The self-parody of Algeria’s leaders

The raw symbolism of flooding the capital with more police than demonstrators every Friday, cutting off all trains, buses and other means of access speaks of the army’s contempt for the people.
Wednesday 02/06/2021
A file picture shows Algerians taking part in  an anti-government demonstration in the capital Algiers. (AFP)
A file picture shows Algerians taking part in an anti-government demonstration in the capital Algiers. (AFP)

Algeria arguably ranks among top authoritarian states adamant on keeping the international media away. Requests for visas by leading Western media, including the BBC and the New York Times, go unanswered for years. Algeria seldom features in world news. The world media did however take notice when millions marched through towns across the country, week after week for nine months in 2019. Helped by the confinement of COVID-19, the country’s rulers tried to put an end to the Hirak movement which, despite its non-violent clamour for democracy, failed to change the military high command’s mind that Africa’s largest state belonged to it and it alone.

Lone gone are the days when the bravery of Algerian men and women who took on the political and military might of France gained the admiration of many across the world, including the US Senator for Maine, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Long gone are the hopes of economic development fostered in the great days of Third Worldism after independence and the brief interlude of reform in 1988-1992 when a politically pluralistic Algeria seemed possible, even if the impression lasted for a brief few years only. Two years after the fall of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algerian leaders have locked down 43 million Algerians and lost much of the regional influence which their brilliant diplomats once wielded. They might not even have enough gas to export by 2030 if they do not undertake an urgent restructuring of the oil and gas sector, according to Ali Hached, a former vice-president of the state oil company Sonatrach. That is no mean risk, considering that hydrocarbons account for 97% of Algeria’s foreign income.

In what is arguably one of the best books ever written on Algeria, The Call from Algeria, Robert Malley wrote, a quarter of a century ago: ”As the years go by, and in virtual self-parody, the regime gradually takes on the traits of its most vicious caricatures. Having rattled on for so long in a meaningless, vacuous, monotonous idiom, it has ended up splendidly isolated, cloistered, out of touch, with no one to chat with but itself.”

The raw symbolism of flooding the capital with more police than demonstrators every Friday, cutting off all trains, buses and other means of access speaks of the army’s contempt for the people. General Khaled Nezzar (born 1937) was brought back from exile in Barcelona, last January, to advise President Abdelmajid Tebboune (born in 1945) while General Mohamed Mediene (born in 1939) sacrilegeously dubbed “Rab edzair” — the God of Algeria —  during years in power is back in a saddle from which he has never quite fallen, that of head of the powerful security. His dishonourable discharge by Bouteflika in 2015, after a quarter of a century in the job was always more akin to shadow boxing than real disgrace. The chief of staff of the army, since January 2020, General Said Chengriha (born in 1945), belongs to the same age group. No wonder a country whose average age is below 30 has ceased to pay attention to the musical chairs.

President Tebboune keeps promising reform and explaining how, in his eyes, the “sacred” Hirak has been hijacked by foreign conspirators. National television rattles on, night after night, about the glorious deeds accomplished by the heroes of the bloody fight for independence, oblivious to the fact that the army and security have confiscated democracy even before the country became independent at the hands the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic.  It recently showed a  film made by the army entitled Qui vise l’Algerie? La vérité complète (Who is targeting Algeria? The whole truth), a hodgepodge of conspiracy accusations where Kabyle Berbers, Islamists and French operatives are blended into a totally absurd story. In April, the minister of labour El Hachemi Djaaboub accused France of being the “traditional and eternal enemy of Algeria”. The Algerian government then cancelled a visit the French prime minister Jean Castex was due to make, just a few days before it was supposed to take place.

Last month, Tebboune, who usually echoes the military’s positions,  accused France of having “massacred half the population of Algeria” during the war of liberation. A historically blatant exaggeration, no doubt. Writer Mouloud Feraoun, a friend of French author Albert Camus who backed the rebellion against France and was murdered by the right-wing Organisation de l’Armée Secrète on the eve of independence, prophesied right after the war started in 1954 that “the indigenous people of Algeria, humiliated yesterday, now tortured and hunted, will end up in slavery, the worst slavery they have known.” Conspiracy theories ill suit rulers who often hold bank accounts abroad, whose children study in Europe and the US. Many of them even carry French passports.

Two characteristics of the Hirak need to be noted. The movement was always stronger among native Berber speakers than among Arab speakers. This allowed the rulers, often Berber speakers, to paint the protest movement  as “anti-nationalist” and play up the supposed opposition between Berbers and Arabs, which is in fact one of the creations of colonialism.  This fabricated divide was after independence instrumentalised by pan-Arabists as described by Robert Malley in his book. Nor did the Hirak manage to build a real organisation or leadership during the six months it was relatively free to act in 2019. It succeeded in preventing president Bouteflika from standing for a fifth term, which in itself was no mean feat, but it failed to present a platform for reforms. Maybe it was too much to ask for a broad and diverse social movement to come up with answers to these questions in such short a time.

The security forces did all they could to provoke violence among the demonstrators who never rose to the bait, thus putting to rest the deeply-held conviction of many in the West that Algeria was, deep down an atavistically-violent society. Kamal Eddine Fekhar was harassed for years before dying in prison as a result of his hunger strike and medical negligence in May 2019; the former commander of the National Liberation Army Lakhdar Bouregaa ( 1933-2019) died shortly after being released from four months in prison; the former head of the Algerian League of Human Rights, Mostefa Bouchachi was vilified in media campaigns as was the former journalist Fodil Boumala.

The military fear these charismatic figures and treat them harshly while European leaders, so prompt to denounce victims of repression in countries such as Russia, Iran or China stay silent.

French political leaders give both their peers in the EU and Algerians the impression they fear the potential disorder that might accrue from freer politics more than the brutality of the regime. Fear of political Islam, often conflated with terrorism, had often in the past made Western leaders endorse authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa. There are lingering painful memories of the “Black Decade” but fears of Islamist designs are not anymore among the greatest concerns of Algerians today. Besides, the Hirak’s slogans have showed no sign the popular protest movement was drifting to radical religious views.

Riccardo Fabiani, Project Director, North Africa at International Crisis Group speaks of what he sees as “the incapacity of French diplomats and politicians to think of North Africa, Algeria in particular, as having an identity of its own which is not closely tied to France.”

This failure of political imagination and a narrow view of how best to defend French economic interests speak of a lack of strategic thinking. In the medium term that will undermine France and the EU’s interests in the region and their capacity to influence events. Russia, Turkey and China are gaining ground in Libya, Tunisia and Algeria. This failure of the European political imagination is mirrored in Algeria where no effort has been made to study the Ottoman archives in Istanbul which would allow a reconstruction of a country which for more than three centuries played an important part in the Ottoman empire.

It suits most Algerian leaders to forget their history and define themselves against the background of abuses by a colonial power which a vast majority of their people do not hold responsible for the dead end the country finds itself in today.

The reasons for the re-emergence of Generals Nezzar and Mediene seems to be the result of a decision to close army and security ranks in the wake of the illness which kept Tebboune in a German clinic for months in 2020-2021. The military also wanted to put behind them the divisions created by General Gaid Salah during the nine months when he was the de facto ruler of Algeria in 2019. Gaid Salah dismissed many senior officers, placed his own men in key jobs, thus upsetting the complex game of spoils which passes for politics among the country’s rulers. The battles they engage in are essentially linked to the commissions to be earned in important oil and gas or other industrial or arms contracts. Why is the French company Total winning a contract and not American Occidental ? Why are the gendarmerie suddenly buying the latest Peugeot and Renaults cars when they are already over-equipped with Nissans and Mercedes? The pickings in Algeria’s still moderately rich oil and gas rich economy matter more than ideological fights.

Meanwhile, the US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara, whether or not  it is eventually followed by some European countries, signals an Algerian diplomatic setback in the region. The foreign ministry, like many of its peers in Algiers has been eviscerated by twenty years of mismanagement and corruption under Bouteflika. Never has the key oil and gas sector been in such incompetent hands. A generation of skilled senior civil servants is fading away or has gone into exile to be replaced by far less qualified and worldly people. The leaders talk about diversifying the economy away from hydrocarbons but talking the talk is no more than economic self-parody. General Nezzar and General Chengriha might be professional soldiers but neither of them, nor Tewfik Mediene for that matter, have ever given the impression they are interested, let alone have any understanding of economics.

As they read the tea leaves after next June 12 general elections, observers will have to content themselves with whether the Islamists parties or the ghost of the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) have “gained” or “lost” votes and who the “independents” might well be in a poll which, in all likelihood, will be massively boycotted.

French President Macron has made gestures to recognise France’s colonial misdeeds. However, when he said last November that he would do everything to “help the courageous President Tebboune”, he earned himself a stunning rebuke from Hirak’s charismatic figure Karim Tabbou. “We do not expect any expression of support from France but the public support for one of the most authoritarian and freedom-averse regimes in the Mediterranean only shows your bad faith and hypocrisy.”

The conclusion of this latest episode is that French policy towards Algeria has utterly failed. The old Ottoman game of puppets, karakuz, will resume. In Algeria after the elections the outside world, not least the US which has put North Africa on the back burner, will forget Algeria till the next bump, or accident, down the road. Africa’s largest country, its second largest army will remain as it has been in recent years, a lumbering giant struggling for legitimacy but with nowhere to go.