Digging through the writings of various historians of 20th Century Algeria, one almost always unearths some dirt. I admire the spirit of the Algerian revolution against the French to a great degree, but I wish we were told the whole story in our educational programmes. The story I was given is that of heroic fighting, ample dedication, determination and brotherhood. Much of this true, but a large piece of the picture was not painted, and many details were swept under a neatly woven carpet of historical perfection*.

In particular, the events that happened directly at the ending of the revolution during the course of the year 1962 remain a mystery, with conflicting accounts from various historians inside and outside the country. So much happened too quickly to untangle: French Army factions breaking away, FLN internal strife, false fighters, Harkis, Pieds Noirs run anti-independence resistance movements, opportunists trying to get the best booties and the list goes on. It all ended in a blood bath where so many were killed in sometimes shameful ways, unfolding one of the dark chapters of the revolution.

Mobs would go through urban areas and extra judiciously kill anyone who was suspected of being complicit with the French side against the FLN. Sometimes false fighters would aid in these operations to get some credit and snap a couple of photos to gain Mujahid status. The benefits of the status were substantial in the newly created socialist state:  a life long renumeration, free transportation, medical care, priority when importing goods (e.g a car or a fridge…). Some of these people would go on and hold high offices in the state, only for their back-story to be revealed decades later, much to the confusion and astonishment of the Algerian people. Accusations and false reports still spread to this day. It is all still a mess to be sorted.

Many suspected Algerian Muslims, Jews and Christians were targeted during the mob killings. Some Jews and Christians continued to live in the infant state even though the majority left. I do not believe that the FLN and the revolution had an inherently racist or xenophobic agenda.  While digging through history books, specifically Mohamed Harbi’s “La Guerre d’Algérie”, published in 2004, I came through a letter from the FLN written to the Jewish community in 1962. The FLN tried to engage the Jewish community and appealed to them to side with the Algerian revolution. The FLN was sympathetic to the plight that the Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis and Vichy’s government. It aknowledges the help of many Jews that were in the cause of the revolution.

Harbi was a high officer within the FLN, served in the first government after the independence and later fled after Boumediène’s coup of 1965. The letter led me to find another written in 1956, two years after the start of the revolutions. Excerpts of the letters appear below.

From the translation of the first letter (1956) (all emphasis is mine):

The National Liberation Front, which has led the anti-colonialist revolution for the past two years, feels that the moment has arrived when every Algerian of Israelite origin, in light of his own experience, must without any ambiguity choose sides in this great historic battle. The FLN, authentic and exclusive representative of the Algerian people, considers it its obligation to directly address the Israelite community and to ask it to solemnly affirm its membership in the Algerian nation. This choice clearly affirmed, it will dissipate all misunderstandings and extirpate the seeds of hatred maintained by French colonialism. It will also contribute to recreating Algerian fraternity, broken by the arrival of French colonialism.[…]

Without going too far back in history, it seems useful to us to recall the time when the Jews, held in less consideration than animals, didn’t even have the right to inter their dead, the latter being secretly buried during the night wherever this could be done, due to the absolute prohibition against the Jews having any cemeteries. At precisely this period Algeria was the refuge and land of freedom for the Israelites who fled the inhuman persecutions of the Inquisition. Precisely during this period the Israelite community was proud to offer its Algerian fatherland not only poets, but consuls and ministers.

It is because the FLN considers the Algerian Israelites the sons of our Fatherland that it hopes that the leaders of the Jewish community will have the wisdom to contribute to the building of a free and truly fraternal Algeria…

And from the second letter (1962):

The Algerian problem is at a decisive stage. We want to address this appeal to you, in the face of the hysterical and racist clamor of the fascists who claim to speak in your name, declaring that you are French and that you are all participants in the criminal acts of the backwards colonialists. You know full well that this is both a gratuitous declaration and a policy of mystification that should fool know [sic] one, and even less so you, who are Algerians.[…]

…Recently, in Oran, demonstrations provoked by young hotheads in the Israelite neighborhood took place, followed by fires set in stores belonging to Muslims. These acts are the clearest illustration of how some of you attempt to thoughtlessly align yourselves with the racial policies of the ultras. Will you today make yourselves the accomplices of the backwards colonialists by rising up against your Algerian brothers of Muslim origin?…[…]

Israelite compatriots, many Israelites are active in our ranks. Some among them were interned, others are still in prison for their acts in service to the Algerian cause. Algeria’s independence is near; independent Algeria will need you and tomorrow you will need it, for it is your country. Your Muslim brothers honestly and loyally offer you their hand for solidarity coming from your direction. It is your duty to answer.

These  letters are not new, I am not trying to break new ground or rewrite history. They were just found by a curious mind digging back through the history of his country. These letters do not excuse the treatment that Jews or anyone endured after the revolution, what they show is that the Jews were not targeted because of their religion, they just shared the fate that anyone that was suspected of complicity and treason with the French did.

[* For the record, I don’t believe Algerians are unique in this. Some French still believe that colonialism is great,  the British believe they delivered prosperity everywhere throughout their empire, and some Americans think they ought to deliver democracy or freedom or something wherever there is oil. Nationalism is sweet like that.]

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Mourad Medelci, Algeria's foreign minister

Since Algeria’s foreign minister’s recent visit to the United States speculation is intense about its intentions and results. From the Western Saharan issue and its recent developments to possible armament deals and good ol’ business. Both Mr Medelci and Mrs Clinton remained vague about what they discussed in their micro press conference, half the questions by journalists were answered with the usual diplomatic filler tripe, and the other half was irrelevant to the visit, indicating the media’s usual apathy to the country.

But today Quds Press dropped a bomb and reported that the country has succumbed to the United States’ pressure to have a military base in the country. The formula seems to be holding “temporary” bases where American troops launch fast attacks against AQIM throughout the Sahara, trailing them to their holdouts in neighbouring countries. Supposedly the temporary nature of the bases avoids upsetting the local population. The story is gaining momentum, with Aljazeera throwing their mammoth weight behind it and soon the local opposition press will follow suit.

Mohamed Larbi Zitout

Such a heavy claim commands careful analysis though. First, the only source of this is Mohamed Larbi Zitout, a disgruntled former Algerian diplomat now in Asylum in Britain. Zitout is a fierce critic of the Algerian government, appearing on multiple news channels Arab and Western. But before going deeper into his background and to avoid any accusations of ad homming the source, we will dig elsewhere first.

Bouteflika’s Algeria has tried to play the cards with everyone and keep passable diplomatic ties with world powers. The country exports a considerable amount of oil to the United States, with Halliburton and other American companies present in the industry. Culturally it is closely tied to France (it pretends this is not true). The country’s recent multi billion construction projects are mainly managed by Chinese and Japanese companies, whose relationships with Algeria are apolitical so far. Most substantially, Algeria imports most of its important Arms from Russia, including advanced aircraft equipment and surface to air missiles. This is why the country is strategically considered in the Russian camp.

A decision to accept American bases would severally upset this balance of powers. The country has tried to keep this balance for as long as possible, never opening up to one direction, habitually pissing everyone off in turn. The Russions in the last scandalous armament deal, when the Algerian military was publicly dissatisfied with the quality of the MiGs they received. France by demanding apologies for the war of independence every few years and refusing to fully endorse Sarkozy’s Mediterranean Union. And lastly, the United States by publicly refusing to hold an American military base when debate about American involvement in the Maghreb intensified following the rise of AQIM.

Paradoxically, AQIM is much less of a threat now than it was perceived to be in 2005/2006. AlQuaeda In the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has largely failed in implementing its Agenda of exporting its ideology throughout the region, as confirmed by the findings of Jean-Pierre Filiu, the expert on terrorist movements in the region, in a Carnegie Endowment report.  AQIM’s predecessors, the various terrorist groups that were fighting the Algerian state, had some support within the population after the coup of 1991. Despite the horrific events of the late 90’s against civilians, this support diminished year by year but never completely went away  because of continual frustration at the state. That support seems to have nearly completely dried up inside the country and its neighbours, as AQIM’s global vision and integration of fighters from foreign American wars made Algerians realise that AQIM are not fighting for their cause and that their Agenda is foreign. American bases in the country will give more fuel to AQIM and possibly even reverse its fortunes. AQIM is weaker and is perceived to be weaker by the population, so their presence and current state cannot alone explain Algeria’s possible sudden change of heart.

The country has forever publicly stated that they allow no foreign bases on Algerian soil full stop. The nation draws great pride from its war of Independence and is extremely sensitive to the idea of foreign troops. For a long time it has been a source of differentiation from other Middle Eastern countries, notably the Gulf countries: they have American bases and troops, we don’t, they succumb to foreign powers, we don’t! It also helps that the country has been geographically far from any hot spot. That is, until AQIM’s rise and Algeria’s public refusal to host bases.

Quds Press, Aljazeera and Zitout speculate that the Algerian élite and military officials have a lot to gain from setting up private security companies that help an American military presence – Black Water gained billions in Iraq and other places. A powerful argument for sure, but the lack of history of sacrificing diplomatic standing over financial gains, even personal ones undermines it. The country has forever let its generals and army commanders run loose in holding the main companies that import essential goods and dealing with far more money than anything that these security companies might bring. Moreover, au contraire, Algeria’s habit has been the opposite: easily letting away financial opportunities using dubious spiteful laws (Oil windfall taxes as an example) and more prudent diplomatic stances.

The second argument is that Algeria is seeking the US’s support on Western Sahara. This issue, while important to the Algerian authorities, has never garnered enough importance to make the country take such drastic measures, and indeed, Algeria has been successful in shaping the terms of the conflict. This argument is even weaker in the light of Morocco’s recent difficulties vs Aminatou and Spain. The third argument is Algeria’s desire for American arms, a drastic change in its stance with its old ally Russia if true. Lastly, Zitout says that the country wants its general to be protected when travelling abroad, since many of them could be accused of war crimes after Bouteflika’s reconciliation laws that largely exonerated them. Usually the preferred destination for these generals is Europe, somewhere on the shores of lake Geneva or the Cote d’Azur, and American protection will not prevent NGO’s and European countries launching criminal cases against them.

Algeria’s response to this will be closely watched in local and Arab circles. The traditional response of the government in situation like these is dead silence – the presidency and authorities often given the impression that they are beyond answering rumours and speculation. That is, until the rumour grows big enough, and there is no question that this will only grow.  Aljazeera is a powerful force in the Algerian public opinion arena. The station carried the story  both on its Arabic based website and on air, the local press will soon follow.

So the verdict is that the story has little truth, given what we know now. It appears that Zitout wants to corner Algeria in a difficult situation by forcing them to, once again, publicly state that they don’t accept foreign bases, humiliating both Algeria and the US after the diplomatic visit and potentially doing enough damage to reverse any diplomatic progress. Zitout’s public goal through the Rachad movement that he co-founded is to weaken and topple the current government via peaceful means (and from exile), and this could be one of the tools he is using.

“[…] 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.

H1N1 Algeria as of December 7th 2009

H1N1 infections(red) and deaths (black) as of December 7th 2009

UPDATE: Just prior to publishing this post the Ministry of Health published a new communiqué, it puts the number of confirmed deaths at 10,  one in Setif and one in Oran  (both large urban centres) , with 3 more to investigate. There are no announcements on the number of infections.

This blog continues to cover the recent rise in Swine flu in Algeria with great concern. In the last post, infections and deaths were mapped (there were 362/8 then, there are anywhere between 400 and 600 infections and 12 confirmed deaths as of today), with a great number of casualties happening in relatively remote areas. More panic is gripping the streets because of doubts about the readiness of the health infrastructure. Frustration is rising about the lack of communication from the Ministry of Health. There is little effort to educate the public about the flu. The effects of the flu panic are spilling into other sectors such as education and transport.

The Algerian public is notoriously panicky in the face of natural threats such as this. Recall that during previous solar eclipses there was so much media hype and warnings from the authorities that people feared to even go out to the streets on the day. As is the case of H1N1, the problem stems from the panic of the authorities, a lack of understanding, very weak communication channels for popular science and a weak leadership of the scientific community.

Official communication is reduced to a few declarations by the Minister of Health here and there with not much details. This is unacceptable in the face of so much panic and news from the popular newspapers. Two days ago the Minister of Health Mr Said Barkat announced from Annaba the death of 3 more people in the previous 24 hours. He wouldn’t elaborate on the locations of the deaths or the number of infections throughout the country. The last communiqué from the Ministry of Health via their website is dated the 3rd of December. There are no official numbers broken down by region in the country, which is why this blog will still try to track them via independent news sources.

There are reports of people as far as Biskra, Djelfa, Batna and the great Sahara driving over 600 miles to the capital because they don’t trust the local hospitals. Naturally the hospitals of Algiers became overcrowded, tempers flared and their administrations had to resort to permanent police presence to continue operating. Trust in the authorities is very low and that fuels even more panic – some took the chance to capitalise on selling dubious medicines.

A victim sector of this outbreak is education. Already many schools are being closed in the bourgeois region of Haidra and in the remote province of MSila which has suffered a relatively high rate of infections. After the recent teacher strikes, the outbreak couldn’t have come at a worst time with schools widely expected to close again for a few days – perhaps this will offer the best excuse to actually confirm the winter holidays which were in doubt because of the time lost during the strikes.

Flu MaskIn other sectors, some court proceedings were adjourned, universities are unsure of how to deal with the flu, and panic did not spare even mosques, where Imams were instructed by the authorities to “educate the public about the illness”, according to Elkhabar. The newspaper reports that less people are going to the mosques as well (The tendency of the authorities to use this space is well known – previously the imams were instructed to lecture on the need “to vote for your country” to face the low voter turnouts).

The Ministry of Health reported buying 20 million flu vaccine shots, with the first batch of 900000 arriving yesterday. However, Elkhabar reported yesterday that the 900000 shots will not be available for weeks to come. There are serious doubts about the logistics involved to transport the vaccines across the vast country. The authorities should stop treating the vaccine as a silver bullet and should try to educate the public and communicate to them as much information as possible.

ElWatan, the daily Algerian newspaper in French, has a very interesting piece of Flash fiction called “Le long chemin de H.H.”. i.e “The long road of H.H.” by Chawki Amari. It recounts the plight of Hassan Harrab, a young Algerian, through the woes that Algeria faced in the last few decades. His last name “Harrab”  literally means the fugitive or the absconder in Arabic .

Well worth the read: I’m sure it resonates with the story of countless Algerians inside and outside the country. Here is the translation in English:

A Fugitive

Run, but where to?

His name is Hassan Harrab, he has an average height, solid calves and works as a plumber. With no political convictions, he quit his country  in 1992 after some terrorist groups threatened his village to leave or  abide by Islamic Law. He went to  a small village in southern France with the intention of working for everybody as a plumber. He does not stay for long: the “Front National” took the mayoral elections in 1993, and his neighbours, clients up to then, have asked him to leave to the Arabs with his screwdrivers. Hassan Harrab takes his tool box to Marrakesh, in Morocco, where he worked in a hotel. After the terrorist attacks of 1994 there, the Algerians were forcibly deported from the country. After a journey in the back of a truck, he finds himself in Ghelizane, in Algeria, but he was considered a Moroccan. He goes to Algiers where he worked until he was thrown out of his apartment by the landlord because the landlord wanted to open a Pizzeria.

In 2000 Hassan Harrab goes to the Kabyle region, where he was persecuted because he fixed the central heating system of the local Gendarme station. After repairing some pipes in Bouira, Hassan Harrab quits Algeria again for Sfax in Tunisia, but in 2004, after a football match, some incidents occurred and Algerians were persecuted. Hassan Harrab again has to flee to Tebessa. Having gone to Egypt to work in the installation of water pumps for the Nile, he finds himself fleeing again after the recent incidents. Today in Algiers, well into his 40s, he has a particular philosophy. Where there are men, there are  losses. And welds do not typically last for long.

Given the interesting choice of the name, the story has definitely some connotations as to the people who flee the country when there are problems, how their problems may haunt them to their exile, and the incredibly hard decision of almost every Algerian in exile of whether or not to return to the country. It reminds me of the classic El-Harrachi shaabi song “Ya-Rayah”. The initials themselves “H.H.” may indicate something, but I’m not finding it – are you?

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.

Swine flu (H1N1) is just about making the rounds and the news in Algeria. Most of the inhabitants of the country live in the North, mostly  in a Mediterranean climate. The climate is sometimes notable by the speed of weather change, during which seasonal influenzas affect a high percentage of the population. For the last few months the country has mostly been sparred the recent rise of Swine flu, surprisingly avoiding a widespread epidemic through the summer and the return of many Algerian immigrants for their annual holidays. However, with the fall of winter, that is sadly quickly changing with a quick increase of swine flu cases in the last few days. This appears to be happening in the face of a global slow down of the  rate of infection. The authorities are trying hard to calm fears, boasting that the first batches of the H1N1 vaccine are arriving to the country, as well as trying to appear on TV as much as possible. But the wide speculation in the media and the uncertainty about the actual numbers of cases and deaths will undoubtedly result in increased hysteria.

Swine flu cases by Wilaya (region) in Algeria

Swine flu cases by Wilaya (region) in Algeria. Scaled logarithmically. The digits are the government set Wilaya numbers.

Indeed, reliable information is scarce: the ministry of health‘s figures are not broken down by region and are scarcely updated. Yesterday a bulletin has been posted that puts the national confirmed figure at about 362, with 8 confirmed deaths, putting the mortality rate at a very worrying 2%.  About 30 of the cases have been reported in the last 2 days, with the rate of infection expected to increase quickly in the next few days. 5 of the deaths have been reported in the last 5 days.

The statistics shown to the left have been assembled by wading through the recent news reports on national newspapers. The reports are often conflicting, hyperbolic or scarce in details.

Immediately, it is apparent that the three big cities, Algiers, Oran and Constantine have expectedly had some of the highest case counts. What’s worrying however, is the high infection count in the more inner Wilayas: Medea, MSila, Batna and the surrounding areas. These provinces have historically had low investment from the government and are severely lacking in infrastructure, including hospitals. Their readiness for the challenge of an epidemic is not reassuring. This is aggravated by the fact that a large percentage of people in these areas live in remote places and seldom decide to see a doctor. They span through the areas between the Atlas Mountains and the Saharan Atlas, a notoriously geologically difficult region that has been the hotbed of the Algerian revolution against French occupation, as well as a hiding place during the civil war of the 90s. The civil war has had its toll on the population and the infrastructure,  the provinces are recovering very slowly because of low investment and people moving north to the more populous and economically viable cities such as Oran, Algeria, Annaba and Constantine.

Swine flu deaths in Algeria

Swine flu deaths and cases in Algeria. Red indicated known confirmed cases. Black indicates confirmed deaths.

The map to the right shows the confirmed deaths: 8 deaths confirmed so far, in the capital Algiers(2), Ghelizane, Biskra, Ghardaia (2), Oum Bouaqi and Laghouat. Again, it is worrying that more deaths are happening in remote Wilayas: Ghelizane, Biskra, Laghouat and Ghardaia. The newspapers report 5 deaths of pregnant women (I could only verify 4).

The map also shows that the number of infections is almost certainly under-reported: there are Wilayas for which deaths have been reported but no infections confirmed yet. This may also reflect the tendency of the sick to treat the flu just like any seasonal flu and never go see a doctor. Although not officially allowed, most pharmacies in Algeria sell antibiotics over the counter, increasing the risk of antibiotic resistance and allowing the sick to avoid the doctor visit, even though antibiotics do not treat H1N1 and all other influenzas because they are viral.

The strategy of the Algerian authorities at first seemed to go hand in hand with the strategy facing the Global economic downturn: at first indicating that the population is safe from the illness, then slowly realising that the threat is real, and now in full gear against the illness. The ministry of health has put up more documents online on how to avoid the illness, both in Arabic and French, as well as more interviews and media appearances.

Speaking of media, in my recent post I commented on the tendency of the newspaper Echorouk to report sensationally. The chance has not been missed with the illness: the prospect of a conspiracy theory as to the origins of the illness are too great to miss by the newspaper (article is meta about Echorouk).  It is seriously commenting about the theory that the illness is human made by pharmaceuticals and western politicians, supposedly citing various journalists in Hungary, Austria and other places…

The mass market reach of the Algerian daily newspapers was reviewed recently at the Maghreb Politics Review. I believe the main reason the dailies have had more popular success in Algeria than elsewhere in the Arab world is that they treat themselves much more like capitalist endeavourers than cultural entities. In neighbouring countries like Egypt, Morocco and the Gulf the readership is mostly confined to the cultural elite. The topics are carefully selected to give the reader a sense of intellectual superiority over the masses.

Sensational headline reads: we destroyed the Egyptians' dreams!

Sensational headline reads: we destroyed the Egyptians

Most Algerian Arab newspapers, like Echourouk, Elkhabar and Ennahar, turned the tables on this concept, and chose instead to embrace the lowest common denominator in search for ever increasing circulation numbers (except perhaps, the government owned newspapers, which have negligible circulation in comparison). This has, obviously, the unfortunate effect of being turned towards more populism and sensationalism a.k.a Algerian version of the right wing Daily Mail. In fact, these newspapers sometimes put the Daily Mail to shame with their incredibly racist stories and caricatures,  e.g. vs the local Chinese expatriates who work for Chinese construction companies. Most recently, the newspapers have just turned into sports dailies – today’s Echorouk news feed is dominated by sports headlines – all but just two.

The street price of a newspaper copy (officially 10DA, but generally can go up to 15DA in remote areas – a mere $0.1) is well below the cost of producing it. Most newspapers achieve profitably with advertising – so circulation numbers are very important. The advertising management market is dominated by the state owned Entreprise National de Publicite (ANEP), which collects advertising money from clients and distributes the adverts to the newspapers. This forces the newspapers to tread on careful lines or else the source of money is dried.

Perhaps, Elkhabar still tries to maintain a sense of intellectuality – opting instead to sometimes publish some well written reports on the state of the Algerian economy and political landscape. Its reluctance to populism is probably what made it lose its top spot as the best selling newspaper – just years ago it was dwarfing Echorouk, which was at the time, incredibly, seen as the newspaper for the intellectuals: the key element in Echorouk’s new image is the journalist turned into the Algerian version of Murdoch: Ali Faudel.

On the other hand,  Elkhabar are much more successful as an enterprise. In additions to attempts to create a private printing company, they have established a country wide distribution network – KD-Press, and they are looking to seriously challenge the dominance of ANEP with their new venture:  Elkhabar Pub, by creating a privately owned advertising management company. ANEP’s success was largely due to the fact that most of the clients were state owned companies, and that has changed recently. Most of the big spenders in advertising are private enterprises now. The private mobile networks Djezzy, Nedjma and Mobilis (this last soon to be privatised) compete fiercely by buying an incredible amount of newspaper ad space.

It’s also worthy to note that while they sell incredibly well, the authenticity of the popular newspaper is well known to be shoddy: a popular saying in Algeria is that reading a newspaper nullifies your Wudu (Ablution). There is also the decades old fear of the outside: the top newspapers are rumoured to use external expertise from the Untied States in the form of highly paid consultants. Speculation about the owners of the papers runs rampant – from business tycoons to army generals.

The lack of space on other media, such as radio and television, has certainly not hurt the newspapers either. However, pressure is mounting on the government to open up the audio visual space, with Echorouk positioning themselves well to create a new television station should the chance come by running an internet only channel on Youtube. Should this space be opened, there is no reason not to believe that it will be as vibrant as the newspaper space, given that other channels, such as the MBC and ART are eager to more affectively enter the Algerian market.

Incredible posters.

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.

Short Description

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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