Published: October 12, 2019
The demonstrations that have engulfed Algeria since February present an unwelcome challenge to Europe’s foreign policy establishment, already confronted with fast-moving and unpredictable developments in Ukraine, Turkey, Syria and Libya.
Africa’s largest country is going through a slow-motion revolution in which millions of people — the Hirak — are pressing for radical political change, demanding from their military rulers, who have held a monopoly of power since independence in 1962, a voice in governing their country and shaping its future. Looking at their own history and the bloody aftermath of the misnamed “Arab spring,” they refuse to resort to violence.
Until last summer, the two dozen ageing generals who run Algeria and their spokesman, the 79-year-old chief-of-staff Ahmed Gaid Salah, showed restraint and pretended they were open to dialogue but no longer.
The media are in lockdown as Algerian journalists and human rights activists are being jailed. Some have begun on a hunger strike and are being tried by military courts. Foreign journalists are no longer granted visas. Modern social media, however, make it impossible for Gaid Salah to shield Algeria from international eyes as his predecessors were able to do during the civil war of the 1990s.
More immediate foreign policy issues than Algeria will catch the attention of the newly minted EU Commission. All the frontiers of Europe are in turmoil, from Ukraine to North Africa, the one demanding immediate attention being Turkey’s threat to conquer a buffer zone in northern Syria. As the president of the old continent’s long-standing ally, Donald Trump, plays rogue, devising a global strategy is a daunting task. Yet that is the challenge that awaits the new European Foreign Affairs commissioner, former Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell.
North Africa, including the never-ending chaos in Libya, the incapacity of Tunisia to reform and the uncertainty regarding Algeria’s immediate future, confronts the European Union with difficult challenges on its very doorstep, in countries from which it imports oil, gas, phosphates and fertilisers, to which it sends millions of tourists every year and that host many companies owned or co-owned by European investors.
The European Union needs good working relations with North African countries to help manage immigration flows and broader security, two themes that feed into the rising tide of populist discourse. No EU African policy worthy of the name can be constructed without a dialogue of equals between major European countries — notably Spain, Italy and France — and Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.
The European Union must take into consideration the clever way in which Russia has reinserted itself into the Mediterranean and African game. Growing Chinese economic interests — its Belt and Road Initiative has staging posts across sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb, not least Algeria — are here to stay.
Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, have walk-on parts, not least in Libya but also further west, which some European powers have tried to leverage to little success. France, in particular, seems unnerved by the presence of these new actors but its leaders need to appreciate that the days when it could behave as if its former colonies were part of its exclusive sphere of interests are gone forever.
French wishes, whether expressed bilaterally with Algeria or through the EU Commission, no longer carry the weight they once did. In 1989-91, France “convinced” the European Union not to lend serious financial support to the bold economic reforms led by Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid and his prime minister, Mouloud Hamrouche, both of whom were colonels of the People’s National Armed Forces.
Today, some French media suggest Algeria is financially bankrupt and private Algerian firms are finding it difficult to access credit lines to buy from European firms and suggest that the International Monetary Fund is to send a mission to Algiers to discuss terms of a rescue package. Nothing could be further from the truth. If leading EU banks decide to tighten trade credit lines to bona fide Algerian companies, Gulf and Chinese banks will be happy to oblige.
As the biological clock ticks away for Algeria’s leaders, the first challenge is to understand the new generation. Whether elections take place under Gaid Salah’s rules (candidates vetted before they decide to stand, like in Iran, result of the poll cooked after people cast their ballot) carries risks.
A presidential poll vote dressed up as karagoz (Ottoman puppets) will not rebuild trust, a key factor for domestic and international investors. It would destroy the hope of seeing through much-needed economic reforms. It would encourage capital flight. If only because of their private economic interests, some senior officers understand that economic reform does not stand a chance without recasting the political governance in Algeria.
Fear of radical Islamic parties, were free elections allowed in Algeria, haunts some European observers, hence their worry about a free and fair poll, but political parties that carry an Islamic label in the Maghreb are here to stay.
That said, Europeans and NATO officials agree that Algeria, although a reticent partner in multilateral security endeavours, is as good as its word when it comes to fighting terrorism usually through bilateral country agreements. It is worth noting that not one act of terrorism has occurred during eight months of massive demonstrations at a time when the police and gendarmerie have had their hands full with political protests.
Protesters in Algeria have shown a keen appreciation of the repeated attempts of their leaders to divide them along Arab versus Berber, Eastern versus Western Algeria or Islamist versus lay parties fault lines. European media seem to attach greater importance than necessary to information peddled by state-sponsored propaganda trolls.
Two broad points need to be made. First, it would do EU leaders no harm to reaffirm their belief in the freedom of the press, criticise the jailing of journalists, political opposition leaders and human rights activists and insist on fair trials. Repression of the media is worse than under Boumediene in the 1970s
If the European Union fails to stand up for its principles at a time of growing repression in Algeria, when some of those who have been arrested are on hunger strike and Algerian National Radio journalists are threatening to strike indefinitely because state broadcasting is forced to sing Gaid Salah’s praise from dawn to dusk, it will lose all credibility.
Since the EU Commission is unlikely to be allowed to send independent observers to monitor the presidential poll, it should not wave the vote through. That is the second key point. Gaid Salah’s rules do not amount to democracy.
In Tunisia, the army and security forces have ensured a free and fair vote. That is unlikely to be the case in Algeria. source