Turkey now has the opportunity to build a new partnership with the United Kingdom and it must make the most of it," says economist Ali Kücükcolak from the Istanbul Commerce University.

Erdogan is well aware of this, as Turkey is in desperate need of an economic boost. Inflation currently stands at 19%, and the currency's value is consistently falling. Turks are feeling the impact on their daily lives: food and rent are becoming increasingly expensive, while salaries remain unchanged.

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