Just World Educational is pleased to continue its focus on the remarkable events in Algeria by publishing this very recent exchange of letters between William Quandt, a political scientist who wrote his first book (in 1968) on Algeria’s then-recent liberation struggle against France, and Amin Khan an Algerian intellectual, poet, and former diplomat who is actively involved in today’s popular revolution. They have been friends for more than thirty years.
It is particularly timely to focus attention on Algeria today, since today is the country’s Independence Day… and also a day when millions of Algerians are expected to go into the streets once again demanding change—acting peacefully and with a great sense of unity.
Letter to an Algerian friend
Early July, 2019
I have been watching from afar the remarkable developments in Algeria since February of this year. It is really impressive to see Algerians recovering their sense of purpose, their national identity, their self-confidence, and their determination to make for themselves a better future—echoes of November 1954, when the National Liberation Front, FLN, first launched its armed struggle against the French, but now with a much different Algeria, and with a lot of recent history to deal with. So, as a long-time friend of Algeria and observer of its politics, I would love to get your reactions to a couple of my observations and to learn your views on the current situation.
** The next few weeks strike me as likely to be a crucial turning point for this extraordinary mass movement in Algeria. Next Friday (July 5) will be the twentieth week of nation-wide protests—and celebrations—all conducted with a sense of purpose, peacefulness, and surprising good humor. Even the increasingly harsh measures taken by the police have not provoked a violent reaction, and that speaks to the political sophistication and self-discipline of the movement. Also noteworthy: July 5 will be the fifty-seventh anniversary of Algeria’s hard-won independence. I was there when the fifth anniversary was celebrated, and so much has happened since! For the first time in a long time, I think many Algerians must be feeling hopeful about their future.
Presumably the interim President will give one of his few, and probably last, speeches on Friday, but it is hard to believe that he will say anything that will change the movement’s firm call for him and the prime minister to leave. Perhaps we will also hear another wooden speech from the head of the armed forces, Gaid Salah, who seems remarkably tone-deaf, especially after all the early emphasis from the protesters that they want the people’s army to side with the people. Gaid Salah seems very inflexible, but I also don’t see any way of avoiding trying to deal with him and his colleagues. They, after all, do hold the keys to power, as they have been demonstrating all along.
Meanwhile, it seems that several strands are beginning to converge among the democratic opposition to the current power holders. Drawing on the strong desire for change, one current which seems to have strong support among intellectuals and the younger generation, is sketching out a road map for real change: a transitional authority to manage the day-to-day affairs of the country; a constituent assembly to draft a new, democratic, rights-respecting constitution; new electoral laws; and then elections within a year or so. This sounds a bit like Tunisia’s ongoing process of transition, and it has turned out relatively well there, so that is one plausible option.
Another tendency, embraced by some former political figures, seems to be worried about a long transition, and shares the view of the military that early presidential elections should be the focus of attention. Can these two tendencies come together? The statement issued July 4 by seven leading personalities offers some indication that they might (English translation here.) But I guess we will know more before too long.
There also seems to be some difference of opinion over the preconditions for engaging in a dialogue with the current power holders. Should there first be a release of political prisoners, an easing of pressure on the media, and a reduction of police harassment during the weekly marches? And should the criminalization of carrying the Amazigh banner be immediately ended? Or should talks start soon, with these items clearly at the top of the agenda?
If this window of opportunity over the next several weeks closes, what comes next? Can the revolution remain peaceful indefinitely?
** A second set of reflections that I would like your views on have to do with the re-engagement with history. I have been fascinated to see the current young generation finally rediscovering inspiration in the early days of the Algerian revolution. I imagine that a version of this history has been taught in the schools for decades but now it seems as if the youth want to embrace the early “Novembrists”, and to emulate their patriotism, their egalitarian ethos, their consultative style, their preference for the political over the military—in short, they rediscovered the early ideals that motivated those who gave everything for the freedom of their country. And with that comes a preference for democracy, pluralism and secularism. Islam is of course a part of the national identity, but it is not a dominant current with its own demands in competition with nationalism, as it had seemed to be during the terrible civil war of the 1990s. Historic freedom fighters like Larbi Ben M’Hidi and Muhammad Boudiaf and Abane Ramdane would be thrilled to see their values being embraced by the younger generation.
I also sense that, like the early revolutionaries, today’s youth are suspicious of anyone who wants to wield power. Hence the reluctance to pick leaders to represent the movement or to try to institutionalize the movement in some form. And while this is understandable given the abuses of those who have held power in the past, successful political movements do need to develop institutions and leaders. The very horizontal nature of power in the current movement will have to give way at some point to some kind of more vertical structure. That will not be an easy transition, and especially in an Algeria that has always been fiercely egalitarian.
** Finally, I have a number of questions which may or may not be answerable.
1. Most commentators seems to assume that a strong presidency is the model that will work best for Algeria. But past history has shown its shortcomings, and it might make sense to pay more attention to the advantages of a stronger parliament, as the Tunisians seem to have concluded. Is that now part of the current thinking, or is it still the case that most people think that a freely elected president with extensive powers will be able to push through the needed reforms more easily than a possibly fractious parliament?
2. Politics is understandably now at the forefront of discussions, but the economy also needs careful attention. Is there serious planning being done for moving toward a less oil/gas-dependent economy? Rentier economies in the Middle East have led to vast corruption and inefficiencies. How can Algeria escape the oil curse? There are also a huge number of social issues that will need to be addressed. This is vital for the long-term success of the revolution, but is less exciting, and less susceptible to immediate change than the rules of the political game. Is there a model that is gaining attention?
3. After this period of impressive mass mobilization passes, and the country returns to a more normal rhythm of life, how can you hope to keep the enthusiasm of the youth, in particular, as the challenges that confront them are the more mundane ones of finding a decent job, participating in the slow and frustrating challenges of overhauling a very bureaucratic system, of trying to make the new democratic institutions work reasonably well? I’m sure there are good answers to this question, but the experiences elsewhere of the “Arab spring” uprisings are not very encouraging, with the partial exception of Tunisia. As at the time of independence in 1962, popular expectations of rapid change will be very high and the potential for disappointment is correspondingly great.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Letter to an American friend
July 4, 2019
Happy 4th of July!
I thank you very much for your letter. A letter that testifies to your constant interest for my country, and, also, to your fine knowledge of its history. What is happening in Algeria is indeed quite extraordinary. Here is a people that, as a whole and in a sense of profound union, finds again the meaning of what it is, of what it wants to be and of what it can be. I do not think there is a historical equivalent to these popular demonstrations which, every Friday since February 22, 2019, mobilize the majority of the 43 million Algerians, the equivalent of almost the entire electorate, across all regions, towns and villages of the country, men and women of all generations, of all social groups and of all ideological and political tendencies. For more than four months now, it has been the overwhelming majority of the Algerian people who want and demand the departure of the regime.
The people refuse to continue to put up with an illegitimate, authoritarian, inefficient and corrupt regime. In 1962, this regime usurped the popular sovereignty at the moment when the Algerians finally obtained their national independence. Tomorrow, July 5, we will celebrate the 57th anniversary of our independence. This celebration will be exceptional, because for the first time since 1962, it will be a popular celebration, massive, peaceful and joyful. In addition, Algerians will celebrate the victory of the Algerian revolution against colonialism while they are in the midst of a second revolution: a peaceful democratic popular revolution for the sovereignty of the people, for dignity, justice and freedom.
This beautiful revolution is an unmistakable demonstration that people can take their destiny into their own hands when they have the will, when they are ready to fight for their ideas, for their rights, for their freedom; and this, whatever the difficulties, the obstacles, and the strength of the opponents may be. The current revolution is facing great difficulties today, but nothing compared to the difficulties faced by our predecessors who, for decades, resisted and fought French colonial rule in Algeria, which lasted 132 years, and almost erased the historical identity of the Algerian people. It is the will, the determination, the courage, and the sacrifice of millions of Algerians that has allowed Algeria to live.
Today, 57 years after a hard-won independence and the founding of the modern Algerian state, the Algerian people are returning to the course of their history, renewing their raison d’être, and rising to abide by their most important values. Today we are fighting for the rule of law, a democratic regime, a lasting Constitution and legitimate institutions. It is for this purpose that the Algerian people are mobilized and are determined to fight until the departure of the current regime and the establishment of a regime of popular sovereignty.
Nevertheless, obstacles on the way are numerous and important. The people are facing a regime that is in complete moral, political and intellectual failure, but which, nevertheless, continues to have armed force, a repressive legal arsenal, and clienteles created by the system of corruption rooted throughout the territories, as well as foreign support, including that of some Arab countries terrorized by the idea that there can emerge in our region a country of soon 50 million inhabitants, endowed with great natural and human resources, a young population, energetic, backed by a historical heritage of immense value, that of having liberated itself by itself from colonialism. The emergence of a modern, democratic, developing, free and sovereign Algeria is intolerable for potentates, submissive, vile and corrupt, who live in constant fear of the uprising of peoples they have oppressed for decades in the most abject ways.
For the moment the regime continues to cling to the fictitious solution of a presidential election “as soon as possible”, as the acting Head of State repeated again yesterday (July 3) in a pathetic speech, immediately rejected by the Algerian people who know that “elections” under this regime are only intended to perpetuate it. This “proposal” from the regime goes against the popular will, and only expresses its contempt for the people, the country and its history.
The army, which holds the keys, if not the solution, at least to the timing and the complexity of the solution, is still in an ambiguous position. It says it is on the side of the people, but at the same time opposes the implementation of the solution that the people want: a democratic transition and in particular, that the current government resigns and that it be replaced, for a fixed term, by a government composed of people of integrity and competence, accepted by the popular movement, that such a government, in close consultation with all the political and social forces, creates the most favorable conditions for the elaboration, discussion and the adoption of the new Constitution, that the Government prepare the legal, political and administrative conditions for the holding of presidential, legislative or local democratic elections, including the establishment of an independent body responsible for the preparation and maintenance of elections.
Moreover, while today, at the time when it advocates “dialogue”—a strange dialogue from which it excludes the State and the army—the regime seems to be embarking on the path of repression. It should understand that no serious and responsible dialogue can take place without the release of all political prisoners and that repression against citizens and political activists must cease.
There would still be many things to say but this letter is already too long. I am stopping here for today.