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Some of the ways Algeria’s past is shaping its future

Some of the ways Algeria’s past is shaping its future

by Dounia Mahlouly*

Bouteflika steps aside as Algerians push to reclaim and own their history
Algeria’s long-time leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika has agreed to step down following a series of mass protests against his original plan to bid for a fifth term.

After weeks of uncertainty, the country’s military chief Ahmed Gaed Salah declared the 82-year-old leader constitutionally unfit to rule. An interim leadership will be formed under the supervision of the army. Everything seems to suggest that the country is heading towards elections and a constitutional referendum.

Some observers have drawn parallels between events in Algeria and the “Arab Spring”. These mass demonstrations against corruption and acts of police brutality which swept through North Africa from 2011. The pro-democracy uprisings led to the overthrow of three authoritarian regimes: Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

Political pundits and analysts drawing these comparisons may be tempted to speculate about hidden agendas, or deplore the lack of a common ideological framework for the opposition. This is because, in countries where opposition forces failed to cohere in a meaningful way, the 2011 revolutionary momentum was easily hijacked by counter-revolutionaries.

But these debates miss the point. They overlook the social and cultural value of the Algerian protests. They also reveal that the international community has remained centred on the question of political stability since the civil war of 1991-2002. In fact, the singular achievement of these demonstrations is that Algerians have reclaimed ownership of their past.

This is apparent in the way that protesters invoked the memory of the war of independence. It could also be seen in their allusions to slogans or songs from that time, calling for “Algeria’s liberation”.

The memory of Algeria’s liberation was politically hijacked by the elites who’ve held power since the 1954-1962 Algerian war of independence.
The Oujda Group

During the independence war against France, the National Liberation Army placed Bouteflika in charge of the western border, close to the Moroccan city of Oujda. He became part of the Oujda group led by Houari Boumédiène. It was Boumédiène who helped Ahmed Ben Bella unseat the first post-independence provisional government in 1962.

Boumédiène then became defence minister, and had much influence over the government through the army. Bouteflika became foreign minister. Following political tensions at the top Boumédiène overthrew Ben Bella in a 1965 military coup.

Under the military-led National Liberation Front, Algeria was a one party state until the 1989 constitution introduced a multiparty system. Bouteflika became a member of the Front’s central committee when serving as a foreign minister. With the help of interior minister and the head of intelligence, he took office in 1999.

Bouteflika was initially able to gain popularity by acting as if he intended to break with his predecessors’ anti-colonial and pan-Arab traditions. He capitalised on the imperative of national security to build legitimacy in the aftermath of the civil war. Algeria remained under a state of emergency for almost 10 years after the end of the civil war. This was known as Algeria’s “black decade”.

Beyond the country’s borders, Bouteflika proved popular. The international community was particularly receptive to this narrative in the context of the post-9/11 “war on terror”.
Under Bouteflika

Under Bouteflika, the penal code was amended to impose punishments for any “insulting or defamatory” statement likely to harm the president. This law saw independent journalists and human rights advocates repressed in the name of national security.

During the same period, a law was promulgated which granted amnesty to terrorists guilty of committing crimes during the civil war. Implicitly, this new law exonerated members of the Algerian secret services. Many of them had served with the Armed Islamic Group. This was one of the two main Islamist insurgent groups that fought the Algerian government and army in the Algerian civil war.

Historically, the power elite – made up of the military, the secret services and the Political Bureau of the National Liberation Front – built its legitimacy on a distorted memory of the war of independence. This arguably added to Algeria’s post-colonial identity crisis and the climate of polarisation that laid the ground for civil war.

Bouteflika later capitalised on the trauma of the “black decade”, while depriving Algerians of the economic and social resources they needed to cope with the growing challenges regarding migration, climate, water scarcity and security. Ironically, this is partly the reason why the question of political stability still prevails today.
Looking ahead

This history demonstrates why the debate around today’s political crisis often misses the mark and ignores the real issues. It’s important to fully appreciate what it means for Algerians to reclaim ownership of their history with confidence – and to consider a world beyond Bouteflika’s troubled leadership.

* Senior Teaching Fellow, Social & Political Sciences, SOAS, University of London

Algeria breaks the wall of fear

Algeria breaks the wall of fear

by Jessica Northey and Latefa Narriman Guemar


Friday 22 February 2019 will be seen as a new chapter in Algeria’s long history of revolution and struggle, as massive peaceful protests took place across all major cities of the country. Starting tentatively on Friday afternoon, the protests gradually gained momentum as thousands of people, including men, women and children were peacefully marching, singing their national anthem and waving Algerian flags. This happened despite a complete ban on marching in the capital since 2001. On Friday, Algerians stood up to have their voices heard.

With the memory of violent repression of popular demonstrations, and Algeria’s Black Decade where hundreds of thousands of Algerians lost their lives, still weighing on the country, taking the decision to march in a political protest is not an easy one.

Why are they marching?

After weeks of uncertainty as to whether the ailing 81 year old President Bouteflika would stand yet again in a fifth election, the announcement by the FLN to launch his presidential campaign, brought deep unhappiness and dismay to many Algerians.

There are many reasons why people took to the streets. The Constitution was revised by Bouteflika himself in 2016 to limit presidential mandates to two terms, the FLN has ruled Algeria since Independence in 1962, there is a lack of governance and rule of law, and opportunities for young people are restricted by a small oligarchy that continues to monopolize power. These are just some of many motivations for people to protest.

Algerians have responded en masse, without violence or division. Sectarian slogans, Islamist calls, political parties and divisive messages were absent this Friday. Shouts of ‘Chaab w chorta, khawa, khawa’ (demonstrators and police are brothers) may have contributed to the relative absence of police repression. ‘Joumhouria machi Mamlaka’ (A republic not a monarchy) was another shout recalling the republican nature of Algeria, a cause for which more than a million people died during the war of liberation, including thousands of women. Indeed, and as on all occasions when Algeria appealed to its citizens, Algerian women are present, and their struggle remains crucial: to build, side by side with the Algerian men, a modern and republican Algeria in which the rights of each will ultimately be respected.

From Chlef, to Bejaia, to Algiers, women marched, reminding us of the importance of their regaining their rights to the city and citizenship. Women in the Diaspora, including large numbers of young women, also protested in Paris, Marseille, Montreal and London to support their peers back home in their protest to out the “Issaba” (Bandits). In London, a woman insisted on taking the microphone to lead the protest saying: not only do we not want a fifth term of Bouteflika, but we request radical reforms of Algerian governance of today.

Although it might appear to be, Algeria is not a dictatorship. Bouteflika is not hated, with demonstrators even wishing him good health. However, ordinary Algerians and young people in particular have simply had enough of the status quo, and of the inability of their political leaders – similar to so many countries across the world – who are unable to find solutions for a vibrant, intelligent and creative young society. This is a protest for justice, rule of law, equality, good governance and better politics. Young people want and deserve to have a place in the political, social and economic life of Algeria to build a brighter future for their country. Over the last ten years, they have done this painstakingly outside of the political sphere, through associational activism, through journalism and through community action – but this is not enough.

Nobody knows what happens next. These national, spontaneous, well-organised and principled demonstrations sow great hope amongst all Algerians at home and abroad. They also fear that the western media will misrepresent this important moment in Algerian history. Politics has already changed and will continue to do so. Algerians have been left to feel humiliated by the ruling elite for too long. They have now stood up to this arrogance and humiliation. Power has to be shared, it has to be honest and needs integrity, in line with the principles of Algeria’s founding Revolution in 1954 against colonialism. The voice of the people once again will have to be heard.

Is Qatar training Egyptian fighters in Idlib, Syria?

Is Qatar training Egyptian fighters in Idlib, Syria?

Qatar’s global media outlet, Aljazeera, reported that 200 Egyptian military officers and experts are now in Syria. The report, is based on a Lebanese source, came days after the Egyptian president, Abdulfattah al-Sisi, in an interview to Portuguese media, said that he supported the Syrian national army in its war on terrorists. This seemingly new position has angered the Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who back the Syrian opposition fighters and have been pushing for the removal of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
Some sources, however, have also revealed that Qatar is training Egyptian Islamists in Idlib, Syria. This revelation could explain the increased collaboration between the Syrian and Egyptian governments. Egypt, like Syria, has been battling Salafi and other Islamist militants. If these elements are being trained in Syria and supported by Qatar, Egypt will be forced to collaborate with the Syrian and Libyan governments who are facing the same threats. 
Fath al-Sham, formerly known as al-Nusra front, which is backed by Qatar, controls Idlib, and has released multiple videos showing individuals engaged in war games, with indication that some of these fighters are not training for the war in Syria, which could support the assertion that Idlib is turning into training grounds for fighters from other countries, including Egypt, China, Tunisia, France, and Algeria.
It should be noted also that when al-Julani, the leader of al-Nusra, announced the name change of his group’s name into Jabhat Fath al-Sham, sitting next to him was a known Egyptian Salafist, another reason for Egypt to be concerned about the role of Qatar in supporting groups that might pose a security threat to Egypt.
 al-Julani, announcing the name change of al-Nusra Front

Commemoration and counter-memory of the Algerian liberation and civil war: calls for an inclusive approach

Commemoration and counter-memory of the Algerian liberation and civil war: calls for an inclusive approach

Anissa Daoudi*

When ‘Algeria’ is mentioned, some people might have heard of the book Djamila and Picasso, others might have seen the film The Battle of Algiers depicting Algerian women playing an active role in the revolution. In the Arab collective memory, Algeria is known as the country of the three Djamilas, an Arabic name, meaning ‘beautiful’ in referrence to three Algerian women war veterans: Djamila Bouheird, Djamila Boupasha and Djamila Bouazza, symbols in the fight against the coloniser during the Liberation War (1954-1962).

What unites these memories is the Algerian Revolution of the 1st of November 1954. However, Algeria has witnessed another traumatic phase during which more than 200 000 Algerians lost their lives. This historical period is what is known as the ‘Black Decade’ of the 1990s. Despite the atrocities of that period, little is known about what happened and above all, victims and activists struggle to keep the memory of their loved ones alive and bring the perpetrators to justice. In an effort to break the official and public silence, activists and survivors are attempting to appropriate the symbolic signification of the 1st of November to all Algerian victims and survivors of both periods: the Algerian Revolution and the Civil War of the 1990s.  

To that end, the Association Djazairouna (our Algeria), directed by Ms. Cherifa Keddar, one of the victims of terrorism, who witnessed the assassination of her brother and sister at her family home in Blida, organised a two-day conference titled Our memory, our fight: for the memory of our victims. The conference was held on the 1st and 2nd of November 2016 at Riyadh al Fateh, Algiers and Blida.  It was to commemorate those who lost their lives in the Civil War in the 1990s and to remind the Algerians of the atrocities which took place in what is known as the ‘Black Decade’. The theme of the conference falls within the context of my current research project on the 1990s. 

The 1st of November was chosen consciously to remember the eruption of the Algerian revolution against French colonialism in 1954. It symbolises the will of Algerians to fight against French brutalities and inhuman way in which they were subjugated. The date also coincides with the International Remembrance Day, as Cherifa Keddar explains. 

For Zahira Guenifi, a mother who lost her twenty year-old son, Hisham:

the 1st of November is chosen on purpose…I have all the right to use this day as I want and in the way I want…I was seven years old when the French killed my father…he is a martyr…that was not the end of that, 296 members of the Mehsen family, from Al Sitara, Beni Staih, near El Melia (Jijel) were assassinated in one afternoon by the French. This date is chosen not to steal the lime light out of the 1st November (Algerian revolution)…It is a date for all Algerians, except the Harkis. The 1st of November belongs to all Algerians…therefore; we said it is a date to send a strong warning to our government …to commemorate our victims…a date for the memory of our sons, husbands, brothers, sisters, all of those who were hurt, a date to remind us that we are not alone, a date that might help (not sure of that) us come to terms with our pain, a date that narrates stories of those who died…a date exactly like the 1st of November.

Three films were specifically chosen for the event. The first was l’Heroine (the heroine) by Cherif Agoune. The story goes back to the 1990s and takes place in a remote village, few kilometres away from Algiers, where Ashour and his two brothers lived on a farm. The men of the family are killed either in clashes between the security forces and the terrorists or by the terrorists. Two women are kidnapped. Houria, Ashour’s widow and the heroine of the story, was able to escape and save the children. She is received in Algiers by her family, but conflicts re-emerge and she finds herself facing another harsh reality of life. No longer willing to accept her status in her family, she decides to roll up her sleeves to meet the needs of her children. She becomes a professional photographer specializing in wedding ceremonies. She also joins the association of women victims of terrorists. The story is about survival and the strong will of the heroine to live for her children and overcome the obstacles of her society.  After the screening of the film, an actor who played the role of the officer, gave a short interview in which he said that the film was based on the true story of one of his patients, when he was the doctor in that town.

In Memoire de Scènes by Abderrahim Laloui, again, the story takes place in the 1990s. Azzedine, a professional journalist, prepares an adaptation of the play Tartuffe by Molière which he wants to stage in the municipal theatre. The story depicts the daily life of Algerian intellectuals in the 1990s. Throughout the story, intellectuals like Tahar Djaout, the francophone writer, as well asmany others are remembered. At the end, the playwright is killed but the group of actors swear to perform the play as an act of defiance against the terrorists.

The third film was El Manara by Belkacem Hadjadj. The film revolves around three characters, namely: Fawzi, Ramdan and Asma, who have been friends since childhood. The two men and the woman lead a happy life in the old city of Cherchell. Their relationship is complex; it includes a combination of friendship and romantic love. Their world is shaken and slowly torn apart as they become overwhelmed by events around them: the popular riots of 1988, the military heavy-handed response to the riots, the initiation of the democratic process and its abrupt dissolution, and then the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. The abduction of two female characters and their rape constitute the climax of the story and reveal the systematic sexual violence against women. Alongside the theme of violence, the film tackles the issue of the ‘new’ Islamic concepts which started to make their way in the Algerian society, such as the abolition of festivities such as the celebration of the prophet’s birthday, known as El Manara festivity, aiming to highlight the foreignness of this ‘new Islam’.

The audience was mostly victims/survivors of terrorism, who were crying and shouting out phrases in approval throughout the films. “Yes, it was like that during the nineties!” would be heard in the room. The survivors were happy that those films were produced. “These films say what we cannot express, they document to the coming generation what we have seen and above all, help us feel a sense of belonging to a group, particularly that the official narratives do not recognise that the 1990s existed,” one of the survivors said. During the debate, the film makers said that their works were not shown on national television. Similar voices were heard on the second day of the conference. Voices which called for remembering of victims and, most importantly, calling for justice to take place.  All of the survivors, with no exception, stressed that they were against the Amnesty Law (1999, 2005) and that they want to bring to justice the perpetrators.

Mr. Ali Bouguettaya, President of the National Coordination of Resistance, talked about their role in restoring security, particularly in the villages most badly hit by terrorism. He mentioned that 5000 paramilitary men (patriotes, also called Civil Defence) died and 11000 were left handicapped. In his testimony, Mr. Farid Asslaoui, a retired official who worked closely with the victims of terrorism, referred to nine magistrates killed on the same day, as well as intellectuals (he cites Djilali El Yabes), journalists (e.g., Tahar Djaout) and many others. He adds that it was not possible to go to their families to pay tributes for fear of being identified by the terrorists.  As for rape, he classifies it in terms of space and time, in other words, where and when it happened.

Dr. Amira Bouraoui, a doctor and an activist discussed how she lived the Black Decade as a child and as a daughter of a doctor who worked in the military hospital of Ain Naadja. She described the daily atrocities she and many of her generation had witnessed. Prof. Cherifa Bouatta, an academic and a psychologist worked closely with survivors throughout the Black Decade, and explained her role as someone who had not only witnessed the atrocities but also as a professional known to most of the survivors in the room.  In a moving testimony, Fatima Zahra Keddar described how her brother, sister and mother were shot in the family home. Similalry, Ms Nadjia Bouzeghrane, a journalist who was exiled to France described her feeling of being away from her loved ones and hearing news about the death of colleagues and people she left behind.  Prof. Fadhila Boumendjel-Chitour, founding member of Réseau Wassila, and niece of the martyr Boumendjel, stressed the need to mend the social linkages and rebuild the collective memory. Mr. Mohamed Boudiaf, the son of the late president Boudiaf also talked bitterly about the assassination of his father and condemned the terrorists who “have no relation to Islam” as he says.  

What was clear from the event is the determination of the participants to continue their battle towards justice. Moreover, it shows the strong bonds between survivors, professionals such as psychologists, jurists, activists and doctors as a product of a long lasting combat by people who share similar memories. These men and women from different backgrounds and political opinions came together in opposition to the president’s charter for peace and reconciliation. Djazairouna represents the place to remember, to mourn and to get support. Through it they launch their call to make the 1st of November their day of remembrance too, a day that unites all Algerians and symbolises the fight against colonialism and terrorism at the same time, a day which denounces violence and puts forward notions of humanism.
Anissa Daoudi is a lecturer in Arabic and Translation Studies at the University of Birmingham. She is head of the Arabic section and specialist in the Translation Studies (Arabic-English-Arabic) programme. She recently won the Leverhulme Fellowship for her project: narrating and translating sexual violence in Algeria in the 1990s.

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