Demonstrations across Algeria suggest another “Arab Spring” may be on the way. It would have to be called an Arabo-Berber Spring to be demographically accurate, and it may have to go the patient route, starting with the symbolic step of forcing a symbolic president to stand down. A presidential election is scheduled for April, and the incumbent, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who never recovered from a stroke in 2013, is letting his image on posters campaign for him, while street demonstrators shout their disgust for the contempt this represents.
We know Algeria chiefly for its place in the foreign policies of Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Roosevelt. To get a sense of what has happened since Operation Torch, a thumb nail bio of its president is in order.
In one of his early acts as president of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika participated in the infamous Durban conference against racism. As its name indicated, it was in truth a racist meeting, brazenly anti-Semitic and anti-American. It was a kind of Nuremberg Rally for the Third World Internationale. It further discredited the United Nations, its sponsor, if such was still possible at that late date in the organization’s shameful trajectory.
Like the event itself, the Algerian government’s participation had no meaningful impact on international comity. Its date — 8 September 2001 — could not have been more symbolic, for its real effect was to highlight hostility toward free societies. With the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century defeated, the task of keeping hatred of liberal democracy alive passed to the non-Western despotic regimes and terror organizations in Africa and the Islamo-Arabic world for whom Durban was a grand assembly.
The common denominator of the heirs of the anti-colonial movements of the 20th century was that they confiscated or usurped power in their respective countries, over the dead or exiled bodies of men and women who actually had fought for freedom. And instead of sending gunboats at them, the liberal democracies caved to their agendas and demands, even as they kept them on life support through massive transfers of aid in cash and kind.
Now is not the moment to re-examine the complicated question of the West’s relations with the rest, nor why non-Western regimes tend to replicate our vices without the saving grace of our virtues. What we do know is that George Orwell had it just right in Animal Farm. In this regard, Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s presence at Durban was apt.
He grew up in towns that straddle the disputed border between Algeria and Morocco, Oujda and Tlemcen which, like nearby Fez, were at one time important Jewish centers, producing doctors and scholars and poets as well as merchants and craftsmen.
Such vocations, which Berbers and Arabs also took up in these pleasant, laid-back locales, did not attract him. He was still in his teens when the revolt against French rule began. He joined the national liberation front, and spent most the 1950s with the “army of the frontier” that stayed put on the border near his home neighborhoods, which is why its core, led by Colonel Houari Boumediene, was known as the “Oujda group.”
The interior irregulars were hunted down by the French army. One of their leaders, sent as an emissary to Morocco to discuss political orientation and war strategy, was garroted by way of welcome, and after the war was over, several of his surviving comrades, known as “historic chiefs” of the revolution, were murdered, either in Algeria or in European exile.
These are old events, but they bear retelling because Bouteflika, the man who joined other third-world political thugs at Durban in assailing the free world, partook of these acts. Call them crimes, betrayals, ruthless faction fights — they are, by whatever name, the reason anti-colonial revolutions so often — usually, in fact — produced sordid imitations of the Soviet Union instead of countries where freedom flourishes.
In all fairness, Algeria’s new rulers deserve credit for alleviating the poor conditions the French left. To be sure, they made sure that in their version of a people’s republic some were more equal than others. Boumediene took the reins after a couple of unstable years under one of the “historic chiefs,” Ahmed Ben Bella, and ordered the building of houses and schools. Though the housing was often tawdry and the schools were often staffed by Salafists from Egypt, there was at first a sense of a young country on the way up, and prospects for people who had known only misery.
Bouteflika partook of this as a loyal Boumediene lieutenant and foreign minister, just as he had partaken of terrorism and massacre as war tactics. As the spokesman for an “anti-imperialist” or “Arab nation” foreign policy, he engaged in the kind of demagogy that undermined the basic idea of an organization of united nations, which in the words of Archibald MacLeish at one time stood for something decent: “Since wars begin in the minds of men,” MacLeish wrote, “it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” This is the opposite of world the likes of Bouteflika inhabit.
He got into some hot water over some missing millions (dollars or dinars, who is counting?) that were supposed to be spent by the ministry (not on improving the minds of men) and somehow ended in personal accounts in Switzerland. With the exception of the austere and laconic colonel turned president, however, this was acceptable practice if you were among those who swirled around the proceeds from the hydrocarbon extraction industry like bears around a honey pot, and he survived.
The premature death of Boumediene in 1978 put him out of the inner circle, but this allowed him to avoid getting hurt in the fights over dwindling spoils that marked the 1980s and the desperate civil war years that followed. Thus after a couple decades of lying fairly low, he seemed both a fresh face and a link to a better time. The country’s top security and military commands, after fighting off an Islamist insurrection, suggested he run for president. The other candidates withdrew when they concluded — rightly or by way of having an excuse for not winning — the army would not let its man lose. Even without opposition “Boutef’” got a plebiscitary mandate of sorts.
He made use of it to run the country in a kind of Boumediene-lite style for a few years. The press was intimidated but not muzzled, the restive Kabylie region was kept under watch, the Islamists were co-opted with a few ministries (which, given the country’s religious sociology, was not out of the ordinary; it also allowed the state to keep close control of the mosques and their preachers).
Revenues from the oil boom of the early 2000s helped, too: housing programs took up where the promises of a local version of socialism had left off. This was better than letting people rot in shantytowns but still showed that local socialism is the same as every other variety. Algiers today certainly looks better and cleaner and more busy than it did during the years of terror. Boutef’ got the city its first major airport since the one the French built. A Texas-educated petroleum engineer, Chakib Khelil, ran the energy sector for a few years.
But you go only so far with handouts by an inner circle of shadowy men controlling the revenue from the hydrocarbons and the contracts for public works. Bouteflika was a prisoner of a regime rooted in shadowy cronyism. His opponents, particularly among the Berbers of Kabylie, urged a clean break with the past, with a fresh start, with an end to phony pan-Arabism and ritualistic anti-Zionism.
Algeria is a predominantly young country, and most young people, however well-educated (often in other countries), are unemployed, underemployed, underground-economy employed, or trying to get employment in other countries, though, interestingly enough, not Durban conference supporters. A fresh start would have to mean giving them room to get busy, use their skills, do things. That means freedom.
Important as Algeria is as a gateway to Africa, a Mediterranean power, a crossroads of sorts toward the Middle East, there is not much the U.S. can do to help it navigate through its spring storms. The current situation, in which a man not seen in public since 2013 when he suffered a stroke is standing for a fifth term as president, is assuredly bizarre. It is not one foreigners can help them with.
Hundreds of thousands, maybe a million, Algerians have been in the streets since “no fifth term” demonstrations began February 22. These have been peaceful, dignified in style, and modest in their demands — in contrast to the riots that have marked the yellow-vest tax-revolt in the ex-colonial power.
They may be having some effect. In announcing his candidacy, Bouteflika (or his speechwriter, since he is confined to a hospital in Switzerland for “check-ups”) allowed as how he might resign before the end of his term. The idea seems to be to tell the protesters they have been heard and, not to worry, we can talk.
Indeed, talk may be preferable to voting at this point. Algeria has been cursed with electoral fiascos that degenerated into appalling violence. The ex-colonial power, in fact, taught them how it is done, with what were called “elections à la Naegelen,” an early attempt to grant the suffrage to the Muslim population. The term became a synonym for vote fraud. (Marcel Naegelen, at the time a top official in the colonial ministry, was a Socialist politician.)
Cooling off is often the better part of valor when regimes are at wits’ end. It is interesting that in both Paris and Algiers, hyper-centralized governments — “Jacobins” to their critics — find themselves assailed by the “street.” Mob rule is always a risk, however, and the trick is to find a way to balance concessions with the requirements of maintaining order. Sad.
An eventual decentralization of government to allow the different regions to flourish in liberty would be a sensible way to get less sad. The Basques or the Alsatians, as examples, are afforded some space between themselves and the swells in Paris. The Scots and the Catalans have sought looser arrangements with toffs in London and señores in Madrid, without necessarily subverting Great Britain or Spain.
The Kabyles, a pre-Arab conquest population group that dominates Algiers and its surrounding region, have suggested decentralization as the way to go for many years, although they, a gifted lot, produce their share of top Jacobins, such as the current prime minister. Their grass-roots local governments were an important center of opposition to Bouteflika until he put the lid on them, and some of their leaders have variously called for autonomy and even independence.
For the moment, the American interest is that Algeria not become another Syria. It is unlikely, but keep in mind only little Tunisia lies between Algeria and Libya, where the French, cheered on by Max Boot & Co., did such great missionary work for democracy and human rights.
Now is the time to speak softly and let the Sixth Fleet, headquartered in Naples and part of U.S. Navy Africa, send a cruiser — a carrier group might seem a bit showy but it never hurts to carry a big stick — past the lairs of the pirates of Barbary.