Category Archives: International Relations

The FFS gambles its political capital

Weeks of speculations finally ended this past Friday when the Socialist Forces Front (FFSannounced its participation in the upcoming legislative elections in Algeria. Although multiple press reports have been hinting at that decision for a while, the announcement came as a surprise to many. The FFS has boycotted the last two legislative elections as well as all presidential elections since 1999, so the expectation was that it was going to boycott this round as well.

This decision is of course welcomed by the regime. It immediately brings the legitimacy the government was so desperately seeking for these elections, especially in the eyes of Algeria’s foreign partners. The political parties participating in the elections have also saluted the decision. On the other hand, those calling for an active boycott see this announcement as a disappointment and even a form of betrayal. So far, only one political party, the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) , and  former prime minister Sid Ahmed Ghozali (whose political party never received the needed authorization to become active), have openly called for a boycott( see here and here) , but among activists and the general population the mood is definitely leaning toward a boycott even though it is not clear how massive and organized this boycott will be. Turnout was very low during the last presidential (2009) and legislative elections (2007), despite governmental claims to the contrary, and throughout 2011 everyone could witness the extent to which discontent has significantly increased as the social and economical situation of the country has worsened. Participating in the elections is therefore seen as a waste of time that can only play in the hands of the regime, and nothing but a massive boycott would be an appropriate response to an autistic regime.

So the question on everybody’s mind is why this decision?

Since its founding in 1963, the FFS has maintained an uncompromising opposition to the regime, often denouncing the military rule or the political police as it calls it. It participated in the legislative elections of 1991 and 1997, but has boycotted every legislative and presidential elections since then arguing that the process was a fraud. Which curiously did not prevent it from participating in local elections.  The FFS was also a major player in the Rome Contract, a failed attempt (the contract was rejected by the government)  to find a peaceful resolution of the bloody Algerian conflict in 1995.  And its founder/president Hocine Ait Ahmed generally enjoys a great deal of respect among Algerians for his role in the Algerian revolution.  But all of this has not prevented suspicions of some kind of back room deal between the FFS and the deciders within the regime from surfacing. The sudden replacement, last November,  of the combative First Secretary Karim Tabou by the veteran party member Ali Laskri who uses a more conciliatory language was already viewed as an early sign. Others see this move as a cynical attempt by the party to upend its arch-rival the RCD (both parties count Kabylia as their stronghold)  now that the latter has already announced its decision to boycott the elections.

The FFS has been quick to dismiss these accusations. In a letter addressed to the members of the national convention held in Algiers in February Ait Ahmed argues that participating in these elections is a “tactical necessity for the FFS.” Gaining a specific quota of seats in the national assembly is not the primary goal. Instead, he sees this as an opportunity for the party to regroup and to re-energize the Algerian population within the FFS strategy of offering a peaceful democratic alternative to the current regime and “to put some movement back into the status quo.” For his part, Laskri issued a strong rebuttal in a press conference. He referred those who are accusing the FFS of having made a deal with the DRS to the revelations made by Wikileaks about the practices of the Algerian political class and its coziness with the military rulers of the country, and he had sharp words for Ghozali who, Laski reminded his readers, was prime minister when the 1991 elections were held then canceled, and who recently referred to himself as a “Harki” of the system.  Laskri also suggested that concerns for the territorial integrity of the nation and its security weighed heavily in the analysis of the party.  A thinly veiled reference to Libya and the NATO intervention that is unanimously viewed negatively in Algeria. This is a recurring theme mentioned by most political parties and the government as an incentive for participation in the elections. Sounding defensive about its participation, the FFS has also stressed that it will mount a serious effort to monitor the elections (though no indication was given as to how this will be done) and has indicated that it may pull out should it detect fraud in the process.

Still, the FFS faces an uphill public relations battle and its choice may prove to be risky. Press reports indicate that the consultations carried out by the party have highlighted a split between the base and the leadership. Rank and file militants argued for a boycott, an option that seems more in phase with the general popular sentiment in the country, while the leadership had already made up its mind and decided to participate. An extensive series of video recordings of the debates during the national convention is available here. In an unusual departure from his standard analysis on the subject, Ait Ahmed argued that “no boycott can guarantee that it is a better alternative to participation. The same argument could have been used in past elections and it is not entirely clear what prompted the FFS to revise its position this time. It remains to be seen whether militants and sympathizers will stick to the party line if the boycott gets more traction within civil society. Although things could shift between now and May 10, the emerging divide seems to pit on one side the general public and non-governmental organizations, and the other the political class (government and all political parties except the RCD.) Could this pose a threat to the FFS just when it tries to revive itself and become more visible on the political scene? Kabylia is likely to be the region where the two options will confront each other the most. With both the RCD and the Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylia (MAK) calling for a boycott, the supporters of the FFS will need a serious effort to mobilize the population and retain the influence they have traditionally exerted in the region.  At the national level, the FFS may risk being seen as a party “just like all the others”, attracted by the material rewards the regime bestows on those who do its bidding (in his letter Ait Ahmed himself warned against the powerful attraction exerted by the feeding bowl of the regime).  With a decision that seems to go against the flow, the party could alienate civil society, especially the youth, and appear to be an obstacle to the emergence of a citizen movement that could potentially bring to Algeria the radical change expected and demanded by so many in the country.

The FFS has often been praised for its principled positions and the astuteness of its leader, and it was often viewed as a great hope for political change in Algeria. Will May 10 confirm the savvy of the FFS or will it signal the beginning of the decline of the oldest opposition party in Algeria?


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1, 8, 125: Algeria by the numbers

I am not sure math whizzes will be able to figure out the connections between them, but Algeria made the headlines, in a way, with these three numbers over the past few days.

1: With the official announcement of South-Sudan’s independence, Algeria becomes the largest country, by area, in Africa. This little factoid was mostly noticed by Algerian media, and probably the writers at Jeopardy! As could be expected, Wikipedia folks have already updated the relevant page.

8: This is Algeria’s ranking in the world of weapons importers according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).  Algerian websites reported, incorrectly it seems, that Algeria was 9th in this category. Incidentally, Algeria lost 3 spots in the ranking compared to 2009.  Interest in this was triggered by the announcement of a $14 billion deal with German weapon manufacturers.

125: The INSEAD ranked Algeria dead last (out of 125 countries) in its latest “Global Innovation Index“. While Algeria’s numbers were low in most of the categories making up this index, it is in the science and creative outputs that it scored the lowest.

One could probably quibble over the true significance of these numbers, but taken together they encapsulate quite well the tragedy Algeria is going through today. A vast country that squanders its enormous resources in the pursuit of dubious goals neglecting the things that matter the most. Probably most telling is this partial ranking of countries of  the Middle-East & North Africa region in terms of Research & Development.


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The fallout from Cairo and Khartoum

It has been  a month since Antar Yahia rocketed Algeria Anta Yahia's rocket shot

into the final phase of the 2010 FIFA soccer world cup, but the swirl of controversy surrounding the two-game confrontation between Algeria and Egypt has yet to diminish. To give but a few examples: Awaiting a formal apology and compensation for losses incurred by Egyptian businesses in Algeria, Egypt recalled its ambassador,   suspended its membership in the North African Football Union, and announced it would boycott a meeting of the executive committee of the Arab Football Union. Meanwhile, an Algerian delegation walked out of a meeting of the Arab Lawyers Union to protest the burning of the Algerian flag by Egyptian jurists. There are ongoing discussions about a possible take-over of  Djezzy the leading mobile phone provider in Algeria, which estimated the losses caused by the looting of its offices in the tens of millions of dollars.  Algerian workers have also demanded the departure of Egyptian workers and managers. Libya’s president Muammar Gaddafi offered his mediation with no visible result yet.  Consult this Wikipedia entry or this article for a good recap of the dispute.  The Moor Next Door provides an interesting analysis on the British and American  media reporting of these events.

Soccer matches between Algeria and Egypt have never been a smooth affair, beginning in 1958 when the newly formed FLN national team (a public relation tool in the war of independence)  arrived in Cairo only to find out that the promised game against Egypt would not materialize (the threat of a ban from FIFA competitions may have motivated  Egypt’s change of mind.) However, this latest incident carries with it a number of  elements worth exploring.

Looking beyond the bombastic rhetoric, it is clear that the regimes of Algiers and Cairo could not, as noted here, pass such an opportunity to manipulate nationalistic sentiments and grab whatever amount of popularity they could from their respective populations.  On the Algerian side, the ordinarily inefficient state apparatus mounted, in the limited span of four days,  a massive airlift that landed  over 10,000 fans in the Sudanese capital.  The returning team was given a huge hero’s welcome  during which all restrictions on public assembly, imposed by the 17-year old state of emergency, were suddenly lifted. Coming on the heels of the Diar Echems riotsand completely obscuring a strike in the education sector, this euphoria provided a welcome relief for the state.

What could perhaps be the most significant development from this controversy is the shattering,  in the eyes of many Algerians, of the myth of Arab fraternity. The stinging comments from some Egyptians about the Berber origins of Algerians (with a not so subtle connotation of “barbarians) and their dismissal as non-Arabs prompted some newspapers to suggest that Algeria should withdraw from the Arab league (ironically, a similar call was issued by some Egyptians). Quite embarrassing for a  regime whose official ideology has always rested on the twin pillars of Arabism and some form of Islamism. This could explain the muted official Algerian response in the face of Egyptian criticism. An attitude that frustrated the Algerian public expecting a stronger response. While some expect this crisis to lead to the reawakening of a Berber consciousness among Algerians, others, such Ferhat Mehenni, leader of the Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylia are less optimistic.

The games also led to a vigorous clash in cyberspace. From an Algerian perspective, the anemic state-controlled TV was no match against the powerful array of Egyptian  satellite TV channels in the battle for public opinion.  This proved to be no obstacle for Algerian fans who flocked to YouTube to share information and make their voices heard.  Elias Filali, a  UK-based DZYoutuber (as members of the Algerian network on YouTube call themselves) provided blow by blow reporting from Cairo and Khartoum with direct access to members of the Algerian delegation.  His first report on the stoning of the Algerian bus received close  to a quarter of a million hits and earned him an interview on AlJazeeraZenda, became a folk-hero for his sharp video responses to Amr Adib, an Egyptian TV commentator Algerians love to hate. In the lead up to the games, the posting of doctored pictures, home-made music videos, and dubbed scenes from famous movies with Algerian commentaries were particularly popular within the Algerian cyber community. The cleverness and the technical quality of some of these products provide a glimpse of what Algerians could accomplish with better access to information technology.  The high cost of computer equipment and the poor quality of  the network have unfortunately stunted the growth of the Internet in Algeria . Incredibly, instead of plans for improvement of the situation, there is now talk of setting up an Internet filter.

The Algerian press (go here for a good overview) also benefited from this crisis. Echorouk , in particular, was the clear winner when it boasted an incredible 2 million daily copies printed. Echorouk’s reporting has been controversial and even called reckless when it announced the (false) deaths of eight Algerians in Egypt. A good discussion of Echorouk’s brand of journalism can be found here.

With both Morocco and Tunisia eliminated from the world cup, people from the Maghreb have demonstrated  their solidarity (also here) with Algerians. Broadcasting from Tunisia,  NessmaTV, a new satellite TV channel, celebrated the Algerian victory in Khartoum poking fun at poor Amr Adib. It will be interesting to find out whether this renewed popular affection translates to the political realm where tension, especially between Rabat and Algiers, remains high. A topic of discussion here.

Who said it was only a soccer game?


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TSA: Selectee screening for Algerians

Passengers arriving in the United States with Algerian passports are to be referred for “selectee screening”. That is TSA standard operating procedure according to a document uncovered by  The Wandering Aramean this past Sunday. The supposedly sensitive document was posted on the internet with limited security restrictions that could easily be overcome. The story was picked up by The New York Times which indicates that:

The document also describes these screening protocols:

¶Individuals with a passport from Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, Yemen or Algeria should be given additional screening unless there are specific instructions not to.

¶Aircraft flight crew members in uniform with valid IDs are not subject to liquid, gel, aerosol and footwear restrictions.

¶Wheelchair and scooter cushions, disabled people’s footwear that cannot be removed, prosthetic devices, casts, braces and orthopedic shoes may be exempt from screening for explosives.

While a case could be made for  the restrictions affecting most of the countries on this list: absence of diplomatic relations (Cuba, Iran,  North Korea), state of war (Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan), lack of a central government (Somalia) , attacks on US embassies (Yemen, Syria), the presence of Lebanon and Algeria on the list is surprising. In the case of Algeria, the TSA story appears on the eve of a visit to the US by the Algerian foreign minister (video) and only two weeks after the visit to Algiers by General Ward, Commander of the United States Africa Command.

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Tibhirine revisited

The killing, in 1996, of seven Trappist monks in Tibhirine (also spelled Tibéhirine in French), Algeria, made it again to the front page of  many Algerian and French newspapers this past week.  According to French newspapers (Le Figaro, Le Monde, Le Point), retired General François Buchwalter, former military attaché at the French embassy in Algiers, testified under oath that he had learned from an Algerian officer that the monks were killed, in what amounted to a military blunder, by Algerian armed forces.  Buchwalter further claims that he reported the information to his superiors and was asked to keep things quiet. This information was published a year ago in La Stampa (French version), but the author referred to an unnamed high-ranking source and it is not known whether Buchwalter is that source.

Until now, the official narrative of the event has always been that the monks were kidnapped and killed by the Armed Islamic Group (better know by its acronym in French, GIA, Groupe Islamique Armé ).  The GIA had been in secret negotiations with the French embassy to obtain the release of one of its leaders, Abdelhak Layada, who had been sentenced to death in 1995 (he was released in 2006 under the Charter for Peace and  National Reconciliation.) When the negotiations broke down, the GIA beheaded the monks (their bodies were never recovered)  and claimed responsibility for the assassination. More details can be obtained in John Kiser’s book or this Wikipedia entry (in French.) However, subsequent  massacres carried out by the GIA and other groups led to the emergence of an alternative story.  It was rumored that the GIA was in fact infiltrated and manipulated, as counter-insurgency technique, by the Algerian military who was trying to rally Algerian and international public opinion to its side in its fight against Muslim extremists.  “Qui tue qui?” (“Who kills whom?” ) became a popular catch phrase in the late nineties to express doubts about the version of events presented by the Algerian government.

The reports by the French media did not generate an immediate official response from Algeria, but newspapers there were quick to dismiss the allegations, describing them as “science fiction” , and “ramblings” by a “delusional” general.  French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s promise to release classified documents and let the justice department do its work to fully investigate the story, fueled suspicions that General Buchwalter’s testimony was part of a deliberate plan.  On the one hand, this could be viewed as a purely internal French affair. Sarkozy’s effort to re-organize France’s secret services has met some resistance, and these revelations, which could also implicate his predecessor, could strengthen his position. On the other hand, Sarkozy’s comment that these revelations would not affect his relations with the Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was viewed as evidence that this whole affair could be part of an attempt to weaken Ahmed Ouyahia, the current prime minister, who already occupied this position in 1996.  Ouyahia, who is widely believed to be a potential successor of Bouteflika, is viewed with suspicion by Paris where some of his decisions concerning foreign investments have been well received.  This story, with its possible impact on the Algerian military, could also play in the hands of Bouteflika who has been engaged in a constant tug-of-war with the military leadership. It could also explain the lack of official reaction by the government. Yesterday, in step with press reports, Abdelaziz Ziari, president of national assembly, accused unspecified parties of trying to revive the famous “Qui tue qui?”, but Ouyahia, who had just met Sarkozy at the G8 summit in Italy, refused to comment.  It was announced today, that the national TV network will broadcast, on Monday, a special report with interviews of  Hervé de Charrette, former French foreign minister and Yves Bonnet, former head of the  French intelligence agency DST.

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Former CIA Officer in Algeria Charged With Sexual Assault

The Washington Post reports that Andrew Warren, former CIA chief in Algeria,  has been indicted on charges of sexual assault on an Algerian woman in Algiers. The announcement was also reported by private Algerian newspapers, such as El Watan, but there has been no official reaction yet. ABC News first broke the story back in January.

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Red tape, weapons and a New York-Algiers flight

David Pearce, U.S. Ambassador in Algeria, met recently with journalists from the Algerian press at the U.S. embassy in Algiers. El Watan, El Khabar, Liberte, L’Expression, and APS were present.  Interestingly, the published accounts of the meeting highlight very different parts of the discussion. The stories in El Watan( in French) and L’Expression(in French) focus on the ambassador’s remarks on red tape at the customs and the lack of transparency in the rules and regulations for foreign businesses. El Khabar(in Arabic) prefers to concentrate on the issues of sales of weapons. The ambassador talks about Algerian hesitations about the restrictions imposed by the U.S. on the sales of weapons. According to the article, Algeria wants to buy night vision goggles, sophisticated radars and unmanned aerial vehicles (drones). The three papers also report about ongoing discussions, according to the ambassador, to reach an open skies agreement that would lead to a direct New York-Algiers flight.

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