Party Hopping Again

DZCalling’s comment on the previous post on Abdallah Djaballah pointed to the ongoing power struggles and divisions in the FLN, Algeria’s former single party until 1989. It brought these points to mind which would have been a comment on that post but were not strictly related to the original point and have thus been placed here. The reference to the FLN brought to mind two things primarily: (1) generational tensions and conflicts in institutions of the political establishment; and (2) attitudes toward political change and violence as they related to some of the experiences (especially the civil war) that created those generational rifts. These are general thoughts.  Continue reading

Something like Hogra

A reader sent an email asking about the politics of decentralization and administrative problems in Kabylia and who these things influence the Berber identity movement. The response involved some discussion of hogra — contempt from officials, the police and the bureaucracy. That whole attitude that We, this narrow set of technocrats, officers and elderly men, know best and letting the half-educated masses have at these Very Important Problems would lead to sheer collapse. The We built the nation and we can fix the nation or These children don’t know what’s best for them attitudes one sees among many many older official Algerians. And it gets mixed up and passed through with all the other tendencies one finds in Franco-Arab bureaucracies. And it occurs within elites, too, as the competing versions of the meeting before the resignation of Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid in 1992, between General Khaled Nezzar and the President. Some say Chadli, who is often thought of as dimwitted, was “convinced” to step down after a long discussion by Nezzar. Another more dramatic version says the General came to blows with the President (himself an Army colonel), with the idea here being that Chadli had a scheme to use the upcoming election to bolster his own position by empowering the FLN and weakening the military, choking him against a wall til he agreed to go along with the coup, “for the good of the country.” Continue reading

Notes on Algeria

The post below is a collection of notes taken down over the last two weeks; most of the notes are a kind of stream of consciousness. They are not edited except that some long bits have been moved and made into three footnotes. The first note deals with the CNCD and some problems it appears to face; the second considers the student movement; the third unemployed groups; the fourth the spontaneous demonstrators/demonstrations and their relation to more middle-class opposition elements and the regime; the fifth the question of the “memory of the Civil War” in relation to attitudes toward change; the sixth looks at the regime’s “normalization” effort and its general failure. There  is no conclusion here; just summarizes of general thoughts on the situation as this blogger attempts to understand and create another mind map on the Algerian situation. Some of it is dated by a week or a few days. Corrections and alternative perspectives are welcome as always.

“Boycott”

One of this blogger’s favorite Arab poets is Mutran Khalil Mutran. Mutran was also famous for translating several of Shakespeare’s plays into Arabic He was born in Ottoman Syria but moved to Egypt where he did much of his work. His peers included Ahmed Shawqi, Mahmoud El-Barudi and others. He was one of many fine Arab poets in the late 19th and early 20th century.

“Boycott”  مقاطعة , written in a tone of exceptional defiance, is worth reproducing given recent events.

شـرّدوا أخيارها بحراً وبــرا

واقتلوا أحـرارها حراً فحرا

إنما الصـالح يبقى صالحاً

آخر الدهـر ويبقى الشر شرا

كسروا الأقلام هل تكسيرها

يمنع الأيدي أن تنفش الصخرا

قطعوا الأيدي هل تقطيعها

يمنع الأعين أن تنظـر شزرا

اطفئوا الأعين هل إطفاؤها

يمنع الأنفاس أن تصعد زفرا

أخمدوا الأنفاس ، هذا جهدكم

وبه منجاتنا منكم…فشكرا

A quick and crude translation:

Displace our best by land and by sea!

And kill our free, freedman after freedman [one by one]!

But in the long run good will remain good

And evil will remain evil.

Snap our pens! Will breaking them

Stop our hands from carving into stones?

Cut off our hands! Will hacking them off

Keep our eyes from casting our glare upon you?

Poke out our eyes! Will blinding us

Stop our chest(s) from breathing exasperated sighs?

Smother our breathing!

For that is the extent of your powers [For that is your effort or power] –

And in it lays our salvation. Thank you.

Forgive excesses and erors in the translation.

Algerians hit the streets

UPDATE: Early reports of tens of thousands of demonstrators, taken from news reports citing protest organizers, seem to be incorrect according to Algerian sources as well as news reports. Various reports put the protesters’ numbers at 2-5,000 in Algiers.

Thousands (if not tens of thousands) have taken to the streets in Algiers. Police have arrested and beaten so many demonstrators that jails are full and prisoners are being held in police station corridors or released. Of yet no deaths have been reported. The turn out has dashed most analysts’ expectations: most expected far less. But outside the capital and Oran turnout is less impressive. Locals in Annaba say a small demonstration was broken up early and the city is prepared for a happy Eid al-Mawild; Constantine’s several hundred protestors were sent home by the police. Algiers and Oran are Algeria’s two largest cities. Demonstrators have taken over the small 1 May and 1 November Squares in Algiers and Oran, respectively. Demonstrations have been reported in Tizi Ouzou and other parts of Kabylia. One of the Algiers demonstration’s key organizers and a leader of the CNCD Fadil Boumala has been arrested. One wonders whether the arrest of the demonstrations’ leaders will put down the revolt. The major factor to watch is whether or nor civilians start dying. The turning points in Tunisia and Egypt were when demonstrators were killed by the security forces. The Algerians avoided this in December and January and seem to be relying on mass arrests (in the main cities tens of protestors have been arrested). Thus far it seems the Algerians will need greater numbers to make a major impact on the swarms of police, political establishment and the limitations of the CNCD’s organizing methods. All of this will be thought about in more depth later.

More incomplete thoughts on the Algerian situation

The fall of Egypt’s long time dictator Husni Mubarak may have an impact on the demonstrations planned for 12 February in Algeria. Most assessments appraising the likelihood of a popular revolution in Algeria have been grim: Algeria’s civil society is too weak, its political parties too divided and unpopular to inspire or direct an Egyptian or Tunisian-style mass movement. Protests and uprisings are often localized and spontaneous rather than organized as previous Egypt’s 6 April and Kifaya movements were. Its urban geography, some wrote, is more restrictive than Cairo’s or Tunis’s, lacking large public squares where demonstrators might camp out or confront security forces. These are all valid points and reflect keen observations of Algeria’s political scene. One would be surprised if Said Sadi could turn out large masses of Algerians beyond Algiers and Kabylia. The other factions making up the Coordination nationale pour le changement et la démocratie (CNCD) are small, though each has its own constituency. The Algerian security services have been preparing to swallow up the 12 February protests over the last week (if not more), particularly since the state denied the organizers’ application for a permit to assemble. Because the protests have been associated with the RCD, many doubted the legitimacy of the protests and their intentions; in particular the FFS, the RCD socialist rival in Kabylia, refused to participate as well as have other opposition parties. Some have speculated as to the motivations behind the protests given Said’s links to the DRS. That the demonstration permit was denied lends the demonstrations additional credibility. (the CNCD also includes groups like SOS disparus (an advocacy group for the families of people disappeared during the Civil War), Tharwa Fatma N’Soumer (a group opposed to the 1984 Family Code and especially interested in women’s empowerment) and several independent labor unions.) If 12 February is a success in the sense of turn out it will not be due strictly to the work of the CNCD: it will owe to a whole climate of dissatisfaction and frustration. And the regime’s efforts to smother the protests may have the opposite of their intended effect.

The fall of Husni Mubarak might inspire some politically minded Algerians to go out and join the march in Algiers or elsewhere; but to draw the comparison between the Egyptian movement which focused on Mubarak and “his regime” and Algerian political problem is somewhat difficult. The Algerian regime is more effective at managing popular protests and riots than either Tunisia or Egypt, having done so for the last twelve years. The slow official response to the January demonstrations (as compared to the relatively fast and repetitious public statements from the former leaders of Tunisia and Egypt) helped the regime deprive demonstrators of public targets in the form of the the President or the Prime Minster. This was like partly a learned feature (the aggressive and callus statements from former Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni during the April 2001 events had a radicalizing effect not unlike Mubarak’s, though very different in tone) and the result of Algerian decision-making processes which ordinarily takes a great amount of time.

The regime already faced a significant popular protest movement in 1988. The response to that crisis is often remembered in terms of the 1992 elections, called after a period of impressive liberalization and aborted when Islamists looked likely to win. The years of suffering that followed are well known to most. The motivation for the transition has been revealed (and debated) in the commentary and memoirs of contemporaries having been the survival of the old regime by writing the electoral law to favor mass-based parties like the FLN so that the former single party could run younger, more religious candidates and co-opt voters’ religious preference while allowing the ancien regime to maintain its hard grip on the country with a popular mandate. The FIS, modeling itself on the FLN benefited from the new electoral law, though. Chadli failed and Army generals visited him in the Presidential Palace and talked him into resigning and giving them control of the country. The regime that came after, a junta, used Chadli’s strategy: it advanced Liamine Zeroual in the 1995 presidential election. The genealogy of Bouteflika’s leadership comes out of that process; internal competition between factions within the regime reflects the same institutional rot that afflicts other long-standing Arab regimes rather than ideological distention. Because Algeria’s core elite is divided between elements of the military and the president’s loyalists there is a possibility that the deep state may attempt to use 12 February as an opportunity to expand their role own power; encouraging or allowing violence to occur would give the security forces a louder voice in government. It might also give them a means of getting concessions out of the civilian leadership in economic policy and on certain political questions. But the regime as a whole understands how dangerous excessive force could be in the current regional climate. That one or the other elite faction might try to exploit the demonstrations for internal leverage is perhaps the greatest risk for both demonstrators, officials and their allies. Practically all key players understand the importance of avoiding the steps that led to the “national tragedy” though those in power see this as meaning maintaining power for themselves more shrewdly than Mubarak or Ben Ali did. In their view this requires a willingness to do just about anything, violent or otherwise.

Keep in mind that the Algerian regime has something neither Tunisia nor Egypt has: piles and piles of gas money ready to be dumped on the right opposition and social players as needed. The government can buy off political figures and their bases; it can attempt to pacify religious and tribal leaders by dumping money and infrastructure on them. Algeria’s leaders may benefit from the country’s status as a major energy exporter to Europe and America in the event of serious street struggle.

The RCD’s headquarters in Algiers was has already been surrounded by police after three hundred people reportedly congregated there to demonstrate their satisfaction with the fall of Mubarak. What kind of affect early obstruction might have will depend on how many people turn out in force to begin with: the masses of police on the streets may have a serious psychological impact on smaller demonstrators and if the demonstrations are as easily dispersed as on 22 January its unlikely that much else will follow. And while many Algerians are thoroughly dissatisfied with Bouteflika, most understand the real political challenge is the whole system, the politicized military leadership, the economic oligarchs, the  not mere personalities. Many Algerians have been impressed by the fall of Mubarak, though. Buses of people are heading to Algiers from the surrounding cities and provinces, blocked by the police. By cutting out those seeking to protest peacefully (and with a limited popular appeal) the regime is increasing the likelihood of spontaneous, violent demonstrations which may indeed be to the government’s advantage. While the opposition is weak and without strong popular credentials (not wholly committed to the 12 February movement) there is more potential for something much bigger than previously anticipated as a result of recent events and the anxiety they may cause in the security services and the government at large. Mubarak’s fall has raised the stakes for Algeria’s 12 February march. But his fall does not necessarily make Bouteflika’s imminent. More to come.

Incomplete thoughts on the Algerian Situation

[Compiled from a series of notes taken down from Wednesday, 2 January - Saturday, 5 February.]

It has been announced the Algerian government plans to lift the nine-teen year state of emergency “very soon,” and will undertake economic measures to increase job growth and social stability (for instance, more housing credits). Promises of fair access to media for political parties have been mentioned. As both houses of parliament broke they pledged increase dialogue and involvement with youth. This may be seen as a response to uprisings in late December and January and in anticipation of planned demonstrations in Algiers on 12 February (organized by political parties and activists under the banner of the Committee for Coordination of National Change and Democracy), as Algerian decision-makers watch developments in Egypt. Official statements have mentioned that the purpose of the emergency law is to fight terrorism and that in the event of its removal legal provisions will be made to ensure that the counter-terrorism capacities it allows do not suffer. The president clarified that although the state of emergency would eventually be lifted, protests would not be allowed in the capital “for reasons well known”. Former Interior Minister and current Deputy Prime Minister Noureddine Zerhouni warned that protestors would be responsible for what happens to them if they turn out in Algiers in violation of the emergency law. (Indeed, Algiers is reportedly thick with security ahead of 12 February.) These announcements marked the president’s first comments following the unrest in December and January. The opposition greeted these measures with suspicion and cautious optimism. They are unlikely to address the deep grievances of average Algerians. Many Algerians see talk of repealing the emergency law while adopting new anti-terror laws as a normalization of the status quo. Continue reading