• Constantinian: Death penalty is irrelevant! Get rid of it!
  • Father of Abdellah: What the? Islam says death penalty. You are anti Koran!
  • Diamond:  It is time we stop Sharia! Sharia is old-fashioned you filthy traditionalists, go back to the seventh century!
  • Princinian:  You! return to God now! you are being blasphemous! This country is Muslim, Islam is this!
  • Father of Abdellah: Our country’s constitution says Islam, Islam is this, thus Islam!
  • Princinian:  Go back to sending people to Afghanistan! Go back to fighting witchcraft!
  • Diamond:  What is she on about? The filthy Trotskyist! May be she needs some exorcism!
  • Government: hmm, we’re finding it hard to care either way. We don’t think we’re anti Koran if we abolish, and we have stopped it anyway. Win/Win. Status quo.
  • Chaab:  hey wait, what of injustice, jobs, corruption, etc?
  • Government: Oh, something else to discuss, biometric passports, we’re gonna make women reveal their hair and men remove their beards, hehe, fight!
  • Chaab:  ??? jobs? houses? hello? We’re gonna burn the place down!

Elfahem Yefham. What a broken dialogue.



Please take the time and read my post on Global Voices Advocacy on how far would go to defend the rights of your political enemies. Selected excepts:

[...]

What has this background to do with censorship though? When Rachad’s website was censored several blogs and websites carried the story including mine, with a petition to oppose all forms of censorship. Replies were extremely distrutful and vehement. Hchicha, a famous Algerian blogger who blogs in French, had a Youtube video that denounced censorship in all forms. He was attacked mercilessly and had multiple video replies. He says he was swamped with angry emails. I received emails to the tune that I am an islamist in disguise for starting the petition and had to alter the text to make it generic.  “How dare you defend the rights of Islamists?” was their argument. These emails and Video replies were coming from people who, themselves, oppose the current regime to the core.

[...]

This brings me to the question: beyond the slogans and the principles, how far would you go in defending your political rival some fundamental human right, even if you know that the rival presents a substantial threat to your way of life? Upping the stakes once more,  what if even the values that you’re defending for them may be substantially jeopardised in case they win power?

I’m borrowing from the idea of link collections that many blogs post occasionally. I will mostly post links related to Algerian affairs and Algerians. I won’t be punctual in posting them every set period, and I will rely on my feed reader and whatever I get from emails, so please feel free to drop me one on houwarid [at] googlemail.com if you come about anything of value!

I’ll debut these posts by celebrating the blossoming of many new Algerian blogs in English (this one being one of them):

  • DZflickrs: fickr group posting images on Algeria. The first is pretty good.
  • Narimane: an upcoming star! her first post is well worth the read - she embodies the typical experience of a new Algerian family in the midst of the civil war and economic crises by recalling her parents’ family.
  • Patriotsonfire looks into Algerian demands for a French apology. He has a comprehensive timeline of the highlights of the two countries’ relations over the last decade. Zineddine Zidane and the football teams are happy to show a different perspective with a match in Algiers two days ago. The picture below speaks volumes.
  • BentAljazair (daughter of Algeria) has more on the brain drain issue in reply to an earlier post in this blog – make sure to read the discussions in both blogs. The brain drain issue still interests Algerians and I suspect it always will for some time to come.
  • No list on Algerian blogs is complete without Kal of The Moor Next Door. He has a post on the new cult of personality in Algeria. Algerians have always loathed personality cults with historical precedents since the FLN’s structure in the war of independence, the way they will respond to this will be interesting.

A research project in the UK looks into Algeria and the dynamics of post 1962 Algeria-France relations. Two new blogs were setup:

Credit: Elkhabar

Credit: Elkhabar

Ali Tounsi

Ali Tounsi, Courtesy of El Moudjahid

What to make of Ali Tounsi’s assassination? In keeping with their tradition of misunderstanding Algeria’s politics, several western news outlets are either overstating or misunderstanding the impact of this event, e.g with regards to the fight on terrorism and the causes of the murder.

The abnormal about Ali Tounsi’s assassination is that it appears to be normal so far. Assassinations are always suspicious in Algerian circles: Mohamed Boudiaf, Abdelhaq Benhamouda, Matoub Lounes, and countless other deaths have been shrouded in mystery and conspiracy theories for good reason and with good evidence.

Chouaib Oultache

Chouaib Oultache

Ali Tounsi, though (pictured right), got gunned down by a trusted colleague, Lt Colonel Oultache Chouaib (pictured below), who he knew for years. Tounsi apparently pleaded for Oultache to return from retirement and head the new aerial police force a few years ago. Tounsi wanted to clamp down on corruption and identified Oultache as one of the corrupt, dismissing him a day before the assassination as reported by Ennahar. An easy explanation is that Oultache went berserk as he could not comprehend how Tounsi returned him to the force only to send him to the prison cell. So he shot the guy after a verbal confrontation.

Reports conflict as to what happened afterwards. Several newspaper websites fluctuated between various stories: first claiming that Tounsi himself shot him (unlikely), then there were reports that Oultache asked the secretary to invite other high ranking officers in an attempt to cause a ‘bloodbath’, but he got shot by a third unknown person. Finally they rested on the story that the perpetrator shot his chest trying to commit suicide. These conflicting accounts are still described in Echorouk’s main story. These variations are unsettling. I really want to believe that Oultache acted alone: after all his dismissal story is real.

All of this is happening in a background that is not reassuring. Rumours are rampant about a power struggle between the DRS (the security service) headed by the last bastions of the Algerian army and Bouteflika. In the run up to Bouteflika’s third term, in an effort to concentrate power in the presidency, he was successful in neutralising several key figures of the  army who have been in power behind the scene for years. The list includes Mohamed Lamari and Larbi Belkheir (who died a month ago). Bouteflika knew that nothing could stop the momentum to claim a third term, and his power has been worrying the intelligence service. Bouteflika’s popularity soured as the country got turned intro a construction site for multi billion dollar projects, such as the promised million apartments and the enormous east-west highway project.

So it was no surprise to many that the army and the DRS turned the tables on the civilian government and the corruption charges by taking the fight to the government itself using the same charges: several figures of the ministry of construction were arrested in 2009, and the CEO of Sontrach (the state oil company) got arrested along with several other people in the company . The investigations are reportedly being unusually carried by the DRS itself.

Ali Tounsi is usually thought to be firmly in the DRS camp. He was in the service for several years, most recently under its current head. I really want to believe that nothing is going on with his death, I’m literally trembling over the possibility of a power fight that would have spilled to this level. There is an uneasy silence in Algeria at the moment and the societal front is heated up with weekly reports of riots, Harga (illegal immigration) and continuing strikes in the education sector.

On the assassination, nothing much is known about Oultache Chouaib. I dug up the picture above by searching through Google’s archives of the police website. He is quoted in a Microsoft Vista study (watch as it will evaporate) touting Microsoft solutions for the 120000 man strong police force. It has been reported that he was a trusted colleague of Tounsi.

Ali Tounsi, the Police Force and Terrorism

Ali Tounsi garnered a reputation as a disciplinarian and won the admiration of a lots of Algerians as a strict Kheddam (serious worker). Indeed, as the police force got expanded over the last decade many Algerians saw it as a convenient employer to escape rampant unemployment, especially amongst the youth, so people looked up to him and his force as a potential source of Khoubza (bread – income).

Tounsi vowed to match the policemen/population ratio of western countries. He sought to enforce professional standards, revamping uniforms and sending out communiqués that enforce discipline in dealing with the public. He famously lashed out at policemen who were not using their shiny new white gloves. Several policemen friends attest to how he is universally respected and feared in police academies – trainee policemen train for months to produce the perfect march at graduation. He wanted to restore the reputation of the police as a lawful force in contrast to the tarnished Gendarmerie and Army. He wanted the police to strictly adhere to laws requiring judicial oversight over arrests and home raids.

Tounsi’s murder though will have virtually no impact on the fight on terrorism. During the civil war, the police had a key if secondary role in fighting terrorism (many terrorists initially regarded police as illegitimate targets). The fight has been shouldered by the army and the Gendarmerie, a French style highly mobile force that operates both in civilian centres as well as rural areas where they excel. In recent years, as terrorists confined themselves to the mountains the army took most of the responsibility , with the intelligence service reportedly looking to untangle the civilian cells after the recent bombings in Algiers. Most importantly, the police is a huge force, the head will be replaced quickly and normal operations will resume without much interruption.

Ali Tounsi’s death is only going to bolster his image as a martyr. The country’s biggest problem now is rampant corruption, and the official story is that the murderer was about to get convicted of corruption. The war on corruption in the country continues to take unexpected turns every few months.

Update: Also read Kal’s post on the murder.

Assassinations are always shrouded in mystery in Algerian circles and this could prove to be no exception.

Conventional wisdom in Algeria would tell you that there is a serious brain drain problem in the country, as it is elsewhere in the world. Several people however, are challenging this view. AidWatch posted research by William Easterly arguing  four reasons why the Brain Drain is actually a good thing (His book on the pitfalls of the Aid industry is heartily recommended). This was preceded by an FP article a few months ago arguing about many misconceptions of the brain drain. However, speaking of Algeria where the brain drain is such a large phenomenon (15% of the population lives abroad), the question is complex and not as black and white as the debate would condition one to think.

Easterly argues that the greatest benefit is to the migrants themselves, who are often forgotten in the debate. This is true for the cream of Algerian skilled labour but the picture is very different for a large section of migrants. Most skilled Algerians with degrees fail to find skilled jobs in western countries [PDF UN Report]. Perceived racism and classism keeps a lot of Algerians in ghettos in France, inevitably many get forced to reside illegally in their target countries. This poses serious problems as it restricts their movement and often forces them underground.

A powerful argument for brain drain skeptics is remittances. Skilled labour sends large amounts of money back to their families. This, however, falls largely flat in the Algerian context because it is harmful in many more ways that it is beneficial.

First, oil rich Algeria is literally awash with foreign currency reserves. In fact, the country can’t spend the money fast enough to spur development precisely because there is not enough skilled labour and managerial acumen to conduct development. Multi billion projects are given to foreign consortiums such that hardly any transfer of skill or know-how occurs and labour is quickly imported to implement the projects.

Second, Algeria can be considered as a middle way country that is not on par with the poorest countries in the developing world. Remittances are spent either on properties or on imported products (The Algerian dream being the car and the house). In properties, remittances are spent on buying land, apartments, villas and commercial enterprises creating an inflation bubble that effectively forces the whole property market beyond the reach of the local population and places it at the hands of migrants and wealthy businessmen. The foreign currency monies get recycled in the black market for ever-increasing property prices or back abroad to get consumer goods. In the end, remittances push prices up and are spent on imported (often luxurious) products with little benefit to the local economy.

Easterly also argues that the brain drain phenomenon inevitably leads to “brain circulation”, where skilled labour and intellectuals often return to their host countries or act as role models for their compatriots back home. The second point is substantial as many Algerians look up to high achievers in western countries, but the result is the belief that it is by leaving the country that anyone attains any success. The first point is a noble long term goal, but it has never materialised in countries like Algeria. The immigration flow of skilled labour has never been reversed at any point in the last century. After the first few years in immigration, very few first generation migrants return and the return of second generation and above migrants is simply unheard of.

The simple reason that gets ignored is that conditions in the source country are not appealing enough for skilled labour, a chicken and egg cyclic problem that is extremely intractable. More brain drain leads to worse conditions at home leading to more drain brain and so on. In the end, very few skilled people are left to have a good development vision for the country.  Labour movement (not unlike goods, a tasteless comparison I know) strictly follows a free market system despite the occasional lip service to nationalism. Emigrants naturally look for their own well-being and their career prospects.

Simplistic measures such as blocking immigration are simply inhumane and border on the criminal. The problem should be tackled right at the source country to create an atmosphere that is encouraging. This, indeed, is seemingly impossibly difficult despite its apparent simplicity. Source and target countries should work together to encourage knowledge transfer. A possible solution is temporary assignments. Skilled labour in private and public bodies can be encouraged to take temporary multi month or multi year assignments in the source country. Immigration rules should be changed to make this possible because working Visa rules make the choice of the country of work a life long commitment for a lot of migrants.

In the end, the problem of brain drain is real and harmful in Algeria. Less work should be made to vilify emigrants and coerce them into feelings of guilt but more, internationally, should be done to encourage true brain circulation.

I’m not in a position to comment on football (that’s soccer for you emerekans) tactics and strategies, and I wouldn’t like to rehash the (by now beaten to death) history and politics of Algeria-Egypt football matches. But what bothered me when I went over a summary of the last semi final African cup game between the two countries is not only the excessive use of violence by some Algerian players, but the Algerian media attitude towards this violence.

Violence is no new-comer to football, one may accept that occasionally a player short circuits his brain at the heat of the moment. Famous hot shots like Beckam, Zidane, Drogba, Rooney and Ronaldo all had their moments of anger that ended in red cards. In the last Algeria-Egypt game one player (Halliche) could be said to have been red carded wrongly, but the other two were well deserved by Chaouchi and Belhadj. Not only were they well deserved, CAF thinks the referee was rather too lenient on Chaouchi after he head butted him and have started procedures for disciplining him for not being harsh enough.

Surveying the post match Algerian media though, there is something to be said about a weird tendency to view such anger and  violence in a favourable light. As in one is being tough defending their “right” and standing up for one’s “honour”. After the day of the match, one popular newspaper carried the main title to the tune of “It’s OK, you’ve shown you were men “, the other carried the title “The champions are returning home”. There is no hint of criticism for the violent conduct whatsoever, and all reports concentrated on the referee’s mistakes. On the contrary, they were rather showing some disguised praise for “standing up” as in this is the proper way to act!. Only a week after a game did any newspaper bother to report that Assad, the former national team player, opined that the team had serious trouble maintaining its discipline.

More troublesome to me is the fact that this view is shared with quite a number of Algerians. In a couple of discussions with fellow Algerian citizens I just couldn’t put across the idea that referee mistakes are no excuse for going ballistic. In both cases I won the argument by stating the Ivorian attitude when their goal was mistakenly outlawed in the last 10 minutes of the extended 120 minutes game. Had it been a mistakenly outlawed Algerian goal in the same situation, I would’ve expected blood to flow.

In the Algeria-Egypt match, Halliche may have been wrongly red carded. Chaouchi though should be punished by the Algerian FAF for headbutting the referee, and I’m more leaning towards also punishing Belhadj. This is not just a matter of nationalism or football pride. The team is being watched by millions of Algerians. It’s an opportunity to send the signal that violence is by no means acceptable at all. Granted we’re proud of having given France the boot by the strength of the arm (and a big helping of diplomacy and political acumen in the actions of the Algerian Government in exile and people like Chanderli in New York), but we’ve got to confess that violence has been our nightmare ever since. We’re barely able to sit down and communicate thoughts and share opinions in a civilised way – most major reforms happened after much blood spilling.

We could do well by following the advice of what Algerians consider the finest human being:

The strong man is not the one who wrestles well but the strong man is the one who controls himself when he is in a fit of rage

as is reported from the prophet Muhammad.

Many have tried to read into the recent Sonatrach and Ministry of Construction arrests.  Rumours range from a supposed power struggle between the military (or DRS) and Bouteflika, the desire to bring down the menacingly popular Amar Ghoul (minister for public construction), to supposedly Bouteflika’s desire to shake up the corrupt political and economic system. The first two rumours will be dealt with in future posts. On the last point though, Bouteflika knows that corruption in the country is a very tough nut to crack.

Bouteflika must be aware of his limits here. Although he tried to strip away political power from the military with some success at the top owing largely to the ageing and death of many of the army’s figureheads (and failing at delegating this political power back to democratic institutions I might add), he completely failed at challenging the grip of the ruling class on the socio-economic realms of Algeria.  The country is run by a self-perpetuating system whose members are informally formed by a number of people in power, wealthy individuals, army officials in the various provinces as well as historical figures.

This class (henceforth called the ruling class) carefully keeps itself in power by only accepting loyal people to command its sphere of influece. To regenerate itself and keep outsiders away, this ruling class carefully relies on loyalty and other constructs such as hereditary ascension, historical status and language. Sons of people in power are routinely sent abroad to study in prestigious western universities on state funds and come back to rule the country. Some sons of veterans are often catapulted into positions of responsibility using their historical credentials after testing their loyalty. There is very little in this system for someone who doesn’t fully communicate in French (a mostly élite language nowadays that serves to perpetuate this political divide). Networking opportunities occur at some of the numerous veteran organisations and party activities (FLN/RND) where new blood is found, groomed and trained in various positions up the power ladder.

Furthermore, this system keeps away potential knowledgeable people who may have claim to positions of responsibility based on merit*. Endless hoops of bureaucracy and corruption keep those pesty knowledgeable people away by forcing them into wasting hours of productive time ferrying papers and applications back and forth various inefficient bureaucratic state institutions (banks, universities, government offices, the judicial system, etc). The result is a frustrated worn down citizen who can’t get anything done without resorting to pleading for help from the powers that be. Combined with further discouraging facts, such as the abnormally low wages for positions of intellect (University positions for example), and the impossibility of exploiting one’s entrepreneurial spirits (endless barriers and state controls), the tired worn down citizen just cannot wait before a Visa for a foreign western country is stamped on his passport to get out of the country, thereby enabling him to pursue his ambitions and fulfilling the desire of the regime to get rid of him.

As to the masses of ordinary Amar and Khadidja Algerians, there will be a glass ceiling that they just can’t break. They are always busy trying to solve the primitive problems of their daily lives such as getting an apartment (from the government), a car (loan helped by the government) or a job (over 50% state), thus kept in perpetual need of the government. Their rights are all but taken away (no demonstrations, no freedom of speech, endless trials against dissidents and journalists, a self censured cultural scene, etc).

With this brilliant system, the ruling class keeps itself in power, sends potential challengers away (intellectuals), and keeps an oppressed population from whose votes they continuously claim legitimacy. At the top of the food chain powerful regional officials and wealthy people hide behind façades of national and private organisations  (with names of the form “Houwari and Company Ltd”). These companies often gain exclusive licenses to operate activities of importation, transportation and safe investments to exclusive markets of that nature.

The last president who truly wanted to confront this powerful self perpetuating system was gunned down and bombed by his own bodyguard 5 months into his presidential term. In various memorable speeches, Mohamed Boudiaf expressed his dismay and frustration at the way positions of responsibility are offered based on shabby deals rather than on merit. Owing to his disconnect from the ruling class since the Algerian independence, he spoke in simple terms without grandiose statements or hollow visionary ideas, and with the same street language and words that ordinary Algerians use daily to vent their angst at their government. He fully understood the frustration of Algerians and often spoke with emotion at the state of a country he helped liberate from the shackles of colonialism. The consequence for him was sadly the coffin.

Before him and after his death nobody could really confront this corrupt system. Instead, successive governments have pledged to combat corruption and have done mostly smoke screen measures. This last wave of arrests from Sonatrach falls under this habit of fighting the symptom of the problem (corrupt officials) and not the actual problem (a largely non transparent ruling class). Algerians remember that every few years (or months) serious scandals of that sort erupt. Only recently arrests were made at the ministry of construction concerning the multi billion highway project. A few years ago the Khalifa scandal shook the country with its magnitude: a complete conglomerate formed of a bank, an airline, car renting, insurance etc turned out to be a hot air operation to rob the country of billions of funds. Did anything change after that? no.

Beyond the political readings and the supposed power struggles between the DRS and Bouteflika/Amar Ghoul on the one hand, or the sincerity of the desire of the country to rid itself of corruption on the other hand, the fact is that the corrupt system will always breed more corrupt people and scandals of this sort will always happen.

[*The tactic was best described by the Egyptian Nobel prize winner Ahmed Zewail when describing the political class of his country (the two countries, Algeria and Egypt, are evidently alike in many ways): positions of responsibility are offered to people of "Wala'" (loyalty) as opposed to people of "Ma'rifa" (Knowledge and merit).]

The convenient explanation for the recent religion based violence in Algeria is that the country is xenophobic and that the population is hostile to religions other than Islam, confirming the long-held view that these problems are inherit in the Islamic faith. Unsurprisingly, this view is simplistic as it ignores what I think are the two forces behind religious sensitivities in Algeria, the first is the historical context and the second is the poor management of recent governments in dealing with inter-religious violence.

On the historical context, during France’s occupation of Algeria France has deliberately tried to culturally and religiously influence the local Muslim population while maintaining a quasi-apartheid rule that disadvantages local Muslims who opposed assimilation. The Muslim population responded by growing ever more suspicious of what they thought as thinly veiled attempts at converting them to Christianity. Several laws sought to define multiple classes of citizenry based on religion: Napoleon’s 1965 law and the 1870 Crémieux decree both set limits on the rights of Algerians based on religion. These laws denied Algerians fully citizenry unless they denounced their Muslim religion while granting local Christians and Jews full citizenship . Such mixing of religiosity with citizenship would later influence inter-religious events between the three religious groups for the rest of the colonial period.

Algerians though would have none of it as very few people accepted conversion. Community leaders sensed the possible breakup of the Algerian community were a large number of Algerians convert en masse, so they wrote and fought relentlessly against these laws.  The famous Algerian scholar and head of the Association of Algerian Scholars Abdelhamid Bin Badis wrote that accepting the French Citizenship amounts to treason. He then issued his famous poem, whose first lines assert the Muslim and Arab dimensions of the local population. An Amazigh himself, he regarded Islam and the Arab language as a force that would unite Algerians and assert their indigenous identity whatever their ethnic background*. Ibn Badis, his association and the multitude of cultural output they worked for would later be a contributing force in the thought that led to the Algerian Independence War 1954-1962.

During that war, the Kabyle region played a central role in the resistance movement in the Djurdjura mountains. The French attempted to break this resistance militarily and by exploiting the stereotypical Amazigh-Arab conflict (This practice of exploiting tribal conflicts had netted the French fruits in some parts of the country, such as in Arris, Batna). Again the Christian religion was always viewed susceptibility as it was seen as being rammed down their throats to break the lines of the Algerian revolution, and worse, establish a separate Kabyle political entity that would break the Algerian soil into two easily manageable halves west and south-east of the Kabyle region.

Since then, Algerians developed what could  be called as simply, frankly, a phobia towards the Christian religion especially in the Kabyle region. Far from the typical view generally held outside Algeria and sometimes inside Algeria outside Kabylia, the Kabyle region harbours in its mountainous ranges some of the most devout Muslims in Algeria.  Béjaïa is fondly remembered a centre for Islamic scholarship and political influence during the Hammadid dynasty and the Islamic School of Tizi-Ouzou produces a considerable number of  Imams for mosques all over the country. Muslim leaders inside the Kabyle region and outside it view any Christian activity as another French attempt at breaking up the region and exploiting it for political purposes.

It is important to note that pre-existing Christians (a considerable number left over from the Algerian war until the Algerian civil war 1991) continued to live relatively in peace in their teaching and administrative posts. The sensitivity is towards Christian missionaries that seek new converts, often exploiting their poverty and disillusion with governments that denied their cultural roots and failed to develop one of the most densely populated regions in Algeria. The missionaries are thus always viewed with great suspicion (Sidenote:  a cursory look at some of the Christian websites discovers such gems as “The North African countries are some of the last great havens for Satan, they must be converted!”). With ever increasing sensationalised reports of Muslims turning to Christianity the chaotic response of successive governments provided further fuel to the fire.

Far from having a clear policy towards these missionaries, Algerian governments and ministers of religious affairs often acted emotionally and showed a response that can be characterised as wholly anti-Christian, rather than just anti missionary attempts at exploiting the Kabyle problems. The Algerian Muslim population is not as homogeneous as it is often portrayed. Historically, significant Zaouia Sufi and Ibadi orders always existed. Currently, Muslims can be categorised in multiple currents: in addition to the historical groups, new radical, Salafist and Muslim brotherhood groups emerged. The safest group for the government are some of the mild Sufi Zaoui orders: largely apolitical and confined to ritual practices of the religion. These orders now control the ministry of religious affairs and many of its mosques throughout the country. Given that this current was at forefront of the fight for Algerian identity during the colonialism years since 1830, it should come at no surprise that it acted in continuation with the same mentality. Worse, electorally discredited governments and ministers of religious affairs felt under pressure to confirm their adherence to Islam by mindlessly oppressing Christian groups.

The government’s response to the recent burning of the Christian apartment in Tizi-Ouzou is a perfect example of this behaviour. Rather than attempting to calm down the local population and avoid further religious violence, the government ignored the criminal act of burning down the apartment and concentrated on criminally suing the Christian owner for not having a license to use the premises for Christian congregations (his fault). The act sends the message that it is acceptable for citizens to take the law into their hands and burn down Christian places, putting aside the question of whether licensing laws are adequate in the first place (they are, given that they equally apply, by the text of the law, to Muslims places of worship). This behaviour fuels feelings of religious oppression in the Christian community and encourages further provocations.

The religious conflicts in Algeria that appeared as of late are evidently quite complex and require great political skill to resolve in the future. No simple formula will be a solution. Calming down feelings of hatred and phobia will takes years of conditioning the local population that it is acceptable to have a Christian as your neighbour and that not all Christians are French neo-colonialists. The government’s response to feelings of sociocultural and socioeconomic disillusion should be through active economic and cultural development throughout the region and not through populist battles against groups of Christians. Real attempts at exploiting the Kabyle region for political purposes should be fought politically, not religiously.

[* It is sad that Ibn Badis's poem was later used in the independence years to justify denying the Amazigh dimension of the Algerian identity. Such an explanation ignores the historical context of Ibn Badis's poem that sought to unite Algerians against a common danger. Ibn Babdis was always proud of his Amazigh roots and would be greatly troubled were he to learn how his poem was used.]

Update: See the comment below on the history of the day.

Yennayer is an Amazigh celebration in Algeria and other places where there is a significant berber population – it is currently under way as it is usually celebrated between 12-14 January of each year. My admittedly quick lazy searching did not prove me otherwise:  I wonder whether it is the oldest celebrated day in the world, is it? It has been celebrated since the Amazighs’ victory over Ramses III in Tlemcen in 950 BC, 2960 years ago. Read more about it here and here. The French Wikipedia has a more comprehensive entry in French.

The Kabyle region have been campaigning for a long time for an official recognition of the day. Recognising it as an important cultural event in Algeria is surely a great asset to the country.

Click for Image Source

After the censorship case that was discovered last week, I went back to the text of the law 09-04 combating cybercrime. The law was made official on the 5th August 2009. The text of the law makes for some worrying reading and grants unprecedented powers to the state, unprecedented even in other countries. Multi national search engines providers such as Microsoft and Google may fall foul of the law if they operate in Algeria (MS does, Google owns the Google.dz domain but does not have a subsidiary there yet). Most worryingly, the law literally permits the state to spy and hack onto websites that it deems in breach of its vague cybercrime definitions without prior consent from a competent judge in some cases. However, the text of the law does not, to my knowledge, grant the state the power to censor any website that it wishes without permission from a judge.

Search engine providers and ISPs fall under the definition given in article 1 D: “Any entity that processes or stores computer data [that is in breach of the law]“.  This applies to Microsoft, Google and other engines that store offending website caches and provide search engine results.

Articles 3, 4 and 7 give the state powers to eavesdrop and censor Internet content and detail cases when that is required, but the articles are explicit in that eavesdropping and censorship are only permissible with a renewable 6 month mandate by a competent judge. It is not clear how the Rachad website was censored.  The Rachad movement is not very famous in Algeria, and some of its leaders are quite unpopular being former FIS members. Its mission is the “peaceful overthrow of this illegitimate government” but I have a hard time believing that Algerians will flock to them en masse. It is a pity how a group of activists in exile with a website and a YouTube channel can easily be regarded as a “threat to national security”. The state is effectively giving publicity and recognition to the movement by this act.

I could not find any judicial decision that declared the Rachad movement a threat. There was a case in April 2009 where a man was sentenced to 18 months in prison for writing “threatening content” on Rachad’s Internet Forums (The case was dealt with before the introduction of this law).

Article 5 is worrying. It grants the state the power to remotely hack and spy onto computer systems if required by a judge, but other websites and systems can be hacked into “quickly” if they are “connected” to the offending website. In effect, this grants the state the power to hack into any website in Algeria. The text of the law is explicit in that a judge should seek cooperation by other countries for websites that are hosted outside Algeria, but any website should remain vigilant just in case. I hope the irony of a law that forbids cybercrime for citizens and effectively legitimises it for the state is not lost here.

Articles 10 and 11 require  “Internet providers” to store all communications and identifying information for a minimum of a year. The text of the law and the definitions given in article 2 give the impression that this applies to Internet café owners. Internet Cafés are the main venue for Internet users in Algeria, with some statistics putting the number of Internet cafés at 30000.

Article 13 and 14 introduce a new body for combating cybercrime, presumably this is the body that enforces censorship. The text of the law is not clear as to the nature of this body, what department it is under and what are its specific powers.

This whole law is in clear breach of several citizen rights as given in the constitution, including article 36 (explicit freedom of expression), article 39 (explicit right to privacy) and article 41 (freedom of assembly and speech). There is a state of emergency in force since 1992, so in practice the state can offend any of these rights willy-nilly with or without the new law.

Finally, please read and sign the Anti Censorship Petition if you are worried about these developments.

On an autumn day of September 2001 I arrived at Heathrow Airport, London from Algiers for the first time in my life. Only two weeks after the 9/11 events,  the arrivals terminal looked very busy with passengers forming a long queue the spun like a snake around metallic posts, although in hindsight the long queue may be due to the strict controls being applied in the paranoid post 9/11 world of air travel. Barely a teenager, I was quite excited at the opportunities that lay ahead but very anxious at the prospect of being interviewed by border control, having heard plenty of horror stories. Legend has it that many people were interviewed rudely, held here for hours and days only to be rounded back home at the soonest available flight. I had applied and was granted a visa, but the visa application itself said that getting a visa is no guarantee for being accepted.

The atmosphere at the queue was unbearably tense. Security guards kept going back and forth moving people to interview rooms. The hall had numerous windows with one-way mirrors suggesting that all passengers are being watched. I waited patiently for my turn and made sure that I stare at no guard or mirror  – yes, I was quite scared. Being of mixed Berber and Arab heritage, I look unmistakably middle eastern, brown of the North African variety, but not necessarily like the 9/11 hijackers. But you never know, we always all get lumped in the same bag, even Sikh and Indian people were racially abused and shot at after 9/11.

At the end of the queue stood a steward directing passengers to one of several border control desks as they become available. When it was my turn he looked at my posture, looked at my hand holding the green Algerian passport, and asked me to come to a small queue he held behind him. I discovered that I was joining several other  passengers all of the same prototype: young, brown and male. An old Algerian in a suit in the “normal” queue got furious at the steward and asked him to clarify the treatment. I understood from the gestures of the steward and what few words I could pick up that it is “policy”. The old man still moved around angrily demanding answers and asked for the manager. I thought he was a noble and brave man but I was scared that he will get rounded up for defending us.

Meanwhile, our queue moved unbearably slow. Out of all the control desks one was dedicated to us. Once my turn came, the steward pointed me to the desk, at which sat a typical old British man with white hair. The old man lifted his forearm up, then with his back hand facing me he gestured with the index finger for me to come to the desk. The gesture was clearly made to intimidate me, but having the typical Algerian hot blood his manners made me more confident and gave me a rush of adrenaline to prepare for a shouting match that I thankfully restrained myself from getting into.

At the desk, language problems immediately manifested themselves. He looked at me in the eye from above his spectacles as he asked me something in English which I spoke very little of, so I just replied with my broken English: “I do not understand” in a je m’en fous way. I could hear him mutter a frustrated “Jesus Christ” as he held his head in his hand, flipping my passport with the other. Upon realising I was Algerian he asked me in French “Where is your Visa?”,  I spoke French so I gave him the page number. Then came the flood of questions: how long are you staying? where are you going to study? for how long? where will you be staying? Who is waiting for you at the airport? do you have a French passport? and so on. Flipping through my passport, he phoned somewhere, from his gestures I assumed that he was establishing the authenticity of the passport. I stood there for over 15 minutes, then he stamped on my passport and asked me to join an adjacent room for a “medical” check.

Another queue at the room, again those being queued were of the same prototype. The “medical” check involved another examination of the passport and asking a few of the previously asked questions. The last question was whether I took vaccinations as a child, to which I replied in the affirmative. At baggage control, somehow I was again singled for a “random” check, which was quite thorough. I had a small bottle of high quality honey confiscated and was referred to have a “check” on my file in case the same “offence” was committed again, but somehow another staff asked me to just pack up and go, finally into the country. All in all, getting through border control took 3 hours of stress, and I am told I had it easy.

Throughout the next eight years I was more or less subjected to the same treatment (minus the special queues) every time I flew into Heathrow. Flying out always had me removing my belt, my shoes, nearly routinely getting singled out on the side for a thorough body check. Once I was pulled into a room where I had a border control officer “quiz” me about various subjects: What I thought about Islam and Bin Laden and other questions of that sort. I could barely hide a mixed face of frustration and laughter throughout the “interview”.

This profiling is, to me, too real not to assume it is not systematic. Some random checks may pick up the odd non prototype conforming passenger, but I have a hard time believing that all old ladies, young girls and businessmen were subjects to the same treatment. Therefore forgive me for chuckling and sadly shaking my head whenever one of these racial profiling debates flare up. In a discussion with some of my English white friends, some think that it is not a big deal and that I am not being targeted. This makes almost pull the lethal “but you’ve never been black or brown so you don’t know” card.

The profiling is already done in practice, and is undoubtedly codified in some internal memos as recently discovered in the United States. The question should not merely be whether racial profiling should be done or not, but whether 8 years (or perhaps more) of it have prevented terrorist attacks and whether the moral costs justify the small or non existant security gain. It need not be said that for all the profiling that I and people like me were subjected to in the UK, it is British men that caused the 7/7 bombings in London. These people would normally whiz through the specially marked EU border control desks at Heathrow. Any suggestion of racial profiling for British people in the UK or for Americans in the US will be laughed out of court. For a would be terrorist, the problem of getting citizenship of the target country of attack is a side issue. History shows us that no amount of bureaucratic paperwork prevents ideologically motivated attacks. Security measures are just a smoke screen that serve to discourage the target countries from seriously thinking about their acts on the international stage and the hate they generate.

But here is the cracker though: suppose that racial profiling was “officially” approved, and that the next attacks (god forbid) are committed by a non racially profiled attacker. The embarrassment this potential scenario would cause to the authorities is unthinkable. It remind me of the embarrassment, frustration and total loss that the French experienced through the Algerian War 1954-1962.

At the start of that war, Algerians took to the mountains to fight against the French military. The French stepped up security measures and installed checkpoints everywhere. The Algerian fighters countered by wearing their wives’ clothes to get past the controls. Then in the Battle of Algiers, key to the Algerian attacks were Yassef’s girls, totally european’ised and blending well with the white Pierds Noirs, some of them even took a habit of flirting with security guards as they got though their checkpoints to plant bombs everywhere in Algiers. When the French lost the war they discovered that all along numerous white French and Pierds Noirs, men and women alike helped the Algerians all along and were instrumental in moving key Algerian fighters around the country and for organising money collections for them.

لا لحجب الإنترنت بالجزائر – Non à la censure de l’Internet en Algérie – No to Internet Censorship in Algeria

The Algerian authorities have started an Internet filter, and inaugurated the year 2010 by a first ban on an opposition website (More details in this post). Today it’s this opposition movement, tomorrow it can be your blog or website, and some day it may even be Youtube or Facebook.

Clearly it is time to actively fight against this blatant act of censorship. We call on all Algerian internet citizens around the globe to participate in the campaign for freedom of speech and against censorship in the country. Venues of action include:

  • Petition:

Sign the Petition against Internet Censorship in Algeria. Email it around to your friends. The petition’s text is pasted below.

  • Internet Activism:

Post about the petition on your Blog. If you have graphics capabilities, you can create banners and graphics so that various websites and Blogs can use them.

  • Social Networks:

Raise awarness about the issue. Post on Facebook, MySpace and any other social network or Internet forum. The more Algerians know about this, the better.

Use Twitter‘s power to spread the petition. Use “#Algeria” or “#Algerie” tags.

  • Other banned websites:

Keep a watch on other opposition websites in case they get censored. Report all censorship cases to HerdictWeb. The more reports, the better. There may be cases where only a select of ISP’s censor a website.

  • Working around the filter:

If you are inside Lebled (Algeria), use this feedburner link to read some of the banned website website’s entries. Spread the link around. The authorities need to realise that banning a website is counter productive and will actually make it more famous.

Petition text:
(Texte en français ci-dessous – English text below)
العربية

خلال سنة 2009 ذكرت الصحف المحلية الجزائرية أن السلطات الجزائرية تستعد لوضع برنامج حجب مواقع  إنترنت لمكافحة “الجريمة الحاسوبية” و المواقع “الإرهابية” و “الإباحية”. ويجري حاليا إعداد القوانين لجعل التحايل على الحجب جريمة جنائية.

وقد تلقى مستخدمو الإنترنت الجزائريين مثل هذه الأخبار بقلق، خوفا من أن يستخدم الحجب لأغراض سياسية. وجاء الدليل الأول في الفاتح من يناير/جانفي 2010، إذ تم حجب مواقع لمنظمات معارضة سلمية لا تندرج تحت الفئات المذكورة أعلاه.

تحدد السلطات قائمة المواقع المحجوبة دون استشارة متصفحي الإنترنت. وتخضع لرقابة هيئة لم يفصح عنها بعد، وعملية الرقابة غير شفافة، إذ لا تُقدّم مبررات لحجب موقع، أو وسائل للاحتجاج عليها ومعارضتها.

مما يعني أن الحكومة ستستعمل الحجب لأغراض سياسية لمنع المواقع المعارضة لها، والتي تنشر أفكار مخالفة لها.

إننا ندين بشدة هذه الممارسة التعسفية التي تعتبر خرقا واضحا لمبادئ حرية التعبير وحرية المعلومات كما تحددها المادة 19 من ” اﻟﻌﻬﺪ الدولي الخاص بالحقوق المدنية والسياسية” ، الذي وقّعت عليه الجزائر يوم 10 ديسمبر 1968 وصدّقت عليه في 12 سبتمبر 1989.

إن الدولة الجزائرية و الشعب الجزائري يطمحان إلى المثل العليا  “كالحرية” و ” الديمقراطية “، القيم التي ضحى من أجلها آباؤنا وأجدادنا منذ عقود، والرقابة على الإنترنت هو انتهاك صارخ لهذه القيم و يجب أن يتوقف.

Français

Au cours de l’année 2009, la presse locale algérienne a rapporté que les autorités algériennes préparaient un filtre Internet afin de combatre le “cybercrime”, et les sites “terroristes” et “pornographiques”. Des lois sont actuellement à l’état de projets afin de classer comme crime le contournement du filtre.

Les internautes algériens ont reçu cette nouvelle avec inquiétude, craignant que le filtre ne soit utilisé à des fins politiques. La preuve est faite le 1er janvier 2010. En ce premier jour de l’année, on a découvert que des sites Internet d’une organisation d’opposition pacifique ont été bloqué en Algérie.  Ces sites n’entrent dans aucune des catégories mentionnées ci-dessus.

Par sa nature, la liste du filtre des sites Internet bannnis sera établie par l’Etat sans consultation préalable des internautes. Les sites sont ainsi censurés par un corps de censeurs, non encore révélé. Le processus de censure n’est pas transparent. Il n’y a pas de justification donnée pour bannir les sites et il n’y a aucun moyen de contester la mise au ban.

Donc, il est évident que les sites bannis seront déterminés par le gouvernement pour des raisons politiques. Le gouvernement utilisera le filtre pour bannir les idées dissidentes et d’oppositions.

Nous condamnons fermement cette pratique car il est clair que cela est un manquement aux principes de libertés d’expression et d’information comme prescrit par l’article 19 du Pacte International relatif au Droits Civils et Politiques signé par l’Algérie le 10 décembre 1968 et ratifié le 12 septembre 1989.

L’Etat Algérien et le peuple Algérien aspirent aux hautes valeurs que sont la liberté et la démocratie, valeurs qui ont été défendues par nos pères et nos grands-pères pendant des décennies. La censure d’Internet est un manquement clair à ces valeurs, qui doit cesser.

English

During the year 2009 the Algerian local press reported that the Algerian authorities are preparing an Internet filter to combat “Cybercrime” , “Terrorist” and “pornographic” websites. Laws are being prepared to make circumventing the filter a criminal offence.

Algerians Internet users have received such news with anxiety, fearing that the filter will be used for political purposes. The evidence came on the 1st January 1st 2010. On the first day of the year, it was discovered that websites of a peaceful opposition movement have been blocked in Algeria. These websites do not fall under the categories mentioned above.

By its nature, the filter’s list of banned websites will be determined by the state without consulting Internet users. Websites are censored by a yet unannounced censorship body. The censorship process is not transparent. There is no reason given for banning websites, and there is no way to contest a ban.

It is evident that banned websites will be determined by the government for political reasons. The government will use the filter to ban opposition and dissident views.

We strongly condemn this practice as it is a clear breach of the principles of freedom of speech and freedom of information as determined by article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, signed by Algeria on 10 December 1968 and ratified on 12 September 1989.

The Algerian state and the Algerian people have strong aspirations for the values of freedom and democracy, values that have been fought for by our fathers and grand fathers for decades. Internet censorship is a clear breach of these values and should be stopped.

Petition:

نحن الموقعون أدناه ، أفرادا ومنظمات نعارض محاولة الحكومة الجزائرية الرقابة على الإنترنت. ونطالب بأن لا يُمنع أي موقع لأسباب تعسفية أو سياسية.

ونحث السلطات الجزائرية على التركيز على تعزيز البنية التحتية الضعيفة للاتصالات و نشجع المواطنين على المشاركة بنشاط في النقاش العام باستخدام الإنترنت.

إنّ الشعب الجزائري يستحق إنترنت فعالة، حرة، وغير محجوبة.

Nous, les soussignés, tant à titre personnel, qu’en tant qu’organisations, nous nous opposons à la tentative de censure d’Internet par le gouvernement algérien. Nous demandons qu’aucun site ne soit interdit pour raisons arbitraires ou politiques.

Nous demandons instamment aux autorités de se concentrer sur le renforcement de la faible infrastructure de communication et nous encourageons les citoyens à participer au débat public en utilisant Internet.

Le peuple algérien mérite un réseau Internet fiable, libre et non-censuré.

We, the undersigned, individuals and organisations, oppose the Algerian government’s attempt at Internet censorship. We ask that no website should be banned for arbitrary or political reasons.

We urge the Algerian authorities to concentrate on strengthening the weak communications infrastructure and we encourage Algerians to actively participate in the civil discource using the Internet.

The Algerian people deserve a competent, free and uncensored Internet

Rachad Movement: Annoying Enough!

With the start of the year 2010, there are reports that the first political Internet website to be censored in Algeria is rachad.org. Le Quotidien D’Algerie discovered this today. It was verified by this blog and others. The website appears in Google search results, but upon clicking it the web browser displays an innocent looking error. It is not clear when the website was censored, or if this is the only censored website so far or. It is also not clear how the filter is implemented.

The website in question is that of the Rachad Movement, a loose opposition organisation in exile formed by a mix of former diplomats, ex-civil servants, journalists and members of the now banned Islamist party FIS. The movement campaigns for a peaceful overthrow of the current regime.  The movement’s figurehead is Mohamed Larbi Zitout, a former diplomat who fled after claiming that the Army has a hand in the massacres of the civil war. Zitout is a regular commentator in Arab and Western news stations and a staunch critic of the government. Last month he broke the rumour that Algeria has accepted temporary American military stations, a rumour vehemently denied by the Algerian state and AFRICOM – this is probably what annoyed the authorities enough.

This blog covered the legal framework that the authorities have been preparing to create an internet filter and to make circumventing it a crime in itself in a previous post. The filter has been presented as an effort to combat “cybercrime”, extremist and pornographic websites. But in keeping with their tradition, predictably the authorities started using its powers to crack down on political websites. In the same way, the authorities uses its control of the media sphere to forbid private stations and the state owned printing companies to intimidate private newspapers.

No political blogger or internet activist has been directly imprisoned or sued by the state so far. There was one civil case against Abdessalam Baroudi, the author of bilad 13, for a (brilliant) satirical post comparing the local religious affairs director with al-Sistani. The case was dismissed on grounds of freedom of expression.

Last week, in its latest report on Internet censorship the Cairo based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) has rated Algeria as one of the “best countries dealing with the internet”, together with Lebanon. Apparently the praise has unsettled some backwards thinking bureaucrats. As suspected, the absence of censorship up to now is not evidence of love for freedom of expression, it is the sad product of incompetence mixed with the embarrassingly low Internet penetration in Algeria by the region’s standards.

So this is the first banned website so far, I suspect that Algérie-politique and the other popular opposition websites will soon follow. Rachad has not reached critical mass in Algeria yet, but the state might be shooting itself in the foot here and spreading the word. So pass this news on, more Algerians should be aware of what they are not allowed to read!

Zidane

Image courtesy of L'équipe

Zineddine Zidane, the French footballer of Algerian origin has recently visited the Algerian training camp in Southern France to support the team after spending his career as a French player. His visit comes at a time when he is sharply criticising the French team and its sub-optimal performance in the qualification stages. He still commands the respect and affinity of both peoples across the Mediterranean. Zidane is among a rare breed in this regard: Zidane’s coming to peace with his dual Algerian French identity was not easy. Events that happened during his career highlight the long held question that has yet to be answered for good: what is an Algerian-French and can there be one?

The two countries, Algeria and France, are not strangers to enmity. After a bitterly fought war and 132 years of colonialism, Algerian gained its independence amid cries of triumphalism and anti-French feelings. There were nuggets of Algerians who identified themselves as French throughout that era, Ferhat Abbas declared that “France is me” in 1936 as he tried to theorise a framework where a civilised Algeria is part of France, but he abandoned that route and joined the resistance later in despair. Some Algerians fought with the French against Nazi Germany forces in WWII and gained French citizenship along with a few who were accepted as part of a naturalisation scheme. Thousands of Algerians fled the country in the aftermath of the war, dubbed “Harkis”: Algerians who collaborated with the French against the resistance.

Harkis were considered the lowest form of life by Algerians after Independence, and they struggled in France, forming the bulk of  “les banlieus”: deprived ghettos where poverty and unemployment run rife. Zidane was born in such an environment in Marseille, so he suffered greatly in his early life as a French. His parents were accused of being Harkis (Harki is the ultimate street insult in Algeria today), a charge he had to live with and vehemently deny for many years during his career.

Today, Harkis and other Algerian dwellers of les banlieues still live with the lost feeling of not being French enough to get jobs and opportunities.  Algerian immigrants and their sons are still the favourite target for French politicians: current president Sarkozy infamously described them as “filth”. The current “debate” about “French values” is seen by many as a charge against these people. Recently a minister declared that “Muslims should dress better, find jobs and stop using slang and wearing baseball caps backward.” . For many French Algerians it seems that nothing they can do can change this treatment: Rumours ran wild when it was suspected that Jacque Chiraq, the then French president, only coldly shook hands with Zidane after the world cup win of 1998: supposedly Chiraq wanted to send a signal.  During his career, Zidane was always a favourite target of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National: The French team is not French enough, they would routinely charge.

Across the pond, culturally Algeria is still very much tied to France. Algerian literature is bilingual, and for many years the French side was arguably winning. The administration still uses French as the main language despite years of Arabisation efforts and laws, a fact easily verifiable by surveying the current government websites.  France remains the favourite destination of Algerian intellectuals. Yet, the issue of Algerians who hold the French citizenship remains a hot populist issue in Algerian politics: there is a feeling that they shouldn’t be trusted or given high civil posts. Others, like the former Algerian prime minister Abdelhamid Brahimi conjure that Algeria has been ruled by a “French cultural army” that was prepared an implanted before France left Algeria, and that this army keeps the country under French influence.

So it seems that in both countries the dual Algerian-French identity has repeatedly been a victim to a bloody history and decades of populism, chauvinism and sometimes outright fascism and racism. When in France, few Algerian-French openly celebrate their Algerian ancestry in their professional life, when in Algeria, an even fewer number admit that they hold French passports. This affects a large number of people: on paper, there is no shortage of people who hold or who are entitled to a dual Algerian French dual citizenship. There are 3 million by some estimates.

But there is hope that this seemingly contradictory identity can be some day fully accepted at least in Algeria. In the current Algerian football team that Zidane visited, nearly all of the players hold a second citizenship, mostly French. Top team players who became household names after the recent qualification to the world cup, such as Ziani, Antar Yahia and Matmour,  were all born and raised in France. Perhaps Football will be the venue through which Algeria will learn to accept that Algerians who live in France can be a great asset in their efforts towards modernisation and development.

Who would have thought the Algerian blogosphere is weak?

El Mouhtarem,  Algeria’s most famous political blogger (pen name) has created a storm by claiming that Echorouk owes 103 billion centimes (around $15 million) to the national printing companies. ElWatan, a francophone newspaper, picked up on the story and claimed that they verified it by a second anonymous source. The day after, Echorouk reacted furiously. They published a multi page rebuttal with scans of letters from the printing companies.  The state owned printing companies themselves denied the rumours in official letters. In another twist, Echorouk is filing a lawsuit against ElWatan in a fight that might bring down one of the two newspapers (most likely ElWatan) for a few months. The newspaper’s response is hilarious and is full of appeals to popularity and nationalism. They keep looking down on ElWatan’s use of French by repeatedly using the adjective “francophone” in a derogatory manner. I wonder what they’d think of this blog.

Recall that Echorouk shot to national success by sensualising the recent Algeria-Egypt football rivalry. Its editorial line has been very populist since three years ago. It claims to be printing over 1 million copies a day (1.5 million during the matches days), a phenomenal figure by national, regional and Arab standards. The production price of a copy is higher than its selling price, so the newspaper supposedly relies on advertising to turn a profit. Well, it appears that the newspaper might have been amassing debts all the way through the football saga.

El Mouhtarem draws a lot of legitimacy from the claim that he is in the journalism profession working for a state newspaper. By night he diffuses what he hears throughout the day on his collective blog. His posts include all kinds of mysterious insights into Algerian politics and press. His blog has been gaining popularity and might sadly be one of the first victims of a proposed internet filtering system.

Beyond the claim of business mismanagement, there is an implicit questioning of Echorouk’s editorial line. Echorouk has been largely aligned with the government. However, its act of publishing Djamila Bouhired’s letter is speculated to have turned some enemies within the state. The state uses the newspapers’ debts to the state owned printing companies as a potential stick, so a claim that Echorouk owes that much money makes it under a particularly large stick that may come down onto it real soon, forcing it to tread a more pro government stance. A few years ago the newspaper Le Matin was harassed and forced to close using debts in this way.

The end of this storm will be fun to watch. It is quite humorous how such a large newspaper comes down on the defensive by the mighty stroke of an individual blogger!

Half of the the upper chamber of the Algerian parliament will be renewed on this 29th of December. The upper chamber was created after the November 1996 constitution. Its aim is to balance the popularly elected lower chamber, acting as a collective of “wise” senators who would champion human rights and rigorously counter any abusive appeal to popular opinion by the lower chamber, i.e in the style of the UK’s House of Lords.

In practice both chambers are tightly controlled by men who are loyal to the President. The upper chamber routinely rubber stamps any laws the lower chamber passes. Its president, Abdelkader Bensalah, is a staunch believer in the president’s program. When he was president of the lower chamber, he has been known to try and squash any sign of oppositions laws. The presidential third is used to reward personalities of all types with little regard for expertise, intellectuality or diversity. The President is in a position to offer some seats to win support and neutralise potential opposing voices – most lately the president is rumoured to have offered Djamila Bouhired a senate seat, and he might well do that to counter the criticism that her letters have garnered. In the letters she complained that representatives are paid way and beyond any veteran or John Doe Algerian is paid.

Constitutionally, the upper chamber has 144 members, one third is directly appointed by the president, and two-thirds (2 x 48) are elected by an electoral college formed by elected officials at the provincial and mayoral levels. Each province is represented by two senators. Half of each of these two sections of the senate is renewed every three years, i.e. half of the presidential third, and one senator of each province.

The senate mirrors the results of the previous national provincial and mayoral elections. This has the effect of rendering the senatorial renewal the most dull and totally predictable of the already predictable Algerian elections. Parties have some wiggle room to form alliances and vote for each other’s candidates but that has never caused a major upset.

This year, only five parties are seriously contending for the senate in four fronts. The five parties are the historical now mercurial FLN, the (Secularist? Capitalist? Opportunist?) RND, the islamically inspired MSP, the nationalist FNA and the Trotskyist Workers’ Party (PT). Louiza Hanoune’s Workers’ Party has pledged its votes for the RND in a bizarre alliance. The presidential alliance triangle (FLN-RND-MSP) are not running together. Only the FLN and the RND stand any real chance of winning a substantial number of senate seats. The FLN stands to win a majority since it won a large proportion of the last provincial/mayoral elections. The MSP, as usual, just hopes for the president to award two or three senate seats from the presidential third for their loyal support within the presidential alliance. Four of their elected senators are up for re-election, and it remains to be seen if they’ll be able to get them back by doing behind the scene deals with either the FLN or the RND.

The FFS under the historical Hocine Ait Ahmed and the RCD are boycotting the elections, a position they took since Bouteflika’s ascent to power.  Ennahda/ElIslah, two islamic parties that were once one do not stand any chance of winning. They both suffered internal struggles because of government meddling and the inflexibility of Abdellah Djabellah, their leader at one point. Both parties have now been in effect successfully obsoleted.

The RND-PT alliance has created a handful of hotly contested seats against the FLN, notably in Skikda (historically Islamically inspired and the city of origin of Djaballah’s movement), and El-Tarf (usually FLN controlled). The absence of any substantial differences in the policies of RND’s and FLN’s senators make these electoral fights largely decorative. The RND-PT alliance is bizarre because it joins a Trotskyist party with the RND under Ahmed Ouyahya, a man who always stood for privatisation and less rights for workers and who always infuriated both the PT and the union organisations in the past.

The RND-PT alliance is yet another major set back for opposition forces. It appears that Louiza Hanoune is trying to get under the umbrella of the government should any major shakeup of the cabinet occur. One notices that the political sphere, with the major political forces all under Bouteflik’a sphere of power closely resembles the homogeneity of  Boumediene’s era, in which the FLN played the role of the one big party under which multiple currents coexisted and shared power. The immediate logical question to such a setup is the question of succession.

Consitutional reforms to combat this concentration of power are badly needed. While it is true that virtually no amount of textual laws can prevent a dull political scene, some steps can help mitigate its effects and encourage a more lively debate. A six months obligatory rotation of the presidency of the two chambers among the top represented parties will empower the small opposition. This will create a rotation of six presidencies over three years, and that will be hard to control  as it is not easy to manipulate election results to create a senate or a congress where the top six forces are pro government. The presidential third should be abolished, and the number of elected senators should be doubled to make it possible for parties that have relatively few provincial/mayoral representatives to win seats.

One would argue that after Bouteflika’s partial success at relinquishing control from the military, he should actively try to create a political scene in which power can be rotated among parties. It is only when that happens that Algeria’s claim at being a democratic state will have any legitimacy.

Djamila Bouhired YoungThe re-entrance of an iconic figure from the Algerian revolution into Algerian politics has always sent shock waves through the whole society. The latest entrant is Djamila Bouhired, one of the most recognised faces of the revolution worldwide. The manner in which she shot back into the political arena commands further analysis than the typical response that has been written, and is still being written in various Algerian and Arab outlets.

Very few living people in Algeria still command the same respect as Djamila Bouhired as a revolution figure. The revolution is sacred, and so are the people who participated in it – but only those who passed away during the revolution or  stayed on the touchline after the independence. After 1962, the men and women of  the revolution chose or were forced into three different paths. The first group took control of the country in a single party rule and dived in its wealth, sharing it with those who turned out to be opportunists. The second group voiced their discontent about the direction that the new state was taking, and were all forced into exile or were mysteriously assassinated. The third group chose to keep quiet, living on the sidelines, content with being remembered every year on the national day and being given a token state recognition every now and then. Djamila has been one of these until two weeks ago, when she chose to step back into the field, and what a step it was.

Djamila sent two letters to the most popular Arabic and French newspapers, Echorouk and ElWatan. The first is mainly pro-state and the second is firmly in the opposition camp. But that doesn’t matter, the goal was to reach the largest audience. The letters voices her personal hardship and her discontent with the way she has been mistreated along with war veterans. But Djamila’s aim is not to merely voice her unhappiness, it seems to be an effort to embarrass the current government in general, and the current president, Bouteflika, in particular. The letters were addressed in his name.

Like most veterans, Djamila is drawn a remuneration that is modest to good by Algerian standards. Djamila was given an apartment in ElMouradia, one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in the country and the site for the Presidential palace itself. She has been assigned a maid to help her in the apartment. The remuneration money would not be able to cover for the typical private health costs of her age, so her claim is legitimate. Djamila could have contacted one of the many veterans organisations in the country, and they would have scrambled to help her. But the Ministry of Mudjahideen (veterans) and the Organisation of Martyrs both claimed that Djamila never contacted them directly about her hardship.

Bouhired PosterDjamila must know the status that she holds with Algerians and Arabs all over the world. She was depicted in both La Battaile D’Alger and the Egyptian blockbuster “Djamila”, both films that thrilled the international and Arab audiences respectively. She has always been a symbol of feminine activity in largely men dominated Arab societies. Her letters caused an outcry in Algerian circles to the huge embarrassment of the state. The Arab press roamed free to criticise the Algerian government’s carelessness, with much of the criticism coming from Egyptian circles (ongoing football row). The blow was with such force that the government could not even issue a statement or apologise, instead there are reports of efforts to appease her with better Villas and a potential position in the cabinet or one of the veteran organisations.

Young BouteflikaHer move signals that she is foremost deeply unhappy with Bouteflika, who, just a few months ago, held her hands as he paraded her to an audience of foreign personalities and diplomats during the yearly independence celebrations. The feud could be personal: Bouteflika enjoyed the legacy of the revolution to the fullest: he became foreign minister at the age of 27, having served for only the last few years of the revolution. His return was orchestrated using his revolution and Boumediènian credits, and he used that to concentrate power more than ever before into the presidency and seek a third presidential term.

It would not be a surprise if Djamila’s move was encouraged by a circle of veterans, many of whom may still be powerful figures in the Algerian army. It has for long been known that there is a great power struggle between Bouteflika and some Army sections that are unhappy with the way he has been stripping them from power. The struggle manifested itself more openly in Benflis’s attempt at unseating Bouteflika in the presidential elections of 2004 and the ensuing internal struggle within the FLN. Djamila’s letters may not necessarily suggest an evil motive as she may simply be unhappy with the way Bouteflika and his henchmen have been benefiting from the country’s wealth while ignoring the plight of countless veterans.

Djamila’s cry sheds further light on the colossal mismanagement of the veterans issue. Veterans of the revolution enjoy quite a range of benefits that are a point of envy, greed and controversy for Algerians. In addition to the remuneration, veterans can import certain goods without tax and often get priority when houses and apartments are allocated by the state. In many eyes, the veteran system has  become a vehicle of corruption where opportunists and corrupt officials use dubious revolution credits to maximise their wealth. Algeria is often quipped to be the only country whose number of veterans increases over time. In 2006 there was a great debacle at the claim that up to 50000 registered veterans are not only false veterans, but were actively fighting against the revolution.

The veteran system has become to be seen as a vehicle with which power hungry officials claim credence. It represents the failed legacy of the revolution in many Algerians’ eyes. The revolution captivated the people’s minds and set the Algerians hopes high with visions of freedom and development. But now the agony of the disappointment over its legacy can be seen in many  writings and events , such as Ahlam Mosteghanmi’s trilogy, the illegal immigration problem (Harga) and now Djamila’s letters. Djamila’s complaint is, in the end, a continuation of this collective mourning.

The British Government’s recent reaction in the Tzipi Livni case is only just the latest episodes in a series of shameful European surrenderings against the mighty power of Israel and its lobbies. Belgium succumbed to Israel in 2003 in nearly the same conditions when a case was lodged against Ariel Sharon in its courts. Sharon has under his belt the masterminding of Sabra and Shatila amongst the mildest of his atrocities.  Later described by Bush II as a “man of peace”, the man is now in a coma on his way to death, denying thousands of people their right to justice with the full complicity of Europe. Spain followed suit earlier this year and amended its laws to make it impossible to put Israeli subjects to trial on war crimes. This week, Britain’s Miliband apologises: “The Government is looking urgently at ways in which the UK system might be changed in order to avoid this sort of situation arising again “.

Evident is the fact that Israel and its lobbies in European countries have for long known that a proper court is no venue for propaganda. The standard arsenal of deceit and bold lies cannot navigate the rough landscape of evidence, reason and the law. One would think that a reasonable legal system would hold every defendant to the same law and the same treatment. One would believe that accused defendants clear themselves in court. Not in Europe.

Netanyahu charges: “We will not accept a situation in which [former Israeli Prime Minister] Ehud Olmert, [Defence Minister] Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni will be summoned to the defendants’ chair”, publicly declaring that any Israeli politician is beyond the law, beyond questioning for any war crimes or crimes against humanity. Such a nefarious statement comes from the same man who continues, just as arrogantly and shamelessly, to license building settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem, to order routine raids on the Palestinian territories and to effectively give the peace process the death sentence at a time when an American administration just might be looking for a real end to the conflict.

Europe and America cannot expect Israel to work for peace while pretending that she is beyond the law. Europe and Obama are being humiliated by Netanyahu who refuses to react positively to their calls for a solution, appearing powerless without anything to bargain for. But now British politicians would rather castrate any power that could hold sway over Israel, even the law itself. Israel will again give them the same treatment that can be expected from a nation that doesn’t stand to lose anything by doing as she wishes, from building more settlements to murdering thousands of civilians and anything in between.

Israel sympathisers speak of Palestinians and people working for their cause “hijacking the courts” for their own gains. What they really mean is that the Palestinians do not deserve justice and that the courts should by default not uphold them as equal humans. The self-evident fact that the law is the text and the text is nonnegotiable for anyone is suddenly forgotten. Benedict Brogan in the Indepedant does one step better and singles out all muslims who sought justice in British courts as unworthy of it. “Britain’s judicial system is being used to help the bad guys”  he thinks. To him, any muslim victim is a bad guy by nature. Nothing will appease these guys apart from codifying into law the exclusion of Muslims from any right to justice. Anyone seeking justice for these “bad guys” is a terrorist sympathiser or an anti-Semite, words that for all intents have long been emptied of any meaning.

With the principle of Universal Jurisdiction now dead, buried and forgotten next to the tomb of the separation of powers the war criminals of Israel and the world, with blood still fresh on their hands, can rejoice and party with the forgotten rights of those they oppress and the glory of the friendship and approval of western powers.

AFRICOM’s deputy spokesperson Vince Crawley said in a comment that any rumours about US military bases in Algeria are untrue.

Here is the text of the comment in full, as posted in the previous entry:

I just ran across this discussion on your blog.

There are some media reports of a deal between Algeria and the U.S. for temporary use of bases in Algeria. These reports aren’t accurate.

For more info, I invite you to read AFRICOM commander General William Ward’s news conference transcript from December 3 in Algiers, posted on the http://www.africom.mil website: http://bit.ly/5ouvZX

Quotes include:

“I did not come here with any request to put troops in the Sahel to combat terrorism and I have no plans to do so.”

“[T]here are no plans to conduct that type of training or exercises here in Algeria.”

The United States is not conducting any combat operations in the Sahel, to include Algeria or any of its neighboring countries.

Respectfully,

Vince Crawley
U.S. Africa Command Public Affairs
http://www.africom.mil

So far the reasons given by Zitout and the Quds Press story do not stand up to scrutiny (see reasoning in previous post). It is unclear whether Zitout’s claim is pure speculation or inside knowledge.  What is mysterious is not only whether a base has been agreed or not, it is also what the current Algerian authorities will gain from the deal. Recall that ABC news broadcasted a report about American forces training Algerian special forces in the Sahara earlier this year (video). Whether this limited American military presence extended beyond, or will extend beyond what is present in the report  is unclear.

For some time the Algerian authorities have been thinking about putting an Internet filtering service in place. Algeria is one of the few middle eastern countries that escaped the wrath of such a system so far.

The government cooked together a law throughout the last year to combat cybercrime, terrorism websites and internet pornography. cybercrime has been an evident  problem of late. The lack of successful role models and a market where IT specialists could fuel their energy encouraged the youth to view hacking as a desirable, heroic, patriotic or even religious activity. The recent Algeria Egypt football match saw some literally fierce website hacking battles, facilitated by the laughable security in government IT systems in both countries. On the other hand, indecency laws have been used rigorously to put people who distribute obscene pictures to trial. Some cases were featured at large as the subjects (mostly women) were threatened and sentences ended up being harsh, enrolling charges of extortion.

So the law resonates very well with a local population that is increasingly conservative and hostile to a pornographic industry seen as a product of  broken Western morals, while at the same time very frustrated at the sporadic yet continuous terrorist attacks. The government was largely successful in introducing the laws without much resistance or proper discussion from the local press, non governmental organisations or Internet café owners (Internet cafés are main venues for connectivity).

Now the government is turning towards implementing a publicly funded national filtering system to filter and monitor web usage. I could stomach that a large portion of the population might find such a system desirable. I could also accept that it gets enabled it by default for new customers. What I just can’t pass up are the plans to make circumvention of such filters illegal and punishable. Such a system would be too easy to abuse to crack down on dissident voices and cause the abortion of the infantile Algerian blogosphere.

Given the Algerian authorities’ track record against the printed press, I am not at all delighted with this move. The authorities have repeatedly used its monopoly of the printing and advertising businesses in the country to reign in on independent newspapers. The same treatment will surely be unveiled on undesirable websites with the click of a button.

Aggravating the threat is the judicial system’s extreme technophobia, as in literal hostility towards technology. The judges often give the impression that they do not understand technology and lay down sentences on the whim of suspicion, sometimes in an effort to inflate the number of “caught” terrorists and terrorist “sympathisers” or to exaggerate the severity of web terrorist activity inside the country. This blogger knows several people who have been locked up because their computer equipment contained pictures of terrorist attacks that were saved from local press websites, and were publicly available in printed form in the hundreds of thousands.

Circumventing the filtering system in and of itself should not be banned and there should be no legal repercussions whatsoever for doing so. It is up to the prosecutor to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the crime as dictated by the law has been comitted with no remorse to the filtering system. In this age of the 21st century and its technologies, it is trivial for a moderately savvy user to circumvent almost any filtering mechanism.

The country should instead concentrate on improving internet facilities for its citizens and should implement policies that encourage the use of the Web to diffuse information and empower civil discourse. The fact that the country has no filtering system yet is, sadly, not a reflection of liberal tendencies or love for freedom of speech. It is a reflection of the fact of that Internet penetration is very low even by the region’s standards. A just released market research report forecasts it to grow to 3.2% by 2013 – a deplorable figure. The cause is not lack of resources or of IT brainpower, it is pure business mismanagement. The network is managed by the state owned bureaucratic Algérie Télécom, a monolithic archaic entity that, despite having more than 3 million lines, was valued by potential investors at the paltry sum of $200 million for the whole internet/fixed telephony business last year. An embarrassingly low figure for a usually investor safe lone communication market player. In contrast, the mobile market is estimated to be worth a figure in the double digits of billions of dollars. On the incompetence of Internet providers, I recount my experience: I lodged an application for a DSL line and paid 6 months of subscription upfront only to be figuratively tortured with endless promises and delays, not to speak of regular downtime and aweful peak time speeds once service started. Issam Hamoud, an Algerian blogger in the capital no less recalls a similar experience.

My only condolence were such a system implemented and abused is the possibility that it will backfire, knowing the netizens’ tendency to quickly reassemble and follow what they’ve been banned with vengeance. The low penetration numbers can suggest more malice than failure, as the authorities may not want to get bothered with a problem of internet political activity in the first place.

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Commentary and views of an Algerian about the Middle East and Algeria, Democracy and Human Rights, Islam and Reform, as well as whatever pair of topics the author wishes to write about.

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