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Who would have thought the Algerian blogosphere is weak?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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.

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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