As the In Amenas hostage crisis unfolded over the past week, one particular element was acutely and mysteriously scarce in the reams of western TV and press coverage: the local view. And yet, anyone interested in the future of the region would do well to pay attention to the still-burgeoning national conversation engendered by the crisis. Indeed, the In Amenas base might be a thousand miles from where nine tenths of the Algerian population reside, but it is, economically and culturally, at the heart of the national story, an apt metaphor for half a century of post-independence underachievement and malaise.
Over the past week or so, three major themes shaping the Algerian conversation over In Amenas can be discerned. First, the episode has brought into sharp focus, once again, the complex, multi-layered topography of the Algerian power structure. As soon as the potentially catastrophic proportions – diplomatic, economic, political - of the crisis became obvious, the decision-making sphere receded away from formal civilian structures and back into the hands of the tight core at the centre. As many in the Algerian media noted, Ministers, diplomats and officials were kept informed, sometimes even consulted, but not always and not adequately, leading to an official communication strategy - truncated, haphazard, and contradictory – that was widely criticised, both within and beyond the country’s borders.
Secondly, the crisis has brought back into the national consciousness the question of Algeria’s oil and gas wealth and - as tends to happen when the subject is broached - this was another opportunity for Algerians to take stock of the perennial and inescapable reality of the past fifty years: a litany of post-revolutionary aspirations betrayed, enormous national wealth dissipated, corruption on a gargantuan scale, and crushing social inequality deepening by the day even as the national surplus balloons.
Finally, and most relevantly for the west, the In Amenas crisis has been an excellent occasion for Algerians to glimpse regional and international perceptions of their nation. Unsurprisingly, few were impressed by most of the output served up by supposedly professional western outlets, which was often replete with neo-orientalist diagnoses invoking a nation irretrievably-disfigured by a “savage” history, frequently seasoned with the de rigueur tales of bumbling, inscrutable, secretive foreigners. (To give just one prominent instance, take the story of Cobra officials gasping “Oh My God! What Are They Doing?!” upon hearing that Algerian special forces had stormed the complex, a bit of gossip that was gleefully relayed and amplified ad-nauseam by the likes of the BBC’s Nick Robinson and others).
Now that the immediate crisis has come to an end, many Algerians are wearily observing how western discourse has already moved on, solidifying around the take-home message of a new War on Terror about to replace the old one. Terrorism is again on the rise, apparently, with the Maghreb-Sahel its new frontline. When I conveyed David Cameron’s ludicrous remarks - describing Islamist groups in northern Mali as a “generational” and “existential” threat to the UK – to an Algerian analyst friend, he burst out laughing in incredulity. Yet these remarks have so far met with solemn acquiescence by most in the UK media-political class.
Of course, Cameron and his French and US allies have their own distinct, sometimes conflicting, reasons for floating the spectre of regional terrorism so forcefully and so suddenly, and it would be a mistake to reach for a ready-made one-dimensional framing to articulate them. However, the notion that the In Amenas episode heralds a real shift in Maghreb-western dynamics is increasingly hard to dismiss, evoking, for many of us, Benjamin Franklin's arch and still-resonant phrase from two centuries ago "If there were no Algiers, it would be worth England’s while to build one.”
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