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Algeria's Election: A Date With Destiny

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It's never a great idea to talk of "parallels" between events in different countries at different times, but - forgive me! - here's one anyway ...

Last year Egypt's military ousted a democratically-elected president and soon after that the party of government itself was banned. What followed has been one of the most turbulent and horribly repressive periods in Egypt's recent history. Meanwhile, jump back a couple of decades and skip a couple of North African countries westward, and recall that Algeria's military stepped in to cancel elections in 1992 after an Islamic political party had dominated the election's early stages. And, as with Egypt, Algeria's popular Islamic party (the Islamic Salvation Front) was promptly banned.

So much for democracy, eh? Algeria's anti-democratic episode led to a devastatingly awful anti-government insurgency (and correspondingly terrible counter-insurgency) that traumatised the country throughout the 90s. It left an estimated 150,000 people dead. I remember those frequent and incredibly horrible reports of mass beheadings and other atrocities by the GIA group at the time (in fact, I've always thought that Algeria's 1990s bloodbath never actually got the attention it truly deserved). I also recall making a weekend trip to Paris in 1995 and having a little spasm of worry when I thought about the Algerian terrorist group's bombings of the Metro and other targets in Paris. C'est la vie, c'est la guerre ...?

No, Algeria's descent into mass human rights violations was a dreadful time that still reverberates through the country. For example, Amnesty has pursued long-term - and still unresolved - cases where people were "disappeared" during these years, never to be seen again. It's also a period when the infamous "chiffon" torture seems to have been much used by the Algerian security forces, a technique where dirty water is poured through a rag stuffed into the victim's mouth to induce a sensation of suffocation and drowning - a form of 'water-boarding'.

Well, the current president Abdelaziz Bouteflika is supposed to have pulled the country out of this morass of murder, kidnappings and torture. He's given great credit by some for pursuing reconcilliation-ist policies, for granting amnesties for past crimes and even - more recently - for overseeing the planting of hundreds of thousands of palm trees across the country to symbolise the long rebirth of Algeria after its gruelling war of independence half a century ago (see Isabelle Mandraud's fascinating account of this, complete with horticultural info on the date palm, or more properly - as I'm sure you're aware - Phoenix dactylifera).

But it's worth remembering that Bouteflika himself only came to power after disputed elections in 1999. And the 77-year-old is running for a fourth five-year term in next week's presidential election because - Putin-like - there's been a change to the constitution to allow a president to serve beyond the usual two terms in office. In fact, never mind the new palm trees (by no means universally popular in Algeria anyway), but things are far from rosy in Bouteflika's Algeria. Protests in Algiers have been banned for years and recent gatherings of the anti-Bouteflika "Barakat" (Enough) party in the capital have been met with arrests. Meanwhile, last month the independent TV station Al Atlas was raided by the police and closed down, apparently in response to its criticisms of the government.

Last week the US Secretary of State John Kerry was clocking up yet more air miles with a quick visit to Algiers as part of the US-Algeria "Strategic Dialogue". Reuters said the pair talked "through an interpreter [about] how to improve cooperation between the two countries who are allies in the fight against Islamist militancy". Leaving aside the oddity of the interpreter given that Kerry famously speaks French, the "Dialogue" clearly places great stress on an anti-Islamist "security" agenda. Could this be why, back in November, Kerry was similarly offering a "strategic dialogue" arrangement with Egypt's virulently anti-Islamist government and - perhaps self-deludingly - talking about how he hoped Egypt was on a route back to democracy?

As I say, it's never a great idea to draw sweeping trans-historical parallels, but Egypt's recent crushing of democracy and popular Islamism certainly echoes Algeria's similar behaviour in the 1990s. The date of Algeria's 2014 election is 17 April, and - ahem - the country's date palms should be in full bloom by then (the fruit comes later). Dates dates dates. On 11 January 1992 Algeria's military abruptly halted history and cancelled the election. On 3 July 2013 Egypt's military similarly halted a democratic process.

You might say 17 April is a date with destiny for Algeria. Under pressure to secure the Maghreb and important oil and gas fields, surely Algeria in 2014 won't be tempted to swerve toward Egypt's current draconian behaviour. Will it?

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