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Cry for life

Frustrated youth: in Algeria author Boualem Sansal sees no chance of a national uprising like in Tunesia

Algeria's best-known contemporary author still living in the country, Boualem Sansal has been awarded the 2011 Peace Prize of the German Booktrade, which he will accept this autumn in Frankfurt. In an interview he talks with Tageszeitung correspondent Reiner Wandler about the current political situation in Algeria.

taz: When I was in Tunisia during the revolution, a sentence from your book "Poste restante: Alger. Lettre de colere et d'espoir a mes compatriotes Algeria" kept going through my mind: "Basically we have never had the chance to talk to each other ... freely, seriously, methodically, without prejudice ... " The Tunisians suddenly broke the silence at the beginning of this year. Is this free speech characteristic of the protests that are currently taking place all over the Arab world?

Boualem Sansal: Discussion is the basis of human existence. If that is taken away, we die. This is exactly what is happening in the Arab and Islamic world. It is a slow death when you can’t talk about anything, you can't exchange thoughts with others, can't discuss your conflicts. People rebel when they realise that they are dying. The uprisings are not economic, social or political rebellions, as people keep saying. People simply feel the need to talk. So they react. Like an animal that is going to be slaughtered reacts.     

So is this the rebellion of an educated, well-informed youth that is being been denied all freedoms?

The young people see what is happening out there in the world on the Internet and on satellite TV. They witness how young Europeans and Americans live. They see their contemporaries talking, trying things out, living their own lives. And then they look around in their own countries and realise they can't talk about anything. This is not only true for politics and discussions about the political regime or democracy, but also for everyday life. Even at home they can't talk about anything. It's all about respecting their parents, religion, traditions, they can't talk to boys or girls, or even their teachers ... The youth have been left completely on their own.

So it's more about a rebellion against something than a rebellion for something?

It's a rebellion against being locked in. And over the course of the rebellion they are discovering the possibilities they have. They ask themselves what can be done. Only then does politics come into play, and suddenly they rise up against Ben Ali, against Mubarak, for democracy ... But in the beginning it is nothing but a biological reaction, a cry for life and against the wall that surrounds everything.

An Arab May 1968?  

That's a good comparison. The youth feel totally excluded from society. This is a society for adults who have conformed, who accept a completely antiquated political system and still cultivate strong family traditions. For the young people, each day this takes away a little more of the air they breathe, until the whole thing explodes.

So the youth are taking back their independence from the generation of the wars of independence?

The fight for freedom from colonialism lives on as a legend in our minds. We associate it with freedom and the possibility of living with our own identity. The opposite - encapsulation - became reality. Entire generations have put up with this. Now the time has come for the second, true independence. This is no longer about the freedom of a country but the freedom of the individual.

In Algeria too, the youth rebelled in early January. But the opposition slept through the rebellion. Only now, on February 12, more than a month later, is a broad alliance organising demonstrations for democratic change.

The movement that is now calling on people to demonstrate is not a spontaneous affair, as was the case in Tunisia. The question is whether the alliance can also mobilise the youth.

Whereby the opposition in Algeria is far more structured than it was in Tunisia.

In Algeria there are indeed more visible structures consisting of parties and associations. But the youth are afraid of being manipulated politically. The parties in Algeria are not real parties. They are said to have contacts with the system's aristocracy. And there are also invisible structures. In every street, youths hang around, propping up the walls, as we say here. They discuss things, exchange ideas, form informal structures. The entire Algerian youth is networked in this way. They talk about rebellion, about what they see happening elsewhere.

But these Algerian youth structures have so far only produced spontaneous, local or regional uprisings rather than the widespread rebellion that emerged in Tunisia. Why is that?

Algeria is very big, and above all it is not really a united country. The mountain region of Kabylie is a country within a country. The same goes for the region around Algiers, for Oran, the South and the East ... When something happens in Oran the people in Algiers don't really care, and vice versa. The national consciousness of the Algerians is not as strong as it is in Tunisia. Then there's the linguistic division in Algeria: we define ourselves as arabophones, francophones, or speak the Berber language ...   

But it is also a shortcoming of the opposition. It has failed to overcome these regional differences and mobilise the country as a whole.

Certainly, the opposition is an expression of this fragmented reality. It is very difficult to found a national opposition party.

Apart from the Islamists. They were a genuine national force in the 1990s.

The Islamists are no exception. In the beginning it was a romantic movement that believed in the golden age of Islam. But they soon learned to function like the other parties. They too split up into currents, regions, interest groups. Today we have two Islamist parties: Ennahda, which recruits in the East, and MSP-Hamas, whose leaders all come from Blida, not far from Algiers.  

The rulers in Algeria seem to have learned to live with the constant flare-ups of spontaneous and isolated revolts.

The former National Liberation Front (FLN), which led the country to independence and still governs it today, knows the country very well. It knows exactly where the regional differences lie and with this knowledge it can maintain its grip on power. Then there's the fact that the real power in Algeria has remained invisible since the War of Independence against France. The FLN operated underground without major, well-known leaders. This is still the case today. In Algeria, a group of powerful leaders makes the decisions in the background. In a modern state, it is basically indispensable that people know who the decision-makers are, that they are visible. The modern Algerian state is just a facade, and that facade still conceals this collective, this clandestine group.   

You mean the army generals?

It's not only the generals but all kinds of interest groups: clans, big families, associations and organizations, regional rulers ... Without the approval of all these groups the government can't really make any decisions. In Tunisia, this was more simple, there was only one clan, that of Ben Ali. In Algeria, the real structures are all completely inscrutable for the average citizen.

Do these clan structures also influence the opposition?

Of course. Each party is anchored in a region and often even within a single regional clan. Even the press is guided by the interests of different clans. Algeria, like Afghanistan, is not a real state. It is a collection of clans, regions and strongholds. Everything else is just a facade that is needed to keep up appearances.

In Algeria is it at all conceivable that a rebellion could emerge from these clan structures?

I don't believe it is possible. Every time unrest breaks out somewhere, those in power play regional differences off against each other. It's very difficult to turn a local rebellion into a national uprising. Even amidst all its instability, Algeria is still very stable thanks to this fragmentation.

A few years ago you wrote: "Algeria is a country that has lost all hope." If I understand you correctly this hasn't changed much as far as you're concerned.

There will be rebellions and mobilisations, but they won't really pose a threat to those in power. Thanks to the petrol revenues, they have plenty of money and are therefore always in a position to fabricate new parties, new organisations, new ministers, new heads of government and even new presidents.

So you completely rule out the possibility of a revolution like that in Tunisia?

The only unknown quantity in this game is the youth. No one knows what is going on in their minds. But as long as the forces in power don't establish truly traumatic facts by killing a great number of people, for example, the spark of revolution won't spread.

Boualem Sansal, are you a hopeless pessimist?
Unfortunately, so far my pessimism has always been confirmed.


Boualem Sansal was born in 1949 in Teniet el-Had. At the age of 50 - towards the end of the Algerian Civil War that claimed 200,000 lives in the 1990s - Boualem Sansal published his first novel "Les Sarment des Barbares" ("The Oath of the Barbarians") in 1999 in France. He was the director of industrial policy at the Algerian Ministry of Industry at the time. As a critic of the situation in Algeria, he lost his job at the ministry after his novel was published. Since then he has worked exclusively as a writer.

His book "Le village de l'Allemand ou le journal des freres Schiller" won the Grand Prix RTL-Lire in 2008. It has been translated into English as "The German Mujahid" (US 2009) and "An Unfinished Business" (UK 2011). More on his work at culturbase.

Reiner Wandler is the Spain and North Africa correspondent for the Tageszeitung.

The article was originally published on 8 February 2011 in the Tageszeitung

Translation: Alison Waldie

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