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The Flag of the World

-G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

This here blog is a glimpse or two or three at the condition of the 'fortress of our family' through the eyes Timothy Goddard, a Christian writer with an unhealthy interest in politics living in the Puget Sound area.

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Saturday, June 07, 2003


Algeria: a magnet for the truly terrible
Algeria's flagAlgeria, through most of its history, has been a repository for the worst governments and governing philosophies on the planet. This penchant for being ruled by the bloodthirsty, the tyrannical, the inept or the French makes any hopes for a stable, peaceful—let alone democratic—future remarkably dim, though not entirely nonexistent. Unlike Albania and Afghanistan, Algeria hasn’t even begun looking down the long hard road towards that sort of thing, but that’s not to say it can’t, someday.

Cave painting at Tassili n'Ajjer HISTORY: Being in Africa, Algeria has been populated for longer than most of the rest of the world. There is evidence of people living there as far back as 200,000 BC, and cave paintings depict a fairly vibrant Neolithic culture living here around 6000 BC, when the climate of the Sahara was very different, and filled with lots of tasty large herbivores that made for good eatin’ and easy huntin’. Eventually the various peoples who lived in the area formed the people now known as the Berbers, who have spent most of the rest of their time on earth being oppressed or marginalized by one group or another.

The first of these groups was the Carthaginians, originally Phoenician sailors who set up shop on the shores of the Mediterranean around 800 BC. They gained power rapidly, eventually becoming the mightiest in the area, in large part thanks to their largely Berber-conscript army. But after losing the first Punic War to upstart Rome, and failing to pay those conscripts, many Berbers rebelled and gained a large amount of independence. In modern-day Algeria, then called Numidia, two main kingdoms emerged. Masinissa, hip Numidian king guy These kingdoms had their peak when united under Masinissa, who teamed up with Rome (and especially with Scipio Africanus) to batter Carthage some more.

A while after Masinissa’s death in 148 BC, Rome took over the whole of North Africa, which became the “granary of the empire.” Christianity came to the region in the second century, and it eventually produced St Augustine of Hippo, the greatest Christian writer of the first millennium, after the authors of the Bible itself. He was the main critics of the Donatists, predominately North African heretics who held that a sacrament was invalid if it came from a priest who had caved to the persecution under Diocletian.

Augustine lived at the tail end of Roman dominance over the region, dying in 430 during the siege of Hippo by the Vandals, the unkindliest sort of Arian barbarians, led by King Gaiseric. They persecuted orthodox Christians terribly (I wrote a term paper on the subject, so I could go on about it at length—but I won’t) until they themselves were booted out of the region in 533 by Justinian.

The Byzantines, however, did not run the area very well either, and before long they were being replaced by the Arabs. The encroachment began in 642, and by 711, the Umayyad Caliphate had converted a great many Berbers to Islam and conquered the whole of North Africa. This led to a long and very confusing period of time being ruled and fought over by various Islamic caliphates and related sects. The eastern part tended to come under the control of dynasties centered in Tunisia, such as the Aghlabids and the Zayanids, while the west fell under the sway of Morocco-based powers such as the Almoravids and the Almohads. The Fatimid dynasty, based out of Algeria, began their rise to power in the 10th century.

Come the 15th century, the Europeans struck back at what looked, from the outside, like a Muslim monolith that had been pressing it from both sides. They forced them out of Spain in 1492, and then in the early 16th century began taking cities on the Algerian coast. All this happened as the better crafted European ships began taking control of Mediterranean waters from the Arabs. This led to an explosion of piracy among the coastal Muslims, which in turn led to Ottoman control over the region, as Algerians appealed to pirates (including Khair ad Din, better known as Barbarossa) for help against the Spanish, and they in turn received help from the Ottomans, who wrested control of the region from Spain by the mid 16th century.

Piracy continued, and European states tended to content themselves with paying the tribute demanded by the various pirating states of North Africa. Once the United States was independent of England, however, they had to pay their own way—this took 20% of the American revenues in 1800. During this time Europe was distracted by a fellow named Napoleon, but once peace was made in 1815, much of Europe turned its attention to the pirates. Decatur kicking pirate butt America did as well, Commodore Stephen Decatur heading out with a mosquito fleet of 10 ships that captured several corsairs and took the harbor at Algiers, leaving after forcing the dey there to agree to a favorable treaty. This treaty was quickly repudiated, but the next year an English and Dutch fleet pounded the city into submission, forcing them to agree to the first treaty and to cease enslaving Christians.

Charles X, French screw-upSoon after, the French entered the scene, and things truly started to go badly. In 1827 France was in between bloody revolutions, and king Charles X was antsy to do something that would make him popular, so as not to lose his head. When the dey of Algiers struck the French Consul with a flywhisk during mundane financial negotiations, the opportunity presented itself. After the dey refused for three years to apologize, France invaded in 1830, raping, pillaging and desecrating their way through the city in a three-week campaign. Despite his best efforts, this did not make Charles any more popular, and he was deposed quickly afterwards by Louis Philippe.

Philippe did not particularly want Algeria, but neither did he want to sully “national prestige,” and the latter desire won out, of course. Algeria was made a colony and ruled badly for the next 130 years. About 109,000 Europeans, known as colons, poured into Algeria, eager to snap up all the cheap land and power that was suddenly available, and proceeded to make an utter nuisance of themselves for as long as they were there. Their policies were so ineffective that by the 1870’s, even Algerian leaders who had been sympathetic towards them and drawn to western values and culture had become their enemies. The colons, 2 million of them by 1892, ruled the area, made the most money, paid the least taxes and only communicated with the 4 million native Algerians by way of Arab yes-men, avoiding talk with the well educated younger Algerians who were beginning to foment Algerian nationalism.

Many of these évolués formed the Young Algerians, a group which pushed for reform from 1892 onward, and was somewhat (but not very successful). Many reforms were undergone after the first World War as a reward to Muslims who had fought for France. Ben Badis, pro-Islamic Algerian reformerIn 1926, calls for independence began, coming from essentially two different standpoints—one looking to France for guidance, exemplified by Ferhat Abbas and Messali Hadj, and another specifically decrying that standpoint, exemplified by Ben Badis. The colons, however, were hearing none of it, even when French socialists such as Léon Blum and Maurice Viollette began getting involved. The failure of their work swung many Algerians—including Abbas—towards a more Islamic, less French-friendly status

Then came World War II. Algeria came under Vichy control until being liberated by the Allies in Operation Torch in 1942. The colons had been rather friendly with the Vichy regime, and didn’t take kindly to the rolling back of Vichy laws once De Gaulle’s Free French government set up shop in Algeria. As the war neared an end, Algerians such as Abbas began pushing hard for no mere reforms, but full independence, and colons resisted mightily. This tension snapped on V-E day, when Algerian demonstrations exploded into violence against colons, and the government responded with even more right back. Things calmed down for a few years and simmered until 1954, when the recently formed National Liberation Front (FLN), a group that drew many aspects of the nationalist movement together, launched a series of attacks on government and military targets that dipped the country into revolution lite. Not until the massacre of civilians at Phillipeville in 1955 was the country truly plunged into a true and bloody revolution.

With Algerian rebels on one side and incredibly recalcitrant French colons on the other, all French peace efforts failed miserably, and each side in the war behaved terribly. Charles De Gaulle, French non-screw up, generallyNot until a military coup in France in 1958 that put De Gaulle in power did things even begin to look up. De Gaulle began moving slowly towards some sort of Algerian self-determination—but this resulted in the formation of the Secret Army Organization (OAS), a colon terrorist group. Both OAS and FLN worked against De Gaulle’s efforts for peace. Nonetheless, in July of 1962, Algeria was declared independent after a near unanimous referendum, and peace came to Algeria, or something to that effect.

Ahmed Ben Bella, first president of AlgeriaAfter a bit of upheaval and infighting, Ahmed Ben Bella came to power as the first President of Algeria, which he envisioned as a socialist republic. In 1965, he was forced out by a bloodless coup and replaced by Defense Minister Houari Boumedienne—also a socialist. Things didn’t appear to go too badly under him—but under his successor, Chadli Bendjedid, who took power in 1978, things started to go more poorly, as socialism began to crumble and Islamic fundamentalism began to emerge as a force. These two problems together led to massive electoral gains by the fundamentalist party the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which FLN, the ruling party, responded to by invalidating the elections. FIS responded with violence, and so Algeria came into its own civil war.

Abdelaziz Bouteflika, current president of Algeria This war went on until 1999 when Abdelaziz Bouteflika was elected president, and the FIS renounced its armed struggle. Sporadic fighting continues, but the worst appears to be over.

CURRENTLY: Sporadic fighting is still fighting, and still kills people. This map shows where recent fighting has been, much of it instigated by the rebels of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA).

Also in the news, and related, have been the 32 European tourists kidnapped by one or more of the many Islamic extremist groups such as the GIA. 17 of the hostages were freed last month, and there were reports that the other 15 were freed recently, but those turned out to be untrue, and they are still captive. Instapundit was following this story for a while, but appears to have stopped recently

This may be in part because Algeria has been rocked by chaos of another kind quite recently, as a magnitude 6.8 earthquake killed over 2,000 people on May 21. One would think that this might take the country’s mind off of its other problems, but instead it has served to highlight them.

ANALYSIS: Algeria has been hit with some of the worst governments and movements in the history of governments and movements—Vandals, pirates, French colonialism, French-style socialism, Islamic extremism, terrorism and standard despotism, the list is pretty harsh. And there is no reason right now to think that the Algerian people have any desire to move into any sort of responsible governmental system. They certainly aren’t content with the way things are currently, but considering that their recent history has been a battle between the two most effective responsibility-shifting devices known to man (socialism and Islamic extremism), true democracy seems a long, long way away, if even on the map.

If the much hoped-for domino effect of Arab democracy does indeed occur, Algeria will almost certainly be one of the last to fall—again, if it falls at all. There has been enough western influence in Algeria for the nation to consider itself somehow different than other, more backwards Arab states, to have already taken what it wants from Western life, but the problem is that the only part of the West that Algeria has had any real influence from is France. And France, quite frankly, doesn’t count. Learning about French behavior in Algeria has made me lose even more respect for France than its behavior surrounding Iraq, something I thought impossible.

But Algeria can’t simply blame France and be done with it. What it needs to do is nearly impossible—reject the two paradigms that have been battling over it for so long and move towards a paradigm that has never been a part of its history—that of individual liberty and responsibility, of democracy and secular, limited government. I am skeptical as to whether a Muslim nation can manage that massive of a switch—Algeria, I’d say, has farther to go than either Iraq or Afghanistan, which I am more optimistic about. Unlike Algeria, they have each undergone widespread totalitarian oppression, something which, I hope and pray, makes them more receptive to the idea of freedom. Algeria has not, and so is not. But unless freedom becomes a guiding principle there, Algeria will continue to be a magnet for the truly terrible aspects of this world.

LINKS: Again, the Library of Congress has a wonderful country study on Algeria, though it could use some updating. Infoplease has a good overview of its history as well, as does this page. For current events, the Algeria Interface is hard to beat, and allafrica.com has a good Algeria page as well. Algeria.com is a handy site, and the Discussions section provides some unique perspectives, even if they tend to focus on Morocco and Iraq more than Algeria.

Sorry this one has been so long in coming--not only was May overly busy, but I knew pretty much nothing about Algeria after Byzantium, and so had a very weak starting point. And it's looking like I may be heading out to the Internet-less realm of summer camp this summer, which means that the next one may be even longer in coming. Though the next two are American Samoa and Andorra, so they may go a good deal quicker. We can hope, anyway--which is just about all we can do for Algeria, coincidentally.
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