North Africa

Before the Storm

The ambulance convoy carrying the coffin of Hocine Ait Ahmed, who spent nearly a quarter-century in exile in Europe, arrives for a burial ceremony in his native village, Ath Ahmedh, Friday Jan.1, 2016, a day after his remains arrived in Algiers, the Algerian capital. Tens of thousands of Algerians massed in a mountain village for a chaotic burial ceremony of a national hero of the brutal independence war with France and the country's leading opposition figure. Hocine Ait Ahmed died Wednesday in Lausanne, Switzerland, aged 89. (AP Photo/Toufik Doudou)
The ambulance convoy carrying the coffin of Hocine Ait Ahmed, who spent nearly a quarter-century in exile in Europe, arrives for a burial ceremony in his native village, Ath Ahmedh.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    • Millions of refugees have already left from trouble spots and wars in the Mideast and North Africa and fled to Europe, and an Algeria in crisis would likely exacerbate the flow of asylum-seekers.
  • Facts


    • Germany, by far the biggest destination of refugees in Europe, is in close talks with Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia to expedite the return of failed asylum applicants.
    • Located on the Mediterranean coast, Algeria shares borders with Libya to the east, Morocco to the west, and Mali to the southwest, all of which have struggles of their own.
    • Algeria is run by an authoritarian regime, is economically dependent on sales of oil and natural gas, and has an unemployment rate of about 25 percent.
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Young men are deserting their homeland of Algeria by the thousands. Some are drawn north across the Mediterranean, others into Libya, into jihad. It’s slowly becoming clear to Europeans that they need to take a look at Algeria, the largest country in Africa by land mass but among the continent’s most unobtrusive nations. What they see doesn’t bode well.

Bab el Oued, a poor man’s district in the heart of the country’s capital, Algiers, is on the square of the three clocks. Today, on a sunny Thursday in January, the whole world is out and about because all the stores close on Friday. You see old women with white triangular scarves covering their mouths and noses. The scarves taper to a point in front; the women look like birds while wearing the traditional aâjars.

Two men are sitting in a café, discussing politics. They do so without looking to the right or the left – a characteristic precautionary measure in most nations run by dictatorships. The two laugh over a joke that’s going round: The government has raised gas prices to prevent the unemployed from immolating themselves.

“As long as it remains calm in Algiers, the state isn’t going to be shaken.”

Boualem Sansal, Celebrated Algerian writer

Amid the laughter, the 86-year-old Mohamed asks the German guest in a threatening voice, “Are you secretly recording our conversation?” He smiles at the answer: “You can search me if you want.”

You can speak openly in Algeria. Daily newspapers such as El Watan are very critical of the regime. Nevertheless, according to Amnesty International’s information, journalists and human rights activists are sent to jail because of political statements and are tortured in the secret police’s dungeons – according to witnesses. No court is following up on their claims. That’s why Algeria isn’t a “safe country of origin” in the sense of German constitutional law, even if Berlin would like to see it otherwise.

Algeria is also drifting toward a severe political crisis. That’s also bad news for Europeans because the Mediterranean country shares borders with Libya and Mali, which are a war zone of al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS). The terrorists have also established themselves in the interior of the country and are recruiting fighters. They can be read about daily in the newspapers.

Every couple of weeks, the plane of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika takes off from Boufarik military airport heading toward one of the country’s other airports. He isn’t on board. The 78-year-old head of state, in office since 1999, is terminally ill. Doctors allow him to fly only in rare cases. Regardless, the Airbus A340-500, equipped with a medical station, bedroom and missile defense, must be flown every now and then so that it remains in good working order.

The men in the café in Bab el Oued laugh over another joke: Tapes of the president’s tapped telephone conversations have surfaced – three hours of silence. Mr. Bouteflika hasn’t appeared in public for months. It is generally assumed that a military-political entourage, and not he, is in charge of the government.

The entourage has become nervous. The members’ power base is oil, but its price has plunged within a year by almost 50 percent. Algeria has some of the world’s largest oil and natural gas reserves and lives almost exclusively from the export of the commodities. But the income from the state energy sector has hardly been used to invest domestically. Moreover, bureaucracy, state despotism and corruption is scaring off foreign capital. The result is the economy is not keeping pace with population growth. A quarter of Algerians are unemployed; among young people with a college degree, almost half. Three-fourths of the 40 million Algerians are under the age of 30, and their reality has three coordinates: poverty, frustration and religion.

For decades, the government had diverted money to buy social peace. Cheap loans for the unemployed, wage increases, certificates of eligibility to public housing magically appeared every time demonstrations and strikes got the upper hand. But the government can’t do that anymore: The money is gone, and state revenues have been cut in half. Social unrest, which continually flares up and occasionally gets out of control and turns into street battles, can no longer be pacified with manna from the government.

The state has already increased the price of gasoline and diesel by 20 percent – and that in a country where almost all transportation takes place on roads. Almost weekly, the prices tags are adjusted upwards on the market in the Bab el Oued district. Increasing with the prices is anger toward those governing the country; those people are called “the power.” The word “mafia” can even be heard, not only in proletarian cafés, but also in company offices and artist studios and online. Who is meant by that?

Algeria’s leadership emerged out of decades-long infighting among the factions within Algeria’s National Liberation Front, which fought against the French colonial power from 1954 until 1962. Today, an alliance between the presidential palace and a group of military officers is considered to be the inner circle of power, and those people also share the sinecure of a state-directed economy. In the course of Mr. Bouteflika’s fourth term in office, which began a year and a half ago after a questionable election, his clique expanded its power. But now new rivalries are flaring up. Mr. Bouteflika’s former comrades-in-arms are publicly questioning his ability to govern. Highly-decorated generals are landing in jail, and wounds from earlier decades are being opened up in the press: Who betrayed whom, who overthrew whom? The last survivors of the war of liberation are attacking each other.

In other words, the regime’s historical legitimacy is crumbling, its social-political legitimacy is ruined, and a democratic one virtually doesn’t exist. Because of vote-buying, clientelism and election-rigging, Algeria’s parliament is hardly taken seriously as representing the people.

Political demonstrations are banned in the capital. Even five years ago, in the months of the Arab Spring, only a couple of stalwarts found the courage to gather on the streets. It was an impressive scene. One or two dozen people had hardly lifted their self-made cardboard signs when the place would become black with police, and then there would be peace again. Identity papers are demanded: “You are a journalist from Germany? What do you want here? There is nothing more to see.”

A recent provocation: On December 31, hundreds of thousands gathered in Algiers to mourn the recent passing of the opposition leader Hocine Aït Ahmed. They shouted slogans like “Algeria, Free and Democratic,” “Murderer Government” and “To the Museum with the FLN.” The regime was forced to stand by and watch the dramatic march since Mr. Aït Ahmed had been one of the founding members of the National Liberation Front (FLN), thus he is a symbolic figure of anti-colonialism. After the victory over the French in 1962, he had maintained a distance between himself and the clique within the FLN fighting over the state as spoils of the war. He mainly found followers in his home region, Kabylia, east of Algiers. That’s also home to the Berber, members of the ethnic minority in Algeria. The Kabyle people to this day oppose attempts by the state power to force an Arab identity on the country. When Mr. Aït Ahmed led his followers in armed resistance against the FLN government in 1963, he was able to rely on the Kabyle people. He lost, however, and in the end fled to Switzerland.

Nevertheless, when the coffin with Mr. Aït Ahmed’s body arrived from Switzerland at the airport at the end of December, the whole government clique appeared and a national mourning was ordered. The powers-that-be wanted to make him into one of their own. But the irrepressible rebel had outsmarted them one last time. He had decreed that he be buried in his home village and not at the El Alia cemetery in Algiers, where the heads of government and leaders of the war of liberation are buried – a slap in the face for the current regime.

Since then, the monument in the Kabyle mountains has been a pilgrimage site. On the way there, the bronze war memorials are conspicuous – and the roadblocks are controlled by soldiers. There is danger threatening here because jihadists are hiding in a couple of the green gorges. They carry out attacks and kidnappings, Europeans are advised against traveling in the region. The routes get narrower and steeper, and soon women can be seen in traditional Kabyle dress, gaudily colored but predominantly red. Some women haul bottles of water or gas cylinders up the hills on their heads.

The mountain village named after Mr. Aït Ahmed comes into sight at an elevation of about 1,000 meters (3,281 feet). His larger-than-life portrait gazes out over the expanse of the valley. The minibuses of the pilgrims are parked on the access road. A shy young man says he travels daily from the provincial capital of Tizi Ouzou to the memorial to gather confidence. He is an unemployed engineer. An old man in a burnoose, the long hooded cloak of North Africa, has arrived from Ghardaia, an oasis town on the edge of the desert where hostilities are always breaking out between Berbers and Arabs. “You must know Ghardaia,” the man says. “That’s where Mokhtar Belmokhtar comes from” – he’s a notorious terrorist known around the world. In November, his group carried out an attack on an international hotel in Mali.

Another minibus drives up on the asphalt road. Old women climb out, talking and making quite a racket while unloading coffee, fruit and couscous. A festival atmosphere develops while inside the white-washed monument people are still praying. The prime minister even showed up in the village on the day of the funeral – and was chased away with loud shouting. The government hadn’t anticipated such a humiliation. Was that a signal?

“Alas, such things aren’t going to throw the power out of the saddle,” said celebrated author Boualem Sansal. “They have entrenched themselves well, there is a ring of garrisons around the capital. That is the country’s security architecture. As long as it remains calm in Algiers, the state isn’t going to be shaken.”

The 67-year-old writer with his trademark gray ponytail, who was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 2011, welcomes me to his home in Boumerdès, a town not far from Algiers. Recently in Boumerdès, a jihadist cell was discovered that had been recruiting terrorists among the city’s students.

Mr. Sansal’s three-story house is well secured. His novels, some of them banned in Algeria, attack the powerful as well as radical Islamism, and because of them he is under threat. The inside of the home is colorful, Kabyle-style and not Arab black and white. Everywhere are books, on language and culture, some on industry and technology. Until 2003, Mr. Sansal was a senior official in the Ministry of Industry.

According to him, the regime’s most powerful weapon is the trauma of the civil war in the 1990s. A mass movement had forced democratic reforms but then in the first free elections, an Islamist victory became apparent. In January 1992, the generals staged a coup against democracy. But then the Islamists took to their weapons. The civil war lasted 10 years, and it cost the lives of at least 120,000 people.

“Since then,” Mr. Sansal says, “social life has changed dramatically. Danger threatens in the outside world, so people stay in their inner world. They withdraw into the family instead of going out and traveling around the country. Fridays in the mosque, Saturdays shopping and cooking at home; that’s the weekend. That’s how the culture looks in which the majority of today’s Algerians have grown up. They don’t participate in the world.”

The “black decade” weighs on the mind like a nightmare. There is hardly anyone in Algeria who doesn’t remember the horrific scenes, bodies in front of the house or chopped-off heads on the garden fence. “Just no more risky ventures”: You constantly hear that in conversations with construction workers, journalists, business people and university professors. They feel confirmation of their fears in the bloody chaos that followed the Arab spring in Syria and in their neighboring Libya.

An evening chat with a couple of young people of the Arab spring generation. They are journalists, trade unionists and artists, and they meet in one of those bars in Algiers in which drinks – naturally nonalcoholic – must be ordered with cake as a matter of form but which none of them touch. Instead they chain-smoke, talk and argue. Not one of them believes in a democratic awakening in Algeria. They are instead afraid that in the course of a crisis, discharges of public anger and state repression could escalate to such a degree that Al-Qaeda and IS will gain combatants. “We are slipping into the danger zone,” one of them says.

So can Europe do something? The Algerians’ answer turns out to be bitter. A credibility problem exists there. Haven’t the Europeans looked the other way when human rights were disregarded in Algeria? Who supported the dictators of North Africa until they were overthrown, the Gaddafis and the Ben Alis, the former of which is the disgraced ex-president of Tunisia who is billing and cooing with the kleptocratic king in neighboring Morocco? And how is that again in France, the former colonial power, are Algerians being discriminated against there?

The Algerians happen to know more about Europe in Algeria than people in Europe know about Algeria. The Algerians are paying close attention to how Germany is behaving in the refugee crisis. Germany, the place of longing. How long will it stay one?

Standing in front of the café on the square with the three clocks is a strikingly thin man. Next to him is a cage with two canary birds, as well as his trolley bag.

“Planning to take a trip?” “Could be,” the man says. “Where to?”

“No idea. Perhaps to Mrs. Merkel.” “With the canaries?” His face gets serious. And then he grins. “With the canaries,” he says with a laugh, “yes, yes, with the canaries to Mama!”


This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: 

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