By: Sarah Hassaine Tweet her @SHassaine
Note: PITAPOLICY is proud to kick-off February with a post on Algeria, which has not been covered in the media regarding the Arab Awakening. In fact, every Wednesday in February, PITAPOLICY will focus on stories covering the Magreb region. As usual, if other “pita-consumers” would like to contribute thoughts on Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Sudan, and yes, Egypt too, please send to email@example.com! Part of breaking bread, is accepting rebuttals. This is the PITAPOLICY mission, so we welcome alternative viewpoints.
“You are next you know,” he says with a grin of satisfaction.
“Hmmm, no we are not,” I retort a matter-of-factly, in which turns the person off complete and they turn away from me as if I have no idea what I am talking about.
We tend to do that. Treat one another like we represent our “home country’s” politics. Ever since the unexpected, yet welcomed, Arab Spring started a little over a year ago in Tunisia, friends (non-Algerian of course), look at me with excitement and almost a hint of admiration in their eyes and say “You are next!” in a rushed voice.
The irony is that before January 2011, people forgot that Algeria even existed. A former colleague of mine asked me once, “Oh yes, it is by Thailand right?” No…far from. Algeria is located in North Africa, nestled between Morocco nd Tunisia. It borders the Mediterranean and faces Spain and France. It is the largest country in all of Africa after Sudan’s split with a population of 35 million and it is very different than other MENA countries due to its history and mixed culture that is influenced by Berbers, Spaniards, Turks, Arabs and the French.
I tip my hat to all those throughout the world at large who have protested and continue to stand up to their regimes demanding democracy, transparency and justice. However, Algeria is not next in line for the Arab Spring extravaganza.
Algeria’s unfortunate history, which is unlike any other Arab country, was colonized by the French for 132 years. Algerians in 1954 started a revolution to fight against their colonialists and after 8 years of fighting, achieved its independence on July 5, 1962.
Thirty years later, the country rich in natural gas and resources slipped into a ten year civil war after national elections yielded results that were not favored by certain parties, notably, the army. Sadly, deathly mediums and innocent lives were used to achieve victory. Algeria saw over ten years of bloodshed: people slaughtered to pieces, villages massacred, midnight raids on families, bombs, disappearances and more – costing over 200,000 lives. After all the revolutionary fighting united against France, the threads of unity unraveled and destroyed their own love and trust for one another.
In 2004, President Bouteflika called for a National Reconciliation referendum and the people responded in a hungry fervor: YES. The people wanted to move on and to develop with the times. They wanted to turn away from war and catch up to the rest of the world and lead “normal” lives in the 21st century. The people wanted to just come home and be concerned with bringing home the daily bread so to speak.
Which is exactly why I tell you Algeria will doubtfully join the Arab Spring bandwagon. Every Algerian family retains painful memories of the revolutionary war and the civil unrest that erupted between the regime and its Islamist militant opponents in the late 1980s. The Algerians do not want to fight again and cause more blood to be spilled and potentially more human rights abuses. Algerians are fighters after all – they are the one nation that fought to the bone and won, but they also know how to pick their battles.
I was just in Algeria this past December 2011. As a child, I was fortunate and I used to go every one to two years, spending long summers with my family. One of the many benefits of going so much as a child was that I watched the country truly develop. This past visit, we went out to eat in nice restaurants, walked along the water, enjoyed driving at night blasting techno music on the wide 5 lane highways and indulged in street and mall shopping. Nowhere was there a sign of protestation or frustration from the people. Interesting to note as well, you do not find President Bouteflika’s face on every building, corner and store like you would in Syria and Egypt with Assad and Mubarak.
In the 80s/90s, an eerie stillness hit every city in the country as no one was outside their home once the sun set, no car was on the road. Stores were stocked with the minimum and only basic foods were available, mainly national. There were no restaurants and places for families or women to go to. Now it can honestly be said that Algerians have access to more opportunities. On average, every family has a car, more and more youth, adults and seniors have cell phones, it is easier for Algerians now to travel and take vacations, many are educated and work, there is a wide international selection in all stores, and there is a healthy family life of restaurants and ice cream parlors that are open until late at night. Nevertheless, Algeria does not equal Lebanon or Egypt’s fun late night life. Yet, what they have today is better than what it has seen in a very long time. While the average person still complains that Algerian society is depressing and everyone judges everyone and “you cannot just be yourself,” it is still better than what it was before, and in fact, no different than any other Arab country. In fact, such characteristics do not just plague Algeria but color many developing nations.
The government does a good job at maintaining a middle class existence, especially since the Arab spring the government has made it a priority to restore the middle class that had been absent in the late 1980s. There is no huge disparity now, like one would find in Egypt or Jordan.
I talked at great length with uncles, cousins, and family friends about how Algeria perceived the events in neighboring countries and whether they anticipated Algeria would follow suit. The answers were always the same unbelievably: Algerians were happy where they are. They did not want more bloodshed or more daily angst; they just want stability and do not want to face a military crackdown again.
Now it is true that Algeria experienced protests last year, around the time Ben Ali fled Tunisia. Algerians hit the streets in smaller numbers than neighboring Egypt and Tunisia peacefully to protest their socio-economic reality of rising prices and low wages. But the protests disappeared faster than they materialized because Algerian security forces were ruthless and turned to brutal means and attacked some protestors – making examples of them. Once the people saw this, the effort halted. In return, the government responded immediately and appeased any signs of mounting anger by using the country’s plentiful energy revenues to give pay raises for public employees and raised subsidies on basic foods. The most poignant however was that the 19-year-old state of emergency from the days of the civil unrest was lifted, and the President publically promised to give the opposition a voice in state media and set up a commission to recommend political reforms. One reform was to include term limits for future Algerian presidents, not for Bouteflika himself. The protests stopped. Algeria’s armed forces and security services – the actual institutions that wield hard power behind the presidency – have not yet succumbed to pressure from the international community. They are the second reason that Algeria is “not next.” Algeria’s armed forces are not afraid to exercise power if need be to keep things under control. And Algerians are not tempted to test their resolve to keep the status quo.
The regime did quiet a movement but failed to address the crux of the problem: the lack of democracy. But even when I mention democracy to the people they look at me as if I am crazy and “know nothing.” Algeria was never democratic and the people in charge will remain in charge until they pass on the baton to their offspring that are groomed to govern the exact same way. The government claims they are voted in through free and fair elections while the general public feels that the government does not truly represent them and have lost interest in voting all together. These are issues seen everywhere, even here in the United States. Throughout my stay and in every conversation, I sensed negativity regarding the future ever improving and adopting actual democratic ways of governing.
“Maybe in more than a 100 years, but I doubt it. Their kids will come in and then their kids, it won’t end” is what one man quoted to me easily. A resignation to this political reality came easily for him and for many just like him – accepting a repression by state security services.
I find it understandable that after more than a decade of civil war and eight years before that of nonstop fighting for independence, that Algerians are wary of the Arab Spring and its potential unseen and unknown consequences of more blood and suffering. Algerians may not be in love with their regime but they know all too well from their own history how it is to live in fear and instability. Right now, they are focusing on building more infrastructure, creating jobs and celebrating life’s precious moments of marriage and a birth of a child. Algerians do not think they “are next,” so why should the rest of the world?
Sarah Hassaine is a Freelance Writer, who frequently covers and travels to the Middle East & North Africa region. Sarah has a Masters in Public Policy from George Washington University. Follow Sarah on Twitter @Shassaine!