And the World Turns

Continuing on the theme from the last post — speculation and anticipation about the Algerian regime’s posture ahead of the 2012 legislative election — are a two articles taken from recent headlines; one which comes from an interview with Chafik Mesbah (a former Algerian intelligence (DRS) officer and political scientist), dealing with issues similar to the Le Soir article discussed previously and another comes from El Khabar and includes the latest in Abdallah Djaballah’s and Louisa Hanoune’s tit-for-tat on the Islamist tendency in Algeria.

The Mesbah interview discusses the general state of life in Algeria, which Mesbah describes grimly, and the ‘scenario of an Islamist victory’ in the upcoming polls. This includes a discussion of the formal parties and their legitimacy deficit, the government’s efforts to appease religiously conservative trends in public opinion, the state of the Islamist trend generally, the reforms issued by President Bouteflika, the lack of an alternative trend within the political class, and other related problems. Mesbah describes the Algerian Islamist tendency as having ‘crumbled,’ a portion of which is ‘domesticated by the regime with the lures of material and honours,’ referring to the MSP, whose cadres in government have taken on important and lucrative posts (fisheries and public works for example). ‘These parties have lost all credibility.’ He moves on to the Salafists, who ‘are changing, most surely, at the heart of society,’ but whose exact contours and politics ‘we have no knowledge.’ According to Mesbah, this ambiguity means ‘Islamist electoral potential does exist in Algeria, fro exactly the same reasons as in the other Maghreb countries.’ He notes that the character of this potential is foggy and a ‘scientific understanding of it’d odes not yet exist.

Perhaps more interesting is the section where Mesbah is asked about the ‘reaction of the Algerian Army in the case of an Islamist electoral victory’. Mesbah repeats an argument made by multiple researchers and writers close to the Algerian armed forces: that in the last decade the officer class has seen an ‘evolution’ in its perception of the military’s relationship with politics: ‘the new military leaders [. . .] in general are trained professionals who stand apart from the political sphere. They are attached to the sustainment of republican national institutions, attentive to the aspirations of the population, in terms of freedom and justice, and are educated on the impact of the impetuous course of globalisation.’ This is usually brought up in reference to the emergence of officers loyal to the president and not closely associated with the ‘janvieriste’ tendency which dominated politics during the civil war (after the 1992 coup), this itself representing the reemergence of the presidency as the centre of gravity within the regime in the Bouteflika period; it also comes up when generally referring lessons in civil-military relations learned by the younger generation of Algerian officers from the experience of the Civil War and its aftermath. In the early 2000s, Khaled Nezzar, the public face of the janvieristes par excellence, told a group of recently promoted generals the ‘era of coup d’etats’ had passed, that the military could have its way by other means. And the example of Nezzar’s legal problems after the war have probably impressed other Algerian officers as to the ‘impetuous course of globalisation’ which has also brought on transnational justice regimes of which the Pinochet trial and the detention of Khaled Nezzar (and Boudjerra Soltani’s flight from Switzerland on torture charges). These events are important in terms of the regime’s psychology and worldview in the Bouteflika years. Mesbah clarifies that he is referring to the regular military, not the intelligence services. Thus Mesbah argues ‘no military in the world, even in the underdeveloped world, can now ignore that it exposes itself by repressing the population [. . .] to international criminal prosecution.’ (This is probably part of the reason the military kept out of the riots last year and has for some time now, in addition to the destabilising effect this would have; the use of regular and riot police for the suppression of youth and rural unrest as opposed to heavier units has been the rule for most of the last decade. The Qadhafi experience probably also looms large in that it makes clear how tenuous western tolerance for repression can be, though the Yemeni and Syrian cases probably adjust this outlook to a certain extent.) Mesbah does not believe the Algerian Army is inclined to intervene in the upcoming elections ‘even if Islamists were to reach a majority.’ Mesbah then argues that Bouteflika is hoping to ride through the elections by constructing an Islamist victory in the 2012 election, to ‘promote a transition solution’ with ‘at least the neutrality of the military.’

The announcement and passage of political reforms is an effort to buy time to engineer the evolution of the regime’s  infrastructure. Mesbah refers to the reforms themselves as ‘palliative measures, which moreover have been rendered meaningless by members of the presidential majority’ referring to the parliamentary and cadre-level members of the FLN and RND. The process of reform, according to Mesbah, has not been credible because the reform commission (initiated in the spring/summer to study potential reforms) was appointed by the present and made to swear allegiance to him and did not meet with ‘any credible personality’ or voices from outside the regime. In any case, Mesbah views Algeria as suffering from a lack of fresh leadership, which extends to the Islamist and left-wing trends as well as the conventional political groupings.

Mesbah’s view differs significantly from the one presented by Le Soir‘s ‘government’ source on alleged mechanisations within le pouvoir, conniving to produce a divided and manageable Islamist pole and a ‘secular-democratic’ one to balance Islamist turnout. Not only does Mesbah speak of a less well organised and less unified pouvoir, he also describes a political class with a generally limited sense of direction and an opposition at a loss for solutions beyond participation, a picture that is quite believable though the sort of directed and purposeful positioning discussed in the Le Soir article owes to the source, an anonymous government official as opposed to a former officer turn academic.

The second article goes back to Louisa Hanoune and Abdallah Djaballah and is included here simply as a follow up on the last post dealing with Hanoune and Islamist trends. An associate of Djaballah’s and member of his party the Movement for Justice and Development, Lakhdar Ben Khallaf accused Hanoune of waging a ‘proxy war’ on behalf of the regime and fearing that Djaballah’s tendency’s participation will harm the PT’s performance. ‘She understands that if we go back to the arena it will return to its real form.’ He accused Hanoune of misquoting Djaballah and other Islamists and responded to her accusations about the party’s meetings with the American and French ambassadors. And so the old football match between secularist and Islamist camps goes on. Having recently accused the United States and France of trying to use Islamist movements to meddle in Algerian affairs, yesterday Hanoune chaired a conference titled ‘Against Wars of Occupation, Against Interference in the Affairs of Nations,’  and accused Washington of attempting to organise a ‘National Transitional Council for Algeria,’ where the group, which included representatives from the National Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA). The conference attendees adopted a resolution and manifesto rejection external interference in Algeria’s internal affairs and wars of aggression. The frame of reference here is Hanoune’s general discourse on foreign interest in the events of last last year and a repudiation of the Libyan experience — Hanoune was a vocal critic of the NATO intervention in Libya and speaks of other attempts by Arab oppositions to seek external support from the west as the instruments of imperialist conspiracy; part of this goes to a key piece in Algerian nationalist rhetoric, where Algerians, who fought hard to establish a sovereign state, are extremely sensitive when it comes to foreign criticism and ‘meddling’ in their affairs. This is especially strong among elderly people who fought or lived through the war of independence and nowadays middle aged Algerians who came of age under Boumediene, when Algeria’s state was relatively strong and official anti-imperialist stances were the norm along with third world solidarity and so on. So the kind of rhetoric seen in Hanoune’s statements and the resolution serves to rally nationalist sentiments and stir emotions for the PT’s constituency; the presence of the UGTA is notable in that Hanoune has drawn support form its cadres and membership and because in the overall scheme of Algeria’s left the UGTA has been home to the country’s underground or incognito communists and non-affiliated socialists for some time, though these were always an active minority rather than a majority of its members or leadership (the communist Parti de l’Avant-Garde Socialiste, or PAGS, had a strong voice here for a long time and so did the clandestine predecessor to Hanoune’s PT). Some seem to be preparing for the struggles and arguments and grandstanding of  an election.

The chart below shows the seat won by various parties (aside from the FLN and RND) in previous parliamentary elections in Algeria since 1997. The FFS and RCD both boycotted at various points (hence, the asterisk).

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3 thoughts on “And the World Turns

  1. Mesbah stressed the absence of an elite either within the government system or within the Islamist movement.

    The fact that he is a former intelligence officer, with a very pessimistic opinion about the future of the country, may suggest that he has failed to convince military decision makers on the necessity of changes. It can be feared that the army itself does not have a fresh elite. There is a cognition gap between military policy makers and experts as Mesbah. Eventually, the Algerian army is not immune against the regression of intelligence, as seen in many other sectors of the country.

    • Interesting point. Have been wanting to on this question of the circulation of elites in Algeria for a long time but don’t have enough data, we just have a few studies on the subject, not much else. I will say that I disagree with Mesbah’s view on the Islamist and military sectors: I think there are elites in those categories and I think they are important, though how powerful they and how they perceive their relationships to other power structures is what we must asses: what do they think their role is and can be in the current situation? How qualified are they to deal with the situation?

      Some really general thoughts going off your provocative comment, 7our: We know a large number of younger officiers have left the army because of a lack of opportunities for advancement; we also there is a perception of a decline in quality in education among elites in the civilian areas; the military, commentators keep saying, is becoming less political with time. More professional and more competent but less politicised, less visionary. Also the line we keep hearing that the government is not reforming or needs reform from people associated (or formerly so) with the intelligence sphere, as if the DRS is the vehicle for reform or anticorruption or the like. This is especially the case after Bouteflika’s election to the second term. I think it the quality question is potentially very severe; and have said this elsewhere. At the same time I think it is perhaps incorrect to say there is not an elite; all organisations, societies have elites. What kind of elite? In what ways are they similar and different from their predecessors? Which are most powerful? My sense (and I think this is shared with a lot of people) is that the younger elites have little control for obvious reasons, their quality may or may not be high by educational or moral or intellectual standards or whatever (and have found their way into offices through family or patronage, etc. not qualifications), and many of them are aware of the problems the country has socially, politically and so on. But generationally, they lack power and control relative to their elders (or they perceive themselves this way) and thus are subject to an environment that rewards and encourages the reproduction of established behavior which feeds on and contributes to these very problems.

      The posts in the series ‘rise and fall/push and pull’ on this blog were concerned with these problems in the Arab regimes: their quality, their lifespan, their ways of changing and so on — how they survive and decay. The Algerian regime looks like it is decaying. The question I have had for a long time is: will it decay and crumble over time or decay and collapse as a result of a major incident in a relatively short period? Or will it change course and survive still longer? I don’t know.

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