By Magdi Abdelhadi, North Africa analyst
If the official name of a state has the words “democratic” and “popular”, it is arguably neither.
Take the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, otherwise known as North Korea, which is a totalitarian one-party state.
Then there’s Algeria, whose official name is remarkably similar to that of North Korea – the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria.
Although it is not in the same league as that in Pyongyang, ask any of the thousands who have taken to the streets in Algeria since 2019 and they will concur that their regime is neither democratic nor popular.
They would say that their country has been run by a clique for decades, with the military holding the reins of power behind a civilian façade, and used the country’s oil wealth to line their pockets.
Further, the protesters view successive parliamentary and presidential elections as a sham to bestow legitimacy on a regime that otherwise has none.
Another tell-tale sign of a “people’s democratic republic” is that in moments of national crisis, the government’s first reaction is to blame foreigners or “fifth-columnists”.
When Algeria was hit last month by a wave of forest fires that devastated thousands of hectares of trees and green pasture and killed at least 90 people, including some 30 soldiers who had been deployed to put out the fires, the government’s first response was to point the finger at arsonists and to vow to hunt them down.
It provided no evidence. Not a word was said about climate change or that similar fires have been raging across the Mediterranean.
Fires raged amidst a heatwave, no rain and unrelenting gusts of wind
It was a similar response when the harrowing details emerged of the lynching and burning of the body of 37-year-old Djamel Ben Ismail, who had gone to the Kabylie region to help fellow Algerians extinguish the fires.
The incident was caught on mobile phones and widely circulated on social media. Algerians were shocked by the savagery of the perpetrators.
Embarrassingly for the government, it unfolded under the watchful eye of the police, who did next to nothing to stop the onslaught.
The government has defended the officers, saying they had come under attack from a violent mob, who snatched Mr Ismail from a police van.
The authorities have rounded up dozens of people – the latest count is about 80 – and accused them of involvement.
Characteristically, they were paraded on state television handcuffed while making confessions that, conveniently for the regime, implicated a local political organisation that the government recently designated a terrorist group.
The organisation, known by the acronym MAK, campaigns for the independence of Kabylie, a predominantly Berber region in northern Algeria, which was worst hit by the fires.
The region is also the birthplace of Hirak – the movement whose protests led to the ending of the two-decade rule of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2019.
Hirak has continued to spook the old Bouteflika allies who have succeeded him.
Typical also of the “democratic people’s republic” is that the people rarely trust what the state media says.
As a result, speculation was rife as to who actually was behind the brutal mutilation of Mr Ismail.
￼IMAGE SOURCE,FLORENCE DIXON
Djamel Ben Ismail had gone to help extinguish the fires when he was killed
He was an Arab, the killers were Berber youths.
One popular narrative on social media and among Algerian dissidents in exile said the killing must, therefore, have been an attempt by the “deep state” – a reference to the secret services – to ignite ethnic strife, and to deflect public anger from state failures.
Some wondered whether Mr Ismail was a pawn in a bigger power game to destabilise Kabylie and thus justify a crackdown on the regime’s opponents.
The government has now announced that it will compensate all those who suffered from the forest fires.
On the issue of Mr Ismail’s murder, police say his mobile has been found with “shocking facts concerning the real reasons behind his killing”.
However, these revelations will reportedly not be disclosed because of the ongoing investigation.
Having dealt with the “domestic threat”, the regime moved a gear higher by announcing that next-door neighbour, and old regional rival, Morocco had been found guilty of fomenting trouble for Algeria.
It cut diplomatic ties with Rabat and announced it will no longer provide Morocco with Algerian gas, estimated at 800 million cubic metres annually.
Morocco has dismissed the Algerian allegations and expressed the hope that diplomatic ties could be resumed shortly.
It is yet to comment on the likely impact of the decision on its domestic energy needs.
Critics were quick to point out that scapegoating Morocco and domestic opposition groups is an old tactic to divert attention from the regime’s spectacular failure in dealing with domestic problems such as the forest fires, the Covid-19 pandemic and the lack of jobs.
Last month, as infections peaked amid a severe shortage of oxygen for seriously ill patients, the government issued directives to the media to play down “the bad news”.
It was straight from the textbook of totalitarian states – blame the media for the regime’s failures.
Yet, paradoxically, the pandemic gave the regime respite from the protests organised by Hirak. It was a perfect public health pretext to ban gatherings and demonstrations.
But after a lull, the protesters were back on the streets of Kherrata in Kabylie earlier this year to mark the second anniversary of Hirak.
Anger at military
They want a complete dismantling of the old order and reject what they regard as a rearranging of the deck chairs.
That’s how they view President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, an insider who was elected in 2019.
Many young people in Algeria have shown they are impatient for change
Their slogan is: “All of them must resign” – and they have the military in their sight.
They singled out army chief General Saïd Chengriha, believing he is the de facto president.
Their anger has its roots in the failure of the post-independence state to deliver a decent standard of living and political freedoms.
It’s a regime that has built its legitimacy on the anti-colonial narrative, which is of little relevance today in a predominantly young society, most of whom were born after independence from France in 1962.
The question now is whether a renewed Hirak can achieve what has so far eluded other protest movements in much of North Africa and the Middle East – freedom and the rule of law.