During a phone call last week with a dear Algerian friend, we discussed how the Arab media dealt with the hostages issue in In Amenas and the wider regional crisis triggered by the armed conflict in Mali. And I believe, as does my Algerian friend, that what happened in In Amenas deserves better attention and a deeper analysis follow-up. But we may disagree that Algeria needs -- from my point of view -- to better understand its internal situation and the larger geo-political environment and its role in both the Arab and Islamic world.
Although I don’t claim to be an expert in Algerian politics, I think that I have enough knowledge of Algeria’s aspired role within the Maghreb region and beyond, in the Arab world within Africa and at a global level.
The Algerian political philosophy was born and raised around “the million martyrs revolution,” or “the revolutionary legitimacy” that isn’t accountable to anyone about any of the choices it makes. Ahmad Bin Bella, then –maybe in a more aggressive way – Houari Boumediene, gave legs to the radical position of Algeria, and spread this romantic revolutionary view across the country, encompassing its subdivisions and cultural differences, and it even went beyond the Algerian borders and throughout the Arab World. Even the regional crises, in which Algeria decided to be involved, emanated from that political definition, of role and status. But the devastating success of the Islamic movement in the December 1991 elections, proved two facts:
Firstly, that the revolutionary legitimacy was both dead and buried when the revolution became a state. That state was hit with corruption and was dominated by the idea of absolute power, without any accountability.
The second fact was the emergence of Political Islam as a key player in the arena of a young country where Muslims constitute a majority, and where Islam is considered the biggest contributor to national unity, among the biggest ethnic and cultural components. And it is worth mentioning that in North Africa, in particular, Islam had an active role in strengthening national unity, that even the Algerian “revolutionary legitimacy,” in spite of the revolutionary slogans about socialism and revolution, never detached itself from the legacy of Islamic Clerics such as Abdul-Hameed Bin Badees.
In spite of the efforts led by some groups within the regime to create a violent “Radical Islam” to justify the oppression of the Islamic Hardliners, this oppressive power led many groups down the road of extremism. They found a favorable environment in many marginalized regions in the Islamic world, transforming many parts of Afghanistan, Yemen, and other North African countries into a safe haven and operational field at the same time, for Al-Qaeda and other similar organizations.
The pursuit of these groups – after the September 11th attacks in the U.S and the war against terror – coupled with the tyranny of some governments, the rise of tribal disputes and the economic deterioration of many countries who almost became “failed nations”, led to the concentration of this type of extremism in specific areas such as …. Mali.
We are saying areas not countries, as the borders that were drawn during the colonial period, especially when the French were in North Western Africa, were randomly defined without any realistic roots on the ground. There are many people who live within these borders as scattered minorities and are often in conflict. The Tuareg are a good example, as they are scattered between many countries including Algeria and Libya. Another example is the Fula people or Fulani or Fulbe (the name changes in different countries) who spread from Guinea to Chad and are a minority in every country they have inhabited.
However, was the Algerian leadership surprised by what happened in In Amenas? Wasn’t this predicted or anticipated after the troubles in Mali and the triumph of the revolution in Libya?
And where is the strategic perspective of Algeria, which refrained from supporting the national revolution in Syria…and contributed (even on a small scale) in hindering its timely success, then, opened the door to hardliners and extremists to join it?
How does the Algerian leadership assess its role in “an Arab spring” that’s redefining itself at a very high price in terms of economic cost and human loss? Isn’t it time for the idealistic ideas to retreat and give room for a more conscious approach in dealing with challenges -- while religious extremism is committing one mistake after another throughout the Arab world following mistakes committed by regimes that falsely claimed liberalism and were ousted by “the Arab Spring”?
This article was published in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat on Jan. 28, 2013.
Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with An-Nahar newspaper in Lebanon. Joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances, active in academic, social and charity work, and a former active member of the Labour Party in the UK.