I have always found Algeria fascinating. It’s weirdly distinct from the rest of the Arab world. This has always been true, but it’s been especially so since the Arab Spring in 2011, an event that Algeria sat out, almost uniquely.
Most countries in the Arab world are either small or profoundly beat up. They have all lost their independence to one extent or each other, victims of Saudi Arabia’s counter-revolutionary efforts since the Arab Spring. Even Egypt, a country of 80 million that used to lead the Arab world, is reduced to taking hand outs from Saudi Arabia and the United States. Not Algeria.
Over the past two months, Algeria has been experiencing its own protest movement, and its strong man has been dethroned. People are expecting things to take a similar path to earlier Arab Spring debacles. That’s possible, but in this video I argue things may turn out differently. Because Algeria is stronger than you think it is.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey There. Over the past couple months it has been thrilling to watch disciplined, peaceful protesters in Algeria throw out their 20 year president. But now, as with most of these Arab Spring protests, things are getting more complicated. The protesters want more change, the regime obviously wants less, and many outsiders are confidently predicting disaster. That’s a possibility, but I still have high hopes. Because Algeria is a stronger country than most recognize.
Over the past month I have covered the disaster in Libya, and the extraordinary accomplishments of Tunisia. It’s tempting to claim that Algeria could follow in the footsteps of either these two neighbors, but that undersells the potential and risk here. Algeria is a different class of country fro. either Libya or Tunisia. On the most obvious level there are 40 million Algerians, not 6 or 12 million. Algeria is a serious regional power, and a successful transition to representative democracy there could change the entire Arab world.
I am more optimistic about Algeria than most, because it’s strength and independence make it kind of unique in the Arab world. If I were making this video before the 2014 oil price crash, I would probably have started a conversation about Algerian power by talking about their massive oil and gas industry. That industry is now more of a liability than a strength, the price crash is one of the main reasons these protests are happening. But Algerian strength isn’t just about gas, it’s about history.
Algeria’s neighbors had a fairly easy transition to independence. Libya’s colonial oppressor, Italy, went and lost World War II, making independence in 1951 fairly straightforward. Tunisia had to struggle a bit longer, but the French let them go in 1956 to focus on other priorities. France’s main priority at that time was Algeria. Most direct European control in the Middle East and North Africa was brutal, but haphazard and largely pointless.
Algeria was different. For starters its period of oppression was a half century longer than the rest of the region’s. From the 1830s the country had been a French national project, meant to compete with the British empire’s much more impressive feats of colonization and exploitation. Administratively Algeria was treated as just another part of France, any by the 1950s over a million Europeans had settled in Algeria. Some of them had been there for generations. The French were never going to let Algeria go easily.
Between 1954 and 1962 the Algerians fought the French in one of the most brutal wars of independence the planet has seen, killing an estimated 300,000 people.2 TO 3% I visited Algeria back in 2013, and it felt like a memory of a vanished world. The capital is filled with streets named after mid 20th century revolutionary heroes. It’s a place that very consciously shouts defiance of the imperial oppressor. You know, people like me.
Algeria traditionally doesn’t like the US much. Officially they were non aligned but in their rhetoric and reputation they were very much on the other side of the cold war. That may have bugged me 32 years ago, but now Algeria’s fierce independence is something that I think the arab world can use. Every other country in the region is heavily reliant on the United States or its gulf state colonies. After 9-11 the Algerian regime started working with the US in limited counter terror capacities, but they have always kept the world hegemon at arms length. Algerians remember their fierce battle for independence.
You may be getting the sense that I find the Algerian regime weirdly impressive, and you are probably right. It’s the last remnant of the old Arab nationalist cause that had so much promise over half a century ago. Countries like Egypt and Syria still play lip service to that sort of thing, but both those countries are the playthings of outside powers. Algeria remains independent. Unfortunately it took a high degree of brutality to get them there.
This brutality is a product of the independence struggle itself. If you haven’t seen the Battle for Algiers you are really missing out. The thinly fictionalized film was made with the participation of some of the fighters, just a few years after victory. It doesn’t skimp on the evils committed by The French, or by the Algerians. It’s one of the best films of the 20th century.
The French were kicked out by brutal men and women, and after victory that brutality was often turned against The Algerian people. In 1988, after the last great oil price crash, the people had had enough. They demanded a say in the government, and the president at the time decided to try to give it to them, setting up multi-party elections. Nobody else in the region was trying this. Algeria was far ahead of its time.
Too far ahead of time, it turned out. In 1989 Algeria was caught up in a Muslim world shaped by the US-Saudi effort to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan. That battle was a success, but to make it happen, the Saudis had used their billions to radicalize every Muslim they could, with US and Pakistani help. The Algerian elections of 1990 and 1991 were shaped in part by heavily fundamentalist fighters returning from Afghanistan. The rhetoric of the Islamic Salvation Front or FIS was extreme, and clashed heavily with the more secular leftist world view of the ruling regime. After winning local elections in 1990 the FIS quickly moved to establish a more fundamentalist lifestyle where it could. When the Islamists won the first round of national elections in 1991, the old revolutionary elite staged a coup.
The Revolution survived, and the people were crushed. It took a decade of blood and at least another 100,000 lives lost to get there. The Algerian Civil War was horrific but it too added to the country’s strength and independence. During the first phase of the Arab Spring back in 2011, Algeria was the only country to sit it out almost completely. They had already fought that fight and learned those lessons. But the ongoing fall of the petroleum economy now requires a new phase for Algeria.
So far, this new conflict between people and regime has been extraordinarily civilized. The protesters don’t want chaos, they just want change, and they deserve it. The Regime and other stakeholders don’t want chaos but they know they need to change too. The majority of the Islamist parties are vastly more moderate than they were back in the 1980s as well. There is no reason these elements can’t all work together to build a better country.
I am filming this video a week ahead of time. It’s possible that by now the Algerian events have already fallen into violence. But they don’t have to stay there. Peace and democracy are very possible for this country. We know this because they have it right next door in Tunisia.
If Algeria can figure it out then we will have over 50 million people in two countries living in peace and prosperity right next door to each other. This would provide a stronger basis for power and prosperity for both countries. It would also provide a shining example to the Arab world.
Algeria has a brutal history, but it’s also an inspiring one. Looking back over the past two months, it’s amazing how much has already been accomplished. If Algerians can continue to triumph over their own past and trust each Other, there is no limit to what can be accomplished.
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