Foreign Policy Blogs

A few things about Algeria

A New York Times article today portrays the United Nations as being upset at Algeria for not providing enough security in the run-up to last month's bombing of the body's Algerian offices. 

A senior United Nations official said Wednesday that the Algerian government had ignored repeated requests to close off the streets outside the organization's building in Algiers in the months before a suicide car bombing there last month killed 17 staff members.

"They didn't say, "no,' they simply didn't respond," said the official, Kemal Dervis, leader of the United Nations Development Program, whose offices there were hit by the blast on Dec. 11.

Needless to say, the Algerian government is not too happy with this assessment, and wants to be able to participate in the panel the UN is organizing.   This comes as Algeria is seeing a rise in attacks by Islamists (including the murder last week of three people picking chestnuts, a seemingly random massacre that uncomfortably echoes some of the slaughter of the civil war in the 90's). 

An article in the new edition of Perspectives on Terrorism describes what it calls “The Algerian Scenario”.  It's author, Francesco Cavatorta, describes the response the region had to Algeria's civil war (read these for background and for interesting studies on the war, and this is a pretty good book). 

Anyway, Cavatorta writes:

Ruling regimes across the Middle East and North Africa came to recognize that they enjoyed very little internal legitimacy and that quickly opening up the political system , such as in the case of Algeria – would backfire. Thus, they opted instead for eliminating the Islamists (i.e., Tunisia), for co-optation (i.e., Morocco) or for a mix of the two strategies. No regime risked a full liberalization that would have included an Islamist party running in competitive elections. The Islamists themselves largely opted for political participation under authoritarian constraints in order to satisfy the "security" guarantees regimes needed (e.g. the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan and Egypt).

I think this is accurate.  Obviously, regimes in the region were aware of the Islamist danger before the Algerian Civil War, and before the 1990's were not exactly in a rush to open up their political systems (Egypt’ Mubarak had already had in place his emergency law for 10 years), but the sudden and stark brutality of the Algerian war clearly demonstrated the nightmare scenario. 

And it is happening again, albeit in a new world.  Cavatorta writes that signs point to a  “lack of legitimacy that the current ruling elites enjoy and indicates that there is a vast gulf between the appearance of Algeria as a stable semi-democracy with a functioning market economy and the reality. It is because of this gulf that Islamism still exercises considerable appeal for ordinary citizens. While it has been driven largely underground, it still represents a significant challenge and once the legacy of the 1990s civil war will have faded, [14] it is likely to come back with a vengeance. The creation of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb might just be the first sign. “

AQIM, responsible for the December bombings, is the new wave of Algerian Islamism, and would like to spread to the other North African countries.   Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and others have to have a plan for how to deal with this, as well as other threats- Islamic and otherwise (see yesterday's NYT story about the perils of bread subsidies in Egypt).  Iran has been justifiably dominating the headlines and underscores much of the policy-planning in the region, but older, reformed threats from the not-very-distant past are rearing their heads again.   And, sadly, Algeria seems to once again be the harbinger of an ugly future.

On a slightly better note, I can take this opportunity to recommend the late Tahar Djaout's novel The Last Summer of Reason.   This is a small and beautiful novel about a bookseller whose life is ruined by the rise of Islamists in Algeria.   It never actually says Algeria, or mentions the FIS (instead using the haunting name “The Vigilant Brothers”).  It is a terrifying fable of the destruction of art and literature based on a strict, sword-driven moral code.   It was published after Djaout's 1993 death at the hands of Islamists, who said he “wielded a fearsome pen that could have an effect on Islamic sectors”.   So, ok- this isn't that bright of a note: the world he feared came to pass in a very personal way.   But the bright thing is that, like with Bulgakov, his manuscript didn't burn, but shows light and inspiration even in dark and weary times.   



Brian O'Neill

Brian O'Neill is a freelance writer currently based out of Chicago. He has lived in Egypt and in Yemen, and worked as a writer and editor for the Yemen Observer publishing company. He currently is an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.