Starting from the wrong premise

The nonsensical trope that Algeria is “losing” its “war on terror” has become a popular line on some editorial pages and blogs. A spat of recent terrorist attacks aimed primarily at government targets has caused some to worry that the government has lost the support of its population in the fight against the re-branded remnants of the Group for Preaching and Combat (better know by its French acronym GSPC), nowadays called AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). It has long been a concern of some Western observers that the apathy of much of population in those areas where it has found safe harbor (such as Kabylia, the mountains in eastern Algeria, and parts of the Sahara) signals a kind of sympathy for and identification with AQIM at a popular level.

Olivier Guitta wrote in the Washington Examiner worrying that “Algeria may be winning the military battle against Islamists, but it’s losing the ideological war. Over the last 10 years, Algeria’s efforts to root out terrorist elements have been undermined by Algerian society’s increasing tolerance of Islamists’ intolerance.” To support this claim he cites a few Algerian women’s groups and points to the growing prevalence of the hijab atop Algerian heads; additionally, and perhaps more importantly, he points to the moves made by the Algerian government to appease Islamist sentiment, especially while Abdelaziz Belkhadem was Prime Minister, from 2006 to 2008. This, Guitta writes, has lead to the “Islamization of Algeria.” Curious phraseology, for sure, used to express a curiously informed thesis proceeding from a fundamental misunderstanding of the Algerian political climate.

Guitta quotes a survey telling us that “16 percent of Algerians favor the equality of sexes, compared with 27 percent in 2000.” He further informs us that “70 percent of Algerians would like every Algerian woman and girl alike to wear the hijab.” The scope or quality of the survey is not mentioned; are women included? What are the attitudes of women and men specifically? It is not clear whether Ciddef, the women’s organization he frequently refers to, conducted the survey or some other body. But this is but a quibble. He notes anecdotally that a young girl in Dergana told her mother she was headed for hell because she didn’t cover her head and that this was the result of what the girl learned in state school. But it is not mentioned whether this youngster got her doctrine from her religious studies class, from her teacher, her classmates or from someone on the street. To speak of growing “pressure” on Algerian women to cover themselves without naming where these pressures come from in society tells only part of a wider story.

One must consider that wearing the hijab is not the best indicator of the status of women’s rights in Algeria or any other country. To speak of real threats to women’s liberty in Algeria is to look at the public conversation regarding their position. The Algerian Family Code, which is among the most restrictive one can find in any of the Arab countries (and was itself the result of concessions made to the Islamist movement during the 1980’s), has yet to be meaningfully reformed and conversation in some mosques would have one believe that the general attitude is not that this should be amended to the status quo ante or that inheritance or personal status stipulations for women should be expanded. In general, the popular attitude is “conservative,” but this reflects the reality of what has come to be the Algerian mentality since the 1980s. It is where the mainstream lies. Indeed, during the recent presidential campaign women’s issues were not a part of the discussion, even as a woman ran and turned in second place. Indeed, when women’s rights or issues did come up candidates sought to play to popular misogyny among particular electorates: candidates proposed legislation that would cut back the number of hours a week women were allowed to work so that they “attend to their families” or changing inheritance regulations. These suggestions went without meaningful debate. And again, this reflected a powerful stance among many Algerians, however desirable or undesirable it may be. It is not possible to speak of this as a “regression” as Guitta does so much as the continuation of a conservative trend in Algerian attitudes. The hijab matter is one that fluctuates back and forth and has for sometime according to security or economic conditions.

Guitta also writes of the troubles facing Christians in Algeria. The rights of the new Christian minority in Algeria, the result of conversions stemming from missionary activity (often Americans or northern Europeans), have become an issue as a result of laws on conversion and the construction of religious sites. Here Guitta confuses two distinct sub-populations in Algeria. First are the “Christians,” whose right to worship and speak freely was curtailed by the 2006 law he references. These are predominantly Protestants, many of them charismatics or other eccentric varieties of the Anglo-American tradition. These are recent converts and their presence mostly does not pre-date the Algerian Civil War. The second group are foreign Christians, by far the vast majority of Christians in Algeria. These are those told by local authorities in the wilayas (which literally means “state” in a certain sense, but not the American one; in Algeria these are more accurately called provinces) “to leave the country because of the threat of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.” During the Civil War the GIA and GSPC targeted foreigners, with some limited success, declaring holy war on all non-Muslims in Algeria (this included actual non-Muslims and Muslims who did not subscribe to the resistance’s concept of faithfulness or who supported the regime). The “revival” of GSPC under the guise of AQIM, which is only vaguely as potent as much of the media has made it to be, has caused worry that a similar fit of zealotry will rise again; one must also recall the kidnappings of European tourists that occurred around this time as well. The “living conditions” of these two distinct Christian populations must be placed in proper perspective. As per this blogger’s last visit to Algiers in January, the foreign Christians of that city were doing just as well as they ever have, as expatriates do through much of the Third World. The converts, who are looked on with scorn or indifference for the most part, have seen troubles coming from government policy and the attitudes of the population at large. The legal actions that have made the arrest of those setting up house and basement churches and those seeking to find more converts are indeed part of a government effort to appease and reach out to the Islamist movement. But this is not specific to the Christian population and the evidence he offers regarding the lock up of those not fasting during Ramadan and crack downs on liquor stores is a part of a bigger element in Algerian politics.

These measures have been taken within the context of establishing “peace” in the wake of the Civil War. One of the facts of this peace process, if it may be called that, has been that the government has had to include not just Islamist faces, but Islamist policies. It is thus somewhat ahistorical for Guitta to write that “Algeria’s president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has even shown a willingness to offer total amnesty for the radical Islamist terrorists.” This has already been done in the 2004 Peace and Reconciliation Charter, which was voted on and approved by the population, and whatever one thinks of the conduct of that vote or the legitimacy of the Charter itself, it is the framework within which the regime has dealt with the Islamist movement and the last bits of the GSPC. It offered near total amnesty (better called impunity) not just for former Islamist guerillas but also for the security forces. Guitta leaves out the fact that part of the reason the Islamist militas set down their arms, aside from their military defeat and demoralization, was that many were told they would see concessions from the state, there would be consideration if not inclusion of their views and demands in government. This processes of cooptation has been a defining pillar of Bouteflika’s presidency. There are few interest groups whose views have not been in some way taken up by the regime, in an attempt to balance varying ideological and power bases in the country. The best example of this, tough Guietta does not mention it, is the governing coalition, made up of the FLN, RND and MSP. The MSP (Movement for Society of Peace; also known as Hamas) is the Algerian Muslim Brotherhood and much of the government’s religious policy is directed by its cadres in government. Guitta should not look to Belkhadem for the roots of this policy of co-optation; he should look to Bouteflika, for this is where real power lies in Algeria. The Islamist inspired policies Guitta references are of a wholly political nature and indeed were undertaken with a mind towards keeping those Islamists who have gone along with the regime onboard.

These moves are not about ideology and not about public sympathy, they are about the same thing all the rest of Algerian politics is about: power. Because his rise required the alienation of a significant faction within the army, it would impossible for Bouteflika to have built his position or to maintain it without soliciting the support from some other basis of political support. His eagerness to set up an amnesty, and this is to ignore for the purposes of this particular analysis his tremendous ego and desire to hold a place in history, stems from a very real need to do what his faction always said was necessary: include the Islamists. This position divided the army and it gave Bouteflika a second leg to stand on beyond his military and sequestered the platform of middle class Islamism, undermining the most radical bunches and pushing them to the fringe of politics.

To portray this as a “war of ideas” is to miss the point entirely. Not only does it show a lack of hindsight in terms of Algerian history, but it also shows a lack of understanding of current Algerian politics. Politics in Algeria is not about ideology. It is about representation and material interests. Insofar is it is possible for the an Algerian government to sit unchallenged for any period of time while denying outright the demands of any group of people claiming to be disenfranchised, be they Islamists, Berbers or the people of the Sahara, there is no sense in following Guitta’s advise or to heed his warning regarding the “hearts and minds” of the Algerian population regarding Islamism. The last time the Algerian government followed that advice the troubles of today found their root. Certainly the concessions made are problematic in various ways but to explain them so simplistically as Guitta does is to abuse the genre of political commentary by ignoring that politics is a process of concessions and coercion.

The Algerian regime, and Guitta would have done better to write this clearly, does not care about popular sentiments or demands unless the people are pounding at its doors. Those most feared in Algiers are those who are already in government or pushing the political processes in some way. It avoids taking aggressive stands on international issues that might cause rallying, hence its tolerance of pro-jihad rhetoric around the Iraq War and Gaza. Hugh Roberts has written about the influence of the first Gulf War on Algerian public and official opinion, charting how the government’s initial response (which was in support of the American invasion) fed the Islamist movement’s anger; not only because it deviated from Algeria’s historical Third Worldism and radicalism but even more so because it condoned the battering of a Muslim state by a non-Muslim one. This is from where the Algerian leadership has taken its lessons learned. Whether it has taken the right lesson, for its own sake, is doubtful. This is not to say that the regime “cares” about the public’s view of its affairs; it is to say that the Algerian elite has learned it is better to accommodate the views of Islamist factions into policy decisions without immediate significance for itself. It is less costly to carry on hostile activity whilst agreeing on what are seen as peripheral or marginal issues, which in the ordering of priorities in Algeria’s politics includes women’s and minorities’ rights and ideologically motivated conflict in far away countries. The notion of blowback does not significantly enter the picture, for much of Algeria’s elite holds a mentality that is very much that of the rentier statesman. But this problem is structural and cultural, not ideological. The most general sentiment towards the regime and the militant Islamist movement is not sympathy, but a cocktail of apathy and contempt.

The notion of a “battle of ideas” is not one that has often entered Algerian politics: credibility and authenticity hold greater sway than such notions of constitutionalism or “Islamism”. To speak of the number in women in the hijab as an indicator in “who’s winning” in Algeria is to miss the point entirely. Guitta’s piece is without mention of not one, not two and not a few of the major Islamist parties or “movements”; in fact it is without any mention period of a single Algerian political party of the Islamist sort. To speak of the battle of “ideas” in the context of the deeply fragmented and coopted Islamist parties in Algeria is to speak emptily. The numerous parties that have fragmented and fractured during the last decade speak to a rather different situation than the one Guitta seems to perceive. To say that al-Qaeda has made ideological gains in Algeria is either to misperceive and thusly misinterpret the circumstance or to deliberately misrepresent it. The body count may be higher, but this more the result of its own capacity, which is less the result of public sympathy (it is difficult to say that their domain of sanctuary has expanded rather than contracted, especially in the north). Perhaps this is a reflection of the Struggle for Relevance (mentioned here before) among counter terrorism and cosmic struggle analysts having come along since the twilight of the Bush administration.

3 thoughts on “Starting from the wrong premise

  1. I haven’t even read all of this — so far — superb post, yet, but let me just just agree that this Guitta is an idiot. A French version of Daniel Pipes.

    Hopefully a more substantial comment when I’ve had time to go through the whole thing. But it’s good to see you posting again!

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