Algeria: Revolution Is In The Air

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January 28, 2011:  Larger, and more violent, anti-government demonstrations are showing up in Algeria, in the last two weeks (since the dictatorship in neighboring Tunisia was overthrown). So far, the violence has led to about ten deaths, and over a thousand wounded. The people want economic, and political, justice, and an end to the "emergency rule" (sort of martial law, with increased police powers) that has been in force for two decades. Like their counterparts throughout the Arab world, the demonstrators want competent government, less corruption and more economic growth. The young want jobs, opportunity and a future, things too many of them don't have now.

Algeria, and the other North African nations, are all Arab dictatorships, and all worried about the growing, and increasingly organized, popular demonstrations against the ruling groups. It's basically a revolt of the young (teenage to early 30s) men who suffer high unemployment (often 30 percent or more) and encounter constant reminders that education and talent is no match for political connections when it comes to getting a job.

The dictatorships all operate in the same model. The government is run by a skillful politician who has set up a system whereby those who support the dictatorship get jobs or economic opportunities. In this way, about ten percent can live off the other 90 percent. The problem with this system is that it tends to try and be hereditary, and that means that after a few generations, natural selection sees to it that the ruling class is less able and the unhappy other 90 percent has more political talent, often enough to overthrow the government.

The only problem here is avoiding the leaders of the revolution from establishing another. That is supposed to be avoided via democracy, but some of the democracies established in the wake of the 1989-91 collapse of communist governments turned into dictatorships pretending to be democracies. Most of the Arab states are already doing that, and the patronage and corruption system dictatorships thrive on is more resilient that the dictators themselves. Thus while the dictator of Tunisia (Zine al Abedine Ben Ali) may have been gone for two weeks, thousands of his cronies (government ministers and bureaucrats) are hanging on to power. This will always happen, and is difficult to deal with, as many government employees have needed skills for keeping basic government functions going. In Tunisia, it’s been a struggle in the last two weeks to force out Ben Ali's key henchmen, the guys who actually supervised the details of oppression and corruption. These guys are often less able to flee into comfortable exile, and the further down the food chain you go, the more desperation you will encounter.

Another unique factor in Tunisia was the small size (and budget) of the armed forces. Most Arab dictatorships lavish more money on more soldiers (especially the officers and NCOs). In Tunisia, Ben Ali had little oil wealth or foreign aid for the military, no hostile neighbors, and the officers felt less pampered and loyal, and willing to kill protestors . In Egypt, Libya and Algeria, there are more soldiers more willing to kill for the boss. But in all these nations, most of the soldiers have friends or kin who are unemployed and unhappy. Many children of the ruling class support change, even if it hurts their economic situation. If enough people get caught up in the idea of change, it's hard to stop.

There's been a growing sense among educated, and young, Arabs that the world has passed them by and that it's not someone else's fault. In other words, the problems, and the solutions, are in Arab hands. There have been lots of revolutions in Arab nations over the century, and the only form of government that seems to have any staying power, democracy, has been the least popular. There have been socialist and religious dictatorships, as well as many monarchies (Jordan, Morocco and most Gulf States). And with socialism and Islamic radicalism discredited, the dictatorships are now just plain-old-dictatorships. It's all about the money, and the power to get the money with the least effort.

The leftist and religious radicals are still out there, but the majority of people in the street don't want leftist or religious leaders. They want democracy. The leftists and religious zealots can form parties and participate, but the new idea is to let the people rule the people, for the people. It's a novel idea in the Arab world, and it has the traditional rulers checking their guns, and their offshore bank accounts.

In Algeria, the Islamic terrorist groups continue to flee the security forces, who persist in searching the coastal forests, and southern deserts for them. Most of the Islamic radicals have fled south, or left the country. In the south, there is opportunity in the form of transporting cocaine north to the Mediterranean, where it is smuggled to Europe. A tiny bit of the cocaine stays in North Africa, to supply the small ruling classes. The big market is across the water, in the much larger economies of Europe, and to the east, where the oil wealth of the Persian (or Arabian) Gulf can afford to sustain a lot of mistakes.

 

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