Tag Archives: politics

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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May 10 elections: Who will show up?

Algerian legislative elections have rarely generated this much interest since those fated elections of 1991. For the past few months, pundits, journalists, politicians and government officials have been relaying each other commenting and speculating about this. The commentariat seems to have shifted into high gear with the official announcement by president Bouteflika that the elections will be held on May 10. Amel Boubekeur’s Countries at a crossroads 2011 report provides a good background on the current political situation in Algeria. John Entelis provides more background here.

These elections are simply following their 5-year cycle and there is nothing unusual about that. But the announcement of reforms in April of last year in response to riots and protests that had occurred earlier, and the events that followed both in Algeria and in the region, raised expectations that some sort of opening was going to happen. The Algerian government, it was hoped, was about to initiate the changes that the people needed and demanded, not simply continue its policy of bribing some groups while repressing others in order to maintain stability.  Those hopes were dashed when the new laws on non-governmental organizations, the media, and political parties were first drafted then enacted as well described here by Melissa Rahmouni or in this report of the The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law.

Heavy criticism did not prevent the government from forging ahead, oblivious of its surroundings, unperturbed and splendid in its nakedness like the proverbial emperor.  But, lacking any legitimacy in the eyes of its own people, the Algerian  regime always seeks foreign praise to feed its self-affirmation. With the eyes of the world focused on North Africa like never before, Algiers cannot afford to disappoint its international partners, Paris and Washington in particular. The success of elections in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco raised the bar and they make business-as-usual ballot-stuffing, or better yet cancelling , of elections a challenging proposition. It goes without saying that the regime has no intention of relinquishing or sharing power. To believe otherwise is foolish.  But controlling the elections will require some creativity this time. So the strategy seems to include the following elements: First, the process is being flooded with new parties that offer very little in terms of new ideas or initiatives, and will merely confuse voters. Second,  a major effort is being mounted to convince people to vote.

Many of the new parties are splinter groups from established parties that are hoping to be rewarded with a few seats in parliament (where the numbers of seats was increased) thereby justifying their existence. They will make ideal clients for the deciders and can be conveniently paraded as living proof of Algeria’s political pluralism and openness should any nosy foreign government or NGO ask. Successive elections in the Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt have resulted in victories for Islamist parties and Libya has already indicated that it is heading in that direction. Another Islamist victory in Algeria would complete the Grand Slam that many outside Algeria are either expecting or wishing for.  Algerians see it as a  case of “been there , done that” that brings bad memories and for the Algerian regime it’s an opportunity to recycle the gambit it has used multiple times in the past: If you are afraid of the Islamists vote for one of these other parties carefully selected specially for you.  One should not lose sight, however, of the fact that the Islamist parties that are likely to participate in these elections are the domesticated kind very unlikely to pose a serious challenge to the current rulers the boasting of their leaders notwithstanding (The Moor Next Door provides some useful background on the MSP here) . The unexpected twist this year though is the possible participation of the Socialist Forces Front (FFS). The oldest opposition party, the secular FFS enjoys a measure of respect linked in great part to the principled positions of its founder/leader Hocine Ait-Ahmed who happens to be one  of  the few remaining “historical leaders” of the Algerian revolution. After boycotting many elections in the past (for which it was roundly criticized, even by its own partisans), the FFS has convened a series of meetings with members and sympathizers and seems to be leaning towards entering the contest although nothing has been officially announced. While recognizing that fraud in favor of the regime will undoubtedly mar these elections, just like the last presidential election as was shown by WikiLeaks, members have argued that another boycott will further marginalize the party. The absence of the rival Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), which has already declared that it will boycott these elections will further increase the possibility of a respectable result, especially in Kabylia the stronghold of both parties. From the point of view of the government, having the FFS on board provides an instant boost to the legitimacy of the process, a point the propaganda machine will surely not miss, and may increase popular participation in the elections.

Let’s not forget, however, that Algeria’s  parliament does little more than rubber-stamp decisions made by the government and does not play a real legislative role. This is unlikely to change in the near future even if some credible opposition were to gain a sizable share of the vote. Commentators keep referring to opportunities for a peaceful transition toward democracy that the regime should not miss. Pointing to elections as the right way to go. But this would go against the nature of the regime, as nicely put by Forest Whitaker’s character narrating the parable of the scorpion and the frog in that wonderful movie from 1992: The crying game.

Getting people to vote seems to be the main concern for the government at this point. Although it has been able to cover up the low turnouts in previous editions, doing this again may prove to be challenging. A well orchestrated campaign seems to be underway to encourage people to vote. The government has officially denied asking Imams to encourage people to vote but did not eliminate the possibility that they could bring this up in their sermons.  In his TV announcement, president Bouteflika reminded Algerians of their civic duty to vote and even issued a personal appeal:  “I am expecting you to give me reason  to be proud, once again, of the valorous Algerian people”. Cell phone owners have been receiving text messages telling them that to vote is “citizen act of responsibility”and now TV ads are spreading the same message. If encouragements are not sufficient, threats might do the trick as was implied by a legal expert on Algerian TV and carefully deconstructed here by blogger Algerianna. This concern for turn-out on the part of the regime seems to be justified as calls for a widespread boycott are gathering strength. In addition to the RCD, personalities as diverse as as Sid Ahmed Ghozali, prime minister during the 1991 elections, and Abdou Bendjoudi, leader of the Movement of the Independent Youth for Change (MJIC), have called for a boycott of the elections. Informal online polls ( Kalima DZ, AlgeriePatriotique, Mouwatin) also show an overwhelming intent to boycott the elections.

What is particularly edifying is the way this Get The Votes Out campaign from the government was launched in an incredibly gauche way that underscored the tone-deaf nature of the regime. President Bouteflika’s surrealist speech announcing the elections came a time when most of the country was still  reeling from the worst winter weather in recent memory. While urging them to vote, the president did not have a single word of compassion for  people isolated in mountains by snowstorms, facing food shortages and struggling to find butane gas for heating and cooking.  In response, people publicly burned they voting cards and one person destroyed his phone when he received one of those texts about voting. After hundreds of social protests it seems that the presidential palace still does not get the message. Will people send him a final notice on May 10 by not showing up?

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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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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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