Algeria's dictator, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Image source: IGIHE

Algeria’s dictator, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Image source: IGIHE

The Arab world — and indeed, much of the world as a whole — was rocked by massive protests and violent uprisings in the turbulent year of 2011. Decades of systemic political repression, stagnant centrally planned economies, high unemployment, a huge youth bulge and a growing realization that better options existed but were just ignored by Arab leaders proved to be a combustible mix. In Arab country after Arab country — Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria, Iraq — crowds poured out into the streets, chanting “THE PEOPLE DEMAND THE FALL OF THE REGIME!” A few dictators were actually toppled.

But 1 country, huge yet located on the margins of Araby, mostly escaped the worst violence and social upheaval. Algeria, a perpetually overlooked Arab country in northwest Africa, saw the same protests and riots as other Arab countries, but did not metastasize into a full-blown war zone — or, you know, a democracy. Why? What makes Algeria somehow different from the other troubled Arab nations?

Despite its Arab identity, Algeria is a different beast from most of its brethren. Along with its neighbors, Morocco and Tunisia (who are together called “the Maghreb”), it speaks its own variety of Arabic mostly unintelligible to those further east. It has retained a major native minority population, the Berbers, who also speak their own language and fiercely defend their distinctive culture. The Maghreb is fairly isolated from Europe by the Mediterranean Sea, from the rest of Africa by the massive Sahara Desert, and from other Arab countries by big, mostly empty Libya.

Most of all, though, Algeria is Frencher than other Arab countries. It was conquered by France in 1830, long before other African countries were, in a bid for France to stroke its ego after losing the Napoleonic Wars. France decided to engage in a bit of a mission civilisatrice (“civilizing mission,” its version of the “White Man’s Burden”) and bring its culture to the benighted Arabs. Algeria was organized along French administrative lines; roads, ports, and railways were built; restaurants, cafes, bars, patisseries, and boutiques sprouted in the cities; a French settler colony was nurtured. Yet Algeria’s amalgamation with France was imperfect; the majority of Algerians never felt very French and mostly lived separate lives from their colonizers. The charade of Francification collapsed in the 1950s, when an indigenous revolutionary movement, the FLN (Front of National Liberation), arose, turning on its white masters with long-repressed fury. After a brutal war of independence, France gave up and left. French colonists, Algerian collaborators, Jews and Christians were expelled. It’s a story worth telling in more detail, but I’ll save it for a later blog post.

With the FLN victorious, it took over Algeria, remolding the country into a more Arab, socialist state with strong state control over the economy. Algeria has huge oil and gas reserves in the Sahara Desert, which gave the government a huge windfall, especially in the oil crises of the ’70s. It was able to spread the oil money around to its friends, creating a close-knit clique that dominated the economy and ran off a patronage network. Ordinary people were bought off with cushy housing, food, and fuel subsidies. Education and women’s rights were pretty good by Arab standards.

The problem, of course, was that this combination of lucrative natural resources and a self-satisfied elite generated the usual result: corruption. The private sector was neglected; infrastructure investment lagged. Algeria mostly continued to use the same buildings and systems left over from the colonial era. The FLN and army monopolized power; elections were a sham. Unemployment climbed, especially for those without useful skills and education. A sense of stagnation and torpor mingled with increasing anger and discontent.

In 1988, this discontent erupted in protests and riots. Rattled, the dictator of the decade, Chadli Benjedid, decided to actually carry out political reforms after the uprising had been repressed. A constitution was enacted; opposition parties were finally allowed to form and campaign in elections. The FLN had been discredited a quarter-century after its revolution; the romantic guerrillas of its youth had morphed into complacent, greedy oppressors. Instead, the public rallied around the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front), a party dedicated to political Islam (or Islamism). It’s unclear how extreme its doctrines were; its president was more moderate, while the vice president was more radical. But the FLN had steered clear of political Islam, preferring to cultivate a mildly Westernized, secular bourgeoisie. Its leadership was nervous when the FIS won local elections in 1990.

When FIS supporters started to form armed brigades and attacked government offices, and when FIS leaders started disparaging the idea of democracy, the army had enough. It overthrew Benjedid in 1992 and cancelled the impending legislative elections. Outraged, the Islamists went to war. The FIS was mostly marginalized in the war — groups called the GIA and GSPC played more prominent roles — but whatever: the point is, various jihadist groups took over big portions of north Algeria (the important part of the country) and harassed the government. Both sides committed heinous massacres, sometimes against innocent bystanders. Women forgoing the veil would be shot by Islamists. Men with thick beards might be gunned down by soldiers. The elite in Algiers (the capital) avoided leaving the city for fear of their lives. Foreigners were kicked out, and for years media reports were scarce, making the war relatively obscure considering that over 100,000 died.

Although radical Islam didn’t scare the world as much in those days, making the war an obscure sideshow, by the late ’90s the violence had grown too loud and was generating too many refugees to ignore. The war gradually petered out after the election of Abdelaziz Bouteflika as president in 1999. He enacted amnesties for former rebel fighters, taking the air out of their rebellion.

This crummy photo is literally the only verified portrait of Mohamed Mediène, the shadowy security chief who actually rules Algeria. Image source: Snipview

This crummy photo is literally the only verified portrait of Mohamed Mediène, the shadowy security chief who actually rules Algeria. Image source: Snipview

If the story above seems sort of familiar, that’s because it’s very similar to what Egypt went through recently. Egypt also had a stifling socialist bureaucracy stiffened by military and security forces and an angry, underemployed, swelling youth population. Egypt also had a short period of democratic reform and public political participation. Egypt also had an Islamic political party emerge as the best-organized opposition force (the Muslim Brotherhood), and the Egyptian leadership also decided that allowing them to take over the country was a risk not worth taking. (The difference so far is that Egypt’s civil war is nowhere near the scale of Algeria’s.)

Meanwhile, depressingly, the situation in Algeria has not changed much. Bouteflika continues to rule over the country 16 years later, his mandate extended 3 times in fraudulent elections. A fighter in the revolution, he is now getting old, and had a stroke in 2013. As a result, he barely appears in public anymore, and often heads to France for medical treatment. Other political parties are allowed, but they barely matter, since real power lies in the hands of the “deep state” (or as it’s called in Algeria, le pouvoir, “the power”). A shadowy network of generals, political operatives, spies and businessmen pull the strings, with Mohammed Mediène, the mysterious, unseen chief of security, the real power behind the throne. Widespread cynicism means most people don’t vote.

Algeria still has its oil and gas wealth, which gives the regime $190 billion in reserves. This has allowed it to stay in power by buying off unrest. But the public sector remains bloated and inefficient (it comprises 60% of the economy). Private sector jobs are hard to find. 70% of the country is under the age of 25, and many of those are under the age of 15. Economic growth hasn’t kept up with population growth, meaning that a lot of those young people have nothing to do all day. Some cause trouble; protests are a regular occurrence. The recent fall in global oil prices means there will be more unemployment and most likely cuts in infrastructure projects and subsidies. Housing shortages in the cities adds pressure.

Although the war is over, a bitter malaise still hangs over the country. The GSPC was never really defeated; in 2006, it rebranded itself as a far-flung branch of al-Qaeda (“Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb”). It is a shadow of its former self, and mostly seems to extort hapless villagers, smuggle drugs and tobacco, and take hostages. Yet it still causes violence, most spectacularly in 2013, when it seized a gas plant in the Sahara Desert and took 800 hostages, some of them foreigners. A lot of those angry young men leave the country to find work in France… but others join the Islamic State or other jihadist groups and cause trouble. As a result, Algeria has one of Africa’s biggest, most well-equipped armies, with 150,000 personnel and a $10 billion annual budget, and operations against insurgents and gangs continues — now with more foreign support, since it counts as “counter-terrorism.”

In short, Algeria, despite its unique identity and distance from the core of the Arab world, shares a lot of Araby’s problems. Its youth are denied viable and fulfilling opportunities; living standards pale in comparison to Europe; the elite are more concerned with staying in power and skimming off oil incomes than any kind of reform. Violence is an ongoing concern, fanatical religion has a big appeal and the treatment of minorities (in this case, the Berbers) isn’t very nice.

Algerian Spring

… So why didn’t Algeria explode in the Arab Awakening? There were protests, actually (as seen above), mostly against food prices and the lack of affordable housing, and they occurred at about the same time as the uprising in Tunisia. Bouteflika made some token concessions: he lifted the state of emergency that had given the military and police free range since the war and gave more government support to struggling entrepreneurs and the unemployed. But large-scale change (or for that matter large-scale violence) didn’t transpire.

The main reason why is that Algeria already knows what the consequences for fighting The Power are. Libya has collapsed into chaos; Egypt has reverted to heavy-handed dictatorship; Syria is the world’s worst current war. But most of all, it knows from its own experience how painful and bloody prolonged civil war can be, and how political Islam grows in power when the central political order collapses. Given the choice between more stagnation and dictatorship and a vicious, confusing, multi-sided battle for supremacy, Algerians have sullenly concluded that the regime they’ve known all their lives is a safer option.

And given the unrest rocking Arab countries in the east, who can blame them?

This blog post is dedicated to Jack Mayer, whose love of and enthusiasm for Algeria was infectious and made his class a pleasure to take.



Image source: Flickr/US Department of Defense

Image source: Flickr/US Department of Defense

In general I try to avoid focusing on U.S. policy in this blog. I’ve written about U.S. foreign policy before, and I’ve written about issues in which the U.S. plays a major role (like the post earlier this week). But I don’t like commenting on American policy too much, since this is a global site and I try to keep it from fixating too much on one nation’s perspective. That being said, I’ve written an article that might be of interest to anyone following events in North Africa and West Asia, and anyone involved in debates on U.S. policy there. To sum it up, I am exasperated at the arguments that critics of Barack Obama’s foreign policy make and I feel that they don’t adequately appreciate the region’s tangled conflicts and woes and aren’t learning anything from historical examples. Read more on the foreign policy blog “Charged Affairs” here.



John Kerry (America's secretary of state) shakes hands with Mohammed Zarif (Iran's foreign minister) earlier this year. Image source: Reuters

John Kerry (America’s secretary of state) shakes hands with Mohammed Zarif (Iran’s foreign minister) earlier this year. Image source: Reuters

Last year, I wrote a blog post about Iran’s nuclear program and the tortuous haggling session over it. Back then, the deadline was supposed to be 24 November. Well, that was passed, and the negotiations dragged on, and on, and on… until 14 July, when an exhausted John Kerry (America’s secretary of state) and Mohammad Zarif (Iran’s foreign minister) announced they had finally reached a deal. The negotiators presumably celebrated by sleeping all day.

Unfortunately, the deal has faced a torrent of criticism and slander from politicians in America, some of it downright nasty. Hitler analogies are inevitably made. Hawks claim it’s a license for Iran to develop nukes. Many politicians claim that it’s a surrender to a regime backed into a corner just when the sanctions were starting to work. Jews and backers of Israel fret that a 2nd Holocaust is upon them.

Frankly speaking, I think this complaining is a load of bull, and politicians must not give up this chance at putting an end to a longrunning, tiresome dispute. Many of them have seriously inflated expectations of what America can realistically achieve, and their arguments seem weirdly disconnected from reality.

First off, let’s look at what exactly the terms of the deal are.

  • Iran will cut its number of centrifuges from 19,000 to 6,104 (meaning that it won’t be able to enrich as much uranium).
  • Its stockpile of low-enriched uranium will be reduced by 98%.
  • The Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant will be converted into a research center.
  • The heavy water reactor at Arak will be redesigned so it can’t produce weapons-grade plutonium.
  • International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors will check out these and other nuclear sites to make sure Iran is following along.
  • If Iran breaks the agreement, the sanctions it is lifting will be reimposed.

Now I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a really good deal to me! If Iran complies, its nuclear program would be limited to peaceful levels, and if it doesn’t, it would be punished by international sanctions once more. This is basically what the nuclear negotiations were trying to achieve. It also goes further than what Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei, was originally willing to accept. Kerry and other negotiators were able to win real concessions and push Iran’s positions back over the years they were arguing.

But Iran could still build nuclear weapons somehow, they say. Iranians have cheated, lied, and evaded inspections before, they say. They just can’t be trusted. And many of these provisions only hold for 10 or 15 years, they point out. What if Iran suddenly started enriching uranium, building centrifuges, and revamping that heavy water reactor after that? These are all good points, but whiners have to keep in mind that Iran has lived under sanctions for a while now and it’s probably not about to (further) jeopardize its international standing and bring back the sanctions after going through this long negotiation process.

Congress also needs to remember that even though Kerry was the main figure in the negotiations, he wasn’t the only one. Iran dealt with the “P5 + 1” (the 5 UN Security Council powers plus Germany) and the EU. These countries had all put sanctions on Iran and have all signed off on the deal. If America were to scuttle it, would they keep their sanctions? Aside from France, they’ve been softer on Iran than the US. China is eager to buy Iran’s oil, especially since it likes markets without a lot of Western competition. Russia is waiting to sell Iran arms and nuclear technology. Europeans are already starting to negotiate business deals. Would they really obediently nod if Barack Obama came up to them saying, “Sorry guys, we’re going to cancel it because we couldn’t get everything we wanted, and because Netanyahu said so?”

Although some politicians quibble with aspects of the deal and argue that it could be tougher (which is a dumb reason to oppose it; just go with what you’ve got), there’s realistically probably only 2 other options: revert to the status quo, or war. Reverting to the status quo isn’t likely, because other countries will probably start economic transactions with Iran, as I said above. But even if sanctions were reimposed somehow… Iran could still keep enriching uranium and building centrifuges. It’s been doing that for the last decade anyway. Sanctions bite, but Iran now has a rich nuclear industry and hundreds of trained professionals who know what they’re doing. It doesn’t need foreign help. Also, having negotiated with America only to have the agreement spurned is likely to embolden Iran’s hardliners and bolster the idea of America as “the Great Satan.”

War, to be frank, is a remote prospect too. Although a few rock-ribbed hawks yearn for it, since the George Bush years it hasn’t been a serious option. As I’ve written before, America is tired of war and has no real interest in picking a fight with another Muslim country. An outright invasion and occupation of Iran would be a daunting task; it has 78 million people, a huge territory, a big, determined army, and a nationalist populace. Bombing its nuclear facilities is a more reasonable option, but it would needlessly poison gradually improving relations with Iran (and with the Muslim world in general) and probably not deter a bomb for that long.

History, as usual, provides some clues and useful lessons. An agreement on Iran’s nuclear program was reached in 2005 (Hassan Rouhani, who’s now Iran’s president, negotiated it). It limited centrifuges and enrichment levels and would have provided for the enriched uranium that Iran had already produced to be converted into fuel rods. But that wasn’t good enough for Bush, who basically wanted to throttle the program entirely. The deal was rejected, and since then Iran has built centrifuges and researched nuclear technology without many consequences. It’s also important to remember that Iran endured a vicious 8-year war with Iraq under Saddam Hussein. It doesn’t buckle under foreign pressure easily.

The deal’s critics need to look at the bright side. Iran is probably not interested in building nukes anymore, or at least not for the time being. Striking a deal with Iran would be a big boost to America’s relations with one of the world’s rogue regimes, and maybe even push America towards recognizing the country again (gasp!). The nuclear issue is pretty old news now; America needs to be able to deal with Iran on other things too. The Islamic State is top priority now; America is bombing it from the air while Iranian-backed militias are attacking it from the ground. A little coordination would go a long way. With America out of both Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran (as their neighbor) exerts more and more influence there. Being able to deal with a country with growing influence is always useful. And Iran would be a useful ally in the ongoing war on terror, since many terrorists (as Sunnis) hate Iran (the Shi’ite power) and plot against it.

Lifting the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran would help the whole region breathe easier. Although Israel is usually seen as the main target of Iran’s wrath, Saudi Arabia is emerging more and more as Iran’s archnemesis. The prospect of Iranian nukes has spurred Saudi Arabia into a weapons shopping spree and a poorly thought-out war in Yemen. Iran has its fingers around West Asia — Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iraq. Sealing the deal would chop off these fingers, since Iran wouldn’t behave so boldly without the threat of nuclear retaliation.

There’s also the prospect of finally integrating Iran into the global system like a normal country. Economic relations between America and Iran would help both countries and relieve ordinary Iranians of various privations they have been enduring. It would also have the longer-term effects of exposing Iran more and more to the outside world and moderating its mean rhetoric. I wouldn’t expect a full-blown democratic revolution anytime soon, but by the time those nuclear provisions run out, would an Iran integrated with the rest of the world even pose as great a menace?

To sum up, the agreement with Iran seems like a no-brainer. The real reason so many American politicians oppose it, I think, is because of the poisonous and pestilential partisanship that has seeped into every issue in American politics these days. Congress is dominated by the opposition (the Republican party), which is determined to oppose Obama at every turn and deny him any “victory,” even major diplomatic breakthroughs. As the pundit Peter Beinart points out, they’re wedded to an outdated idea of the U.S. as an omnipotent global power that can do whatever it wants as long as its leaders and diplomats are skilled enough. Many are in thrall to Israel and its powerful lobbying machine. And frankly, they seem to want surrender rather than a negotiated compromise. After years of partisan wrangling, Congress doesn’t seem to know how to compromise anymore; victory means standing your ground and crushing your opponent while conceding even a few points is a sign of weakness.

But is agreeing to a deal with Iran so bad? Obama’s creating a track record of bringing down the remaining walls in American international relations — with Myanmar, with Cuba. If he added Iran to the list, he could go down in history as a great foreign policy president.