Algeria: Countdown To Chaos

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December 3, 2019: Most Algerians still oppose the interim military government and its decision to hold presidential elections on December 12th. Most Algerians feel that rushing elections favor the election of another corrupt politician who will act like all the previous ones. In other words, there will be a few token prosecutions for corruption but the majority of the corrupt bureaucrats and business owners will return to their outlaw ways. This is seen as the reason why 70 percent of the Algerian unemployed are job-seekers in their late teens and 20s. Many have never been able to get a job. The unemployment rate is about 15 percent, up from the 12 percent is was stuck at for several years. The weekly nationwide protests have been going on since February and it is clear that Algerians could turn to violence if they feel they have exhausted peaceful options.

The opposition to the presidential race has been active but not violent. There are five candidates and all of them have encountered lackluster crowds (including hecklers) or no people at all when a candidate would normally expect some supporters to show up. Campaign headquarters have been attacked, but not in a violent way. Usually just pelted with eggs or defaced with anti-election slogans and posters. Three of the candidates had close ties to the disgraced FLN party that was led by deposed (earlier this year) president-for-life Bouteflika. A fourth candidate (Abdelaziz Belaid ) is a known reformer who was willing to work with the FLN/Bouteflika government to achieve change. The fifth candidate is the head of an Islamic party that has cooperated with FLN in the past. The electoral commission disallowed 17 other candidates for various reasons. None of the five candidates have a lot of popular support and the three associated most with the FLN have the least of all. Most Algerians fear that the interim military government will declare the candidate with the most votes, no matter how few are cast, as the winner and new president. This may require a second round of voting if none of the five candidates get a majority of the first-round vote. That will mean the new president will have little popular support and faces continued weekly protests or worse.

Continued protests are prompted by chronic problems that are felt by the majority of Algerians. The corruption and mismanagement the former government was responsible for are seen as a major reason for the high unemployment, especially among the younger Algerians. The majority of voters want a new president who will make a serious effort to deal with corruption and mismanagement. Another incitement is how the interim government is using its control over mass media to criticize the protestors at every opportunity and block any criticism of the interim government. A small but growing number of journalists are being arrested for reporting what is seen and hear in the streets. This offends younger Algerians most of all because they are the most media savvy. They may be poor but most have cellphones and know how the media works.

December 2, 2019: The military revealed that in November counter-terrorism operations left six Islamic terrorists dead and 36 under arrest. Large quantities of weapons and other equipment have been found and destroyed. Army patrols continue to find hidden caches of weapons. Some of these caches are recent, and probably left by active smugglers, but most have been there for years and probably abandoned by Islamic terrorists or criminals who are now dead, in prison or have fled to the West or some other distant sanctuary. The army searches, often because of a tip from a local civilian. The troops rarely find any recent evidence of Islamic terrorist activity. Most civilians want all the weapons and other gear found and removed before kids or thoughtless adults stumble upon the stuff and injure themselves or others by tampering with or selling the weapons, explosives and ammo. Some of those sales do take place but in most cases the locals simply want the stuff removed.

December 1, 2019: Neighbor Morocco wants Algeria to do something about the growing unrest in the Algerian refugee camps the government maintains for people who fled southern Morocco years ago because of the Polisario attempt to turn that part of Morocco into an independent state. Algeria recently confirmed that these camps were becoming increasingly dangerous for residents and foreign aid workers as well as Algerians in the vicinity. There has been more crime in the camps, some of it common stuff but also more serious offenses committed by Islamic terror groups and organized criminal gangs that have established themselves. Foreign aid workers have been kidnapped, in part to persuade the foreign aid organizations to cooperate with the extortion and theft of relief supplies the various outlaw groups engage in.

Algeria has been a threat to Morocco in the past but during the last few years have been sharing concerns about growing problems with Islamic terrorists and criminal activity in these refugee camps. In early 2018 Algeria assured neighbor Morocco and the UN that it no longer had anything to do with Polisario, a group of Moroccan terrorists that Algeria helped create decades ago. But soon after that concern was expressed an Algerian Air Force transport crashed on takeoff and among the 257 dead were 26 Polisario members. The transport was taking off from a base near the Algerian capital carrying mainly military personnel. This was more than an embarrassment, it confirmed the accusations that Algeria could not be trusted when it came to Polisario, and perhaps other matters as well. For example, Algeria is one of the few Sunni majority Arab countries that supports the Syrian Assad government. Algeria is a major customer for Russian weapons and admirer of current Russian politics (the creation of a “president for life” in what is supposed to be a democracy), which was very similar to what Algeria had since the 1960s. That has changed as the Algerian president-for-life was ousted in early 2019 and a new, truly democratic government is a strong possibility.

Back (before 1991) when Russia was the Soviet Union, the Russians backed Algerian efforts to support and encourage Polisario and thereby weaken neighbor Morocco. Morocco does not have oil wealth but they do have a centuries-old monarchy that provides a more efficient government than the recently deposed democratic dictatorship in Algeria. Morocco has accused Algerian leaders of being lying hypocrites and now the UN and many other nearby nations are agreeing with that. That crisis was one of the reasons Algerians finally toppled the FLN government that created Polisario and seemingly endless problems arising from that.

Polisario has always caused problems with neighboring Morocco and the problem got worse in 2013. Algeria and Morocco recalled ambassadors and there was talk of escalation. This made cooperation in counter-terrorism efforts (or anything else) with Morocco impossible. Meanwhile, Polisario provided Islamic terrorists safe haven in their Algerian refugee camps where most (90,000 refugees) of these refugees live. There are a smaller number (24,000) in Mauritania. This is all connected with the declining prospects for Polisario, which has been in bad shape since 1991. Back then, Morocco finally won its war with Polisario rebels, who were seeking independence for Western Sahara, a region south of Morocco that is now considered part of Morocco. Polisario remains powerful in Mauritania, where the rebel group has official recognition and maintains several refugee camps. At the beginning (the 1960s), Polisario was so well-subsidized by Algeria, back when Algeria was a radical state. Polisario still has enough diehards out there to keep lots of people in Western Sahara unhappy. This situation has also provided recruits and sanctuary for al Qaeda and other Islamic radicals. Since the 1990s the UN has been trying to work out a final peace deal between Polisario and Morocco. During the 1990s Algeria said it cut off all support for Polisario. But that, and UN efforts to mediate the differences have just not worked. The contested area is largely desert with a current population of less than 600,000. Logic would have it that the area is better off as a part of Morocco. But there are still thousands of locals who would rather fight for independence than submit to Morocco.

Some resistance is tribal and cultural, with the Moroccans seen as another bunch of alien invaders. The area was administered until 1976 as a Spanish colony. Most Western Saharans have made peace with Moroccan rule, especially since Morocco has been spending a billion dollars a year on infrastructure and other improvements and doing so for decades. Western Sahara is a much nicer place because of that. Polisario still has several thousand armed men based in the refugee camps and refuses to accept Moroccan rule of Western Sahara. Polisario has become an outlaw organization with no real purpose. If the fighting breaks out again, Morocco could defeat Polisario, but Polisario still has a sanctuary in the Algerian refugee camps. There Polisario discourages any talk of peacefully returning to Western Sahara, even though a growing number of the camp inmates are quietly doing that. The refugee camps have become police states run by Polisario and tolerated, until now, by Algeria. As more veteran Algerian Islamic terrorists are captured or surrender the information they provide keeps pointing back to Polisario as a major source of support for AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and its lucrative smuggling (drugs, people, weapons) from the south into Algeria. Polisario was hoping to avoid a major confrontation with Algerian security forces over this that is becoming more difficult to do.

November 29, 2019: For the 41st week in row Algerians held large weekend protests in the capital and other cities. This has been going on for ten months and the army hoped setting the election date would end or reduce the demonstrations. Did not turn out that way and now opposition to the December 12 elections is prompting Algerians to protest. This week, for the first time, there was a large (several thousand people) pro-government demonstrations in the capital the day after the weekly Friday demonstrations.

November 21, 2019: ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) claims that two of its armed members were killed i n the far south (Tamanrasset province, 2,000 kilometers south of the capital), near the Niger border. ISIL described it as a gun battle caused when the two refused to surrender to troops. ISIL claims eight soldiers died and that the army called in three helicopters. The government did not report any such incident, nor did the media. There has been so little Islamic terrorist activity in Algeria this year that an incident like this would make the news, especially the death of eight soldiers. The last confirmed ISIL attack in Algeria took place in 2017. Since then there have been reports of ISIL members in Algeria being arrested or killed and this year the group was considered extinct in Algeria. There has been recent ISIL activity in neighboring Tunisia but nothing to indicate ISIL was reviving its Algerian branch.

November 19, 2019: In south-central Algeria (Ghardaia province), soldiers arrested eight men who were planning to head south to join Islamic terror groups across the border in Mali or Niger. Ghardaia is on the edge of the Sahara Desert and the province contains only 200,000 people. South of Ghardaia, there is over a thousand kilometers of desert or semi-desert interspersed by a few populated areas based on an oasis. The army guards the main border crossings as well as monitoring the few roads heading south. Most of the time the only suspicious characters arrested are smugglers who failed to hide their activities sufficiently to avoid a “stop and search”. Civilians tend to quietly report any suspected Islamic terrorist activity. The horrors of the 1990s war with Islamic terrorists seeking to establish a religious dictatorship in Algeria are still remembered. Some younger Algerians are still attracted to Islamic terrorism but smart enough to realize it would be unsafe to try that sort of thing in Algeria.

 

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