More on Riots, Protests in North Africa: Notes

Algeria and Tunisia have seen wide scale youth rioting in the last three weeks. Algeria’s picked up particularly in the last three days as consumer prices have skyrocketed, especially for foods like sugar, cooking oil, flour and related items. Previous riots had erupted over the well known housing shortage east of the capital. This post consists of a series of random thoughts on the Algerian and Tunisian riots. That they have occurred so close to each other is probably more circumstantial — the Algerian riots are the result of poor policies and market troubles that happened to occur at the same time the Tunisian uprising has. But there is some inter-textuality between them in that Algerians have made appeals of solidarity with the Tunisians even if the bulk of what is happening in Algeria seems idiosyncratic. Furthermore, the regime response seems to bear the Tunisian upheaval in mind by trying to block news about them; additionally, that news on satellite television has covered the Tunisian event probably has had some impact in emboldening determined rioters. Newspapers in Algeria have focused on local events, though, rather than those in Jordan, Egypt or Tunisia especially in the last week, though they initially gave some prominent coverage to the Sidi Bouzid events.

Note that: 1) this post uses riots and protests somewhat interchangeably, which is likely inappropriate but is probably sufficient for now and; 2) while it is not comprehensive or totally coherent it is long and made up of various notes taken down over the last two weeks. Point one is about Tunisia; 2-3 about the background on which youth rioting takes place in Algeria; 4-5 look at a few Anglophone assessments of the Sidi Bouzid events and the aftermath in terms of both Tunisia and Algeria. 

["Rayes Lebled,"/"President of the Country," by El General, a song strongly critical of the regime. El General is currently in prison making this song, with bloggers and other activists.]

1. The riots and protests in Tunisia are out of the ordinary. The Tunisian protests, which began in the last two weeks of December have led to an uptick in conversation on the stability of Tunisia itself as well the broader Arab region. Like its two land neighbors, Algeria and Libya, Tunisia is on the cusp of a political transition. Egypt faces well known succession questions as well. Tunisia (and perhaps Libya) stands out in that cluster of countries for not having a well known tendency for public protest. The old adage goes that Tunisians, like Egyptians, are generally passive townspeople not drawn to ruckus. While they may protest over specific indignities, they are generally content to be managed from the top down and their history until recently was one of an easy-going population ruled by outsiders: Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Turks and Frenchmen. And yet the Tunisians struggled to remove the French and now, many of them hope, they are on their way to removing Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali after 22 years of his grace.This stereotype is being challenged by the events of the last three weeks and the various limited protests taking place in the last few years. It remains unclear whether the uprisings inspired by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazzi at Sidi Bouzid represent something larger than buckshot anger among unemployed youth. In either case the Tunisian riots are important because they break a long-standing trend away from public protest in Tunisia, where security services have succeeded in demoralizing, repressing and controlling dissent.

2. Protests are common in Algeria. Young men take to the streets in rural and semi-rural communities so frequently that these occurrences have become banal for the major newspapers. In the city slums they occur at a larger scale and in the last two years have become more and more focused on particular social grievances such as the housing shortage (and the quality of public housing), police brutality, unemployment, police brutality and the cost of living. Youth also turn out in large neighborhood fights, often resulting from disputes in the informal economy or family feuds; in the south they sometimes result from ethnic disputes (see Berriane). These outbursts are generally not political in the sense of representing basic challenges to the authority or legitimacy of the regime or the suitability of particular government policies as such. Instead they tend to be parochial and community specific attacks on symptoms of official mismanagement or incompetence. Their slogans often strike out at broken promises from the authorities rather than the promises themselves. They are concerned with corruption as it affects the participants and as it exists at a local level. The chants at Bouira asking for “Sugar, oil…where are you Ouyahia?” Speak to this sentiment: Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia is known for his happy pronouncements about Algeria’s strong standing in the face of the world financial crisis, its high hydrocarbon revenues and the benefits of liberalization. The government has accumulated large amounts of foreign currency as a result of high oil prices, a fact high officials — the increasingly prominent Ouyahia among them — are quick to point out. But the average Algerian does not see things so brightly. Consumer prices are high; the educated face thick cobwebs of corruption if they hope to find a suitable job; the ordinary have remarkably few opportunities to get decent jobs or start their own businesses; the worst off try to swim to Europe, and many lose their lives or get arrested in the process. The Algerians, like Tunisians and Moroccans, suffer from a political and economic environment that favors those with official connections and access to power rather than merit or brains. The Tunisians have had more patience and have had a relatively better performing government since independence than the Algerians or Egyptians. Common negative trends have been exacerbated by crony liberalization and privatization in Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt especially. Corruption has become ubiquitous and conspicuous in all the North African countries over the last thirty years. While Algerians know less about their high officials’ families than Tunisians do, they are aware of corruption at the local and national level just the same. In June an Algerian pharmacist living in Europe complained to this blogger about how Smain Lamari’s daughter (with whom he graduated from college) runs an enormous pharmaceutical firm in Algiers which she founded “immediately, miraculously!” after graduation from the University of Algiers while he has “known nothing but struggle from A to Z except by leaving Algeria!” Lamari’s relatives and those of others in the military brass are widely rumored to have sucked up large swathes of real-estate in Algiers, often in areas that were once shanty towns before being “cleared” by the government. In the provinces, officials in dominant political parties (which act as conduits for rent distribution) are sometimes known for favoritism and nepotism. At the highest levels, corruption is so widespread that when the the famed corruption scandal around former Energy Minister Chakib Khelil began it shocked many in the political class less that he was corrupt than that the security services were bold enough to raise the issue at all; but as an aid to an FLN party boss put it later, “the whole system is corrupt, but of course the security services pursue their adversary using that line, we civilians cannot investigate them!” The armed forces, too, have their part. Many young men, especially in the countryside aspire to careers in the military, long seen as the surest path for paychecks and social mobility. Corruption is common in all militaries. Few Algerians were surprised to learn that American diplomats believe the Army Chief of Staff is the single most corrupt individual in the government from reprints of leaked American embassy cables. Algerians complain that placement in staff schools and academies often has more to do with bribes and family ties than with merit. In late 2009, a young officer described the armed forces’ duties: “First is destroying terrorism; second defending the nation’s sovereignty; third is fighting corruption in our own ranks.” Further down the totem pole, the rich can escape mandatory conscription with a wad of cash while poor and even middle class Algerians are routinely denied deferments even after laborious and expensive attempts to pay their way out with what little they have. While wealthy youths (often the sons or daughters of military officers or high officials) get high paying jobs in the new private sector with foreign firms or local set ups, other Algerians live a different life. An editorial complains:

Consider that in today’s Algeria kids barely out of puberty drive cars that cost six million dinars (€80,000), buy houses for 400 million dinars ($5 million) while others leave school at 12 years old to sell loaves of bread on the side of the road or to keep herds of goats and sheep or to pick up pieces of scrap metal for resale because their parents do not have enough money to feed five, six or seven mouths.

[. . .]

Twelve years as head of state, billions of dollars in cash, a security situation largely under control to finally get where? What dominates the news in Algeria in 2011 are riots and violence? An image of Algeria that remains is that of a corrupt country, a country where its ruling caste is rejected by its people? Twelve years to get here?

An absent president, voiceless and elderly clinging to power at 73 years old when he could escape through the front door by holding a democratic transition that ensures the stability of his country and the future of its children. A discredited political class because le pouvoir has it no chance to exist by closing the doors of the audiovisual works, forbidding space for public expression. And an economy that relies solely on oil revenues.

We dare not imagine what could happen to this country if it did not have this give from heaven that is oil or that its price was left at $10 or $15, as it was sold during the 1990s, the years of fire and terror in Algeria. We dare not imagine how Bouteflika’s government and its ministers could have managed Algeria during the past 12 years had they not benefited from this providence that spilled oil on the country.

But now, even with this providence, even with billions of dollars they have made Algeria a land of riots and despair.

3. While the government treats terrorism as the chief threat to national security, FLN and RND officials freely admit in private that a repeat of the 1988 or 2001 crises poses a more serious and immediate political threat to the regime. Since the 2001 Kayblia uprising (which began not dissimilarly from the Sidi Bouzid events, after a teenager was tortured to death by gendarmes though it carried more casualties than the Tunisian events will probably yield), the regime has deliberately sought to limit its interventions in youth violence so as not to have rioters direct their rage at state authorities thus precipitating a heavy response which might further inflame unrest. High officials avoid commenting on such events, preferring to use mayors and elders as intermediaries. The government will respond to specific grievances of rioters occasionally, but will do so inefficiently and over a long period — but just enough to quell momentary discontent. The official response to current rioting over consumer good prices represents this well: Commerce Minister Mustapha Benabada put out a statement saying “We believe we have mastered the crisis, and we hope it will end by next week.” All that is missing is the often hopeless “insha’allah.” The government convened a special council meeting to reverse policies that are blamed for causing inflation spikes. After the 2001 riots in Kabylia a list of demands including human rights issues came from the Citizens Movement; it also included things like greater recognition for the Berber language and culture. The government made Tamazight a national language but the items relating to free expression, assembly or other human and civil rights where addressed less obviously. The norm over the last ten years has been for sporadic, localized riots and demonstrations to rise up in one or the other corner of Algeria during the daytime and be let to carry on till the participants lose interest and disperse or the situation shows a need for direct police or gendarmerie intervention — usually a few hours before sundown. Those where the government sees itself as having no direct stake are often simply let to go on till they run their natural course (see the anti-Chinese pogrom in Bab Ezzouar for example). Confrontations between youth and security forces risk inflaming anger and focusing it toward the regime; images of riot police or gendarmes and their armored personnel carriers, plastic shields and combat boots on one side and hungry, football jersey-clad teenagers and twenty-somethings in plastic sandals damage the regime’s credibility locally and re-enforce the image the government has tried to project to the elite and its foreign partners — that Algeria is at peace and reconciled the great problems of the civil war. Elite Algerians almost acknowledge that the military’s heavy-handed response to the 1988 riots (whose start resembles current events in some ways) was inappropriate; there is less consensus about the annulment of the 1992 elections. In either case apologists for the hard response often remark that the 1988 events “handed the proletariat over to the Islamists” and thus justified the 1992 coup (quoting a pro-coup communist) or that in both cases the military was justified in its actions because it was faced with a subversive Islamist movement that could not be reasoned with, eliding the rise of the FIS with the 1988 protests (although there is little evidence that the Islamists were the the dominant or primary force motivating the people’s struggle at that stage (the FIS tapped into the resentment and disillusionment that followed 1988). The 1988 riots were both political and economic; if their trigger was economic their tone and aim was political and concerned with the style and quality of rule which meant it was about the political class. The forces that shaped the tragic violence of the 1990s were not ideological but socio-economic. It was not an epic confrontation between a mass Islamist movement and a secular regime; rather, it represents a people who, having lost confidence in their leaders’ ability and desire to empathize and address their plight, joined up with a mass front that promised to be attentive and respectful of the public interest. The issue was not so much that the FLN was ideologically unacceptable — the FLN never carried a straightforward ideology and included various elements of Islamists, communists (in different flavors), Arab and Algerian nationalists — but that it had lost its mandate through arrogance and negligence. At this stage there are still a good number of then-contemporary party and military leaders that hold fast to the idea that there should never have been a political opening after 1988. Some of their supporters even argue that had there been no elections in 1990-1992 there would have been no political problem.  Khaled Nezzar and some others have sought to justify their roles in the 1990s troubles by arguing that the 1992 elections were engineered by then-president Chadli Bendjedid to use the FIS and younger FLN cadres to enhance his own personal power in a cynical and dangerously stupid way. Contemporary Algerian political leaders have attempted to avoid these categories of mistakes (and make no mistake many of these are the same people that were in government twenty years ago). They will repress protests and riots but in a selective way; they have evolved the clientelist model of government to open just enough breathing space for the luckiest youths while distributing rent more efficiently; they have used oil revenues to initiate public works projects to  create temporary work; they have increased the security services’ access to and familiarity with internet blocking technology and practices to stem opposition organizing; and they have dutifully divided ideological parties, co-opting and dividing their leaders such that there are two parties for anyone Big Idea and that their leaders generally accept the status quo and their place within it. Thus they have eliminated the obvious and likely loci for mass dissent and compartmentalized popular social unrest. The regime either smashes protests hard and fast or lets them burn out; in either case it hardly engages dissenters. That this has not changed over time is one of the biggest problem for Algeria’s medium and long term stability.

4. Brian Whitaker believes the Tunisian uprising was the most significant development in the Arab world  in 2010. Michael Collins Dunn and Issandr El-Amrani seem to disagree. Marc Lynch wonders if the protests, which have inspired demonstrations in solidarity in Egypt, Algeria, Europe and elsewhere and coincided with others, might be the beginning of a second “Arab Spring,” recalling the 2005 Beirut protests. Steven A. Cook takes a similar but cautious line. Both Lynch and Cook believe something “different” has hit the latest series of riots in the region. The fact of the protests is not interesting or significant as much as their character: that with the latest riots and protests in Algeria and Egypt there have been simultaneous demonstrations for Sidi Bouzid; that prominent ex-FIS members have spoken up on them (though their relevance is minimal); that Tunisia’s strugglers have been bolstered by attacks on government websites by the powerful net collective Anonymous; that in Tunisia the demonstrations have spread over the country quickly and rather evenly. Cook writes:

[. . .] the situation in Tunisia is in many ways instructive of the idee fixe (sorry…it’s Tunisia. I had to throw in some French) that tends to color much of what professional observers of the Arab world write and say about the Middle East. I am talking about stability. This comes out in a few ways. If you like playing the odds, stability is a pretty good bet. Take a brief tour of the region: with the exception of the Iranian revolution and America’s regime change in Iraq, Middle Eastern political systems seem quite stable and durable. This is an observable phenomenon and some pretty good explanations for the persistence of authoritarian politics in the Arab world, but there is a danger in over-stating the case and getting a bit too comfortable with the “Arab state will muddle through” argument. I recently took part in a small meeting of regional experts in which we were looking at regional political, social, and economic trends. I have written about stability in the region, but I was struck at the way some of my colleagues dismiss the potential for instability and political change in the Middle East. We should all be very careful here: Virtually everyone missed the fall of the Shah in 1979, the revolutions in Eastern and Central Europe a decade later, and the crumbling of the Soviet Union.

It may not be the last days of Ben Ali or Mubarak or any other Middle Eastern strongman, but there is clearly something going on in the region. Is it possible that the gendarme states in the region may not be a strong as we believe? To be sure, they have demonstrated flexibility and an enormous capacity to deflect and undermine opposition, but for how long? Forever? That’s a long time. We (Middle East geeks) may be doing ourselves a disservice by playing the odds-on-stability game, especially in light of the failed social contracts, Arab leaders’ willingness to employ violence against there own people, and the limited economic opportunity that led Mohamed Bouazizi to go so far as to dump gasoline over his head and light a match. A month ago, would anyone have predicted that an act like Bouazizi’s would set off major demonstrations throughout Tunisia? Events like the Duweiqa rockslide, Salam Boccacio 98 sinking, the outbreak of swine flue, and car accidents in the Gaza Strip, have the potential to become politically important well beyond the immediate issue at hand. Analysts have no way of predicting whether events like these will have a political impact or not, however. That’s why “tipping point” is not a useful analytic concept. You only know when something is a tipping point after it happens.

This is a fair assessment and it is why this blog considers these protests as one of the most important events in the Maghreb in the last decade, regardless of their outcome. One sees the Algerian political class concerned that Tunisia’s protests may embolden and inflame their country’s riots to uncontrollable levels. The 5 January protests, as they are coming to be known, are also significant. They represent a long term trend in Algeria building not over months or weeks but years. In North Africa especially these events must be viewed in the local context first, and then in terms of more remote phenomena.

Lynch writes in his first post on the subject:

These four events hitting at roughly the same time, for all their differences, seem to crystallize a long-developing sense that these regimes have failed to meaningfully address this relentlessly building wave of troubles. For years, both Arab and Western analysts and many political activists have warned of the urgent need for reform as such problems built and spread. Most of the Arab governments have learned to talk a good game about the need for such reform, while ruthlessly stripping democratic forms of any actual ability to challenge their grip on power. Economic reforms, no matter how impressive on paper, have increased inequality, undermined social protections, enabled corruption, and failed to create anything near the needed numbers of jobs. Western governments have tried through a wide variety of means to help promote reform, but not really democracy since that would risk having their allied regimes voted out of power — the core hypocrisy at the heart of American democracy promotion efforts of which every Arab is keenly aware. Obama talking more about democracy in public, which seems to be the main concern of many of his critics, isn’t really going to help.

In his second post he continues:

It’s already quite clear that Arab regimes will do whatever is necessary this time around to block popular mobilization. Tunisia’s repression has been intense, from mass arrests to overwhelming censorship. Algeria’s government has already responded with widespread arrests, including (reportedly) the long-time Islamist firebrand Ali Belhadj. Jordan’s security forces maintain a heavy hand, even in the southern tribal areas which have long been, according to cliché, the bedrock of the regime. Kuwait and Tunisia have lashed out at al-Jazeera. Across the region, I expect the authoritarian regimes to continue to clamp down hard, try to censor the media, and blame Islamists or Iran or some other convenient boogeyman. Again, I really don’t think that the Obama administration’s public rhetoric on democracy is really the key variable here — these regimes will do what they must when they feel threatened, and understand that Obama is no more likely than was Bush to really challenge the fundamentals of their regime survival in the name of democracy.

As I also noted yesterday, the nature of the mobilization feels different this time too. The protests are more violent, there’s more of an intense edge to them, there’s less focus on formal institutional politics. That’s in large part because of the degree of the authoritarian retrenchment across the region, which has largely sucked the meaning out of elections and has battered civil societies and independent political movements. There seem to be fewer organized movements and more wildcat outbursts — which is just what you’d expect when formal channels have been shut down and hopes of meaningful political participation thwarted. The spread of Salafi Islamist trends and the weakening of the more disciplined and politically focused Muslim Brotherhood organizations in many of the countries contributes to this sense, as does the legacy of the virulent anti-Shi’ism which spread through the region a few years ago and the general fraying of sectarian edges.

I don’t expect these protests to bring down any regimes, but really who knows? It’s an unpredictable moment. Many of these regimes are led by aging, fading leaders such as Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali who could pass from the scene in a heartbeat — literally. Nor do I particularly know what to recommend that the Obama administration do. The traditional calls to “promote democracy” are largely irrelevant to this situation, except in the longer-term. What we are now seeing is the fruit of the failure to promote meaningful reform in the past, but that doesn’t mean that doing so now would meet the challenge.

If these protests continue to spread, both inside of countries and across to other Arab countries, then we really could talk about this being Obama’s “Arab Spring,” only with the extra intensity associated with climate change. Arab regimes will do everything they can to prevent that from happening. Most everybody is carefully watching everyone else to see what’s going to happen, with news traveling across borders and within countries through an ever-growing role for social media layered on top of (not replacing) satellite television and existing networks. I’m not hugely optimistic that we will see real change, given the power of these authoritarian regimes and their record of resilience. But still… interesting times.

The Algerians, according to numerous accounts, have lashed out at the Internet, shutting it off in the vicinity of Kabylia to stop activists from organizing and individuals from viewing aggressive commentary and videos. It is interesting to note, though that Tunisians, though their country is frequently as an “enemy of the Internet,” enjoy better internet services than Algerians do partly due to their small size and government initiatives to promote Internet literacy. But the regime in Tunis has been more aggressive in regulating and controlling internet access and so while cyber activists have used social media to further their cause the regime has been as savvy at fighting back. Tunisia’s government websites have been attacked by hackers in response.

The rise of Salafism is particularly relevant in Algeria where its partisans have generally kept out of politics deliberately and in a disciplined way. The old FIS is of almost no political consequence whatever (including Belhadj and Abbasi Madani who have both made statements on the rioting in the Arabic media) — it has no organizational infrastructure left worth speaking about. The powerful Islamist factions are those allied with the regime — the MSP (the Muslim Brothers whose leaders spend significant time explaining why other Islamists should not be allowed to run for office) and they inspire very little loyalty among average people. Other more populist Islamists have divided up and worry more about competing with one an other than leading the masses and the people know it. The main animating ideological leadership is confined to Kabylia but even there there are few people influential or so well organized to channel the riots of yet. El-Amrani explains why this is even more so the case in Tunisia:

Regimes like Tunisia have been extremely effective not only in containing opposition leaders but also in ensuring that none exist at all that have a wide popularity. There is no Tunisian Aung San Suu Kyi or Yukashenko. There are some prominent intellectuals and journalists, but there are not likely political candidates with any kind of organized base. This is the price that was paid in part by Western support for these regimes, and in part by the “social contract” enacted with the population.

Elsewhere El-Amrani offers this:

Algeria has alternatives to Bouteflika, but the known ones from within the regime are not very pleasant. Monarchies like Morocco tend to be adept at putting the king above politics, thus making the issue of symbolic reform as simple as replacing an all-powerful minister of interior like the late Driss Basri. But in Libya, there is no visible alternative to Qadhafi other than one of his sons. In Egypt, Mubarak has ensured that there is no credible contender from within the regime, making the unlikely and courageous decision by Mohamed ElBaradei not to retire quietly a source of something new: a morally credible, authoritative critic of the regime.

Even more importantly, though, as El-Amrani also points out, “these economic protests are not new.” They are a feature of North African social life and have become increasingly so in the last five years. It is also notable that in Algeria and Tunisia (and Egypt, too) there has been an increase in union strikes and discontent in recent years. Teachers, steel and dock workers for example have been striking frequently in Algeria in the last several months; Egyptian unions led important protests and strikes this year as well. Students have become active in strikes and protests as well. This is a significant trend that should be followed more closely. El-Amrani continues, in response to Whitaker.

They took place in Tunisia before, such as the 2008 Gafsa mining protests, in Morocco at Sidi Ifni in the same year, in various bread, gas and other protests in Egypt over the last four years, in Algeria as recently as a few days ago (and for several years near Algiers as well as Oran) and elsewhere. These protests seem economic but, in my view, are really political: they are not strictly about the lack of jobs, poor economies, etc. as much as the uneven and unfair distribution of economic opportunity. And what re-arranges economic opportunity? Politics.

[. . .]

It’s not about a young man who set himself on fire (as “unemployed graduates” have done in Morocco in recent years) as much as the indignities he suffered at the hand of the authorities and under a absurdly brutal and venal political system. The fact is that there is nothing new about people going out into the streets, even if there is something new about how the movement is being sustained in Tunisia [. . .]

What we have yet to see is a faltering in the security services that so expertly defuse these waves of indignation, or indeed the an end collaboration of other Arab states in encouraging a draw-down — and indeed, Western powers who prefer a return to “calm” rather than an uncertain breakthrough, with all the consequences it can have for their business and other interests often built up through bribes. The fact is that the entire regional and international security system conspires against such events growing, becoming transnational or ending in a change of regime. The question therefore becomes, for the protestors, is not so much about their movement being “indigenous” — they obviously are and have long been — but how to secure support within their countries and also outside them to force change. Resorting to outside support does not mean giving up on “shaping their own destiny,” it means taking basing that destiny on universalist notions of justice and putting pressure on the larger system that tends to favors the Ben Alis of the world.

Christopher Alexander gives more background:

In a country known for authoritarian stability, it is easy to see this unrest as a harbinger of dramatic change. In fact, the protests have been building for at least two years. The frustration is rooted in a deep history of unbalanced economic growth. Several organizations have helped to convert this frustration into collective protest. To date, the December protests have produced a cabinet reshuffle, a governor’s sacking, and a renewed commitment to job creation in disadvantaged regions. Whether they lead to more dramatic change remains to be seen. If Ben Ali’s rule is not in immediate danger, the protests at least suggest that his governing strategy is in serious trouble.

Ben Ali’s rule has relied on a skillful combination of co-optation and repression. By pledging his fidelity to democracy and human rights early in his tenure, he deftly hijacked the core of the liberal opposition’s message. At the same time, he used electoral manipulation, intimidation, and favors to co-opt leaders of ruling-party organs and civil society organizations. Those who remained beyond the reach of these tools felt the force of an internal security apparatus that grew dramatically in the 1990s. Most Tunisians grudgingly accepted Ben Ali’s heavy-handedness through the 1990s. Authoritarian rule was the price they paid for stability that could attract tourists and investors. Ben Ali was an effective, if uncharismatic, technocratic who beat back the Islamists, generated growth, and saved the country from the unrest that plagued Algeria.

Over the last five years, however, the fabric of Ben Ali’s authoritarianism has frayed. Once it became clear that the Islamists no longer posed a serious threat, many Tunisians became less willing to accept the government’s heavy-handedness. The regime also lost some of its earlier deftness. Its methods became less creative and more transparently brutal. The government seemed less willing to at least play at any dialogue with critics or opposition parties. Arbitrary arrests, control of the print media and Internet access, and physical attacks on journalists and human rights and opposition-party activists became more common. So, too, did stories of corruption — not the usual kickbacks and favoritism that one might expect, but truly mafia-grade criminality that lined the pockets of Ben Ali’s wife and her family. The growth of Facebook, Twitter, and a Tunisian blogosphere — much of it based outside the country — made it increasingly easy for Tunisians to learn about the latest arrest, beating, or illicit business deal involving the president’s family.

Lynch is correct that the Obama is administration is not a key variable in these events. In Tunisia in particular there the Americans have little gumption and fear that attempting to do good will result in the opposite (see “Tunisia, the friend that isn’t,” here). In Algeria and Tunisia, France is the key western actor. It is likely the French will wait out the unrest and hope it dies down with Ben Ali in place. The same is true in the Algerian case. In Tunisia, the culture of corruption that characterizes much of the relationship between Paris and Tunis will probably have more to say about France’s position on Tunisia than any ideas about justice.

Stephen J. King’s The New Authoritarianism (Indiana, 2009) describes how regimes like Algeria and Tunisia work in detail (review here). A mixture of crony capitalism and pseudo-political liberalization have “reformed” these countries over the last thirty years entrenching elite control in the economic and political spheres while broadening the reach and depth of patronage and clientalistic networks. King provides an interesting take on many of the structural issues the help produce what is being observed presently. El-Amrani’s line that it is politics that re-arranges shoddy economic conditions is right; at the very least economic reorganization is a political process as much as anything else.. The riots and the protests may force the regimes to make conspicuous gestures in the economic and in the political sphere. Such moves are unlikely to be sincere without a serious and consistent political incentive either from patrons in Europe and America or unified and fearless oppositions domestically. Unfortunately neither of these exist in either Tunisia or Algeria today. In time something might develop, possibly an iteration of Islamism or some new leftist trend (one finds elements of this in the both countries though not in any organized way whatsoever; Algeria and Tunisia both have the potential for multiple ideologies but few credible opposition leaders to carry any of them; one gets the sense that Tunisia is likely to produce market friendly pragmatists more than rigid ideologues). It is likely that both regimes will survive these demonstrations. If they do, the emerging leaders within their regimes will probably take lessons from them in one or the other direction — toward tighter, more opaque domination or smarter and more economical ways of doing things. How those lessons get applied in real time is something altogether different, though.

5. The Algerian rioting has spread rapidly over three days. The cost of food is a serious problem: it is estimated that an Algerian family spends 70 percent of its income on food. Stories about officials smuggling foodstuffs out of the country as especially frustrating for those who cannot afford what they need. Riots have spread to Ghardaia and Tamanrasset where, it is reported, police have tracked down protesters by intercepting SMS messages. The spread of the rioting is exceptional; while the south has seen rioting recently — mainly over ethnic or tribal issues. That protests have emerged in the south on the same issues as in the north speaks to the generalization of the country’s malaise. Conditions in southern Algeria have deteriorated over the last five years; horror stories about the level of neglect in primary schools — with crumbling buildings and malnourished students — have hit newsstands. The south has often been relatively isolated from troubles in the north which highlights the importance of these riots and protests. Unlike in previous spats of youth rioting, the government has put the security services on “high alert” — and newspapers are reporting that Prime Minister Ouyahia, not President Bouteflika is issuing these directives which speaks to his ever increasing influence politically and Bouteflika’s sickliness (it is likely that Ouyahia will succeed him, especially give the way in which the FLN is splintering). Riot police have cordoned off  rowdy neighborhoods like Bab el-Oued and El Harrach in the capital where shops, cars and public property have been extensively damaged. Young men interviewed by Ech-Chorouk have this to say: “This intifada is only an explosion of pressure built up between the people and the authorities.” Reports also mention looting and robberies at shopping centers and markets elsewhere. Town halls have been lit on fire; BabIt is also notable that the Algerian riots began in the west and central and then spread  to the capital and the eastern regions. Many (not all) of the riots have also taken place at night, showing that they are in someway planned or timed in a way so as to conceal the identities of the participants. In the night, packs of youths have ambushed police. “Clashes with police were incredibly violent,” in Badjarah in the capital. Rioters are reported to have burned tires in numerous locations. In Bejaia, roads have been blocked off with rubbish, trees and rocks. Youths have thrown stones at police and at properties. Gunshots have been reported in Bab Ezzouar while clashes took place near the main mosque in El Biar and a convoy of 20 armored vehicles is said to be reenforcing police at Belouizdad. As has been noted by Algerian commentators, the riots seem to be spontaneous and in response to the same problems in different parts of the country and it is likely that if something does not change they will continue to do so. Whether that crystalizes into any unified political movement or platform with durable group feeling remains to be seen.

The posts on the “Rise and Fall, Push and Pull,” page on the side bar deal with some of the issues the riots in Tunisia and Algeria push to the forefront. The elements specific to Algeria have been covered in the posts on the “O, Sir, You Are Old“. The RFPP posts are somewhat … abstract but nevertheless are concerned with the issues boiling over today in both countries. Perhaps more on this line can be written into that series.

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15 comments

  1. They will end up in Northern Mali. But how? Through Algeria or Mali. Same way of doing things as with the Canadians, AREVA hostages, the Spaniard hostages: well trained commandos. Don’t know the implication with Niger’s elections. We are sick of this crossing and double-crossing. States are definitively behind it. Which ones besides France and the US? All who have today milirary heads of state? We are in deep shit.

    http://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2011/01/08/deux-francais-enleves-au-niger_1462620_3212.html#ens_id=1411819

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