Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Algeria’

The Unfinished Arab Spring

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 29th May, 2020

The Unfinished Arab SpringIn the wake of the December 2010 self-immolation of the impoverished young Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, a wave of unrest swept across much of North Africa and the Middle East, leading to the ousting of Presidents Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. At the time, I railed against fellow journalists who adopted the lazy slogan of “Arab Spring” for the new phenomenon. Lazy for at least two reasons. First, the term was a clumsy adaptation of the 1968 (ultimately failed) Czech uprising against the country’s Soviet occupiers (the “Prague Spring”); just as virtually every US political scandal since Watergate brought down US President Richard Nixon in 1974 has similarly been sloppily dubbed X-gate or Y-gate. But the second, and more important, reason for my displeasure was that it was blatantly obvious from the turn of events, not least when they reached Syria, where I was lecturing in March 2011, that this momentous political trend was not a matter of just one season. Or indeed one year. I predicted it would take at least a decade, probably two, before we could map its trajectory or judge its success.

Tahrir Square demosWhile I was working with the late Palestinian-Jordanian Minister, Jamal Nasir, on his autobiography, we adopted a fresh term to describe what was happening: The New Arab Awakening. We were intending to write another book, with this title, deliberately echoing that of the classic 1938 history of the rise of Arab nationalism by George Antonius, The Arab Awakening, but sadly the nonagenarian Dr Nasir died before we got very far with that. Now, however, a book has appeared that effectively does what we would have wanted to achieve, but with the added benefit of bringing together contributions from a wide range of distinguished scholars, many of them from the MENA region themselves. The title is well justified, too. The Unfinished Arab Spring  (Gingko, £40), edited by Fatima El-Issawi and Francesco Cavatorta, is in two distinct parts. The first is a series of case studies, covering Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Morocco and Algeria (Yemen being an interesting omission). Each chapter’s author takes a different approach that is country-specific and illustrates well how very differently each uprising or revolution has turned out, from “delegitimising democratic demands” in the case of Egypt to “resource competition” in Libya. The second part brings an analytical approach to the dialectic between the “dynamics of change” and the “dynamics of continuity”. Various agents and actors are identified, from well-educated youth to secular women, but so too the technological context, not least the prevalence of social media and other alternative platforms.

Algeria demosIn the second section, Tunisia receives particularly close attention, which can be justified not only because this is where the so-called Arab Spring began (in mid-Winter, of course), but also because Tunisia is the one country in which the New Arab Awakening can be said, more or less, to have been a success. Whether others will prove to be in the long term remains to be seen, though there have been encouraging recent developments in Algeria.

All of the chapters have extensive footnotes and at the end of each there is a very useful bibliography. This is, after all, a serious collection of academic papers, though most of its authors have nonetheless managed to write in a style that is accessible to the informed general reader. As a part-time SOAS academic myself, I did momentarily baulk at one chapter heading in Part Two: “Youth Activism and the Politics of ‘Mediapreneurship’: The Effects of Political Efficacy and Empowerment on Mediated Norm Conveyance in Tunisia and Morocco”. But do not be put off by this, or indeed by the price of the book. For a work of such scholarship, £40 is quite reasonable. And if you cannot afford to buy the book yourself, get your library to order it. You and they will be grateful.

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Deep Sahara

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 18th December, 2017

Deep SaharaPackaged in the form of a memoir, addressed to a kind of spiritual advisor (though the hero has no defined religious belief himself), Leslie Croxford’s novel Deep Sahara (Momentum Books, £9.99) draws the reader into Algeria’s deep south at a time when both Islamist fundamentlists and groups linked to the army and the deep state were involved in mass killings. Klaus Werner — whose name we only learn towards the end of the book — is of German origin and, like the author, born in Alexandria in Egypt. Driven to a nervous breakdown by the premature death of his adored wife, Klaus is advised to carry on his wife’s work and maybe wishes in researching and illustrating a coffee table book on desert insects. Armed with a couple of letters of introduction he heads across the desert to a Catholic monastery in the back of beyond, only to find a scene of almost unimaginable horror. Far from fleeing the place, he settles in for several months, occasionally interacting with the few human beings that cross his path, but mainly searching for himself. A short but passionate affair with an American paleontolgist underlines his need to be in the company of a beautiful woman, but he is aware of other lacunae in his existence. A search then leads to yet more horror and the conviction that some terrible conspiracy is at large, as he tries to come to terms with both real and imagined truths, seeking guidance from those who sometimes do not really have his best interests at heart. Layers of mystery are peeled away, only to reveal others. But whereas this could have so easily have been turned into a pot-boiler thriller, instead the novel is psychologically complex, indirectly inviting the reader to scrutinse critically everyone who appears, not least Klaus Werner himself, in all his ambiguity. Leslie Croxford’s style and vocabulary are redolent of a former, more civilised, age, precise and yet often (deliberately?) perplexing.

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Don’t Forget the Western Sahara

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 1st November, 2011

I spent the weekend at a spa hotel outside Algiers at the Second International Solidarity Conference with the Sahraoui people, which drew two or three hundred participants from countries as diverse as Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Ethiopia, France, Lebanon, Mexico, Namibia, Russia, South Africa and Tunisia. The Algerian TV and other media wee there in force, as the Algerian government has been the firmest friend of the Western Sahara and its independence movement, the Polisario, since Morocco ocupied the phosphate-rich western half of the territory after it ceased to be a Spanish colony. It is often wrongly said that Namibia was the final African country to gain independence, whereas actually the Sahraouis have been struggling for theirs for nearly 40 years — almost as long as the Palestinians. The Sahraoui Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), as the Western Sahara is formally known, is a full member of the African Union and has been recognised by a growing number of countries round the world, though not as yet by Britain. I shall be arguing that Britain should raise the status of the Polisario representation in London to that of an Embassy — as HMG has already done for the Palestinians — which would be an important step towards statehood. There have been numerous UN resolutions about the Sahraouis’ right to self-determination, but the Moroccans have dragged their feet for many years, thereby preventing a referendum of the people of the territory that is meant to settle the issue one way or the other. Libeal Democrats (and the old Liberal Party before) have had longstanding relations with the Westen Sahara; the late Chris (Earl of) Winchilsea was a particularly active campaigner and organiser of aid to the Sahraoui refugee camps deep in the Algerian desert. And I was pleased that LibDem MEPs — not least Andrew Duff — recently opposed the renewal of the EU fisheries agreement with Morocco because it also covers the waters off the Western Sahara. Indeed, the Coalition government has taken a more progressive line on related issues than its Labour predecessor did, but it still has the task of standing up to France in the European context, as the French are staunch supporters of Morocco and its colonial occupation. But standing up to the French is something Brits have often done rather well in the past, so perhaps on this issue we should return to our traditions!

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Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 8th August, 2010

The last day I was in Algeria, a local friend drove me up into the Djudjura National Park, the physical and spiritual centre of Kabylie, the Berber region about two hours drive east of Algiers. The Kabyles built their settlements on hill tops, partly as a defensive formation but also because they like to be perched high so they can survey the land below, and in some places see right to the sea. The Djudjura National Park is a protected reserve, though in places the forest was cleared as government forces tried to remove safe hiding places for Islamic militants and, alas, the roadside is often littered with plastic and glass bottles and cans — including a surpising number of Heineken cans. Many Kabyles drink more than Algerian Arabs and indeed their attitude to Islam is often less strict. Some are Christians or free thinkers. But all share a passion for their region and their mountains. I was driven right up to the highest point, near an amazingly-shaped crag called the Jew’s Hand. At one point, the narrow road runs across a ridge between two peaks, with terrifying virtigenous drops on either side. But then one comes to a tranquil area where there is a running track for training athletes and in summer there are cows and sheep grazing. In one corner of this highland meadow there is a pothole, so deep one does not hear the splash of a stone dropped down. And even in mid-summer when the outside temperature is 40 degrees celsius and more, the air in the pothole is like a fridge.

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North Africa’s Football War

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 22nd November, 2009

Football matches can be a tribal affair and in several parts of the world the ‘beautiful game’ can turn into a battlefield. In Lebanon, so I am told, many games are played without crowds of supporters in case they break out into sectarian fighting and restart the civil war. In case you think that sounds far-fetched, remember that the Central American states of Honduras and El Salvador did indeed go to war in 1969 in a conflict triggered by their qualifying match for the 1970 FIFA World Cup (though of course there were political issues at stake as well). In an alarming development over the past few days a similar stand-off has been brewing between Algeria and Egypt following their recent 2010 World Cup qualifier replay in Khartoum, Sudan. The Algerians say some Egyptians threw stones at them, while the Egyptians claim Algerian fans set on them. Whatever the truth of the matter, there have been angry demonstrations in both Cairo and Algiers and many injuries. Ambassadors from the two countries have been called in by their respective host governments for a dressing down and the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, has waded into the affair, basically saying that it is normal for people to hit someone who insults their country. All this is a useful distraction for him, of course, to turn people’s minds away from Egypt’s own internal problems and the big question about what will happen when he dies or retires. Meanwhile, the new ‘football war is a depressing reminder not only of how tribal soccer can become, but more seriously of how disunited the Arab world is, even within North Africa.

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Gas Exporters Gang Together

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 24th December, 2008

The world’s leading gas producers have formalised a collaborative association, the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF), which will have its headquarters here in Doha. Qatar has the third largest reserves of natural gas after Russia and Iran; together with Algeria and Venezuela, these countries are responsible for two-thirds of the world’s gas supply. It’s a roll-call of states (with the notable exception of Qatar) that sends shivers down the spine of many Western leaders, who are already murmuring their discontent at the emergence of an OPEC-style cartel that could wield enormous power.

Attempts by some GECF members to dismiss the notion of a cartel have been undermined by the Venezuelan Energy Minister, Rafael Ramirez, who declared yesterday at the GCEF charter-signing meeting in Moscow that ‘we see in this forum an opportunity to build a solid organisation, which has in its foundation the same principles that gave birth to OPEC.’

The nature of gas contracts means that the natural gas market is quite different from the oil market. But as Russia has shown vis-a-vis Ukraine, for example, controlling the gas supply can be used as an economic or political weapon. And gas-importing countries will hardly have been reassured by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s comment yesterday that the ‘era of cheap gas’ is over.

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Western Sahara Still Unresolved

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 8th August, 2008

The Polisario’s UK representative, Lamine Baali, came for lunch yesterday. He arrived just two weeks ago, though this is actually his second London posting. He spent the intervening dozen years based in Stockholm. In the interim, much in Britain has changed. John Major’s Conservatives have been replaced by New Labour, though now it is Gordon Brown’s government that gives the impression of being on its last legs. In contrast, the situation regarding the Western Sahara remains depressingly the same.

For nearly 30 years now it has figured on the United Nations list of Non-Self Governing Territories — the last unresolved major territorial dispute in Africa. Morocco occupies the better half of what used to be the Spanish Sahara — and has been settling it with migrants from further north — while the Polisario control the desert rest. However, the bulk of the Sahrawi population who support the Polisario’s campaign for independence live in refugee camps in the Algerian desert, as they have done for a generation, currently suffering from intense heat and drought.

I visited the Polisario camps in 1990 and travelled by jeep and camel in their part of what they call the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Lawrence of Arabia would have felt at home there. I was woken one morning by a camel nuzzling my ear as I lay on the ground, and I heard about Nelson Mandela’s release from prison on the World Service of the BBC while I was there. I even climbed over the wall that the Moroccans built right through the territory, in order to keep Polisario fighters out of their occupied zone. These are some of my most vibrant memories of my time as a foreign correspondent. But I find it infinitely depressing that nearly 20 years later, the issue of the Western Sahara’s future still has not been resolved, and the referendum promised to the Sahrawi people so they can exercise self-determination still seems no more than a distant mirage.


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