Beyond freedom’s fort Belabbes Benkredda - 19 March 2012

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Fifty years ago, representatives of the French government and the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) met in the Alpine resort of Evian-les-Bains to sign the accords that formally ended the Algerian Independence War.
The day marked the end of a brutal eight-year conflict that cost the lives of an estimated one million Algerians, including those of my uncle and grandfather. My father, who fought for the FLN and was gravely injured in 1959, still recounts the horrors and atrocities of the war.
Today, few Algerians are enthusiastic about their semi-centennial anniversary of independence from the colonial rule. The country is in a desolate state: corruption is ubiquitous, social injustice at unprecedented levels and despair the only source of social cohesion. A decade-long civil war, which began after the Western-backed military annulled the 1992 election victory of far-right Islamists, led to the deaths of at least 150,000 Algerians and has left the population in crippling fear of politics ever since. Apathy, even resignation, is now the dominant mood among this traditionally vocal people. 
While the sacrifices of the independence and civil wars remain identity-defining events in Algerian collective psychology, the teething problems of today — youth unemployment, lack of housing, food price inflation — are the real challenges in the daily lives of Algerians. In many ways, they are the same popular grievances that led to the ouster of corrupt regimes in neighbouring countries. But unlike Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans, Algerians have neither a despised dictator to fight nor the support of Western governments to count on.  Ever since its independence, a military junta has ruled Algeria. A largely invisible elite of generals, commonly referred to as le pouvoir by Algerians, hold a tight grip on the country’s economy, national security, armed forces and foreign policy. Nothing of significance happens without the military regime’s consent. But in the absence of a dictator figure, even major protests in early 2011 seemed abstract.
Reinforcing the claim to power of le pouvoir, Algeria has in recent years become an important regional ally for the Western governments. The Algerian military, increasingly armed with US weapons, is seen as America’s best bet to counter the still-existent threat of Al Qaeda’s offshoot in North Africa.
The country also supplies 20 per cent of the EU’s gas imports, making it the third-largest supplier. It accounts for nearly half a million barrels of US oil imports per day. With Russia in the past not hesitating to flex its energy muscle and Iran everything but a reliable partner, Western nations are keen on maintaining the status quo in energy-rich Algeria.
France, the US, and other Western governments have a vested interest in their ally’s ’stability‘, even if this is at the expense of the Algerian people’s dream of self-determination. Tellingly, on a visit to Algiers last month, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave the regime a free pass on some of the most contentious issues, including even its support for Al Assad regime in Syria.
Given all of these barriers to a meaningful change, most Algerians are deeply cynical about the upcoming parliamentary elections on May 10. Several moderate Islamist parties have combined forces and will be allowed to run on a joint ticket. Analysts expect them to do well, in tune with the trend in neighbouring countries. To counter widespread skepticism about the prospect of fair elections, international observers from the EU and US have been invited to monitor the voting process. But many Algerians believe the elections will only perpetuate the control of the existing regime.
It, therefore, comes as no surprise that Algerians are not in a mood for celebration today. Many, including my father, are asking: Is this the independent Algeria for which one million of us sacrificed their lives? Is it the Algeria that was promised to us when the Evian Accords ended 132 years of French colonial rule? For now, the quest for Algerian self-determination remains an unfinished project, and Algerian independence an elusive dream.

Belabbes Benkredda is an Algerian-German writer based in Dubai

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