Algeria: Peace, Plague And Poverty

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May 18, 2020: The coronavirus (covid19) in Algeria is not as much of an economic liability as it has been across the Mediterranean in Europe. Algeria imposed some restrictions in urban areas but otherwise left the economy alone. A nationwide curfew was implemented in early April but modified by region and gradually eased. The curfew was mainly about keeping people home at night. The curfew hours were longest in the capital and eight of the most populous provinces. For the other provinces, it was 7 PM to 7 AM. There are two southern provinces, which are thinly populated and largely desert, where they have been no reported covid19 cases. These two provinces have no curfew at all.

So far the government has identified about 7,100 Algerians who have come down with the virus and so far Algeria has suffered about 13 deaths per million population. That’s much less than the world average of 41 deaths per million, but much worse than South Korea where deaths were five per million. South Korea was praised for its efficient handling of the virus. South Korea has a much better public health system but so far Algeria has done well with what it has. Algeria has one of the worst national health systems in the world and among Arab nations ranks 17th out of 21.

What helped was Algeria has only had 160 cases per million people while South Korea had 216. Both are doing better that the United States, which has 4,700 cases per million and 275 deaths per million. One reason for the higher American and European numbers per million is a better health care system that can identify and count more of the infected and dead. Not all nations are able, or willing, to get accurate numbers. Many nations don’t really notice the deaths covid19 causes because the death rate for covid19 is not much worse than a very bad annual influenza epidemic. Moreover, covid10 is most lethal to those who already have serious medical problems. There are fewer of those in many poor nations that have not got the medical infrastructure to keep the seriously ill alive.

Neighbors Tunisia had 88 cases per million and four deaths per million. For Morocco, it is 186 and five, Libya nine and 0.5. To the south Mali has 43 and three.

Political Deadlock

The presidential elections held last December 12th were conducted despite popular opposition. The results were not the instant disaster many predicted because the candidate elected, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, was a former prime minister who formed his new government by appointing new government ministers that most protesters approved of, or could not criticize. None of the new ministers had opposed the weekly protests, which finally ended with the arrival of covid19. Tebboune has also met with protest leaders and simultaneously organized an effort to create a new constitution that would make it more difficult for him, or any future president, to again become a corrupt “president-for-life”. The new president, as a former senior official himself, knows that there are many senior people in the government, military and business community who oppose such changes. Such opposition has to be expressed quietly but it is still there and it will be a year or more before it will be clear if a new, dictator-proof, constitution is possible or not.

The problem is that Tebboune had the support of the military and will be under pressure to maintain a high level of military spending. Nearly a third of the government budget goes to the military. This is high by world standards. In fact, it is the highest in the world by a nation that releases such data. North Korea is believed to devote more of the government budget to the military but refuses to talk about it. Other nations that come close are Saudi Arabia, at 25 percent. Saudi Arabia believes it is at war with Iran and considers its military budget a wartime budget. Armenia, at 21 percent, is in a similar situation with neighbor Azerbaijan. Officially Algeria only spends about 14 percent of the government budget on the military but the reality is the spending is much higher and the security services want to keep it that way.

Most of the troops, mainly the younger ones, support going after corruption in a big way. The junior officers agree with that. For the older officers and NCOs who have made the military a career, priorities are different. For the older troops the most important thing is to maintain enough political power to maintain the current levels of military spending.

This outcome may prove that Algerians who felt that rushing elections favored the election of another corrupt politician, were right. So far the new president and his ministers appear pretty clean, as do most senior military officers. But that could change, as it often does, leaving Algeria with leaders are as corrupt and ineffective as all the previous ones. In other words, there would be a few token prosecutions for corruption but the majority of the corrupt bureaucrats and business owners would return to their outlaw ways.

Busted Budget

In addition to the unsettled political climate, Algeria is still suffering from the collapse of oil prices in 2013 and 2019. The most recent crash was caused by the covid19 virus sharply reducing demand while a feud between Russia and Saudi Arabia kept production high. After 2013 oil prices fell from $100 a barrel to $50. The 2019 crises took the price down to $20 a barrel. That has hurt Algeria which now expects GDP to decline nearly three percent in 2020 after growing nearly one percent in 2019. The old government was replaced a year ago in part because it was not successful enough in dealing with the resulting economic crises. The most visible sign of that failure is the growth of government debt from 26 percent of GDP in 2018 to nearly 50 percent now. Oil prices are at record lows and government plans to increase oil and gas production and diversify the economy are still underway. The government has not got spare cash for any new undertakings.

Dwindling Desperados

April was another month of infrequent contact with the remaining Islamic terrorists. Three were killed (all were armed) while one was arrested. Also arrested were five Islamic terrorist supporters who were providing financial, logistical and other support for Islamic terrorists and (usually) criminals in general.

May 16, 2020: In the east, across the Tunisian border in Kasserine Province, the security forces finally have the Islamic terrorists on the defensive. Tunisian security officials believe they have shut down Islamic terrorist operations in urban areas and cornered most of the remaining Islamic terrorists in the mountains along the Algerian border. The largest concentration of these terrorists are AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) factions in Kasserine Province. So far this year the security forces have detected the presence of several dozen AQIM members hiding out in Kasserine Province and discovered several hidden stores of weapons and bomb-building equipment. These hiding places contained other bits of evidence indicating the AQIM group was planning a number of bombing attacks against the security forces that were aborted when so much of the bomb-making equipment was captured.

The decline of AQIM in their mountain hideouts began in late 2019 when 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 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 fled 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 was becoming as hostile for Islamic terrorists as Algeria but the few remaining AQIM and ISIL groups still found 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. Soon after its 2011 revolution Tunisia had become a functioning democracy while Algeria was still 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 anyway 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 Algerian “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. In Tunisia there are also “sleepers” but there are also active Islamic terrorists holding out in the mountains. Not so much in Algeria, where the only remaining Islamic terrorist bases are in the far south, along the Mali border where those Islamic terrorists carry out most of the operations in Mali. Up north there are very few active Islamic terrorists and most of those who do go active find it difficult to avoid the security forces or an Algerian with a cellphone and a dislike of Islamic terrorism.

May 10, 2020: In the far south, across the Mali border (outside Kidal) a roadside bomb was used against a peacekeeper convoy near the Algerian border and the Aguelhok crossing. Three peacekeepers were killed and four wounded. Local Islamic terrorists, operating from bases in Algeria, are believed responsible.

May 4, 2020: In the southeast (Bouria province, 120 kilometers from the capital) troops found and scrutinized a cache of Islamic terrorist equipment which included four automatic weapons (including ammo), 20 grenades and 20 kg (44 pounds) of explosives. This one was of recent vintage. Not many of these caches are found anymore and most of them are years, or sometimes over a decade old.

 

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