Home > General Politics, Religion, Socialism > Will Algeria be next?

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 [1987].

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.

  1. Salah
    January 23, 2011 at 7:48 pm

    Salah :
    The last uprising in Algeria was politically motivated and should not have taken place in the streets of Algeria, the RCD’s 300 members have indeed attracted international press but have not destabilised the security of the country nor won any neew adherent to their party.
    Firstly you seem to have overlooked to the fact that the RCD party have asked the Algerian Authorities to organise a protest on Saturday and quite rightly the authorities have refused the request purely because the RCD party leader is a parliamentarian and any challenge towards the government should take place in the parliament and politicians should respect law and order.
    The uprising was from the 300 RCD party members not from the general Algerian public.
    Secondly I’d like to reply to your comment “whether or not sections of the Algerian people are organized and/or desperate enough to fight back enough till the state wavers”
    I can assure you that the Algerian people are organized and brave enough to make the British government waver the students tuition fees but on a serious note the fact that the Algerian leader and his government have saved Algeria from a painful civil war not to mention that he was one of the main men to throw France out of Algeria and risked his life for “free Algeria” , those facts made the Algerian people organized and brave enough to choose him as their leader and frankly who wouldn’t respect a man like him.
    It is true that there is shortage of housing and huge unemployment in Algeria, the fact that 70% of the population are under 30 make’s it hard for any country and it’s economy to cope with unemployment at that rate, especially in this economical climate, for instance look at some aging European countries they are finding it very hard to create jobs for even a small percentage of young jobseekers.
    The food crisis is not tagged just to Algeria, Tunisia or other countries the crisis is infact a global problem, in other hand the Algerian people are looking at this issue not as a problem but simply as another area where they can invest and generate revenue in addition to oil and gas revenue and most of all as a wake up call.
    Algeria has invested heavily in infrastructures such as the automotive, agriculture and technology to create jobs for the Algerian people. To make the future generations rely less on the income from oil and gas. Also there is another fact that the Algerian people know that the government is doing there upmost to make these changes and create better opportunities for everyone. These projects naturally take time, and we must all acknowledge the fact that Algeria is a young free country newly created in 1962.
    So yes there was a protest politically motivated by the opposition RCD party, but if one is a parliamentarian they should take their challenges to the parliament not to the streets and behave like hooligans.
    The aim of RCD street protest is to create chaos in order to use cacophony to adhere new members and most of the Algerians regards their act as disrespectful, day dreamers really…
    And lastly a question for you: what were you doing in the Algerian mountains you cheeky monkey?

  2. Amar
    January 24, 2011 at 8:58 pm

    Despite being a ridiculous regime apologist, Salah is right about one thing: the RCD is a party led by unprincipled turncoats, who happily spent the 1990s in bed with the army and hailed the coup that ended Algeria’s first attempt at democracy. According to Wikileaks, their leader Said Sadi has intimate conversations with the head of the intelligence services, who is more powerful, and even worse, than Bouteflika.

    However, genuine democratic forces like the independent unions (eg SNAPAP) and the Human Rights League are planning demonstrations for mid-February, and FFS may be organising similar events. Keep watching, and change may yet unfold…

  3. Paul
    January 25, 2011 at 12:01 am

    Salah @1: Thank you for your detailed contribution, and apologies for the delay approving your comment. While we may not see eye to eye on the situation, part of my purpose was simply to create an English language forum for analysis of recent and ongoing events in Algeria, as there has been very little coverage in the mainstream media.

    I won’t challenge you on the specfics of the RCD and its protest; as I said, I am now a little bit distant from internal events and you are clearlly closer to the detail (I don’t know whether you are in or outside Algeria now).

    I also acknowledge that, given Algeria recent colonial past enduring gratitude to and respect for freedom fighters like the President is absolutely understandable. However, surely there is a line to be drawn between respect for achievements past and the problems of the last few years.

    The reality is that emergency rule has been in place for nearly 20 years now, and that the vast majority of Algerians have not benefitted from the vast oil and gas revenues that the country enjoys. I accept that development takes time, but I think it’s legitimate of young Algerians to start to demand greater levels of economic inclusion and democractic participation. The recent spate of self-immolations must surely reflect that, even if the RCD march doesn’t (actually I have no problem with parliamentarian acting in an extra-parliamentary manner, and I wish members of the UK Labour party felt the same).

    I lived in Batna in the Aures (yes I know, not technically in the mountains but at the foot of them, and I spent a lot of time there. It’s a long story, but is to do withj my then relationship with a French woman who ended up teaching in a lycee. I got a job in the ecole normale, though I was a totally rubbish English teacher. It seems a long time ago now, because it is.

    Amara @@: Thanks also for this input, and more detailed information about what’s developing than my quick sketch. I’ll be keeping an eye on what’s happening, but if you can point me to French language internet resources to keep a closer eye on detail, so that I can keep this blog up to date, I’d be grateful, as I think that would be a useful service t the leftwing, internationally minded blogosphere.

  4. Salah
    January 25, 2011 at 4:39 am

    Paul, Batna is truly beautiful city in Algeria and I wish I had an amorous affair in Batna’s clean air , surely it must be in your knowledge that Batna was the birth place of the Algerian revolution to oust the French, hence the Algerian people loved the cause and indeed ousted the French.
    Algeria had a catalogue of misfortunes since it’s birth as a free country, and free Algeria is the only reason why I am ridiculously, unconditionally in love with my country “Amar”.
    I am proud that our politicians are facing a huge task to make true big changes and they are indeed working very hard on making those plans a reality. When I compare our politicians huge task to the one of for example Mr. horny, fornicating, ATM Berlusconi’s I have a sense of relief really.
    Algerians started investing on the Algerian people since the start of the revolution (1954) even if it cost them their lives and believe me they didn’t know about oil and gas then all they wanted to know is freedom and free Algeria and it wasn’t just decided when Mr. Bouteflika was elected to lead Algeria,
    On a faire note to Mr. Bouteflika, he really did make huge changes in the country and he must be credited for his achievements as well as his governments has done, I am sure you agree with me that Algeria and the Algerians of the 50’s are different from the one’s of today and Algeria and the Algerians of the 80s are also different from the ones of today 2011, so you see it’s all about time.
    Young people and citizens of all ages and gender should always demand better participations in country’s economy and rightly so, the 7th of January riots was about foodstuff prices and housing and was not about how oppressed they are , the Algerian government has responded swiftly to their demand yet those riots were echoed by many other countries around the world prior to the Tunisian and the Algerian riots, I am sure you know of those meeting held by the UN which warned countries leaders about the shortage of food and alarming rise in food prices around the world.
    I agree with you that the recent sad spate of self immolations must surely reflect the fact that young people want housing and jobs but I would disagree with you that those sad self immolations were politically motivated having said that, I’d like to stress on the fact that those sad self immolations in Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria ook place in many different forms in Europe in which the suicide rate is still on the rise because of unemployment and recession ect..,
    Now, let be rational here, we all know that Europe have the tendency of letting it’s populous participate freely in many forms of it’s economics which ever size they are, so why there is still a rise in suicide in Europe, is it oppression? I don’t think so, is it recession yes.
    What is not fair is to label Algerian politicians “oppressive” and that Algeria has a wealth of oil and gas that benefits on a few.
    “According some people point of view the government should give each Algerian a castle and a well of oil or gas each so they will be happy and have a rosy life for ever since and all Algerians must all rush shopping to the Champ Elysees or each Algerian should have each a maid and travel to London stay in one of the most expensive hotels in London, drink a barrel of cocktails and fornicate their maids to their death” really !?

    What strikes me is that some European reporters seems to report with sense of bewilderness that Algeria has a huge amount of oil and gas and people are not benefiting from its wealth !?
    Well all Algeria’s oil and gas income belongs to the state and the state are all the Algerian people, the government of the state has invested in huge industries infrastructures that will change the face of Algeria for ever, the price? Time and money, lots of it…
    What puzzles me really is that west Europe also has oil and gas in small and medium quantities and most of the recent oil and gas findings are owned 100% by private companies please do you research and you find that only the very few elites in Europe’s societies benefit by the $billions from Europe’s natural resources , is that faire?
    The cause of Europe’s recession are the banks, they have caused stratospherical damages to some countries beyond repair, and they carry on doing business unpunished, is that faire? Despite many cries , riot’s , uprising suicides cases and nothing has changed and no one was punished till today.
    Are the European governments even listening to the people who voted for them it doesn’t appear so and they seem very unlikely to listen frankly. So are the European Governments oppressive, you tell me Sir.. ?
    Extra-parliamentary activities in my opinion in the case of Algeria or any country in this difficult times should have a sole goal and that is to maintain peace and stability and not using chaos as publicity stunt to attract public opinion.

    Paul & Amar, I hope that my contribution will give light in what is really happening not just in Algeria, Tunisia but on all corners of the world.

  1. January 23, 2011 at 2:06 pm
  2. February 1, 2011 at 2:14 pm
  3. February 14, 2011 at 9:33 pm

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