While they showed the same kind of courage as those who brought down Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, the demonstrators on the streets of Algiers on Saturday, February 12 really never had much of a chance. The odds were not good. 3,000-5,000 protesters braved a security force that was estimated to be no less than 30,000, outnumbering the protesters by 6 or 7 to 1.
Still the Algerian government is nervous. 30,000 security police sent out to surround 3,000 demonstrators suggest a high degree of state paranoia. While Egypt is key to the transport of oil through a pipeline and the Suez Canal and Tunisia has very little of the 'black gold', pretty much the entire Algerian export economy is based on crude oil and gas production. This helps explain the security police overkill presence, that along with this shaky regime's nervousness.
The February 12 demonstration was called by a newly formed coalition, the National Coordinating Committee for Change and Democracy (in French, la Coordination National pour le changement et la democratie, or CNCD). The CNCD came together quite recently, since the January demonstrations and is spearheaded by the Algerian League for Human Rights and four independent (public sector) unions. Its goal is to extend the peaceful protest movement with an eye on getting the Algerian government to lift the state of emergency that has been in place since 1992.
The February 12th demonstration was made smaller no doubt by the road blocks set up throughout the country to prevent protesters from arriving in the capital. If the numbers of demonstrators – compared to Tunisia and Egypt they're modest – this does not minimize the strategic importance of the Algerian protests. They are the first signs of deep unrest in a major oil and natural gas producing country and one in which U.S. Special Forces have been operating not so quietly and non-stop since at least 2004.
In an attempt to minimize the political damage, the government has promised economic reforms – jobs, completion of long promised public housing projects, better education, and replacing subsidies on sugar and cooking oil recently suspended as part of World Bank, IMF structural adjustment programs. These are the same empty words that sputtered from the mouths of Ben Ali and Mubarak before their flights, the same song now being sung in Jordan, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Kuwait. Algerians have heard this song before many times and are not moved.
In an effort to further divide and conquer, government spokespeople also kept repeating "these demonstrators do not represent 'the majority'," this being code to describe the country's Berber minority, many of whom hale from Kabylia, east of Algiers, a region whose cultural capital is the city of Tizi Ouzou. They refer to themselves as the Amazigh.
While the government's claim that the current demonstrations are 'Berber organized' is exaggerated, no doubt the Amazigh are among those calling for reforms if not sweeping political changes in Algeria. Consisting of some 7 million of the country's 35 million inhabitants, the Amazigh have long suffered from cultural and linguistic discrimination; a result of the country's pronounced 'Arabization' campaign.
It is true that the traditional opposition – the country's main, largely government controlled trade union movement, moderate Islamicists – were not involved on February 12. Perhaps many Algerians are nonplussed about removing the country's president, Abdelaziz Boutiflika, from office without changing the system itself. They see Boutiflika as little more than window dressing, covering the long time genuine power brokers of Algerian political life, the military. Some Algerians speculate that even if Bouteflika leaves, who would replace him and what would it matter? Another mouthpiece for the military?
So why risk having a head bashed in or worse by the same kind of government thugs who have been unleashed in Tunisia, Egypt and now Yemen? Still, it would be a mistake to minimize the threat these protests represent to the powers that be.
Issues Similar to Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain
If their numbers were disproportionate on February 12, still the Amazigh are far from alone in raising grievances against the current regime. The issues that brought these brave souls out to demonstrate are not much different from those driving the Tunisian and Algerian changes or the protests in Yemen and now Bahrein. Unemployment, especially youth unemployment is endemic.
Like in Tunisia and Egypt, the Algerian government's base among its population is razor thin. Its attempt to portray itself as the sons and daughters of those who fought and died against French colonialism no longer impressed a population crushed by what appears to be appalling poverty not reflected in official statistics.
While the details are sketchy, corruption at high government levels has existed for decades. Repression is widespread with the government coming down with a heavy hand. A state of emergency has long been in effect since the early 1990s. And then there is history, Algerian history, rearing its painful and bloodied head (but more on that in Part Two).
Corrupt, repressive governments with little or no development plans for their own country are precisely the kind of regimes the U.S. and France have long supported in the Middle East. They make perfect and pliant allies. It should come as no surprise that there were very few – if any – complaints or criticisms lodged against the Algerian government over the years.
Nor has there been any pressure for change from the United States, European Union, or serious criticisms made of the Algerian government's sorry track record, so similar to others in the region. Why should there be? Until it all blew up in their faces in mid December last starting with the Tunisian protests, both the United States and France have had a particular affinity to corrupt, repressive leaders with narrow bases among their own population.
Furthermore Algeria is still exhausted from the cruel civil war which ravaged the country in the last decade, the cinders of which are still burning in the interior where a radical Islamic movement tries to reorganize armed resistance. In the 1990s, several hundred thousand people died in an orgy of seemingly senseless violence that pitted a radical Islamic fundamentalist uprising (with no clear political or social agenda) against a military determined to hold on at all costs to the country's oil and gas cash cow.
After the fighting stopped, minor political concessions were made with some of the former Islamic guerillas pardoned and re-integrated (to some extent) back into the mainstream and multi-party elections being held. But, a decade later, as it has been since independence, the military maintains its iron grip over the economy and body politic, as powerfully now as in the past and the socio-economic problems which plagued the country earlier remain. If anything, they are more serious today.
Promises, Promises, Promises – Few Results
The promises of a better life, with more democratic input, made by previous Algerian governments since independence in 1962, have not materialized. Again and again, the government responds to mass anger with a slew of commitments. Once the emotional moment passes, the situation reverts to its former state, the promises forgotten, the repressive apparatus tightened.
As elsewhere in the region, the main foreign powers involved – France, Spain, and the US – don't seem to care much as long as the oil and gas flows, the country implements World Bank/IMF structural adjustment programs to modernize the oil industry to increase output, and their 'strategic interests' are protected. As long as these things happen, the country can go to hell in a hand basket – as it has. None of them have lifted a finger in protest to government practices and corruption.
As a result, the disillusionment which fueled the 1990s implosion remains simmering beneath the surface essentially because nothing has changed. Despite World Bank statistics (the same kind of statistics that proved incapable of predicting the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, etc.) suggesting 'growth', a profound socio-economic crisis continues.
The fighting ended just after the turn of the millennium, but the socio-economic crisis that had generated the conflict, remain unresolved. The population was exhausted, terrified by viciousness of the fighting, in the end fearing both the Islamicists and the government, not knowing which was worse. When the fighting ended, the military was 'the last man standing'. It remained in control of the country's sizeable oil and gas resources but at a price – a profound loss in what little legitimacy it had enjoyed from the Algerian people up until then.
And so Algeria has been called by some, 'a country without a future'. The regime remains entrenched; the power behind the presidency remains the military, a privileged social strata that lives off the oil profits. Other than increasing oil and gas production, and implementing World Bank and IMF structural adjustment programs, virtually no vision for the country's economic development exists, or hardly so. This situation has existed since the early 1980s when Algeria's crash industrialization program was revealed as an utter failure.
What Will Happen When the Oil and Gas Money Runs Out?
With the collapse of the price of oil at that time, the country entered into a crisis from which, 30 years on, has only deepened in all aspects. Algeria limps along, rudderless, a country without direction, its population in great pain, with little or no vision to guide it past its current woes, and only oil money to cover up the collapse of a dream: of independence and national self determination. What will happen when the oil and gas money run out?
And so, demonstrations challenging the regime take place every few years, including recently. But unlike in Tunisia, the Algerian protests lack that sense of hope, and wonder that change is possible. A few years ago a demonstration, protestors marched with black flags, rather than the red, green and white colors of Algeria; they seemed to be saying: we don't belong to anything anymore, not the country, not this regime.
Rob Prince is the publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.