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.
  1. The Algerian movement faces more challenges than can be outlined here. Beyond logistical obstacles like regime obstruction, legal hurdles, spatial and geographic problems there are serious class (effecting tactical and logistical issues) and spiritual (effecting the strategic environment for political actors) that stand in the way of organizing a serious popular uprising against the Algerian political system. These are definite and all things change. There is a potential for them to be swept aside for the moment in the event of great mistakes by the regime — as Mao said “a small spark can start a prairie fire” (though if this became the case those problems would come back later as they have in Tunisia).[1] One notices very clearly that the CNCD and other protest groups active since the winter events have utterly failed to sweep up the lower classes – both workers and the unemployed. Part of this is because the labor element within the CNCD is made up of smaller, younger independent unions that must compete with the much larger UGTA, which enjoys the patronage of the state and has many times their membership. Another reason for this is that many ordinary people, but especially the urban poor, resent the CNCD’s political characters their followers whose economic and social positions they resent. The CNCD’s rallies (and their base generally) have included a core of middle-class liberals, workers and students and have picked up some spontaneous followers, especially youths, along the way. It includes a faction of the old communist parties (MDS, though which faction is unclear to this blogger; there had been a split), feminist groups, disappeared families, human rights groups and so on. As it has been said: there are many Algerians who are put off by specific segments of the group that overpower the other more sympathetic ones in public pronouncements and activities. There is also a problem in that several of the CNCD’s large factions are heavily urban and/or Kabyle in their constituencies. That the RCD (which is despised by many Kabyles and others for its economic platform, collaboration with the junta, attitudes toward religion and participation in parliament) is seen as a Kabyle party by many does not help it to expand beyond the capital; and that the LADDH, a venerable human rights group, is also sometimes misunderstood as being “from Kabylia” both potentially expose the CNCD to erroneous accusations of being a “Kabyle” or “minority” movement when its aspirations are indeed quite national and non-sectional and they have thus far managed this issue intelligently through the broad spread of factions within the coalition. But the CNCD is internally divided as how to proceed after underwhelming demonstrations and government concessions. This could prove to be a mortal woud. The FFS, the oldest opposition party (with a historically larger following than any of those in the CNCD), is party mainly based in Kabylia and has pledged to hold a public meeting on 4 March after staying away from the CNCD’s protests. This partly represents the partisan divisions that hamper united opposition activity and the differing strategic tactical perceptions within the organized opposition. There is of yet an opposition coalition that includes various democratic and reform-minded parties from across the country and includes the lower classes.
  2. The student protest movement, which has expanded rapidly in the weeks immediately prior and the days immediately following the repeal of the hated December decree, has put tens and sometimes hundreds of students on the streets, usually apart from other political movements. Students’ grievances include a range of demands from better higher education standards, to dormitory conditions, to police brutality, to administrative neglect – in other words all areas of student life. Their demonstrations are not narrowly focused on student life: they include chants, banners and demands against ministers, the president and the military. Conversations with students at large universities indicate, anecdotally, that these strikes, protests and sit-ins have drawn students from a range of class backgrounds within the universities (which must be considered in its own context). The location of these student demonstrations is often quite daring: on more than one occasion students staged sit-ins outside the Presidential Palace and were forcibly removed. As students have gotten increasingly bold police responses have grown more brutish, with university (and in some cases secondary school) students being beaten with batons, some of them having to go to the hospital. But neither the well publicized CNCD or the student movement appears, of yet, to have gain traction with the key elements of the lower class who outnumber university students and all segments of the middle and upper class by far; and whose participation will be required to truly intimidate the regime.
  3. Unemployed youths have formed associations and unions, some of which have collaborated with the CNCD or have operated semi-independently. More informal groups also operate in some smaller towns and cities. These groups have staged sit-ins at municipal offices, local assemblies, roads in and out of villages and neighborhoods – including SONATRACH plants in Hassi Messaoud. Their acts of non-violent civil disobedience are at once impressive but require more coordination which may be forthcoming though nothing is certain and they receive special press attention mostly in summary or as a result of partnership with other opposition elements.  They benefit from leadership that is often educated, or at least partly so, and they frequently use clever and symbolic tactics that wear on and embarrass many the regime – such as the sit-in during the celebrations of the anniversary of the hydrocarbons nationalization in Hassi Mesaoud. Their actions add to an overall climate of dissidence. They are also a point of entry into the broader resistance for those who do not identify with other opposition groups for class/social, ideological or other reasons.
  4. Spontaneous youth riots and demonstrations continue especially in medium-size cities and in some rural areas. These tend to be the work of young men (and grown men) who have rioted before: they have little to lose, much to complain about and few prospects for the future. They often have little schooling and have spent more time at work in the informal economy than in classrooms. If they are old enough to vote they do not belong to political parties, they do not vote and they could care less what Said Sadi has to say about breaking the “wall of fear” or how Louisa Hanoune feels about workers marching with “forces of the right” (by which she means the RCD) or President Bouteflika’s latest thoughts on Algeria’s place as leader in the Third World. Their misery and everyday humiliations cut them off from all that. They have no interest in the ruminations of the political class and know they have little impact on its calculations lest they hit the street and give the police hell till they get something out of the regime – an apology from a functionary, a repaired road, payouts from municipal offices. These are the youths that made the lifting of the state of emergency a good idea in January by shocking the regime; and their efforts are what gave the CNCD and other middle class and semi-elite elements the ability to demand change. Yet because they have so little trust in the political class they resist efforts by both the regime and the opposition to put them in one direction or the other (their distrust of the politicians is share across classes in Algeria and they do not monopolize that sentiment).[2] With the students these spontaneous demonstrators[3]are potentially the most formidable element in popular society – but they are not organized. They are well aware of the political situation but lack the resources and likely know-how to channel their anger into an organized political movement. These young people represent a kind oflumpenproletariat whose energies could be mobilized for serious political change by clever and interested political actors or could be manipulated and used by the regime against middle class and elite oppositionists. One sees the later development in the form of “protesters” brought to form counter-demonstrations in Algiers (rumors and reports also mention prisoners released from jail being used in this capacity but this blogger has neither seen nor heard any confirmation of that). This was seen in Egypt where poor people from round the Pyramids were paid to rush and beat protesters in Tahrir Square.
  5. Within the political class and among many young leaders there is a fear that rapid change or aggressive change in the political climate could rapidly grow out of control and produce conditions favorable to the status quo. If a mass movement, as in Egypt or Tunisia, took hold in Algeria the weakness of Algeria’s opposition and civil society could be used by the regime to issue a crackdown that might lead yet more bloodshed and suffering. This fear of “repeating” the civil war (a term the regime used for the first time only recently, when Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci spoke to a French radio program) is widely held and widely propagated by skeptics of the protest movement(s). In both public and in private comments from Algerians, one notices differences in how this memory of a severe and real national trauma is used: 1) there are those for whom this is a genuine concern, especially those that came of age during the 1990s or the late 1980s; 2) those who hold some specific or general diagnosis of the country’s problems or who have some strong political or economic stake in the status quo and exploit that element of Algerian history to justify political attitudes that justify their own position and; 3) those in between these two poles where most this blogger has spoken to directly seem to fall. When one speaks about the “memory of the Civil War” the references are daily bombings, decapitations, images of children (infants) with slit throats, pickup trucks moving at high speed through small towns carrying armed men of ambiguous origin or loyalty and so on. There are also the families whose children have grown up mute after witnessing some unspeakable atrocity at a young age while visiting relatives or walking home. And there is a sense of guilt among some politicians and technocrats and even activists for having some part in creating the conditions that made the conflict possible or for spending many years speaking about in one way publicly while not revealing the full story. None of these things should be taken lightly or dismissed or treated callously: they are real and they are lived. But they do not explain everything. Because open discussion of the Civil War has been effectively vetoed through the Peace and National Reconciliation Charter and the comments of the President himself, questions around responsibility, military excesses, disappeared and missing persons and other unsolved problems is not resolved and tension stemming from this remains in society. But this does not mean that this explains why Algeria has not seen mass mobilization or a large, tightly organized opposition coalition demanding regime change. Some also seem to worry that the regime could not survive another upheaval like it did in the 1990s. The tactics of the security services have deliberately been reformed to prevent the regime from provoking mass backlash as in 2001. But none of this is to say there is no appetite for change or that the country’s social and political conditions do not make it ripe for change (especially in light of the regional climate and the relatively high spirits of the youth of late). Part of it stems from who has done the organizing and how they have done it.
  6. There has yet to develop a viable counter elite in Algeria whose leading ranks are not dependent on the regime for political position, economic livelihood and that refuses to be co-opted into the dominant political discourse. The opposite was the case during the 1989-1992 period when the FIS organized an Islamist alternative from the periphery of political society and nearly gutted a rotting system dominated by the military and its allies in the FLN.  The post-Civil War period has seen the recuperation and evolution of the regime, in isolation from a strong and organized domestic counter political weight. Though Bouteflika’s leadership has significantly altered Algeria’s civil-military relations in terms of establishing a civilian with executive control this has not shifted the locus of decision-making or political power from those holding coercive power to anyone else. The objectives of Bouteflika’s leadership model resemble that of Boumediene (a central leader that mediates and balances interest segments in a collegial manner) more than Chadli (a president largely at the mercy of powerful military and business interests) but the current situation may undermine his centrality and this seems likely to leave a power vacuum on his departure as one might expect. Bouteflika’s efforts to “professionalize” the armed forces have been designed in part to neutralize the officer politicians inherited from the 1990s and who posed a political threat to his own authority and to improve public perceptions of the military in the wake of the Civil War and, after the 2001 events in Kabylia, the police and gendarmes. This has had mixed success but the power of the remaining core generals (le pouvoir) remains objectively significant and public opinion seems to see the military as the main force behind the scenes within the regime. The regime thus has somewhat more room to maneuver given its cash reserves, the high price of oil and the lack of a strong opposition or counter-cultural or political elite that could rally the population to displace it. And over the last ten years its actions have tended towards “normalization” rather than reform, that is, normalizing a post-Civil War polity by building a status quo consensus toward stability agreed on and understood by the military, regime parties, opposition and religious community elites and “legitimized” at a popular level through referendums and regular elections. The only problem is that the bulk of the population has resisted the populist component by refusing to participate and other measures of passive resistance or otherwise. Since the end of the Civil War the country can be said have been resting on a pile of smoldering ashes. The right spark could set everything back up again but in an unknown direction and with an unknown size.

[1] In Tunisia competing segments within the middle and upper classes seem to be divided between those preferring the preservation of the Ben Ali status quo (or significant parts of it) and those pressing for continued revolutionary change and reform. The important segments of the revolutionary movement there, drawn from the middle and lower middle class but also the southern poor, have allied with the UGTA and the former elite segment in pushing on the transitional government to pursue constitutional and political change more aggressively and throwing out ex-RCD members. The former group from within the middle and upper classes are pushing for the retention of ex-regime players in hopes of safeguarding their old positions. One sees this in the protests and violence against the UGTT, street fighting by ex-RCD partisans and the actions of some of those supporting Ghanouchi; the RCD would appear to be reorganizing for a comeback in hopes of staving off or rolling back losses as a result of the fall of the old regime. This is something that deserves more attention and more varied analysis; the same is true for what is taking place in Egypt. This is discussed with less simplicity and more detail here. Also see this text, lifted from Facebook, for an example of the kinds of things mentioned in this footnote and the link. Revolutionary change has yet to take place in these countries.

[2] These riots often begin with parochial disputes between locals and police or municipal authorities; they are increasingly common over housing in the slums and public housing complexes. Residents turn out to vent anger and call attention to specific grievances. Some short-term resolution is reached and the people come back out again when another slight or public failing effects them. The spontaneous riots represent part of the logic of the Algerian regime: a society turned into masses, disorganized and deprived of independent intermediaries from the elite or the public. Problems are managed with rent money rather than politics. Perpetual instability justifies a perpetually “legitimate” place for the key power centers from the military and security services in political life. The weakening of independent civil society has been a long-term project of the Algerian regime since at least the middle 1960s with attacks on independent and women’s students’ unions. This has represented both idealistic and cynical motivations such as the preservation of national unity and the more effective management of dissent respectively.

[3] “Spontaneous demonstrators” or protestors is perhaps more adequate than spontaneous rioters as one should not make the mistake of depoliticizing their grievances especially in light of the sorts of things they chant which at times match those at CNCD rallies and those in Tunisia, Egypt and other places.

5 thoughts on “Notes on Algeria

  1. Good overview of the current state of affairs. One minor correction: On Friday, the FFS is holding a meeting in a theater (Atlas theater in Bab el Oued neighborhood unless there is a last minute change) not a march. Another element to watch is unrest in Kabylia. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the 2001 “printemps noir” so it is likely to be accompanied by sizable protests/marches. If today’s student demonstration in Tizi Ouzou is a prelude, who knows what can happen.

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