As the Saharan hostage crisis unfolded, the international media generally resorted to empty cliches about the bloodthirsty Algerian state, writes Natalya Vince. While this is partly the fault of sloppy western journalists, Vince suggests that the Algerian state’s introversion and secretiveness, its utter lack of interest in filling the public space with its own version of events, contributed to the inept reporting.
I – Mistakes and dangerous liaisons
Standing outside a wintry Downing Street, commentating on the British government’s reaction to the ongoing hostage crisis at the In Amenas gas plant in the Algerian Sahara, one of the BBC’s most highly regarded journalists, Nick Robinson, came to a chirpy conclusion. ‘No one knows what’s going on,’ Robinson stated, ‘To be honest we’re talking about countries which a few days ago most of us couldn’t have found on a map.’1
The statement was both refreshingly honest, after two days of supposedly ‘expert’ opinion in the British press, radio and television, and quite frankly shocking. The media’s first reaction when news first began to filter out on Wednesday that hundreds of hostages, including many foreign nationals, had been taken captive in In Amenas by an Islamist group supposedly calling itself Al Mulathimin was to bring out its security experts. Well there’s plenty of them, to talk about Al Qaeda, but also to confuse the name of the Algerian prime minister with that of the minister of the interior.2
The British reaction when the Algerian army decided to launch an armed intervention against the hostage takers on Thursday was one of surprise. David Cameron was annoyed that he hadn’t been informed by his Algerian counterparts, and that they hadn’t taken up his offer of intelligence and tactical support. Nick Robinson told us that a member of the British cabinet let out an anguished wail of ‘what are they doing?’ The media threw itself into trying to explain the apparently baffling Algerian decision to go in all guns a-blazing.
More expert opinion was sought, and of course anyone who knows anything about Algeria could tell you that the reaction of the Algerian government and army was in no way surprising. Readers and audiences were reminded that Algeria was hostile to any suggestion of foreign military intervention on its soil or meddling in its affairs. We learnt that Algeria had one of the best-trained and best-equipped elite intervention forces in Africa (although not, of course, as good as its US, British or French equivalents). Both this military might and Algeria’s ‘uncompromising position’ on terrorism was explained as a result of the civil violence of the 1990s.
On one level, this is very obvious. But behind these obvious statements, a series of pernicious connections began to be made. Take for example, the headlines of the following articles in the centre-left Guardian:
Ian Black: ‘Algeria’s bloody history forged brutal response to Saharan camp raid’3
Nabila Ramdani: ‘Algeria spills more blood’ – followed by the subheading ‘The violent end to this standoff is only the start of a new chapter in the country’s savage history’.4
Ramdani – or whoever wrote the title and subheading, often this is not the author – was trying to be clever, referring to the most famous English-language work on Algeria, Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace (1977). Black refers to exactly the same book in his article, usefully informing us that ‘Algeria’s modern history is steeped in blood.’ Well, it is if you schematise Algerian history as Black and Ramdani do, that is to say, reduce it down to the War of Liberation against French colonial rule (1954-1962), the civil violence of the 1990s and the 2013 In Amenas hostage crisis.
Sticking ellipses into large parts of Algerian contemporary history, squashing it down into its violent episodes is seriously unhelpful. In their crudest form, such analyses fall into an Orientalist stereotype of Algerians which already exists – not least amongst her North African neighbours – of a bunch of crazy hothead machos, for whom human life means little and pride everything, headbutting their way around football pitches and hostage crises. I’m sure Black, Ramdani, et al. are far too intelligent to fall into this trap, but if they might eschew essentialism, they nevertheless reproduce a most unhistorical determinism, seeing Algeria as locked into a series of violent episodes, with each one engendering the next. This is a shortcut which historians such as James McDougall have been fighting for over a decade. In fact, McDougall has written an article which borrows from the title of Horne’s book, it’s called ‘Savage wars? Codes of violence in Algeria, 1830s-1990s’.5 Note the question mark. The problem is not just one of journalists with deadlines to meet, but is of course one of historiography – there is very little published history of independent Algeria. Time ends in 1962, and only half restarts in 1988. Into this silence, suppositions and shortcuts fill the gap.
II – Everyday silence
There is another silence which has also been striking in the past few days. One of the problems which the international media has faced is the indifference of the Algerian state towards communication. In the first 48 hours of the crisis, there were no images, and hardly any official statements. The social media which today can fill some of this gap could not – there was no mobile phone footage uploaded onto the internet, no Facebook messages, the gas plant was so isolated that there were no neighbours to call up for an eyewitness view. By Friday, Algerian state TV had provided a few images of relieved Algerian, British and Turkish workers, responding to the rather leading question ‘were you happy with the job done by the Algerian army’? In the age of 24-hour news, minute-by-minute updates, Twitter and Youtube, there was an information vacuum. This is not to excuse the crassness of the reporting in much of the British media, instead it exposed their lack of knowledge. When you have no events to report, you try to provide context – but it is the context that requires a deeper level of understanding.
As unconfirmed reports followed unverified figures, I was struck by an imperfect parallel. The international media suddenly found itself in the position of an average Algerian citizen, living in a state which is neither totalitarian nor fully democratic. The state in Algeria does not communicate on a day-to-day basis. Explanation, spin, justification- whereas in other countries it is an absolute necessity for the government to occupy public space and show that it is doing something, in Algeria, one might argue that the state can’t be bothered to show, and the wider population can’t be bothered to believe. And when the state does show, most people still don’t believe. Symptomatic of this context is the importance of rumour in Algerian political culture – one of the most popular in the past decade has been that el-Alia cemetery in Algiers is being repainted, in preparation for the imminent death of the president… The big difference between the international media and the average Algerian citizen is that the rumours and guesswork of the latter are, unlike the former, rooted in the political, socio-economic and cultural context of Algeria. The rumours might not be true, but they tell us something, whereas the Afghanistan expert roped in to talk about Algeria tells us about- well erm- the priorities of Western foreign policy in the past decade.
III – Citizens, politics and the past
Watching and reading (most) of those called upon to comment on the hostage crisis in Algeria in the British media, I was struck by a strange but familiar sensation, which perhaps will also be familiar to other people with a close connection to Algeria. I found myself metamorphosing into a staunch defender of the Algerian army and state: how dare they imply the Algerian army is incapable of dealing with this? Don’t they know that Algeria won its ‘war on terror’ before 9/11 even happened? Why do Western governments think they should have oversight on what Algeria does in its own territory? Before you could say ingerence (interference, in English, just doesn’t quite sound the same), any kind of nuance had been thrown out of the window. Not least the usual questions which one asks about what ‘winning’ the ‘war on terror’ actually means in terms of death, human rights abuses, divisive amnesties and state co-option of ‘Islamist’ ideas. El Watan reported that Algerians online – generally a pretty critical bunch when it comes to el-hukuma (the government) and generals in el-jaysh (the army) – were throwing their support behind Algerian handling of the crisis. The problem of course being that if you didn’t, you might be seen to support Western grumblings about Algerian incompetency. Perhaps inevitably, and in the urgency of the moment, when under threat from outsiders, a union sacree imposes itself.
This feeling of being forced to be ‘for’ or ‘against’ is, however, part of a broader pattern of conceptualising contemporary Algerian history as a series of black and white alternatives. These are not so much historical frames of analysis but rather a series of politicised positions. For or against the seize of power by the Oujda group in 1962. For or against the Boumediene coup in 1965. For or against the army’s interruption of the electoral process in 1992. Eradicator or conciliator faced with the Islamist challenge. Did the post-independence state live up to the hopes of those that fought and died for it? Was independent Algeria good or bad for women? Political discourse in many ways replaces historical research.
Post-independence Algerian history is not a history of violence, it is a history of silence. The challenge for both historians and media commentators is to listen to those silences, because they may challenge what we think we know.
14 Feb 2013