Monday, January 24, 2011

Is Algeria Next?

By David Kenner
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 24/01/2011
While the community of Middle East leak-watchers is focused on Al Jazeera's release of 1,600 documents from the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, WikiLeaks has released a number of U.S. diplomatic cables that call into question the long-term viability of Algerian strongman Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Particularly in the wake of Tunisia's revolt -- and the U.S. Embassy's success at identifying the seeds of unrest there -- these cables deserve a close read.

The most engaging report is a 2008 cable on disaffected Algerian youth known as "the harraga," or literally "one who burns." Unlike Mohamed Bouazizi, who lit himself on fire in Tunisia two years later, these men aren't burning themselves -- they're burning their identification papers before setting out on makeshift boats in an attempt to reach the shores of Spain or Italy. It's an unbelievably dangerous journey: The embassy estimates that over 90 percent of the harraga die at sea, are detained indefinitely by North African authorities, or are returned to their host country. According to one article cited in the cable, up to 50,000 Algerians and Libyans attempted to reach European shores in search of economic opportunities in 2007.

From the Algerian regime's perspective, perhaps the most troubling aspect of this story is that the harraga hail -- like Bouazizi -- from the society's educated classes. One boat, the embassy reported "includ[ed] five university graduates and two doctors." The grandson of a former Algerian president also departed the country in this way and "has not been heard from since."

A 2007 cable signed by U.S. Amb. Robert Ford -- now the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Damascus -- lays out the consequences of this disaffection more explicitly. The Algerian regime, he writes, is "plagued by a lack of vision, unprecedented levels of corruption and rumblings of division within the military rank and file."

The most explosive comments in the cable are relayed to the embassy by Said Sadi, an opposition leader. Sadi described a conversation that he had with Gen. Toufik Mediene, Algeria's head of military intelligence, who "acknowledged that all was not well with the health of Bouteflika and Algeria writ large." When the conversation turned to Algeria's endemic corruption, Sadi reports that the general "motion[ed] silently to the portrait of Bouteflika that hung over their heads" to indicate where the problem lay.

Ford hedged his bets in late 2007, writing that the embassy does not expect an imminent revolt in Algeria. But in the aftermath of the Tunisian revolt -- and with Algerian protests and self-immolations mounting -- the moment may just be now.

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