The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged Algeria
Unpacking Algeria's hostage crisis

Also read this post in Jihadica by Andrew Lebovich on the deliberate echo of the Algerian civil war in the naming of the group that carried out the hostake-taking:

When longtime Algerian jihadist and recently-removed AQIM commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar announced in December the creation of a new combat unit, al-Mouwakoune Bi-Dima (“Those Who Sign with Blood”), much of the media coverage focused on what Belmokhtar said about the new group’s role. As part of Belmokhtar’s Katibat al-Moulathimin, the new group would, in his words, attack “those planning the war in northern Mali.” Belmokhtar also said that an eventual intervention in Mali would be “a proxy war on behalf of the Occident.” He also explicitly threatened not only France, but also Algeria, calling the country’s political, military, and economic elites “sons of France” and saying “we will respond with force, we will have our say, we will fight you in your homes and we will attack your interests.”

At the time, few noted Belmokhtar’s important historical reference point in choosing this name for his new faction: the name al-Mouwakoune Bi-Dima was originally used by a group of Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) fighters who conducted a series of attacks in Algeria and in France against French targets. Most notable was the Mouwakoune group’s December 1994 hijacking of Air France Flight 8969, an incident that ended when elite French gendarmes stormed the plane on the tarmac in Marseille.

The origins of Rai

The video above shows Algerian pop legend Cheb Khaled's first song, at the tender age of 14 in 1974. It comes via Ted Swedenburg, who has an epic history of Rai — the Maghrebi style of music born in Algeria in the 1970s — and discovered that Cheb Khaled's song came several years earlier than what he had hitherto believed to be the inventors of the rai sound, Messaoud Bellamou and Boutaiba Sghir. The whole essay is fascinating, lavishly illustrated with album covers and music — a must-read for anyone interested in Maghrebi or Arabic music.

(h/t Abu Aardvark.)

Dispatch: Algeria's "nif"

Since there was a lot of interest in Abu Ray's recent piece on Algeria, I have asked friend-of-the-blog Geoff Porter if I could reproduce an email he sent me just before the parliamentary elections there. Geoff's take is quite unique, and while I'm not sure what to make of it (having not been to Algeria) I thought it was worth sharing. Let us know what you think of it.

Parliamentary elections on 10 May have provided commentators with another occasion to discuss why Algeria did not have an “Arab Spring” like so many other countries in the Arabic-speaking world and to prognosticate about why Algerian voter participation rates are likely to be so low. Not one to pass up an opportunity to share my own views, below is my take on what is at play in Algeria.

One well-worn explanation for Algeria’s lack of an Arab Spring is because the horrific bloodshed that followed Algeria’s first foray into multi-party politics in the 1990s left Algerians cagey and afraid. They watched jealously over the course of 2011 as their neighbors stood up to and toppled authoritarian regimes, but were too cowed by memory to do the same. And now presented with legislative elections and the opportunity to voice their political views post-Arab Spring, Algerians have become too apathetic to go to the polls to try to bring about political change. Voter participation is will be low, the argument goes, because Algerians think that they are impotent in the face of the deep state’s power.

A portrait of a defeated and timid population emerges from this interpretation. But anyone who has spent time in Algeria would quickly attest to Algerians’ pride and defiance. So how to explain the difference between the two profiles? One explanation is that the arguments about why Algeria did not have an Arab Spring and why Algerians are unlikely to vote are wrong.

To understand why they miss their target, it helps to go back to Algeria’s revolution against French rule in the 1950s and the early years of independence in the 1960s. The revolution was complicated, but one thing that it was not was an attempt to restore some form of government that had existed prior to France’s colonial conquest in 1830. There was no earlier form of government to restore. France ruled Algeria for 132 years and prior to that it had been ruled loosely by the Ottoman Empire. When Algeria won independence from France, the goal was to establish a republic, very much modeled along French lines only without the French. What emerged was an “Algerianized” version of the French republic, committed to the ideals of liberte¸egalite, et fraternite, and a very deep sense of citoyenneté, citizenship.

Of these, equality and citizenship are most deeply rooted. Equality manifests itself daily in Algerian life and Algerians are constantly on guard against violations of their equal status. In daily interactions, equality takes the form of respect – one does not look down upon or denigrate another. Unlike Morocco or Tunisia, there are no shoeshine boys in Algeria. No Algerian will kneel at another’s feet and clean grime off his shoes.

Algerians often talk of “le nif,” referring to pride and an unswerving adherence to principle. “Le nif” is something Algerians simultaneously boast about and somewhat disingenuously acknowledge as a shortcoming, like answering the job interview question about one’s greatest weakness by saying that one is “too truthful.”  Principles like honor and respect mean something in Algeria, but rigid commitment to them can also be a hindrance in day to day life, let alone in politics or business which are by nature fluid and malleable.  Despite its intangibility, “le nif” is real and permeates Algerian life.

The other enduring legacy of the war of independence is a strong sense of citizenship. Beyond the personal level of “le nif”, Algerians have a strong commitment to the state and its institutions. There may not be a commitment to the ways in which these institutions have evolved and how they function today, and in fact there is definitively not, but there is a commitment to the ideas and rationale that underpin them. On an institutional level, any Algerian can walk into a government office, declare that he or she is a citizen (“ana watani/ya”) and demand to be heard or seen. This may take time, sometimes an enormous amount of time, but the right to be there as a citizen is never in question. There is the belief shared by the citizen and the government functionary that the two are bound by a reciprocal bond. While they may diverge on how that bond should be acted upon and how quickly, the belief that there is indeed a bond is not challenged.

What do equality, “le nif” and citizenship mean in relation to the Arab Spring? Yes, Algerians are wary of abrupt political change, but as anyone can attest, Algerians do not shy from confrontation. There was no Arab Spring in Algeria not because Algerians were afraid. There was no Arab Spring in Algeria because Algerians did not want it. Yes, they protested against the state, as they have every week and every month for the last decade, and eventually the state acquiesced to enough of their demands. Yes, Algerians bemoan “le hogra” – the dismissive attitude of state officials to their complaints and petitions – but they see themselves as prideful citizens of the state and the messy, unruly protests in Tunisia and Egypt are unbecoming of them. It is impossible to imagine the scene from December 2011 in Cairo when supporters of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces urinated from the rooftops on to protestors below being reenacted in Algiers.

But what of the supposed apathy that will keep Algerians away from the polls? Yes, Algerians are unlikely to vote in large numbers because they do not believe that the parliament has enough power to implement new policies that will dramatically improve their lives. And yes, they likely feel that the political parties from whom they can choose have been coopted by the deep state. But instead of apathy, there is something more forceful at work. Many Algerians do not want to compromise their principles by participating in a process that they think unworthy. Their participation, the participation of the republic’s citizenry, would validate a process that is beneath them. It is not resignation that keeps Algerians out of the polls, but pride and principle.

Traveling from Algiers to Tunis to Tripoli last month highlighted Algeria’s distinct stance. While the air in Tunis was humming with excitement about the Jasmine Revolution, and Tripoli was a froth of euphoria and anxiety after the overthrow of Col. Muammar Qadhafi, Algiers was indignant and defiant. Algerians seemed to have a longer view of history, waiting for the Tunisian and Libyan Springs to turn inevitably to unwelcome winter, fraught with chaos and instability, and bereft of Algeria’s unique pride and sense of citizenship.  The refrain in Algerian pop songs – tahya Djazair (“live up Algeria”) – is not about institutions or about the state, but about the people, about Algerians. “Live up Algeria” is an expression of the potential power of “le nif,” quite apart from an Algerian Spring or parliamentary elections. 

Dispatch: The Algerian exception?

Election posters in Algiers (credit: Abu Ray)

Our friend Abu Ray, a journalist covering North Africa, sent in this dispatch from Algeria where he was to cover the recent parliamentary elections, in which the ruling FLN won against expectations that Islamist parties would do well, as they have done in neighboring Tunisia and Morocco. The Islamists and many others have decried widespread fraud and the turnout was very low.

For some of us journalists, the Arab Spring meant discovering French colonial architecture, or at least that of Tunis. I mean no one went toTunisia before the revolution: it was a journalistic dead zone. And then came the uprising, the confused aftermath and then the October elections, and each time, we would wander around the tree-lined Bourguiba avenue, with its never-ending outdoor cafés and beautiful peeling old buildings and think, wow, now THIS is a capital city.

Up until this point, if what you’ve seen of Arab capitals is the slow motion urban train wreck of Cairo, the bland concrete and glass of the Gulf and the soul destroying beige ugliness of Baghdad, Tunis was amazing.

Until I saw Algiers. The white city on the sea has just block after block of achingly beautifully filigreed white buildings with delicate blue balconies arrayed around a perfect semicircular bay, climbing up a steep mountain like an amphitheater.

There are drawbacks. Everything built from the 1950s on is hideous and unlike Alexandria’s lovely bay, the Algiers port is, well, smack dab in the center of the bay, so once you got close to the water, you are dealing with warehouses, train tracks, highways and chainlink fences guarding customs buildings.

But climb the hill and and there you were in winding streets connected by steep staircases, working your way through old neighborhoods. So Algiers was a rare enough site to visit, but this time around, the government wanted to invite the world for their elections, their “spring.”

It was time to throw a party, show off the city and tell the world how Spring-like Algeria was feeling. It was the regularly scheduled parliamentary elections, elections the country has been holding regularly every five years like a train schedule, and with about as much literary merit. But since everyone was looking around the region saying, “where’s your spring Algeria?,” the aging regime of old revolutionaries felt they had to put on a show. So the observers were invited in, the journalists suddenly got visas, and a fairly closed place was suddenly thrown open — much to the joy of those who love old colonial cities.

As it turns out, asking Algeria experts why there was no “Arab Spring” in Algeria, could possibly be the equivalent of asking the inane post 9/11 query of “why do they hate us?” They do get tired of that. One answer is that Algeria had its spring in 1988 when angry riots over a failed system broke out around the country necessitating a massive army crackdown that killed 500 people — roughly proportional to the numbers that died in Tunisia and Egypt’s 2011 revolutions.

The result was a multiparty system ahead of its time, some fairly free elections and then… well, the military coup, the Islamist rebellion and 10 lost years of grinding bloodshed as the military that built that country made sure it didn’t have to let it go.

The other answer, is how many Middle East nations just dripping in hydrocarbon wealth had a “spring?” Those who could bought their way out, unless they had mismanaged the whole situation so badly like Gadhafi that it went violent from the get go — and then only succeeded thanks to NATO’s air force.

Despite being a country of 35 million people, with a highly educated middle class, and a rich history, Algeria can be understood by some of the same logic as a Gulf monarchy. Politics in many ways has died off in Algeria, what it is really going on, is a competition for who gets what handout. And thanks to the ever rising price of oil, there’s huge pie to compete for.

For a rich country, many Algerians feel poor, or at least feel they should be doing better than they are, and there’s that sneaking suspicion that everyone above them on the economic ladder is just doing a better job of siphoning off that rich load of state money than they are. People despise politicians because they are paid well, why would I vote someone into power just so they can make a bunch of money? Where’s my share?

Tunisia and Egypt and elsewhere worked because people, for a brief shining moment, threw aside all their differences and got together in the street for a single goal, usually the ousting of one very obviously awful leader. In Algeria that could never come together, who would unite people? Why would you give one person your allegiance when he was probably making some kind of buck out of it? Or was in the pay of security?

So elections were this bizarre piece of theater where an incredibly cynical government of political players par excellence urged everyone to vote for… Algeria’s Spring. “Our spring is Algeria,” said the ubiquitous get-out-the-vote poster. Posters for candidates were restricted to a limited set of oft-vandalized billboards, but the posters advertising the vote itself, were everywhere.

If you don’t vote, there will be chaos. And if there is chaos, there will be foreign intervention. It will be French colonialism all over again. We’ll be Iraq, or Libya, or even worse, if you don’t vote, went the campaign speeches of the government politicians.

Meanwhile pretty much anyone you talked to would say, why vote? the parliament is powerless, the politicians are corrupt, the elections are rigged.

But the thing is, I thought this time the government was serious, this time they would really try to let the opposition movements have their say and breathe, just to let off a bit of steam in a closed political society subsidized by natural gas.

Some of the opposition seemed to feel that way as well, though their confidence smacked of that Egyptian opposition kind, when their local intelligence service minder has promised them 50 seats in the next parliament if they just don’t boycott.

As it was, Algeria continued to buck the trend, whether it was in meaningful elections, or Islamist parties winning, or doing something that just didn’t reek of the same old stultifying status quo, but the former single ruling party of aged war heroes nearly doubled its seats. It was particularly painful coming just two days after the cancer-ridden president, a foreign minister in the 1965 government of Colonel Boumendiene, told the country that the generation of the independence struggle was finished and it was time for a new generation.

Apparently that new generation still has to belong to the National Liberation Front, because they’re the ones still running the show.

But the thing is, if you have a system where no one votes, it’s just going to be those rickety old pensioners who do remember the independence struggle and who do think that the FLN is the only solution who cast their votes. The 40+ other political parties didn’t really have popular support. Many of them consisted of one well known ex-government official, a few friends, and a fax machine to send out press releases.

The three-week campaign was largely a series of poorly attended rallies around the country where the new parties tried to articulate their program but mostly spent their time urging people to vote. The one exception I saw was Amar Ghoul, the head of the Algiers list for the “Green Alliance” of Islamist parties.

I saw him campaign in the fairly gritty neighborhood of Harache in Algiers and he told young people that if they wanted jobs, they had to organize, and he walked through the streets and greeted cafe owners and listened to people with their housing woes, including a dramatic example where an entire floor had disintegrated in one low slung apartment building, leaving the families there living in debris. He listened with concern, hugged an old woman, shook hands in the streets — it was like a real campaign, it inspired hope for change. As I was leaving, I saw a man at the nearby covered market, with steel grey hair and piercing blue eyes watching the politician move through his town with his entourage and I asked him if maybe, just maybe, this was something worthwhile?

“It’s nothing he snorted, just air,” he said with disgust, before turning away and walking off.

RIP Ahmed Ben Bella

Algeria's first president after a brutal war of national liberation passed away yesterday. That was an ugly war, full of rapes and murders, with France returning the FNL's strikes tenfold. From the NYT's obituary, a passage about his time in Cairo, in the 1950s the international refuge of national liberation leaders:

In 1949, Mr. Ben Bella helped rob a post office in Oran, Algeria. Tracked down, he was sentenced to a long stint in the Blida prison. In 1952, with the aid of a file hidden in a loaf of bread, he broke out and went to Cairo, where he became one of the liberation movement’s nine top leaders.Related

On Nov. 1, 1954, as the French celebrated All Saints’ Day, the rebels struck, beginning a war of massacre and mutilation, summary executions and rape. Terrorists exploded bombs in busy nightclubs and shot down passers-by on crowded streets. French officers who had fought the Nazis had Algerian prisoners tortured and shot.

Mr. Ben Bella spent most of the war outside Algeria, organizing clandestine arms shipments and coordinating political strategy. His life was in the shadows, but the French knew who he was.

In 1956, he refused to accept a package delivered to his Cairo hotel by a taxi driver. The bomb exploded as the taxi drove away, killing the driver. Later that year, in Tripoli, Libya, Mr. Ben Bella was waiting at his hotel when a French gunman entered his darkened room, fired and wounded him. The assailant, fleeing, was killed by guards at the Libyan border.

Ben Bella was no democrat, but in some respects his socialist policies were more those of the coup plotters who succeeded him, led by by Houari Boumedienne. I'm surprised that the obits do not mention that a major aide to Boumedienne at the time, and plotter against Ben Bella, was Algeria's current president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Bouteflika, himself rumored to be ill, has decreed an eight-day mourning period. One after another, the liberation-era figures of Algerian politics are dying — the question is whether their successors will ensure that the same claustrophobic political system will survive.