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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zidane

Image courtesy of L'équipe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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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