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Next Arab Domino May Be Oil Darling Algeria: Reuel Marc Gerecht

October 20, 2011

Oct. 21 (Bloomberg) -- The death of Muammar Qaddafi is a cause for joy in Libya, and for concern. Some worry that the ruling National Transitional Council will force its way to permanent power; others that Islamist elements will seek to put the country under Shariah law; and there is also the danger of the nation splitting into three parts.

But there is another tremendous threat to Libya’s progress waiting quietly next door. Algeria’s military junta is terrified that a rebellious spirit may finally cross its borders. Ever since the Tunisian revolt dethroned President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Washington’s foreign- policy establishment has paid little attention to Algeria, the lodestar of “the Arab West.”

That’s a mistake. With Qaddafi’s fall and next week’s elections in Tunisia, the odds are decent that the Great Arab Revolt will start to shake Algeria. The country is now surrounded by states in transition: Libya, Tunisia and Morocco, where the king just might be laying the groundwork for the Middle East’s first real constitutional monarchy.

Algeria isn’t a closed society. There are probably more Algerians living in the West than any other Arab nationality, and they usually remain in close contact with family and friends back home.

Prized Oil

Although oil and natural gas wealth hasn’t enriched the common man, it has exposed the society -- especially the elite -- to globalization. Algerian oil, with its very low sulfur content, is highly prized in pollution-conscious Europe. The U.S. buys about 30 percent of Algeria’s crude- oil exports, accounting for 3.6 percent of American petroleum imports last year. Algeria is the world’s sixth- largest producer of natural gas, with most of its exports going to Europe.

A former colony of France and profoundly westernized, Algeria was the first major Arab state to flirt with democracy. The military dictatorship -- spiritually bankrupt, economically inept and violently challenged on the streets -- that had ruled the nation unchallenged since the mid-1960s, decided in 1989 to try elections. Yet after the triumph of the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front in local elections in 1990, the junta canceled the experiment. Civil war followed. In a savage duel between the regime and Islamist guerrillas, entire villages were wiped out.

So far, the lingering trauma of that bloodbath has helped save the regime from a new wave of Arab rebellion. But young men have bad memories -- and the Great Arab Revolt of 2011 has been the product of aspiring, deeply frustrated young men. Although the Algerian economy has improved since 1990, economic aspirations have far outstripped the government’s ability to promote job growth.

On top of a corrupt socialist economy, the regime has built a masterpiece of crony capitalism. The dissident historian Mohammed Harbi, who once championed the rebellion against France and now lives in exile in Paris, put it succinctly: “The regime has nothing to offer for the long term. It is not interested in asking where Algeria and Algerians will be in twenty years.”

Nothing really works in the country, except the oil and natural-gas industries, which fuel the police state. Hundreds of thousands have emigrated from the poverty, boredom and brutality of the security services.

In France and Belgium, expatriates have developed a pro-democracy virtual world on the Internet. Although deeply fearful of its powerful neighbor, Tunisia has developed a press that not only critiques its own embrace of democracy but also the resistance to popular government next door.

False Mandate

In the past 10 years, the Algerian regime has worked hard to create the illusion that it enjoys a popular mandate. Thousands of youthful demonstrators who briefly hit the streets after Tunisia and Egypt erupted revealed different sentiments.

If Algeria starts to rumble again, it will be because pro-democracy Algerian secularists detest the military dictatorship more than they fear Islamists. Indeed, in Tunisia and Egypt, Islamic parties have gained strength since the presidents-for-life fell. The wearing of veils has become much more common in Tunis, even in the wealthier neighborhoods.

The Algerian junta held firm in the 1990s partly because the non-Islamist middle and upper classes that detested the regime were repelled by the barbarism of the guerrillas. When jihadists started butchering women and children, the Islamic alternative became too frightful. (Also, the brutality of the government’s forces -- the worst of them happily called themselves “les exterminateurs” -- inspired abject fear.) If the Tunisian and Egyptian elections bring Islamists to power and the sky doesn’t fall, however, the odds of popular unrest in Algeria will shorten further.

The nature of Islamism has changed since 1990. Then, leading voices within the Islamic Salvation Front openly questioned the need for democracy since Shariah had all the answers. Today, while it may partly be duplicity at work, those Algerian voices have almost vanished. In Tunisia and Egypt, the big Islamist movements have embraced representative government -- younger members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood are loudly pro-democracy.

Religious hierarchy in the Middle East is in an advanced state of decay. Established religious institutions got compromised because of their close association with dictatorships.

Driving Force

In Egypt, this has produced ardently pro-democratic young Islamists who challenge their elders from the “left” and hard-core fundamentalist splinter groups who challenge from the “right.” This individualization of the Muslim identity -- “my opinion is just as good as yours” -- is something entirely new to Islam, and its deep penetration into the Middle East is a driving force behind the revolts.

In Algeria, we don’t know where the successors of the Islamic Salvation Front stand, since discussions of man, God and the ballot box have been silenced by the regime. But the secular Arab middle class and the university- educated young throughout the region are no longer offering their unconditional support to secular dictators for fear of what Islamists might bring. The era of “Khomeini anxiety” -- dominated by a fear that revolution and democracy will lead to theocracy -- may be fading.

All this has Algeria’s generals understandably nervous. If elections in Tunisia and Egypt empower Islamists, we can expect Algeria’s leaders to clandestinely aid unrest in Libya, creating a chaotic buffer zone against the spread of popular government.

One thing is certain, if revolt comes to Algeria, anger at the U.S. will probably swell. Twenty years ago, France was still the omnipresent devil. In the popular imagination today, Washington has replaced Paris as the backer of tyranny.

In 2002, William Burns, an assistant secretary of state, remarked in Algiers that the U.S. “has much to learn from Algeria on ways to fight terrorism.” This solicitation has continued under President Barack Obama. Last month, the State Department coordinator for counterterrorism, Daniel Benjamin, was in Algiers. At a counterterrorist conference hosted by the government, he saw an opportunity “for our officials to learn from the experiences of other allied countries, in particular our North African partners.

“Our bilateral cooperation with the Algerian government in the battle against terrorism is now stronger than it has ever been,” he said, covering “issues of public diplomacy, economics, and military aid.”

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has relentlessly used counterterrorism -- the battle against al-Qaeda -- to justify political repression and the severe abuse of human rights. With such careless public comments, American officials reinforce the regime, but deeply anger the citizenry.

Since 1990, Algeria has been a volcano waiting to explode again. The revolts in Libya and Tunisia have probably brought that day closer. The coming shock to energy markets and America’s role in the region may not be small.

(Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former case officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is the author of “The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

--Editors: Tobin Harshaw, David Henry.

Click on “Send Comment” in sidebar display to send a letter to the editor.

To contact the writer of this column: Reuel Marc Gerecht at efratiforty@me.com

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net


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