Dispatch: The Algerian exception?

Election posters in Algiers (credit: Abu Ray)

Our friend Abu Ray, a journalist covering North Africa, sent in this dispatch from Algeria where he was to cover the recent parliamentary elections, in which the ruling FLN won against expectations that Islamist parties would do well, as they have done in neighboring Tunisia and Morocco. The Islamists and many others have decried widespread fraud and the turnout was very low.

For some of us journalists, the Arab Spring meant discovering French colonial architecture, or at least that of Tunis. I mean no one went toTunisia before the revolution: it was a journalistic dead zone. And then came the uprising, the confused aftermath and then the October elections, and each time, we would wander around the tree-lined Bourguiba avenue, with its never-ending outdoor cafés and beautiful peeling old buildings and think, wow, now THIS is a capital city.

Up until this point, if what you’ve seen of Arab capitals is the slow motion urban train wreck of Cairo, the bland concrete and glass of the Gulf and the soul destroying beige ugliness of Baghdad, Tunis was amazing.

Until I saw Algiers. The white city on the sea has just block after block of achingly beautifully filigreed white buildings with delicate blue balconies arrayed around a perfect semicircular bay, climbing up a steep mountain like an amphitheater.

There are drawbacks. Everything built from the 1950s on is hideous and unlike Alexandria’s lovely bay, the Algiers port is, well, smack dab in the center of the bay, so once you got close to the water, you are dealing with warehouses, train tracks, highways and chainlink fences guarding customs buildings.

But climb the hill and and there you were in winding streets connected by steep staircases, working your way through old neighborhoods. So Algiers was a rare enough site to visit, but this time around, the government wanted to invite the world for their elections, their “spring.”

It was time to throw a party, show off the city and tell the world how Spring-like Algeria was feeling. It was the regularly scheduled parliamentary elections, elections the country has been holding regularly every five years like a train schedule, and with about as much literary merit. But since everyone was looking around the region saying, “where’s your spring Algeria?,” the aging regime of old revolutionaries felt they had to put on a show. So the observers were invited in, the journalists suddenly got visas, and a fairly closed place was suddenly thrown open — much to the joy of those who love old colonial cities.

As it turns out, asking Algeria experts why there was no “Arab Spring” in Algeria, could possibly be the equivalent of asking the inane post 9/11 query of “why do they hate us?” They do get tired of that. One answer is that Algeria had its spring in 1988 when angry riots over a failed system broke out around the country necessitating a massive army crackdown that killed 500 people — roughly proportional to the numbers that died in Tunisia and Egypt’s 2011 revolutions.

The result was a multiparty system ahead of its time, some fairly free elections and then… well, the military coup, the Islamist rebellion and 10 lost years of grinding bloodshed as the military that built that country made sure it didn’t have to let it go.

The other answer, is how many Middle East nations just dripping in hydrocarbon wealth had a “spring?” Those who could bought their way out, unless they had mismanaged the whole situation so badly like Gadhafi that it went violent from the get go — and then only succeeded thanks to NATO’s air force.

Despite being a country of 35 million people, with a highly educated middle class, and a rich history, Algeria can be understood by some of the same logic as a Gulf monarchy. Politics in many ways has died off in Algeria, what it is really going on, is a competition for who gets what handout. And thanks to the ever rising price of oil, there’s huge pie to compete for.

For a rich country, many Algerians feel poor, or at least feel they should be doing better than they are, and there’s that sneaking suspicion that everyone above them on the economic ladder is just doing a better job of siphoning off that rich load of state money than they are. People despise politicians because they are paid well, why would I vote someone into power just so they can make a bunch of money? Where’s my share?

Tunisia and Egypt and elsewhere worked because people, for a brief shining moment, threw aside all their differences and got together in the street for a single goal, usually the ousting of one very obviously awful leader. In Algeria that could never come together, who would unite people? Why would you give one person your allegiance when he was probably making some kind of buck out of it? Or was in the pay of security?

So elections were this bizarre piece of theater where an incredibly cynical government of political players par excellence urged everyone to vote for… Algeria’s Spring. “Our spring is Algeria,” said the ubiquitous get-out-the-vote poster. Posters for candidates were restricted to a limited set of oft-vandalized billboards, but the posters advertising the vote itself, were everywhere.

If you don’t vote, there will be chaos. And if there is chaos, there will be foreign intervention. It will be French colonialism all over again. We’ll be Iraq, or Libya, or even worse, if you don’t vote, went the campaign speeches of the government politicians.

Meanwhile pretty much anyone you talked to would say, why vote? the parliament is powerless, the politicians are corrupt, the elections are rigged.

But the thing is, I thought this time the government was serious, this time they would really try to let the opposition movements have their say and breathe, just to let off a bit of steam in a closed political society subsidized by natural gas.

Some of the opposition seemed to feel that way as well, though their confidence smacked of that Egyptian opposition kind, when their local intelligence service minder has promised them 50 seats in the next parliament if they just don’t boycott.

As it was, Algeria continued to buck the trend, whether it was in meaningful elections, or Islamist parties winning, or doing something that just didn’t reek of the same old stultifying status quo, but the former single ruling party of aged war heroes nearly doubled its seats. It was particularly painful coming just two days after the cancer-ridden president, a foreign minister in the 1965 government of Colonel Boumendiene, told the country that the generation of the independence struggle was finished and it was time for a new generation.

Apparently that new generation still has to belong to the National Liberation Front, because they’re the ones still running the show.

But the thing is, if you have a system where no one votes, it’s just going to be those rickety old pensioners who do remember the independence struggle and who do think that the FLN is the only solution who cast their votes. The 40+ other political parties didn’t really have popular support. Many of them consisted of one well known ex-government official, a few friends, and a fax machine to send out press releases.

The three-week campaign was largely a series of poorly attended rallies around the country where the new parties tried to articulate their program but mostly spent their time urging people to vote. The one exception I saw was Amar Ghoul, the head of the Algiers list for the “Green Alliance” of Islamist parties.

I saw him campaign in the fairly gritty neighborhood of Harache in Algiers and he told young people that if they wanted jobs, they had to organize, and he walked through the streets and greeted cafe owners and listened to people with their housing woes, including a dramatic example where an entire floor had disintegrated in one low slung apartment building, leaving the families there living in debris. He listened with concern, hugged an old woman, shook hands in the streets — it was like a real campaign, it inspired hope for change. As I was leaving, I saw a man at the nearby covered market, with steel grey hair and piercing blue eyes watching the politician move through his town with his entourage and I asked him if maybe, just maybe, this was something worthwhile?

“It’s nothing he snorted, just air,” he said with disgust, before turning away and walking off.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.