When France first occupied Algeria, an Arab, Muslim country on the Mediterranean coast in North Africa, in 1830 it did so with the firm belief that Algeria is an integral part of the French state. The first thing France did was to bring in thousands of European settlers including French, Spanish and Italians and helped them take over the fertile coastal region of Algeria in an attempt to change its demography and make it look like France. Those civilian settlers would later serve as a reserve army ready to help French troops.
This was the pattern followed by almost all European colonial powers in North Africa; the Italians did it in Libya while France repeated the same policy in its other colonies such as Tunisia and Morocco, to a lesser extent, in the far western flank of North Africa.
France was keen to fully annex Algeria because it is a gateway to sub-Saharan Africa where it was already the main colonial power particularly in West Africa. Controlling Algeria, and later southern Libya, was vital because it provides a cheaper and faster route to transport troops into Africa and raw materials back to France to feed the war machine as it grabbed more territories.
A century of occupation discouraged anyone from even thinking that Algeria would ever be independent again.
However, all that started to changed 124 years later when on 1 November 1954, Algerians erupted in armed revolt against France. The National Liberation Front, known by its French acronym (FLN), led the bloody and costly struggle for independence.
FLN only needed to stir people up as anger at the French occupation was already simmering beneath the surface given the brutality of the French troops and white settlers, known as pied-noir (black foot). Mass killings of Muslim civilian Algerians whenever they voiced rejection of the occupiers was widespread and massacres were committed with impunity. Most famous, probably, is the massacre in Setif, west of the capital Algiers. On 8 May 1945 French armed forces, police and armed pied-noir settlers ganged up together to quell a pro-independence demonstration in the city. In Setif and later in Philippeville – modern day Skikda – in 1955 thousands of mostly civilian Algerians lost their lives in a couple of days.
Despite the heavy cost, Algeria gained independence on 5 July 1962 and attention turned to building the country and reconciling its people.
Today, after six decades of independence, Algeria is a very different country from what it was on the eve of its independence. Unfortunately, it does not reflect its glorious past and hard-won freedom.
Today, Algeria celebrates the 64th anniversary of the revolution but this is a different country from what it was right after independence. It is at a standstill with a little outlook into the future of its mostly young population.
It suffers from lack of development, rentier economy, corruption, high unemployment and dominance of the old guard behind the scenes. The president, for example, enjoys enormous powers including complete control over the executive branch of government. In reality, though, the army has the final say in every major government decision. Even the recent purge of some top military leaders is no more than a whitewash to buy time. Indeed the army is viewed as a guarantor of stability and unity of the country but that does not mean it should be at the top of decision making.
When President Abdelaziz Bouteflika took office in 1999 he was supposed to serve a maximum of two five-year terms but he is still president. Even worse his party FLN, on 29 October, nominated him again for another term for 2019’s elections if they take place.
The 81-year-old president suffered a stroke in 2013 that confined him to a wheelchair. He is probably the last figurehead from the days of the revolution that can enjoy some sort of consensus within the current Algerian political establishment and this is worrying.
Algeria deserves better and can do better given its history and well-educated population. Indeed Bouteflika restored legitimacy to the regime and rallied the nation behind him. His national reconciliation policy was successful in ending the decade-long bloodshed that engulfed the country from 1991 to 2001 after the army annulled the elections Islamists won in 1991.
But that should not be a carte blanche for the old guard to keep the country under its thumb.
The question today is how long the Algerian military and political elite can keep its grip on the country; indeed, how rational it is? The average age of the top elite is about 60 while the national average is below 40 which says something about how the country’s political system operates. Two decades of supposedly free elections have so far failed to produce a leading figurehead.
Today one in every four Algerians is under the age of 15 while the youth make up about 60 per cent of the 42 million Algerians.
To most of these young people, the November revolution and the struggle that brought independence are increasingly irrelevant. Most of the earlier enthusiastic nationalistic policies of the independence days have either failed or become absolute in the current context. Arabization, or Taʿrīb, for example, has been a major goal sought by almost all governments after independence. Yet six decades on and French as well as colloquial Arabic and Berber are still the medium of communications. In 2015 the Algerian minister of education even suggested that schools should be allowed to teach in colloquial Arabic which is another stark indication of failure!
The government, as the main employer, has failed to provide jobs, particularly for young graduates. Youth unemployment is, modestly, put at about 26 per cent.
Educated but jobless young people are easy prey for all sorts of dangerous social illnesses be its religious extremism, drug addiction or common criminality. We must not forget that unemployed youth made up the bulk of fighters during the civil war of 1991.
Most Algerians today are happy that their country managed to avoid the wave of the so called “Arab Spring” that swept across the region toppling regimes and changing societies. Seeing what has happened in Libya, Syria and Yemen the majority of Algerians give credit to the president for steering the country away from chaos and civil war.
But after six decades of independence Algerians are going through difficult periods as the old FLN guards still cling to power and deny the changes the country desperately needs.
The current freeze of the political system in the country is prescription for ultimate disaster.
What the Algerian political elite must do is make a serious change from within themselves otherwise they risk being forced to change which is a risky venture beyond their control. If the struggle for independence unified Algerians, the current suffocating political system could well divide them and the country as well.
Counting on the 2019 proposed elections as a new beginning is misleading and deceptive as long as the old guard, particularly the military, still manages the country in the way it has been doing for the last six decades.