PARIS — The social and political unrest sweeping parts of Algeria have confirmed pessimistic forecasts of those who opposed the independence of France’s former North African possession.
After 130 years of French rule and 39 years of turbulent independence dominated by the military, Algeria has become a sick country without obvious remedies, French experts say. Many Algerians — including the 3 million strong Algerian immigrant community in France — concur.
To the terror by Islamic fundamentalists plaguing Algeria for the past 10 years, the poor, the frustrated and the unemployed have added their bitter clamor — usually countered by police repression. Ethnic tensions are becoming ominous.
French specialists point to the sharp contrast between what used to be considered “a French province” before 1962 and the neighboring former protectorates of Tunisia and Morocco.
So what went wrong?
Lack of opportunities
Algerian historian Daho Djerbal says that the old leadership that emerged from the war of independence has isolated itself from the young, dashing their hopes for the future. About half of Algeria’s estimated 30 million people are under 25, and 40 percent of the potential labor force is jobless.
According to Said Chikhi, an Algerian author, “The school system has stopped being a factor in social integration or advancement.” He claims that out of 100 children who start primary school, only four reach the university level.
Many other daunting factors weigh over the future of the country, which possesses oil and natural gas wealth worth about $20 billion a year, little of which filters down to the population.
The bulk of the oil revenue supports the army, the security apparatus and the military caste that emerged from the 1954-1962 war of independence and has become the main backing for a series of governments.
Promises vs. realities
The present regime of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, himself a product of the struggle against French rule, has promised “national reconciliation” and vague sanctions against police repression.
The regime’s opponents claim that half of the estimated 100,000 victims of Islamic terror were killed by “the forces of order.” Similar accusations have been made against the paramilitary police during the Berber rioting, which in recent months has spread from the Kabylie mountains east of Algiers to other eastern areas, including Annaba near the Tunisian border and Batna at the edge of the Sahara.
Mr. Bouteflika, said one critic who insisted on anonymity, “has adopted the policy of an ostrich. He had buried his head in the sand, preferring state visits abroad to facing the country’s increasing problems.”
The simmering and periodically exploding frustration of the people has many causes: housing shortages, limited access to drinking water in the countryside, badly maintained roads, the absence of democracy and growing corruption.
Income gap widening
Under pressure from international financial and economic organizations, the government gave up its monopoly on foreign trade. Privatization has thrown half a million more unemployed into the streets, while creating a new class of suddenly rich.
French and Algerian political scientists are wondering about the nature of the force likely to emerge from a situation that seems hopeless to many.
The military leaders appear unable — or unwilling — to understand the country’s transformation and its ethnic and economic rift, while “the new class” feels secure under the army-backed regime.
On the other hand, what is often referred to as “the street” frequently resorts to the tactics of despair: Destruction of whatever is left of public services, smashing tax offices and even attacking buildings where the meager unemployment benefits are handled.
“No forgiveness to the regime” is their slogan.
Berbers want recognition
Adding to the widespread mood of revolt are ethnic differences, putting to the fore demands for a special status by Berbers, who represent between 5 million and 7 million Algerians.
To some Algerians, regional loyalties appear to be taking over. Others, including well-known Algerian journalist Ghania Mouffok, claim ethnic differences are exaggerated and even fueled by the government to divide the opposition.
“What is happening in Algeria today is a massive rejection of the system,” wrote Ignatio Ramonet in France’s prestigious monthly Le Monde Diplomatique.
But to those involved in the growing Berber defiance and protests, regionalism is the key factor.
Failure of nationalism?
“Algerian culture is fundamentally tribal and based on regional loyalty,” said Ferhat Mehenni, a singer whose dramatic songs inspired rebellious Berber students.
“We are witnessing the failure of nationalism, because those who seized power at independence in 1962 had neither the competence nor the will to launch the process of nation- building,” he added.
There is little doubt that the simmering Berber revolt and the brutal reaction of security forces represent a threat to the government, which nonetheless tries to minimize it.
Kabylie — or Kabylia in some English texts — is an area of breathtaking mountains, deep ravines and white-walled villages perched on mountain slopes. It was the region of the most fierce fighting during the war of independence, and parts of it were never fully “pacified” by the French army.
Regime stresses Arabic
Now the center of Berber resistance is the town of Tizi Ouzou, about 60 miles east of Algiers.
Among themselves, the Kabyles speak “Tamazight” and one of their demands is its recognition as an official language alongside Arabic, something the regime has systematically rejected. Fewer and fewer young Kabyles use French.
The two main Berber political parties are the Front of Socialists Forces (French initials FFS) and Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD).
But the core of their resistance is made up of village committees known as “arch,” based on family and clan ties, which appoint regional assemblies.
French observers unsure
Many Algerians are concerned that the ethnic problem is perhaps the most destabilizing part of Algeria’s current crisis. But French specialists say that it is yet to be determined whether what is happening in Algeria today is a struggle between clans and classes or the regime and its various opponents.
And the government has yet to win the struggle against Islamic fundamentalists triggered by its canceling of elections 10 years ago.
Some refer to the situation as a multiple earthquake affecting a country that at the start of independence on July 5, 1962, had a considerable industrial infrastructure and rich agriculture left by the 1 million French settlers forced out of Algeria despite guarantees in the Evian Treaty ending French rule there.