Algeria: Another Ending


September 9, 2019: Another weekend (the 29th ) of protests in the capital and other cities. A major factor in the persistence of these protests is the fact that 70 percent of the Algerian unemployed are job-seekers in their late teens and 20s. Many have never been able to get a job. The unemployment rate is about 15 percent, up from the 12 percent it was stuck at for several years. Corruption and mismanagement of the former government was seen as a major reason for the high unemployment, especially among the younger Algerians. Another incitement is how the interim government is using its control over mass media to criticize the protestors at every opportunity. This offends younger Algerians most of all because they are the most media savvy. They may be poor but most have cellphones and now how the media works.

The growing number of arrests and prosecutions of senior officials includes many connected with the oil and gas industry. This is the primary export and the one that brings in most of the foreign exchange needed to pay for imports. Oil industry expansion plans are now on hold. This is a big deal because the current government budget assumes an oil price nearly twice what it is now. The world oil price is not expected to rise and is more likely to decline again. Even before the change of government, financial desperation had forced the corrupt oil industry bureaucrats to finally allow needed reforms to slowly move forward. Algeria could no longer afford to be sloppy with oil industry upgrades so that some well-connected officials could get rich. The budget deficits were a greater threat. Now all these needed reforms are on hold again as the corrupt deals are uncovered, eliminated and efforts made to replace them. The arrest, or threat of arrest, for so many owners or managers of major businesses has also stifled any hopes of rapid economic reform to reduce unemployment.

Follow The Dwindling Money

The government has a way to measure how long it can avoid making decisive and effective changes in the economy and avoid a popular uprising. It all depends on how long the foreign currency reserves last. They dipped below $100 billion at the end of 2017 and are headed for $64 billion at the end of 2019 and $47 billion by the end of 2020. The government inability to reform (suppress corruption) the economy quickly enough to reduce vulnerability to low oil prices becomes obvious when the foreign reserve situation is reported, as they must be to placate foreign exporters and lenders. Foreign exchange reserves, essential to pay for imports, keep declining because 70 percent of what Algerians consume is imported. Replacing a lot of those imports with locally produced food and manufactured goods takes time and the elimination of many laws and customs that allowed the FLN party and corrupt leaders like Bouteflika to prosper and survive since the 1960s.

This is not a new problem because since the collapse of oil prices after 2013, the foreign currency reserves have enabled the government to put off carrying out the extensive reforms and anti-corruption measures needed to revive the economy and achieve the degree of economic growth that would solve the unemployment problems. Those cash reserves were $193 billion in mid- 2014 and even with cuts to non-essential imports the cash reserves kept shrinking. The government cut its budget 14 percent in 2017 in order to get the budget deficit down to 8 percent (versus 15 percent in 2016). Even so after five more years of this, the foreign currency reserves will be less of a cushion and more of a threat because of all the additional budget cuts. By 2018 it was obvious that budget cuts and reductions in imports was not going to work and most Algerians knew it. That was one of the issues that led to the April overthrow of FLN rule. The current unrest is all about what replaces the FLN and if the replacements can fix the economy.

Who Decides

The military-dominated interim government refuses to even consider the protestors' main demand, for more time to organize political parties and develop proposals for reform and revival of economic growth. The unpopular interim government, run by the army general who persuaded former president Bouteflika to resign, says he will announce a date for the presidential elections on September 15th and that date is believed to be in December 2019. The current anti-corruption efforts seem directed at consolidating support for a new president who will be more like a younger Bouteflika than a true democrat and reformer most Algerians want.

The number of protestors is still large but the crowds are growing smaller. It was estimated that the first demonstrations brought out more than two percent of the population in a successful effort to convince an unpopular and ineffective president Bouteflika to resign. Protestors see the interim government as a continuation of the old one minus many of the most corrupt officials. The protestors want all senior officials from the Bouteflika era gone and freedom to form new political parties and form a new election commission. That does not appear to be what the military run interim government has in mind.

Violence Is Not An Option

The interim government has ordered that troops and police avoid violence against the demonstrators at all costs. Army leaders know that shooting of protestors risks another civil war. The generals are aware of the fact that most of the troops and junior officers side with the general population. As long as the demonstrations are non-violent, most of the troops and police confronting the crowds will follow orders and stick with crowd control. The security forces cannot be relied on to use lethal force against the demonstrators unless the demonstrators fire first. The demonstrators show no interest in doing that although many protestors back suggestions that more disruptive tactics be used. This would include blocked streets and protestors occupying government buildings.

Algerians want to avoid repeating what happened in Egypt. There the 2011 Arab Spring uprising overthrew the decades old Mubarak government, which was similar to the Bouteflika rule in Algeria. Egypt conducted fair elections and an Islamic political coalition gained power and promptly made itself very unpopular by trying to impose what amounted to an Islamic religious dictatorship. Another popular upheaval led to another general getting elected and a return to what appears to be another corrupt government dominated by the military.

The Algerian generals have a lot of power, and a certain amount of popularity, for winning the war with Islamic terrorists in the 1990s and diminishing the capabilities of surviving Islamic terror groups ever since. Most Algerians want to avoid the fate of Egypt but there is no agreement on how to do it and the most senior Algerian generals are not cooperating.

The main target of the protests are now FLN and Bouteflika associates running the interim government. For 90 days after a president resigned the interim president was Abdelkader Bensalah, the head of the upper house of parliament. This was what the current constitution called for. Despite that, the real leader of the interim government has been armed forces commander and vice minister of defense Ahmed Gaid Salah. This general has been playing kingmaker as he was the one who convinced Bouteflika to step down without a fight. The official interim president term expired on July 9th and now the frequent pro-democracy demonstrations are larger and louder because the interim government is officially out of constitutional authority. Salah is trying to get agreement on extending the interim presidency of Bensalah because that adds legitimacy to Salah’s power. No success there either. Compromise is needed but not much is to be seen anywhere, not yet.

The End Of Local ISIL

ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) itself never established a branch in Algeria but one of the few al Qaeda factions still active in Algeria did and is now about to be exterminated in eastern Algeria, on both sides of the Tunisian border in a mountainous area near the sea. This will be the climax of a five year long battle ISIL has waged, and lost, in Algeria and Tunisia.

Back in 2014 ISIL first appeared in coastal areas east of the Algerian capital that had been used by Islamic terrorists since the 1990s. This was the result of men who belonged to a group called Jund al Khalifa deciding to join ISIL. Jund al Khalifa was the local branch of AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). In September 2014 Jund al Khalifa renounced its ties to al Qaeda and declared its allegiance to ISIL. Only two months before that AQIM leaders had reaffirmed their allegiance to al Qaeda and condemned ISIL, which had recently declared a new caliphate (Islamic empire run by ISIL) in Syria and Iraq. Once it joined ISIL Jund al Khalifa became a lot more violent. Small groups of AQIM have been hiding out in the coastal mountains east of the capital for years and security forces were constantly searching the thinly populated mountains and forests of Bouira province. One reason AQIM survived in this area was because they kept quiet and tended to their criminal activities (drug smuggling) and cultivating new members. This strategy did not appeal to the more radical Jund al Khalifa which preferred the more radical ISIL approach. This meant losing a lot of members, some of whom surrendered to the government and provided information on Islamic terrorist activities in the coastal areas. That, plus the public outrage at the renewed Islamic terrorist violence and the growing availability of cell phones (the Islamic terrorists’ worst enemy) was the beginning of the end.

By mid-2016 Jund al Khalifa appeared to be gone from their usual Algerian coastal haunts. There was little evidence that many AQIM members remained either. There are still some Islamic terrorists and supporters in Algeria but they are gone from their usual areas of operation and the search is on to find out where any may still be in the country.

What happened was that Jund al Khalifa had, like many Algerian Islamic terrorists, fled to Tunisia. Individuals who could fled to Europe or Syria to “defend the Caliphate.” But most ended up across the border in Tunisia (Kasserine province) and soon began carrying out attacks throughout Tunisia. The backlash in Tunisia was devastating, despite survivors of ISIL defeats in Syria and Libya showing up in Tunisia. By late 2018 the remaining ISIL members were trapped in the mountains of Kasserine province and the end seemed near.

Polisario Problem Persists

The prospect of a new government in Algeria is good news for neighbor Morocco because the old government had continued supporting Polisario separatists in southern Morocco long after the Polisario rebels were defeated. But Polisario lives on in southwestern Algeria where refugee camps full of Moroccan refugees are being held prisoner by the remaining Polisario rebels, who are now threatening to implement a military draft in the refugee camps and form an army to invade Morocco. The UN believes this is not helpful (to put it mildly) and has long urged Algeria to cooperate with Morocco and end this tragedy once and for all. Even the UN agreed that Polisario was now the problem and not the solution to anything. Polisario did not take this well.

In late 2018 the king of Morocco proposed peace talks between Algeria and Morocco to finally settle a four-decade feud over Algerian support for a failed rebellion against Moroccan rule of its southern most region (Western Sahara). The Bouteflika government ignored this latest peace offer because, well, the FLN dominated Algerian government in power all that time did not like to admit mistakes. Meanwhile, that mistake simmers in southwestern Algeria (Tindouf Province) where local police have a growing problem with the many supporters of Islamic terrorism living in refugee camps for people from Western Sahara. Algeria has long tried to avoid confronting the growing problem with Islamic terrorists and criminal activity in these camps. That is changing as is the Algerian attitude towards Polisario. In early 2018 Algeria assured neighbor Morocco and the UN that it no longer had anything to do with Polisario, a group of Moroccan terrorists that Algeria helped create decades ago. Then an Algerian Air Force transport crashed on takeoff in April 2018 and among the 257 dead were 26 Polisario members. The transport was taking off from a base near the Algerian capital carrying mainly military personnel. This was more than an embarrassment, it confirmed the accusations that Algeria could not be trusted when it came to Polisario, and perhaps other matters as well. For example, Algeria is one of the few Sunni majority Arab countries that supports the Syrian Assad government. Algeria is a major customer for Russian weapons and admirer of current Russian politics (the creation of a “president for life” in what is supposed to be a democracy), which is now very similar to what Algeria has had since the 1960s. Back (before 1991) when Russia was the Soviet Union, the Russians backed Algerian efforts to support and encourage Polisario and thereby weaken neighbor Morocco. That was because Morocco was, and still is, a centuries-old monarchy and a more efficient government than the democratic dictatorship in Algeria. Morocco has accused Algerian leaders of being lying hypocrites and in 2018 the UN and many other nearby nations were agreeing with that.

Polisario has always caused problems with neighboring Morocco and the problem got worse in 2013. Algeria and Morocco recalled ambassadors and there was the talk of escalation. This made cooperation in counter-terrorism efforts (or anything else) with Morocco impossible. Meanwhile, Polisario provided Islamic terrorists safe haven in Polisario refugee camps in Algeria (90,000 refugees) and Mauritania (24,000). This is all connected with the declining prospects of Polisario, which has been in bad shape since 1991. Back then, Morocco finally won its war with Polisario Front rebels, who were seeking independence for Western Sahara (a region south of Morocco).

Polisario remains powerful in Mauritania, where the rebel group has official recognition and maintains several refugee camps. At the beginning (the 1960s) Polisario was so well-subsidized by Algeria, back when Algeria was a radical state, that Polisario still had enough diehards out there to keep lots of people in Western Sahara unhappy. This situation has also provided recruits and sanctuary for al Qaeda and other Islamic radicals. Since the 1990s the UN has been trying to work out a final peace deal between Polisario and Morocco. During the 1990s Algeria said it cut off all support for Polisario. But that, and UN efforts to mediate the differences have just not worked. The contested area is largely desert with a current population of less than 600,000. Logic would have it that the area is better off as a part of Morocco. But there are still thousands of locals who would rather fight for independence than submit to Morocco.

Some resistance is tribal and cultural, with the Moroccans seen as another bunch of alien invaders. The area was administered until 1976 as a Spanish colony. Most Western Saharans have made peace with Moroccan rule, especially since Morocco has been spending a billion dollars a year on infrastructure and other improvements and doing so for decades. Western Sahara is a much nicer place because of that. Polisario still has several thousand armed men based in the refugee camps and refuses to accept Moroccan rule of Western Sahara. Polisario has become an outlaw organization with no real purpose. If the fighting breaks out again Morocco could defeat Polisario, but Polisario still has a sanctuary in the Algerian refugee camps. There Polisario discourages any talk of peacefully returning to Western Sahara, even though a growing number of the camp residents are quietly doing that. The refugee camps have become police states run by Polisario and tolerated, until now, by Algeria. As more veteran Algerian Islamic terrorists are captured or surrender the information they provide keeps pointing back to Polaisario as a major source of support for AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and its lucrative smuggling (drugs, people, weapons) from the south into Algeria. Polisario was hoping to avoid a major confrontation with Algerian security forces over this, which is becoming more difficult to do.

September 2, 2019: In the east, across the border in Tunisia (Kasserine province) ISIL gunmen clashed with soldiers and police in the Kef mountains. Three of the Islamic terrorists were killed, two of them turned out to be two Algerians. One of them was well known and believed involved in planning most Islamic terror attacks in Tunisia since 2013. A police commander was also killed but the troops seized four assault rifles and three explosive vests. Troops also pursued the surviving ISIL gunmen into the mountains. The Tunisian branch of ISIL has been active recently and took credit for two suicide bomb attacks in the Tunisian capita during June. One policeman was killed and eight people wounded. Attacks like this are rare in Tunisia and even less frequent in Algeria. ISIL had tried to establish itself in eastern Algeria but after several years of activity (and heavy losses) the remaining ISIL personnel fled to Libya or Tunisia, where ISIL maintains at least one Tunisian camp in the coastal mountains the border runs through. The Algerian security forces are still watching the borders, but doing so with a bit less manpower since February 2019 because of the need to assign troops to riot control duty.

August 20, 2019: In the east, security forces guarding the Tunisian border were alerted by Tunisia that current operations against ISIL members indicated that some of them may be using camps on the Algerian side of the border. Tunisia estimates that there are only about 40 ISIL members left in Tunisia and they appear to be in Kasserine province, which is on the Algerian border close to the coast. This area is mountainous and sparsely populated and long a hideout for Islamic terrorists. Local civilians have been threatened by ISIL but the widespread use of cellphones has made it easy for civilians to anonymously report suspected ISIL activity. This includes unfamiliar people seen passing through sparsely populated rural areas. The local ISIL fugitives are too few to launch an effective effort to terrorize the local population via threats, kidnappings and murder. As long as Algerian and Tunisian security forces along the border continue cooperating, which they have been doing despite the political chaos in Algeria, these last ISIL remnants are trapped. This group has already lost many members in Algeria and is now finding Tunisia nearly as lethal and getting worse. There is nowhere else in the region that these ISIL remnants can safely flee to. The Tunisian patrols and security measures (roadblocks, cooperation and coordination with local civilians) are more intense. Algerian border forces are aware that the Tunisian ISIL group may decide to flee to Algeria is the final option and the Algerian security forces want to help make that final for ISIL.


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