The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged Algeria
Unpacking Algeria's hostage crisis

Also read this post in Jihadica by Andrew Lebovich on the deliberate echo of the Algerian civil war in the naming of the group that carried out the hostake-taking:

When longtime Algerian jihadist and recently-removed AQIM commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar announced in December the creation of a new combat unit, al-Mouwakoune Bi-Dima (“Those Who Sign with Blood”), much of the media coverage focused on what Belmokhtar said about the new group’s role. As part of Belmokhtar’s Katibat al-Moulathimin, the new group would, in his words, attack “those planning the war in northern Mali.” Belmokhtar also said that an eventual intervention in Mali would be “a proxy war on behalf of the Occident.” He also explicitly threatened not only France, but also Algeria, calling the country’s political, military, and economic elites “sons of France” and saying “we will respond with force, we will have our say, we will fight you in your homes and we will attack your interests.”

At the time, few noted Belmokhtar’s important historical reference point in choosing this name for his new faction: the name al-Mouwakoune Bi-Dima was originally used by a group of Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) fighters who conducted a series of attacks in Algeria and in France against French targets. Most notable was the Mouwakoune group’s December 1994 hijacking of Air France Flight 8969, an incident that ended when elite French gendarmes stormed the plane on the tarmac in Marseille.

The origins of Rai

The video above shows Algerian pop legend Cheb Khaled's first song, at the tender age of 14 in 1974. It comes via Ted Swedenburg, who has an epic history of Rai — the Maghrebi style of music born in Algeria in the 1970s — and discovered that Cheb Khaled's song came several years earlier than what he had hitherto believed to be the inventors of the rai sound, Messaoud Bellamou and Boutaiba Sghir. The whole essay is fascinating, lavishly illustrated with album covers and music — a must-read for anyone interested in Maghrebi or Arabic music.

(h/t Abu Aardvark.)

Dispatch: Algeria's "nif"

Since there was a lot of interest in Abu Ray's recent piece on Algeria, I have asked friend-of-the-blog Geoff Porter if I could reproduce an email he sent me just before the parliamentary elections there. Geoff's take is quite unique, and while I'm not sure what to make of it (having not been to Algeria) I thought it was worth sharing. Let us know what you think of it.

Parliamentary elections on 10 May have provided commentators with another occasion to discuss why Algeria did not have an “Arab Spring” like so many other countries in the Arabic-speaking world and to prognosticate about why Algerian voter participation rates are likely to be so low. Not one to pass up an opportunity to share my own views, below is my take on what is at play in Algeria.

One well-worn explanation for Algeria’s lack of an Arab Spring is because the horrific bloodshed that followed Algeria’s first foray into multi-party politics in the 1990s left Algerians cagey and afraid. They watched jealously over the course of 2011 as their neighbors stood up to and toppled authoritarian regimes, but were too cowed by memory to do the same. And now presented with legislative elections and the opportunity to voice their political views post-Arab Spring, Algerians have become too apathetic to go to the polls to try to bring about political change. Voter participation is will be low, the argument goes, because Algerians think that they are impotent in the face of the deep state’s power.

A portrait of a defeated and timid population emerges from this interpretation. But anyone who has spent time in Algeria would quickly attest to Algerians’ pride and defiance. So how to explain the difference between the two profiles? One explanation is that the arguments about why Algeria did not have an Arab Spring and why Algerians are unlikely to vote are wrong.

To understand why they miss their target, it helps to go back to Algeria’s revolution against French rule in the 1950s and the early years of independence in the 1960s. The revolution was complicated, but one thing that it was not was an attempt to restore some form of government that had existed prior to France’s colonial conquest in 1830. There was no earlier form of government to restore. France ruled Algeria for 132 years and prior to that it had been ruled loosely by the Ottoman Empire. When Algeria won independence from France, the goal was to establish a republic, very much modeled along French lines only without the French. What emerged was an “Algerianized” version of the French republic, committed to the ideals of liberte¸egalite, et fraternite, and a very deep sense of citoyenneté, citizenship.

Of these, equality and citizenship are most deeply rooted. Equality manifests itself daily in Algerian life and Algerians are constantly on guard against violations of their equal status. In daily interactions, equality takes the form of respect – one does not look down upon or denigrate another. Unlike Morocco or Tunisia, there are no shoeshine boys in Algeria. No Algerian will kneel at another’s feet and clean grime off his shoes.

Algerians often talk of “le nif,” referring to pride and an unswerving adherence to principle. “Le nif” is something Algerians simultaneously boast about and somewhat disingenuously acknowledge as a shortcoming, like answering the job interview question about one’s greatest weakness by saying that one is “too truthful.”  Principles like honor and respect mean something in Algeria, but rigid commitment to them can also be a hindrance in day to day life, let alone in politics or business which are by nature fluid and malleable.  Despite its intangibility, “le nif” is real and permeates Algerian life.

The other enduring legacy of the war of independence is a strong sense of citizenship. Beyond the personal level of “le nif”, Algerians have a strong commitment to the state and its institutions. There may not be a commitment to the ways in which these institutions have evolved and how they function today, and in fact there is definitively not, but there is a commitment to the ideas and rationale that underpin them. On an institutional level, any Algerian can walk into a government office, declare that he or she is a citizen (“ana watani/ya”) and demand to be heard or seen. This may take time, sometimes an enormous amount of time, but the right to be there as a citizen is never in question. There is the belief shared by the citizen and the government functionary that the two are bound by a reciprocal bond. While they may diverge on how that bond should be acted upon and how quickly, the belief that there is indeed a bond is not challenged.

What do equality, “le nif” and citizenship mean in relation to the Arab Spring? Yes, Algerians are wary of abrupt political change, but as anyone can attest, Algerians do not shy from confrontation. There was no Arab Spring in Algeria not because Algerians were afraid. There was no Arab Spring in Algeria because Algerians did not want it. Yes, they protested against the state, as they have every week and every month for the last decade, and eventually the state acquiesced to enough of their demands. Yes, Algerians bemoan “le hogra” – the dismissive attitude of state officials to their complaints and petitions – but they see themselves as prideful citizens of the state and the messy, unruly protests in Tunisia and Egypt are unbecoming of them. It is impossible to imagine the scene from December 2011 in Cairo when supporters of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces urinated from the rooftops on to protestors below being reenacted in Algiers.

But what of the supposed apathy that will keep Algerians away from the polls? Yes, Algerians are unlikely to vote in large numbers because they do not believe that the parliament has enough power to implement new policies that will dramatically improve their lives. And yes, they likely feel that the political parties from whom they can choose have been coopted by the deep state. But instead of apathy, there is something more forceful at work. Many Algerians do not want to compromise their principles by participating in a process that they think unworthy. Their participation, the participation of the republic’s citizenry, would validate a process that is beneath them. It is not resignation that keeps Algerians out of the polls, but pride and principle.

Traveling from Algiers to Tunis to Tripoli last month highlighted Algeria’s distinct stance. While the air in Tunis was humming with excitement about the Jasmine Revolution, and Tripoli was a froth of euphoria and anxiety after the overthrow of Col. Muammar Qadhafi, Algiers was indignant and defiant. Algerians seemed to have a longer view of history, waiting for the Tunisian and Libyan Springs to turn inevitably to unwelcome winter, fraught with chaos and instability, and bereft of Algeria’s unique pride and sense of citizenship.  The refrain in Algerian pop songs – tahya Djazair (“live up Algeria”) – is not about institutions or about the state, but about the people, about Algerians. “Live up Algeria” is an expression of the potential power of “le nif,” quite apart from an Algerian Spring or parliamentary elections. 

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.

RIP Ahmed Ben Bella

Algeria's first president after a brutal war of national liberation passed away yesterday. That was an ugly war, full of rapes and murders, with France returning the FNL's strikes tenfold. From the NYT's obituary, a passage about his time in Cairo, in the 1950s the international refuge of national liberation leaders:

In 1949, Mr. Ben Bella helped rob a post office in Oran, Algeria. Tracked down, he was sentenced to a long stint in the Blida prison. In 1952, with the aid of a file hidden in a loaf of bread, he broke out and went to Cairo, where he became one of the liberation movement’s nine top leaders.Related

On Nov. 1, 1954, as the French celebrated All Saints’ Day, the rebels struck, beginning a war of massacre and mutilation, summary executions and rape. Terrorists exploded bombs in busy nightclubs and shot down passers-by on crowded streets. French officers who had fought the Nazis had Algerian prisoners tortured and shot.

Mr. Ben Bella spent most of the war outside Algeria, organizing clandestine arms shipments and coordinating political strategy. His life was in the shadows, but the French knew who he was.

In 1956, he refused to accept a package delivered to his Cairo hotel by a taxi driver. The bomb exploded as the taxi drove away, killing the driver. Later that year, in Tripoli, Libya, Mr. Ben Bella was waiting at his hotel when a French gunman entered his darkened room, fired and wounded him. The assailant, fleeing, was killed by guards at the Libyan border.

Ben Bella was no democrat, but in some respects his socialist policies were more those of the coup plotters who succeeded him, led by by Houari Boumedienne. I'm surprised that the obits do not mention that a major aide to Boumedienne at the time, and plotter against Ben Bella, was Algeria's current president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Bouteflika, himself rumored to be ill, has decreed an eight-day mourning period. One after another, the liberation-era figures of Algerian politics are dying — the question is whether their successors will ensure that the same claustrophobic political system will survive.

Algeria's protests #fev12

Algeria's protests seem to me — admittedly from a distance — too un-spontaneous to be successful. The very idea of holding weekly protests suggests a successful detournement of the enthusiasm for a protest and that it is being controlled into a manageable form, for the benefit of the political forces behind it and, perhaps, as yet another pawn in the long game of chess between rival factions in the regime. The real danger is more likely to come from one of the spontaneous and violent uprisings we've seen in poorer neighborhoods in the last few years. I also think this regime would have no qualms with carrying out a brutal suppression — people know this, and hence the "wall of fear" has not been broken as it was in Egypt and Tunisia.

The invaluable Moor Next Door writes:

At the same time, while many Algerians are fed up with the political and economic situation in their country, there is a significant continent fearful of sudden political transitions and mass movements recalling the country’s bitter civil war which followed snap “democratization” after a youth uprising in 1988. This creates skepticism and hesitation among key elites and in the population at large (though among older people more than youths). The CNCD may benefit from the student protest movement, turning out tens (and more) of students for protests and sit-ins at the Presidential Palace and the Ministry of Higher Education; nurses are strike and demonstrating; farmers (see below) are threatening sit-ins at the Ministry of Agriculture (see below)¹; unemployed residents are reported to be doing the same at town halls in various parts of the country. Many of these protests are narrowly focused and can be addressed on their own terms by changing ministers or issuing or repealing decrees or the like; unless they are brought into a wider opposition narrative that links the demands of dissatisfied engineering students or farmers looking for better irrigation policy to the inadequacies and structural injustices of the regime itself, combining sectorial demands for change into something much greater.

 Check his previous updates too.

Maghreb riots and violence

The Moor Next Door's Kal (who is part Algerian) wrote a long post on the recent riots in Algeria. I think the following passage on violence particularly interesting, because it deals, on top of an Algerian particularity, with a key aspect of political change in the Arab world — namely, in the absence of strong incentives and willingness for change from the regimes, is there an alternative to violence? In the face of completely locked political-security systems, have such riots — generally discouraged by even opposition political leaders as well as outsiders — became the only vector for change, even though it is often undirected, aimless violence? 

On these riots, protests, demonstrations or  intifada in Algeria — whatever one wants to call them — the government has been relatively quiet except to announce its confidence that it will lower consumer prices or deploy more security forces to manage them. The President and Prime Minister have been silent. A grave statement from President Abdelaziz Bouteflika or Prime Minister Ouyahia would show weakness by condescending to the level of jobless boys and legitimizing their conduct. It could also escalate tensions as was the case following Tunisian President Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali’s speech last week. Those high officials that have commented have done so in puzzling ways. The Minister of Youth and Sports, for example, was quoted as urging youths to stop rioting by arguing “violence has never had results, not in Algeria or anywhere else, and our youth know that”. Algerians that have grown up with stories of a million martyrs who brought the country independence through armed struggle have been taught through their whole lives quite the opposite. In a country with great streets, squares, airports and whole towns are named after men like Larbi Ben M’hidi, Che Guevara, Mourad Didouche and Mustapha Ben Boulaid — not to mention an entire Ministry of Moudjahidine — such a comment sounds remarkably detached (don’t even start on the national anthem). And even more directly, the young men in the street know full well the government has kept power with many of the same faces in power for so long through quite violent means. The Algerian national anthem declares: “had we not spoken up none would have listened” (لم يكن يصغى لنا لما نطقنا) (similarly, Jay-Z says “a closed mouth don’t get fed.”) The Minister’s statement reflects the long obvious gap between the old and the young.

Smugglers in the Sahel

Interesting item from Algeria:

ALGIERS (Reuters) – Saharan countries trying to contain a growing threat from al Qaeda have agreed to recruit smugglers to help them track down the militants' desert camps, an Algerian government security source said on Thursday.

Al Qaeda's north African wing is holding seven foreigners, including five French nationals, in the Sahara desert after kidnapping them two weeks ago in an operation that underlined the growing threat the group poses to security in the region.

The plan to enlist smugglers, who criss-cross the Sahara with contraband cigarettes and drugs, was one of a series of measures agreed at a meeting of regional intelligence officials in the Algerian capital, the source told Reuters.

But what if the terrorists are the smugglers? There is some partial overlap, after all, and Algeria's infiltration of radical Islamist groups and alliance with Sahel smugglers have long been suspicious. Some noted Algeria experts, such as Jeremy Keenan, have pointed out the murky links with the likes of Africa's biggest cigarette smuggler, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Algeria's military intelligence. Furthermore, this implies that Algeria's full cooperation with the smugglers on their main activity in exchange for information. We know regime-run trabando had taken over Algeria, but this makes the country officially a mafia-state.

Mossad in Algeria

Here's an odd story:

Algerian authorities have arrested an Israeli Mossad agent carrying a fake Spanish passport in the city of Hassi Messaoud near an Egyptian office providing service for oil companies, Algerian Ennahar El Djadid newspaper reported on Tuesday.

According to the Algerian sources, the Mossad agent entered Algeria under the fake identity of a 35-year old Spanish man named Alberto Vagilo, and spent over ten days in the country prior to his arrest.

The report came a week after an Israeli citizen who went missing for several days in Algeria, who was also carrying a Spanish passport, raised suspicions that he might have been kidnapped by al-Qaida.

The man notified the Foreign Ministry that he contacted his family and that he was safe.

The Algerian paper also reported that the Mossad man received entry visas through a European embassy before traveling to the country via Barcelona.

According to the Algerian sources, deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), John Pistole visited Algeria last Thursday to negotiate on behalf of the Israeli citizen, as there are no diplomatic relations between Israel and Algeria.

Ennahar El Djadid went on to report that the man has a good command of Arabic, is well acquainted with the city, and even participated in the Muslim prayers in the Bilal Ibn Rabah mosque.

There are reports elsewhere that up to six Israelis have been arrested in Algeria, and that the affair is causing an inter-regime raucus. It's all extremely strange — what would an Israeli operative be doing in Algeria, why would he be in oil-producing areas, what's the role of the Egyptian firm involved, and how come this is all happening as Algeria's state-owned oil company, Sonatrach, gets a new CEO after months of corruption investigations and apparent attempts at political destabilization? And how does it fit in the looming succession crisis over Bouteflika's success, for now, in creating a relatively strong presidency? And what does it have to do with the War on Terror in the Sahel?

Algerian War Chic

Nom de Guerre is a New York based fashion designer. For their Spring/Summer 2010 collection, they've decided to draw inspiration from the look of belligerents in Algeria's war of independence, both on the Algerian side and the French OAS militia that tried to squash the independence movement. The result: epaulets, khaki shirts, camouflage pants, and more. It's like extras from Battle of Algiers.

Here's how they pitch it:

Via  Rue89 and @selim

FP's Middle East Channel launched

Foreign Policy has just launched The Middle East Channel, a one-stop shop for its articles on the Middle East as well as original blog posts. It will be edited by Marc Lynch, Daniel Levy and Amjad Atallah. Marc writes:

Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel is something different: a vibrant and decidedly non-partisan new site where real expertise and experience take priority over shouting, where the daily debate is informed by dispassionate analysis and original reporting all too often lacking from the stale and talking-point-laden commentary that sadly dominates most coverage of the region today. Its contributors range from academics to former policymakers, from journalists on the ground to established analysts -- with an emphasis on introducing voices from Middle East itself. Most importantly, the Middle East Channel comes to you doctrine-free, open to political viewpoints of all kinds -- but demanding honesty, civility, and genuine expertise.

Our scope is broad: Israel and its neighbors, Iran's nuclear program and domestic politics, Iraq, Islamist movements, the Gulf, Turkey, and North Africa, and the struggle for reform and democracy. The Middle East Channel will highlight links between issues and areas of this diverse region of 400 million -- as well as provide a unique perspective on America's challenges there. We'll have regular interviews with Middle East and Washington players, sharp commentary on the news of the day, and original analysis of new ideas and trends in the region.

I hope it will grow into a more centrist-liberal version of Harvard's very right-leaning MESH.

There's already a few interesting pieces up, including Marc on the Iraqi elections, the great Joost Hiltermann on Kirkuk. I have issues with Bernard Avishai's piece on the Palestinian economy — he's been peddling the idea that this is a priority, and while it's important it's not more important than ending the occupation. He does have some interesting insights into the Israel/Palestine economy in case a two-state solution happens:

Each side will be a culturally distinct city-state, building upwards, integrated with the other in a business ecosystem extending to Jordan, and sharing everything from water to currency, tourists to bandwidth. Over 80 percent of Palestine's trade is with Israel. What won't seem trivial is the capacity of Palestine's economy--currently one-fortieth of Israel's--to create employment. The mean age of Palestinians in the territories is about 19 years old. If we assume normal rates of growth, and the return of only half of the refugees to a Palestinian state, Palestine would soon become an Arabic-speaking metropolis of perhaps 6 million to 7 million people, radiating east from Jerusalem, and facing off against the Hebrew-speaking metropolis, anchored by Tel Aviv. Olive groves, picturesque as they are, will seem beside the point. So will military notions like strategic depth.

Each side will be a culturally distinct city-state, building upwards, integrated with the other in a business ecosystem extending to Jordan, and sharing everything from water to currency, tourists to bandwidth. Over 80 percent of Palestine's trade is with Israel. What won't seem trivial is the capacity of Palestine's economy--currently one-fortieth of Israel's--to create employment. The mean age of Palestinians in the territories is about 19 years old. If we assume normal rates of growth, and the return of only half of the refugees to a Palestinian state, Palestine would soon become an Arabic-speaking metropolis of perhaps 6 million to 7 million people, radiating east from Jerusalem, and facing off against the Hebrew-speaking metropolis, anchored by Tel Aviv. Olive groves, picturesque as they are, will seem beside the point. So will military notions like strategic depth.

And there's more analysis of problems with the Palestinian economy — poor banking system, the mobility problems the occupation has created, and a call for Netanyahu to do more to lift the Israeli-imposed restrictions on the Palestinian economy. Anyway, read it for yourself.

My own contribution was just posted — it's a reflection on Algeria's recent regime intrigues:

Why was Algeria's chief of police killed? The assassination of Ali Tounsi is sending political shockwaves through Algeria. Tounsi had been having a public tiff with the minister of interior, Yazid Zerhouni.  The killer, Chouaib Oultache - a close friend and colleague of Tounsi's, and former Air Force colonel who headed the police airborne unit - is reported to have been alone with Tounsi.   Eyewitnesses to the murder have disappeared. Oultache is said to have shot himself, or been shot by others, or to have fallen down stairs as he made his escape. He was hospitalized at a military facility and is recovering from his wounds, or he fell into a coma, or he may have woken up and confessed, or he may be dead. His immediate family has disappeared, and his house is now encircled by police whose main job is dissuading journalists from asking too many questions.

Was the murder purely a personal affair, or is Oultache being set up as part of a shadow war carried out through corruption investigations - not only against Oultache, but also the national oil company Sonatrach and the ministry of public works? Do these investigations mean much whenthey steer clear of the really high-level stuff, such as the long-term oil and gas deals with Spain, France or the United States? Or are they simply warning shots to Bouteflika after he threatened to re-open investigations into the assassination of high-ranking security officials in the 1990s as a way to go after the last remaining generals in positions of influence? Some see it as a harbinger of more trouble to come, particularly as they came as rumors that Bouteflika - who is said to have stomach cancer - is dying. You can take your pick of what actually happened.

Read the rest here. 

Algerian links

No, not those kind of Algerian links...

OK, one more of these link dumps, this time on Algeria, which I've been following lately as signs of inner regime tensions amounted to the death of Ali Tounsi, the head of police since 1995, last week. 

The Economist has the basic story: Trouble in Algeria: The president and the police | The Economist

Kal of The Moor Next Door had coverage earlier: On the death of Ali Tounsi and has more here: Algeria’s Succession: schemes & power plays. Also, don't miss his analysis of the Bouteflika cult of personality, here: The Face of the People: As the Regime Describes Itself.

Through Kal I discovered the excellent English-language Algerian blog Algerian Review, which had this piece of analysis: What to Make of Ali Tounsi’s Death?

Read through this carefully (or wait for a more detailed post perhaps next week), I know I'll be watching closely for signals of more tensions between the generals and the Bouteflika clan over the next week. 

Links for Jan.05.10
akhbare-rooz (iranian political Bulletin) | List of organizations considered "subversive" by Iranian ministry of inteligence [in Farsi].
The Daily Star - The Gaza scorecard, one year later | Rami Khouri.
Israel approves east Jerusalem building project | Yet another new settlement.
Library of Congress on Islam in Early America « Anonymous Arabist وين الناس | Fascinating.
Tweet freedom | On Twitter activism in Egypt, unfortunately confuses arabawy.org for arabist.net.
Cairo's US Embassy is Worse by Far | Mamoun Fandy: "The embassy has become an embodiment of the meaning of disgracefulness in Cairo, in terms of people's behavior, rudeness, and impoliteness."
gary's choices - The Decade's First Revolution? | Gary Sick on Iran.
لا لحجب الإنترنت بالجزائر - Non à la censure de l'Internet en Algérie - No to Internet Censorship in Algeria Petition | Petition.
Egyptian minister slams Al-Jazeera for 'instigating civil war' - Ynetnews | Over Gaza wall.
Video: Gaza war: One year on, Palestinians struggle to rebuild life from the rubble | guardian.co.uk |
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Links for Dec.21.09 to Dec.23.09
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* IRIN Middle East | EGYPT-ISRAEL: Perilous journey to the promised land | Middle East | Egypt Israel | Migration Refugees/IDPs | Feature | On sub-Saharan migration to Israel via Egypt.
* Palestinians shoot at Egypt | Response to the collapsing of tunnels that have claimed many Palestinian lives?
* Egypt's ailing cotton industry needs shake-up | Reuters | Industry risks a "slow death."
* Middle East Report Online: Broken Taboos in Post-Election Iran by Ziba Mir-Hosseini | On the Green Movement and gender issues.
Egypt rebukes Hamas over 'foot-dragging' in Palestinian reconciliation - Israel News, Ynetnews | Omar Suleiman:
Suleiman said Egypt had promised Hamas it would address the terror group's reservations vis-à-vis the reconciliation deal "after they sign and begin to implement it." He said Hamas' concerns "lacked substance," adding that the agreement would not be revised. "If it will (be changed), I'll resign," said Suleiman.
AA Gill on Algeria
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A suburb of Algiers by Flickr user Swiatoslaw Wojtkowiak

In this otherwise amusing if impressionistic piece from poor Algeria, always a favorite contender in the shortlist of most badly run Arab country, the Scottish columnist, restaurant critic, baboon hunter and Welsh-hater AA Gill has an odd passage claiming that think-tankers think Algeria is some bright, promising spot on the south Mediterranean shore:

It’s hard to credit that there are global security wonks and think-tank nerds who hold up Algeria as a model of a workable, acceptable, doable Arab republic, a possible poster boy for Iraq, now that the horrors of its civil war have dulled the edge of Islamic fundamentalism. There may even be somewhere in this place to interest the Middle East peace process. Seen from 20 storeys up and 10,000 miles away, in the air-conditioned and neon-lit offices, on a pie chart on a screen, Algeria’s mixture of a socialist, military, secular state with a Muslim population — a westernish Arab country that wears Nike and drinks beer and wants to sell stuff and buy things — looks like a good bet, a possible way forward. But down here on the street, without the benefit of the graph, the figures, the briefings and overviews, it seems astonishingly mad. The idea that Algeria could be anyone’s role model raises only a humourless snigger.


As a former think-tanker working precisely on this part of our benighted region, I ask Gill: pray tell, where are these Algeria experts who laud it as some kind of model? Enquiring minds want to know.

There are some other passages that will no doubt irk the notoriously short-tempered Algerians, such as this romantic idea of the French occupation:

The French didn’t just use Algeria for what they could get out of it; they did something far more damaging, far darker. The French fell in love, like an old man besotted by a young girl in a hot climate. The French imagined that with the power of their culture, their charm, their romance and a specially formed army of criminals they named the Foreign Legion, they could woo Algeria to become an exotic member of the family. It wasn’t simply a chattel, it was adopted and made part of France. Algerians voted in French elections, had deputies in Paris. More whites moved to Algeria than to any other African country. There were over a million French pieds noirs. They farmed a large percentage of the motherland’s fresh produce. They took the Bedouins as mistresses and occasionally wives. When the time came for the divorce, it was cruel and desperate. Fanned by great self-righteous self-pity, Algeria broke France’s heart and the French behaved like cuckolds. There was no sense of giving the nation back. This was the servants stealing the silver — a national humiliation, an act of betrayal.


Hmmm, by Bedouins does he mean les autochtones? Plenty of more faults there (the obligatory mention of the Corsairs and the US marines, the notion that French history starts with the French, etc.)

Another passage inflates Algeria's importance in the current clash of civilisations. If only -- Algeria is peripheral to the Arabs, peripheral to the world despite its importance as an energy supplier.

Algeria is the eye of a perfect storm of intolerance, the tsunami of postcolonial trauma coupled with the most nihilistic of 1960s -isms, Third World socialism, as well as authoritarian, reactive military juntas and Wahhabi sharia, all competing in a swamp of mass unemployment. It has a resentfully youthful population — almost a third are under 15. They hang out on corners, huddle and plot, race past on secret missions, mooch in gangs in the kasbah looking like greyhounds waiting for the white rabbit of no good to spin past. The boys are malevolently handsome, often strikingly beautiful, and they are the only people on earth who can make shopping-mall sports kit look chic and elegant. The names of the European football clubs on their backs mock the cul-de-sacs of their lives. On every spot of dusty land they kick balls, do press-ups, hang out with pit bulls on chains, tug at their own balls, smoke, have mock fights and wait for something to turn up.


I have to admit I do like Gill as a stylist, and that he does capture something of the Algerian pathos (albeit by no means a complete picture of it). Ultimately though this kind of writing may tell you more about the author and the snooty, insular country he hails from.