Demonstrations about gentrification in Oran, Algeria are linked to a broader tension over collective versus individual rights to colonial-era properties abandoned by the French, occupied by citizens, nationalized by the state and now subject to varying strategies of individual appropriation in the wake of the broader gentrification of Algerian urban space since the 1990s.
Change looms on the horizon in Algeria—change that could well touch the edifice of the country’s framework of governance. In the short term, given the protracted period of low international oil and gas prices, the state is likely to introduce economic reforms that will modify its expenditures on popular distributional and social welfare programs. And in April 2019, an election will likely usher in a successor to the sitting fourth-term president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who first took office in 1999.
As we witness today the escalating horrors across the Middle East—acute insecurity, combined with varying degrees of violence, death and destruction, from Libya and Egypt, to Syria, Iraq and now Yemen, we may want to recall the Algerian experience of the 1990s and consider some lessons to be drawn from it.
Algerians today have certainly not forgotten those “years of lead”: indeed, the absence of an Algerian “Arab spring” in 2011 had much to do with painful memories, weariness and disappointments from that recent past. But for the governments and peoples of the countries of the region currently in turmoil, Algeria, which is so near, appears so very far away. Let’s bring the Algerian experience back into focus.
In 1923, a crippling drought pushed the nomads of the Algerian Sahara as far north as Bou-Saada, just 150 miles south of the Mediterranean coast, in search of sustenance. The French colonial authorities worried that fighting would break out between the nomads and locals over scarce water. From their perspective, indeed, nearly every year between the early 1920s and the late 1940s was exceptionally dry.
Maxime Rodinson (1915-2004) was a pioneering scholar of Islam and the Middle East, as well as a prominent Marxian public intellectual. A product of classical Orientalist training, he was professor of Old Ethiopic and South Arabian languages at the Sorbonne. His scholarly sensibility was historical-materialist, a perspective he brought to his famous biography of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (1961), as well as later publications including Islam and Capitalism (English edition, 1973), Marxism and the Muslim World (English, 1979) and Cult, Ghetto and State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question (1983). Rodinson was a contributing editor of Middle East Report from 1988 to 2000.
Bill Lawrence is director of the North Africa Project for the International Crisis Group. He is a former Peace Corps volunteer (Morocco), Fulbright scholar (Tunisia), development consultant (Egypt), State Department official, Arabic translator and filmmaker (Marrakech Inshallah, Moroccans in Boston). He has also participated in the production of 14 albums of North African music, including co-production of the first internationally released Arabic rap song. He has lived in North Africa for 12 years, six of them in Morocco. I spoke with him in Rabat on March 15. (Part one of the interview is here.)
As the waves of protest inspired by Tunisia continue to roll across the Middle East and North Africa, analysts have remained puzzled by the mysterious timing, incredible speed and cross-national snowballing of these uprisings or intifadas. In the six months following the electrifying scenes of thousands occupying Avenue Habib Bourguiba in downtown Tunis, directing the imperative Dégage! (Get out!) at President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian “virus” has spread across the region, unleashing apparently similar moments of resistance and revolution. Yet a “back-door” view of the intifadas reveals wide variations.
In mid-February, with autocratic rulers deposed in Tunisia and Egypt, and another tottering in Libya, the National Coordination for Change and Democracy took to the streets in the capital of Algeria. The organization, which was created on January 21, following a series of riots in several cities across the country, is led by the Rally for Democracy and Culture (RCD), an opposition party whose narrow constituency includes mainly Berber-speaking people in Algiers and the nearby Kabylia region. The Coordination includes other small political parties, as well as the National League for the Defense of Human Rights, the National Association of Families of Missing Persons (those who “disappeared” during the internal war of the 1990s), an association of the unemployed and many other groups. It called for “change and democracy, the lifting of the state of emergency, the liberalization of the political and media fields, and the release of people who were jailed for having protested or for their opinions.”
Soon after the onset of protests which eventually toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, a wave of riots swept through Algeria as well, with many neighborhoods in the capital of Algiers and dozens of smaller cities overwhelmed by thousands of angry young men who closed down streets with burning tires, attacked police stations with rocks and paving stones, and set fire to public buildings. For Algerians a few years older than the rioters, these events recalled the uprising of October 1988, in which violent unrest upended the single-party state.
Nearly 50 years after independence, the North African states of Algeria and Morocco face challenges to their national unity and territorial integrity. In Algeria, a
Shoes and pants soaked with rain, I tagged along with a journalist from the popular Arabic daily Echorouk—his paper my umbrella—while he visited polling stations in the Belcourt neighborhood of Algiers on the day of local elections in November 2007. At the first site, disgruntled party officials quickly ejected us. We did not have the right papers, they said, and the police who looked on bored were inclined to agree. At the second station, we kept our distance. Watching for half an hour, we could count the voters who entered on two hands. Next to us stood four youths, escaping the rain under a shop awning. They laughed at us when we asked if they were going to vote. Down the road we saw an older gentleman on his way back from voting.
Across nearly the breadth of North Africa, the head of state enjoys a lifetime appointment. Morocco has a king. In Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, president since 1987, pushed for a constitutional amendment removing term limits and has now announced a bid for a fifth term in office. President Husni Mubarak of Egypt, who assumed office in 1981, is already serving his fifth term. Libyan strongman Mu‘ammar Qaddafi, in power since September 1969, has never permitted a meaningful election.
Martin Evans and John Phillips, Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007).
On May 9, 2002, Tony Judt, professor of history at New York University, began an essay on Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation with a quote from Raymond Aron’s book on the 1954-1962 Algerian War of Independence from French colonial rule.  France, Aron argued, could not impose its administration on the Algerians indefinitely nor was it willing to integrate them into French society. Until they left Algeria, Aron argued, the French were harming themselves more than the Algerians.
From May to early July 2001, massive protests rocked the Berber areas (Upper and Lower Kabylia) of Algeria, spreading on several occasions to Algiers and other major cities. On June 14, perhaps a million Kabyles “marched for democracy” in the capital, sparking clashes with police and leading the government to ban demonstrations. Middle East Report asked Daho Djerbal, editor of Naqd, an Algerian journal of critical inquiry, and a prominent intellectual, to comment on the portent of the unrest.
In the past ten years of political crisis, Algerians have been wary of public protest. Terrorized by relentless violence and impoverished by structural adjustment, they have repeatedly given the impression that what they want most is the chance to get on with their lives quietly. Despite the cancellation of one election and the staging of several fraudulent ones — not to mention wholesale public sector downsizings and devaluation of the currency — the streets remained calm and mass protest looked like an unlikely prospect.