Secret Admirers

One of the more interesting books this blogger has read lately Georgi M. Derluguian’s Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus (University of Chicago Press, 2005). The book charts the collapse of Soviet socialism and rise of ethnic violence in the Caucasus region through the life of Soviet functionary and sociologist cum nationalist activist Yuri Shanibov/Musa Shanib, applying world systems theory and the analytic frameworks of Pierre Bourdieu. There are many valuable insights on identity and political violence here. Its approach to class analysis is also interesting.There are also a number of analytical frameworks useful in thinking about regime collapse in other places and conflict among other peoples, including what at first appear to be highly idiosyncratic visualizations (though some of these are so impenetrable the reader wonders if even the author ‘gets’ what’s going on — more on this later).

Its framing of the Soviet Union as a ‘developmentalist’ state (a state aggressively attempting to industrialize using a coercive state bureaucracy) is especially useful in considering the Algerian state. One could probably find use in applying the theoretic models Derluguian uses to the Maghreb countries. The ‘developmentalist’ elements of the Algerian state apparatus are probably a good place to start, given the known inspiration early state planners in Algeria drew from the Soviet (as well as Yugoslav) experiences.  In any case, the framework Derlugian offers for understanding the ‘historical trajectory’ of polity is worth exploring in greater depth. Here is an effort at understanding Algerian pathways in these terms.

Historical Trajectory of Algerian Political Development

Note: Third column should read “1965-1980,” not “1865-1980”.

Pressing for Depth

Three of Algeria’s security chiefs were swiftly dismissed last week, after a bizarre episode involving a group of local youth entered the grounds of the Presidential residence in Zeralda, causing guards to discharge their rifles. Another version has firecrackers causing panic among the same guards. The incident caused a ‘panic,’ and the result was the removal of Gen. Moulay Meliani (head of the Republican Guard), Gen. Djamel Lakahel Medjdoub (head of the General Directorate for Presidential Security, DGSPP) and Gen. Ali Bendaoud, head of the Directorate of Internal Security (DSI). Two of these organizations are sub-organs of Algeria’s sprawling intelligence service, the DRS, subordinate to the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, though the DGSPP operates semi-autonomously; the Republican Guard falls under the Chief of Staff as well, but operates as a service in its own right. There were other changes among the walis, ministries and other parts of the administration. The Presidency and Chief of Staff continue to expand their depth in the deep state. Continue reading

New Sentinel Article

This writer has an article in the latest (June 2015) edition of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point’s Sentinel journal, which expands on some themes discussed in recent posts on this blog.  The gist:

Following the In Amenas attack in January 2013 (which resulted in the deaths of more than 35 hostages and 29 jihadists), Algeria’s strategic discourse and posture shifted more dramatically. The gas plant crisis was a strategic surprise that shocked and embarrassed the leaders of Algeria’s security institutions. The response was marked by a new willingness to engage with external partners, but this article will argue that the underlying motivation has remained the current crop of leaders’ understanding of how to secure the country’s long-standing national interest regarding external threats, maintain Algeria’s regional dominance, and secure domestic stability.

The rest can be read here.

Some additional notes on this piece will follow on this blog shortly.

‘The Algeria Alternative’ – Other Observations

 In what might be one of the first articles on Algeria in the prestigious American foreign policy journal Foreign Affairs in many years Geoff Porter writes:

Very few Algerians know how policy decisions get made. Instead, policies appear like ripples on water after a stone hits its surface—except neither the stone nor its thrower is ever seen.

In the absence of decisive evidence, analysts have taken to describing a mythical cloak-and-dagger cabal that runs Algeria—often called le pouvoir—whose membership is uncertain and whose power is unchecked. But when theories are pressed about who is actually in le pouvoir and what they are capable of, the concept collapses into speculation.

This is basically accurate and well known. Even early treatments of Algerian politics in the 1960s and 1970s described either an emerging trend towards secrecy and méfiance or an established tendency among Algerian leaders to horde, use and manipulate information to enhance their own power or diminish that of others (boulitique). (See Quandt, Revolution and Political Leadership: Algeria, 1954-1968, MIT, 1966, for an example of a discussion of this.) This only increased over time, enhanced by the emergence of the mukhabarat state and civil war In the last decade the prominence of the military, intelligence services and by many accounts secretive style of Abdelaziz Bouteflika produced a culture of inner circle intrigue and paranoia. The supposed inaccessibility of Algeria as a field for contemporary research (with so many red lines and hard to get visas) means that many analysts see it as a black box or denied terrain run by scary men. There is thus reliance on speculation and over analysis.

As Porter points out the dominance of pouvoirology – both good and bad – means that there is sometimes too much speculation and stereotyping in the way the actions of the Algerian state are interpreted, especially abroad. Algerian leaders are sometimes seen as ‘too clever’ or the military too powerful to make mistakes or to be outsmarted so that any major incident or event is seen as having inevitably been the result of some powerful conspiracy or false flag. Much of this is comes from word of mouth discussions with people who are knowledgeable about but do not know what is actually happening, including officials and party people themselves. And yet there are times when this situation poses no problem at all because Algeria is like any other state in that there indeed are conspiracies (or what look like conspiracies) because most government organizations make plans and execute them, either on or off the books and when these become exposed to the wider world they appear strange and even offensive because they appear out of context or poorly conceived. This is because official often people work in a different setting from non-official and there are always those who become isolated from the outside and whose interests become narrower and more ruthless, regardless of what state they serve.

The most widely available sources of information, like the flagship Algerian newspapers in French and Arabic, are often seen as mere cyphers for the deep state – which is true as often as it is not. Or they are treated as semi-official sources of information on recent events such as organizational changes or appointments within the State. These reports can be put into better perspective and sometimes confirmed using official sources of information or perspective like the Journal Officiel or El Djeich. Many times they cannot. This is often problematic. In the last few years three cases come to mind, some of which vague and difficult to confirm using publicly available sources. Analysis of some of these issues sill leads only to more confusion.  Continue reading

The Army and the Status Quo

2012_Bouteflika_gaid_2_861357901_522205151Late last year this blogger published a partial analysis of the discourse and geopolitical focus areas of El Djeich, the official journal of the Algerian military for a trade journal (readers may inquire if they like via the ‘About This Blog’ page). The piece focused on 2012 as a year of crisis for the region and Algeria and how this was reflected in El Djeich’s reporting on various regional topics (the Sahel, Libya, etc. counting numbers of mention for certain topics, places and so on) and editorials. The internal succession crisis (presumed by many analysts) was another area of focus, as the stability of the Algerian regime’s core depends in part on its ability to maintain control at its peripheries and threats posed to ‘Algeria’s stability’ at the regional and international level can usually be read as the sustainability of the core elite’s interests broadly defined (overlapping with selected regional-international interests). El Djeich – if it can be seen representing the ‘line’ of the high command — has held on to this defensive outlook emphasizing the military’s role in supporting the political status quo amid external threats. Continue reading

RND Sketch

In the comments accompanying the FLN party sketch posted to this blog yesterday, this blogger wrote in passing that the RND (an FLN spin off that emerged in 1997 and has been the secondary party in the ruling coalition since a kind of backup singer for the ex-parti unique) was organized on lines similar to the FLN. It has never been as powerful as the FLN but can be considered a key part of the multiparty procedural regime that emerged after 1995 (it is the famous ‘baby born with a mustache’). This is true an extent though the RND has differences which are important only in the sense that they reflect a somewhat greater level of internal control at lower levels. The precise details are not greatly important. Ideologically the parties are not especially distinct though the FLN has a wider range of trends (more space for ‘national’/’official’ religion, a wider variety of Arabists and Algeria-centric nationalists, stronger statist/leftist tendencies and a greater degree of populist engagement); RND’s ideological position is probably best called ‘status quo’ or the disposition of Werenfels’s ‘nationalist reformer‘ where the FLN would have  a mix of the neo-dinosaur, nationalist reformer and perhaps even some regime supportive Islamists. In any case, the party looked something like what is below in 2010-2011 when the chart below was drawn up (note: the officers and leadership are now different, Abdelkader Bensaleh, not Ahmed Ouyahia is the current Secretary General; also note it does not go down to the khaliya (cell) level but refers to ‘local’ committee in reference to communal, daira, and khaliya coordinating bodies). The 2012 legislative platform was quite broad, very much focused on continuity. Its organization approach borrows heavily from the FLN in form. Note the image there is in PDF and is quote large and requires the viewer to ‘zoom’ in. Dated though it is, it can possibly be of some use.


RND 2011 (PDF)

Book Review: Prêcher dans le désert: islam politique et changement social en Mauritanie

Prêcher dans le désert: islam politique et changement social en Mauritanie (Karthala, 2013) by Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem, the preeminent scholar working on political Islam and religious social movements in Mauritania, chronicles the history of Mauritania’s Islamist sub-cultures and political trends from the time of independence through the present. It brings together two decades of work in the most understudied area of the Maghreb. There are few comprehensive treatments of Islamist politics and actors in Mauritania and Prêcher dans le désert provides scholars, researchers and students with a clear and eloquent tour of the sociological, cultural, intellectual and historical setting that brought Mauritania’s Islamists from the bare margins a generation and a half ago to being a relevant social and political category worthy of independent analysis and contemplation. It argues for a re-conceptualization of Islamic ‘radicalization’ militancy as one of several possible pathways resulting from a long-term series of negotiations over Muslim identity, agency and efforts to grapple with a wide palette of complex problems around statehood, ethno-racial and caste identity, rapid socio-environmental change borne from climate change, poverty, the struggle against slavery and the shari’ah. Prêcher dans le désert covers these topics in expert fashion, as expected of Ould Ahmed Salem, whose writings on most of these subjects should be considered essential to achieving a grasp on contemporary Mauritanian society and political culture. Broken into six sections, rationally and judiciously divided and providing readers with a well structured understanding of the arguments put forth later on. It provides a deep take on the emergence and political role of Haratine religious leaders in the abolitionist movement and in Haratine urban life, including fascinating case studies based on in depth discussions with the first Haratine imams in Mauritania. (The subject has been covered in several dissertations but in this case it is related to a number of interrelated trends and placed in a more accessible format giving it a unique value. Ould Ahmed Salem also touched on the issue in his chapter ‘Bare-foot activists: Transformations in the Haratine movement in Mauritania,’ in Movers and Shakers: Social Movements in Africa, Brill, 2009.) It additionally provides the most detailed discussion of the emergence of Mauritania’s Muslim Brotherhood (Tewassoul) and a unique presentation of the role of Islam in the Mauritanian public sphere. In studying the rise of political Islam in northwest Africa or the Sahel and Maghreb there is no substitute for this book, despite numerous monographs, white papers and articles. Few texts in recent years approach its breadth and granularity. Because the space for ‘Mauritanian studies’ is limited, especially in the west, it is a milestone and cornerstone in the literature on the whole and should be a first stop for those seeking answers to questions about political Islam, radicalism and radicalization in the Sahel, Islamist movements in the Maghreb, the religious sociology of religious revival and environmental change and urbanisation, the rise of Arab and west African youth cultures and politics and contradictions of Arab and Muslim identity movements and well as slavery in northwest Africa. Aside from prose that can sometimes be denser than preferable, there is little criticism for this volume. As yet the book is only available in French, though efforts for an English translation are underway and will hopefully bring this important volume to an even wider audience beyond scholars of west Africa and the Maghreb.