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Algeria between censorship and economic recovery

Algeria’s economy is booming, but not much has changed politically in Algeria. In the international ranking of the “Reporters without Borders” organisation, Algeria still occupies one of the last places in terms of freedom of expression. Algerian writers, who can still only publish critical books abroad, also feel this.

In his latest novel, the Algerian writer Boualem Sansal confronts National Socialism with Islamic fundamentalism. “The Village of the German” revolves around the two sons of Hans Schiller: the name is invented, but not the person: a German who came from Egypt in 1955 to the general staff of the Algerian liberation movement. He trained officers and underground fighters. Since he was a wanted war criminal, he stayed in Algeria after independence, became an Algerian, married, converted to Islam. His village was called the “village of the German”. Boualem Sansal passed this village at the end of the 70s.

“I have been thinking about this story for almost 30 years, and the subject of guilt for the actions of parents is interesting for everyone. But I have hesitated to write about it, for fear of the reactions, at least among my compatriots and probably in the Arab and Muslim world.”

Because in these states Israel is only perceived as an actor in the current Middle East conflict, anti-Semitism is widespread, the Holocaust is taboo if it is not questioned. In Boualem Sansal’s novel, the sons only discover their father’s Nazi past when his parents are murdered by Islamic fundamentalists in the Algerian village.

Both siblings live in France. Boualem Sansal:

“I could have left the children in the village. But since the subject of the Holocaust is taboo, it would not have resulted in a novel. If the children lived in Algeria and were influenced by its culture, they would have said that their father was a Nazi, what is it? They don’t know anything about the Shoah. They would have found papers with which they could not have done anything. So I had to move the children to a country where they had at least the freedom to look for the truth.”

In 2003 Boualem Sansal wrote a pamphlet entitled “Poste Restante: Algiers”, a letter to his compatriots listing all the mistakes made by Algeria and its rulers. The plant was banned and Boualem Sansal lost his job as a civil servant in the Ministry of Industry. As long as writers and journalists only reported on Islamic fundamentalists, they didn’t have any problems, Boualem Sansal explains.

“As long as the terrorists were criticized, this was good and served the propaganda of the system. But when in 1998 and 1999 it was said that terrorism had almost been defeated, the journalists attacked the rulers, the generals, corruption. And there came the setback.”

Even Boualem Sansal’s latest novel has no chance of being published in Algeria. After all, he not only touches on the taboo of anti-Semitism, but also indirectly on the glorious past of the liberation fighters.

They are still in power today, even though there are now several parties and many private newspapers. The Algerian filmmaker Jean-Pierre Lledo explains:

“The rulers in Algiers are not legitimized by the people; since independence there has been neither democracy nor genuine democratic elections. Their only legitimacy is based on the fact that these people led the war of independence. …. If this historical legitimacy is attacked, power collapses. Then the legitimacy of the people would be needed. But those in power are not yet ready for genuine democratic elections.”

President Bouteflika’s second mandate comes to an end next year. The constitution provides for a maximum of two terms of office, and then his time would be over. But now the constitution is to be changed, according to official arguments, so that the Algerian president can complete reconciliation and reconstruction.

The writer Boualem Sansal regrets this:

“If Bouteflika respected the constitution and made two mandates and not more, that would be great, that would give hope again. People would say: our bosses, who govern the country, at least respect the constitution. That wouldn’t be bad. But they don’t respect the constitution. Bouteflika will be re-elected, there will be no serious opponent. Then nothing will change.”

What’s changed: The revenues from oil fill the state coffers. The economic upswing is so promising that foreign companies are now giving each other a hand in the ministry cabinets. The demand for consumer goods is growing rapidly. Motorways, ports, parks, housing estates and tourist complexes are being built. The largest sums are invested by companies from the Gulf states: Real estate projects worth billions for luxurious hotel complexes by the sea, whose models are reminiscent of the new architecture in Dubai, colossal and with lots of concrete. Tourism and Environment Minister Cherif Rahmani explains:

“We leave 80 percent for green spaces everywhere. There must be signs of modernity in an urban zone. Whether you like it or not, all the major cities in the world are building up, look at the projects in Paris, New York or London. We cannot be accused of building skyscrapers. But I emphasize: this growth to heaven must be of quality and limited to certain places.”

The people should also benefit from the upswing: The high-rise buildings promise an end to the housing shortage, and tourism alone is expected to create 200,000 jobs. For the construction of the new city park in Algiers, which will be larger than Central or Hyde Park, 24,000 people will be employed. But so far these are declarations of intent, writes writer Boualem Sansal sceptically. He himself lives near Algiers:

“It’s hard for the Algerians to realize their potential in the face of corruption and bureaucracy. There is still terrorism, and there is great misery in the hinterland. Things are happening in Algiers, the young people and the entrepreneurs are dynamic. But life in the hinterland is miserable. Algeria is a rich country with a poor people.”

Algeria has over 34 million inhabitants, two thirds of whom are under 30. By 2050 it will be 50 million. Even if unemployment has fallen to just over 15 percent in recent years, there is still a lot to be done to offer the young Algerians a future.