Following the Mali peace process? Well, you should. It's much more exciting than Iraq or Palestine or whatever other intractable slow-motion conflict you may be wasting your days with.
Super-brief recap: the old on-off Touareg rebellion in northern Mali blew up again in 2006, following which Algeria intervened and mediated peace on terms that, as of by accident, secured a lasting role for it in the region, which is of prime importance for smuggling and anti-terror operations (it is the presumed HQ of the Maghrebi al-Qaida's Saharan wing, among other things). However, when unrest then restarted, Libya also showed up to mediate, initiating a process parallel to Algeria's. To the visible irritation of the Bouteflika government, Qadhafi actually managed to calm things down by organizing some major hostage releases from the hardline group of one Ibrahim ag Bahanga. He, along with the Tripoli-backed MNJ, Niger's main Touareg rebel group, went on record as saying that only Libyan intervention could solve the conflict. Algeria pretended not to notice and re-activated its old deal, bringing the hostilities to a formal halt again, even though violence continued to simmer sporadically.
Now, the Tripoli-based Bahanga has torpedoed both the Libyan-initated status quo and the Algiers Agreement, which actually reinforced each other, by a major attack on Mali government forces (killing somewhere around twenty). Algeria says that it will "continue to mediate". Clearly, however, Algerian-Libyan rivalries are by now an important factor on the perpetually fragile and splintering Touareg side of the conflict. There are competing peace strategies and -- presumably -- competing sponsorships of factions on the ground, with violence variously interpreted as a Libyan attempt to muscle out Algeria, or, conversely, as a ploy to invite renewed Algerian mediation, or something else entirely. All the while, both countries are wooing Bamako, too, and Libya is highly active in the closely intertwined Niger unrest, where France is also a major player. Add to that all sorts of conspiracy theories concerning the hidden agendas of various smuggling networks, terrorist groups, rebel units, and so on, and the different security services that are alleged to puppeteer them (Algeria, USA, Libya, France, Mali, etc). While these claims are often grotesquely overblown, it is true that it can be hard to tell where rebel/criminal groups begin and state security organs end -- and the mere fact that these rumors exist and are widely if selectively believed, both inside and outside of the region, tends to complicate everything so much further.
To sum up: It's getting really messy, soon to pass the point of no sense -- but it's great fun for us casual onlookers and conspiracy theorists. Sort of like Lebanese politics minus the media coverage.
And: Only somewhat related, but: Algerian military planners must be spending an ever-increasing amount of time thinking of their eastern and south-eastern border. Qadhafi has been arming like crazy ever since he slipped out of his boycott, and it's not only with the sort of guns he could use for his usual Saharan/Sahelian chaos-mongering: he's buying heavy tanks, cruisers, radars and fighter jets faster than factories in Moscow and Paris can churn them out. Sure, there has been not a hint of aggressiveness from Tripoli towards Algeria so far (not counting a one-off call for Algerian Touareg to secede), but Libyan politics in the longer term, five or ten years from now, are as unpredictable as the Brotherly Leader himself -- and so is Libya's internal stability, post-Q. Not to be alarmist, but prudence calls for some attention to this.
This blog is no longer active, but I continue to post at the group blog MAGHREB POLITICS REVIEW.
Dec 26, 2008
Following the Mali peace process? Well, you should. It's much more exciting than Iraq or Palestine or whatever other intractable slow-motion conflict you may be wasting your days with.
Dec 21, 2008
Having now skimmed the new HRW report, it seems to me to be a very thorough piece of work. It presents a nuanced picture of repression on all sides in Western Sahara, and gives the most complete picture I have seen so far of the present human rights situation. (It does not deal with past violations.)
For example, police repression in Moroccan-held Western Sahara is portrayed in all its unpleasantness, with several political trials examined in detail. But the report also notes significant improvements since the 1990s: "Despite the persistent enforcement of laws repressing advocacy of Sahrawi
independence, Morocco has gradually and unevenly opened the door to wider debate on this issue." And "[i]n contrast to twenty years ago, Sahrawi activists conduct [pro-independence] activities and return home most nights without being disturbed. However, sooner or later most of them encounter various forms of harassment that can include travel restrictions, arbitrary arrest, beatings, or trial and imprisonment on trumped-up charges. In recent years, courts have generally imposed on Sahrawi activists sentences of three years or less, sentences generally much shorter than those imposed during the earlier period." This nuanced but critical view, of course, shatters both the stalinesque propaganda of official Morocco, according to which All Is Well In The Southern Provinces, but also pokes a hole in POLISARIO's claims that nothing has changed -- or can change -- for the better under Moroccan rule.
HRW also notes that power remains centralized to a small core of decision-makers in POLISARIO's Tindouf camps, with the refugee community dependent on their political leadership for jobs and provision, rather than the other way around; a situation which naturally encourages corruption and abuse. However, the report also points out that the political climate has been much liberalized since the ceasefire in 1991, and that "[t]oday, political detentions are rare or nonexistent in the refugee camps." It provides the first serious investigation of the slavery allegations, noting that "vestiges of slavery" and traditional racist social stratification remains in the camps, primarily in such a way as to affect marriage customs; but also, that POLISARIO has tried to fight these phenomena, and that they are present throughout Sahrawi/Moorish society, including on the Moroccan side. It clarifies that refugees aren't "forcibly held" or "sequestered", as Morocco claims, and that they are quite able to leave the camps -- but also that people fear POLISARIO's reaction if they were to announce a willingness to resettle in Moroccan-held territory. These descriptions run totally counter to POLISARIO's fantastical claims of a blossoming little refugee democracy, but also undermine Rabat's equally absurd depiction of the Tindouf camps as a sort of desert GULAG archipelago for kidnapped Moroccans.
Finally, HRW points out the anomaly that there is no party formally responsible to the international community for human rights protection in Tindouf: Algeria has abdicated rule over the area to the Sahrawi Republic, which in turn is not internationally recognized, and the UN mission, MINURSO, has no human rights-monitoring component. The report argues that Algeria's responsibility should be defined and recognized (something Algeria wants to hear nothing of, preferring its ambiguous role on the sidelines), and also demands that MINURSO get the same right and duty as other UN missions to monitor human rights in all of its areas of responsibility, i.e. all of Western Sahara and the POLISARIO-administered territories in Algeria (something which Morocco is rigidly opposed to, and which its ally France blocks in the Security Council).
All in all, this report is the best I've read so far, by far, on Western Sahara's human rights issues. So how was it received by its intended recipients, the ruling circles in Rabat, Rabouni and Algiers? Quite predictably, by a barrage of shrill and one-sided propaganda:
In Morocco, some officials denounce the report, which is harshest on Morocco (for the simple reason that Morocco has on the whole been much more abusive to Sahrawis). For example, Istiqlali parliamentarian Hamid Shibat explained to al-Jazira that the report is a product of, you guessed it, Algerian intelligence.* And the palace mouthpiece Le Matin is shocked to its very core after reading this "perfidious" document: "One falls backwards, one must be dreaming, one thinks that one is hearing an Algerian delegate in front of an assembly". However, the paper then catches its breath again, to summarize the report in another article in quite different tones. Now it suddenly states that "Polisario and Algeria are responsible for human rights violations in the Tindouf camps."
This is also the line taken by the official news agency, MAP, which spews out a steady stream of articles on the report, like one headlined "HRW urges Algeria to assume responsibility for Polisario barbaric acts in Tindouf" or its sister piece, which claims that "HRW's assessment is almost a scathing denial of the vain allegations that the polisario and its mentor Algeria throw out whenever a handful of separatists strive to disrupt public order and whenever Moroccan authorities exercise their right to restore order and reprimand violent rioting demonstrators and thieves." Almost!
Algerian and Sahrawi media is no better. The Sahrawi news agency, SPS, somehow twists HRW criticisms of POLISARIO rule in Tindouf into "HRW welcomes the role of the Polisario Front for the protection of human rights" and the writers' union UPES obediently follows suit: "Human Rights Watch accused Morocco on Friday of beating and torturing independence campaigners in Western Sahara and said U.N. peacekeepers should start monitoring human rights in the territory." And APS, the Algerian state news agency, sums up the report as "Morocco is in the eye of the storm because of its repression in Western Sahara." Meanwhile, the Algerian state newspaper El Moudjahid sums up the situation in Tindouf as simply one of "freedom of movement, no political prisoners, and where criticism against the management of Front Polisario is permitted," and the other state newspaper, ech-Chaab, headlines with "Morocco violates rights of free expression in Western Sahara," and that's about it.
The expression "dialogue of the deaf" doesn't capture the scope of the problem here. It's more like a drooling, spitting, eye-rolling rant of the mentally retarded. All the peoples involved deserve so much better than these pitiful governments.
Dec 20, 2008
Human Rights Watch has released a 216-page report on the human rights situation in Western Sahara, including both the Moroccan-controlled areas and areas under the control of POLISARIO, notably the Tindouf camps. It is appropriately called "Human Rights in Western Sahara and the Tindouf Camps" (it's an update to their 1995 report on Western Sahara, "Keeping it Secret"). I just started reading it, and so far it seems excellent, destined to become the point of reference for the Western Sahara human rights debate for some years to come.
So print it out, and I'm sure it will make a perfect Christmas present for all your relatives. Happy Holidays!
UPDATE: Official reactions to the HRW report.
As promised, some time ago I dug up a copy of the 2008 Nobel prize for literature winner J. - M. G. Le Clézio's Desert and read it (in translation). Time for a belated review.
First of all, let's note with a snobbish hrrmph that the Swedish Academy, which hands out the prizes, apparently hasn't read the book very thoroughly. The Nobel Committee's bio of Le Clézio states that
His definitive breakthrough as a novelist came with Désert (1980), for which he received a prize from the French Academy. This work contains magnificent images of a lost culture in the North African desert, contrasted with a depiction of Europe seen through the eyes of unwanted immigrants. The main character, the Algerian guest worker Lalla, is a utopian antithesis to the ugliness and brutality of European society.Fair enough as a three-sentence review, but Lalla -- one of the two protagonists -- is not Algerian. If they paid attention, they would have realized that she is living in southern Morocco (not Western Sahara), while her family came from a zwaya tribe in the deep deserts of today's Mauritania -- or maybe Mali, maybe Algeria, but that's less likely. She is, therefore, of Moorish or Sahrawi heritage, but now in any event a Moroccan citizen. While the story is therefore set in the areas in and surrounding Western Sahara, it makes no reference at all to the modern conflict about the territory, but digs deep into the precolonial and colonial history of the region.
Lalla, sometime presumably in the 1970s, lives a poor orphan's life in her village in southwestern Morocco, eventually migrating to France. Her story is intertwined with a parallel storyline about her ancestor, Nouri, which recapitulates his march as a young boy with the nomad following of Sheikh Ma el-Ainin in the early 1900s. The details are well researched, and real names of obscure places, tribes, Sufi brotherhoods and events will crop up throughout the novel. Occasionally, a reference will seem out of place, such as talk of the Mauritanian border (with Algeria or Mali) in the story of Nouri -- that border was not even marked on maps at the time, if I recall correctly, and much less a landmark for local nomads. But this is rare.
Sheikh Ma el-Ainin's revolt against France is a historical event here depicted in literary form. The arduous journey of the nomad tribes following the sheikh, including Nouri and his family, goes from Smara in Western Sahara towards southern Morocco, in an attempt to seize the Moroccan throne from Sultan Moulay Hafiz, who had cut off support to Ma el-Ainin and was about to hand the country to the French. For this final Jihad against the invaders, nomads had gathered from all corners of the western Sahara Desert, whether Arab Moors escaping the simultaneously approaching French forces in southern Maruitania, or Berbers coming down from the Atlas Mountains to join the passing Muslim army. The final battle was short and bloody, crushing all pretensions of Ma el-Ainin and his sons, although the latter would continue to launch sporadic uprisings for years after (they are today coveted as nationalist symbols by both Polisario and Morocco, uncomfortably squeezed into two equally nuanceless and ahistorical official narratives).
The story of Nouri captures the desperate, existential push of a culture threatened on all flanks by incomprehensible and unsurmountable foreign forces -- a suicidal last grand stand, perhaps the Wounded Knee of Moorish tribal history. Ma el-Ainin's character as religious leader and living saint is beautifully portrayed, with hypnotizing passages depicting his dhikr sessions. The disastrous nature of an absolute faith (his own, or only that of others?) in his magical abilities, such as the promise of divine victory and green pastures in the north for his people, gradually unfolds to the reader. Even so, the exact nature of the Sheikh's abilities is left for the reader to determine, and the mythologies and folk magic of Moorish Sufi Islam are described not as reality nor as fraud, but as an uncertain, but lived and recognized reality -- as they would be seen from the believer's viewpoint. Nouri's final chapters in Desert convey a gripping sense of finality: after the slaughter of their army at the hands of the French, the nomads disperse and filter back into the deserts, nameless men of the wastelands once again, their place in history lost for now, perhaps for ever.
Lalla's story deals with what comes after, the story of a culture crushed but not vanished, and of how memories of the past keep informing the present. She grows up a dreamer and loner, in poverty and isolation, in a small village or city on the coast of southwest Morocco. There she experiences the pull of, on the one hand, the desert, where her ancestors came from, and on the other hand, Europe and the stories she has heard of fantastic wealth and amazing cities. After emigrating, she finds France a strange and fascinating, but ultimately cruel, cold and inhospitable place, where her previous rootless poverty is simply replaced by a new and more violent kind of deprivation, in the slum life of African migrants.
Some sections of Desert can at times seem tediously reptetitive, especially the descriptions of natural scenery. On the other hand, this also adds some flavor of the desert itself, a main subject. It is pictured in terms of wind, light, heat and precisely endlessness -- and some of these scenes are high points of the novel. Ultimately, the novel portrays not events, but feelings, moods and tries to evoke a sense of the grinding clash of colonialism and native culture as a force shaping both history and individual destinies. The story sides uncompromisingly with native culture, at times leaving the reader with a taste of polemics, from subject and structure. But that is perhaps the point: it is an attempt att telling the other side of the story, from within a conquered culture; to give a brief taste of what was lost as Western Modernity rolled over the northwest corner of the Maghreb, guns rattling.
And: do not miss Ibn Kafka's massive post on Le Clézio (in French).
Dec 5, 2008
Amnesty International has released a 36-page report on torture in Mauritania, of which there is, unsurprisingly, quite a lot. Practices and perpetrators are analyzed, and if aspiring to become a prison guard, you learn fascinating details about where to best put your baton, as well as where to put out your cigarette, when in the company of an uncooperative prisoner. Rather unpleasant reading, so be advised. Torture has been an ongoing phenomenon throughout the transition process since 2005, but the report does note the general implosion of civil liberties since the 2008 coup (a ban on demonstrations, political arrests, etc) as well as state that the new military rule has in fact "led to the increased use of torture," despite its promises to the contrary.
Read it in English as HTML or PDF, or in Arabic and French as PDF only.
As an added treat, Amnesty reveals the involvement of Moroccan security personnel in torturing detainees. Moroccan-Mauritanian security cooperation is nothing new, with Morocco always having shown a keen interest in what goes on in Mauritania's north -- for a variety of good reasons -- but this is, to my knowledge, the first time that more direct evidence of involvement in abuses has been published. It will surely add fire to the political dispute in Mauritania, where some already resent the ties of the military junta to Morocco, and fear that the country will tilt towards Rabat in a way that would undermine its traditional neutrality, and, hence, stability.
The Moor Next Door has an interesting post up on the controversy about the closed Algerian-Moroccan border, with some equally interesting comments at the end. (Also see his latest Mauritania monthly.)
Regarding Morocco's insistence on the border issue, unlike TMND, I think it is less an attempt to escalate the conflict than an attempt to profit from the present status quo. Publicly asking Algeria to open the border is a win-win gamble for Morocco, since:
1. If Algeria agrees to open the border, removed constraints on tourism and trade will boost the Moroccan economy, which is in dire straits. It will also easen one of the most significant costs of the Saharan conflict -- namely the block on trade and Morocco's geographic isolation. A closed Algerian border cuts Morocco off from any plausible land route to the rest of North Africa and the Arab world, so it's not just Algero-Moroccan trade that is at stake. Also, since it comes on Moroccan request, a border opening would score a political point. In that sense, the public and challenging nature of the requests may well make it less likely that Algeria will open the border. The Moroccans realize this, of course; it's part of the gamble.
2. If Algeria refuses to open the border, it comes off as the unreasonable party. That is true both internationally, in the US and Europe, where politicians are exasperated with the petty rivalries of the Maghreb; and in the Arab world, where the Algerian-Moroccan spat has always been seen as one of the most pointless examples of Arab disunity; and in Morocco; and to some extent in Algeria. Many Algerians are angered by Morocco's demands and tone, and want a thorough apology for 1994. But others -- I think a rather significant percentage -- believe that Morocco's proposal to decouple the issues of the Sahara and the border is an excellent idea (and a smaller percentage want to abandon Algerian involvement with POLISARIO altogether). Part of the attraction for Morocco in raising the border issue is, then, that it helps to drive a wedge between Algerians and the Sahara issue, if the Algerian commitment to POLISARIO starts being seen as a detriment to the country's economy -- especially, of course, in the Oran-Tlemcen regions, where trade and family ties with Morocco are strongest.
This perception is not very prevalent yet, for the simple reason that the Sahara question isn't expensive to Algeria. Western Sahara was always a war on the cheap for Algeria, while at the same time costly beyond belief for Morocco -- that was the whole point of it. The only serious Algerian expense was to keep a standing army tough enough to deter Moroccan cross-border responses. Even then, Algerian military spending has always been much smaller than Morocco's, proportionally -- and that includes significant expenses to guard against Qadhafi's antics on the eastern border. As for arming and hosting POLISARIO and the refugees, it was a minor expense even during the war years, and now in oil-flush peacetime it is absolutely negligible, while Morocco remains forced to pour billions into settling Western Sahara and buying off discontent. Even politically, Algeria expends just a fraction of the energy that its rival puts into Western Sahara. For Algeria it's enough do some casual lobbying to keep the issue going and put it on the agenda of international forums, which then forces Moroccan diplomats to rush there to put out the fire. As a result, Morocco has virtually given up on having a foreign policy outside of the Sahara, while Algeria can afford to remain heavily involved in African affairs, and to a lesser extent in Arab and Third Worldist circles.
This imbalance is also the main reason for keeping the border shut. In brief, Algeria's Saharan strategy is to bleed Morocco into submission, or into an acceptable compromise -- whichever happens first. The post-2000 arms race is part of this, which seems more and more to be a sort of a Reagan-style strategy of aggressively outspending your opponent; feasible or not, it fits neatly with the recent price increases and oil shock. Part of the idea is also that if Algeria shows total intransigence, the argument for the US and other nations to side with Morocco is severely weakened (it won't solve the conflict anyhow). Displaying any inclination to compromise, in turn, works against that objective.
Finally, as a wildcard influence on all of this, one sholdn't discount the tendency of corrupt elites to be, well, corrupt. Military-political cliques in both Morocco and Algeria are feeding off of trade and smuggling in various areas, giving them a vested interest in keeping borders shut as a crude instrument of directing trade. In Algeria, for example, today you have lots of tourists and trade going east towards Tunisia. Surely, some people who know people would be upset if half of that suddenly veered west across an opened border. And in Morocco, there is heavy military involvement in smuggling towards Mauritania and even across the Sand Wall that divides Western Sahara, as well as across the Moroccan-Algerian border. (However, it could work the other way as well: watch out for Algerian generals investing in Moroccan hotels...)
Opening the borders, for all these reasons, would be seen in Algiers to undermine a basic pillar of the strategy towards Morocco. However, the burden of keeping it shut grows heavier every day Morocco is on the airwaves asking nicely for it to be opened. Someone, somewhere, is probably making cost-benefit calculations on that as we speak.
Dec 4, 2008
Third term for Bouteflika
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has slammed a constitutional amendment through parliament, enabling him to run for a third term. Soon thereafter, the tripartite presidential alliance of the FLN, RND and MSP decided to launch him as their "consensus candidate". There can be no serious doubt that he will win at the polls next year. While there are questions about his relations to powerbrokers in the army -- most importantly Gen. Mohamed Médiène, the military security chief -- this remains speculation. Had some army-political faction seriously wanted to derail his third term (and: been able to), they would have had a better shot at doing it in parliament than in the elections, so now it looks very unlikely to happen.
Whatever the case, both of Bouteflika's earlier victories have been marked by gentle purges in the military pouvoir, as he shunted competitors to the side. Bouteflika may be a mediocre character in many ways, but when it comes to subtly amassing personal power, he is top of the class. Thus, the Boutef presidency has been remarkable for the way the army top brass has, not so much retreated from politics, but been overwhelmed by and submerged in Bouteflika's rapidly swelling power structure. If he started as a puppet, by 2004 he very publicly cut his strings, with the "retirement" of Army Chief of Staff Mohamed Lamari, and the subsequent dethronement of Gen. Larbi Belkheïr and others. In this way, the country has come to resemble a more straightforward dictatorship, instead of a military-run shadow republic, and Bouteflika to resemble a more straightforward Arab president-for-life. Cynical as it may be, I believe most Algeria watchers have considered this a basically healthy process, in that it normalizes the political scene to some extent. That, on the other hand, is of course most revealing of the sorry state of Algerian politics. But, the downside of this "neo-Boumédièneism" -- apart from authoritarianism in itself -- is that when Bouteflika dies, and he will soon enough, a giant power vacuum could open up, with unpredictable consequences. The West is then highly likely to back whatever strongman (= military security) looks set to gain control the easiest. Whatever happens, a serious contender for the post as future president is and remains Ahmed Ouyahia, of the RND party in the presidential majority, but the question is perhaps less who will be the next president, than what the next president will be able to control.
The most vocal opposition to the constitutional amendment has come from the RCD party, whose leader Said Saadi says he will run against Bouteflika. Let us state it as a matter of fact: Said Saadi has no chance of winning, even in a free and fair election. First of all, while ordinary Algerians are deeply unhappy with the state of the country, Bouteflika is still quite popular (he did end the civil war, and things are better now than before), and he plays the role of nationalist-populist caudillo with considerable skill -- not to mention that he and his allies control the major patronage networks, in the state, the army and even business. Second, the RCD is a small and organizationally limited liberal party whose voter base is restricted to about a third of the Kabyle population, with its Arab constituency limited to a tiny number of mainly Francophone ultrasecularists. Even if he should be bolstered by a powerful protest vote and serious cross-party opposition backing, Saadi is highly unlikely to ever get more than 30% of a fair Algerian vote, not to mention an unfair one. (It looks as if it's going to be the latter, since the government is now on the record as opposing international observers.)
There may be other challengers, though, who could theoretically scrape up a majority backing. But, short version: this time around, they don't stand a chance, and they know it. Running in the elections now is solely about profiling yourself with future political schemes in mind, not about seriously trying to get into el-Mouradia.
Islamists in disarray
The MSP, also Hamas, is the Algerian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, and has its roots in the Islamic reformist movement founded by the late Sheikh Mahfoud Nahnah. The Algerian Brotherhood tendency, through MSP, participates in government, and has -- contrary to much uninformed belief -- not been involved with the country's insurgency or with the banned FIS party. Their strategy is to stay out of any unwinnable confrontation with the army or Bouteflika, and instead pragmatically strengthen the Islamic character of the state and build their movement's capacity to govern. In this, they have been reasonably succesful; but it has also cost the party some standing with the public, as it is increasingly seen as part of the ruling elite. It's quite likely that the regime will pounce upon the split, to weaken the MSP and make Soltani more dependent on the presidency than he already is; on the other hand, they wouldn't want to destroy the party, and leave Islamist voters without any credible pro-regime option.
The Islamist opposition, to which the MSP defectors are likely to gravitate, is in a sorry state. On the one hand, you have the ex-FIS, which is now completely in disarray. Its leading lights are either disconnected from Algerian politics (Abassi Madani), or angling for favors from the regime (Rabeh Kbir, Madani Mezrag), or bitterly rejectionist, monitored, harassed, and reduced to railing against the powers that be in the Friday Khutba with no parliamentary leverage (Ali Belhadj). On the other hand, you have the anti-regime wing of the reformist Islamist trend, led by sheikh Djaballah. His party (el-Nahda) has been split through no little amount of state meddling, and he was himself ousted by the regime-backed wing of the party. This effectively deprived him of any chance to participate on fair terms in the political game, which spares the regime a nasty critic, but on the other hand risks alienating his supporters from parliamentary politics altogether. Lastly, there's the potential challenge from Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, a much-respected Islamic nationalist, who previously attempted to challenge Bouteflika's election in 1999. He then, however, had his party (el-Wafa) banned, for allegedly serving as a vehicle for reintroducing FIS into politics, but more likely because he seemed to be serious competition. Given his advanced age, he is not likely to give it another go.
Now, if credible Islamist opposition personalities like those mentioned above could congregate into a somewhat efficient political alliance -- a big if, given the size of the egos involved -- they would stand a good chance of assembling street power, since Algerian Islamist populism remains as potent a force as ever. However, this is something the authorities have made it very clear that they will not allow, like with the banning of el-Wafaa. With demonstrations still banned under the state of emergency, even non-party attempts to build an overtly political Islamist popular movement are doomed to failure, or at least to being outlawed and persecuted. For all their failures, the MSP seem best placed to capitalize, in the somewhat distant future, on their strategy of collaboration, than any of the groups that have tried a more confrontative approach.
Finally, the al-Qaida rebellion: nothing really new there. Fighting continues in the Kabyle mountains, occasional skirmishes elsewhere, a bombing now and then. The two Austrian tourists that were kidnapped in Tunisia a while back, have been released some time ago, unscathed. It seems rather obvious that someone paid a ransom, and it seems rather likely that "someone" is either Austria or Libya, with Algerian or Tunisian authorities as second-rate contenders, and the families involved a distant third. Regardless, the important point to take away is that the southern wing of the Maghrebi al-Qaida is still essentially a desert mafia, working in the grey zone between Saharan tribal trade and organized crime, with global Jihad as a pet hobby project on the side. They were not interested in killing kuffar, nor even in upsetting the Tunisian tourism business or shaming the infidel governments of Algeria and Mali: they wanted hard cash.
Oil prices slipping
Also worth noting is the slip in oil prices, following the global financial crisis. Algeria is of course completely dependent on hydrocarbon income (oil & natural gas). It has no significant economic activity apart from that, or at least not one that would survive without it. However, prices right now (50-60 USD/barrel) are still way above where they were a few years ago, and they don't seem likely to slip much further (Saudi Arabia now openly advocates 75 USD/b as a "fair price"). While Boutef may have to go through his checkbooks again, there seems to be no reason to fear major drawdowns in state spending. The earnings from the post-2003 oil bonanza have actually been used rather wisely (after subtracting for corruption and the Morocco-Algeria arms race), on infrastructure, paying off loans, and saving up huge reserves. So all in all, while Algeria's economic position is no longer great, it is still pretty good.
Even so, the population hasn't seen much of all this money, but plenty of the global price increases. The cost of living has skyrocketed, and people who were already on the margins now find it completely impossible to make ends meet. The state has not been able to effectively counteract this, and of course, poverty was pretty dire already before the price explosion. Accordingly, this year has seen an upsurge in political and social unrest especially in rural areas, with demonstrations, riots, road blocks, crime, state repression, and plain unfocused violence all around -- as well as growing numbers of harraga, young Algerians who risk their lives to flee across the Mediterranean in search of jobs, money, women and all the other things they've seen on MTV. This social crisis is certainly the most serious threat to Algerian stability, even including the sputtering al-Qaida rebellion.
The only credible solution to these issues, a program for systematic economic reform, is still in its infancy -- and what an ugly, misfit baby it is. Bouteflika's darkest legacy will undoubtedly be the failure to use his ten years of reasonable political and economical stability to develop and diversify the country's economy. I see no reason to hope for change in his third term, and what little exists of opposition tends to be even worse than the present regime on these issues. Also, today's (unworkable) system is so cemented and change resistant as to make any serious attempt at reform likely to be a very painful experience for ordinary Algerians, and possibly also upsetting to political stability, because it necessitates a challenge to entrenched bureaucratic and political-military interests. Therefore, even if almost everyone who is someone in Algeria agrees that reforms are necessary, they are ever put off for the future, since the hydrocarbon rent seems to be enough to keep the country afloat for the time being. But is it really?