In the southern oasis town of Ghardaia violence between Arab and Berber residents over water, ethnicity and religion has gone on since late December. Nearly a hundred people have been arrested and there have been over a hundred casualties. The police, who are largely Arab, are accused of being biased against the Berbers. The ethnic tensions in this area, 600 kilometers south of the capital, have been growing since 2008 and there was another outbreak of violence in October 2013. The Arabs accuse the 800,000 Berbers in the south of supporting al Qaeda. In addition to the ethnic tensions there are also disagreements over religion. The Arabs belong to the Maliki school of Islam while the Berbers are largely from the less common Ibadi school. About 30 percent of Algerians are Berber, but the percentage is higher in the south. Ghardaia is an ancient Berber city of 90,000 that contains many Ibadi shrines. Arabs have recently desecrated some of these shrines, which resulted in violent Berber reprisals when those images appeared on the Internet. The government is concerned for several reasons. For one thing there are oil fields are nearby. Worse, the sustained unrest among the Berbers could be the first breeze in a storm of reform that could engulf the entire country. The government has seen this ill wind coming for some time.
The civil war in Syria has attracted a lot of Algerian Islamic terrorists and nearly 300 are believed to have died in Syria since 2011. The Syrian violence has radicalized a few more Algerian young men, but it has taken more out of the country and led to a noticeable reduction in Islamic terrorist activity over the last two years.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who suffered a stroke last April and was hospitalized in France, is running for another five year term. This is very unpopular. A growing number of political parties are openly refusing to participate because this is seen as another rigged election. Bouteflika was first elected in 1999 then re-elected in 2004 and 2009. The vote rigging got worse with each election. The 76 year old president recently spent a few days in France getting more medical tests. Bouteflika is seen representing the corruption and cronyism that has crippled economic growth for half a century.
Most of the corrupt officials and citizens belong to the extended family of the elderly president and clans of several other families that have led the country after freedom was achieved in the 1960s. Bouteflika had a stroke back in April and returned in June and soon was sufficiently recovered to direct a crucial battle against the anti-corruption activists in the government who saw the stroke as a sign to make a move. Bouteflika responded by removing or transferring any senior officials who appeared to be allies of the anti-corruption groups, especially those in the military.
In 2013 it was believed that the plan was to get a Bouteflika
ally elected as the next president. It was feared that this would get messy as it meant rigging the election even more than usual. This is just the sort of corrupt behavior gets a growing number of Algerians very angry. Meanwhile Bouteflika is having more problems controlling the media. This was obvious when news of his stroke was declared (unofficially) a state secret and Algerian news outlet that talked about it was shut down. But in the Internet age you can’t stop the signal that easily and there was growing public anger at the inaction of this older generation of rulers that are seen as responsible for all the corruption and poor economic performance. The government is at least aware of this and the fact that most Algerians are demanding a new generation of leaders. Bouteflika is seen as old, ill and unable to lead. But the elderly allies of Bouteflika cling to their disabled leader and refuse to share power, or reform themselves. These old guys are backed by their clans, which contain lots of younger men who want the good times (for them) to continue. This could get ugly. While Bouteflika is in no position to reform the country he appears to realize that. Thus his maneuvers to remove senior people who have anti-corruption attitudes and replace them with those who don’t mind the dirty deals.
Back in 2011 Bouteflika himself seemed to sense that something was very wrong. He ordered a survey of public attitudes and was told that the people were very unhappy because the centralized economy was mismanaged, there was too much corruption and favoritism in the government and the government officials were out-of-touch with the Algerian people. Then there was the way elections were handled. It was commonly believed the voting was rigged and government resistance to foreign election monitors seemed to confirm this. All this was nothing new to foreign observers of Algeria, but it apparently was surprising to many senior Algerian officials. The report warned of the potential for a violent uprising. This was to be avoided with the 2012 parliamentary elections that was supposed to create a legislature whose main chore was to create a new constitution. This was expected to toss out the old elected dictatorship of families who were prominent in the fight against colonial France half a century ago. As many Algerians expected the old "revolutionary" families did not give up power, but they surrendered some of it. This was apparently because the vote was so overwhelmingly against the ruling party in some districts that it was considered prudent to surrender these rather than risk local uprisings. The 2012 elections saw the ruling party win only 48 percent of the 462 seats. A pro-military party got 15 percent, giving the military dictatorship another lease on life. The seven Islamic parties got only 13 percent of the seats. The opposition claimed fraud, pointing out that international observers were not allowed to examine most electoral records and that only 42 percent of eligible voters turned out. If the vote has been run fairly Bouteflika and his allies would be gone.
At the moment Bouteflika’s most dangerous enemies are the senior people in the intelligence and security agencies who are keen on cleaning up the corruption. There are also a lot of military officers who favor the anti-corruption drive. Fortunately for Bouteflika many senior military commanders are corrupt, some because they felt refusing the economic perks that were offered when they achieved high rank should not be refused. Bouteflika believes the loyalty of the military is essential to keeping his corrupt crew in power. Now there is a split within the military and many corrupt leaders are moving more of their assets out of the country, just in case. If there’s another large-scale uprising and the military refuses to suppress it (or, worse, splits or falls apart because of disagreements among officers) the current government is done. Bouteflika also realizes that most of the troops are keen on anti-corruption efforts. In short, it’s a dangerous time in Algeria.
February 2, 2014: A new agreement with Tunisia improved cooperation on security matters, especially those related to Islamic terrorists.
January 29, 2014: In the southeast the Amenas gas plant, the scene of a major Islamic terrorist attack a year ago is expected to be back to full production in February. The 2013 attack greatly reduced production. The plant normally produces 11-12 percent of Algeria’s natural gas, most of which is exported. Before the attack the foreign firms that operate the plant had planned an expansion but that is still on hold because of the 2013 attack and the belief that the government has not upgraded security sufficiently.
January 23, 2014: About 120 kilometers south of the capital police ambushed and killed four Islamic terrorists. Last week two Islamic terrorists had been killed in the same area, indicating that Islamic terrorists had returned to an area that was popular with terrorist groups in the 1990s.
January 22, 2014: The government has ordered several thousand additional police to the southern city of
Ghardaia where ethnic and religious violence has been out-of-control for a month now.
January 19, 2014: The government has upgraded already close security cooperation with Mali. Algeria has increased its patrols along its Mali border over the last year. The new agreements make possible more joint operations against Islamic terrorists operating near the border.