Sunday, January 23, 2011

The People Are the Enemy: Algerian Chapter

Following the standard handbook of repressive regimes, the Algerian dictatorship continues taunting the long-suffering Algerian society.

Algeria’s regime is now visibly intent upon defining pro-democracy demonstrators as “the enemy,” with the standard repression of meeting legitimate popular demands for reform with violence and warning the population not to express its opinions (unless they match the opinions of the oppressive rulers). Whatever the likelihood a week ago that Algeria would follow in the footsteps of Tunisia, the likelihood of that today is higher, and the regime has only itself to blame. 

Ironically, demonstrations in Algeria have been small and would most likely hardly have been noticed except for the heavy-handed response of an intolerant regime. But with a reported 800 protesters injured so far this month and the regime apparently in no mood to listen, intensification of popular demands is predictable. Harsh repression of minimal demands, in the age of al Jazeera and in the context of neighboring Tunisia's increasingly bold popular challenge to misgovernment, may very well provoke intensification of demands and a rise in sympathy for the few who have so far dared openly to confront the regime.

Dynamics. The Algerian regime first tried to fix the "problem" of protests by cutting food costs in early January. This fix is probably in part responsible for the small size of subsequent protests, yet the regime has now shifted to an emphasis on violent repression, eschewing the obvious alternative of trying to co-opt the demonstrators by allowing peaceful protests and making a show of sitting down to listen to the opposition. In any case, fixing the superficial symptom of high food prices left the underlying causes of dissatisfaction--unemployment, oppression, poverty--unaddressed. In addition, its temporary cooling effect, if any, may actually have encourged the regime to take a harder line subsequently.

Washington's Input. Meanwhile, in yet another stunningly incompetent example of bad taste and poor timing, Washington publicly lauded Algerian dictator Bouteflika’s “anti-terrorism” activities precisely when he was beating up pro-democracy demonstrators. Bouteflika is the perennial candidate of the military, which destroyed incipient democracy in Algeria after Islamic reformers won election two decades ago. He has presided over a society subjected to widespread human rights violations, undemocratic elections, and great economic stress, with real unemployment reportedly as high as 25% and 15 million of the country’s population of 36 million under 30.

Confusing "Civil Rights Activism" and "Terrorism"
Over 100,000 Algerians died during the political strife of the 1990s. Thousands more were "disappeared" by security forces or abducted by armed groups fighting the government and never found. The 2006 Law on Peace and National Reconciliation provides a legal framework for the continued impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of atrocities during the this era. The law provides amnesty to security force members for actions they took in the name of combating terrorism and to armed group members not implicated in the most heinous acts. -- Human Rights Watch

Bleak Future. But the Algerian military has been firmly on the side of the elite for a generation, since a vicious civil war that squeezed moderates between the Scylla of Islamic extremists and the Charybdis of military extremism; the astonishingly smooth removal of the Tunisian dictator seems an improbable outcome for Algeria.

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