Will Algeria be next?
A few brave Algerians, some draped in Tunisian flags, have stood up to their autocratic, police state government.
This pre-planned demonstration, held yesterday, attracted only a few hundred people, but it does at least suggest that the riots that broke out on January 7th may just be the start of something bigger in Algeria after all, after a lull of a couple of weeks.
Equally the brutality with which the state has reacted suggests that if popular unrest does develop, it will become much bloodier than the Tunisian uprising, much more quickly.
The Algerian government, after years of civil war and the institutional embedding of the repression of its own people, and having seen what happened in Tunisia, is unlikely to do anything other than continue with its highly repressive tactics.
The question is whether sections of the Algerian people are organized and/or desperate enough to fight back enough till the state wavers (in the face of both internal challenge and changing international opinion, for whom perceived security of the huge oil and natural gas supplies will play an important role).
Regional expert George Joffe thinks a Tunisia-style uprising is unlikely in Algeria:
Next door [to Tunisia] in Algeria, very few of the [7th January] rioters articulated any political demands; they were just angry about sharp rises in the price of sugar and cooking oil.
The government, with deep pockets from the export of oil and gas, quickly said it would curb price rises, and since then the rioting has tapered off. Algeria has already had its “people power revolution” – the year after Ben Ali took office .
Then, days of intense rioting in the capital led the authorities to loosen controls on society and the economy, allowing private newspapers and multi-party elections for the first time. That flowering of freedom quickly degenerated into a conflict between security forces and Islamist rebels which killed 200,000 people, according to some estimates, from which Algeria is still emerging.
After that experience, few Algerians have any appetite for any more political transformations.
For myself, I’m not quite so sure.
First, his analysis seems to overlook the fact that the first events in Tunisia were ones of desperation (there can be nothing much more desperate than sefl-immolation), but that initial inchoate anger became highly politicised and targeted incredibly quickly.
Further, the fact that the concessions on price rises that George mentions have been granted may give an inkling of hope that more can be achieved.
The very obvious disparities of wealth in the country – a country in which there was a $15bn trade surplus from its natural wealth in 2010 but in which people still can’t afford bread – may still be the key lever for further popular dissent.
Amongst a population where 70% of people are under 30, and for many of whom therefore direct memories of the worst of the civil war (1990-1998) are either absent or those now of earlier childhood, there may now be a tendency to hark back to better legitimized expressions of independence and solidarity against French colonialism.
Certainly, I’ve not got George’s experience and knowledge, but I lived in the mountains of Eastern Algeria in the mid 1980s, when the place was under heavy Soviet influence, and while at this range it becomes all a bit impressionistic, I have followed the sad events in Algeria closely over the years.
And even after years of repression, there does seem to remain a tradition of fierce independence, often associated with a distinctive, though ethnographically confusing, Berber identity, especially in the Eastern Kabyle area of the country where back in the 1980s the government’s Arabicisation programme (and allied repression of the Berber languages) fostered long term resentment against a government viewed as a puppet of outside forces. (Back then, such criticisms were only whispered, as I was followed by a completely inept but pleasant enough seeming government agent for much of my time there).
A key question is whether such different (from Tunisia) starting conditions will lead, if anything gets off the ground, towards a secular uprising, given the ravages of the civil war between a Western client-facing autocracy and violent (and often horribly brutal) Islamicist rebellion.
My hunch, looking on from afar, is that while many observers are looking towards Egypt for the next Arab-world uprising, it might be advisable to keep an eye on Tunisia’s Western borders for a not-quite-so-Arabic uprising.
The left in Europe in the UK has missed the boat with Tunisia, and the Tunisians don’t seem to need too much external support. In Algeria, where conditions of social and economic repression of various kinds have now lasted far longer than all Algerians have been alive, the process of overt politicization may take longer, and be much ‘messier’.
In such a case there may be something in Jennifer O’Mahoney’s call for a renewed spirit of international socialism through support for leftwing, secular groupings like this one (see also this useful translation), and perhaps also through domestic efforts aimed at the oil and gas giants that dominate the Algerian economy to the benefit of themselves, a few Algerian plutocrats, but to the exclusion of ordinary Algerians.
I’m far too old for Jennifer’s call to European socialists to support Vietnam/Afghanistan style armed insurrection against imperial powers, and I’m not too sure whether she’s being ironic when she makes it, but if it’s any help I’m one of only about 10 non-natives who understands any of the Chaouïa language at all (ok, I’m a bit rusty.).
You never know, it might come in handy.
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