One of the best things about doing commentary on YouTube is the feedback. Tuesday’s video is the second installment of my series on Algeria. It covers a lot of the same territory as my first video on Algeria, which was mostly just an appreciation of the country’s amazing history. But by posting that first video, I got a ton of comments that helped to guide some reading on my part, that helped me form more confirmed opinions on the country and its history. Tuesday’s video has gotten some very flattering appreciation. A handful of Algerian commentators have pointed out that my coverage is worlds better than any other English language source. This is less a celebration of my work than an indication of how bad US coverage of the country is more generally. I read two books, one of which I don’t find particularly trustworthy, and read about 1,000 YouTube comments, half of which were one sentence critiques of my figures and my neglect of the Berber population. With just that, I was able to do a better job talking about the country than almost any English language journalist. I’m kind of proud of that, but it’s also pretty sad.
All that said, while I’ve gotten a few very positive comments on this video, I’ve gotten many more that are pretty negative. Now that I’m diving deeper into the politics of the country, and making opinions, I’ve triggered a negative reaction. But I take heart from the fact that most of what people are complaining about is my read on the politics of the moment, and what people think of the current president. Nobody is complaining about my take on the history leading up to this year anymore. And with my next video on Algeria, probably a year or so from now, I’ll be able to incorporate criticisms of others. Iterative analysis. I like it.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Algerian military has got to go. It has served its purpose. The power and success of Algeria’s year long peaceful protest movement has been stunning, and it shows that the Algerian people are more than ready to take the country into the next era. The military’s role in Algerian history reached the point of diminishing returns long ago, and by clinging to power it is now actively putting its own accomplishments in jeopardy.
In my first video on the country 9 months ago, I pointed out that Algeria had to fight much harder for its independence than any other North African country. In my reading since it’s become clear that the Algerian military did a lot more than just win that fight. It also defined Algeria as a nation. Unlike its neighbors Tunisia and Morocco, Algeria does not have a long history as a unified country. Instead its status as the borderland between a succession of empires left it fragmented. Between the early years of the Abbasid Caliphate and the French invasion, Algeria was never unified for long. It was almost always divided up between empires to the east and west. Some of these empires were based in Morocco and Tunisia, both of whom have the nation making ancient capital cities and centers of Islamic learning that Algeria lacks. Algeria was the most distant province of the Ottoman Empire, but Turkish control never made it that far from the coasts. Algeria’s second biggest city, Oran, was controlled by the Spanish for most of the time between 1500 and 1800.
Like Ukraine or the Balkans, Algeria spent centuries as a battleground between different empires. This is what made it so susceptible to French imperial influence. There was never a unified political unit to resist the Europeans the way there was in Tunisia or Morocco. Don’t get me wrong, there were great resistance heroes like Abd elkader, a guy who was famous enough in the 1840s to have a town in Iowa named after him. But he saw himself as more of a religious leader than a national political one.
Over 132 years of control, the French used their industrial military technology to consolidate the vast territory of Modern Algeria into one political unit, subject to the capital of Algiers, probably for the first time in human history. But the country the French built wasn’t an Algerian one. Though Europeans were probably never more than a tenth of the population, they were often the majority in the coastal cities. The language of government, business, and urban life itself was French. This was the challenge Algerians faced at the beginning of their war of independence.
When the Algerian military started out in 1954, according to legend with just 50 shotguns, they didn’t just have to win their independence, in a very real sense they were building a united National culture and history from the ground up. Even the Algerian revolutionary army spoke french. For years after independence, the Algerian government still used the language of imperialists. The Algerian bureaucrats and public simply lacked the relevant Arabic skills.
So Algeria’s military didn’t just kick out the French in one of the bloodiest independence wars of the 20th century. After victory in 1962, and especially after a coup in 1965, the Algerian military also charted a course of fierce independence. That thirst for independence became Algerian identity. Everybody wanted to profit from their revolutionary success, from Nasser of Egypt, to the competing communist regimes of Russia and China, to the United States. Algeria played all of these wannabe patrons off of each other, successfully maintaining the country’s freedom of action. As the decades wore on, thanks to Saudi Arabia and the CIA, world revolution took on a more radical Islamist vibe, and Algeria’s military shook that outside influence off too in a savage civil war in the 1990s.
I am not sure it was worth it. The more I learn about the Algerian civil war the more horrified I get. In the late 1980s, jockeying for position between factions in the military, combined with a fall in the oil price, and mass protest, led to an attempt at real multi-party politics for the first time. When an Islamist party looked set to win those elections, the military regime unified, forced the democratically inclined president to resign, and canceled the multi-party experiment. They argued they had to do it to preserve Algeria’s secular character, and maybe they were right about that, but the cost was horrific.
Throughout the dark decade of the 1990s, the Algerian people were stuck between two buzzsaws. The Islamist party that had its victory stolen dissolved into warring factions, that believed in differing levels of violence to get their way. While the military regime stayed unified publicly, under the surface it was a mess of assassinations and violent factional conflict that used various Islamist groups as pawns against each other. Some believe that some of the war’s most horrific massacres supposedly carried out by religious radicals were in fact carried out by the regime itself to discredit political Islam. This horrific nightmare of a decade killed at least 150,000 people.
You can make an argument that this violent blocking of the Saudi-inspired Islamist tendency of the 1990s contributed to Algerian independence. The civil war meant that when a protest movement finally arrived in Algeria, a decade later than The Arab Spring elsewhere, it was scrupulously peaceful and free of outside influence. This has made that movement more successful than most. But it’s harder to argue this was worth the horror of the 1990s. This is what I mean by the diminishing returns of the Algerian regime. The civil war is now also a key part of Algeria’s heritage of fierce Independence. But yikes.
Another negative regime development of the 1990s was the new prominence of France aligned generals. Some go so far as to believe that in the waning days of the independence war, back in the 1960s, the French trained a bunch of Algerian officers who faked a defection to the Algerian cause. The theory claims that these young officers then slowly took over the Algerian government in a sinister 30 year plot.
I think that theory is a little ridiculous, but it’s based on a surprising, but quite sensible move that the Algerian regime made in the 1960s 70s and 80s. There were some Algerian defectors from the French army that came over in the later years of the independence war. And many of them did make their way to the top of the Algerian military because of their professionalism and experience. But this wasn’t some French conspiracy, it was a wise strategic choice by Algerian leaders.
People forget what a dangerous place the world was before the end of the cold war. Once the independence issue was settled, France was a good weak power to latch on to. Unlike the super powers, France desperately needed Algerian oil, and a close relationship with the old imperial power was more likely to be a partnership than the neo colonialism the US and the Soviets were offering.
The relationship with France gave Algeria the breathing room it needed to develop on its own path. Algeria’s people and government speak more Arabic than French now. French influence has been preserved at the top, but on most metrics Algeria is a vastly more independent place than it was 50 years ago. So I can’t bring myself to condemn the entire legacy of Algeria’s military regime. To do that would be to condemn Algeria itself. But it’s long past time for the military to get out of politics. The level of French corruption present today is just one of many reasons why.
The best reason for the military to get out of politics is The protest movement itself. The responsibility, peacefulness, and simple common sense demands of the Hirak movement make their case for real democracy indisputable.
The protesters are often criticized for a lack of leadership, but the regime keeps throwing anybody who steps up into jail, so that’s not a fair criticism. Just because the regime isn’t murdering people as freely as it used to, doesn’t mean Algeria is a free country yet.
Another reason the Algerian military regime needs to go is time itself. I had been aware that Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the president overthrown by the protesters last April, was one of the last of the revolutionary generation, but I had assumed he was some young foot soldier back then. Not so. He was a major player, serving as foreign minister from the mid 1960s.
This guy took meetings with people like Krushchev and Degaulle, and he was still in power in 2019, over half a century later. That’s insane. After Bouteflika’s fall last April, the military consolidated power under Ahmed Gaid Salah, who became the new nemesis of the protest movement, organizing the election of a new puppet president. Then he died. Of a heart attack. Because he was 79. The parallels between this regime and the final decades of the Soviet Union should be jumping out at you.
Another reason for them to go is oil and gas. We have been living in a post scarcity world for petroleum products for about five years now. Folks are now waking up to the fact that this isn’t going to be changing any time soon. Algeria’s status as a petro-state allowed it to paper over a lot of cracks for a very long time. As the protest movement demonstrates the military can’t afford to bribe the people anymore. And it’s going to get worse. Algeria built up a large cushion of foreign reserves over the course of the good years. That cushion is quickly evaporating. Algeria has a lot of hard choices to make in the coming years, and the military won’t be able to make them. The cushy bubble of corruption they used to make the country work is now popping. Bailing out now is just the sensible thing to do.
There’s another country in North Africa whose nation was built by its army. That’s Egypt. From the 19th century until Nasser’s humiliation of the British in the 1950s, the Egyptian military led the way to independence and modernity.
But then it held on to power long enough to kill its own success. It dug in to its control of the economy, became an industrious torturer and murderer of its own people, and transformed Egypt from the leader of the Arab world and an international power broker into a widely pitied tool of the United States with a stagnant economy. Egypt provides a cautionary tale to Algeria’s military. They should get out of politics now while the getting’s good. Their country will thank them for it.
Thanks for watching, please subscribe, and come back next time when we will talk about the quickest way to reduce French influence in Algeria, opening up the border with Morocco. Thanks.