Democracy Lab

The Long March North

The Algerian government has a long track record of subduing protest movements. Is it about to meet its match?

OUARGLA, Algeria — The province of Ouargla, some 475 miles southeast of Algeria's capital, has streets that are rutted or simply unpaved, slum villages with houses built upon sand, and a power grid that frequently balks at the demands made on it in the summer, when temperatures routinely break 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

It is also home to the Hassi Messaoud oil field, which by the government's reckoning accounts for 71 percent of the country's total oil reserves -- a bounty of some $34 billion. There's an old saying: "Algeria is a rich country but its people are poor." Nowhere is that more true than here in this desert oasis.

Perhaps it's no surprise then that popular opposition to Algeria's authoritarian government has found a new wellspring in the South. The National Committee for the Defense of the Rights of the Unemployed  -- often simply referred to as les chomeurs or "the unemployed" by Algerians -- has been slowly spreading a campaign of protest northward from its Ouargla base. A nationwide appeal to make Sept. 28 a "day of rage" throughout Algeria resulted in modest but passionate protests in 25 of the country's 48 provinces, including many in the North.

The movement caught the attention of the country on March 14 when 10,000 took to the streets in Ouargla, a city whose population is just over 100,000, to demand economic justice. Never before had the usually quiet desert region seen such popular mobilization, and since then the group has received sustained media attention, with some publications portraying it as the champion of Algeria's underclass and others framing it as a dangerous regionalist movement.

"We saw a great solidarity after the 14th of March. People started coming to the movement in Ouargla from many different provinces. We succeeded that day," said Aibek Abdelmalek, the 25-year-old Tuareg who runs the movement out of his bedroom in his mother's house.

For the last 15 years, Algerians have more or less accepted the military-backed regime of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who took credit for ending the decade of civil strife which cost over 100,000 Algerian lives in the 1990s. Given that the election of an Islamist party had brought about the years of violence, Algerians were happy to trade democracy for the stability guaranteed by Bouteflika and the powerful army generals who supported his rule. (The photo above shows him receiving Algeria's prime minister in a Paris hospital earlier this year after the president's treatment for a stroke.)

But Bouteflika's reign brought about political stagnation that has ossified Algeria's economy. Burdened by nepotism and cronyism, the economy has failed to give rise to a job-creating private sector.

"The regime is based on lies and corruption," said Taher Bel Abbès, the 33-year-old founder of the Committee, who serves as its charismatic front man. "When it makes promises [of more jobs] it is lying."

And though the 76-year-old Bouteflika's health is failing, his thirst for power remains strong. A drastic government reshuffle in September has led to speculation that the president, or his entourage, is trying to stay in office well beyond the official end of his mandate at the end of the year. With reform looking less and less likely, more Algerians are losing faith in the government and its ability to provide for its people.

The problems that the Committee targets -- corrupt government spending, lack of employment, and bad housing -- are certainly not limited to the group's home region. Algeria's official 10 percent unemployment rate is relatively low for North Africa. That number, however, hides the fact that only 40 percent of the working age population is active in the labor force, meaning that a large portion of adults simply aren't looking for traditional work. Much of this is can be attributed to workers who have given up on finding contractual employment and who rely on the informal economy for survival.

Many such economically excluded workers live in the shantytowns that have sprung up over the last decade around large cities. On a recent tour of the slums surrounding Algeria's capital city led by activists with the Algiers chapter of the committee, this reporter spoke to many residents who said they had not had formal employment in years.

The case of Muammar Bouzidi, in his late 30s, is fairly typical. A father of three who lives in a cement shack he built in the neighborhood of Baraki (about 10 miles south of Algiers), Bouzidi hasn't had a contract since 2007. Instead, he lives on odd electrical repair jobs he performs for other residents of the neighborhood. Last year, Bouzidi was granted a loan from a public credit fund to finance the purchase of a truck. Six months later, Bouzidi has yet to receive the money, and continues to work informally.

"I live with the help of God," said Bouzidi with a resilient smile.

The rise of the Committee comes at a time when Algeria's traditional opposition, which has a long history of vocal activism, appears as enfeebled as the country's elderly president. The Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, which maintained a fiercely critical position towards the military government throughout the 1990s, is now rent by an internal power struggle. Algeria's political parties are tainted by their participation in a parliament that the public largely sees as a façade for the real power of president and the army. And a richly adorned façade at that: Algerian parliamentarians make over eight times the salary of an average worker.

The Committee, on the other hand, finances itself with the pocket change of its members, and has refused any alliance with Algeria's political parties.

"They are the only opposition movement that the government has not yet been able to somehow co-opt," said Adlène Meddi, the editor of the francophone-daily El Watan's weekend edition. "That's something the state is definitely worried about."

Even those in Algeria's established opposition acknowledge that the movement is growing in significance. Addouce Abbas, a veteran of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights in the northern city of Tizi Ouzou, admitted that the upstart Committee had to be taken seriously.

"We should listen to them," he said at an interview in his hometown in September. "The government is afraid of them. The government is always afraid of movements that are nebulous in nature because it's more difficult to intervene directly. And unemployment is a real problem."

The authorities appear conscious of the need to tread lightly around the movement, alternating between repression and capitulation. On the eve of the massive March rally, Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal promised more jobs for locals and an elimination of interest rates on microcredit loans for youth. That was a stark contrast to January, when Bel Abbès and several other organizers were held in jail for three days for organizing a peaceful protest. Bel Abbès has also been repeatedly denied a passport by authorities, a move Bel Abbès speculates is aimed at preventing him from drumming up international support.

More frequently, though, the government resorts to small concessions to the movement's members in order to dissipate its effectiveness. The Algerian government has long known that the most effective tool at its disposal for combating social dissent isn't the stick but the carrot: the buying of social peace through the distribution of handouts. This was how it managed to ward off a brief spate of Arab Spring-style protests triggered by the events in neighboring Tunisia in 2011. The protests left five dead and 800 wounded -- and the Algerian government quickly countered by raising public salaries, increasing access to credit for youth, and boosting subsidies on sugar and cooking oil.

Some might argue that the Committee could be vying for the central government to sprinkle that same kind of manna more liberally over the desert terrain of the south. Its organizers, however, say they want something more: to build a social power base capable of rivaling the army and the government, Algeria's traditional first and second estates.

"Civil society should be the third power. But where is the civil society in Algeria? It's been bought out," said Bel Abbès. "We want to constitute that third power. We want to be a counterweight."

Such challenges to Algeria's balance of power are often held in check by memories of the decade of violence that accompanied the country's attempt at democratization in the early 1990s. Those memories keep the movement committed to non-violent tactics to the point of avoiding confrontation. When marchers in last month's "day of rage" found their way blocked by riot police, some of the Committee's more hot-tempered youth looked ready for a fight. But Bel Abbès quickly scampered up a palm tree to shout instructions to disperse through a megaphone. In a manner of minutes, everyone was headed home.

The Committee isn't going to throw stones yet, but that doesn't mean it isn't open to calling for radical change.

"We can't ask for the fall of the system because we're just a part of society, not all of it. But if all of society starts asking for that change, than we are with them," said Bel Abbès.

Algerian society may not be ready to make such demands. But as a new generation, too young to have experienced the violence of the '90s, reaches adulthood, change may be inevitable. The Committee, with its populist credentials and young leadership, may already be the avant-garde of that coming change.

-/AFP/Getty Images


Desert Fury

Is the Egyptian military's scorched-earth campaign in Sinai just creating a new generation of terrorists?

NORTH SINAI, Egypt — The 9-year-old girl was standing in her family's kitchen when it happened. A rocket smashed through the outside wall, narrowly missing the child and obliterating everything in its wake. Her father, Ibrahim, a farmer in the North Sinai village of el-Mehdiya, watched powerless from afar. "I saw the helicopter hovering above my home," he said. "The next moment, I watched the building collapse.… They call this a war on terror, but are my children terrorists?"

As Cairo braces for the partial suspension of U.S. military aid -- including halting the delivery of Apache helicopters, F-16 fighter jets, and M1A1 Abrams tanks -- following the removal of President Mohamed Morsy and the subsequent campaign of repression against his supporters, the Egyptian military is in the midst of a separate struggle to erase militancy from the restive Sinai Peninsula, a problem, ironically, that the U.S. and Israeli governments have long called on the Egyptian government to address.

In that campaign, the Egyptian military claims to have achieved targeted success. Yet a visit to the patchwork of desert villages where it has unleashed the bulk of its firepower reveals a very different picture. What have been billed as targeted attacks have resulted in extensive collateral damage: Hundreds of homes stand shattered and charred across the northern part of the peninsula. In the village of el-Muqatta, rockets punched ragged holes in the walls of a neighborhood mosque. Nearby in el-Mehdiya, rubble fills the space where a local tribal leader's house once stood.

Sinai has long been a source of consternation for Cairo. The triangular peninsula forms a strategically important buffer zone between Israel and the Gaza Strip, with a demilitarized zone running along the border. Decades of government neglect, however, have encouraged a toxic merger of Bedouin resistance and Islamist militancy, one that has occasionally boiled over into massive bloodshed, as was the case in the 2005 and 2006 bombings of seaside resorts.

Since Morsy's ouster on July 3, however, the threat emanating from Sinai has felt more acute. Near-daily attacks on security installations in North Sinai have killed over 100 personnel, according to Egyptian officials. Cairo has also been targeted. In early September, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim survived an assassination attempt outside his east Cairo home. A Sinai-based jihadi group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, claimed responsibility for the attack.

One month later, the city was struck again. This time, the Furqan Brigades, another Sinai-linked militant group, claimed responsibility for firing a rocket-propelled grenade at a satellite dish in the upscale suburb of Maadi.

The Egyptian Army's response has drawn mixed reactions. In Cairo, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the head of Egypt's armed forces and the country's de facto leader, has won widespread plaudits for tackling the jihadi threat. But on the front line of this "war on terror," Egypt is attracting condemnation from neighboring states as well as local communities.

An attempted cross-border rocket attack on the southern Israeli resort city of Eilat in August -- the subject of competing claims of responsibility by jihadi groups operating in Sinai -- strained relations with Israel and allegedly prompted a drone strike in response. More predictably, in the Palestinian territories, Hamas has been frustrated by the destruction of between 80 and 90 percent of the smuggling tunnels into Gaza; Hamas's lost revenue amounts to an estimated $250 million since the operation began in July.

In the village of el-Mehdiya, a short distance from the border with Gaza, residents say the military campaign is failing to differentiate between militants and the civilians who surround them. A helicopter and tank strike on Sept. 7, for example, destroyed the home of an Egyptian businessman named Said, who used to ship construction materials to Gaza before the tunnels closed. Inside the remains of his home, jagged glass carpets the floor. Two walls have been punched out by military shelling. According to Said and his neighbors, the house was struck first from the air and later by tank fire.

"It felt like a completely random operation," he told Foreign Policy. "There was nothing to unite the men whose houses were hit, apart from their tribal identity. They came from different backgrounds, worked in different jobs, and most were not militants. Why is it that the only time we see the hand of our government, it's a fist striking against us?"

In a September news conference, military spokesman Col. Ahmed Ali said the North Sinai operation is achieving "our highest rates for successfully achieving our targets." He did not respond to Foreign Policy's request for comment on allegations that the current military campaign has adversely affected civilians.

Sinai has long been neglected by officials in Cairo. Its infrastructure remains poorly developed, and the central government offers the Bedouin, many of whom lack official papers, few services. Residents have long complained of exclusion from the national decision-making process -- whether in political office or in local development planning -- and of heavy-handed security services.

A degree of autonomy was restored to Sinai after the collapse of Egypt's state security apparatus in January 2011. "The January revolution brought back our freedom," said Abdelkarim, a member of el-Mehdiya's Sawarka tribe. "Suddenly there was no harassment from the police. They used to stop us at checkpoints just because we were Bedouins, treating us like we were not human. After the revolution, they went away, but now they're back and our freedom is gone."

The security vacuum that lasted throughout Morsy's brief presidency brought other benefits to the local community, which was quick to establish coping mechanisms of its own. In the absence of access to employment opportunities, the illicit economy flourished as many earned money from unlicensed tourism services, cannabis and opium cultivation, and arms smuggling into Israel and Gaza. Over time, jihadi movements also gained a stronger foothold, their strength bolstered by weaponry that flowed into Sinai from Libya after the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi.

In some ways, Sinai's position as a geopolitical battleground has prevented the sort of development that could have averted the crisis Egypt's government now faces. The 1978 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel place severe limitations on troop deployments in the peninsula. Although this separation of state forces once enhanced regional security, it would later contribute to Sinai's security vacuum. Repeated promises of government-funded development projects have also fallen by the wayside, adding to the list of locals' grievances.

"Historically, it was Camp David which put severe restrictions over the Egyptian government's ability to exercise authority in the area," said Nicolas Pelham, a Sinai expert and writer on Middle East affairs for the Economist. "Limitations on the state's military presence over the huge swaths of territory where most of the population is concentrated has allowed for the buildup of other forces which the state couldn't control because it didn't have the ability to do so."

The Camp David Accords split the peninsula into three zones with different levels of security. Although the accords allow for the deployment of 22,000 Egyptian troops and 230 tanks in the western half of the peninsula, Egypt's authorities are prevented from using anything other than light weaponry in a band of land known as Area B, just east of el-Arish in northern Sinai, and are limited to a police force in Area C, which runs to the border with Israel and Gaza.

In the absence of adequate long-term security cover or development plans, the Egyptian government's militarized approach to dealing with Sinai now feeds a deep sense of alienation. It also provides fertile ground for the thriving militancy. In subjecting entire communities to repressive tactics intended for the area's militants, the ongoing military operation is fusing tribal and jihadi identities.

Militants have congregated in Sinai from myriad places, including the local community, Egypt's Nile Delta region, and neighboring Gaza and Libya. Many are believed to have arrived following prison breaks and mass releases that accompanied the fall of President Hosni Mubarak and the reign of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, as well as during Morsy's presidency.

"Although there are clearly foreign fighters coming to Sinai now, they would not be able to operate there unless they were able to feed off the grievances of the local population," said Pelham. "It's the task of the Egyptian government to recruit local Bedouins to their cause."

Jihadi groups are capitalizing on this sense of isolation and injustice. In a statement released to jihadi forums, al-Salafiya al-Jihadiya in Sinai, a jihadi group with links to militants in Libya and the Sahel, threatened to kill anyone who aids the Egyptian security forces. The message was directly aimed at tribal leaders: "The treacherous agent will only get the sword."

In el-Mehdiya, however, there was little appetite to join the fight that has destroyed so many family homes. Scared and smarting, villagers expressed a deep sense of alienation. "This is a psychological war against all of us now," said Khalil, a local resident who asked that he not be further identified. "They are trying to hurt us so we turf the militants out of our communities. But we feel an injustice, a very bad injustice. If they're not careful, we will explode."

Photo: -/AFP/Getty Images