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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.]

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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

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.

“[…] reaffirms its permanent attachment to the principles and values as laid down in the universal declaration of human rights”. In case you’re wondering, these are the words of the Algerian president in a speech to mark the anniversary, and the square brackets contain the name of the country, Algeria. Quotes like this indicate that the political class do realise the importance of human rights. To regain the trust on the elusive values has been a political goal for the authorities since the introduction of the reconciliation laws. But the history of the country and its complicated power structure make any advances on this issue quite slow and easily reversible.

Indeed, attaining the trust and initiative on human rights proves to be a difficult task for many countries with a dark human rights record. These countries can be divided into three main groups: group one could not care less about the issue; it includes regimes such as Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and the current Burmese government. Group two gives some lip service but do very little to champion the rights in practice. Russia and some of the Middle East countries are examples. Group three are countries that have made  significant advances in securing the rights for their citizens, and this includes countries in Eastern Europe and the Asian tigers.

Short of a complete political overhaul, such as possibly a bloody revolution, countries in group one seldom change their stance. Countries in group three will continue their progress: advancing human rights causes a positive feedback loop (except some, ahem, notable exceptions). Very few countries make it from group two to group three successfully and irreversibly.

Algeria has been painfully wobbling in group two for a few years. Sometimes coming close to making the leap, other times doing enough damage to go back to the frontiers of group one. What’s undoubted is  that the Algerian authorities do give the impression that they passionately believe in the values and try some baby steps. Bouteflika, in the previous speech, also boldly envisioned the country as playing a “major role in championing human rights in the African and Arab dimensions”. The government sponsors a “National Human Rights Commission”. State newspapers, such as Elmoudjahid, from which these quotes are taken, routinely praise the government’s human rights “advances”. Government participating parties such as the Islamic MSP hold rallies on the issue. The country’s head of police says that the police are barred from even lifting their hands or shouting at a citizen. There has been a number of judicial reforms aimed at improving sentence waiting times.

That was talk, and probably a limping walk, but the real walk is yet to come. Independent newspapers are scared into submission using some phony anti libel laws and the state’s near complete control of the printing and advertising companies.  The resources that the Army has provide easy money for generals to launch vindictive lawsuits against authors and journalists. Demonstrations are banned in the capital and practically in most of the country since the events of Black Spring. Many photographers and authors have been rounded up – a recent tourist photographer recounted his encounter with an Algerian policeman. In criminal cases, prison waiting times can be absurdly high, sometimes running into the years, especially in cases that deal with terrorism charges.

If you read the above paragraph without the surrounding context, you would realise that the scenes that it describes can be found in any country of group two. The problems seem to be shared – it’s the same tape everywhere. So what is the problem, and  how can the state make the leap?

Algeria inherited a nasty double legacy of two periods that did much damage to the country’s human rights stance. The totalitarian socialist state of the 60s-80s introduced a one party rule, state land tenure, dubious assassinations and a powerful intelligence gathering force, althought it had many economic and diplomatic successes. The period of the civil war of the 90s did the most damage. Assassinations against policemen, judges, politicians and other civil servants pitted the government against the whole population in its eyes. Torture ran ripe to get as much intelligence as possible from first hand, second and even long distance contacts of suspected terrorists. Many believe that certain factions of the army orchestrated a number of massacres to paint the opposition fighters in a worse light. The government in the 90s was effectively under an international embargo and was extremely paranoid of outside pressure. It painfully made it through the late 90s and into the reconciliation plan of the current President. For some time, it seemed that the country is making some breakthroughs.

Yet the country seems to be reversing its progress. The parliament speed passed a law that allowed the president to run for life. We thought we were lucky that the president has no children. Yet now it is widely believed that the president’s brother is being groomed for the job. Demonstrations continue to be outlawed. The right to assembly is severely limited.  Newspapers continue to be sued and scared. In short, the country’s independent human rights organisation paint a very bleak picture today.

In the absence of a full understanding of human rights and its benefits to the country’s economic and political well being, countries like Algeria will continue to wobble. The country needs to understand that free speech makes better citizens, more vibrant economies, world-class universities – all goals declared by the state. All citizens must be equal behind the law, nobody should be beyond reproach. How is a president or a minister  harmed if a journalist paints a caricature of them or an author criticises them? their legal venue should be the venue of public opinion, not that of the courts or the prison cells. Free assembly makes better informed and motivated citizens. Let them march on the capital and demand what they want. In the end, the equilibrium that will be formed will ensure long lasting growth and development, instead of the limping wreck of an economy that exists today.

Lose your grip on the people, and let them fix the country themselves, for a government’s goal is to enable its citizens to develop and move the country forward, not to draw up ever failing bureaucratic plans from the ivory towers of ElMouradia and the various ministries in the capital.

The minaret ban in Switzerland continues to draw much ink and cynic reactions in the Arab world. The ban provided another opportunity for authorities  to regain the tempo domestically on the issue of democracy and human rights.  Echorouk, Algeria’s populist most popular Arab newspaper carried two scathing opinion pieces. The reactions lambasted the West for its “hypocrisy” towards human rights and its perceived high horse attitude towards the Arab world. They cite multiple issues and come to the conflusion that the West is not different from the Arab world after all – only more intelligent, in its anti human rights campaigns. Pieces like this suggest that the western human rights demands are just post colonial meddling in internal affairs.

AqassemThe first piece is written by Fayssal Alqassem, one of the most popular journalists in the Arab world. His syndicated column is printed in almost every Arab country. He is one of the BBC trained journalists who helped shape Aljazeera’s image with taboo destroying programmes. In his piece, titled “The Myth of Indiviual Liberty in the West” he is as usual, abrasive and confrontational. He amusingly subtitles his column “Careful, a camera is watching you”.  He contrasts Arab countries’ anti-Human Rights record, describing it as rather dumb and too obvious –  with the West’s, which is according to him cleverer, by using technology such as DNA databases and cameras in public places. The latest minaret ban is just the west accidently getting into the dumb anti human rights ways. Some selected quotes (paraphrasing):

I don’t want to suggest that the Arab countries’ have a crisp human rights record – far from it. But the Arab intelligence and security institutes are still behind in terms of technology and logistics of spying, monitoring and citizen surveillance , at least the Arab can try and evade his country’s incompetence. But in the “west”, who is often riding the moral high horse on human rights, citizens are under surveillance 24 hours a day. The big brother that George Orwell warned us from is watching everywhere. Rarely can you walk through a street in Europe without noticing dozens of cameras watching even the ants. In London alone there are more than 4 million cameras…

And then some attacks on the United States:

Uncle Sam does not only want to monitor his citizens alone, he wants to monitor the whole world. We need not cite the spying network and its surveillance operations around the world […] I also want to congratulate Europe on their new European law that makes it possible to allow the CIA to get access to , lawfully, the banking details of  its citizens.

I don’t know what law he is referring to, that is scary if true. Fayssal’s punch line is rich:

Oh George Orwell, if you still lived you’d wish the old soviet style surveillance tactics are still in force instead!

The second piece is written by Fawzi Oussedek, a local Algerian journalist. He titled it “Human rights in Switzerland, melting like chocolate in Minarets [sic]”. He contrasts the perceived reaction of the West, governments, institutes and individuals alike towards the Minaret ban with their reactions to any similar measure in the Arab and Muslim Worlds. There are a lot more Muslims in the West than say, Christians in Muslim countries so the difference in reactions seems even more absurd to him. On Western reactions he says:

Since the Minaret ban I have been waiting the views of human rights organisations […] that made a habit of criticising some places for their human rights record […] since the ban I have been listening to commentators in the west trying to justify the unjustifiable […] Governmental reactions amounted to only expressing mere dismay, a tactic that they used to diplomatically evade their moral stance on human rights.

Then he contrasts this reaction to reactions towards the Muslim world:

I wonder, what if such a vote was made in a Muslim country to ban some other religious symbol, what would be the reaction? simply, we will hear many descriptions about the whole muslim world, from backwardness to being hateful, the reaction can amount to using economic pressure sometimes, and to scare the countries in question by threatening to include them in the “black list”!! […] but in Switzerland some considered democratic referendums as saintly, it’s just sometimes possible to use them unwisely – evading the moral stance towards the ban.

The author then suggests that the muslim community try and fight this ban all the way in Swiss and European courts.

The ban and other similar measures around Europe, such as the previous veil ban in France , France and Netherlands’ flirtations with banning certain types of clothing and Britain’s “English Defence League”  will provide more fuel for criticism, and will sadly have ramifications on democratic reform in the whole Arab world.

Aminatou Haidar is occupying the centre stage in the new chapter on the Western Sahara Conflict. More coverage here and here. Of note is the Algerian complete silence on the issue – which is rather typical.

Western SaharaMorroco’s main strategy is to advance the idea that the conflict is a made up one – and that Algeria is the real adversary. The view is partly correct: Algeria does fund and give political and territorial support for Polisario, and the western Sahara issue is the only issue they spend money on lobbying (soft term for bribing) in Washington.  Aminatou Haidar’s hunger strike, as embarrassing as it is for Morroco and as perturbing as it is for Spain, is a convenient perfect argument for Algeria to counter the strategy of Al Maghzen – they need not say a word and the saga will continue to be a public relations nightmare for both countries and a point for Algeria, as it moves the focus of the conflict from the Morrocan-Algerian Axis to the Moroccan-Polisario axis, or even more conveniently, to the Moroccan-Spanish Axis. The more adversaries in the conflict the better – while they are at it,  bring in human rights organisations if possible.

Algeria’s main strategy towards the conflict was to try and delegate the problem to the Polisario when possible, and to just act behind the scenes. Algeria’s success at prolonging and aggravating the problem is rather remarkable – even more remarkable is its success in helping to shape the terms of the conflict and its image in the world as she wishes – all the while appearing to care much less about the issue than Morocco.  In terms of public relations, both internationally and domestically,  Algeria’s strategy is two-fold depending on the audience.

Internationally, since the days when it had an active role in third world politics and the non alignment movement (When the current president Bouteflika was the secretary of foreign affairs – great video, the guy always had a sharp tongue) Algeria’s main argument overseas is to insist that it is championing the self-determination rights of the Western Saharan people. Having declared independence in 1962 after such a vote, the argument was  strong, and is still rather powerful despite the rise of federalism and the tendency of independence voices in various parts around the world to be quieted down through a form of a republic federalist compromise or by completely refusing to succumb: Iraq’s Kurds, Northern Ireland, the failure of the PLO so far to create a state and Eta in Spain are examples (the Balkan region is an exception to this  because of its rather different history, and Scotland is also in a separate group – I don’t think the efforts of the SNP for independence from the union will be successful after all).

Tindouf

A refugee camp for Sahrawis in Tindouf - The Polisario is housed in Tindouf

Despite its horrific human rights record, especially in the “black decade” of the 90s, Algeria also often uses this conflict to bolster an image of a human rights campaigner for the rights of the Western Saharan people – the Algerian authorities have for long maintained that they support democracy in the region, supposedly being a democracy (at least on paper) as opposed to the monarchy in Morocco.  This image of a democracy championing state was rather conveniently supported by Bush’s New Middle East doctrine: then, the Algerian authorities declared that they are unconcerned by the initiative because, hey, we are a democracy and see, we also want democracy elsewhere. Their tactic here and Bush’s initiative conveniently blend well. Domestically, the Algerian authorities used this argument for all it’s worth.

Turning to its domestic strategy, as is the case for most foreign conflicts, the Western conflict is a convenient rallying point for the authorities (this strategy is shared with Morocco as well). This is a standard procedure with most states – keep the population busy overseas and try to use nationalistic and chauvinistic feelings towards the issue. Algeria has been very successful domestically at rallying the whole nation, be it media, newspapers, parties of the whole spectrum behind the authorities. There is almost totally no dissident voice moving even an iota towards the Morrocan stance. Any hint of such a stance is squarely quashed. A few years ago , “Rida Talyani”  (literally, Rida the italian), a pop singer, wore the Moroccan flag and expressed his support for a Moroccan Western Sahara in a concert in Morocco – his music plunged from top of the charts to absolute obscurity very quickly as he was banned (unofficially)  from participating in concerts and from any TV or Radio programme.

Historical 5 Algerian

The historical 5 Algerian figures detained by France after the hijacking, 1956, allegedly with Moroccan help

The issue is a handy agreement point between the government, the newspapers and the opposition. Almost all the newspapers, persecuted or not,  state run or private, in Arabic or in French rally staunchly behind the government on this issue. Likewise, opposition parties, left or Kabyle region based, as well as Islamist parties such as the MSP follow the government line. The Moroccan monarchy provides very little incentive to rationalise an ulterior opinion. Any potential remorse to Pan-Arabism, Islamic Solidarity or Maghreb El-Kebir politics can usually be squarely addressed by the claim that Monarchy has sold out and that the Moroccan compass has always been turned towards the West since Hassan II, who has a draconian evil reputation attached to him because of his alleged role in the airplane hijacking of the five Algerian revolution figures in 1956,  his supposed collaboration with Israel, allegations by the famous Egyptian journalist Heikel of spying for the West during Arab summit meetings and the list goes on.

Behind the arguments, Algeria’s stance without a doubt is not about the plight of the Saharan people. Algeria’s authorities are still, indeed, very much paranoid about the Moroccan claim to Algerian territories, a claim that Morocco has not withdrawn since it was made in the fifties. The hawks in the army will do their best to weaken the Moroccan side – better have the conflict and Moroccan land claims over there than anywhere on Algerian soil. In her view, Algeria has been bitten twice before, and the Sand War of 1963 is viewed in a bad light as Morocco tried to take Algerian western territories by force directly after the independence, supposedly taking the opportunity of the weakness of the infant Algerian state.

That war, ironically, helped stabilise the country at a time when tensions were very high among army leaders and civil wars were close to being declared over who rules the country. It would seem that the Algerian élite realised the potential of the conflict as way to score political points since then, and they seem to have been successful so far. A potential route to the Atlantic Ocean is an attractive notion as well.Royal Air ForceAlgerian Army

Unfortunately Algerian fears make the conflict very much a military one between Algeria and Morocco. There is an ongoing fierce armament battle between the two countries (or rather, spending battles), with both countries buying military aircraft and equipment to the tune of several billion dollars. Most of the Algerian Military’s arsenal is based in the west of the country facing Morocco: in Sidi Belabes, Tindouf, Oran, Mers el-Kebir, etc.

In the absence of substantial political reform in the region, and especially in both countries, the conflict will continue to be prolonged over what is described by many as a lifeless patch of sand. A final solution has to include both countries as well as the Polisario and Mauritania, and has to leave no questions asked over the sovereignty of each state.

In an earlier post about the Swiss Minaret ban, I mentioned the problems that actions like this ban pose to advocates of Democracy in the Arab world.  I believed that oppressive regimes will turn to criticising the ideal of democracy that is often lectured to them by Europe et al.

Aboul Gheit

Aboul Gheit

Well, that didn’t take long. As reported by the AFP and commented about at The Arabist , the Egyptian foreign affairs minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, weighed in…  literally asking Europe not to give any more lessons on democracy, and declaring that the human rights record of the Egyptian government is good. More direct words could not have been spoken by him. The quote, given below, is just too rich!

Egypt’s top diplomat said on Thursday that a Swiss vote to ban the construction of minarets was a “grave mistake” and Europe could no longer lecture his country on human rights.

“The Swiss people will some day come to realise what a grave mistake they have made,” Ahmed Abul Gheit told Egyptian television in comments carried by the official MENA news agency.

The human rights situation in Egypt is good… Europe cannot talk to Egypt about its human rights record at a time when Switzerland is supporting a ban on minaret building,” Abul Gheit said.

“People who live in glass houses should not throw stones,” the minister said in the interview which focused on Egyptian-European relations.

On Sunday, more than 57 percent of Swiss voters approved a right-wing motion to ban minarets on mosques, a decision that was met with an international backlash and charges of intolerance.

Abul Gheit expressed “regret that there is an increasing fear of Muslims in (European) societies as a result of the acts of some groups,” in allusion to attacks committed in the name of Islam.

Undoubtedly the guy believes he struck a very big note and achieved a huge political point for the Egyptian government.  Undoubtedly the voice of democracy and reform has been dealt a blow in this row and has been pushed a step back in its quest to counter the government plans. The president’s son is being groomed to replace him, amid more clampdown on the people of Egypt and more closing down of the political scene to make it almost impossible for any opponent to run. The government has reacted negatively to Ahmed AlBaradei’s initiative and has been trying with great effort to sabotage a possible candidacy by Amr Mousa and others.

So, again, thanks to the Swiss People’s Party, and thanks to any more xenophobic measures like this that may come in te next months/years!

‘s top diplomat said on Thursday that a Swiss vote to ban the construction of minarets was a “grave mistake” and Europe could no longer lecture his country on human rights.”The Swiss people will some day come to realise what a grave mistake they have made,” Ahmed Abul Gheit told Egyptian television in comments carried by the official MENA news agency.

“The human rights situation in Egypt is good… Europe cannot talk to Egypt about its human rights record at a time when Switzerland is supporting a ban on minaret building,” Abul Gheit said.

“People who live in glass houses should not throw stones,” the minister said in the interview which focused on Egyptian-European relations.

On Sunday, more than 57 percent of Swiss voters approved a right-wing motion to ban minarets on mosques, a decision that was met with an international backlash and charges of intolerance.

Abul Gheit expressed “regret that there is an increasing fear of Muslims in (European) societies as a result of the acts of some groups,” in allusion to attacks committed in the name of Islam.

Let me start off this blog by a somewhat unrelated post. I just couldn’t pass up the chance to demonstrate what I’d like democracy *not* to be. Somewhat unexpectedly, the swiss voted to amend the constitution to face the threat of four cone shaped structures and an application for two more. I am hard pressed to think of a worse way to waste time. Will this “face the threat of islamisation” in anyway? I can’t see how, setting aside the question that such a threat even exists. Does this open another front against the ordinary Muslims in Europe? Yes. The Maghreb Political Review and Laila Lalami’s excellent articles delved into the wrongness of this more than I’d like to here, but I’d just like to concentrate on another often forgotten effect of actions such as these.

Namely, that votes like this give more ammunition to democracy haters in the Arab World. The fine example of direct democracy in the world is using mob rule to code into law disallowing ordinary Muslim tax payers to build what they find delightful.  And, unfortunately, due to the economic conditions, much of Europe is heading with sure steps towards a decade of right and far right politics. Is it a testament of human nature that people turn more xenophobic when under pressure?

The leader of the MSP, Mr Bouguerra Soltani has been embroiled recently in a controversy because a Swiss human rights organisation wanted him sued on Swiss soil for alleged torture. People in the Middle East and North Africa view such interference with endless suspicion, and what better way to further these fears than by votes such as these.

The leaders of the Swiss People’s Party ought to be ashamed of themselves for providing such a fine example of how democracy should not be.

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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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