|Protesters in Paris call for the release of Mourad Dhina, Algerian rights activist [Courtesy of the FreeMourad Campaign]
Paris, France - The Arab Spring has done little to threaten the status quo in Algeria, leaving outside commentators puzzled over what some are calling the "Algerian exception".
The arrest by French authorities of Mourad Dhina, one of the most vocal critics of Algeria's administration, underscores just how little has changed in the North African country, activists told Al Jazeera.
While neighbouring countries have experienced dramatic change, the Algerian government continues to stifle political dissent. The "Dhina Affair" also exposes the French government's ardent support for their Algerian allies.
Five decades ago, Algerians won their independence from French colonial domination, and, since 1962, the country has been ruled by the National Liberation Front (FLN). Many opposition figures and activists argue that it is the military, however, that holds the real political power, behind the veneer of the FLN's civilian government.
Algeria did experience protests early in 2011 Arab Spring, but the momentum soon faded. Algerians have lived through the brutality of French colonialism, and the decade-long "Dirty War" of the 1990s, leaving a legacy of violence and disillusionment.
With the rise of political Islam in Tunisia, Libya and Morocco, the rulers of Algeria have introduced reforms that suggest a willingness to accept some degree of change, and as the country prepares for its legislative election on May 10, there are signs that the FLN might find more political space for opposition parties - including a newly formed alliance of officially sanctioned Islamist parties named the Green Algeria Alliance.
And, for the first time in its history, Algeria has invited international election observers to monitor the poll.
But those calling for more extensive reforms and an end to the generals' behind-the-scenes political control are likely to be disappointed.
Abbas Aroua, a co-founder (with Dhina) of opposition exile group Rachad, said that the reforms were nothing more than a façade, and that the government's repression of activists and journalists had increased in the past year.
"There are a couple of countries that tried to escape from this wave [the Arab Spring]. Algeria is one of them," he said.
"People who are saying ‘no' to these fake reforms are being harshly attacked."
Ali Belhadj, the founding second-in-charge of the outlawed Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), was also arrested in early February near Béjaïa as he toured the Kabylia region, according to reports in Algerian media.
|Dhina has been in France's La Sante prison for two months [Courtesy of the FreeMourad Camapgin]
The Rachad movement has been particularly energised in recent months, and had held a protest in Paris on January 11, marking the 20th anniversary of the 1992 military coup outside the Algerian embassy in Paris. Dhina did not attend the protest, but was in Paris at the same time for a meeting of Rachad’s Paris office.
On January 16, Dhina was arrested at Orly Airport in Paris, as he was about to board a plane to Geneva. Since then, he has since been imprisoned in La Sante Prison.
The 50-year-old former FIS member is being held while France examines a 2003 extradition request from Algeria, which alleges that he belonged to "an armed terrorist group in Switzerland from 1997 to 1999". The Swiss have rejected similar requests from Algeria, and view the allegations as politically motivated.
"There is no proof behind their allegations," said Dhina's wife, Ratiba. "They're inventing lies because he's an opponent of their regime and a human rights activist."
His next hearing is scheduled for March 21. In the meantime, the French authorities have refused his request for conditional release under house arrest.
Alkarama Foundation, a Geneva-based NGO, of which Dhina has been executive director since 2007, has said that he would be at risk of torture if France allows his extradition. Such a move would, Alkarama argues, therefore be in breach of France's obligations under both the European Convention on Human Rights and the United Nations Convention against Torture.
Neither the French foreign ministry nor interior ministry were willing to speak to Al Jazeera for this article.
Unlike other former leaders of the FIS, Dhina was not involved in the Islamist movement in the 1980s. He left Algeria in 1983 to pursue his postgraduate studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he undertook a doctorate in experimental particle physics.
After Algeria's October 1988 protest movement, which preceded similar uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia by more than 20 years, the political monopoly of the ruling oligarchy appeared to be on the wane. Reformers within the regime appeared to have set the country on the path of political pluralism.
Dhina grew up in a politically active family that valued education. Under French colonial rule, his father was a member of the FLN and, like many Algerians, had been imprisoned by the French for his resistance.
After graduating from MIT in 1987, Dhina was recruited by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETHZ), to collaborate in experiments at what was at the time the world's most powerful particle accelerator. Both his professional life and the political developments in his homeland gave Dhina reason for optimism and excitement.
This all came to a halt with the coup d'état of 1992. The Algerian army intervened to prevent what would have been the second round of the country's parliamentary elections, blocking the FIS from almost certain victory.
The country accelerated along the path towards civil war, and the anti-reform, staunchly secular establishment moved to "eradicate" political Islam. Civilians who supported the FIS quickly came to be seen as legitimate targets in the murky civil war that unfolded. Intellectuals became targets for both the intelligence services and ultra-conservative supporters of political Islam.
Shocked by the massive use of torture, extrajudicial executions and desert detention camps that followed the coup, the young physicist was provoked into political activism, joining the FIS in 1992, after the military government outlawed the party, a ban that remains in force today.
"Mourad's situation is rather different from the others," said George Joffé, a specialist in North African affairs at Cambridge University's Centre of International Studies. "He was never before a member of the FIS in the 1980s. He only became involved later on."
Aroua, who is a medical physician and fellow activist-in-exile, first met Dhina at the European Laboratory of Nuclear Physics (CERN) in the early 1990s. This was before the coup had driven both men to devote much of their time to exposing the abuses committed by the regime.
"Otherwise, we had a scientific career we wanted to follow," said Aroua, who has never been a member of the FIS and lives in London.
Dhina may not have set foot in Algeria since 1986, but it wasn't long until he was facing similar accusations of terrorism from his fellow FIS members back in Algeria.
The first accusations came in 1994, as Algeria's Department of Investigation and Security (DRS), the intelligence agency widely considered to be more powerful than the government, intensified its efforts to crush political opponents abroad.
Geneva police accused Dhina of helping smuggle to explosives from Slovakia to FIS members in Algeria. The Swiss authorities soon dismissed the charges as baseless, although the smear was enough to lose his prestigious job at ETHZ.
Back in Algeria, the charges stuck, and a court convicted Dhina to 20 years in absentia in 1997.
A member of the Swiss federal police was later convicted of spying for Algerian intelligence in its hunt against Algerian dissidents living in Switzerland.
Back in Algeria, the charges stuck, and a court convicted Dhina to 20 years in absentia in 1997.
"As with many Algerian opposition figures, Algerian authorities have been trying to have him extradited for many years," said Michael Romig, a human rights officer at AlKarama.
The Algerian authorities sent another extradition request to Swiss authorities in 2001, claiming he had been a member of a terrorist group based in Switzerland. The Swiss refused.
The terrorism allegations are "complete rubbish", Joffé said.
With the crackdown against the FIS inside Algeria, the torch for the movement was passed to those living abroad, and, despite his brief involvement with the movement, Dhina quickly earned the respect of the FIS leadership.
He was appointed provisional head of the movement's national executive bureau in 2002, while its leaders Ali Belhadj and Abbassi Madani were in prison.
By 2004, however, he had become frustrated with what he believed was the party's failure to act as a coherent and disciplined political force. He issued a statement announcing his resignation from the FIS, rejecting its "organisational dysfunction".
||Ali Mecili, a lawyer who had co-founded the Socialist Forces Front (FFS) in 1963, was gunned down by a hit man in Paris in 1987. Charles Pasqua, then France's interior minister, reportedly intervened to have the leading suspect - allegedly an Algerian agent - deported to Algeria in "absolute urgency". The murder has never been properly investigated.
||Pasqua spearheads the "hunt" against supporters of political Islam living in France during Algeria's civil war. This co-operation reached its peak in 1993, with a round of mass arrests dubbed Operation Chrysanthemum.
Algerian officials filed charges of torture against General Khaled Nezzar - an allegedly key figure in the killings during the October 1988 riots, the coup and the subsequent crackdown - during a visit in 2001.
In contrast to Dhina's current situation, Nezzar managed to leave France in a rush before he was called to face the charges, allegedly after receiving a tip-off and a special plane from the French authorities.
Nezzar is now facing investigation over similar charges in Switzerland.
Plus ça change
Since the end of the colonial era, the French government has fostered notoriously close relationships with Algeria's military rulers, an alliance defined by uncompromising raison d'État, but faced with the weight of protest movements that have shaken the region for more than a year, President Nicolas Sarkozy's government was forced to reconsider its ties with North African authoritarian leaders.
Michèle Alliot-Marie, then France's foreign minister, offered Tunisia "know-how" to help "deal" with the uprising there in January 2011, just days before President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted. Public opinion turned against her and she was forced to resign.
In response to a question [Fr] on Wednesday on Europe 1, a French radio network, about the biggest error of his presidency, Sarkozy went so far as to say it was to have failed to anticipate the Tunisian Uprising:
"Without a doubt, to not have seen the Jasmin Revolution [sic] coming, and it's no consolation that no one saw it coming."
Alain Juppé, who replaced Alliot-Marie as foreign minister, has advocated the need for France to build better ties with opposition movements, Islamist or not, in North Africa.
"I wish for the opening of straightforward dialogue with Islamist groups that respect democratic [values] and refuse any form of violence," he reportedly said in April 2011.
Aroua agreed: "Juppé has been trying to [push for] a change in France's foreign policy, supporting more and more movements for freedom in the Arab world, trying to stop supporting dictatorships."
Yet when it comes to petroleum-rich Algeria, France appears to be maintaining its support for its military allies. The terms of France's diplomatic relationship with Algeria continue to be conducted by the French security establishment, as they have been since independence in 1962.
Juppé's inability to sway this has left him frustrated, according to an official in the foreign ministry who spoke on condition of anonymity.
During a December 2011 visit to Algiers, Claude Guéant, France's interior minister, called the "democratic" reforms "profoundly encouraging", the Algerian daily Le Matin reported [Fr].
The Dhina Affair has underlined the historic split between Juppé - who since the mid-1990s has advocated a nuanced position on Algeria and Pasqua - firmly in the generals' camp, a French foreign ministry official told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, there's also the possibility that the French authorities are scrambling to compensate Algiers for the ongoing investigation into the mysterious circumstances surrounding the murder of the seven monks of Tibhirine.
Refusal to compromise
Algeria's reforms potentially open the path for the pro-regime Islamist Green Algeria Alliance to win a substantial percentage of the vote in the May election. Dhina has consistently criticised pro-regime Islamist parties.
Days before his trip to Paris, Dhina was approached by an emissary sent by the new head of Algeria's secret services General Bachir Tertag, an Algerian newspaper reported in January [Fr].
Dhina's wife and colleagues confirmed to Al Jazeera that shortly before his arrest, the physicist had been approached by administration representatives seeking some kind of "deal".
As he has many times before, Dhina refused to compromise on his activism.
"The Algerian regime has tried many times to contact him," his wife Ratiba said. "But it's against his principles."
She said that the regime reacted to his refusal to negotiate with threats that they would have him extradited.
Aroua said the secret services had approached Dhina and other key members of Rachad repeatedly.
"They've asked us to come to an agreement with them, and they offered positions and privileges, and they said: 'Just say what you want and we'll find a way to do things'," he said.
"But they're never ready to question the nature of their system. We always said we should be approached in a transparent way, we don't want a bilateral, secret deal with you."
Mohammed Samraoui, the former second-in-charge of Algeria's counter-intelligence services who defected to Germany in 1996 and went on to become a leading critic of the "Dirty War", said Dhina's arrest was an example of the systematic harassment of anyone considered to be a threat.
Samraoui was also one of the co-founders of Rachad in 2007, and he faced a similar extradition attempt while visiting Spain for an international chess tournament, shortly after the organisation was launched. When he was released on bail, he fled to Germany.
"They know that it won't be possible to extradite Mourad Dhina, and their objective is to unsettle him with legal costs, expensive commutes between Geneva and Paris for his family members," Samraoui said in an email interview. "They're trying to intimidate anyone considering fighting for change in Algeria."
Anwar Haddam, a former member of the FIS executive authority in exile, said that, given the history of France's treatment of Algerian exiles, Dhina should not have travelled there by plane.
"I was not surprised that they arrested him, because we knew they'd been after him for a long time," said Haddam, who has lived in the US for nearly two decades.
Haddam, whose own status in the US remains tenuous, said France and the US both accept Algerian officials' use of terrorism allegations as a means to harass opponents.
"They're trying to use us, the opposition, as leverage, in order to get whatever they want to get from the Algerians," Haddam said. "Unfortunately, France repeats the same mistakes."
Joffé agreed that extradition requests were a frequent tactic the Algerian authorities used to harass leading dissidents.
"It's a scattergun approach, and it works very effectively," he said.
"When you massacre your own people, make millions of young people disappear and subsume the country with fire and blood, just to stay in power, I believe there is a serious lack of governance," Samraoui said.
"There is corruption at every level, this is why it is normal that a person like Dhina disturbs them, and why they will discredit him at any price, accusing him of being a ‘fundamentalist,' a ‘terrorist,' a ‘traitor' or a ‘foreign agent'."
You can follow Yasmine Ryan on Twitter: @yasmineryan
Source: Al Jazeera