Algeria: A view from the forest

Officials' uncompromising approach to the felling of trees has ignited anti-colonist anger.

    Despite scattered protests, there was no organised attempt at a revolution in Algeria during the Arab Spring [EPA]

    Algeria has been back in the "Arab Spring" headlines this month, though for more ambiguous reasons than the lifting of the state of emergency in February. Since the fall of Gaddafi, Algeria's role has been cast, on the one hand, as a bastion of the military elite, and a quiet supporter of Gaddafi's regime on the other. 

    The suspicion that Algeria may be "immune to the Arab Spring" is related to the lack of "Tahrir-style" mass protests, its willingness to offer refuge to members of the Gaddafi clan, and its failure to recognise the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC). Unsurprisingly, the announcement on September 12 that the regime would liberalise the largely state-run media - in line with a set of reforms announced in April - was met with a good deal of scepticism, and became even more troubling after the attack on the daily newspapers El Watan and El Khabar two days later.

    There are a number of factors that do not bode well for catching the Arab Spring in Algeria: A fragmented population, the still-fresh memory of a violent civil war, the existence of patronage networks supported by petrodollars, a record of rampant corruption at the highest levels, and the remains of a hollow cold-war rhetoric. This has led astute observers of Algerian politics - such as John Entelis - to conclude that Algeria is "revolutionary in name only"

    "Touche pas a mon jardin!"
    [Don't touch my garden!]

    Certainly, it is not my intent to offer a statistical probability of whether the Arab Spring will "happen" in Algeria. Such an analysis would treat the Arab Spring as a modular product that can be imported as a package deal - and it would also risk embarrassing myself considerably in the coming months, if not weeks.

    What I can say, having recently arrived in Algiers, is that workings of power are considerably less secure than they seemed five years ago.  

    In recent months, one site has become a powerful symbol of the growing rift between the people and le pouvoir ["the power"], and the increased divide between revolutionary credentials and authoritarian practices. However, unlike the symbols that we have grown accustomed to look for, the struggle is not taking place in a square. Instead, it is being staged on a construction site - where a parking lot is being built over a swath of forest. Moreover, the people are not shouting "al-sha'ab yurid isqat al-nizam" ["the people want the fall of the regime"]. Instead they are yelling "touche pas à mon jardin", ["don't touch my garden"].  

    Bois des pins: Police brutality and juridical stalemate

    In July, inhabitants of Bois des Pins (a district in the Hydra quarter) discovered that their small forest of eucalyptus trees would be destroyed and replaced by a multi-story commercial parking lot. Enraged that they had neither been warned nor consulted, people quickly mobilised, signing petitions and organising demonstrations.

    They emphasised the sacred legacy of the trees, which had been a symbol of national pride after independence. Moreover, they claimed that the project was being carried out illegally, pointing to a law stating that real estate projects must be preceded by a public inquiry. There is also class dynamic which undergirds this struggle: While Hydra is a relatively posh suburb, home to embassies and expatriates, Bois des Pins is comparatively less well-off.

    Yet these peaceful protests quickly turned violent. On August 8, riot police confronted protesters and attacked them with tear gas, leaving five people seriously hurt and providing dramatic footage for the YouTube circuit. M Mahenni, one resident of Bois des Pins, claims to have been struck by the police 32 times. On September 5 the Wali of Alger refused to recognise the legitimacy of official complaints filed against him. Instead, 21 of the residents have been called to appear in court and are facing various charges ranging from aggression against police forces, possession of arms, and attacking public and private property.

    A new colonial power? Six moujahidate denounce the regime  

    One remarkable aspect of the struggle being waged in Bois des Pins has been the response of the Moujahidate. These women, who fought against the French, embody the revolutionary war from which the Algerian state has gained legitimacy for almost 50 years.

    The eucalyptus trees in the Bois des Pins quarter are a source of national pride [GALLO/GETTY]

    Yet at this historic moment Djamila Bouhired, Fattouma Ouzegane, Louisa Ighilahriz, Zoulikha Bedaddour, Malika Wahiba and Louisa Ouzarène have issued a public statement decrying the arbitrary and violent actions of the state. Condemning the politicians who are increasingly isolated from the sociopolitical reality of most Algerians, they contrast the ideals of the Arab Spring with the repressive state apparatus in Algeria. In this regard, the Arab Spring may not provide a blueprint for Algeria, but it does seem to offer an imaginary future that is coloured by Algeria's more established revolutionary heritage against the French. 

    The final part of their statement deserves to be quoted in full (translation mine): "Algeria, with its noble history, does not deserve to be abused again, this time by its own children. The police siege of Bois des Pins, in Hydra, brings us back to 1957, the moment when the paratroopers of General Massu took over the buildings and apartments of Algiers during the glorious battle of Algiers." 

    The Moujahidate are not the only ones calling into question the regime's contemporary revolutionary credentials in this matter.

    Abdelghani Henni, a resident of Bois des Pins, has also compared the actions of the police with those of the colonial army in the 1950s. Other Algerians have gone so far as to liken the acts of the police to the OAS ["Organisation de l'armée secrete"], the French "terrorist" group which perpetrated violent acts in both Algeria and France during the War of independence with the slogan "Algeria is French and will remain so". In a country where colonialism is seen as the original sin par excellence, and the words of Fanon still inhabit national discourse, this comparison is nothing short of heretical.  

    Undoubtedly, the FLN's ["Front de Libération Nationale"] Third Worldism sounds increasingly tired. Its website, el-Moudjahid responded to the events in Bois des Pins by reasserting the right of the state to construct that which is deemed necessary for the public good. 

    Meanwhile, other political parties are seizing the opportunity to criticise the current regime. Most notably, Hocine Ahmed and the FFS ["Front des Forces Socialistes"] have unreservedly denounced the actions of the police and called for the removal of police forces from Bois des Pins. Sheikh Abdallah Djaballah, an Islamist opposition leader who heads the Front for Justice and Development, claims that Algeria could experience a social "tsunami" due to the lack of democracy, giving the regime a reason to worry that the fate of a few trees may be a poignant harbinger of the Algerian Spring.

    The nature of revolution: Ecology and nationalism in Algeria

    So what do trees have to do with nationalism? If the colour green comes to mind when one mentions Algeria, it is usually a reference to Islam rather than ecology. Yet the two are not unrelated; while political legitimacy in Algeria has always drawn on Islamic rhetoric, it was once also "rooted" in a radical environmentalism.  

    "We have fought for this green space."

    - Resident of Bois des Pins

    National independence was based on political - and ecological - sovereignty, and Algeria's emergence as a national actor was reflected in an Arabo-Islamic identity as well as a series of environmental initiatives.

    Reforestation, for example, was a priority after the war and sought to show that Algeria would protect and profit from its natural resources in a way that was impossible under an exploitative colonial regime. Just as the French policy of development (mise en valeur) was a humanist display of man's ability to conquer nature, Algerian officials sought a vision of development that was suited to a radical nationalist framework.

    President Houari Boumediene's attempts at reforestation in the 1970s culminated in the barrage vert [the "green dam"], which was designed to protect north Algeria from the inexorable advance of the desert. Yet the program was only partially successful; having planted 160,000 of 3 million hectares, the vision remains to be implemented.  

    The success of this vision, however, can be found in indicators other than the number of existing trees. The residents of Bois des Pins have noted that some of these trees were planted by volunteer corps in the 1970s. As one resident pointed out, "we have fought for this green space". It is important, therefore, to see the history of the forest as well as the politics of the trees. The residents of Hydra are fighting for trees. But they are invoking the ideal of a forest - an environmental consciousness that is tied to Algeria's revolutionary self-image - and using this historical legacy to discredit the current regime.  

    This ecological awareness is also tied to the ways in which capitalism has dictated the course of urban planning in Algeria. Algiers, which was once known as the "white city", is perhaps now more famous for its concrete housing projects that have profited an elite group of investors who have made fortunes with the opening of trade in the past twenty years. There are fewer and fewer green spaces, and the housing crisis has resulted in an increasingly concrete landscape. 

    In this respect, the forest signals a demand that the Algerian government respond to the economic, social, and ultimately ecological, needs of its citizens. Yet these transformations seem so unlikely that the Algerian government is now being compared to the French colonists it fought against in the 1950s.

    This nexus of political struggle, historical imaginary, and ecological awareness shows that the breezes of the Arab Spring may indeed be coming to Algeria. But that, like the notion of revolution, they will not appear as pre-defined phenomena - nor offer any certain political trajectory.

    Muriam Haleh Davis is a graduate student in the department of History at New York University. Her research interests focus on race and decolonisation in Algeria.

    A version of this article was first published on

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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