By Karim Amellal*, Science-Po Paris

When it comes to the future of Algeria, gloom and doom scenarios are not lacking, fueled as they are by the chronic opacity surrounding the power circles in the North African country, and they have reached a peak these days with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika illness and the upcoming Presidential election of 2019. In some European countries, like France, these apocalyptic scenarios proliferate, particularly on the right and the far right of the political spectrum, with some expressing their pleasure with the “bankruptcy” of the system, and at the same time the fear of a possible “explosion” that would cause an “invasion” of Algerian migrants… But, is it possible to develop a more nuanced and less ideologized vision of what is happening in this big country, despite this dystopian vision of the future marked by old resentments mixed with real anxieties? 

“Algeria is doing badly, very badly, from bad to worse. It could be on the verge of explosion.” “The Algerian bomb,” titled recently the French right-wing weekly magazine Valeurs actuelles, adding: “Massive immigration, explosion of the suburbs … What France should fear if Algeria rocks.”  And one can read between the lines a nostalgia for French Algeria. The myths and fears surrounding Algeria today tumble in a vision of apocalypse: “when will Algeria explode?” Because it will explode! What will happen then? One can guess the answer: hordes of refugees will rush to the barricaded gates of Europe, on their makeshift boats, landing, like resurrected Moors, on the innocent beaches of most Christian France… Political vacuum, a sick president, economic crisis, endemic corruption, the specter of the Arab revolutions…Valeurs actuelles ​​is not the only media that sees Algeria on the brink of catastrophe, several English-language media – and conservatives too – have also sounded the alarm and described Algeria, sometimes the entire Maghreb, as a time bomb, a stronghold of potential terrorists, a region where despair and affliction prevail.

OCTOBER 1988 REDUX?

Recently, another dark scenario has been haunting some doomsayers: the occurrence of a new “October 88” in Algeria, the first episode of the “Arab spring” that brought about the collapse of the single party system in that country, followed by an ephemeral phase of democratic transition, which led to the tragic “black decade” of the 1990s, bloodstained by the terrorism of the GIA, and other armed Islamist groups. However, such a scenario is not totally unfounded. As in 1988, Algeria is facing an economic crisis with tangible consequences for the population: a contraction of the welfare state and an increased tension on the prices of everyday consumer goods; and we know how much they played an essential role in the abrupt amplification of discontent resulting in the revolutionary process of the 1990s.

As in 1988, the political game revolves around the formal, official structures of power, the legal facade of the regime; while the real power operates in the shadows, a combination of influential groups that includes the military, intelligence services, and powerful financial interests, more or less occult … At the same time, as in 1988, the opposition is discredited and, indeed, nonexistent. The only truly national opposition party, the Front des Forces Socialistes (FFS), is beset by contradictions and struggling to generate any kind of leadership. The Islamist parties, on the other hand, have never really succeeded in gaining political benefit from the powerful moral conservatism that has developed among all strata of society.

As in 1988, it feels like the end of an era, which crystallizes around President Bouteflika and the innumerable rumors about his family, or his “clan”, accused of being the real rulers of the country behind the scenes, or/and even preparing his succession. As in 1988, young Algerians, a group, it should be remembered, that represents 70% of the population, has, for the most part, lost interest in politics while denouncing as much as they can the “hogra” (“contempt”) by the authorities, as well as rampant corruption, and  sporadically expressing their anger and despair. In this context, the slightest spark is perceived by the proponents of this scenario as likely to boil over, provoke a revolt, and, by contagion, a revolution.

This scenario, however, is not credible for several reasons. The main one is that Algeria in 2018 is in no way comparable to that of 1988. In thirty years, despite years of terrorism and numerous crises, the country has changed profoundly; it has transformed. Using the same reading template, the same set of causes which characterized the end of the 1980s is at best anachronistic, and at worst amounts to a falsification of reality.

WHERE IS ALGERIA TODAY?

In 1988, before the riots of the month of October, Algeria was governed by a single-party system headed by the National Liberation Front (FLN), with, as in the Soviet Union, the real power being exercised by a complex aggregate of actors, dominated by senior army officers – “the generals” – and the military intelligence service. Freedom of the press did not exist, like any of the fundamental freedoms. The FLN being the only authorized party, the elections consisted of endorsing the “proposed” candidate.

Algeria of 2018 is a system in transition, certainly not a democracy yet, but not a dictatorship either. The achievements of the democratic “parenthesis” of 1988-1991 remain. Multi-partyism is effective, as is freedom of expression and of the press, even though these freedoms have been under attack since, roughly speaking, President Bouteflika stroke in 2013. Elections that take place at regular intervals, in accordance with the official electoral calendar, are now less characterized by fraud than by a growing and massive abstention, which for example has reached more than 60% in the legislative elections of 2017.

Despite its chronic opacity, its weak legitimacy, and its lack of renewal – among other stigmas – the existing political power in Algeria has also nothing to do with the one of three decades ago. If the military hierarchy and the military intelligence services still occupy prominent positions in the system, if only because of history and their roots in the country, as well as the fact that they are the guarantors of strategic interests, especially vis-à-vis foreign countries, they are no longer the only bosses aboard ship Algeria. Under Bouteflika, and thanks to him, the power in place (“le pouvoir”) in Algeria became “civilized”. Major-General Mohamed Mediene, alias Toufik, who ruled over the powerful DRS, the military intelligence services for 25 years, was indeed sacked by Bouteflika in 2015, and his services were restructured and put for the most part under the control of the Presidency.

If they still remain important and influential figures, the Algerian generals have returned to their barracks or, for the older ones, converted to business; and their political weight is out of proportion to what it was during the Black Decade, “when they actually ran the country. Since 2016, calls by some intellectuals and opposition politicians for the military to intervene and remove Abdelaziz Bouteflika from office have all been rejected. Kept very busy by the fight against terrorism, which it won, and by border surveillance – 6,343 kilometers (3941.357 miles) with seven countries-, the National People’s Army (NPA) is no longer the recourse it was some thirty years ago. If the NPA will still play a role in the succession of President Bouteflika, it’s a safe bet to state that it is not the military, and only the military, that will impose their own candidate in the upcoming presidential election.

ACHIEVEMENTS IN MATTERS OF DEVELOPMENT

Ranked 83rd in the world in 2016 in terms of development, Algeria is in the top five of African countries and remains the country with the highest Human Development Index (HDI) in the Maghreb.

 It is mostly on the economic, social and demographic fronts that Algeria has profoundly transformed itself in the past thirty years. GDP increased from $ 59 billion in 1988 to $ 156 billion in 2016 (after reaching $ 213 billion in 2014). By way of comparison, that of Morocco was 101 billion and that of Tunisia 42 billion. Since independence, GDP growth has been determined by hydrocarbon prices, but this opportunity offered by higher prices has not been used to guarantee its sustainability, for example by diversifying the economy, investing in innovation, and in particular, education, but rather to try to catch up with the development gap accumulated during the “Black decade”, while buying social peace.

A large part of the oil and gas rent has been used to fund major infrastructure projects in transport and public works (railroads, airports, dams, etc.), most of them implemented by foreign companies. Chinese especially, but also Turkish and French. At the end of January 2018, the government indicated that the equivalent of 70 billion euros had been spent on these infrastructures. Two major programs illustrate this policy. In 15 years, Algeria has spent about $ 60 billion to build more than two million houses to cope with population growth and rural exodus to urban areas. If this huge endeavor has experienced many failures – illustrated by the urban disaster of the “new city” of Sidi Abdellah – and while its continuation depends on oil revenues, it has nevertheless provided decent housing to many Algerians of modest condition, and allowed to get rid of many shanty towns and precarious settlements that proliferated in the 1990s.

The other program that made it possible to redistribute part of the rent is, of course, Ansej, created in 1996 but actually launched in the early 2000s. It is a special fund designed to support the creation of businesses by young people. Although largely insufficient, this program has been an effective tool for redistributing wealth –to a certain extend, and a means to pacify young people lacking job opportunities and prospects.

One trend that illustrates the transformation of Algerian society over the past two decades is the increase in the birth rate, after a sharp collapse during the 1990s. According to figures from the Algerian National Office of Statistics (ONS), the number of births has increased since the mid-2000s, with 3.1 children per woman. A sign that the country has entered its demographic transition, a process characterized by a balance between birthrates and death rates. An increase in fertility is both good and bad news. Bad news because it supports the idea of ​​a possible demographic shock to come, but a good one because it is a symptom of the good health of a population.

According to ONS figures, this increase in fertility rates may be due to a surge in the number of marriages, but also to the economic and social development of the country. After the trauma of the “Black Decade”, which did not really encourage getting married or having children (the number of births and the number of marriages collapsed during the 1990s), the influx of revenue from hydrocarbons allowed the government to launch its ambitious social housing program, which has undoubtedly contributed to the increase in fertility, in a country where housing shortages left little room for families. The decline in unemployment, especially for women and young people – although still at a high level – has also boosted fertility. The unemployment rate was divided by three, for men and women, between 2000 and 2011. As Zahia Ouadah-Bedidi notes: “if improvements in the economic conditions of households allowed a vigorous recovery of the birth rate, it is that the ground was propitious and the mentalities open to the idea of ​​larger families.”

The substantial expansion of the middle class in Algeria is another important phenomenon, resulting from the continuous increase of households purchasing power in the 2000s, thanks to wage increases and  massive subsidization policies aimed at many basic products, such as bread, cereals, water, milk, gasoline, etc. The World Bank estimated in 2012 that these subsidies cost $ 16 billion a year to the government of Algeria. These administered prices serve as an important social buffer, especially when when inflation occurs, but they are, as we know, the source of many economic disruptions, by impeding the proper functioning of the market, or by discouraging production. In this regard, the recent controversy around the price of the bread baguette is exemplary: in December 2017, several bakers in the country protested against the fixed price of the baguette (between 8 and 10 Algerian dinars) on the grounds that it did not allow them to cover their costs. Consequently, they decided to double the price unilaterally, but the government intervened immediately after to restore the original fixed price, and prosecuted the violators!

At the same time, inequalities in income and wealth have increased. As noted by the economist Yacine Miliani, “from 2001 to 2014, previous strong economic growth has unfortunately been accompanied by an unprecedented rise in precariousness”, with the rise of unemployment contributing to the widening of inequalities (in the distribution of income and wealth), in spite of the anti-poverty measures adopted by the Government. However, income inequality remains relatively moderate in Algeria, even if it is increasing, particularly since the recent economic slowdown driven by falling oil prices. In 2011, the Gini index, which measures inequality, was 35 (100 expressing maximum inequality), compared with 40 for Morocco, for example.

Finally, the Human Development Index (HDI) issued each year by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which provides a global picture of a country’s level of development, ranked Algeria 83 in the world in 2016. Algeria is in the top five African countries, and remains the country where the HDI is the highest in the Maghreb. This composite index, which takes into account various elements, such as life expectancy, average length of schooling, inequality and net income per capita, has increased throughout the 2000s and is by far higher than that of Tunisia (98th in the world) or Morocco (130th).

PERVASIVE STRUCTURAL PROBLEMS

The extreme dependency of the economy on the oil rent has never been really put into question, for the sake of convenience, or because of a political calculation; and is a serious problem for the economic future of the country. Thus, 96% of exports and 60% of budget revenues continue to depend on oil and gas, of which Algeria is one of the world’s largest producers (ranked 18th for oil, and 6th for gas). Fluctuations in hydrocarbon prices lead policymakers to constantly revise their policies, sometimes opening the floodgates when revenue increases, and some other times closing them suddenly when prices collapse. This is what has happened since 2014, the date of the reversal of the oil situation.

From 1999 to 2014, the Algerian state could rely on $100 oil price per barrel (or more), which allowed to launch huge equipment programs, and to save some money for the so-called Reserve Funds, but not enough to compensate for the sharp fall in oil prices in 2014-2015, when the barrel went from $109 to $54 in less than a year, compelling the government to raise taxes and interrupt some programs deemed less essential. Since 2014, Algeria has been implementing a policy of relative austerity, striving to reduce public spending without, however, cutting back on social programs, and siphoning off its accumulated reserves to plug the gaps in the budget.

The Government short-term policies, entirely dependent on oil revenue, is catastrophic in the long run. However, no decision maker has so far managed to seriously start diversifying the Algerian economy, notwithstanding innumerable declarations of intent. Sluggish, ultra-bureaucratized, the Algerian economy doesn’t leave – and it is a euphemism – room for private investments, whether domestic or, all the more so, foreign – with the exception of a handful of oligarchs who know how to take advantage of this situation.

The education system too, in spite of the very laudable efforts of the current Minister of Education, remains a juggernaut that functions, but to no real effect. Rooted in an obsolete ideology, where constricted nationalism and two-bit religiosity are intertwined, it digests every year its 9 million pupils – in primary, middle and secondary education – but fails to deliver effective and quality training programs. As to higher education, it is surely the forgotten sector of the opulent years, probably because the return on investments in education needs time –one cannot reap quick political dividends from investing in it, reforming and improving its quality. Universities in Algeria function for the largest number of people who access it massively and free of charge, but, unfortunately, they do not provide the needed qualifications, which results in an unemployment rate of 17.7% of university graduates in 2017 – compared to 7.7% for those without a university degree.

The economic difficulties, the widening of inequalities, the lack of opportunities for the youth, and the impression that the political machine runs empty, fuel discontent all over the country. This is what drives many Algerians, young and desperate for the most part, to try the adventure of illegal emigration. These “harragas”, as they are called in Algerian colloquial language, are leaving for Europe on makeshift boats defying the authorities that try to stem the tide – without much success. However, beyond these tragic departures, protest movements remain sporadic events, localized, and have never coagulated. For example, the demands of military retirees, teachers, and now resident doctors, are not coordinated, and these groups remain isolated from each other.

These are essentially social protests, which flourish amidst uncertainties related to the economic situation and the indecisions of decision-makers, rather than protests of a political nature that, in any case, no serious opposition is today able to exploit. The result is a preference for the status quo, which owes as much to the tragedy of terrorism of the 1990s present in everyone’s memory, as to the fear of what a brutal and uncontrolled change could bring. From this point of view, the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions function as scarecrows: to the specter of political chaos or economic bankruptcy, many prefer a cautious wait-and-see attitude, which does not necessarily mean complete passivity. Anger rises but it remains contained, not by the Government, but primarily by the citizens.

THE VITALITY OF CIVIL SOCIETY

The intensification of social protests against a backdrop of economic austerity, demonstrates the vitality of its civil society.

If, at the social level, the former single trade union, the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA), continues to exercise a legal monopoly in terms of labor representation, remaining the only authorized interlocutor of the government, its legitimacy and its influence have been severely damaged by the emergence of new actors: the autonomous unions. The current mobilization of resident doctors is led by one of these autonomous unions: the Camra for Autonomous Collective of Algerian Resident Doctors. The proliferation of these organizations, which are not officially recognized by the authorities, is one of many indicators of the dynamism of the Algerian society, whose modes of expression no longer use official channels or spaces, often fossilized.

The Algerian cultural scene is also changing, and this is probably what we perceive best from abroad. In cinema, literature or photography, beautiful and powerful “new waves” sweep across the country, like the movies of directors Karim Moussaoui and Hassen Ferhani, the novels of Kaouther Adimi, or Collectif 220 whose exhibition “Iqbal” has moved from the Museum of Modern Art in Algiers – the MoMA – to the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris. Using YouTube and radio hooks, a new generation of singers has emerged in recent years, again often using informal venues. Deprived of public support, confined to narrow spaces, suffocated by a climate of heavy puritanism, these new voices manage to escape and find an audience. Light-years away from the image of a sluggish population, of a suffocated society, they echo the hope and poetry of a youth thirsty for the future.

But  the energy and creativity of Algerian society is not expressed in culture only, we should also mention the emergence of  citizen movements, such as # Algerie Propre (Clean Algeria), whose campaigns for environmental education and pollution control have a growing audience. Similarly, despite the inadequacies of the Algerian higher education system, an increasing number of young graduates are successfully embarking on entrepreneurial trajectories by taking advantage of Ansej’s loans – the national system of support for business creation. If it is still too early to talk about real ecosystem of startups in Algeria, they are nonetheless beginning to emerge, as in Tunisia and Morocco, and are attracting a growing number of young people who have been struggling to find employment in other traditional sectors.

POLITICAL ISLAM  REVISITED

And how about political Islam? A reenactment of 1988 in Algeria is inconceivable for the reasons provided above. Moreover, Algeria at the time of President Chadli Bendjedid was a single-party regime, faced with a severe economic crisis -in comparison to which the current one is relatively minor! The price of a crude oil barrel had fallen to 8 dollars in 1986 (about 17 dollars today), seriously depriving Algeria of revenues, which dropped dramatically while its national debt increasing in proportion. Algeria was then on the brink of an abyss, and the situation was very different of that of today. Furthermore, these were the days of the Iranian revolution with its impact worldwide, particularly on Muslim countries. And then, in these days, following its policy of arabization, the Government was bringing many Egyptian “teachers”, incorporating them into the Algerian educational system, which allowed them to spread political Islam among young people. This is not the case anymore.

Throughout the country, mosques have replaced a failing state to take care of the poor. The rise of political Islam in Algeria in the 1980s takes place in this context, with the democratic opening that followed the riots of October 1988. The institution of a multiparty system that followed with the organization of the first free elections allowed  the institutionalization of political Islam, through the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which won the local elections before leading the first round of the parliamentary elections in 1991, when the military stepped in and halted the electoral process in January 1992.  This as we know led the Islamists to engage in an armed insurrection. These bloody years of war between the government security forces and the he Armed Islamic Group (GIA), and the defeat of the latter, have disqualified political Islam in Algeria. Algerian authorities, on the other hand, have banned all forms of religious radicalism besides the FIS. A huge mistake today would be to see in the re-Islamization of Algerian society, a prelude to the resurgence of this kind of political Islam, and the repetition of the 1988 scenario.

The re-Islamization of Muslim societies that has been at work for roughly two decades is a complex phenomenon, not far removed from the re-christianization that we observe, for example, in the United States, as the French political scientist Olivier Roy points out. The reasons for that are many, but re-Islamization does not use, as before, the political arena, which does not mean that it is depoliticized. What Roy calls “the failure of political Islam” means the emergence of a “puritanical, predicating, populist, [and] conservative neo-fundamentalism,” which no longer wants to establish an Islamic state, but rather to proceed to a re-Islamization of society from below, by the defense, for example, of traditional mores. This is illustrated by innumerable polemics that have shaken Algerian society, such as the one surrounding the renown secular writer and novelist Rachid Boudjedra, or following the recent attempts at the destruction of the female statue of the fountain of Ain El Fouara, in Setif, and the controversy over the withdrawing of the formula Bismillah Arrahman Arrahim (“In the name of God merciful and merciful”) from the front page of some textbooks. This is also illustrated by the success of tele-preachers in Algeria – as in all of North Africa – who, far from challenging the regime or the state, develop on the contrary a discourse that is politically very loyalist, while very conservative in terms of morality.

“It is clear that although Algerian society has become fervently religious, there is no sign of the adoption of a new and radical form of political Islam.”

In another dimension, this re-Islamization, which is no longer expressed through partisan-type political structures, goes beyond politics – the State, elections – to seek a mythical, transnational community of faith, disembedded from the social fabric, borders, cultural roots, and so on. It is precisely, it seems to me, what explains the fervor of many Algerians for the Palestinian cause, perceived from now on as a challenge for Muslims

It is in this context that the “moderate” and “state-sanctioned” Islamist parties have only managed to gather a very small number of followers since the end of the “dark decade”. Integrated into the political game, they have become secularized, “demonetized”, and disqualified. Their legalistic and feebly conservative discourse no longer distinguishes them really from the other parties that participate in the “system”, while the voters do not expect anything from the Islamist parties. In the last parliamentary elections of 2017, the MSP party (which claims to be part of the Muslim Brotherhood) has obtained only 330,000 votes, or 33 seats in the National Assembly.

And how about the FIS, then? For many, the real danger would be the resurgence of a radical Islamist party heir to the Islamic Salvation Front, banned since the interruption of the electoral process in 1992. The popularity of some videos issued by one of its former leaders, the charismatic Ali Belhadj, largely disseminated on the Internet, may suggest it; as well as the relative popularity enjoyed by the party founder, Abassi Madani, who now lives in Qatar. However, this should be understood more as an expression of approval by a segment of the Algerian youth for a hard, unequivocal, principled speech about corruption and dirty money, or on foreign policy, rather than an aspiration for the establishment of an Islamic state, which is not, again, on the agenda.

For the vast majority of Algerians, the haunting memory of the “black decade” during which the FIS was one of the major players, is enough to discredit any form of radicalism that would lead, in a way or another, to reproduce this episode of Algerian history. The policy of national reconciliation, implemented as soon as Bouteflika came to power in 1999, made it possible, although not without imperfections or gray areas, to turn the page on years of terrorism. On a different but not unrelated note, we should mention the very small number of Algerians (about 200) fighting in Syria when Daesh was at its peak, from 2013 to 2016, compared to the number of Moroccans (1,500) and Tunisians (3,000 and more). Moreover, in spite of the tragic assassination of French hiker Hervé Gourdel in 2014, ISIS has never really managed to settle in Algeria, whose military are very actively fighting the last remaining terrorist groups operating in the country, but whose members often come from foreign countries (see an excellent article on this topic here).

Finally, with the exception of the Ghardaia riots, which are part of a completely different story, none of the protest movements that have emerged in the last 10 years in the country have expressed extremist religious demands. Admittedly, the authorities watch over and sometimes react with a heavy hand, as when dismantling dissident religious currents, arguing that they are “sects”, as with the Ahmadis. Nevertheless, it is clear that in spite of their fervent religiosity, the Algerian people aren’t showing any sign of “tipping over” towards a new and radical form of political Islam.

As we can see, the Algeria of 2018 is in a contrasting situation, and far from being dramatic. Algerian society has undergone a profound transformation over the last twenty years, after a decade of huge trauma whose legacy remains rooted in the national fabric. Algeria is not a rich country, but not poor either, or on the verge of explosion, far from it; but a country that continues, although with serious weaknesses, to develop as best as possible in a regional environment at the least destabilizing.

This is an edited translation of the original French.

* Karim Amellal is a writer, entrepreneur, and professor at Sciences Po Paris. He is the co-founder of the SAM Network scientific video platform, and of the media on Algeria Chouf-Chouf. He has been working for more than 15 years on the issue of young people’s access to culture and education. He is the author of an essay on inequalities, as well as several novels (last published: Bleu Blanc Noir, L’Aube, 2016).   @karimamellal

 

France, which kept its colonial grip on Algeria, administered as an integral part of France with extensive colonial settlements, for more than a century (from 1830 to 1962), never recognized the appalling brutality of its conquest of the North African territory, neither its bloody repression of the Algerian independence movement, nor its inhuman and degrading treatment of the Algerian people during colonization, in spite of innumerable requests to do so by the Algerians. In fact, France never came to grips with its colonial past. Even worst, in February 2005, the French parliament voted to pass a law in which France’s colonialism would be referred to as a “positive role”, but the law was repealed a year later by former President Jacques Chirac.

France’s behavior in Algeria remains a highly charged and controversial issue. It has resurfaced recently during the campaign for the presidential election of April 23, 2017, when candidate Emmanuel Macron, called colonisation of Algeria a crime against humanity, a ‘real barbarity’, the first time a French politician refers to French occupation of Algeria in these terms.

More recently, the Algerian government “submitted a new proposals to a reluctant France, over the issue of compensation Paris has to provide to victims of  large-scale nuclear tests conducted by the colonial power in the southern Algerian region of Reggane , which resulted in “42,000 Algerians killed and thousand others irradiated in 17 nuclear tests carried out between 1960 and 1966.”

Will France compensate the victims of its nuclear tests in Algeria, and start the process of finally coming to grips with its colonial past in that country?

 

Moroccan Social Scientists Support the Rif’s Hirak Protest Movement, as “a form of resistance and mobilization that has breathed a new dynamism in terms of popular mobilization”   

A large group of social scientists have declared their support to the Hirak protest movement of the Rif region in Morocco, which they say, also offers “an opportunity” for social researchers “to go beyond the usual dichotomies, such us bled al-siba (spaces of political dissidence) vs. bled al-makhzen (spaces controlled by the state), Arabs vs. Berbers, Mountains vs. Plains”, etc.  The French-language Moroccan magazine Telquel.ma, of June 11, 2017, has published an Op-Ed-article expressing their views along with a list of signatories.  An abbreviated version has been translated into English by the Maghreb Center:

Started in April 2017, the Rif Hirak protest movement in Morocco has been going on for over seven months now. It has been accused of separatism and sectarianism (some of its leaders are said to be Shiite) by the political parties in power and several academics and intellectuals, with some adding a conspiracy by foreign elements dimension to explain it. But the situation unfolding in the Rif has remained at the center of the political process in Morocco, and other voices have offered a different analysis from the one expressed through the official discourse.

Understanding the Hirak movement requires a critical eye, intellectual vigilance, different sociopolitical outlooks, and a genuine understanding of the many facets of Riffian society, all at once. Rather than further stigmatizing the Rif population and analyzing the protest movement through colonial lenses, emphasizing dichotomies such us bled al-siba (spaces of political dissidence) vs. bled al-makhzen (spaces controlled by the state), Arabs vs. Berbers, Mountains vs. Plains, among others, it is essential to delve into the intricacies of the situation, and look more closely at the political economy of the region.

Political decision-makers attempted to discredit the Hirak movement by calling it a “fitna” (sedition, civil strife), and this can only be counterproductive, as it is a factor of division which leads to widening the gap between the populations of the Rif and the rest of the country. The Hirak movement refers indeed in some ways to a dynamic that is in breach with the classical ways of doing politics. It can be defined as a new form of resistance and mobilization, a collective action movement using an alternative discourse which has fostered a new dynamism in terms of popular mobilization.

We need to  understand the vital energy of the Rif’s Hirak movement in connection with the low voter turnout at the 2016 legislative elections (28%), and go beyond the designation of scapegoats (the political elite, and the political parties). These events invite greater scrutiny of the various factors which have contributed to decreasing the importance of elections, and brought about the erosion of the role of elected officials as the voice of the people. The protest movement offers an opportunity to revive research in social and human sciences, which are necessary to understand the dynamics which lie at the foundation of this country. And this research, as much as it needs funding and resources, needs independence in the face of market and government, to produce results.

For the list of signatories, see the Tel Quel article.

 

Turmoil in the Rif: A New Chapter for the February 20th Movement?                                                  (By Camille Ford *)

On June 5, 2017, two central figures of the grassroots protest movement AlHirak which developed in Northern Morocco over the past six month, were arrested. Nabil Ahamjik and Silya Ziani, leading figures in the movement, have been detained since then in Casablanca, where about 20 other protesters were already being kept.[1] The face of the movement, Nasser Zefzazi, was arrested earlier this year, on May 29th. He is being detained on the grounds of “threatening national security,” amidst a slew of other criminal charges.[2]

Escalating protests

These arrests reflect the escalating tensions in Morocco, as protests overtake the Northern Rif region of the country, which started in October 2016 following the brutal death of Mouhcine Fikri, a fish seller in the Rif town of Al-Hoceima who was crushed to death by a garbage truck as he attempted to retrieve confiscated goods, later identified as illegally acquired swordfish that he were about to sell. The police officers who were arresting him stood idle as he faced a violent death. The scene was caught on tape and widely shared, and sparked outrage throughout the country, with protests sprouting locally, but also as far as Rabat, the capital city, and Casablanca, the economic epicenter of the country.

The  Al-Hirak movement is by no means an isolated event, and can be considered in connection with the Arab Spring, the series of protests and uprisings which sprouted across North Africa and the Middle East, demanding democracy, and social and economic justice. In Morocco, the protests were organized by the 20 February Movement, named after the first demonstration held on that date in 2011. To prevent the spread of the movement, the monarchy quickly introduced reforms towards the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, and avoided the harsh and violent responses that met the Arab Spring protests and uprisings elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East. But the general situation in Morocco is still not much different than that of other countries in the region: persistence of authoritarianism (although in a more benign form), lack of social and economic justice, rising unemployment particularly among the youth, an economic system dominated by cronyism and corruption, etc.

Like the southern and central regions of Tunisia where the Arab Spring started, the Rif is a rather poor region, and neglected by the central government. However, unlike his father King Hassan II who ignored the region, King Mohammed VI has launched several economic and social programs there in an attempt to alleviate the distress of the local people. But this is far from being enough.

Thus, over the past six months, the Al-Hirak protest movement has amplified,  with participants denouncing the government hogra, a colloquial Moroccan Arabic term for “contempt” (or “utter neglect”). Although King Mohamed VI expressed his deepest condolences to the people of Al-Hoceima, and called for a thorough investigation of Fikri’s death, the protests went on.

The Rif and Morocco: A history of tension

The Al-Hirak movement brings to light not only the complex relationship between the Rif region and the rest of Morocco, but also the effectiveness of the measures taken by the King and the government in favor of democracy and economic development in Morocco.The Rif region has been inhabited by Berbers, the native people of North Africa, since prehistoric times. It is considered a Berber stronghold. The Berbers of the Rif have faced consistent marginalization and lack of proper recognition by the authorities. The region has historically sought greater autonomy, even briefly declaring itself an independent state in the 1920s during the so-called Rif War (1921-1926) between Spanish colonial forces and the peoples of the region[3]. In recent years, the Rif has felt largely abandoned by the central government, suffering from a lack of investment and development initiatives. With Nasser Zefzazi as the voice of the movement, the people of the region are demanding increased economic aid in light of the region’s high unemployment rates, and  persistent and widespread poverty. The movement, which echoes largely the message of the February 20th movement, has garnered rapid support beyond the rebellious Rif region, and comes at a time of major transformations in Morocco.

Morocco at a crossroads

As Morocco finds itself faced with tides of change, on both the economic and political fronts, the protests in the Rif region come as a major challenge, and a reminder that the political reforms, and the development initiatives implemented recently in Morocco are not enough. While the Moroccan intellectual elite has showed open support for the movement, the government’s reactions, with the wave of protesters arrests that he carried out, are a sign that the nation is divided about its future direction. As Islamist politicians have asserted themselves as a dominant force in the Moroccan parliament, and civil unrest grows, Morocco faces a sociopolitical crossroads reminiscent to that seen in 2011. Despite the increased incarcerations of the Hirak leadership, the people continue to take to the streets demanding change. The response of the ruler and the Moroccan government to these growing protests, could very well be a defining moment for the country’s future.

[1] Agence France Presse, and Le Monde. “Au Maroc, arrestation de deux meneurs du mouvement de contestation dans le Rif.” Le Monde.fr. June 05, 2017.

[2] Agence France Presse. “Maroc: Qui est le leader de la contestation populaire dans le Rif qui vient d’être arrêté?” 20minutes.fr. May 29, 2017. Accessed June 05, 2017.

[3] MEO Staff. “What’s behind Morocco’s Rif protests?” Middle East Observer. May 28, 2017. Accessed June 05, 2017.


* Camille Ford is a student in International Studies and Islamic Civilizations and Societies, at the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences, Boston College, and a Summer 2017 Maghreb Center intern.

 

Libya: enter Russia

March 16, 2017 — Leave a comment

 

(By Richard Galustian*)

Since the Libyan civil war began, the question hovering over everything was – will Russia get involved? The answer to that question came when the chief of Libya’s UN-created Government of National Accord (GNA), the so-called Prime Minister Fayez Serraj, met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow.

Having stayed aloof from a messy civil war now into its third year, Russia has decided to effectively replace the void left by the US and become the chief ‘powerbroker’ not only in Libya but the entire Middle East and North African region. The bad news for Serraj is that the beneficiary as far as Libya is concerned is likely to be his big rival, Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, commander of the powerful Libyan National Army (LNA). The imagined role in Libya of the EU and the UK is just that: imaginary and delusional.

The admirable efforts of British Ambassador to Libya Peter Millett in trying shuttle diplomacy between stakeholders in Tripoli, Misrata and Haftar and his LNA in the east have achieved nothing but to underline that it’s Moscow and Washington that is calling the shots. Sadly London has become as irrelevant as Brussels.

It was Haftar that Moscow turned to in January, inviting him for military talks aboard its aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, cruising off Libya. And equally Haftar was happy to be courted by Moscow. The talks included a full dress military parade and band playing the Libyan national anthem on the deck, underlining for all to see who Russia wants to do business with.

There is no doubt that Russia’s policy on Libya is growing stronger and in a positive way for all involved. Moscow is not only talking with all parties but also trying to find a way for the Tripoli government to acquiesce to Haftar and vice-versa. “We are carrying out consistent work with both key centres of power in Libya,” said the spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova.

Moscow is not wrong. Haftar’s battle against extremists in Libya has made him a national hero among the vast majority of the population and brought big victories. Haftar’s army has almost crushed a galaxy of fanatical militants who had terrorised Benghazi, and killed the US ambassador there in 2012. Most significantly perhaps, last September Haftar captured the country’s main oil ports, giving him control of the eastern oil fields – the ones that matter representing at least two-thirds of all the oil in the country.

Already Egypt has given Haftar strong support, as has France, which provided special forces to work with his army in the east of the country.Russia also senses an opportunity. It has all but won the Syrian civil war, cementing an alliance with Syria’s president Bashir Assad and outflanking American efforts to support the rebels. With the oil ticket in his pocket, and rising popular support in a country weary of endless militia skirmishes, rather than decisive battles, Haftar now clearly holds the keys to power.

That much was made even clearer last month when Egypt tried to become peace broker, inviting Haftar to meet with Sarraj in Cairo. Both men showed up, but Haftar said no to a meeting, leaving Serraj stuck in a hotel room with a phone that refused to ring.
There is a reason why Haftar saw no reason to talk to Sarraj: for just as Haftar’s power is rising, so Serraj’s is falling.

His Government of National Accord (GNA), created by the United Nations, is a joke. It is not a government, having failed to win control of key institutions like the Central Bank (CBL) and National Oil Corporation (NOC). It most certainly has failed to win any of the key Libyan tribes. And there is no ‘accord’ – in fact, Serraj is marooned with his presidency in a Tripoli naval base, because militias are the law in the Libyan capital. The rest of his time he spends in Tunis.

Worse, for Sarraj, those militias are fighting with each other, with many backing yet another government in Tripoli, the Salvation Government, in furious street battles recently with tanks and heavy artillery that have turned parts of the capital into a real war zone. Little wonder Haftar refused to meet a man incapable of controlling even his own city.

Officially, Russia takes the side of all Libyans, not one faction, with Lavrov saying: “We would like to see Libya a united and prosperous nation relying on stable government institutions and a viable army.” But Russia also senses an opportunity. Already it has all but won the Syrian civil war, cementing an alliance with Syria’s president Bashir Assad and outflanking American efforts to support the rebels. Now it is poised to do the same in Libya, in contrast to the US, Britain and Italy who have been relentlessly backing the GNA.

But talk of a super-power rift between Moscow and Washington may be premature: the Trump administration’s key policy advisor Steve Bannon has long campaigned against the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the main supporter of the GNA, and the White House is expected, like the Kremlin, to get behind Haftar, a move that would help also in its objective of doing business with Russia.

Even Britain, arch supporter of Serraj, is having to rethink. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson now says a place must be found for Haftar in Libya’s government.
Meanwhile, on March 2, the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee published a report on the UK’s relations with Russia, urging the foreign office to conduct meaningful dialogue with the Kremlin. The committee’s chairman, Crispin Blunt, said: “Refusal to engage with Russia is not a viable, long-term policy option.”
He’s right: Moscow is spreading its wings in the Middle East and North Africa. Its desire to move into Libya was emphasised in another way last week, when Rosneft, the state oil giant, signed a deal to invest heavily with Libya’s state oil corporation (East NOC). After years in the wings, Russia has finally ‘arrived’ in Libya (and the region), and western powers are slowly becoming aware of that fact.

MENA countries are more and more looking for the power broking role to be taken up by Moscow rather than the US or UN and certainly not by the UK or EU. A new 21st century reality.

* Richard Galustian is a British political and security advisor based in MENA countries for nearly 40 years. He wrote this piece for The Times of Malta, dated 03/07/17.