Algeria simmering

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The chapter entitled “Political Islam” in John Phillips’ and Martin Evans’ “Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed” will be of value to anyone interested in the intertwined issues of identity, religion and political development in the Arab-Islamic world. It is a succinct and fact-filled summary of the phenomenon called Islamism or fundamentalism in the 1990s that swept across the “crescent of crisis” from Morocco to Pakistan (and even Indonesia), and that affects the whole world.

As in other countries, Algerian fundamentalist leaders claimed their country had been hijacked by impious front-men for the former French colonizers. Change a few terms, fill in the social background, and — even in relation to the Saudi regime with its built-in fundamentalism and its oil riches — you have the outline of what Mr. Phillips and Mr. Evans call the “anger of the dispossessed.”

According to the authors, the “dispossessed” felt their country was stolen from them twice — first by the foreign colonizers, then by the treacherous heirs of the martyrs who got it back and got rich while they stayed poor. The affront was all the more humiliating in that their new masters introduced infidel and corrupt ways to their part of the umma, the trans-national community of the Muslim faithful.

The anti-colonial war was led by a “front” — the famous Front of National Liberation — that included religious leaders. But the anti-colonial struggle was also led by men (and in Algeria perhaps more than elsewhere, women) who were also seeking to enter modernity as they perceived it. Here, not surprisingly, the mid-20th century offered them contradictory models.

The FLN included socialists, Stalinists, liberals, Algerian nationalists, pan-Arabists and, already, pan-Islamists in all but name. The contradictions that resulted from this brew created political and governance problems, to put it mildly. Algerians fought and killed other Algerians as soon as the French left (actually, they had been killing one another even during the French war).

The charismatic Ahmed Ben Bella overthrew the first post-colonial government and was himself overthrown by his minister of defense, Col. Houari Boumediene, who sought to industrialize and modernize quickly, while at the same time making concessions to Islamic and Arabist aspirations. Note, by the way, there is nothing in these aims that, in theory, could not have been reconciled with an essentially liberal society. Israel, for example, successfully pursued linguistic, religious and rapid-development policies.

Mr. Phillips and Mr. Evans raise this issue: How do you build a modern nation-state, and what do you do when your building develops structural problems? The authors mention, perhaps without probing deeply enough, that the balancing act that was required to attain Boumediene’s goal of a modern nation was undermined by some of his methods, perhaps most importantly the simple fact that his was a dictatorial regime.

Boumediene, whose foreign minister was the current president of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, compromised, sought to please different currents, which is essential to governing. But he also rejected accountability. Himself incorruptible, he ruled through narrow cliques that were open to the temptations of corruption (notably after he passed away) and closed to ordinary methods of good governance and sound management. The secret police on which he relied for muscle became a law unto itself, as these organizations usually do.

Those who thought nation-building in Iraq would be a breeze could do well to study Algeria’s travails in this realm. All nations are built, but too many “new nations” in the post-colonial decades thought they could, in the French idiom, bruler les etapes, skip a few classes. This holds for countries with a strong national consciousness — Egypt of course comes to mind — as well as those where religious or tribal loyalties trump nationalism, such as Pakistan.

Another interesting point of comparison with countries like Egypt and Pakistan is the preponderance of youth. Under Boumediene, young people benefited from educational opportunities the French had denied the Muslim nine-tenth of the population. These advantages, unfortunately, were not matched by job-creation, which is one reason why many of Algeria’s best trained professionals make their contributions in other countries.

In this regard, Mr. Phillips and Mr. Evans perhaps understate somewhat the unintended consequences of the blessings of vast energy reserves. Riches are fine if you turn them into wealth, which in economic terms means growth and the accompanying job creation. After some two decades of independence Algeria was rich but not wealthy — and its legions of young unemployed men could not but feel, in the authors’ term, “dispossessed.”

This feeling was not the same as the sense of religious heresy that so angered the Muslim extremists, and here the authors may overstate the degree to which the latter recruited among the former. However, it is certain that the widespread frustration that built up during the 10-year presidency of Boumediene’s successor in the 1980s, was, in the circumstances, explosive. Many Algerians saw an increasingly secular society, and they viewed democracy, which the government began to introduce, as a messy system and worse, a religious heresy. (If God has given us a way to live, why do we need to debate it?)

However, it is not certain that the revolt of Muslim radicals against regimes in their own countries and against the “West” was based quite as much as Mr. Phillips and Mr. Evans believe in the dispossessed classes in the economic sense. The anger that is channeled into political extremism surely has social causes, but is it really among the “poor” or the “proletarians” or the “marginalized” that revolutionaries find their cannon fodder?

The Algerian radicals formed the FIS in the late 1980s, Islamic Salvation Front, referring to their broad appeal, as well as to their own claim of completing the unfinished business of the war of independence. But are the voters who supported Islamist candidates in the several Algerian elections that have been held since the late 1980s the same people who took up arms against anyone with whom they disagreed or disliked, as well as many they did not even know? Which young men become terrorists, which older men motivate and manipulate them?

To their credit, Mr. Evans and Mr. Phillips do not claim to know the definitive answers. Often, perhaps most of the time, incitement to mass murder is just that. But are there really Pak or Algerian, or for that matter French and U.S. secret agents who have brought their dark strategies into police work with murderous results? My personal answer is no, but my caveat is that as a journalist I say this because I have not seen convincing evidence.

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