What’s it all about — an unquenchable thirst for freedom? The Muslim Brotherhood? As Algeria is showing again, this just the start.
If crowds can inspire one another, can security agencies do the same? It may be that Tunisians venting their frustrations against the Ben Ali kleptocracy inspired disgruntled Cairenes fed up with the Mubarak system. This in turn may have encouraged Iranian anti-mullahs to take up where the protests against last year’s electoral frauds left off, even as Algerians of various political backgrounds got together in a “coordination” (ad-hoc committee) to descend on the capital last weekend, as they propose to do again tomorrow.
In Morocco the crowd movements were more discreet, but Justice and Benevolence folks — the Islamists — let it be known change must come, lest it happen. In Jordan, where deaf and blind American observers have always assumed the unbreakable loyalty of the Bedouin tribes to the monarchy, the situation suddenly turned shaky when it emerged it was not only those truculent and malcontent Palestinians (85 per cent of Jordan’s population) who were demanding “change,” but the tribals as well.
So you never know. But following unrest in Yemen, a primitive desert autocracy, and Bahrain, a modern Gulf state, you have to say it can happen anywhere, not that anyone knows what it is.
Initially paralyzed in their heads by the suddenness of it all, security agencies in Tunisia and Egypt evidently broke down at the command and control level, allowing lower grades to commit excesses, notably by wielding batons and discharging their firearms. This is what happens when there is panic at the top. In Yemen and Bahrain the nerves at the top seem to be of a different steel — so far — and the violence is ordered. There could be an international thread running through the wave of protests from the Atlantic to the Gulf, but we are not sure what it is (are we, Mister Jones?). The optimists believe it is the unquenchable human thirst for freedom. The pessimists say it is the Muslim Brotherhood.
Of course, it could be both. The Brothers, a Sunni movement, are not active in Iran, where the preponderantly youthful protesters are quite openly anti-mullah and, last year, called for American support (we let the phone ring). Elsewhere, it is the old strange-bedfellows scene, enemies under the skin taking aim at the same target. If the targeted regimes are not the same, they compare in that they are run by closed cliques. If a clique says it is running your country, you can agree to blame it for everything.
You overthrow the clique, then you get rid of your bedfellow. Or he gets rid of you. The model for this, studied by generations of Arabs, is the Comité de Salut Public (Committee of Public Safety) set up in April 1793 by French radicals. It ended badly. Depending on your inclinations, you can translate the word salut as security or salvation. Either way, revolutions have a dangerous pedigree.
However, last weekend the Algerian government refused to issue a permit to marchers assembling under the banner of the Coordination for Democracy and Change, and it enforced the ban. There was a march, and it did not get very far, and, reportedly, hundreds were arrested among the estimated five to ten thousand demonstrators. The police, who by some accounts outnumbered the protesters, were ready and strategically led. They held the key street corners of the capital, the access venues, the important buildings.
They looked very French in their navy-blue riot gear, but the French government reacted by calling for respect of human rights, freedom of assembly and expression and so forth (as did the State Department), though this is unlikely to have any more consequence (though for different reasons) than the French foreign minister’s suggestion a few weeks earlier that the Tunisian government sub-contract crowd control to French law enforcement. The howler continues to reverberate in Paris as the said foreign minister’s family’s business deals with the Ben Ali clique come to light.
The Algerians are fiercely protective of their freedom of action, and in any case they do not owe the French or us anything, quite the contrary. They are major suppliers of oil and natural gas. The U.S. strategy of containing al Qaeda in the Sahara, blocking a breakout into the populated coastal zones of North Africa, on one side, and sub-Saharan black Africa on the other, leans heavily on cooperation with Algerian security agencies. Indeed, top U.S. anti-terror officials were in Algiers praising their counterparts when the Tunisians began tearing down their Bastille.
It is not impossible that the Bahrainis got the message last weekend: if the malcontents can make an internationale, so can security men. They came down hard in the days following and promise to come down harder. Recess is over.
But is it? Our trillion dollar intelligence-and-foreign policy services, aided and abetted by the most narcissistic press corps in history (“Watch me make the revolution, ma!”) and a totally useless democracy-manufacturing industry whose emblem and hero is former President Jimmy Carter, does not know.
Well, with apologies to the U.S. taxpayer, that is okay, because we will find out soon enough. The Coordination for Change and Democracy is calling for indefinite Saturday demos in Algiers and other cities, apparently prepared to test the limits of the regime’s nerve.
FOR THE MOMENT, the important factor in Algeria is whether the change-and-democracy movement can grow beyond its Kabyle base. The Kabyles are a Berber group concentrated in the capital and the region to its east, called Kabylie (Kabylia in English). They are historically the most liberal, democratic-socialist, secular, anti-Islamist, and truculent people in the country. Matoub Lanes, a popular singer with an international following, was known for insulting Arabs and Islam on the stage. He was assassinated in 1998. He went down fighting, and there were weeks of unrest in Kabylie, to the cries of “Pouvoir assassin, government of killers.” However, the regime rejected the blame, blaming terrorists for the murder.
The Kabyles, about eight million in a country of under 30 million, were the core of the national movement which wrested the country from France in an atrocity-filled war in the 1950s, and they staff all levels of the Algerian state. The present prime minister is a Kabyle. The president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, is widely thought to harbor an anti-Kabyle bias (he denies it), as did the austere Houari Boumediene, whom he served as foreign minister in the 1970s, but he put through a law making the Kabyle language co-equal with Arabic, not that many Algerians would understand the Arabic spoken in Yemen (which is supposed to be very pure) or even Egypt. The point, at any rate, is that there are plenty of Kabyles who have a stake in the Algerian state, or want to reform it from within, or both.
The reason this matters is that many Kabyles are fed up with it all and want the country to devolve into a federal union in which their territory would be largely autonomous, on the model of Quebec or Catalonia (or Texas?). They feel they gave and gave and never got back. Early in the first Bouteflika term, in 2001, brutal repression came down on the region following the death of a high school student in police custody. The weeks and months of demonstrations and protests revealed the extent of anti-government feeling. Local councils were elected and proposed to take charge locally. The government reacted with heavy, and heavy-handed, police presence, along with some concessions, on the language issue for instance, but mistrust persists and runs deep. Kabylie is one of the rare regions in the Arab-Muslim world where support is openly expressed for the U.S. and Israel, alongside criticism.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?