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Algeria: Hope and Fear

One of the most popular slogans in the street protests in Algeria has been ‘Neither beard, nor kamis, nor police’. That needs a bit of translation.

‘Beard’ refers to male Muslims who want to demonstrate how devout they are, ‘kamis’ refers to the costume worn by Muslim females of the same persuasion (from shalwar kameez, the long shirt and baggy trousers worn by many Pakistani women), and ‘police’…well, that one is obvious.

After six weeks of peaceful demonstrations, the protesters are celebrating their first major victory. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the 82-year-old president with the world’s most spectacular comb-over, has been forced to resign. But this slogan is really about the next step.

The mostly youthful demonstrators are signaling that while they do want to get rid of the whole regime, not just its figurehead, they do not have anything to do with political Islam (beards and kamis). It’s a necessary reassurance for most older Algerians, who are haunted by the fact that the last time the regime nearly lost power, the opposition party was Islamist, and it ended in a ghastly ten-year civil war.

Islamism was very popular among opposition groups across the Arab world in the 1980s, and when the Algerian regime took the risk of holding an election in late 1991, the Islamist party won. Or rather, it was clearly going to win when ‘le pouvoir’ (The Power), as Algerians call the regime, cancelled the second round of the election and took back control.

The Islamists responded by launching an armed rebellion. It turned into a decade-long civil war in which both the Islamist rebels and the ‘le pouvoir’ used terror against the civilians caught in the middle. At least 100,000 Algerians were murdered, the regime finally won in 2002, and the population was so scarred by this experience that it has remained submissive – until now.

The current wave of protesters are on a roll, but getting rid of Bouteflika is just the first step. The interim leader who has to organise a new election within 90 days, Senate president Abdelkader Bensalah, is a regime loyalist and a close associate of Bouteflika. And the generals and powerful businessmen who really control the regime are still hoping that a change of leaders will be enough to send the protesters home.

It won’t. What’s really driving this youth-led revolt is desperation: one-third of the country’s under-30s are unemployed. The regime can no longer buy them off with cheap public housing and subsidised jobs because oil revenues have fallen steeply, and they are too young to remember the horrors of the civil war.

Since the under-30s are two-thirds of the country’s population, they are probably going to win. Having been in power ever since the end of Algeria’s war of independence from France in 1962, ‘le pouvoir’ is now going to be dismantled. The question is what happens next, and nobody knows.

The precedents elsewhere in the Arab world are not encouraging. When Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak (29 years in power) was forced out of power by popular protests in 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood won the subsequent election, but the army overthrew them in a very bloody coup and is back in power. The attempted democratic revolutions in other Arab countries also mostly ended also ended in disaster.

When Libyan dictator Muammar Gadafy (42 years in power) was overthrown and killed in the same year, there were no free elections, and the civil war started right away. Most of the contending groups are Islamist of one flavour or another, and the war is still going on.

When Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad (18 years in power) faced a challenge from pro-democracy protests in 2012, he was not overthrown, but the civil war that ensued has destroyed half the country and is only now coming to an end.

So why would anyone think that Algeria can do it better?

One reason is that most of the young in Algeria really aren’t Islamists any more. Generational turnover has done its work, and the current youth generation is mostly secular, pro-democracy, and animated by non-violent ideals.

But that’s about it. There aren’t many more reasons to believe that Algeria will turn out differently second time around, and there are lots of reasons to fear that it won’t be different this time. Yet hope springs eternal.

Tunisia managed to turn itself into a democracy non-violently in 2011, and despite huge unemployment among its under-30s it still is one. It’s hard to see how freeing Algeria from the dead hand of a superannuated dictatorship will really change the grim economic prospects of its younger generation – after all, that hasn’t happened in Tunisia after almost a decade of democracy – but it’s worth a try anyway. Despite the risk.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“When…end”)

The Future of Food Riots

9 January 2011

The Future of Food Riots

By Gwynne Dyer

    If all the food in the world were shared out evenly, there would be enough to
go around. That has been true for centuries now: if food was scarce, the problem was that it wasn’t in the right place, but there was no global shortage. However, that will not be true much longer.

    The food riots began in Algeria more than a week ago, and they are going to
spread. During the last global food shortage, in 2008, there was serious rioting in Mexico, Indonesia, and Egypt. We may expect to see that again this time, only bigger and more widespread.

    Most people in these countries live in a cash economy, and a large proportion live in cities. They buy their food, they don’t grow it. That makes them very vulnerable, because they have to eat almost as much as people in rich countries do, but their incomes are much lower.

    The poor, urban multitudes in these countries (including China and India) spend up to half of their entire income on food, compared to only about ten percent in the rich countries. When food prices soar, these people quickly find that they simply lack the money to go on feeding themselves and their children properly – and food prices now are at an all-time high.

   “We are entering a danger territory,” said Abdolreza Abbassian, chief economist at the Food and Agriculture Organisation, on 5 January. The price of a basket of cereals, oils, dairy, meat and sugar that reflects global consumption patterns has risen steadily for six months, and has just broken through the previous record, set during the last food panic in June, 2008.

    “There is still room for prices to go up much higher,” Abbassian added, “if for example the dry conditions in Argentina become a drought, and if we start having problems with winter kill in the northern hemisphere for the wheat crops.” After the loss of at least a third of the Russian and Ukrainina grain crop in last summer’s heat wave and the devastating floods in Australia and Pakistan, there’s no margin for error left .

   It was Russia and India banning grain exports in order to keep domestic prices down that set the food prices on the international market soaring. Most countries cannot insulate themselves from this global price rise, because they depend on imports for a lot of domestic consumption. But that means that a lot of their population cannot buy enough food for their families, so they go hungry. Then they get angry, and the riots start.

   Is this food emergency a result of global warming? Maybe, but all these droughts, heat waves and floods could also just be a run of really bad luck. What is nearly certain is that the warming will continue, and that in the future there will be many more weather disasters due to climate change. Food production is going to take a big hit.

   Global food prices are already spiking whenever there are a few local crop failures, because the supply barely meets demand even now. As the big emerging economies grow, Chinese and Indian and Indonesian citizens eat more meat, which places a great strain on grain supplies. Moreover, world population is now passing through seven billion, on its way to nine billion by 2050. We will need a lot more food than we used to.

   Some short-term fixes are possible. If the US government ended the subsidies for growing maize (corn) for “bio-fuels”, it would return about a quarter of US crop land to food production. If people ate a little less meat, if more African land was brought into production, if more food was eaten and less was thrown away, then maybe we could buy ourselves another fifteen or twenty years before demand really outstripped supply.

    On the other hand, about a third of all the irrigated land in the world depends on pumping groundwater up from aquifers that are rapidly depleting. When the flow of irrigation water stops, the yield of that highly productive land will drop hugely. Desertification is spreading in many regions, and a large amount of good agricultural land is simply being paved over each year. We have a serious problem here.

   Climate change is going to make the situation immeasurably worse. The modest warming that we have experience so far may not be the main cause of the floods, droughts and violent storms that have hurt this year’s crops, but the rise in temperature will continue because we cannot find the political will to stop the greenhouse-gas emissions.

    The rule of thumb is that we lose about 10 percent of world food production for every rise of one degree C in average global temperature. So the shortages will grow and the price of food will rise inexorably over the years. The riots will return again and again.

    In some places the rioting will turn into revolution. In others, the rioters will become refugees and push up against the borders of countries that don’t want to let them in. Or maybe we can get the warming under control before it does too much damage. Hold your breath, squeeze your eyes tight shut, and wish for a miracle.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Some…here”)

One degree C is 1.8 degrees F.

Afghanistan in Sixteen Characters

24 February 2010

Afghanistan in Sixteen Characters

By Gwynne Dyer

“By May 1928 the basic principles of guerilla warfare…had already been evolved; that is, the sixteen-character formula: The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.”
Mao Tse-tung, 1936

Not many of the Taliban guerillas in Afghanistan have read Mao on guerilla warfare, but then, they knew how to do it anyway. The current crop of officers in the Western armies that are fighting them don’t seem to have read their Mao either, which is a more serious omission. The generation before them certainly did.

Mao Tse-tung didn’t invent guerilla warfare, but he did write the book on it. The “sixteen-character formula” sums it up: never stand and fight, just stay in business and wear the enemy down. “The ability to run away is the essence of the guerilla,” as Mao put it – and that is why the much-ballyhooed “battle” for Marjah and Nad Ali, two small towns in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, is irrelevant to the outcome of the war.

Breathless reports of the “battle” by embedded journalists have filled the American and European media for the past two weeks, as if winning it might make a difference. The truth is that some of the local Taliban fighters have been left to sell their lives as dearly as possible, while most have been pulled back or sent home to await recall. “The enemy advances; we retreat.”

Mao didn’t invent guerilla warfare; he was merely a very successful practitioner who tried to codify the rules. Afghans don’t really need instruction in it, since that has been the hill-tribes’ style of warfare since time immemorial. The only new element in the equation, since the 1940s, is that these wars have almost all ended in victory for the guerillas.

The Jewish war against British occupation in Palestine in the 1940s; the war against the French in Algeria in the 1950s; the Vietnam war in the 1960s; the Rhodesian war in the 1970s; the victory of the Afghan “mujahedeen” against the Soviet army in the 1980s: in these and several dozen other wars, Western armies with all their massive firepower eventually lost to the lightly armed nationalists.

By contrast, the number of times when they won can be counted on the fingers of one badly mutilated hand. By the 1970s, Western armies had figured out why they always lost, and began to avoid such struggles – but now, they seem to have forgotten again.

The guerillas always won, in that era, because the Western armies were fighting to retain direct control of Third-World countries or impose some puppet regime on them, at a time when the people of those countries had already awakened to nationalism. All the guerillas had to do was observe the sixteen-character formula and stay in business.

They could accept a loss ratio of dozens or hundreds dead for each foreign soldier killed, because they had an endless supply of local 18-year-olds eager to join the fight. Whereas the Western armies could not take many casualties or go on fighting for many years, because popular support at home was always fragile.

In the end, the Western army could always quit and go home without suffering any especially terrible consequences. The locals did not have that option, since they were already home, so they always had more staying power. Eventually, pressure at home forced the foreigners to give up and leave – and the Taliban’s leaders know that. They watched the Russians leave only thirty years ago.

The current generation of Western officers are in denial, as if the past half-century didn’t happen. They parrot some of the slogans of the era of guerilla wars, like the need to win the “hearts and minds” of the population, but it’s just empty words. The phrase dates from the Vietnam War, but the tactic didn’t work there and it isn’t working in Afghanistan.

The plan, in this “offensive” in Helmand province, is to capture the towns (“clear and hold”), and then saturate the area with Afghan troops and police and win the locals’ hearts and minds by providing better security and public services. It might work if all the people involved on both sides were bland, interchangeable characters from The Sims, but they are not.

The people of Helmand province are Pashtuns, and the Taliban are almost exclusively a Pashtun organisation. The people that the Western armies are fighting are local men: few Taliban fighters die more than a day’s walk from home. Whereas almost none of the “Afghan” troops and police who are supposed to win local minds and hearts are Pashtuns.

They are mostly Tajiks from the north who speak Dari, not Pashto. (Very few Pashtuns join the Kabul regime’s army and police.) Even if these particular Afghan police are better trained and less prone to steal money, do drugs, and rape young men at checkpoints than their colleagues elsewhere, they are unwelcome outsiders in Helmand.

This is just another post-imperial guerilla war, and it will almost certainly end in the same way as all the others. Thirty years ago, any Western military officer could have told you that, but large organisations often forget their own history.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 11. (“They could…fragile”; and “The current…Afghanistan”)

Barking Up The Wrong Bush

20 November 2003

Barking Up The Wrong Bush

By Gwynne Dyer

As it happened, the two principal sponsors of the invasion of Iraq, US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, were together when news came in that 27 more people had been killed in the third and fourth suicide bomb attacks in Istanbul in one week. They had to say something, and so they both tried to twist the atrocities into a justification of their decision to invade Iraq. This would be almost funny if it wasn’t so horrible, because the two incidents probably occurred BECAUSE Bush and Blair invaded Iraq.

“What this latest terrorist outrage shows us is that there is a war — and its main battleground is in Iraq,” said Mr Blair. Mr Bush picked up the theme, declaring that “Our mission in Iraq is noble and it is necessary, and no act of thugs or killers will change our resolve” — as if the men who organised the bomb attacks in Istanbul hadn’t wanted the US and Britain to invade Iraq, or did want them to leave now. And the media lapped it all up, as if Bush and Blair were talking sense and the suicide bombers were ‘mindless killers’.

In the face of the torrent of deceitful propaganda, it has to be said again and again. The invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with the ‘war on terrorism’. The only terrorism in Iraq is that which was caused by the invasion. The Islamist terrorists of al-Qaeda were delighted by the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. And the reason why there have been so many successful terrorist attacks in Turkey, Morocco, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and elsewhere in recent months is probably because of the diversion of intelligence effort to the war in Iraq.

One at a time. First of all, there was no more linkage between Saddam Hussein’s repressive but rigorously secular regime in Iraq and the Islamist terrorists of al-Qaeda than there was between the Mafia and the Khmer Rouge. There is absolutely no evidence for it, and the entire American and British intelligence establishments spent the time before the invasion of Iraq desperately signalling to their political masters (and later, off the record, to any media that would listen) that there was no such link.

They were not listened to because Mr Bush’s people were determined to have their war, and Mr Blair — well, that’s still puzzling. But it is clear, if you watch how their lips move, that both men are conscious of having practised a deception on the public. They regularly mention al-Qaeda and Iraq in the same breath in order to foster the illusion that there was a link, but they never actually say it in exactly so many words. Like most politicians, they know that you can fuzz, distort or evade the issue to your heart’s content, but you must never tell an outright lie.

The ‘terrorism’ in Iraq these days bears little resemblance to the almost metaphysical acts of existential hatred that struck New York and Washington two years ago and the global strategy that lay behind them. Iraq is just the mundane, functional terrorism of anti-colonial resistance from Algeria to Vietnam, carried out for the most part by the same sort of people — ex-army officers, political ideologues, young men with big chips on their shoulders — who would be doing the same thing in the United States if foreign troops suddenly took over the country. (You doubt me? Go get ‘Red Dawn’ out of the video store.)

The Iraqis who run this resistance movement doubtless use foreign Islamist fanatics to drive the truck-bombs whenever possible — ‘if the kid wants to die, let’s give him the chance’ — but there is no known link between the war in Iraq and al-Qaeda’s astonishingly ambitious project to seize control of the Arab and even the broader Muslim world. Which brings us, finally, to the question of how the invasion of Iraq has undermined the real ‘war on terrorism’.

Islamist terrorists really exist, although almost none of them are Iraqis. They are not as numerous or rich or well-organised as the propagandists would have us believe, and the damage they can do doesn’t begin to compare with what a real war does, but they are a serious danger that warrants serious attention. Trouble is, they haven’t been getting it.

What matters most in a war against terrorism is intelligence. There is a strictly limited mass of talent in Western intelligence agencies which has the technical proficiency, the Arabic language skills, and the personal attributes needed for the intelligence gathering job — maybe as few as a couple of thousand key people. They should be concentrating their efforts on al-Qaeda. For the past year, most of them have been employed instead on some aspect of the project for ‘liberating’ Iraq (whatever that may mean) — and you can’t be in two places at once.

The Islamist terrorists who plotted the attacks on two Jewish synagogues in Istanbul on 15 November and on the HSBC headquarters and the British consulate in the same city on the 20th, killing fifty people and injuring many hundreds, would have tried to do it whether Iraq was invaded or not. They didn’t need excuses to attack. The difference is that if the intelligence services had been paying attention to al-Qaeda instead of barking up the wrong tree (bush) in Iraq, they might actually have been stopped.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“They were…lie”; and “The Iraqis…terrorism”). Use ‘tree’ or ‘bush’ as you prefer in the last sentence