Algeria: The South Remembers

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August 12, 2019: Weekly protests continue but the military-dominated interim government refuses to even consider the protestors' demands.

The number of protestors is still large but the crowds are growing smaller. It was estimated that the first demonstrations brought out more than two percent of the population in a successful effort to get the unpopular president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign. Protestors see the interim government as a continuation of the old Bouteflika government minus many of the most corrupt officials. The protestors want all senior officials from the Bouteflika era gone and freedom to form new political parties and form a new election commission.

The one thing the demonstrators agree on is the need for free and fair elections as soon as possible. “Within six months” has been a popular goal. The interim government, run by the army commander, has ordered that troops and police avoid violence against the demonstrators at all costs. Army leaders know that shooting of protestors risks another civil war. The generals are aware of the fact that most of the troops and junior officers side with the general population. As long as the demonstrations are non-violent most of the troops and police confronting the crowds will follow orders and stick with crowd control. The security forces cannot be relied on to use lethal force against the demonstrators unless the demonstrators fire first. The demonstrators show no interest in doing that although many protestors back suggestions that more disruptive tactics be used. This would include blocked streets and protestors occupying government buildings.

Algerians want to avoid repeating what happened in Egypt. There the 2011 Arab Spring uprising overthrew the decades old Mubarak government, which was similar to the Bouteflika rule in Algeria. Egypt conducted fair elections and an Islamic political coalition gained power and promptly made itself very unpopular by trying to impose what amounted to an Islamic religious dictatorship. Another popular upheaval led to another general getting elected and a return to what appears to be another corrupt government dominated by the military.

The Algerian generals have a lot of power and a certain amount of popularity for winning the war with Islamic terrorists in the 1990s and diminishing the capabilities of surviving Islamic terror groups ever since. Most Algerians want to avoid the fate of Egypt but there is no agreement on how to do it and the most senior Algerian generals are not cooperating.

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 parliament. Despite that, the real leader of the interim government is armed forces commander and vice minister of defense Ahmed Gaid Salah. This general 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 because the interim government is officially out of constitutional authority. Salah is trying to get agreement on extending the interim presidency of Bensalah because that adds a legitimacy to Salah’s power. No success there either. Compromise is needed but not much is to be soon anywhere, not yet.

Berbers, Christians And Tribal Anger

General Salah made matters worse by persuading the security forces to arrest demonstrators seen displaying Amazigh (Berber) flags and banners during demonstrations. Back in June the interim government, at the behest of general Salah, outlawed the flag of the Berber (Amazigh) minority because the flag was seen (by Salah) 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 a growing number of Berbers converting to Christianity, as a protest against the continued persecution. 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 tolerate and recognize 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.

The Berbers are seen as a problem by many Algerians because many of them live in the south, where ten percent of the population are living on about 85 percent of Algerian territory and most of it is part of the Sahara Desert. It is also where the oil is and despite that the unemployment rate down there is about 50 percent compared to the national average of about 20 percent. The south is also where the “desert Berbers”, aka Tuareg tribes live. When the oil industry came to the south 60 years ago a lot of the oilfield jobs went to “foreigners.” For the southerners, this included non-Algerians as well as Arab Algerians or anyone from the coastal north. There are some Arab tribes in the south and the Berbers saw the government security forces siding with these Arab tribes more and more. Many Algerians see Berbers as foreigners and southern Berbers as the most foreign of all. The Berbers see this as more of the persecution they have been suffering for centuries and want that to stop.

Releasing the arrested Berbers is now an issue for the protestors and general Salah refuses to budge. This is one of the reasons why popular support for Salah is not there in a big way. Public demonstrations against him were, for a while less angry the more Salah did to address grievances. This included 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 ruling FLN party limited the ability of potential rival parties to gain any traction. While the FLN is now on the defensive, they still have a nationwide organization and enough loyal supporters to keep it going. Salah is not willing to release the Berbers from jail and does not want to negotiate with anyone about it.

The Revolution Continues

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, which 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 a 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 will probably 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.

While about 80 percent of protestors want to rebuild the Algerian political system from scratch, most army officers are actually not opposed to that. Nearly two-thirds of military officers back a rebuilding. This includes many generals. The most senior officers are more likely to support major reforms but not an effort to try for a complete overhaul. Then again a complete overhaul would mean the senior generals would be retired, fired or arrested as part of the rebuilding process. General Salah may well be the kind of military leader that is worth keeping around. But despite the fact that Salah is recognized as persuading Bouteflika to resign, Salah was also part of the Bouteflika inner circle for a long time. That taint ain’t going away. Another, less tainted general, has to persuade Salah to leave a hero rather than remain long enough to get cornered and do something everyone will regret. Most of the senior officers do not want the military involved with politics. These generals have noted that such involvement never ends well. But first, they have to find out who the new political leaders are and convince them that the generals are not a threat.

Business As Unusual

So far this year little has been heard from the few remaining Islamic terrorists in Algeria. That is actually consistent with trends that have been reliable and stable since the late 1990s. Throughout the 1990s, the violence killed over 200,000 (mostly civilians killed by the terrorists). The population gradually turned on the Islamic radicals, and the government counter-terrorist tactics shut down the Islamic radical movement. Remnants of the 1990s Islamic radical movement fought on as an al Qaeda, and then as a local ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) franchise. The Islamic terrorist remnant in Algeria has not yet recovered the mass appeal it once had and has withered away to a few hundred diehards who spend most of their energy striving to remain hidden. Continued army and police patrols confirm that the Islamic threat is still much diminished and on the run. The overthrow of the Bouteflika government did not inspire remaining Algerian Islamic terrorists to get ambitious. A few apparently did and were quickly arrested. What Islamic terrorists can hope for is violence between the protestors and the army. Out of that all manner of normally unpopular organizations find opportunities. That’s another reason why most Algerians want to keep it peaceful.

August 9, 2019: Large protests against the temporary military government continue for the 25th week in a row.

August 6, 2019: A court has issued arrest warrants for former Defense Minister (and head of the army in the 1990s) Khaled Nezzar. The charge is corruption and Nezzar has already fled the country and believed to be in Spain with his son, who is also sought.

August 1, 2019: Interim president Bensalah replaced the Justice Minister (a Bouteflika appointee) with current Attorney-General Belkacem Zeghmati, a known foe of Bouteflika and corrupt officials in general. This move is expected to produce more arrests and prosecutions of corrupt officials and business leaders.

July 25, 2019: Interim president Bensalah persuaded several prominent opposition leaders to join an Independent Panel for National Dialogue and Mediation. This was an attempt to find an acceptable (to both general Salah and protestors) solution to the current deadlock. Apparently, that was not possible because the panel fell apart within a week.

 

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