As Algeria approaches the fiftieth anniversary of its independence in July 2012, LSE’s Lakhdar Ghettas argues that, although the Arab Spring appeared to bypass Algeria, 2012 could be a decisive year for the North African country. This post originally appeared on the International Affairs at LSE blog.
Three major developments marked Algerian affairs in 2011. First, the former minister of defence, General Khaled Nezzar was arrested in Geneva, in October 2011, to answer human rights and torture charges brought by TRIAL (Track Impunity Always), an NGO best known for tracking down dictators like Chile’s former military leader General Augusto Pinochet.
Secondly, the Rachad Movement, an Algerian opposition group in exile, launched Rachad TV making it Algeria’s first opposition channel to broadcast to Algerians over the crucial Nilesat satellite, which carries most of the channels in the Arab world. Rachad TV was soon joined by Al Magharibia TV, a London-based television station focussed on North African affairs, but mainly on the political situation in Algeria.
Thirdly, General Bachir Tartag, a retired Algerian intelligence officer, was called back to head the interior security branch, DSI within the regime’s Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS). Each of these three developments is a reminder of the reality on the ground and the nature of the regime’s daily interaction with society in Algeria.
Despite the geopolitical earthquake which struck its regional neighbourhood, the Algerian regime was of the opinion by the end of last summer that it had managed to survive the waves of the Arab Spring given that the Algerian protests never reached a tipping point. In private, the regime’s figures had declared victory over the opposition. The regime had used the divisive issue of military intervention in Libya to discredit any calls for change in Algeria. It worked.
Indeed, it had positioned itself (as it did post 9/11) as a stabilising force in the face of the uncontrolled circulation of heavy weapons and even anti-aircraft missiles which could fall into the hands of trans-Sahel terrorist groups.
But before the regime could declare that victory in public, a worrying piece of news emerged at the same time that the world was glued to its television screens learning of the capture of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddaffi.
It was the arrest of General Khaled Nezzar that was going viral in the Algerian blogosphere. In April 2001, there had been a similar attempt by families of Algerian victims, but somehow Nezzar had been tipped off and had hurriedly flown from Paris to Algiers in the middle of the night. This time, it seems that an intelligence failure or non-co-operation on the part of the Swiss authorities, meant that TRIAL was successful in tracking him down. General Nezzar spent about ten hours being interrogated by a Swiss judge. Although he was released, the case remains open.
More importantly, the Nezzar episode reminded the whole world about what the Algerian regime has been trying to convince the world to forget – that exactly twenty years ago this month there was a coup d’etat after the Islamist FIS party won the first round of Algeria’s first plural parliamentary elections in December 1991. General Nezzar, then minister of defence, ousted President Chadli Benjedid, set up a military council to run the country, suspended the constitution, declared a state of emergency, opened detention camps in the region where France conducted its first nuclear tests in 1960 in the south of country, and hunted down anyone opposed to the coup — Islamist or otherwise. Soon Algeria was plunged into a bloody conflict that claimed 200,000 lives with over 10,000 missing. General Nezzar and his supporters claimed that the civil war was necessary to preserve the republican values of Algeria. Now Nezzar’s victims are asking for justice.
For the last twenty years, the Algerian regime has been successful in forcing its agenda. Internationally, it became involved in the global war on terror campaign after 9/11 and had since then used it to justify the coup and the subsequent human rights abuses. Domestically, it decreed a national reconciliation law, passed by referendum, which granted amnesty to all military or regime figures involved in the “National Tragedy” as it is officially called. The reconciliation law offered financial compensation to the victims of the National Tragedy, but no truth or justice. Article 46 stipulates a 3-5 year prison sentence for any Algerian who questions the amnesty clause.
The regime has complete control over TV, radio and the newspapers, all the propaganda tools which shape public opinion. It does not deem the blogs and websites of opposition activists in exile as big threats because it makes sure these are censored. Besides, internet connectivity rates are very low compared to its neighbours, including Libya.
When the Rachad Movement announced the launch of Algeria’s first opposition (and indeed first non-state owned TV outlet since independence in 1962), the news had the equivalent impact of a liberation movement obtaining a radio station in the decolonisation years of the 1950s to 1970s.
The regime’s response was two-fold. First, it exerted pressure on the French Eutelsat company which owns the satellite’s fleet and forced it to pull the plug on Rachad TV half an hour before its launch. Secondly, the regime hurriedly bought, through its business associates, a bankrupt TV station in France and got it on air in just a few weeks. The purpose was to offer Algerians the same propaganda but packaged in a more modern fashion, just as Mubarak did in the late 1990s, or Al-Assad in the mid-2000s. It did not work.
Eutelast came under criticism by activists and NGOs which derided it for favouring its financial interests amid historic events in the Arab world. The resurrected TV station proved to be a failure, while Rachad TV made a triumphant return in October when the arrest of General Nezzar was its first breaking news story. This was momentous in Algerian affairs. Had it not been for Rachad TV, the news would have been restricted to the Algerian newspapers which, when it comes to serious matters like this, will not publish anything, “until they receive the fax” (from the DRS that is), as they say in Algeria.
The only way to stop an opposition television station offering Algerians an alternative perspective on Algerian politics and affairs is to jam its signal as Qaddaffi did or Assad of Syria is doing with Al Jazeera. Rachad’s message of non-violent radical change in Algeria was consolidated by the launch of Al Magharibia TV, which is based in London. Both channels have become very popular among Algerians at home and abroad. “Echo of the Street” a very popular phone-in Al Magharibia show is giving the DRS a real headache. However, the programmes of Rachad TV are a greater cause of concern for the regime. These consist mainly of debate programmes which showcase activists, academics and intellectuals from across the political spectrum. Algerians now have a voice and a platform to air their views, frustrations and aspirations for real democracy in Algeria.
Even the most remote corners of Algeria now hear of protests or issues in the news, thanks to easy access to mobile phones and skype. What the state television station ignores in its daily main news programme is aired at exactly the same time on Rachad TV and Al Magharibia TV. It is no wonder that protests are on the increase in the country. In this context, it is clear why the retired General Bachir Tartag has been brought back as the Director of Internal Security.
In the past, such a change would have been top secret. However, the DRS released this news to the public through one of its online news outlets. The news was even reported in the regime’s papers before being picked up by Al Jazeera. Human rights groups received the news with grave concern. After all, the new head of the DSI’s reputation is well known from the years which followed the coup. According to military and intelligence ranking officers who defected in the 1990s, General Tartag prefers hands-on coercion tactics.
The Algeria government first needs to find an antidote to the ongoing protests, which have included every sector of society. Indeed, we made the point last spring that in pumping financial incentives (pay-rises, generous loans, etc) to distract protesters, the result would be that the regime exposing its unprecedented weak position.
We also argued that even assuming that the regime was in a position to satisfy all the pay-rise demands of the active work force, it would still have to deal with unemployed and disillusioned youth to whom the regime cannot offer jobs any time soon. The concessions made by the regime have encouraged more people to protest and are pushing the unemployed to more radical forms of protest; clashes, self-immolations (over 100 attempts around 20 of which were fatal), and riots are now normal across Algeria.
The regime also needs to convince Algerians to vote in the upcoming legislative elections in May and propose a formula that would both give the illusion of change while keeping the same structures in place. At stake is who succeeds the 75-year-old Abdelaziz Bouteflika who has been in power since 1999. The next presidential election is scheduled for 2014, or possibly before given his frail and ailing health. There is also the issue of the succession of the 74-year-old General Mohammed “Toufik” Mediène who has been at the helm of the DRS since 1990, particularly as there is a lot of speculation about the state of his health.
As the de facto number 2 in the DRS, General Tartag’s first mission is to subdue the protests before it is too late. There was a worrying development for the regime this month when a housing distribution corruption case in Laghouat, 400 km south of Algiers, developed into a two-week sit-in protest which paralysed the town. The protesters, who camped out for several nights, demanded the removal of the province governor. Remarkably, the regime bowed to public pressure and negotiated!
General Tartag also has the formidable task of convincing Algerians of the usefulness and credibility of the upcoming elections. Many Algerians are considering a boycott in response to calls from opposition TV stations. As a result , the regime has already started its campaign by sending SMS messages calling on Algerians to vote in the elections in May, even though the election date has not yet been fixed! Imams in the mosques have been instructed to preach in the Friday sermons about the importance of voting to maintain stability and security.
The regime wants long queues at the polling stations similar to those in Tunisia and Egypt recently. It needs the credibility of a high turn-out, for the results would be agreed in a quota system which the regime’s ten new co-opted parties accepted on 24 January after ten years of a political, not constitutional ban. Now that the current co-opted opposition parties’ usefulness has expired prematurely, thanks to the Arab Spring, the regime is busy planning new artificial parties to fire up the upcoming elections. Thus, there will be two Islamist parties winning 40% of the seats (since that is the trend in the region) and the elections would be free and fair. The regime, which has never permitted international observers, has called on the European Union to send observers to monitor elections in May. But for this scenario to work, the regime needs an acceptable turn- out. The 2007 election turn-out was officially 34%, observers and Wikileaks talk of 10 %. The aim for the DRS is to do all they can to ensure a good turn-out while eliminating any chance of a boycott. One factor has been already identified and is being dealt with: The Rachad Movement.
Ever since it was set up in April 2007 by a group of activists, academics and former diplomat and intelligence defectors, the Rachad Movement has maintained one single message which boils down to the urgent need for non-violent but radical change to the Algerian regime. The movement’s public founding figures have been active in the media and online trying to unify opposition activists and groups in Algeria and exile. Thus Rachad joined forces with the other main opposition movement: the Front for National Change (FCN), based in Paris, as well as key outspoken activists in order to bring about a coordinated strategy in the new context made possible by the Arab Spring.
Protests in Paris
Their most recent initiative was a protest outside the Algerian embassy in Paris in order to mark the 20th anniversary of the coup of 11 January 1992. This was a first in Paris. The regime understood that the protest marked the launch of a boycott campaign or worse. On 16 January, five days after the protest, Dr Mourad Dhina, MIT PhD in Nuclear Physics, co-founder of Rachad Movement and Executive Director of Al Karama Foundation, a Geneva-based human rights defence NGO, was arrested at Orly airport shortly before flying back to Geneva. The French authorities said that the arrest was made at the Algerian government’s request and that his extradition would depend on the credibility of the dossier presented by the regime.
The Rachad Movement, FCN and many activists believe that Dhina’s arrest marks the first act of General Tartag’s comeback. Many fear that worse is to come. Observers believe that the timing of this move means that the regime aims to restrict Rachad’s activities until the elections are over. An extradition would be difficult to obtain, observers believe, because the charges themselves, passed by an Algerian court in the mid-1990s, are unfounded and also because international law prohibits the extradition of political activists to regimes of that nature.
There is a campaign underway to free Dr Dhina but the whole episode has brought to the fore yet again the West’s support for autocratic regimes. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has already blessed the so-called political reforms passed by the parliament and is visiting Algiers in February. I have stopped counting the number of visits of US top brass to Algiers. The EU’s Catherine Ashton has already given a favourable answer to the regime’s request for election observers. Even though the UK’s strategic and economic interests are nothing like US or France, it has, surprisingly, been offering free and generous support to the autocratic regime. In four instances, UK ministers and the ambassador offered obliging comments which the regime’s propaganda machine has used to convince disenfranchised Algerians of the West’s support for their way of rule.
This is happening while everyone knows that this is just Act 2 of the political circus. The first Act started dramatically with the coup of 1992 and ended in early 2011 as the former Tunisian leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled to Riyadh. 2012 was meant to prepare for Act 3 which will take off in 2014 when Bouteflika’s term comes to end. But it seems the regime is having trouble running Act 2. There must be something magical about 2012, it marks fifty years since independence.
The generation of those who were born then, like Dr Dhina, should be, like their peers in the UK, France, and the US, running the affairs of Algeria. Instead, Algeria is run by those who were already in power before even Cameron and Obama, to name only two, were born. Something is bound to change in Algeria at fifty. It is the logic of history. What is more worrying is that some elements in the regime and its supporters in society think the regime succeeded in defeating the Arab Spring. In fact, the Algerian regime at fifty has succeeded in producing fiascos.