Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1128, 27 December 2012 - 2 January 2013
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1128, 27 December 2012 - 2 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

No Algerian Spring

Gamal Nkrumah attempts to capture Algeria’s cri de coeur

Al-Ahram Weekly

The narrative of contemporary Algerian history is dominated by the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN). Unlike other ruling parties in the countries of the “Arab Spring”, Algeria’s FLN continues to oversee the political discussions of the oil-rich country. 

Algerian President Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika is obsessed with a vision of a politically stable Algeria and so is the entire Algerian political establishment. He is reputed to be very ill, yet he looked especially radiant when he hosted his French counterpart François Hollande this week. There are many Algerians who believe that Bouteflika should seize what looks like a rare opportunity to reinforce relationships with the former colonial power France.

For most Algerians, the “Arab Spring” is no panacea. Algerians suffer delusions of feebleness and not grandeur. Yet, they are acutely conscious that they have witnessed an experience far more churlish than anything the other countries of the Arab Spring countries have experienced in the past two years. The Syrian conflict has cost more than 50,000 lives. The Algerian civil war cost more than 250,000 lives.

Even this will not be enough. The Algerian economy is relatively prosperous, at least in comparison with its neighbours. Even though Algeria’s GDP per capita income is $7,400 as compared to Morocco’s $4,740 and Tunisia’s $9,800.

Yet the World Economic Forum placed Morocco as the second most competitive economy in North Africa behind Tunisia. In spite of its oil wealth, the deplorable state of the Algerian economy is sparking an exodus to France and other Western countries. Indeed, the visa question cropped up. “Some Algerians demand apologies, while others want visas,” observed an editorial in the Algerian daily Al-Cherouk.

There is no magic potion for getting Algeria back on track. The Algerian economy needs further deregulation to help energise the manufacturing sector. The Algerian economy could easily become the dynamo of the North African region. Nevertheless, its acute dependence on oil renders it vulnerable. The hope of Algerians is to tap into the thirst of Europe for the country’s hydrocarbons. There were many issues that the French President Hollande and his Algerian counterpart Bouteflika discussed, including the politically unsettled situation in Algeria’s southern neighbour Mali. France is hoping to enlist Algeria in the war against militant Islamist terrorists in the Sahara. Algeria is widely regarded as the most militarily powerful nation in northwest Africa.

Ironically, if anything Algeria suffers from delusions of weakness. It is a country that is focussed on the past. The Paris massacre of 1961 during the Algerian war of liberation (1954-62) is still remembered as a landmark in the history of the nation. Maurice Papon, head of the Parisian police at the time, ordered an attack on 30,000 pro-FLN Algerians. Papon was the only French Nazi official to be convicted for his role in the deportation of Jews during World War II. Yet, Hollande declined to apologise for the atrocities of the French colonial past. It is an indelible nightmarish event imprinted on the collective psyche of Algerians.

Is the story told selective rather than restrictive, or vice versa? The key to the answer to this pertinent question is that the Algerians themselves were responsible for the killing of tens of thousands of Algerians after independence from France in 1962. Hollande acknowledged the suffering that Algerians experienced under French colonial rule. “History, even when it is tragic, even when it is painful for our two countries, must be told,” Hollande conceded during his visit to Algeria this week. He stopped short of an official French apology but he described French rule as “unjust” and “brutal”. Still, Algeria’s history permits the country to trade concessions with Paris in a way other former French colonies cannot.

Algerian President Bouteflika retorted that the two countries could work together and cooperate on an equal footing. He insisted on a “new era” of strategic partnership between France and Algeria even as the latter celebrates 50 years of independence from France.

Even so, Algeria has a bloody history of pulling back from the brink at the last moment. The ruling FLN is in a strong position basically because the Islamists, unlike in the countries of the Arab Spring have been largely absorbed within the Algerian political establishment.

The onus must begin with the ruling FLN to change the course of Algerian history for the better. Algeria’s policy elite has devised a system of government that is all-inclusive of various trends — from leftists to Islamists of all political strands. Only the ruling party can ensure that the fabric that holds the Algerian society together does not unravel completely.

Algeria’s political establishment claims to have done much to rein in the militant Islamists. Moderate Islamists, on the other hand, have been incorporated into the Algerian political establishment. Algeria grappled with the prickly question of how to balance the nation’s security with a citizen’s right to participatory democracy. In the long run this would be good for Algeria.

What is certain is that Algeria is changing faster than at any time since the country’s independence from France in 1962. There are those, in the West and in the Arab world and Africa, who believe that Algeria should use its economic leverage and military might to divert militant Islamists from their destructive path.

Is there a darker agenda? That would be dangerous. The more striking aspect of Algerian democracy is that it has made room for all but the most militant of Islamists. Without such decisive action, Algeria would not have had peace.

Democracy never grows from fear. Politicians in Algeria have realised that fact. It is not yet the time for decision-making, but for discussion and reflection in a debate that must be political. There are political figures that loom large on contemporary Algerian politics.

Mohamed Boudiaf was a veteran hero, a freedom fighter of the Algerian War of Independence and he was given a new lease of political life — the hero was handed the leadership of the HCE (Haut Conseil de sécurité, the temporary body that governed Algeria from January 1992 until the end of 1993). The Armed Islamic Group (GIA) was pacified. The Algerian military is a most powerful establishment and the Algerian Islamists operate freely as long as they do not resort to arms.

The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) leader Abdel-Kader Hachani was arrested and a state of emergency was declared and FIS was dissolved by a government decree. Boudiaf was assassinated in June 1993. The Ramka or Relisane massacres that occurred in January 1998 haunts Algerians two decades later. La Tribune reported that one pregnant woman had her fetus ripped out and ruthlessly slaughtered. The Ramka massacre was attributed to the GIA. The premier at the time Ahmed Ouyahia conceded that at least 1,000 civilians were slaughtered. Human rights organisations claim that the number of those innocent villagers butchered on 4 January 1999 was far in exceed of 1,500.

In April 1999 Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika was elected president. Inauspiciously, all other candidates promptly withdrew from the presidential race alleging fraud. The lost decade of political assassinations in the 1999s is long over but never forgotten. In November 1999, FIS leader Hachani was assassinated. In December the government announced that it had arrested Fouad Boulemia, a GIA member, for his murder; Boulemia was convicted in a controversial trial, sentenced to death, and then released.

The bad blood between the FLN and Islamists continues to simmer, but so far there are no signs of an “Algerian Spring”.


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