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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Happy Birthday Algeria

“If I have been able to see further, it was only because I stood on the shoulders of giants.” On this 5th of July, independence day in Algeria, I would like to borrow Isaac Newton’s famous quote to say that if we have been able live as free Algerians in an independent Algeria for the past forty-nine years, it is because we  have benefited from the sacrifice of millions of heroes. Those are our giants. Millions of people, young and old, men and women, Algerians and non-Algerians who did not hesitate to give up their lives for over a century to prevent the programmed annihilation of a whole nation. Yes, much can be said about the sorry state of affairs in Algeria today. No Algerian would disagree with that. But today is not the day to recount one more time our misfortunes. Today is a day to salute and commemorate the courage and martyrdom of those who came before us. Those who afforded us the luxury of having such a celebration today. Today is a day to honor their memory by committing ourselves to try, in whatever capacity we can, with whatever means we have, to carry on their mission  and make Algeria the beautiful and prosperous country she deserves to be.

 

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TEDxAlger, a subversive act?

Algiers, revolutionary Algiers, capital of the third-world revolutions in the sixties and the seventies, was a sure bet as the next stop in the unfolding drama of the Arab spring. The stage was set, the actors identified, and the script rehearsed in Tunis and Cairo. Anxious observers scrutinized every bit of news coming out of Alger-la-Blanche trying to anticipate events, ready to connect the dots with the rest of the grand narrative that was being constructed to explain the political awakening of the region. But nothing happened. Sure, there were calls for marches and public demonstrations, online declarations, op-ed pieces and a heavy police presence in the streets of Algiers. But nothing that could match the mesmerizing spectacle of the massive gatherings in Tunis or Tahrir square.  And the world’s attention was quickly redirected to Bahrein, Yemen, and finally Libya and Syria where things did happen.

Those still paying attention to Algeria were left with the task of explaining why nothing happened. The exercise is still in progress and more will be said about that in future posts here, but an emerging consensus argument runs something like this: Algeria has already gone through this phase back in October 1988, when massive riots left over 500 dead, led to an opening of the political landscape and the emergence of an independent press. This was followed by the cancelation of the 1992 legislative elections, won in the first round by the Islamists, by the military and ten years of a bloody civil war during which an estimated 200,00 people died. Traumatized by these events, Algerians were not too keen for a repeat performance. They have lost trust in the political process, and are today more interested in social and economical reforms to improve their constantly deteriorating situation.  This explains why communal guards and students succeeded where political organizations failed. They were able to organize public demonstrations because they  focused on meaningful and concrete social demands, not on political demands such as bringing down the system.

The validity of this argument will undoubtedly be tested in the coming weeks as the reforms announced by president Bouteflika in his April 15 speech are implemented.

In this context it was interesting to follow what may seem like a totally unrelated event: The TEDxAlger conference. Organized on April 09 by the ETIC club , run by students of Algeria’s top school in computer science (Ecole Nationale Superieure d’Informatique) , this first independent TED event  in Algeria focused on the spirit of entrepreneurship. A number of reactions by those who attended the event can be found here, here, here,  and here. Videos of the talks can be viewed here. A comprehensive collection of links about the event can be found here.

To organize such an event, focused on business and entrepreneurship, when the whole region is swept by a revolutionary mood focused on freedom and  regime change could be interpreted as a lack of consciousness, a form of indifference or even as reactionary. Businessmen and entrepreneurs cannot possible compete as role models when compared with those who are heroically bringing down autocratic regimes. Yet, the significance of this conference can be found elsewhere, beyond its theme and content. What should draw our attention is the fact that this was a large scale international event organized entirely by students in a country notorious for the extent of governmental control on all public activities. One of the most powerful ideas underlying the Arab spring is the desire of the youth to have a say in the conduct of the affairs of their societies and countries. No longer satisfied with the status quo, they are yearning for freedom. The freedom to dream, to build, to act and to fail. They want to be  in charge of their destiny. And that is exactly what the members of ETIC have done. They did not wait to be told what to do. They had an idea, they organized themselves, worked hard,  overcame all local obstacles and accomplished something significant. How much impact this particular event will have in the future is hard to gauge, and this may not qualify as a revolutionary act as usually understood, but, keeping in mind the context discussed above, this could serve as an example of the kind of actions Algerian youth could undertake to progressively build their own civil society. Rather than directly and violently confronting the regime, it might prove to be smarter and more productive to simply make it obsolete.  In that sense TEDxAlger could be a truly subversive act.

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February 19: The next rally in Algiers

The CNCD  (National Coordination for Change and Democracy) announced today in Algiers they will organized another rally this Saturday, February 19, and every Saturday after that. More on that later.

Singer Amazigh Kateb, former leader of Gnawa Diffusion and son of famed Algerian writer Kateb Yacine leads the chant during the February 12 anti-government rally in Algiers.

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Algerians undeterred

Coming on the heels  of “Liberation Friday” in Cairo, yesterday’s events in Algiers may come as a disappointment to observers, especially those who are not too familiar with the Algerian context. 

But this should not distract us from the fact that Algerians did come out to the streets. The riots of late December and early January were dismissed as incoherent outbursts from desolate youth who were even suspected of being manipulated by shadowy business interests.  In late January, the march attempted by the RCD (Rally for Culture and Democracy) was viewed as a publicity stunt pulled by a political party losing its popularity (the coziness between its leader and the military suggested by Wikileaks did not help.) The laborious preparation of this march was marred by contradictions among its originators, with a few defections along the way. Yet,  thousands of Algerians, undeterred by the overwhelming display of force by the police, took to the streets.

They were not allowed to march as planned, so they simply rallied in a few public squares in Algiers, Constantine, Oran, and a few other cities, including foreign cities with a high concentration of Algerians, such as Paris, Montreal and Marseilles. Hundreds of protesters were arrested, including Fodil Boumala, founder of Res Publica II ,  and blogger Amine Menadi who launched the facebook site “Algerie Pacifique.” The police also roughed up 90-year old Ali-Yahia Abdenour, the honorary leader of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH). Later in the day the minister of interior, Daho Ould Kablia, announced that all those arrested had been released. It should be noted that when Ali Belhadj, a former leader of the now-banned FIS, showed up at the rally he was booed by the crowd and asked to leave.  The fear of 1988,  when popular protests were quickly overtaken by Islamists, followed by 10 bloody years of civil war, has been on the mind of many Algerians in the lead up to yesterday’s march. While not happy with the current regime, the idea of an Iran-style Islamist republic acts as a frightening prospect that blocks many in their desire to dissent or protest. The reaction to Belhadj’s presence is symptomatic of those fears. The Islamist factor is probably the one aspect of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions that many Algerians are likely to monitor closely.

The number of protesters may not impress those still mesmerized by the images of Tahrir square, but the fact that so many did come out, in so many different cities, should be viewed as the stirrings of somethings that has yet to come. The impressive police display is another indication that the regime is seriously concerned by this. The measures announced a couple of weeks ago, the lifting of  the state of emergency and the opening of state television to the opposition, have yet to materialize and it will be interesting to see if the government decides to speed up the process to try and prevent a repeat of yesterday’s rally.

For the organizers the rally was a great success. They consider that the “wall of fear” has been broken and that this is only a beginning. They are scheduled to  meet today to discuss their plans for further actions. For Mustapha Bouchachi, president of the LADDH and spokesperson for the National Coordination for Change and Democracy(CNCD in French), organizer of the event, 2011 will be the year of democratic changes in Algeria, but he added that this would not necessarily be through the form of marches and rallies.  It is clear that a simple “cut and paste” from the Tunisian or Egyptian playbooks won’t do and Algerians will have to find their way to this elusive democracy they are all longing for. It will also be important for the CNCD to broaden its base by convincing the parties that abstained from this march to join future initiatives.

Whatever the path may be, these protesters in Constantine had it just about right when they borrowed 2Pac’s lyrics “It’s time for us as a people to start making some changes.”
Constantine demonstration on Twitpic

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February 12: “I’m Walkin’…”

Video calls from Algiers for tomorrow’s march.

Fodil Boumala & Abdenour Ali-Yahia

Fodil  Boumala, Amazigh Kateb and a few others

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Tunis, Cairo,…Algiers?

While the world celebrates the great news coming from Cairo, Algerians are holding their breath wondering what will happen tomorrow. A coalition of political parties, unions, human rights groups and other non-governmental organizations (The National Coalition for Change) has issued a call for a march for tomorrow, February 12 in Algiers.  The government’s refusal to authorize this came as no surprise. Under the state of emergency law , in place since 1992, all public events of that kind are banned. Although president Bouteflika recently announced that this would happen “soon”, the lifting of the state of emergency is one of the key demands of the march. This coalition which first met in January, undoubtedly influenced by the ongoing revolution in Tunisia,  was the first time in many years that opposition parties and non-governmental organizations gave any indication that they might come out of the deep coma they seem to have fallen into and cooperate with each other.  The riots that took place in early January, dubbed by some the “sugar riots” , highlighted  the political vacuum that currently exists in Algeria. While in neighboring Tunisia the protest sparked by Mohamed Bouazizi gathered steam and was joined by an ever widening range of organizations from civil society, Algerian youths went into a quick burning rampage while the political class stood by silently. The February 12 march seemed like a good first step that would galvanize the opposition and lead to further actions. While it may appear as slightly chaotic, the organizational meeting that one can see in the video below represents a encouraging sign in the Algerian political landscape: People from different groups, with different political persuasions sitting around a table planning a common action. A partial transcript of the meeting (in French) can be found here.

Unfortunately the eternal divisions within the opposition quickly resurfaced after this meeting. Some organizations backed out of the the march. Some parties accused other parties of trying to take over the leadership of the movement and questioned the goals and motivation of the march following Bouteflika’s announcement about lifting the state of emergency. All of this created a confusion  familiar to observers of Algerian politics. The organizers of the march have nevertheless maintained their call. The regime reacted by putting the police on high alerts and it is reported that 30,000 members of the police have been mobilized for tomorrow. Trains to Algiers have been stopped today and this afternoon it has been reported that police surrounded the headquarters of the RCD which already attempted, unsuccessfully,  to organize a march in January. No one expects this march to lead quickly to the downfall of the the Algerian regime, but even a partial success of this event could signal a renewal of serious political activity in Algeria. While everyone agrees that the current situation cannot last forever, and everyone recognizes that violence leads nowhere (as shown by nearly 10 years of civil war)  politics has become such a nauseating concept to many Algerians that one wonders how change could possibly happen. Tunisia and Egypt have shown that peaceful change can be accomplished through massive mobilization of the people, and today’s announcements in Cairo could  have a mobilizing effect, but we will have to wait and see what happens tomorrow. Stay tuned.

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