On November 10, 2001, heavy rains flooded many parts of Algeria, causing hundreds of deaths and damaging thousands of houses and businesses, mostly in the neighborhoods of Bab el-Oued, Frais Vallon and Beaux Fraisier in western Algiers, capital of the country. The torrential downpour, which ironically followed a national prayer for rain, buried buildings and their occupants under tons of mud sliding with great force from the hills of the city toward the raging sea. The entire staff of several businesses, hundreds of schoolchildren and many commuters were drowned or entombed in mud. As of December 9, 776 people were reported dead and 115 unaccounted for, and 1,500 were made homeless. Hundreds of affected families are observing the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in precarious makeshift housing.
The floods precipitated yet another popular uproar against the Algerian state, perceived by ordinary Algerians as increasingly distant, indifferent and incompetent. This time, Algerians remonstrated against the state’s failure to heed predictions of severe weather and its lack of an adequate emergency response system. Indeed, bystanders rescued countless people from the floodwaters and the sea long before official help arrived. Much praise has gone to the people of Bab el-Oued, especially the youth, who quickly came to the assistance of persons in danger, even at the expense of their own lives.
The November floods have reprised the Algerian state’s recurrent crisis of legitimacy. Algeria has been rocked since 1992 by an armed rebellion led by Islamist groups sworn to bring down the regime, a faltering economy and mounting social problems. In the face of this profound crisis, the state has largely appeared besieged, unable to offer physical or material security to its citizens. Thousands of people have been killed by armed Islamists, often just a few yards away from military barracks. In addition, state security agents have been accused of committing, with impunity, countless crimes against defenseless people. If the state has finally understood, after the deadly floods, that it needs to command a modicum of popular respect to handle a crisis, society has absorbed the lesson that, ultimately, it must count on itself.
State-Enhanced Natural Disaster
Many Algerians attribute the human tragedy of the November floods more to human causes than to natural ones. The state now stands accused of having destroyed, or allowed others to destroy, the capital’s natural environmental defenses to the extent that mudslides were unavoidable in the event of heavy rains. Over the past decade, the state has ordered extensive deforestation of the hills of Algiers and sealed shut the drains of sewers to rob armed Islamist groups of hiding places and escape routes. The blocked drains left rain waters with nowhere to go. Corrupt authorities also gave permits for shoddy housing and other construction in the riverbed, enriching individual contractors at the expense of public safety.
After the floods, a couple of days passed before the state mobilized an all-out effort to aid the victims. When the authorities did finally realize the extent of the disaster, their actions were ill-coordinated, often improvised on the spot and sometimes too late. The emergency response measures on the books do not grant authorities the tools of effective intervention, and they were never even activated. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika showed up at the scene a full three days after the flooding, to be greeted by anti-government slogans, anger and resentment. Bouteflika made matters worse for himself and for the state by declaring that the disaster was simply the will of God. Nothing, he said, could be done about that.
Since this misstep, the president and most government officials have been trying to avert a social explosion. Almost a week after the floods, the army decided to take over rescue, recovery and cleanup operations, with the assistance of people from the affected areas. When national and international assistance started pouring in, civilian authorities failed to set up an efficient mechanism for distribution of goods and materials to the stricken population. Many donated goods were stolen, and some of them quickly wound up on the black market. Finally, in the second week, civilian authorities reclaimed a central role, relocating hundreds of families rendered homeless by the flooding and reopening roads. Bouteflika ventured again into the hardest-hit neighborhoods to offer comfort and to promise assistance.
Goaded Into Action
Algerians have long viewed the state, and especially the role of the powerful army within the state, with a mixture of skepticism, cynicism and fear. But in the wake of the flooding tragedy, people seem no longer to fear criticizing or engaging public officials for their policies and actions, or lack thereof. Expecting little from the political class, society took matters into its own hands, demanding responsiveness and accountability from local and national officeholders. With the help of the independent press, the Internet and civic associations of all kinds, average citizens, individually or in groups, have goaded the state and the political class into addressing some of Algerian society’s most urgent problems.
The power of civic activism was clearly reflected in the series of actions the state was pressed to undertake two weeks after the floods. Hundreds of people were awarded new housing, financial compensation to families of flood victims was increased and immediately awarded, bodies were carefully recovered, streets were cleaned unusually promptly and the distribution of goods and services to disaster areas was streamlined. In addition, leaders of political parties and professional organizations, after a long silence, spoke out in support of popular grievances and criticized the state for its awkward initial reaction.
Reluctantly Tolerant Regime
Popular distrust of the state is not surprising after the horribly bloody and tumultuous decade of the 1990s. In 1992, the army abrogated elections which an Islamist party was winning, sparking ten years of political violence which has claimed the lives of close to 200,000 Algerians, destroyed much of the country’s economic infrastructure and unsettled the lives of millions. Political violence has finally begun to subside, but only after the government decided to arm civilians eager to defend their villages from vicious attacks that spared no one. The new civilian force of 300,000 helped tip the balance against the armed groups. Meanwhile, the National Concord—a controversial quasi-amnesty for armed rebels enacted by Bouteflika in 1999—neutralized hundreds of radical Islamists by offering them incentive to give up the fight.
This relative success in the fight against the armed Islamist rebellion required the involvement of Algerian society. The state, which in the past discouraged independent social mobilization, reversed course, not only yielding to a push from society to organize and defend its interests, but also encouraging civic associations to contribute to solving social and economic problems. For close to 40 years, the state had controlled society through neo-corporatist structures headed by a single legal party, the National Liberation Front (FLN). But as rebellion, diminished financial resources and the negative consequences of structural adjustment dictated the retreat of the state from many activities and services, independent civic associations grew rapidly into the gap, articulating social needs to policymakers and delivering social services to the needy.
The regime’s reluctant tolerance of civic activism has not extended to two types of associations: those linked to the Islamist movement and those linked to opposition political parties or having explicit political purposes. Several Islamist associations were dissolved or restrained. During the November floods, Islamist associations were prevented from going near the disaster areas, and some of them were prohibited from collecting private donations and delivering goods and services to the victims and their families. The state feared that these religious associations would use the opportunity to raise their political profile, as has happened in the past.
Toward Less Authoritarian Government?
Well before the flooding tragedy, societal pressure on state institutions, officials and party leaders had been newly effective. In the summer of 2000, a wave of popular protest against the suspicious allocation of long-awaited housing units for the needy led to a sudden revision of the allocation process. Local authorities were publicly accused of distributing housing units to people who weren’t needy at all and weren’t even on the waiting lists.
In the spring of 2001, following the killing of a young man in the custody of the gendarmerie during the commemoration of the “Berber Spring” (state repression of Berber demands in 1980), the Berber region of Kabylia exploded in protest. Thousands of Kabyles demonstrated against the killing, and for the recognition of the Berber language, Tamazight, as an official and national language, democracy, employment opportunities, justice and an end to the arbitrariness of the state security forces. This social movement—violent at times and peaceful at others—has continued, led not by political parties, but by revived traditional tribal institutions known as the arsh or aroush. After having resisted for months, the government finally announced in October that Tamazight will become an official language, and agreed to meet representatives of the protesters to examine their 15-point list of demands on December 6. Though the representatives are not acknowledged by all members of the aroush movement, the mere fact that the state gave in to the Kabyles’ pressure illustrates the slow, but marked, change that has been taking place in state-society relations.
Renewed tensions between the state and society prompted by the floods of November 2001 have upped the pressure on the state to be responsive and accountable, even if officeholders’ motives are selfish. The Algerian regime today faces pressures on a multitude of fronts and risks being washed away by a generalized flood of popular protest that may turn radical, violent and unmanageable. Sustained, organized and non-violent societal pressure—such as that which embarrassed the state into belated action after the disastrous floods—could usher in a transition toward a more representative, more accountable and less authoritarian government in Algeria.