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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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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.

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