Algeria: Facebook Becomes A Battlefield

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September 23, 2020: The government is now seen as using the covid19 quarantine rules to suppress a popular political opposition movement that seeks fundamental reforms in how Algeria is run. The new president has jailed over a hundred people for continuing to participate in the weekly demonstrations that began in February 2019 to overthrow the FLN party, which had held onto power since the 1960s. That protest movement put the current president into office, although many Algerians were unsure of how much a reformer the new leader was. The actual demonstrations were halted in March with the imposition of covid19 quarantine and suspension of court appearances. That did not stop all the protestors as many continued their activity online, especially on Facebook. There the discussion was more detailed and diverse than the agenda the weekly protests backed. With the courts closed the government allowed the olice to arrest and detain “anti-government” suspects for indefinite periods.

The physical demonstrations forced out the then current FLN president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika and that led to free elections at the end of 2019. The weekly demonstrations, nicknamed the Hirak, continued and were outlawed by the new government. That convinced many Hirak supporters that the demonstrations should continue because there were still government practices that needed to be changed. About the same time the actual demonstrations were halted by covid19 the government was demonstrating more hostility towards the complaints, many of them justified, that Hirak participants had.

The Facebook Hirak featured the Islamic parties more prominently as many of the leaders of those parties spoke from exile in the West (mainly France) and were unable to participate in the physical Hirak. No so in the online version and that upset a lot of the Hirak members from Algeria. The Islamic parties still remined Algerians of the horrific 1990s war against Islamic terrorists, whose goal was to establish a religious dictatorship. The Islamic parties had won a fair election in 1990 and the FLN refused to be replaced by Islamic politicians. The fighting was horrific and destroyed most popular support the Islamic parties once had.

Many of the surviving Islamic terrorist fighters and leaders fled into exile. Some continued their Islamic terrorism, others switched to non-violent Islamic politics. The most prominent example of this is the Moslem Brotherhood, and while the Moslem Brotherhood has been successful at getting elected, they soon lose power when their radical fringe starts demanding a religious dictatorship. Islamic party leaders insist they can prevent that from happening, most Algerians don’t believe it and don’t believe Islamic party politicians will be any better at dealing with corruption and bad government than the secular Moslem politicians. Covid19 restrictions have also eliminated any active Islamic terrorist activity, although such activity has been declining for over a decade.

The current government has devoted a lot of effort to identifying all the participants in these online Hirak activities and sought to arrest those still in Algeria. France won’t even consider arresting and extraditing the Hirak posters living in France. Free speech and all that. The irony is not lost on the Algeria-based Hirak members. In Algeria it is still popular to criticize France for its colonial era crimes. Yet France remains a model for what Algeria would like to be. The newly elected government is going after corrupt officials and businessmen but has not yet proved that the new officials are any more effective and less corrupt than the old bunch. Arresting Hirak online critics and journalists who appear to support those critics does not inspire confidence among most voters.

Turkey Temptations

In 2013 Turkey made a major diplomatic and economic effort to improve relations with Algeria. That succeeded and now Turkey has a lot of investments in Algeria and is a major trading partner. That means about three billion dollars’ worth of trade a year. Turkey and Algeria are both “Islamic democracies” with elections and a tendency to favor other authoritarian states, like Russia and China. For that reason, Algeria has not criticized the Turkish military intervention in the Libyan civil war. Algeria opposes Egyptian and Gulf Arab efforts to support the secular (House of Representatives/Libyan National Army) faction in Libya. and would rather see the less popular GNA faction prevail.

Algeria has no interest in sending troops to Libya as peacekeepers or to eject the “Turkish invaders.” Like all the other North African countries, except Egypt, Algeria wants a peaceful settlement to the fighting in Libya. With the recent (since late 2019) Turkish intervention peace in Libya may be later rather than sooner.

The Covid19 Impact

Covid19 is most dangerous in crowded urban areas, which all North African countries have along the coast, while inland areas have far fewer people. In Algeria there have been about 38 deaths per million population, that’s up from 33 a month ago. That’s much less than the world average of 125 deaths per million. Neighbor Tunisia had 14 deaths per million and Libya 67. For Morocco it is 51 and Egypt is 56. Many Algerians see covid19 movement restrictions as more political suppression than a public health move.

September 20, 2020: The president announced that Algeria will not consider establishing diplomatic and economic relations with Israel, as several other Arab nations have recently done or are considering. This includes Western neighbor Morocco, which has always been friendly towards Israel. Tunisia agrees with Algeria in opposing relations with Israel. Libya is still divided by a civil war, with Turkey intervening to assist the weaker pro-Islamic government faction while the UAE, Egypt and Russia back the more powerful secular faction.

September 6, 2020: In neighboring Tunisia three Islamic terrorists armed with knives attacked some soldiers, killing one and wounding another before being killed by other soldiers. The attack began when the three attackers in a car rammed the vehicle the soldiers were riding in. Except in Libya and Egypt, where Islamic terrorists are still active in northern Sinai, near Palestinian ruled Gaza, there has been little Islamic terrorist activity in North Africa this year. Libya has a lot of Islamic terrorists but they have largely been killed or suppressed by the Libyan National Army, which controls most of the country.

August 27, 2020: The government praised a ceasefire agreement in neighboring Libya. That is only a pause in the war because Turkey continues to enlarge its forces there and preparations for a major offensive.

August 25, 2020: The government announced there will be a referendum on November 1st to approve or reject a new constitution. Covid19 restrictions make it difficult to conduct meetings to discuss proposed constitutional changes, which would shift power from parliament to the president and allow the army to participate in peacekeeping missions. Army leaders oppose that, especially since that could mean getting involved in the Libyan Civil War. Since independence from France in 1962, Algerian law has banned use of the army outside Algeria. Since 1962 every new long-term (more than a year or two) president, and there have only been five, changes to the constitution were attempted, usually to make the presidency more powerful.

 

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