Friday, October 7, 2011

Ian M. MacIsaac: What holds Algeria back?

  Over the past nine months, the Arab Spring has made waves across the entire Muslim world, from Morocco to Pakistan. One country that has remained conspicuously off the revolutionary radar sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East, however, is the nation of Algeria.

  Apart from a brief period of political turmoil which concluded in early April with the lifting of Algeria’s nineteen-year state of emergency and token reductions in the power of the country’s president and quasi-dictator Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algeria has remained remarkably quiet—until the past few weeks.

  Protests have resumed in the country’s capital of Algiers over a decision made by the government to destroy a forested park of eucalyptus trees located in the poverty-stricken neighborhood of Bois des Pins. The cultural landmark, planted in the early 1960s to celebrate Algeria’s independence, is to be replaced with what has been described as a grotesquely designed multi-story auxiliary parking deck.

  Residents of the neighborhood were not consulted on the decision to destroy the small yet beloved forest, nor notified of the move until construction on the parking deck began.

  Neighborhood residents have nonetheless been putting up a fight since the decision became public, organizing demonstrations and gathering thousands of signatures on petitions to cease construction. The common slogan taken up by the Algerian protestors translates into English as “Don’t touch my forest!”

  The protestors have emphasized the hallowed nature of eucalyptus trees in Algeria, where they became a symbol of the country’s independence following its brutal eight-year war for independence from the French Empire (1954-1962).

  It has been noted frequently and with dark irony in supportive Algerian circles and news outlets that the demolishing of a forest of eucalyptus trees to build a government structure is just the kind of thing the French would have done during the more than one hundred years they ran the country.


  Despite the resumption of protests in Algiers, it is unlikely that construction will cease on the parking deck in Bois des Pins. For all the effort of Algerian groups working in the spirit of the Arab Spring—including the locally legendary Moujahidate, an organization of Algerian women formed in the 1950s to fight the French, who have backed the efforts in Bois des Pins—the country seems unlikely to see any sort of Bahrain-level shakeup, or even a Morocco-style political liberalization package.

  In Morocco—the only country in the Maghreb besides Algeria to retain its pre-Spring ruler—King Mohammed VI was forced by peaceful popular uprising to pass a package at the beginning of July that, among other reforms, transferred numerous powers (such as the appointment of ambassadors and regional governors and the power to dissolve parliament) from his office to the Prime Minister. Other reforms included new cultural and political legitimacy to ethnic and linguistic minorities in the country, along with a guarantee of civil and social equality for Moroccan women.

  To the east, in Libya, the National Transitional Council interim government has captured the vast majority of the country’s federal capital, Tripoli, along with huge swaths of Qaddafi-held territory in the country’s western areas that were once thought to among the most loyal to Colonel Qaddafi. One of his wives and the son she had with Qaddafi have recently fled into asylum in Algeria in a fleet of black Mercedes SUVs. Qaddafi himself has fled Tripoli, and is on the lam somewhere in Libya, Saddam-style.

  Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, the aforementioned Morocco, and Syria have all seen either revolutions or major destabilizations of previously omnipotent and all-powerful kings or dictators. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and Kuwait have also seen scuffles and major protests that captured international attention.


  Where is Algeria’s share of this populist fire? If it is there, what holds it back?
Algeria faces many of the same hurdles to successful reform and/or revolution that the rest of Arab world has faced as well. Like Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, Algeria is rampant with political corruption and patronage throughout the government and up to its highest echelons. This activity is centered on the billions in oil money floating around the country, which holds substantial petroleum reserves.

  Akin to Libya in particular, a substantial number of Algerians have memories of a brutal post-colonial civil war that divided and traumatized the population. The idea of another sustained period of civil unrest and turmoil has little appeal for a large number of the poor, devoutly Muslim, and largely uneducated people of Algeria.

  In the end, it will be up to the citizens of this large and—for now—silent country whether or not they want to risk an era of strife for a chance at freedom that they shall otherwise be denied by greed, dictatorship, and corruption. It did not take the rest of the people in the Maghreb nearly this long to decide in the affirmative.

  In the end, the people of any nation are only as liberated as they want to be. Algeria has rarely been an outlier in world history, but if it becomes the only nation in the Arab world to see no genuine political reform in the Spring era, this former French colony will be a case studied for decades.

  About the author: Ian MacIsaac is a staff writer for the Capital City Free Press. He is a history major at Auburn University Montgomery in Montgomery, Alabama and former co-editor of the school newspaper, the AUMnibus.

Copyright © Capital City Free Press

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