Algeria: Lurching Towards The Past

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October 30, 2019: So far this year oil and gas exports are down nine percent. This is largely because domestic demand is up eight percent while there was also a two percent decline in production. That is going to get worse because the state-owned oil industry is having management problems. The many arrests and prosecutions of senior officials for corruption include many connected with the oil and gas industry. This corruption was pretty obvious and made worse by the fact that it impeded upgrades to production facilities and exploration for new oil and gas deposits. Oil and gas are the primary export which brings in most of the foreign exchange needed to pay for imports. Oil industry expansion plans are on hold because of the uncertainty over whether the next president will be a reformer or someone pretending to be but ready to return to the corrupt old ways.

Oil and gas production is crucial, especially since the oil price is declining rather than doubling as Algerian budget planners expected. While many oil-exporting nations thought they could reduce production and force prices up. Despite months of effort, the prices did not go up. The world oil price is not expected to rise in the new future and is more likely to decline. Even before the April change of government financial desperation had forced the corrupt oil industry bureaucrats to finally allow needed reforms to move forward, slowly. Algeria could no longer afford to be sloppy with oil industry upgrades so that some well-connected officials could get rich. The budget deficits were a greater threat. Now all these needed reforms are on hold again as the corrupt deals are uncovered, eliminated and efforts made to replace them. The arrest, or threat of arrest, for so many owners or managers of major businesses has also stifled any hopes of rapid economic reform to reduce unemployment.

Something To Shout About

Most Algerians still oppose the interim military government and its decision to hold presidential elections on December 12th. For the 36th week in row, Algerians held large weekend protests in the capital and other cities. This has been going on for nine months and the army hoped setting the election date would end or reduce the demonstrations. It did not turn out that way. Most Algerians feel that rushing elections favors the election of another corrupt politician who will act like all the previous ones. In other words, there will be a few token prosecutions for corruption but the majority of the corrupt bureaucrats and business owners will return to their outlaw ways. This is seen as the reason why 70 percent of the Algerian unemployed are job-seekers in their late teens and 20s. Many have never been able to get a job. The unemployment rate is about 15 percent, up from the 12 percent is was stuck at for several years.

The corruption and mismanagement the former government was responsible for are seen as a major reason for the high unemployment, especially among the younger Algerians. Another incitement is how the interim government is using its control over mass media to criticize the protestors at every opportunity and block any criticism of the interim government. A small but growing number of journalists are being arrested for reporting what is seen and hear in the streets. This offends younger Algerians most of all because they are the most media savvy. They may be poor but most have cellphones and now how the media works.

Blaming Berbers

The interim military government is going through the long-used government list of usual suspects as it seeks to curb the constant anti-government demonstrations. A favorite target is the Berbers, especially those who join the demonstrations displaying Amazigh (Berber) flags and banners. Back in June, the interim government outlawed the flag of the Berber (Amazigh) minority because the flag was seen as a threat to national unity. Since then Berbers waving those banners have been more frequently arrested. Calling Berbers separatists or traitors is an old habit because this cultural conflict has been going on for over a thousand years. The Algerian political system is officially secular and does not recognize ethnic distinctions. But religion and ethnicity are still important to many Algerians. The core problem is that most Algerians are ethnically Berber although many Algerians now identify as Arabs and speak only Arabic. Further complicating the issue is that a growing number of Berbers converting to Christianity, as a protest against the continued persecution. Some 400,000 (out of 42 million) Algerians are Christian and the number of Berber Christians is growing fast. The government fears these Berber Christians and Christians in general because Islamic conservatives get upset over such things. For that reason, the government has refused to ask about religion during a census. This fear of Christian (as they were for centuries before Islamic armies showed up) Berbers has led to more harassment of Christians and unprovoked church closings.

The Berbers, a people related to the ancient Egyptians, were the original occupants of Algeria. Arab armies conquered the country over a thousand years ago, but, unlike other Arab conquests, many Berbers did not adopt Arab language and customs. Today, about a third of Algerians openly identify as Berbers and speak Tamazight, the Berber language. There has always been tension between Berbers and Arabs, and now Berbers are demanding that their language be made one of Algeria's official languages. The Arab dominated FLN government refused to consider this. Berbers are now out front in the demonstrations for a new, democratically elected government that will tolerate and recognize Berber culture and religious freedom in general.

The Berbers are also seen as a problem because many Berbers live in the south, where ten percent of Algerians live on about 85 percent of Algerian territory and most of it is part of the Sahara Desert. It is also where the oil is and, despite that, the unemployment rate down there is about 50 percent compared to the national average of about 15 percent. The south is also where the “desert Berbers”, or Tuareg tribes live. When the oil industry came to the south 60 years ago a lot of the oilfield jobs went to “foreigners.” For the southerners, this included non-Algerians as well as Arab Algerians or anyone from the coastal north. There are some Arab tribes in the south and the Berbers saw the government security forces siding with these Arab tribes more and more. Many Algerians see Berbers as foreigners and southern Berbers as the most foreign of all. The Berbers see this as more of the persecution they have been suffering for centuries, and want that to stop.

Even before the FLN party was forced out earlier this year it had tried to accommodate the Berbers with largely symbolic gestures. In late 2017 the government finally agreed to recognize the Berber New Year (on January 12th) and halt local efforts to block the use of the Berber language in schools. Since 2016, when there was another outbreak of Berber protests in Tizi Ouzou (120 kilometers east of the capital) over perceived discrimination in allocation of government benefits (like housing), the government has been seeking ways to ease tensions.The ten million Berbers of Algeria are considered the most abused in the region. While young Berbers may be particularly angry at the decades of government corruption and mismanagement, they are emblematic of the growing anger among all young Algerians and a growing number of older Algerians as well.

October 27, 2019: So far there are 22 candidates for the December 12 presidential elections. Several were supporters of the recently overthrown FLN party. These candidates have better name recognition and some had turned against the FLN party and former president Bouteflika. But those candidates are also old. Some of these candidates also have friends in the security forces which have led to more journalists being arrested for reporting on how the interim military government is operating.

October 21, 2019: In the east, across the border in Tunisia (Kasserine province) security forces cornered and killed Murad al Shayeb, a notorious Algerian Islamic terrorist who was also wanted for crimes in Tunisia. Shayeb belonged to AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and led a faction that had moved most of its operations to Tunisia after 2015. That left a former AQIM faction (Jund al Khalifa) as the main source of Islamic terrorist violence in Algeria. This did not last long because Jund al Khalifa had renounced its ties to al Qaeda and declared its allegiance to ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). Once it joined ISIL Jund al Khalifa became a lot more violent. Small groups of AQIM have been hiding out in the coastal mountains east of the capital for years and security forces were constantly searching the thinly populated mountains and forests of Bouira province. One reason AQIM survived in this area was that they kept quiet and tended to their criminal activities (drug smuggling) and cultivating new members. This strategy did not appeal to Jund al Khalifa which preferred the more radical ISIL approach. This meant losing a lot of members, some of whom surrendered to the government and provided information on Islamic terrorist activities in the coastal areas. That, plus the public outrage at the renewed Islamic terrorist violence and the growing availability of cell phones (the Islamic terrorists’ worst enemy) was the beginning of the end. By mid-2016 Jund al Khalifa appeared to be gone from their usual Algerian coastal haunts. There was little evidence that many AQIM members remained either. There are still some Islamic terrorists and supporters in Algeria but they are gone from their usual areas of operation and the search is on to find out where any may still be in the country.

What happened was that Jund al Khalifa remnants had, like many Algerian Islamic terrorists, fled to Tunisia. Individuals who could flee to Europe or Syria to “defend the Caliphate.” But most ended up across the border in Tunisia (Kasserine province) and soon began carrying out attacks throughout Tunisia. The backlash in Tunisia was devastating, despite survivors of ISIL defeats in Syria and Libya showing up in Tunisia. By late 2018 the remaining ISIL members were trapped in the mountains of Kasserine province and the end seemed near.

Shayeb was killed near the Algerian border and was believed to be operating on both sides of the border to raise money to keep his AQIM faction going. Tunisia is becoming as hostile as Algeria but the few remaining AQIM and ISIL groups still find it easier to survive on the Tunisian side of the border. The Islamic terror groups thrive on the anger and frustration of young men who cannot get a job and see corruption and ineffective government all around them. At the moment Tunisia has a functioning democracy and Algeria is trying to rid its own democracy of the corruption and mismanagement that had developed after Algeria became independent of France in the 1960s. If the government goes bad on either side of the border the Islamic terror groups will find more recruits for the movement to form a religious dictatorship. This means killing those who get in your way because God is on your side. The religious dictatorship doesn’t work either but that does not deter the desperate. While waiting for the next opportunity to declare jihad (struggle) and go to war the faithful obtain cash any way they can. In effect these moribund Islamic terrorists are gangsters and they not only generate enough cash to keep the full-time members and their families going but also pay smaller amounts to up to 400 “sleeper cell” members who live in urban areas quietly preparing for the next jihad. The sleepers hear from the active members regularly, receiving news, instructions and a little cash.

 

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