Algeria, Elections and Gaza
Monday, January 19, 2009
In Algeria, as elsewhere throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds, Israel’s brutal war on Gaza clarified once again the great distance between ordinary citizens and their respective political regimes. Daily media images of savage attacks and Palestinian bloodshed deeply resonate emotionally with Algerians proud of their country’s victorious war of national liberation against the French. This empathetic agony, Arab regimes’ failure strongly to respond and the Algerian government’s continued ban of unauthorized demonstrations were sure provocations for dramatic political expression.
Though thus not surprising, the mainly youthful demonstration of apparently over a hundred thousand in downtown Algiers on January 9th was a major shock to the domestic silence fostered by the regime. Following the Friday prayers where sermons denounced Jewish violence and lies and called for jihad against Zionism, thousands poured out from numerous mosques and working-class neighborhoods throughout Algiers and its suburbs to eventually coalesce in a giant and defiant street manifestation, the largest such display since Berber demonstrations in 2001.
While chants and banners proclaimed solidarity with Palestinians and the shame of Arab regimes, also prominent were slogans directly from the militant Islamist FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) campaigns of two decades earlier. Outnumbered police dared not attempt to suppress the overall demonstration though some violent clashes ensued near the American embassy. Beyond identifying with Gazan victims, demonstrators’ defiant energy came as well from the extraordinary and cathartic opportunity—no doubt the first for younger participants—to openly and massively display political opinions in public space without government authorization.
Some saw the appearance of FIS slogans as less a statement of Islamist mobilization and more as a symbol of defiance and respect for oppositional intransigence. The regime had banned the FIS in 1992 after the latter’s victory in the first round of legislative elections and the FIS and others responded with guerrilla warfare. Including savage government repression, the decade of war produced some 200,000 deaths. Some speculate that just as the regime infiltrated and manipulated the guerrilla opposition during that period (as with a much smaller current Al-Qaeda-linked successor) in order to legitimate its own tighter control over all political opposition, Algeria’s present government may view a resurfacing of public FIS slogans as a welcome reminder to the public of their need to back the regime for their own protection.
In this sense, the largely unauthorized pro-Gaza demonstrations in Algiers, Oran, Constantine, Sidi-Bel-Abbes, Tlemcen, Blida and elsewhere might be seen as a psychological release for a populace deeply alienated and humiliated by the regime, but also as a warning of potential new violence (by both Islamists and police/military) if the regime was not adequately supported. However masked, this potential use of the Islamist opposition for the government’s own benefit is a pattern of the regime since even before the 90s civil war. It is a dangerous game with deeply anti-democratic implications.
The political timing of demonstrations in Algiers and elsewhere has special significance because of the coming presidential election in April. Thanks to a constitutional amendment passed on November 12th by a pliant National Assembly, Abdelaziz Bouteflika may now run for a third 5-year term. It is generally conceded that Bouteflika himself must ultimately obey competing factions in the military/security forces. But mass impoverishment amidst the wealth of the ruling “mafia” of military cliques and their friends, as well as the audacious constitutional manipulation to facilitate a president-for-life, logically make Bouteflika an obvious, more contestable political target. Nevertheless, the present lack of credibly popular opponents and the regime’s history of electoral fraud—combined with Bouteflika’s incumbency advantage, military support and the backing of the country’s three largest political parties (the FLN, the RND and the MSP)--seem to guarantee Bouteflika’s victory.
The socialist FFS led by Hocine Ait-Ahmed, is a long-time leading opposition party, but traditionally gains most support from the Berber minority in rural Kabylia and urban centers and, in any case, resists posing a candidate in what it sees as an electoral charade. The most notable potential opponent, though at this stage only rumored, is retired general Liamine Zeroual, Bouteflika’s predecessor and himself a long-time former part of the ruling military regime. While somewhat popular because of his resignation from office in 1998 in favor of popular elections, he hardly can pose as a credible opponent of military power. Much of the present civilian opposition indeed faced him militarily in the 90s and others were forced from active political life during the same period. In any case, Zeroual recently released an enigmatic press statement simultaneously encouraging and dampening belief in his renewed political ambition.
Interesting in a longer time-frame are beginning steps toward a common oppositional front resisting both presently-defined electoral politics and the overall regime. In mid-November, the Cordoba Foundation’s Center for Peace Studies organized in Geneva a gathering of elements of the oppositional “political class.” Party leaders, academics, journalists, autonomous trade union leaders and exiled individuals discussed potential common strategies to replace, non-violently, the present system by a pluralist liberal democracy free from military manipulation. It was significant as the first oppositional multi-party gathering to include FIS-related representatives since a Rome conference and agreement in 1995. The latter, in the midst of the civil war, posed a similar civilian alternative to the military regime at that time.
Deep indictments of the present system were the common discourse of the Geneva gathering. Said, for example, Brahim Younessi, a leading exile figure involved with one faction of the FIS: “Everyone knows the negative and regressive performance of the Algerian economy which tarnishes the image of those ‘harraga’ [young boat people] who flee unemployment and misery.” On the social side, “this regime brings explosive potentials, a powder which can catch fire at any moment; trade unionist manifestations multiply, youth who are not tempted by the sea adventure cry out their despair and find themselves often condemned to prison for ’disturbing the public order,’ every socioprofessional category suffers a loss of buying power.”
Shortly afterwards, well-respected Algerian Human Rights League founder and spokesperson Abdenour Ali Yahia (himself a participant at the Rome meeting) issued a statement equally devastating in its critique. He denounced the “totalitarian political power” where the army chooses the president, then submits him to “the formality of confirmation” by fraudulent elections, and the president acts like an absolute monarch who “dominates and controls everything.” “Political life is concerned with one sole objective: to protect the political regime in place.” Corruption is found “at every level and in every domain [and] has become a style of life and government.” “Algeria is an example of deep social injustice: pauperization of the people to the point of indigence, undoing of the social and family fabric, collapse of the health system.” “The street is the last recourse when the possibilities of being heard are exhausted.” For the coming presidential election, “the path of liberty is not one of participating in sham elections, but one of abstention or boycott, which is an effective political weapon.”
More recently, the “Algeria Watch” organization dedicated to human rights and democratic politics published several more strong denunciations of the military regime’s record since its 1992 coup (when it cancelled the legislative elections) and even since its first days in power, in 1962, with Algerian independence. According to Hocine Malti, ex-vice president of the Algerian state hydrocarbon company, Sonatrach, the controlling military “are serious students of the schools of the [East German] Stasi, the [Soviet] KGB, the [Romanian] Securitate and the [Egyptian] Moukhabarate of Fethi Dib altogether.” Said human rights activist Salah-Eddine Sidhoum:
The illegitimate regime has shown its limits after 46 years of unshared power. The failure of the political system since 1962 is clear at every level. This system has used Algeria as a booty of war. Its multiple policies carried out without the people’s participation have led only to bitter and terrible disillusionment. Despite its state of advanced dissolution, the hated regime cut off from reality obstinately refuses to leave. It is ready to do anything to stay. It has not hesitated to make the blood of its own citizens flow to preserve its privileges.
In turn Djameddine Benchenouf denounced the “corruption, violence, pauperization of large sectors of society, the appearance of a new phenomenon of widespread prostitution, disappearance of large sectors of agriculture and industry, massive development of a fraudulent import economy of goods and services in the hands of a new comprador, parasitical and mafia-like bourgeoisie linked to the barons of the regime and derived from their clientele, a generalized phenomenon of clandestine emigration and generally a dreadful regression of Algerian society.”
Soon adding to the generalized poverty, frustration and alienation will be economic consequences of the ongoing present collapse of hydrocarbon prices, since oil and natural gas exports provide about 97% of Algeria’s export income and support about 60% of the state budget. With such a downturn, a return to the austerity budget of the 1980s is likely, with all the political ramifications of greater unrest and tighter regime implied.
The three parties of the “presidential alliance” together represent no more than 20% of the electorate, according to results of National Assembly elections in May 2007. The very low voter turnout for that election is further proof of the vast gap between official pretensions as “a democratic system” and actuality. In this context, it was not surprising that Bouteflika chose to amend the constitution through a National Assembly filled with his allies rather than submitting the issue to a referendum.
Many forces are thus at play despite relative grassroots quiescence before the pro-Gaza demonstrations. While the real electoral “contest” of April will likely be a face-off of Bouteflika vs. abstentionism, deeper factors include greater oppositional communication, a latent still-aggrieved ex-FIS following, unpredictable outside events as the collapse in hydrocarbon prices and the Israeli-Palestinian hotbox in the Middle East, as well as continued manipulations behind the scenes by the ever-powerful military cliques. As the pro-Gaza demonstrations showed, the strong potential remains for political explosion, sooner or later, by the vast majority excluded for so many years from any active political role.
As Salah-Eddine Sidhoum points out: “All channels of free and peaceful expression have been blocked. Violence and upheaval have become the youth’s only means to be heard.” The ever-worsening social tensions risk provoking . . . at any moment a veritable popular tsunami which will carry off not only the moribund regime but the whole country.” The situation is reminiscent of “the climate which reigned on the eve of November 1, 1954 [the outbreak of the revolution].”
Whatever the outcome, the same question remains as relevant as it was at the 1954 beginning of the national liberation war: will one set of elites simply replace another? Since the promising beginnings, then suffocation, of an extensive workers’ self-management experience in the early 60s, genuine opportunities for substantial non-violent political participation have been sporadic and rare, despite numerous grassroots attempts to enlarge the space of self-responsibility. This is tragic for a people that has sacrificed so much.
David Porter researched and wrote on the large workers’ self-management experiment in Algeria forty-five years ago. He is a political science emeritus professor of SUNY/Empire State College where he taught numerous courses including modern Algerian history. He is the editor of Vision on Fire: Emma Goldman on the Spanish Revolution (rev. ed., AK Press, 2006) and currently is preparing a book concerning French anarchist perspectives on Algeria. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Michael Slackman, “Egyptians Seethe Over Gaza, and Their Leaders Feel Heat,” New York Times, 1/10/2009; Mohand Aziri, “Des dizaines de milliers de citoyens solidaires des ghazaouis: Le cri du coeur des Algériens,” El Watan (Algiers), 1/10/09.
 Aziri, op. cit.; Djameleddine Benchenouf, “Le FIS renaît dans les manifestations pour Ghaza, » Algeria-Watch, 1/11/2009 (all Algeria-Watch articles posted on the organization’s website, <www.algeria-watch.org>).
 Azzeddine Bensouiah, “Quand la rue déborde, les parties sont ailleurs,” Liberté (Algiers), 1/11/2009 ; Z. Mehdaoui, « Soutien à Ghaza : Marches et affrontements à Alger, » Le Quotidien d’Oran, 1/10/2009 ; Said Rabia, « Les algériens, les revendications et la solidarité : Faut-il diaboliser la rue ? » El Watan, 1/11/2009 ; Ghania Oukazi, « Solidarité et émeutes à Alger, » Le Quotidien d’Oran, 1/12/2009 ; Aziri, op. cit..
 Omar Benderra, “D’Alger à Ghaza, la lutte pour la liberté,” Algeria-Watch, 1/11/2009. Additionally, the war produced nearly a million wounded, nearly 10,000 « disappeared persons, » 30,000 torture victims, over 50,000 prisoners, 15,000 deported to concentration camps in the Sahara, many thousands of widows and orphans and over 500,000 in exile. It also created hundreds of new millionaires. (Salah-Eddine Sidhoum, « Leçons et perspectives, » Algeria-Watch, 1/11/2009).
 Rabia, op. cit.; Oukazi, op. cit..
 Three major parties backing the president organized similar marches on Saturday in eastern Algeria.
 One of the original nine historic leaders of the Algerian revolution.
 Said Rabia, “Il plaide pour l’alternance politique et appelle à une ‘phase nouvelle’: Zeroual sort de sa reserve,” El Watan, 1/14/2009.
 Good accounts of this meeting are at the website of the Foundation.
 Brahim Younessi, “Le changement est inévitable,” (11/15/2008) at the Cordoba Foundation website coverage of the Geneva meeting.
 Abdenour Ali Yahia, “Faut-il changer de people ou de dirigeants,” (11/22/2008) at the Cordoba Foundation website coverage of the Geneva meeting.
 Hocine Malti, “Dédié à Abdelaziz Bouteflika: ‘Lève la tête bien haut, mon vieux,’” Algeria-Watch, 1/11/2009.
 Salah-Eddine Sidhoum, op. cit..
Djameleddine Benchenouf, op. cit..
 Ait Benali Boubekeur, « A quand l’alternance en Algérie ? » Algeria-Watch, 1/9/2009 ; « Overview of the Algerian Economy, » Embassy of Algeria in the United states of America website.
 The “presidential alliance” represents only about 20-25% of the voting electorate according to those polls.
 Salah-Eddine Sidhoum, op. cit..