Will The Arab Spring Ever Reach Algeria?

Algerian security services clashed with youth demonstrating over high unemployment and food prices.
Algerian security services clashed with youth demonstrating over high unemployment and food prices.
Jacques Hubert-Rodier

- Editorial -

PARIS - A revolution is a riot that has succeeded. A riot is a revolution that has failed...

For the second time since 1990, Algeria has missed another rendezvous with history, the Arab Spring. Like Saudi Arabia, it remained mostly extraneous to the unrest that overwhelmed the Arab world and led to the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in neighboring Tunisia in Jan. 2011, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt the following month, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in October, and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen last February. A similar fate appears to be drawing closer for Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Paradoxically, all the ingredients for a regime change can be found in Algeria. Just like in Egypt and several other Arab countries, "Algeria is facing demographic pressure, a police state, a private company and there has been no significant reform," recently noted Bruce Riedel from the Brookings Institution, a former CIA officer and adviser to the White House.

Yet these ingredients were not enough to create a significant movement. The wave of protests of Jan. and Feb. 2011 against the soaring food prices was marked by riots and demonstrations despite tight police control. But aside from the lifting of the state of emergency, it did not lead to any deep institutional change.

Just like the King of Morocco, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika gave the "illusions of reforms" without creating any significant change in the country, notes Barah Mikail from the European think tank FRIDE (Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior).

If these social movements are frequent (10,000 were reported in 2012), "they are a short, weak and geographically limited," as showed Louisa Dris-Aït Hamadouche in one of her studies. According to this political analyst from the University of Algiers, "they can arise for any pretext: a soccer game, public housing distribution, a power outage or the revocation of someone's driving license." Yet they fail to gain the momentum they did in several other Arab countries.

A rich country

The first reason for this relative restraint lies in the trauma of the “black decade”– the civil war between the Islamists and the government that led to the deaths of more than 100,000 people after the cancellation of the 1991 elections that would have been won by the Islamic Salvation Front (ISF). This may explain why the desire for a securitarian approach is so strong in Algeria today. The war in Libya and its aftermath, the growth of terrorist cells in the Sahel as well as in Northern Mali, have also enhanced this sentiment. "Algerians prefer stability. This explains a certain adhesion of the population to the current regime," says Barah Mailkai. A sign of this was the clear victory of the former single party NLF (National Liberation Front) in last May's election.

Yet this is not enough to explain why the population hasn’t experienced as much unrest as its neighbors. Algeria is a rich country. According to the International Monetary Fund, which just borrowed $5 billion from Algeria to refund its emergency rescue funds, the country’s foreign reserves are actually at $205 billion, with a public debt that is under 9% of the GDP. This financial situation allows the government to maintain subsidies and "buy itself" a relative social peace – like in Saudi Arabia. According to many analysts, the situation of the Algerian people is better on average than the Moroccan's, although there are still huge disparities – especially amongst young people, who are the worst hit by unemployment.

Another reason is the fragmentation of the representation within society. The government has encouraged the multiplication of associations and trade unions – that they have failed to structure in a single force. Writer Mohamed Kacimi also blames the absence of a real elite, despite the "existence of scattered and isolated voices here and there." In an interview with daily newspaper El Watan, he said: "Algerian society has been undermined and broken up by the colonial presence,” and then by the civil war "that dismantled civilian society and decimated the intelligentsia." This is different than Tunisia and Egypt, where "the backbone of society is stronger, thanks to its cultural, social and economic bases."

Another – more complex – factor for this lifelessness lies in the tight police control of the society as well as the fact that Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been head of state since 1999 and is considered to be "a sort of shelter value," as Barah Mikail puts it. His removal would probably lead to a period of uncertainty.

Although Algeria did not have its Arab Spring, no one can exclude a brutal awakening. Income from gas has its limits and it is not sure if this income can be guaranteed with shale gas – something the country is believed to have plenty of. On top of that, Algerian society remains deeply unequal and ridden by corruption. The weakness of the political parties in the opposition should not hide the fact that Algerians are extremely politicized. And finally, who had foreseen the awakening of the Arab World in 2010?

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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