I recently had a conversation with a friend about the enduring importance of the War of Independence in Algerian politics. This was prompted by a question about Noureddine Ait Hamouda’s comments earlier this year regarding the handling of funds pace the Ministry of Veterans Affairs. Claiming to have served in the War of Independence, in any respect, be it throwing stones, bombing French encampments, or commanding guerrilla units, is considered a sacred pass time in Algeria. Its legacy is held in the highest regard: Algerians regard the War as their finest hour. The outrage over Ait Hamouda’s comments, however, is only partially a result of patriotic sentiment. It is more the result of corrupt politicians and their patronage networks aggressively seeking to obscure their misconduct under a cloak of green and white. At least, this is how I see it, and how many others do.
Because the legacy of the War of National Liberation has been used for many years by cynical political actors to justify, legitimize, and to mystify their agendas and misbehavior, more than a few Algerians have grown weary of hollow appeals to the nationalism of their parents and grandparents. Thus, since the end of the civil war, Algerian leaders have lamented the decline in patriotism among Algerian youth, who make up a tremendous portion of the population. Today there are Algerians who would rather travel to France or Italy, where they often find jobs and bigotry, than hold up walls in Algeria where they suffer the results of widespread corruption in the way of joblessness, poor public services, and general social and political instability. President Bouteflika sought to increase patriotism among the youth by distributing flag earlier in his term. One would think that this would stop the brain drain and solve other problems. It did not. Those who have spent time among the Algerians in France, or in Belgium or in Spain or in Canada or elsewhere, know that there is no lack of patriotism among most of them; in fact it among these emigres that patriotic sentiments are most intense. What is lacking are job opportunities and broad prospects for personal improvement. It is easier for an Algerian man to produce an income that supports his family in Strasburg or Granada or Rome than it is in Hussein Dey, Batna or Nesmoth. Patriotism grows with a full belly. That is the source of the malaise among the movement of Algerians out of the country. And that is the root of hopelessness among so many young people.
In any event, a typically vapid use of the veil of the moudjahid to obscure ulterior motives and to defend questionable behavior can be seen here, in Culture and Communication Minister Khalida Toumi‘s defense of Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni. Mohamed Benchicou (the oppressed former editor of Le Matin) compared Zerhouni to General Jaques Massu, the savagely brutal French military commander who encouraged settlers to take up arms against Algerians during the War of Independence and who liberally embraced the use of torture. Toumi’s response?
“Cela est injuste, infamant et absolument inadmissible. M. Zerhouni est un homme qui a participé à la guerre de Libération nationale. On ne peut pas le comparer à ce général français.”
The comparison is hyperbolic, but the question it raises is valid. The way the country’s police and military deal with the citizenry is deserving of discussion. Of course the sitting political authorities have little time for this, few appointed or elected leaders would engage such accusations and are often busy stealing state funds, finding jobs for their children and extended family, or something similar, and this regardless of the individual’s status as a veteran or civilian. Leaders grow fat, covering themselves in shimmering medals while the rest go hungry, and those who can paddle away from the sinking ship. Such is politics in so many places.