Change for Algeria?

Upon the occasion of Yennayer, the Amazigh (Berber) New Year, in January, I had the opportunity to host Algerian musician, Moh Alileche, on Freeform Portland to talk about Amazigh culture and politics. The Amazigh people are indigenous to northern Africa, having lived throughout the Maghreb region for many thousands of years.  There are a number of Amazigh subgroups, including the Kabyle and the Tuareg (Tamasheq), the spread of whose traditional homes long predate the postcolonial national borders that exist today.   

In discussing the experience of the Amazigh people in Algeria just those few months ago, it did not seem that Algeria was on the brink of instability.  In recent weeks, however, there has been considerable upheaval in Algeria; although it is not clear that it will lead to meaningful, lasting change.

Moh Alileche in the Freeform studio

Alileche is originally from Algeria.  He moved to the US just prior to the start of the 1990’s brutal civil war in Algeria, that led to the deaths of up to 200,000 people.  After arriving in the US, he unintentionally fell into the role of cultural ambassador for the Amazigh people of Algeria — using music as his means of education and communication.

Algeria gained independence from France in 1962, after an eight year war.  President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, age 82, has been in power since 1999. He was seriously impaired by a series of strokes and has not been seen in public in seven years — often spending time in Europe.  His death has often been rumored, dispelled only by intermittent appearances on Youtube. Misinformation regarding Bouteflika’s condition is rampant, even at the time of his stroke in 2013, when the prime minister reported the situation was not serious.  In reality, Bouteflika was paralyzed and dependent upon a wheelchair. He did manage to get re-elected in 2014, without ever campaigning in person. Bouteflika remains a figurehead for a government thought to be ruled by military powers, and which continues to serve the interests of the oil and gas industry.  Alileche described the subtle yet effective ways in which the government has managed to manipulate the media and cultural institutions in Algeria, helping to maintain oligarchy control of the nation. On the day of our interview, we learned that the band Tinariwen had been prevented from taking the stage at a festival in Algeria and their subsequent tour canceled, due to concerns about the political impact of their music, which represents decades of seeking autonomy for the Tuareg people.  There is a sense that France and the European Union turn a blind eye to human rights concerns in Algeria, because of the importance of the nation’s supply of petroleum and natural resources.

The Arab Spring of the first part of this decade did not extend to Algeria, apparently because Algeria’s civil war had left the nation scarred and fearful of insecurity and instability. In recent months though, there have been repeated huge protests in Algiers, the capital of Algeria.  President Bouteflika’s government agreed that he would not run again as a candidate in April, for what would have been his fifth term. The newly appointed prime minister, Noureddine Bedoui, has promised to work towards the creation of a new government. For now, the power remains in the hands of an interim government, led by a Constitutional Council, which is guided by powerful military figures. But massive protests continue in the country every Friday, as the people demand real change in the government.  Just this weekend, the Council canceled a scheduled election for July 4, representing a victory for the protestors after nearly four months of weekly rallies, as there was no candidate representing their interests. Unfortunately, the experience of decades of political manipulation by the powerful in Algeria tempers the hope that the current movement for change will lead to lasting benefits for a broader cross-section of the Algerian people.

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