Algeria: Paralysis

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July 17, 2019: The weekly Friday pro-democracy demonstrations continue and the interim government, run by army leaders, is making more arrests of suspected leaders in an effort to eliminate or reduce participation in the demonstrations without triggering another civil war. The weekly demonstrations have been going every Friday 21 times since February with the largest ones in the capital and smaller ones in other cities.

The one thing the demonstrators agree on is the need for free and fair elections within six months. The interim government, run by the army commander, has ordered that troops and police avoid violence against the demonstrators at all costs. Aside from that policy making it less likely that there will be another civil war, the military leaders are aware of the fact that most of the enlisted troops and junior officers side with the general population, which wants fair elections and a lot less corruption. Thus the army leaders are well aware that as long as the demonstrations are non-violent most of the troops and police confronting the crowds agree with the demonstrators. Therefore the security forces cannot be relied on to use lethal force on the demonstrators unless the demonstrators fire first. The demonstrators show no interest in doing that.

The unpopular president Abdelaziz Bouteflika was forced back off seeking another term in February, and to resign in April but there has still been no replacement for the old government. The post-resignation parliament, elected via tainted elections in 2017, is still dominated by the FLN party, which is the “Bouteflika” party and is now discredited along with Bouteflika. The FLN is trying to retain as much popular support as it can by surrendering key positions in parliament to members of opposition parties FLN is on good terms with. The largest opposition block consists of smaller Islamic parties. While the Islamic radicals were defeated during the 1990s civil war and banned from politics, more moderate Islamic parties were allowed to remain simply because most Algerians are Moslems and, while most Algerians opposed the Islamic terror groups that triggered the civil war, many still support a government based on “Islamic principles.” These Islamic parties attracted many of the same Moslems who supported the Moslem Brotherhood, a group that first appeared in Egypt in the 1920s and sought to adapt Islam to the modern world of democracy and religious freedom. It never worked out that way. All movements have radical and conservative factions and in the Moslem Brotherhood, the radicals tended to be Islamic radicals who were more prone to a strict application of Islamic law and using violence to get it done. In short Moslem Brotherhood groups tended to represent single nations and the Algerian Moslem Brotherhood eventually come into conflict with the local government and at that point the radical factions get violent and the entire organization was branded as “terrorist.” That development is something the founders of the Moslem Brotherhood concept hoped to avoid but so far no one has figured out how to prevent some Brotherhood members from going radical and then violently rogue. So the Algerian Moslem Brotherhood activists are still around but no longer claim any association with the Brotherhood. FLN leaders are aware of this but, at this point, are in need of allies because if there are fair elections the FLN will turn into a minority party with many of its members investigated and prosecuted for corruption and other illegal acts. The FLN favors conservative and stable government and considers rigged elections as necessary to maintain order. Proponents of “Islamic government” are comfortable with that as long as the Islamic politicians are part of the cabal running things. So the FLN is seeking and finding allies among the Islamic parties. This is alarming to the pro-democracy groups, but not surprising. That is why the large pro-democracy demonstrations continue to take place. Getting Bouteflika was just the first step in a complex process to, maybe, install a democratic government.

The main target of the protests are Bouteflika associates running the interim government. For 90 days after a president resigned the interim president was Abdelkader Bensalah, the head of the upper house of president. Despite that, the real leader of the interim government is armed forces commander and vice minister of defense Ahmed Gaid Salah, who has been playing kingmaker as he was the one who convinced Bouteflika to step down without a fight. The official interim president term expired on July 9th and now the frequent pro-democracy demonstrations are larger and louder. Salah is trying to get agreement on extending the interim presidency of Bensalah because that adds legitimacy to Salah’s power.

Popular support for Salah is not there in a big way but public demonstrations against him were, until now, less angry the more Salah did to address grievances. This included Salah ordering the arrests of many senior officials, generals and prominent businessmen and charging them with conspiring against the state, undermining military authority and corruption. This helps the opposition politicians, who can now act more freely and openly than ever before. That has not been enough so far because the opposition parties have had a hard time expanding their operations so that they can handle local or national elections. For decades the FLN limited the ability of potential rival parties to gain any traction and while the FLN is now on the defensive, they still have a nationwide organization and enough loyal supporters to keep it going.

The opposition may never fully accept general Salah but for the moment he is key official who can do (or not do) things that reduce the number of establishment supporters who want to prevent the opposition politicians from running fair elections and putting untainted (by links to the old government) people in charge. It is proving difficult to find untainted replacements for senior jobs. That problem will not go away because the corruption went deep and wide. So far the opposition parties are not coming together quickly enough to supply suitable replacements for all the senior officials being ousted and, in most cases, charged with corruption. There have been few prosecutions and fewer convictions for corruption and makes all those corruption arrests suspect. Salah also refuses to commit to free and fair elections within six months, pleading that logistical and administrative obstacles make that impossible. Salah may have a point but he has not been very convincing.

Another side effect of the corruption arrests, which now number over a thousand, is the paralyzing impact it has had on the economy. Businesses keep operating even if senior people are in jail, but many decisions, especially regarding new projects and expansion, are on hold until jailed leaders are released or replaced by their employers. In many cases, the jailed businessmen are the owners of large companies, which further complicates the situation. The imprisonment of so many senior government officials, who have to sign off on many major commercial decisions, has contributed to the economic paralysis.

Many Algerians fear Salah wants to become president like Egyptian general Sisi did when the first post 2011 revolution Egyptian government turned out to be not what people wanted or needed because it was dominated by the Moslem Brotherhood and the radical faction of that group was demanding that the government strictly enforce Sharia (Islamic law). That was unacceptable to most Egyptians (as it is to most Algerians) and that led to a popular uprising that enabled Sisi to remove the Moslem Brotherhood government and get himself elected as president in 2014. The situation is different in Algeria, where the Moslem Brotherhood is largely discredited (because of the 1990s Islamic terrorist violence). So far Salah is not running for office but has not set date for new national elections (for a new president and parliament). Demands for actual and verifiable election reform as well as new elections continues to be the chief demands of the demonstrators. The Friday protests continue and will continue until most Algerians are convinced that there is a new government selected by a fair election and an economy free of (or at least with much less) government and non-government corruption. The corruption angle will be the most difficult to achieve because corruption has been around a long time and is part of the local culture. What people want is new standards of acceptable behavior that will eliminate the degree of corruption that makes good government and economic growth difficult. That, by its very definition, is going to be difficult to agree on, much less implement. In the near term, most Algerians will be content with some visible progress in that direction and they have been seeing some progress since February but, so far, not enough.

July 14, 2019: The army arrested five suspected members of an Islamic terror group and charged them with planning attacks on the large weekly demonstrations. The Islamic terrorists apparently hopped to trigger a civil war that would enable them to gain some advantage.

July 10, 2019: With the term of constitution mandated interim president expired as of yesterday there is no legal president. In Algeria, the president is not only head of state but also the chief executive. There were large pro-democracy demonstrations in major cities to protest army efforts to assume the powers of the president until the elections issue can be settled.

July 9, 2019: The 90 term of the interim president (Abdelkader Bensalah) expired. The current constitution calls for the president of the Council of the Nation (the upper house of parliament) to serve as interim president for 90 days and organize new presidential elections. Most Algerians consider the current election bureaucracy corrupt and dominated by FLN party partisans and Bensalah was unable to do anything about that in 90 days.

July 5, 2019: Today is the 20th straight Friday (the Moslem “day of prayer”) in which there have been nationwide anti-government demonstrations in the major cities (and a few smaller communities). There have been a few non-Friday demos as well. The government has been arresting more of the demonstrators, even though the vast majority of demonstrators have been peaceful, but also loud and insistent. So far 34 demonstrators have been arrested since June 21 for waving the Berber flag, and charged with “threatening national unity.”

June 25, 2019: In the east, across the border in Tunisia ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) took credit for two suicide bomb attacks in the capital. One policeman was killed and eight people wounded. Attacks like this are rare in Tunisia and even less frequent in Algeria. ISIL had tried to establish itself in eastern Algeria but after several years of activity (and heavy losses) the remaining ISIL personnel appear to have fled to Libya or Tunisia, where ISIL maintains at least one camp in the coastal mountains the border runs through. The Algerian security forces are still watching the borders, but doing so with a bit less manpower because of the need to assign troops to riot control duty.

June 19, 2019: The government outlawed the flag of the Berber (Amazigh) minority because the flag was seen as a threat to national unity. The reality is more complicated than that. According to the government, the Algerian political system is secular and does not recognize ethnic distinctions. But religion and ethnicity are still important to many Algerians. The core problem is that most Algerians are ethnically Berber although many Algerians now identify as Arabs and speak only Arabic. Further complicating the issue is that an increasing number of Berbers are converting to Christianity, as a protest against the continued persecution of Berbers. Some 400,000 (out of 42 million) Algerians are Christian and the number of Berber Christians is growing fast. The government fears these Berber Christians and Christians in general because Islamic conservatives get upset over such things. For that reason, the government has refused to ask about religion during a census. The Berbers, a people related to the ancient Egyptians, were the original occupants of Algeria. Arab armies conquered the country over a thousand years ago, but, unlike other Arab conquests, many Berbers did not adopt Arab language and customs. Today, about a third of Algerians openly identify as Berbers and speak Tamazight, the Berber language. There has always been tension between Berbers and Arabs, and now Berbers are demanding that their language be made one of Algeria's official languages. The Arab dominated FLN government refused to consider this. Berbers are now demonstrating to demand that a new, democratically elected government that tolerates and recognizes Berber culture and religious freedom in general. This sort of thing angers Islamic conservatives in part because the Berbers made the Arab conquest of North Africa very difficult. The Berbers resisted far longer than in most other Middle Eastern regions and that sense of otherness and resistance continues to the present.

 

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