Algeria: Later Rather Than Sooner

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August 10, 2020: The government has jailed over fifty people for continuing to participate in the weekly demonstrations that began in February 2019 to overthrow the FLN party, which had held onto power since the 1960s. The actual demonstrations were halted in March with the imposition of covid19 quarantine measures. That did not stop all the protestors as many continued their activity online, especially on Facebook. There the discussion was more detailed and diverse than the agenda the weekly protests backed.

The physical demonstrations forced out the then current FLN president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika and that led to free elections at the end of 2019. The weekly demonstrations, nicknamed the Hirak, continued and were outlawed by the new government. That convinced many Hirak supporters that the demonstrations should continue because there were still government practices that needed to be changed. About the same time the actual demonstrations were halted by covid19, the government was demonstrating more hostility towards the complaints, many of them justified, that Hirak participants had.

The Facebook Hirak featured the Islamic parties more prominently as many of the leaders of those parties spoke from exile in the West (mainly France) and were unable to participate in the physical Hirak. No so in the online version and that upset a lot of the Hirak members from Algeria. The Islamic parties still reminded Algerians of the horrific 1990s war against Islamic terrorists, whose goal was to establish a religious dictatorship. The Islamic parties had won a fair election in 1990 and the FLN refused to be replaced by Islamic politicians. The fighting was horrific and destroyed most popular support the Islamic parties once had. Many of the surviving Islamic terrorist fighters and leaders fled into exile. Some continued their Islamic terrorism while others switched to non-violent Islamic politics. The most prominent example of the latter is the Moslem Brotherhood, and while the Moslem Brotherhood has been successful at getting elected, they soon lose power when their radical fringe starts demanding a religious dictatorship. Islamic party leaders insist they can prevent that from happening, most Algerians don’t believe it and don’t believe Islamic party politicians will be any better at dealing with corruption and bad government than the secular Moslem politicians.

The current government has devoted a lot of effort to identifying all the participants in these online Hirak activities and sought to arrest those still in Algeria. France won’t even consider arresting and extraditing the Hirak posters living in France. Free speech and all that. The irony is not lost on the Algeria-based Hirak members. In Algeria it is still popular to criticize France for its colonial era crimes. Yet France remains a model for what Algeria would like to be. The newly elected government is going after corrupt officials and businessmen but has not yet proved that the new officials are any more effective and less corrupt than the old bunch. Arresting Hirak online critics and journalists who appear to support those critics does not inspire confidence among most voters.

It is not yet clear how well the government has handled the economic crises caused by the covid19 pandemic. In addition to shutting down much of the local economy for months, the virus also caused a worldwide economic recession and kept oil prices down. That was bad for Algeria, where 90 percent of government spending is paid for by taxes on the oil exports. This year the GDP is expected to shrink at least five percent and that means more unemployment. How well the new government handles this mess will determine how successful they are at getting reelected, assuming the elections process is not corrupted once more. That was now the ousted FLN party remained in control for decades.

The few remaining Islamic terrorists in Algeria remain dormant, as they have since the covid19 virus showed up. Same with smuggling activity, especially from the south (Mali). The army continues to conduct its patrols in areas where there has been Islamic terrorist or smuggler activity and there has been less to find. That won’t last but none of the troops are very upset at the lack of violence and danger.

August 8, 2020: The government is further reducing the restrictions imposed to slow the spread of covid19. This is mainly to get the economy going again, which most Algerians see as more important that reducing the threat of more covid19 infections. The reduced restrictions will not allow the return of public demonstrations.

In late May Algeria knew of about 8,400 citizens who had come down with the covid19 coronavirus and since then the number of confirmed cases has increased to nearly 36,000. So far Algeria has suffered about 800 confirmed cases per million population and 30 deaths per million. That’s much less than the world average of 94 deaths per million. Algeria has one of the worst national health systems in the world and among Arab nations ranks 17th out of 21. What blurs these statistics is the fact that not all nations really know how many have caught the virus or died from it.

Neighbors Tunisia had 143 cases per million and four deaths per million. For Morocco it is 899 and 13, Libya is 702 and 17. Egypt is 931 and 49 while Mali is 126 and six.

August 5, 2020: Italian foreign aid groups are warning international aid donors to be wary of donating anything to the Tindouf refugee camps in southwestern Algeria (Tindouf Province). Local police have a growing problem with the many supporters of Islamic terrorism living in these refugee camps for people from Western Sahara. Algeria has long tried to avoid confronting the growing problem with Islamic terrorists and criminal activity in these camps. That is changing as is the Algerian attitude towards Polisario. This is partly the result of what happened in early 2018 when 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. Then an Algerian Air Force transport crashed on takeoff in April 2018 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, as in the creation of a “president for life” in what is supposed to be a democracy. That was very similar to what Algeria had from the 1960s to 2019. Back (before 1991) when Russia was the Soviet Union the Russians backed Algerian efforts to support and encourage Polisario and thereby weaken neighbor Morocco. That was because Morocco was, and still is, a centuries old monarchy and a more efficient government than the democratic dictatorship in Algeria. Morocco has accused pre-2019 Algerian leaders of being lying hypocrites and in 2018 the UN and many other nearby nations were agreeing with that. This was one of the reasons the FLN lost power in 2019.

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 Polisario refugee camps in Algeria (90,000 refugees) and Mauritania (24,000). This is all connected with the declining prospects of Polisario, which has been in bad shape since 1991. Back then, Morocco finally won its war with Polisario Front rebels, who were seeking independence for the Western Sahara (a region south of Morocco).

Polisario remains powerful in Mauritania, where the rebel group has official recognition and maintains several refugee camps. In the beginning (the 1960s) Polisario was so well-subsidized by Algeria, back when Algeria was a radical state, that Polisario still had 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 residents 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 Polaisario 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. Polasario was hoping to avoid a major confrontation with Algerian security forces over this that is becoming more difficult to do.

July 30, 2020: Turkey arrested and agreed to turn over to Algeria Guermit Bounouira, a retired Algerian army officer who had fled Algeria in March, with his family. That rapid exit was to avoid embarrassing questions about what Bounouira while working for his late boss, Ahmed Salah, the military supreme commander who persuaded long-time president Bouteflika to resign in April 2019. Salah died unexpectedly of a heart attack on December 23rd. Salah was thought to be in reasonably good health for a man of 79. He was buried two days later and left the newly elected president with one less potential obstacle to the fundamental political changes most Algerians want.

Salah’s successor, Said Chengriha, was appointed by the new president and is seen as loyal to the goals of the new government. Former aides to Salah were a different matter. Bounouira was the private secretary for Salah and lost his job when Salah died. It turned out that Bounouira had quietly collected a large number of secret documents and even items not written down while working for Salah. Bounouira had already used that information to get rich and feard discovery. That is why he fled to Turkey and quickly began the process of becoming a Turkish citizen. Bounouira was in touch with a lot of other exiled Algerian officers and government officials wanted for corruption. The Algerian government was eager to get custody of Bounouira and Turkey was eager to reduce Algerian criticism of the Turkish military operations in Libya. Bounouira was in front of an Algeria court by August 3rd. Suddenly there was less Algerian criticism of what was going on in Libya. That might not last long if it turns out Bounouira provided Turkey with a lot of sensitive information in order to expedite becoming a Turkish citizen. Meanwhile Bounouira is being charged with embezzlement, selling secret documents and confidential information from the Ministry of National Defense as well as consorting with Algerians wanted by the courts but had fled the country. In addition, Bounouira is also suspected of using his position to illegally acquire property in Algeria and abroad. Turkey also has a lot of investments in Algeria and is a major trading partner (about three billion dollars’ worth a year) and would rather see that increased than reduced because of what is going on in Libya. That happened quickly as Algeria warned that Egyptian plans to arm Libyan tribes with heavy weapons to fight the invading Turks would turn Libya into “another Somalia.” Libya will never become another Somalia but Libyans are concerned about returning to the status of a province of the Turkish empire.

Algeria has no interest in sending Algerian troops to Libya as peacekeepers or to eject the “Turkish invaders.” Like all the other North African countries, except Egypt, Algeria wants a peaceful settlement to the fighting in Libya. With the recent (since late 2019) Turkish intervention peace in Libya may be later rather than sooner.

 

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