Special Report

An Arab Spring?

What's it all about -- an unquenchable thirst for freedom? The Muslim Brotherhood? As Algeria is showing again, this just the start.

By 2.18.11

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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.

The events at the beginning of the last decade are remembered as the Black Spring, in contrast to the Berber Spring of 1980, usually viewed as the kickoff of the pro-democracy movement that challenged the single-party dictatorship. (Our democracy missionaries had nothing to do with this, even though Irving Brown, the legendary AFL-CIO international freedom fighter and supposedly one of the heroes of our democracists, helped the Algerians during their struggle against France; but that required getting out of an air-conditioned office in Washington, or Paris, where Brown lived until the French pronounced him personal non grata for his anti-colonial activities. After it was over they let him back, which they never did for Sekou Toure, let alone Thomas Sangara.)

Algeria's democratic opening in the late '80s (there were riotous demonstrations in 1988, bringing out strange bedfellows) came to a crashing halt in 1992, when a Committee for the Salvation (or Security) of Algeria, asked the military high command to annul an election that was about to be won by Islamic radicals federated in an Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). The military might have intervened anyway, but it happened this way. The two sides went to the mattresses and Algeria descended into hell for the next several years.

Often overlooked is that even as the poorly organized liberals of the 1980s were making demands for civic space and freedom, proto-Islamists were doing their own things, and far more effectively. Apart from terrorist acts practiced by their uncontrollable elements, they were feeding the poor, curing the sick, putting up alternate mosques (outside the established ones that were under regime control). The political competition that burst into the open after the reforms of 1988 was one-sided, and the newly legalized FIS won control of a majority of municipal councils as soon as elections were held (our free-and-fair specialists from USAID and NED were nowhere in sight).

By the time President Bouteflika was first elected in 1999, the Islamic insurgency was defeated, although acts of terrorism continue to this day. Bands of Islamistes, or integristes armes (armed fundamentalists), still roam the mountains and find sanctuary in the vast Sahara. In the great sand sea, as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, they engage in kidnap-murders of foreigners and hit-and-run raids. A few weeks ago they made it into the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott before being gunned down by an alert army unit.

The Moroccan army around the same time found a large cache of weapons in an area under their control in the disputed Western Sahara territory; if anyone knows how it got there he is not saying. The best counter-terrorist desert guerrillas in the area are the warriors of the Polisario Front, who have been competing with the Moroccans for the territory for some time. Their request is that the issue of whose land it is be submitted to a democratic vote. However, we (the U.S. government, under both the Bush and Obama administrations) have turned them down cold.

Bouteflika, who backs the Polisario side in the Western Sahara conflict, oversaw a considerable calming down of the situation in the populated coastal areas of Algeria, and the U.S. has viewed him as a good ally in the war against terrorism. Algeria has got rich again with the stratospheric rise in the price of oil (that was $10/b. in 1988), and there have been some infrastructure improvements. But money for enterprise and, with it, job creation has not kept up with demographic pressure and when demonstrations began last January lowering cost of staples was the main economic demand. Ending the state of emergency was the main political demand. Since the government announced that this would happen "soon," change and democracy took over the agenda.

Kabyle activists, who usually held their noses and sided with the military-backed governments during the 1990s war (200,000 victims), still insist that the permanent answer to Islamic extremism is a rule-of-law democratic system with clear separation between state and mosque. Like the military-backed governments that fought the insurgents in the 1990s, Bouteflika has included Muslim Brother-related parties in his government (as did Boumediene). These parties saw many of their leaders assassinated during the terror war.

First elected in 1999 in a field where the opposition withdrew muttering darkly of fraud, Bouteflika was re-elected in 2004. He (or his party) amended the constitution so he could run for a third term and he won again in 2009, notwithstanding dark rumors of fraud. He is 75 and not in good health and until a few months ago he was openly grooming his much younger brother to take his place. This succession project is for the time being on the back burner.

The Kabyles are at the core of the current movement, and it is unlikely to succeed if people in other regions (including other regions where Berbers form a majority) do not join them. The old seize-the-radio-TV-building-get-inside-the-Interior-Ministry-and-kill-everybody-with-a-name-plaque-on-his-desk-and-decapitate-the-general-staff model of revolutions is always a possibility, but the Kabyles never have shown any inclination for this sort of thing and on the contrary, it is to get out of the nightmare of what one of their spokesmen and leaders, Ferhat Mehenni, calls the Jacobin model of politics that they have been at the front of every liberal (in the classic sense, even when accompanied by social-democratic notions) political effort in Algeria since the fight against France.

Ferhat Mehenni is president of the Provisional Government of Kabylie, which grew out of the Kabylie Autonomy Movement, itself a product of the Black Spring of 2001. The idea is to show that an institution with at least some claim to represent people is better suited to govern locally than officious officials dispatched from the capital. The autonomists, at least as an organized movement, endorse the mobilization to demonstrate in Algiers and elsewhere, for liberty and against what it refers to as the megalomania of Abdelaziz Bouteflika. They say the largely Kabyle opposition parties, such as the Rally for Culture and Democracy that is led by Said Sadi, who like Ferhat Mehenni is a veteran of the Berber Spring, are forgetting their first duty, which is to defend their own region.

SPRING WILL BE INTERESTING this year in the beautiful and bitter regions in which, against all reasonable instinct except the one to strike back when struck, we have been so deeply committed for a decade. How very little we know about these lands, despite our experts, despite all the cost in treasure and prestige, despite most of all the sacrifice of so many of our best, which outweighs everything. Perhaps the spring storms will bring some clearings.

Had any clarity been gained during these ten years of an American effort to spread freedom, why was there so much confusion regarding the situation in Egypt? It is not strictly connected, but I could not help but notice that it was in the dead of night, during the congressional recess, that our government chose to close a deal with the Saudi family for a record $60 billion worth of our most advanced aircraft.

Perhaps, perhaps, the Bush doctrine will be vindicated and there will be a consensus all across the umma that the answer to political extremism is freedom, meaning liberal democratic regimes. Who would not hope so? But even if foreign policy is usually an exercise in working with contradictions and choosing lesser evils, one marvels at how much we have been stretching the method lately, and on the basis, evidently, of very little understanding of the dynamics at work.

Why must we always, with all our resources, fall back on pious generalities? Is this not a form of stereotyping, a kind of carelessness? Would it not be better to try to understand the strange eastern realms that fortune and folly oblige us to encounter?

Fifty, what am I saying sixty, sixty years ago, my father, a very young man then, found himself on a mission in Lebanon with scarcely an inkling of what the place was about, and certainly without the resources of our present foreign affairs establishment. He contacted young intellectuals, Maronite Christians in their famous Mountain, supposedly the vanguard of an Arab renaissance that Americans should aid and abet. They told him, he reported, "Their revolution in the Middle East would not succeed until the Hachemites and the Saoudites and, indeed, all the feudal dynasties were done with. For the moment, however, one could not -- being Christian -- denounce the Arab rulers in public. The latter were Moslems, after all. To denounce them would mean to sin against tact."

How well he saw the contradictions and the lies of this ancient place! Now the Christians are all but gone, as are the Jews, and Muslims are denouncing their own rulers. Have we any sense of what this means? Tunisia, like Algeria, indeed like Cairo and Alexandria, has a deep French strain. Like it or not, history happened that way. Reason, logic, clarity, and a kind of authoritarian republicanism, what Ferhat and his Kabyle friends denounce as Jacobin centralism, should be, if this is so, ingrained, part of the political mentality, alongside a kind of literary romanticism, an admiration for the revolutionary gesture without too much thought for the morrow. How the strain takes, on African instead of French soil, is the story still being written.

Will Algeria go the way of Tunisia? Algeria will go the way of Algeria. You should not need a weatherman, or an intelligence service, to know that much.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.