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'Democracy is the Best Solvent': An Interview with the Algerian Novelist Boualem Sansal

10:46 AM, Feb 18, 2011 • By JOHN ROSENTHAL
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The Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal is the author of The German Mujahid. The book addresses a unique theme for an Arab author: the Holocaust. Via the reflections of two young brothers in a Parisian banlieue, it tells the story of Hans Schiller: a German SS officer who immigrates to Algeria, converts to Islam, and becomes a hero of the Algerian war of independence. Boualem Sansal has said that there is only a “thin line” separating Nazism from Islamism. He has also described contemporary Algeria under the rule of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika as an “open-air prison.”

Sansal photo C. Hélie Gallimard COUL 1 09.05[2].jpg

Photo Credit: C. Hélie/Gallimard

Asked why he, nonetheless, stays, Sansal once replied, “Algeria is a big and beautiful country that has come a long way: It has a long and highly interesting history, having rubbed shoulders with all the peoples of the Mediterranean….One sunny day, Algeria will rediscover its way and its land will turn green again. I would like to be there to see it happen.” I talked with Boualem Sansal about the Egyptian revolution, the threat of political Islam, and the prospects for democratic change in his native Algeria.

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John Rosenthal: You have been a harsh critic of the lack of democracy in your own country, as well as in the Arab world more generally. You have also warned about the threat of a triumphant Islamism, which you compare to Nazism. The protest movement that brought about the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt has been widely celebrated as a democratic movement. But there was an obvious presence of the Muslim Brotherhood among the protestors, and there were also signs of extreme hostility toward Israel and even of unmistakable anti-Semitism. What is your reaction to the events in Egypt? Hope? Fear?

Boualem Sansal: I am very happy to see the Arab peoples finally revolting against the dictatorships that have oppressed them for so long. My hope, my dream, is that democracies – even if imperfect democracies – will emerge from these revolts and that they will allow the Arab countries to prosper, both economically and culturally, and to open up to the world and live in peace with their neighbors. But it is not only a matter of hoping. One has to mobilize to make it happen, one has to act, one has to seek international assistance, one has to build bridges. For, in my opinion, the most important thing in the current phase is not to leave the Arabs alone by themselves. The very forces and ideas that have gotten them into to their present situation – tribalism, nepotism, Islamism, clannish attitudes – are going to fill the vacuum left by the dictatorships. Moreover, the birth of democracy is difficult. In the short run, it will not be able to meet people’s immediate expectations: for work, an efficient judiciary, an impartial administration and fair elections. As consequence, people are going to turn towards darker forces, of which the principal and best organized are the Islamists. They have been waiting for this moment for a long time, and they are eager to take their revenge. And obviously they are going to play on the same emotive registers that have been so often exploited by all the Arab and Muslim regimes: anti-Semitism, Israel, the “Zionist conspiracy,” but also “Western exploitation,” and so on.

There is another issue: in Egypt, the army has taken over the leading role. Now it is going to be the target of all sorts of attacks and also of all sorts of demands: necessarily contradictory demands in a society that is so polarized. Is it going to know how to manage the situation? One has to encourage the army quickly to put in place a civilian transitional government and to withdraw into the background as the guarantor of the free democratic process: a bit like in Turkey, in which the army traditionally served as the guarantor of democracy and secularism.

As far as Tunisia is concerned, I am confident. Tunisia is ready for democracy and will know how to reach an intelligent equilibrium. It is in the nature of Tunisians to seek compromise, and they will be able to show their native ability in this regard and build a true democracy step by step. On the other hand, I am very worried about Egypt. Egypt is a fragile giant. It is sick and poor, and at any given moment, it could suffer a crisis or a relapse.

Rosenthal: And what about Algeria? There was a demonstration in the capital Algiers last Saturday (February 12). But reports in the western media referred to only “hundreds” of demonstrators. There were reportedly many more police than demonstrators. What is happening in Algeria and what are the perspectives for change?

Sansal: When the protest movement began in Tunisia and Egypt, Algerians hoped the same thing would take place in their country. In January, there were protests in several major Algerian cities: in Algiers, in Oran, in Annaba, in Tizi-Ouzou.

On the other hand, as the Tunisian and Egyptian protests quickly took on revolutionary dimensions, the Algerian government responded with numerous measures aimed at containing popular discontent and counteracting the spread of the movement to Algeria. It lowered prices on basic necessities; it increased imports to insure there would not be shortages; it quickly created thousands of public jobs; it doubled the salaries of the police and made the change retroactive to January 2008, and so on.

In my view, there are several reasons for the failure of the February 12 demonstration. The date of the demonstration was announced way too early. This gave the government and the police time to prepare for it. There were rumors spread that terrorists were going to take advantage of the chaos created by the protests in order to carry out attacks. Many parties and organization did not support the call for a demonstration of the original organizers and even explicitly refused to be associated with it.

And there is a further reason: Algerians have been so often manipulated – by the government, by the Islamists, by pseudo-democrats – that they are very reluctant to respond to any calls to mobilize, regardless of what organization is behind it. Young people in particular are hermetically sealed off to any such efforts. They only follow their own impulses. Somehow the spark required to mobilize them did not take on the 12th.

Nonetheless, as Barack Obama has said regarding Egypt, “history is being made.” That diagnosis is valid for all the Arab countries and even undoubtedly for all Muslim countries. On February 19, there will be another attempted march, and it will undoubtedly be followed by still further calls to mobilize, until the spark finally takes. Democratic aspirations are too strong for the flame to die out.

Europeans and American have to play close and sustained attention to this process. It could easily go astray and lead to the worst possible outcome. But it could also lead to the best. For this to happen, one has to foil the plans of the Islamist groups (Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood) and, in the first place, those of Iran. Barack Obama has understood this and is clearly following the developments closely.

Rosenthal: Algeria’s own history shows that a democratic process can very well lead to the victory of Islamists: namely, by way of the 1991 electoral victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). This was followed by the cancellation of the election results and a long and bloody civil war. Ali Bel Hadj, one of the former leaders of the FIS, took part in the February 12th demonstration in Algiers. What is the risk of history repeating itself?

Sansal: If real democracy is established in the Arab countries, it is entirely possible that the Islamists will come to power. In all Arab countries, in all Muslim countries, even in Europe, the Islamists are waiting to strike.

But I think that Islamism itself has changed. Many Islamists have given up the hope of seizing power by force. (In fact, for the Islamists this is the only truly noble way to come to power: one has to rip power from the grasps of the unbelievers and the agents of the West.) They have seen, moreover, that they can themselves become the target of popular unrest: for instance, in Iran. In Algeria, Bel Hadj has repeatedly been thrown out of demonstrations. There is a struggle going on within the different Islamist movements, and it seems that the moderates everywhere have the upper hand. By “moderates,” I mean those who think that they can obtain power by ruse in exploiting the very democratic institutions that are so beloved by the unbelievers. The Turkish model [i.e. of the “moderate” Islamist Prime Minister Recep Erdogan and his AKP] is spreading.

But the possibility that worries me the most is what I call the “Sudanese” solution: namely, the possibility that the authorities form an alliance with the Islamists in order definitively to squash the democratic protest movement. This is what the Algerian regime has done as well. It brought the Islamists into the state institutions as junior partners. It is not democracy that has permitted the Islamists to become the second most powerful political force in the country. This came about as a result of a shabby political deal. The same thing could happen in Egypt, where the army is bound to face serious opposition. It could promote the Islamists in order to block the aspirations of the people.

In any case, Islamism is a curse. One has to see it as such and work towards its gradual disintegration and marginalization. Democracy is the best solvent in this regard.

Rosenthal: You have praised the attitude of President Obama. But does not the policy of the American administration risk encouraging precisely what you have called the “Sudanese” solution. The administration has minimized the threat posed by the Muslim Brothers, and an administration spokesperson has called explicitly for the inclusion of “non-secular” actors in a new government. In present circumstances, what attitude do you think democratic forces should take toward Islamists? Should they be open to working with them or should they seek to isolate them?

Sansal: When I heard Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech, I was frankly disappointed, even angry. I was disgusted to see him reaching out in such an obsequious manner to precisely those Muslims who make their religion into an identity, a cause, an ideology. But Obama has evolved. He is not so stuck in the same romanticized vision as before. If he is minimizing the Islamist threat, this is undoubtedly for tactical reasons. One should not push all the various types of folly with which the Arab and Muslim world is rife to come together in a united Islamist front.

But one also has to consider the incoherence of western society in general on such matters. Where does one find all the most important Islamists? In London, New York, Paris. Tariq Ramadan sashays back and forth between London, Geneva and Paris. He is invited onto all the talk shows, and he gets great ratings – and not only thanks to the Muslim community of the troubled French banlieues, for whom he is a sort of legendary hero.

In my opinion, action needs to be taken on two different levels. The democratic forces in the Arab countries need to mobilize against the Islamists, to denounce them and to expose their attempt to co-opt a popular revolutionary movement. Above all, the democratic forces have to be clear about their own discourse. Our democrats – some of them democrats of convenience – have to stop looking to achieve democracy, liberty, and progress by playing the Islam card just like any Islamist from the rough part of town. They have to stop going on about Islam being the religion of peace, tolerance, and liberty that emancipated women and saved the angels from the fall.

They have to take their distance, to affirm their difference from the Islamists, in order to offer young people a choice that is as clear as the one that the Islamists offer to their followers. Above all, they have to stop carrying out the debate with the Islamists in religious terms. They have to denounce the political program of the Islamists by appealing to reason and responsibility, not by citing verses from the Koran in the Islamist tradition, like so many do. When ElBaradei arrived in Cairo, he went to pray in the front row with the Islamists. That is how he expressed his desire for liberty and democracy in Egypt. It is comic and absurd and incredibly cowardly. He has no credibility anymore, and real democrats have to reject him.

The second level concerns the battle that the West has to fight against Islamism. One needs to put an end to the concessions, the doublespeak, the realpolitik. Western governments have to stop flattering the Islamists (in Saudi Arabia or Iran, for instance) and should stand up for their own values, which are the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One example: when Mahmoud Abbas says that as soon as Palestine is independent it will not accept that there is a single Israeli on its territory, one has to take note of this and stop dealing with him. There could hardly be a greater expression of hatred.

The world needs clarity and it needs people with the courage of their convictions. Tactical choices should never be allowed to diminish the clarity of one’s fundamental ideas.

(Translated from French by John Rosenthal.)

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