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Arab Winter: Dispatch From Algiers

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At the mouth of Algiers’ fabled Casbah sits the decommissioned Serkardji prison. During the struggle to free Algeria from French rule, combatants and militants found themselves housed in this awful jail. “It is hell,” wrote Rabah Bitat, one of the founders of the National Liberation Front (FLN), who had spent time in the prison. “Men are beaten with iron bars, the heat is horrible and they are given salted water to drink.” The prison sits silent now and is being turned into a Museum of National Memory.

Commemoration of the war of independence is everywhere inside Algiers. A short walk from Serkardji, inside the Casbah, is a water tap encased in a beautiful tile overhang. The plaque above says that the water tap is in honour of four militants, each of whom was guillotined in Serkardji in 1957: Touati Said, Radi Hmida, Rahal Boualem and Bellamine Mohand. Certainly, streets are named for the great heroes of the FLN—Larbi Ben Mahdi and Mourad Didouche—and there are statues in the major squares of the great figures of national liberation such as the 19th century rebel Abdelkader. But these are memorials of the state. The little water tap is a more modest, more popular memorial. So too are pictures on the walls of restaurants and shops. A restaurant at the Circle of Martyrs is named for Abderrahmane Taleb, a young chemistry student who was the main bomb-maker for the FLN in Algiers in the 1950s. Taleb was guillotined at Serkaradji in 1958. “For Algerians,” Taleb said at his trial to his French judge, “the guillotine will henceforth have the same significance as the cross in your churches.”

Down the road from the water tap, past many men on crutches, veterans of one war or another, is the workshop of the carpenter Khaled Mahiout. On his wall, he has pictures of old Algeria. In the midst of the gallery is a shrine to Zohra Drif, the woman who had bombed the Milk Bar, a frequent stop for French settlers between trips to the beach and their homes. That bombing deepened the French attack on the Casbah, the heart of the resistance inside Algiers. The bomb blast was in retaliation for the killing of FLN militants at Serkadji. When challenged about the bombings of civilian areas, the FLN leader Abane Ramdane said: “I see hardly any difference between the girl who places a bomb in the Milk Bar and the French aviator who bombards a mechta [village neighbourhood] or drops napalm on a zone interdite [restricted zone].”

The morality of the anti-colonial war was stark. Harsh racism and violence was visited upon Algerians. It was common for the French to refer to the Algerian as sale raton, dirty little rat, which morphed into ratonnade, the rat hunt, which was the French phrase for their massacres of Algerians. “We were not brought up to hate,” said Zohra Drif many years later. She remembered Larbi Ben Mahdi’s interaction with a French journalist, who asked him if it was not cowardly to use “women’s baskets to carry bombs”. He answered, “Doesn’t it seem even more cowardly to attack defenceless villages with napalm bombs that kill thousands of times more? Obviously, planes would make things easier for us. Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets.”

Akram’s caution

A young boy, Akram, runs past me. He is on his way home from school. The Casbah is known as a place of great poverty although what one sees is a great dignity. Corrugated iron roofs are repaired with strips of plastic, held down with bricks. TV dishes sprout like mushrooms beside colourful bedding, which is drying in the winter sun. Old buildings seem perilously close to collapse. Children run through the streets, cheerful. Akram is like them. I ask him innocently: “All good with you?” He bristles at my question. “How can we be good? You know our situation,” he says with his hands gesturing to the area.

A decade ago, Boudina Mustapha, a former death-row prisoner at Serkadji who escaped the guillotine, told the government newspaper El Moudjahid about his concerns for the youth. “It’s a disaster,” he said. “Today we see 20-year-olds throwing themselves into the sea to flee this country. While I, when I was the same age, was sentenced to death.” To commemorate the foundation of the country is one thing; to provide hope to young people in the present is another.

A new report titled “Researching Arab Mediterranean Youth: Towards a New Social Contract” shows that Algeria suffers from a youth unemployment rate of 32 per cent. This is a striking figure. Mustafa Morane, who teaches sociology and population studies at the University of Khemis Miliana, authored the chapter on Algeria. He says that the government’s approach to youth unemployment is to offer grants for entrepreneurship. But the education system, he says, does not “provide the minimum needs of the labour market”, meaning that the youth do not have the skills necessary to take advantage of the loans. Migration, Morane writes in his study, is a “last resort” for the youth. There is a great deal of potential for the youth in Algeria, an oil-rich country, says Morane, but the government does not have a policy for the youth.

Meeting Abdelhakim Bettache, Mayor of Algiers Centre, provides a window into the problems faced by the country. Bettache is sitting across from the old post office, which is closed and which will be renovated into another museum. I ask him about the situation of the unemployed, almost one in three young Algerians. “They are the luxury jobless,” he says with a smirk. “They have a packet of cigarettes, an iPhone and a cup of coffee.” There is, Bettache says, “no problem of the unemployed. There are no protests for jobs.” His certainty is unnerving.

There is no point raising the issues of the Mouvement des Chomeurs (the Movement of the Unemployed) with Bettache. On July 5, 2012, Tahar Belabes, from the provincial town of Ouargla, led a protest in Algiers’ May 1 Square. The protest was the first major action of the National Committee for the Defence of the Rights of Unemployed Workers. The state arrested some of their key activists. They are still in operation, hoping to bring the question of the youth, such as young Akram, to the centre of discussions about Algeria’s future.

War and Oil

The Casbah is marked not only by the Algerian war of independence against the French but also by the “black decade” of the 1990s when the Algerian state plunged into war against extremist elements (formed around the Islamic Salvation Front and the Armed Islamic Group). In 1962, a popular slogan that echoed across Algeria was Seba’a snin, barakat! (Seven years, that’s enough!). The slogan suggested the exhaustion of the Algerian people with the privations and dangers of the war of independence, which lasted from 1954 to 1961. But three decades later, Algeria lurched once more into a terrible war that claimed tens of thousands of lives. There are few monuments to this war. It is not only an embarrassment but also a festering sore.

No stomach for rebellion

The Arab Spring did not come full-throated into Algeria largely because of the experience with civic disorder in the 1990s. What has happened to Libya and to Syria further discourages any kind of rebellion. There is no stomach for it. Extremism was not expelled from Algeria. The army was able to defeat the Armed Islamic Group with ferocious violence, but its hardened fighters lurk on the margins of Algeria (which is a vast country, four times the size of France). One of its allies, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda and became the core of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The AQIM operates in the Sahara, across terrain that cuts through southern Algeria to link Libya to Mali. Old veterans of the “black decade” in Algeria and of the Afghan wars—such as Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Abdelhamid Abou Zeid—led the AQIM to victory in northern Mali and then led attacks on Algerian oil installations. Their presence dampens any possibility for protests in Algeria.

In 2013, Belmokhtar’s unit seized the gas fields at Amenas in southern Algeria and took 800 people hostage. The Algerian army fought them off but only after considerable loss of life. Striking the gas and oil fields in the south points a finger at Algeria’s great vulnerability—it relies on oil and gas to maintain its social peace. With energy prices low, Algeria’s state exchequer suffers. Any attack such as this threatens the stability of the country. Foreign investment will dry up and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will downgrade Algeria’s ability to borrow money to cover its fragile balance of payments.

Over the past decade, the Algerian government has hoped to enter into private-public partnerships to reinvigorate its energy sector. Foreign energy companies and the IMF have urged Algeria to liberalise its economy. In 2000, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika selected Chakib Khelil to run the Oil Ministry, Abdul Latif Benachenhou to be the Finance Minister and Abdulhamid al-Tamar to be the Minister of Privatisation. These were the “economic reformers” who would deliver Algeria to globalisation. In 2005, these men, with backing from the army, pushed a new hydrocarbons law that allowed foreign domination of Algeria’s essential sector, energy. The Workers’ Party, led by Louisa Hanoune, and others fought against the sale of oil and gas to foreign companies. A few years later, the government changed its mind. The “reformers” found themselves out of job and Algeria retained its old laws.

Samia Zennadi, who runs the publishing house APIC Editions, told me about the role played by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez in this struggle. When Chavez heard that Algeria, a crucial country in the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), was going to privatise its oil, he made an unscheduled visit to meet Bouteflika. Chavez made the case that selling the oil would weaken Algeria and open it up to colonial intervention. Bouteflika, who had not taken the protests as seriously as he should have, listened intently to Chavez. The oil and natural gas reserves are located in the south of the country. Chavez warned that foreign interference would push for the partition of the country, just as in Sudan, with the oil wealth in the hands of a weak pro-Western government and poverty to be managed in the other half. Bouteflika reversed his decision.

There is no Chavez to counsel Bouteflika now. Khelil, who was sacked in the middle of a corruption scandal in 2013, is back at the helm of the Oil Ministry. He will once more push to liberalise the oil industry. None of these “reformers” will take seriously the Mouvement Anti-Gaz de Schiste (Movement against Fracking of Natural Gas). Samia Zennadi believes that the political contest within the ruling bloc is not settled. Many people still believe that Algeria should not sell off its oil and gas reserves. Whether they will prevail is to be seen.

Small Voices of History

In a basement in Algiers is the office of the Democratic and Social Movement (MDS), the former Communist Party of Algeria. The party’s leader, Hamid Ferhi, and a young activist of the party, Fahem Dahi, tell me about their aspirations for Algeria. In January 2011, during the high point of the Arab Spring, the MDS joined other parties to form the National Coordination for Change and Democracy. Yacine Teguia of the MDS told journalists at that time: “We are sick of seeing young people having no prospect but to kill themselves. Today, we have workers who are threatening to commit collective suicide. We can either get together and express ourselves democratically and develop collective solutions, or we can leave people facing a wall, facing death.” The pressure by the organisation moved Bouteflika to end the state of emergency that had been ongoing for two decades. But Bouteflika did not allow any demonstrations to take place.

The MDS, nonetheless, has been involved, says Ferhi, in a number of initiatives on a consistent basis. The shadow of the “black decade” hangs over our conversation. Fahem shows me around the MDS office, which is being converted into a people’s art gallery with a coffee shop and a performance space. One room has bundles of clothes and a washing machine. Fahem tells me that this is for homeless people. The party has to do something for the social crisis. Fahem has a warm smile. These small gestures pave the road for something grander. He has great hope for Algeria.

This essay originally appeared in Frontline (India).

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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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