Algerians Look at Egypt, and Recall Their Own Nightmare
The similarities between Egypt’s descent into chaos and the onset of Algeria’s “Black Decade,’’ the 10-year civil war in the 1990s that killed an estimated 100,000 people, are not lost on Algerians. “Egypt is the same as it was here,’’ an Algerian acquaintance recently told me. “The exact same!”
It’s a refrain I’ve heard uttered again and again over the past few weeks by Algerians of various backgrounds and ages.
On a recent Air Algérie flight, my fellow passengers, mostly vacation-bound Algerians, soaked up the grim reports of local Arabic- and French-language newspapers. It was the day after the Egyptian military opened fire on unarmed protesters in Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, killing hundreds. “Egypt: Fire and Blood” and “Egypt: Chaos as Expected” read the headlines alongside photos of corpses.
I was on my way to Tunisia. The pace of August, normally a hot and happy month of seaside vacations and weddings in the Maghreb, has been especially frenetic this year. The austere month of Ramadan ate into nearly a third of it, causing many people to delay their trips. Tunisia is a favorite summer destination for Algerians. Compared with Algeria, which is crawling with police and intelligence agents and has done little to develop tourism, Tunisia has a more relaxed atmosphere, with a wide variety of restaurants, hotels and beaches where women in bikinis and veils swim side by side.
Flights from Algiers to Tunis were fully booked, so I flew to the eastern town of Annaba and took an unlicensed taxi across the border. My two fellow passengers were women, one Tunisian, the other Libyan. Both said they had joined in the Arab Spring protests that helped bring down their governments. The Algerian taxi driver complained that the revolutions of the Arab world had bred insecurity and instability. Tourism is down, he said, and that is hurting his business.
It’s easy to understand his point of view. In 1988, mass protests against Algeria’s authoritarian single-party rule led to the rise of theIslamic Salvation Front, which won the elections of 1990. But before the Islamist party could take control of the government, the military launched a crackdown that forced the Islamists underground. Soon after, it emerged as a network of insurgents and terrorists based in the mountains and a long, brutal civil war ensued.
The Algerian military government eventually prevailed, expanding the security state to provide employment and beef up its forces. A2005 government amnesty barring investigations and prosecutions has made a public reckoning with those bloody years impossible. And bitter memories of that brutal time still haunt Algerians. At the wedding I attended in Tunis, an Algerian guest recalled a grisly incident from his childhood: a truck driving by filled with soldiers shouting and firing shots in the air as they trampled the bodies of slain, bearded men.
Some Algerians say the semi-official state media are playing up insecurity in Egypt and Tunisia to create fear and anti-revolutionary sentiment among Algerians. Perhaps this strategy is working. Though there are still some terrorist attacks in Algeria, a sense of stability has been restored, helped in part by economic growth fueled by the country’s oil and gas wealth.
Nevertheless, the past never stays buried for long, and the fears born in the Black Decade can quickly resurface. When the wedding party in Tunis was over, I took another unlicensed taxi back into Algeria, this time through the Tébessa border crossing, about 50 kilometers from the mountains where recent fighting between Tunisian government forces and a radical Islamist cell took place. At the border post, the air suddenly rang with gunfire, fired at close range. I winced, but the border guards took it in stride. It turned out to be revelers shooting for joy at another wedding.