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A fire burns in north-west Algeria. (Photo via STR/AFP)

It has been a troublesome past few days for Algeria, with power outages and drinking water shutoffs impacting the capital Algiers and several other cities during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, celebrated on Friday. Moreover, the banks had a liquidity problem, and country has seen a sharp economic downturn due to lower revenue from its energy industry. Capping this all off were forest fires that have destroyed hundreds of hectares of vegetation.

The combination of these misfortunes prompted President Abdelmadjid Tebboune to launch an investigation into what his administration believes were targeted actions meant to destabilize the country. Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad, speaking to reporters, blamed the water shortages on the deliberate sabotage of a desalination plant. Djerad also said people were caught setting the fires, but he did not provide any further details.

 

The greatest contributors to the forest fires were desertification and rising temperatures

 

The geography journal Méditerranée published a study in 2013 that found the greatest contributors to the forest fires were desertification and rising temperatures accelerated by climate change. The underlying problem was poor urban planning processes that led to population-dense regions burning forests to clear space for agriculture and housing.

Depicting these setbacks as deliberate actions could be a way for the Algerian government to lend itself legitimacy in cracking down on public protests, especially as the Hirak movement continues to gather in the streets demanding the complete overhaul of the Algerian political system.

 

A convoy of coffins containing the remains of twenty-four Algerian resistance fighters killed during the French colonial conquest of the North African country heads toward El Alia Cemetery in Algiers.
A convoy of coffins containing the remains of twenty-four Algerian resistance fighters killed during the French colonial conquest of the North African country heads toward El-Alia Cemetery in Algiers. (AFP)

In a symbolic and widely publicized funeral ceremony, the remains of twenty-four Algerian resistance fighters decapitated for resisting French colonial rule in the nineteenth century were laid to rest on Sunday, July 5. The skulls had been held in France as war trophies for decades until a repatriation agreement was reached, part of an effort by France to make amends for its bloody, destructive colonial history.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune attended the interment of the fighters’ remains at El-Alia Cemetery in the capital Algiers, in a section dedicated to fallen martyrs, on the same day as the country celebrated its fifty-eighth year of independence from France.

 

One of two caskets draped with a Namibian flag, each containing ten human skulls, is taken from an airplane on October 4, 2011, in Windhoek. They were the skulls of Herero and Nama genocide victims taken to Germany more than a century before. (Brigitte Weidlich/AFP)
One of two coffins, each containing ten human skulls, is taken from an airplane on October 4, 2011, in Windhoek, Namibia. They were the skulls of Herero and Nama genocide victims taken to Germany more than a century before. (Brigitte Weidlich/AFP)

 

Reckoning with Colonial History

This gesture by France is reflective of a larger trend among former European powers to acknowledge their colonial histories. In 2011 and 2018, Germany returned the skulls of Herero and Nama people to Namibia, more than a century after a genocide carried out by German colonial troops. The skulls had been sent to German universities for “research” by scientists obsessed with measuring racial differences to justify white supremacy.

In a letter sent to President Félix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo on the sixtieth anniversary of independence from Belgian colonial rule, King Philippe of Belgium expressed his “deepest regrets for the wounds of the past.” During Belgian king Leopold II’s rule of the Congo Free State from 1877 to 1908), millions of Congolese were killed and maimed. After an investigation into abuses, the Belgian parliament took over and ruled the Congo until 1960.

These acts of contrition are appreciated, but they fall short of a full apology demanded by the descendants of those brutalized by colonial-era powers.

 

Algerian president Abdelmadjid Tebboune prays during a ceremony in Algiers on July 5, 2020, to lay to rest the remains of twenty-four resistance fighters returned from Paris after more than a century-and-a-half, on the fifty-eighth anniversary of Algeria’s independence from France. The skulls of the fighters, who were shot and decapitated in the early years of the French occupation, were on display at the Palace of Culture before they were interred in coffins draped with the national flag in El-Alia Cemetery’s Martyrs’ Square. (Via Algerian Presidency Press Office/AFP)
Algerian president Abdelmadjid Tebboune prays during a ceremony in Algiers on July 5, 2020, to lay to rest the remains of twenty-four resistance fighters returned from Paris after more than a century-and-a-half, on the fifty-eighth anniversary of Algeria’s independence from France. The skulls of the fighters, who were shot and decapitated in the early years of the French occupation, were on display at the Palace of Culture before they were interred in coffins draped with the national flag in El-Alia Cemetery’s Martyrs’ Square. (Via Algerian Presidency Press Office/AFP)

Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune has initiated a program to convince highly educated expatriates to return and put their skills to use in service of the country. This charm offensive aimed at the diaspora makes sense as an effort to bring in not only immediate financial gain but also knowledge and expertise as the country finds itself in a precarious economic situation.

The energy industry is the backbone of the Algerian economy. As a result of falling oil prices and the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on petroleum and gas exports, the country’ foreign exchange reserves have plummeted to record lows. The president’s charm offensive toward the diaspora makes sense as an effort to bring in not only immediate financial gain but also knowledge and expertise.

To facilitate this program, Tebboune has been pushing hard for constitutional reform. Among several other changes, it would eliminate a provision that in order to hold public office or another high functionary position, a candidate must hold exclusive Algerian citizenship. Given that most Algerians living abroad have dual citizenship, this provision denies expatriates a chance of entering into civic life.

 

A Major Hurdle for the President’s Plan

The Hirak movement in Algeria poses a challenge to Tebboune’s diaspora outreach. The popular movement has been mobilizing Algerians against the regime since February 2019, holding peaceful mass protests across the country every Friday—save for a brief suspension due to COVID-19—to demand, among others, the dissolution of both chambers of parliament and a fundamentally new constitution.

 

Niger Niamey Billboard G5
A billboard in Niamey, Niger, announcing a summit of heads of state of the G5 Sahel regional security forum. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

 

In the intensely hot, semiarid Sahel zone that bridges the climatic transition from lush West Africa bordering on the Atlantic Ocean to the rocky deserts of North Africa, a deep ideological schism has emerged between competing Salafi-jihadi fighting groups. This rancorous divide, once a topic of speculation, has been manifested in declared pitched battles. The local militants who have sworn an oath to either al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (IS) in the Sahel are openly competing for influence within the Salafi-jihadi thought spectrum, geopolitical and matériel resources, and additional followers to replenish their ranks.

Kalashnikov-tipped sparring between the two absolutist movements has already been reported from Syria to Yemen, and it should not come as a surprise that such clashes are taking place in the impoverished Sahel. It has been speculated that there was some level of cooperation between al-Qaeda and IS factions in West Africa, but the relationship between the otherwise peer competitors has been far from clear.

 

The Salafi-jihadi competitors are trading barbs usually reserved for secular Muslims involved in state bureaucracies or non-Muslim populations

 

On May 7, 2020, the IS weekly publication al-Naba described clashes with al-Qaeda’s current incarnation in the Sahel, an umbrella organization known as Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimeen (Group to Support Islam and Muslims, commonly reported by its transliterated Arabic acronym JNIM). IS characterized its antipathy toward JNIM as a betrayal, which may indicate that some form of modus vivendi existed between the two groups, as has been speculated by Sahel security analysts for some time. If this were in fact the case, it certainly is no more by IS’s own description. This allegation of betrayal does not, however, indicate that the two groups in fact ever collaborated on the battlefield. It more likely means they coexisted without clashing. IS makes an implicit accusation that JNIM may in fact be collaborating with counter-terror elements in an effort to diminish IS, a grievous slander in jihadi circles. The Salafi-jihadi competitors are trading barbs usually reserved for secular Muslims involved in state bureaucracies or non-Muslim populations. Terms such as “apostates,” “hypocrites,” and “dogs,” have been hurled across social media platforms in recent months by these two now bitter opponents.

 

Ideology, Ungoverned Spaces, and French Intervention

The instability in the Sahel today is rooted in a convergence of three key events occurring in the past three decades: the Algerian Civil War turned insurgency, which was triggered in late 1991 following an Islamist electoral victory annulled by the military; the Libyan revolution turned civil war, which began in February 2011; and a hybrid Salafi and ethno-nationalist Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali that sparked a coup d’état in the capital Bamako in April 2012.

The events in Mali in 2012 whereby the country’s already lightly governed north was lost to the aforementioned rebellion led to large-scale foreign military intervention led by France in 2013, soon joined by other extra-regional state military actors. In the post-colonial context, French forces have been continuously present in the wider region since at least 1986, when Operation Épervier was launched in Chad to halt the creeping expansion of Libyan forces below the 16th parallel in that country. French troops remained in Chad for decades, long after the conflict with Libya concluded. Such policies of heavy economic and political engagement in Francophone Africa are known derisively by the controversial portmanteau “Françafrique.” Deep-seated resentment toward Françafrique across the Francophone Sahel has been seized upon by Salafi-jihadi leaders since French boots-on-the-ground overtly returned to Mali and across the Sahel region in the name of aggressive counter-terror operations.

 

Macron Flight to Mali
French president Emmanuel Macron, pictured arriving at Modibo Keita International Airport in Bamako, Mali, on July 2, 2017. Macron traveled to Mali to consolidate Western backing for a regional anti-jihadist force as France beefed up its counter-terror operations in the area. (Luc Gnago/Pool/AFP)

 

When Paris made the move for a hard power intervention in central and northern Mali, it easily siphoned off men and resources from its existing Operation Épervier to begin Operation Serval in January 2013. This mission was a casus belli for the then triumvirate of Salafi-jihadi groups al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); Ansar Eddine; and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, commonly known by its French acronym MUJAO, which ruled for the better part of a year roaming freely in Mali’s Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao regions as well as parts of the Mopti region, implementing their interpretation of Sharia. The scope of the French mission in Mali quickly escalated and morphed into a vast international project bringing in multiple supranational bodies—including the United Nations, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the European Union, and the African Union—in addition to American military partners who have maintained a presence in the region since the launch of the Pan-Sahel Initiative in 2002 and currently maintain two known drone bases in Niger.

 

The militant movements are now more difficult to pursue, as their action space has greatly metastasized since 2013

 

Though Operation Serval was initially quite effective in dislodging Salafi-jihadi fighting groups from the capitals of Mali’s restive regions, the intervention ultimately had the effect of dispersing the then ensconced militants, making them more fluid across regional nation-state borders, even while they are not yet considered a threat to the global order like their equivalents in Yemen. Militant violence quickly seeped into neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso, which, like Mali in 2012, have sparsely populated, under-governed spaces that had been neglected for decades by their respective central governments. The militant movements are now more difficult to pursue, as their action space has greatly metastasized since 2013. Though the French-led intervention restored the territorial integrity of Mali, it can be argued that the wider Sahel has become less stable in the ensuing years.

 

Operation Barkhane
A soldier bearing the insignia of Operation Barkhane on patrol in Mali on November 1, 2017. (Daphné Benoit/AFP)

 

The French troop presence in the Sahel fluctuates between 4,500 and 5,000, under the rubric of Operation Barkhane, established in August 2014. Barkhane is the current counter-terror initiative that succeeded Operation Serval and inherited the infrastructure of Operation Épervier, and is chiefly staged out of N’Djamena, the Chadian capital.

Concomitantly, in 2014, the G5 Sahel was formed in the Mauritanian capital during a summit of five Sahel countries: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. The goal was to enhance cross-border security cooperation among these countries, all grappling with the threat posed by transnational terrorism as well as deeply entrenched criminal networks involved in human and drug trafficking. The G5 Sahel Joint Force, launched in 2017, is meant to include about 5,000 soldiers, cooperating with both Operation Barkhane and the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali—known in security parlance by its French acronym MINUSMA—to secure the Sahel.

 

Salafi Schisms

The contested realm of jihad in North and West Africa is a densely convoluted one. Fighters defect from one outfit to another, leaders shame each other for being too extreme or insufficiently hardline in the face of the enemy, and oaths are pledged to faraway central leaderships in the Levant or South Asia. JNIM, the al-Qaeda wing of the region’s Salafi-jihadi fighters, has effectively capitalized on historical discontent dating to well before independence, as it has made dislodging the “crusader” French presence its most vociferous goal. While a French departure on JNIM’s terms may seem preposterous, it demonstrates that the al-Qaeda-aligned fighters are being pragmatic in their approach, at least in terms of their statements, though its attacks have not abated. The fact that JNIM is demanding the French leave Mali specifically seems to indicate that its leadership recognizes the undeniable reality of modern Mali as a nation-state. In stark contrast, IS holds the worldview that erasing borders drawn in the colonial era is one of its core tenets in order to “remain and expand.” Therefore, it views JNIM’s position as an unacceptable capitulation that deviates from Salafi ideology to the detriment of the ummah, the global Muslim community it claims to represent, while seeking to purify the faith by violent means.

The presence of foreign armies, including the regional contingents of the G5 militaries that operate in tandem with the French and MINUSMA, acts as a magnet for militant attacks. These vulnerable bases populate a more target-rich environment for marauding groups. Despite backing by Paris, its partners in Berlin, and the EU more broadly, the G5 is woefully underfunded to combat the numerous militant groups in theater. State fragility is on the rise in many rural regions where JNIM and IS currently compete.

 

That they can attack local and foreign militaries while mustering the manpower to simultaneously fight one another shows how permissive the war fighting environment has become

 

The recent clashes between JNIM and IS groups there emphasize this point. The internecine violence between competing Salafi-jihadis is a symptom of this increased destabilization. That they can attack local and foreign militaries while mustering the manpower to simultaneously fight one another shows how permissive the war fighting environment has become. The core focus of France, its G5 partners, and the United States in the jihadi cauldron the Sahel has become has been primarily manifested through a hard security paradigm. What this counter-terror model lacks is an equally robust component for bolstering local governance and addressing serious humanitarian concerns like food security for populations affected by the spread of violence, not to mention the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While not often making front-page headlines in the Western Anglophone press, Mali is now home to the fifth-deadliest military intervention in the history of UN peacekeeping efforts since the first mission in 1948. MINUSMA has lost some 209 Blue Helmets to insurgent violence out of a force ranging between 11,000 and 12,000 members. The regional militaries comprising the G5 coalition have also sustained heavy losses from both local al-Qaeda and IS groups successfully staging mass casualty attacks on their bases and remote outposts.

 

Al-Qaeda-aligned and IS fighters are competing over interpretations of radical Sunni jurisprudence and territory as well as recruits 

 

While these intensely violent hardline groups were ostensibly established to dismantle the secular post-colonial order that exists between the Sahara and Equatorial Africa, it has become evident that they have turned their Soviet-engineered weaponry on one another in a clash over legitimacy as viewed through the Salafi prism. Both groups see this kind of legitimacy as crucial to achieving primacy on the ideological battlefield. Al-Qaeda-aligned militants and IS fighters are competing over interpretations of radical Sunni jurisprudence and territory as well as recruits. Salafism at the point of a gun has made deep inroads in Mali and its neighbors by exploiting local grievances regarding the endemic corruption of the post-colonial state’s power structure and its ties to Françafrique legacy policies.

 

Ag Ghaly
A still image made on June 25, 2016, from a video released by Iyad Ag Ghaly, leader of the Islamist group Ansar Eddine, showing him making threats against France and the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in Mali. (AFP)

 

JNIM is led by Iyad Ag Ghaly, a former ethnic-Tuareg secessionist leader and one-time Malian diplomat in Riyadh turned violent Islamist. The formation of JNIM was declared in March 2017 by four al-Qaeda-aligned constituent groups: the Saharan branch of AQIM; Ansar Eddine, of which Ag Ghaly is the chief; al-Mourabitoun; and the lesser-known Katibat Macina, led by Amadou Kouffa, a staunch ally of Ag Ghaly.

JNIM portrays itself as a primarily indigenous movement with more localized aims, such as evicting French troops from Mali and the wider region, while it is theoretically willing to negotiate with the secular government in Bamako. The regional IS affiliate abhors this stance as betraying more globalized Salafi-jihadi principles, and would rather destroy state institutions than cooperate with them under any circumstances. JNIM draws ideologically from a more timeworn jihadi narrative of ending military occupation by non-Muslim military forces or secular state militaries such as those taking part in Operation Barkhane and the G5 Joint Force. JNIM is Salafi-jihadi with very a localized agenda and characteristics. 

 

Jihadi Geography

In the wider Sahel, IS has two groups operating, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). It remains not entirely clear whether ISWAP and ISGS are operationally distinct outfits, have an occasional degree of overlap, or are in fact one and the same by mid-2020. ISGS stems from Saharan radical roots more broadly and Algerian militancy more specifically, whereas ISWAP has Nigerian origins with a Sahelian focus in terms of its area of operations. ISGS’s primary focus has been the tri-border area where Niger’s Tillaberi region, Mali’s Menaka region (formerly part of Gao region), and Burkina Faso’s Sahel region roughly intersect.

ISWAP is an outgrowth of the fissured Nigerian movement Jamaat Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Dawah wa’l Jihad, almost always referred to by the informal name Boko Haram, a Hausa and Arabic term meaning “Western education is impermissible.” ISWAP, the IS-ordained faction of Boko Haram reportedly led by Abu Abdullah Ibn Umar al-Barnawi, is most active in the greater Lake Chad Basin area. This is where Nigeria’s Borno state, Cameroon’s Extreme North region, Niger’s Diffa region, and Chad’s Lac and Hadjer-Lamis regions intersect to form a zone of deadly militancy irrespective of nation-state boundaries. It may be that ISWAP, as a dedicated wilaya (province) ordained by IS’s central command in the Levant, has absorbed ISGS at least in terms of branding, which, while being an affiliated group, is or was not a designated wilaya likely owing to its past lesser importance in the global IS hierarchy. 

 

Though the schism between al-Qaeda and IS fighters is rooted in ideology informed by their own official narratives, clashes among egos carved out this violent chasm

 

The opaque relationship between ISWAP and ISGS remains open to analytic interpretation for the time being. ISGS is led by Adnan Abou Walid Sahraoui. Sahraoui’s militant origins, like his Tuareg rival Ag Ghaly’s, lay not in a doctrinal Salafi movement but in a secular ethno-nationalist one. Though he began with the POLISARIO Front, an avowedly secular Algerian-supported national liberation movement in Western Sahara, Sahraoui fell into Islamism and quickly rose up through various al-Qaeda-aligned groups in Mali before defecting and swearing allegiance to IS in 2015. With the infighting among Salafi-jihadis in the Sahel, it must be remembered that among the leadership, these men were each other’s confidants not long ago. Though the schism between al-Qaeda and IS fighters is rooted in ideology informed by their own official narratives, clashes among egos carved out this violent chasm.

Since the assassination of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria’s Idlib governorate in October 2019, IS’s central command seems to be in a succession crisis, at least in terms of its public face as to who the purported caliph is or shall be. This may indicate that the geographically non-contiguous wilayas are more independent without a unifying figure like al-Baghdadi—whom ISGS’s Sahraoui pledged an oath to—to act as a centripetal force among adherents. Therefore, while ISWAP will still appear properly branded via IS’s highly centralized al-Naba publication and Aimaq News Agency, its local attack tempo and current feud with JNIM seem to be occupying its energy. By contrast, JNIM has its own regional media outlet, al-Zallaqa, which details its local agenda as tending to be far more decentralized in nature, with its far-flung regional groups operating with a much higher degree of autonomy than its IS competitors.

 

Droukdel
An undated photo of Abdelmalek Droukdel, leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, who was killed on June 3, 2020, in Mali. (Al-Andalus/AFP)

 

Meanwhile, on June 5, 2020, the French Minister of Defense Florence Parly announced that French special forces assassinated Abdelmalek Droukdel, the elusive Algerian-born leader of AQIM, in the hamlet of Talhandak in northern Mali’s Kidal region on June 3. At the time of this writing, JNIM’s al-Zallaqa has yet to confirm or deny Droukdel’s death.

A veteran of the Algerian Civil War, the AQIM commander was considered to be an al-Qaeda purist in ideological terms while also playing a key role in the southerly expansion of Salafi-jihad from Algeria into Mali and other parts of the Sahel. His death, if indeed a reality, may call into question JNIM’s current feud with ISGS and its position on negotiating with the Malian government. The reported killing of Droukdel may send shockwaves through the landscape of jihad from North to West Africa. Although Iyad Ag Ghaly is the public face of JNIM’s leadership, Droukdel was still considered a crucial link to al-Qaeda’s inner circle despite maintaining a more behind-the-scenes role after the declaration of JNIM. Now it would appear that Ag Ghaly, notably a non-Arab, is al-Qaeda’s premier representative in the region. The sudden elimination of Droukdel further emphasizes France’s prioritization of hard security measures in the Sahel rather than a sustainable hearts-and-minds strategy. Droukdel’s demise after decades of jihad may also signify that militancy in West Africa may be coming more indigenous in nature rather than an import from northern Algeria. 

 

Conclusion

In this benighted environment of shifting militant alliances, it can be challenging to keep track of the outright hostility between militant groups and the alleged cooperation between them. What is certain is that the fighting between JNIM and IS is sure to further destabilize this already troubled region, which is bursting with potential and hampered by a cross-border cat-and-mouse counter-terror campaign that has achieved mixed results at best. Beyond the French-assisted restoration of central authority over Mali’s northern regions in 2013, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad are arguably worse off in terms of security than when the French military descended on Timbuktu more than seven years ago. As the world witnessed in the Grand Bassam resort attack in Côte d’Ivoire four years ago, extraordinarily violent Salafism has already well migrated from the shores of the southern Mediterranean to the West African littoral. 

 

Derek Henry Flood is a security correspondent focusing on transnational terrorism and geopolitical fault lines. Twitter: @DerekHenryFlood

 

In this undated handout file photo released by Al-Andalus on May 23, 2012 shows Abdelmalek Droukdel, aka Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, a leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), with his fighters in Azawad, an unrecognized state in northern Mali. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) chief Abdelmalek Droukdel was killed on June 5, 2020 in Mali. Al-Andalus / AFP
An undated photo of Abdelmalek Droukdel, leader of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, who was killed on June 3, 2020, in Mali. (Al-Andalus/AFP).

French soldiers killed the leader of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdel, and several of his associates in northern Mali on Thursday, June 3, revealed French defense minister Florence Parly.

France has more than 5,000 troops in the Sahel as part of Operation Barkhane, an anti-insurgent mission that cooperates with local armies under the umbrella of the G5 Sahel Joint Force. The United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) provided intelligence about Droukdel’s location.

AQIM is a Salafi-jihadist organization active in North Africa and the Sahel. It was founded in 1998 as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (known by the French acronym GSCP), after it splintered from the Armed Islamic Group, a key participant in the Algerian Civil War. It was renamed al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in January 2007 after it became an affiliate of Al-Qaida.

 

It is one of the wealthiest terrorist organizations in the world

 

AQIM, and previously as GSPC, is notorious for kidnapping Westerners for ransom in North Africa. The American Center for International Security and Cooperation says it is one of the wealthiest terrorist organizations in the world.

AQIM also leads Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM), a militant alliance of various jihadist groups that has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks against Malian defense and security forces.

 

A Veteran of the Algerian Civil War

Droukdel, a.k.a. Abou Mossaab Abdelouadoud, was born in Blida, Algeria, in 1970. He was a postgraduate engineering student when the civil war broke out in 1992; he gave up his studies and became joined the Islamist insurgency against the Algerian government. In 2004, he succeeded Nabil Sharaioui as the leader, or emir, of GSCP/AQIM, and steered it to a closer alliance with al-Qaida.

 

 

 

Hirak Algeria
Algerian protesters gather during a weekly anti-government demonstration in the capital Algiers on March 13, 2020. (Ryad Kramdi/AFP)

Algeria finds itself at a critical crossroad in terms of both its political and economic outlook. Already suffering from the fallout from the Saudi-Russian crude oil price war, the Algerian economy has been further hammered by the COVID-19 pandemic, and is projected to shrink by 5.2 percent in 2020.

The administration of President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, elected in December 2019 after mass protests forced his predecessor, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, to step down, has introduced reform measures, but opposition political parties and the grassroots Hirak movement derided them as insufficient even before the government announced an indefinite suspension of the program due to the pandemic.

The situation in Algeria is of serious concern to Europe. The country is a major supplier of natural gas for the continent, and it is a popular point of departure for economic migrants and asylum-seekers along the western Mediterranean passage to Europe. As the pandemic further constricts the more precarious economies in sub-Saharan Africa, coupled with displacement caused by terrorism in the Sahel, the likelihood of Algeria—and by extension Europe—seeing an influx of refugees is growing.

 

China Has Taken an Interest 

China has been increasing its engagement and influence in North Africa as part of the country's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In Algeria, China has quickly become a principal creditor and trade partner, supplanting France as the country’s primary commercial investment partner for infrastructure projects.

President Tebboune's government will have to choose to either reform or buy social peace; this time not with oil returns but with Chinese loans. 

 

Hirak Activist
Ibrahim Daouadji (c), a Hirak movement activist, speaks to the media upon his release from El Harrach, the main prison in the capital Algiers, on May 18, 2020. Daouadji, who in April was sentenced to six months in prison, appeared before the court on May 17 on the charge of “incitement to unarmed assembly” and was given a six-month suspended prison sentence.

 

During Eid al-Fitr, the religious holiday celebrated by Muslims at the end of the month-long Ramadan, the Algerian popular protest movement Hirak took to the streets again despite the ban on large gatherings to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Photos and videos were shared on social media of protesters marching in the city of Sétif on Sunday in support of political prisoners, several dozen of whom are still held in detention despite the aggravated risk of contracting the virus in prison.

Hirak activists and supporters have accused the Algerian government of using the COVID-19 lockdown to suppress the movement, stifle speech critical of the government, and subject organizers to arbitrary arrests.

 

Returning to Where It Started

On Monday, a protest march was held in Kherrata, the northern town where the first Hirak march took place on February 16, 2019, against the candidacy for a fifth term of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. This kicked off a wave of protests that led to his resignation. Abdelmadjid Tebboune won the presidential election and assumed office in December.

The movement has continued, calling for an end to corruption, the removal of the political old guard, and a complete overhaul of the political system. 

 

Sahrawi refugee children welcome the new UN envoy for the disputed territory of Western Sahara to the Aousserd camp for Sahrawi refugees on the outskirts of Tindouf on October 18, 2017.  RYAD KRAMDI / AFP
Sahrawi refugee children welcome the new UN envoy for the disputed territory of Western Sahara to Aousserd refugee camp in Tindouf, Algeria. (Ryad Kramdi/AFP)

 

Sahrawi children living in refugee camps in southwest Algeria’s will benefit from a recent $452,000 contribution by the French government. The money will be used to support a school feeding program that provides for more than 40,000 children, run by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). The goal of the program is to encourage refugee children to stay in school by guaranteeing a mid-morning snack.

 

Harsh Conditions

Refugees have been living in this collection of camps located in Algeria’s Tindouf province since 1975, having fled conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front during the Western Sahara War. It is one of the longest-standing refugee crises in the world.

Given the harsh conditions of the Sahara Desert, refugees here have come to rely almost entirely on the WFP and the UN refugee agency UNHCR for food. As of December 31, 2018, the UNHCR estimated that 90,000 Sahrawi refugees lived in the five camps in Tindouf.

The Hirak protest movement in Algeria, launched in February 2019 to demand greater democratic freedoms and government accountability, has suspended its demonstrations in the capital Algiers and elsewhere in the country. This follows President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s televised address on Tuesday, March 16, in which he declared that all marches and rallies, regardless of their nature, had been banned. Hirak members initially resisted, but prominent voices in the movement started to urge protesters to stay home and find other ways of demonstrating against the government. Adapting to the new circumstances, Hirakists have moved to online platforms to express their views, and some in urban centers have organized protests on balconies.

 

Algerians march in an anti-government demonstration in the Algerian city of Bordj Bou Arreridj, about 240kms east of the capital Algiers, on February 14, 2020. Even though the start of the "Hirak" in Algeria began on February 22, 2019, the first signs of the popular "movement" of protest in Algeria began to appear several days earlier, particularly in Bordj Bou Arreridj, often recognised as the "capital of Hirak".
Algerians march in an anti-government demonstration in the Algerian city of Bordj Bou Arreridj, about 240kms east of the capital Algiers, on February 14, 2020. Even though the start of the "Hirak" in Algeria began on February 22, 2019, the first signs of the popular "movement" of protest in Algeria began to appear several days earlier, particularly in Bordj Bou Arreridj, often recognised as the "capital of Hirak".

 

Why It Matters

For activists, organizers, and protest movements, the COVID-19 pandemic has restricted one of the most effective means of addressing government authority: taking to the streets for visibility and solidarity. In Algeria in particular, Hirak has maintained constant pressure on government through mass protests since the movement started about a year ago. The movement was instrumental in forcing former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign after weeks of mass protests over issues like the lack of basic healthcare and the high cost of living. Restricting large gatherings in the interest of public safety is vital during such an unprecedented pandemic, but attention must be paid to how these lockdowns are being implemented, as state authorities can easily transform a public health initiative into a tool to suppress political dissent.

 

https://www.france24.com/fr/20200318-coronavirus-en-algérie-les-manifestants-du-hirak-contraints-de-suspendre-leur-mobilisation

Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok escaped unharmed when his armored motorcade was hit with an explosive and automatic gunfire in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, on Monday, March 9. Hamdok was reportedly transported to hospital afterwards, but his chief of staff, Ali Bakhi, wrote on his Facebook page that neither the prime minister nor anyone else in the convoy suffered injuries.

 

Why It Matters

Sudan’s political stability remains precarious after mass civil protests forced the dictator Omar al-Bashir to relinquish power after thirty years, and a Transitional Military Council (TMC) was subsequently established to run the country as it prepares to transfer power to a civilian government in 2021. The attack on the prime minister could serve as a pretext to postpone elections or, worse, justify a reversion to a military dictatorship in the name of security. One of the chief members of the TMC is General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who presides over Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces, a branch of the Sudanese military responsible for killing hundreds of protesters shortly after Bashir’s fall. Were Sudan to revert to military rule, General Dagalo would likely seize power, jeopardizing efforts to redress human rights violations such as the atrocities during the Darfur Genocide largely committed by the Janjaweed militias under his command.

 

https://www.france24.com/fr/20200309-le-premier-ministre-soudanais-abdallah-hamdok-échappe-à-un-attentat-à-khartoum

 

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Sep 21, 2020