Boualem Sansal (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)

German Book Trade Peace Prize Winner Boualem Sansal
What the Tragedy in Algeria Has Taught Us

If the Arab revolution fails, then the Maghreb, the Sahel Region, and the whole of the Middle East could turn into a new Iraq. It is the task of all of us to help these transformations succeed. By Boualem Sansal

We thought they were invincible, eternal, and untouchable. And, of course, all-powerful and all-knowing. We were firmly convinced that their senses were sharper than ours – they could see, hear, and feel better than we could. They possessed extra, paranormal senses – a sixth, a seventh, a tenth sense – so that they were among the chosen few, turning them into supermen.

And they enjoyed an iron constitution. Even when they were sick and bed-ridden, as is now the case with poor Bouteflika and also was the case with Benali, Mubarak, Gaddafi, and Saleh, we thought they were in better shape than we were. Or, at the very least, they were able to portray their shivering and deathly pale complexion as something awe-inspiring, beguiling those who believed they were at an end.

photo: dpa
"Portraying a shivering and deathly pale complexion as something awe-inspiring": a man paints over a Gaddafi mural in Tripolis, Libya

​​They were even somewhat admired, regarded as ingenious opportunists. In fact, they truly did master the art of waving their flag in whatever direction the wind blew, jumping from one "ism" to the next, from iron socialism to a mixture of liberalism and black Islamism, even to democratism with tomato sauce.

Yet, suddenly, these supermen, who possessed the ability to shape nations in their image, to give birth to new cultures, and to lead humanity towards a radiant future, appeared to us in their true guise – feverish derelicts, decrepit good-for-nothings, dusty buffoons hung up in an old cupboard.

They fell, one after another. Contrary to all expectations and although we had dreamed of these days for years, we did not experience any joy at their downfall – satisfaction, yes, but not joy. And there is a sobering reason for this. We know that even with their end, nothing has yet to be won.

A continuation of the revolt

Of course, there has been a certain improvement in the quality of life in these countries. Now, one can laugh out loud and dance, but this won't last long. Nothing mirrors the past more than a future that has not broken with the present. We can clearly see what must be done, even if no one is saying it, even if no one even dares to think it. We know that we must continue with our revolt in order to achieve real freedom – it is the only thing that can open the doors to the future for us.

Anti-Mubarak demonstration (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
The Arab world at a crossroad: "We must conquer the Annapurna of prohibitions and misery that we carry within ourselves, and not the petty dictator next door, who lives from a few pennies of baksheesh," writes Sansal

​​We have to fight with ourselves and with everything that poses a hurdle to a new beginning – with religion, which was never more than sanctimony; with feudalism and tribalism, which has constricted our societies; with the culture of subjugation and silence, which characterizes our behaviour; but also with our almost physical attachment to a merchant economy, which holds us in a state of inertia and makes us the beneficiaries of the labour of others.

And if freedom is really at issue, then we should start at the beginning and free women from all of their shackles, from those of their husbands, brothers, uncles, religion, the state, as well as those shackles posed by absurd norms and practices, which bind women in ignorance, even when they enjoy ten times more education than all the men in their families and district. In short, we must first conquer the Annapurna of prohibitions and misery that we carry within ourselves, and not the petty dictator next door, who lives from a few pennies of baksheesh.

Centuries of decline

Are we capable of doing this? If yes, the path to democracy is as wide as a highway. But if not or if we don't really want this revolution, because we feel it will take us too far, then we will very soon find ourselves with a new dictator, who will show us the right path. He is already working his way up towards the top position in government. We know him and recognize him easily, as he is the man who says, "I have liberated you from the dictator, so you must obey me."

If we do not break the pendulum, then it will immediately swing back to its initial position. In six months to a year, we will have new dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. And by then, the Syrian people will have died a heroic, yet brutal death. The problem lies in the roots of the situation, and this is why we have to pull them out.

It is said that the Arab-Muslim world stands at a crossroad. This is a historic moment. Today, it can end the long interval that began in the twelfth century, when it stalled on its path towards the future and began centuries of decline. Over these many years, their countries have been colonized as if they were abandoned territories and they have allowed themselves to be subjugated by bandits, who have assumed titles such as "liberator" or "brother" or "leader" or "Zaïm" and who have appointed themselves presidents for life.

A deadly ideology wreaking havoc

Today, in this time of questioning and doubt, it is imperative that we reflect upon the Algerian experience. It is not only important to consider the current Arab revolutions, but also to recognize their trajectories in order to prevent these countries from suffering the same tragedy as Algeria – a horrible tragedy not only for itself, but for the whole world. So many unexpected things have happened in Algeria since the famous Algerian spring, which actually began in autumn on 8 October 1988. Particularly unexpected were the events of 1991.

Demonstration in Algiers (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Algeria as a laboratory of warfare and annihilation: " It is not only important to consider the current Arab revolutions, but also to recognize their trajectories in order to prevent these countries from suffering the same tragedy as Algeria."

​​The three years of misguided euphoria were used by the Islamists to their advantage, organizing a massive political party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a fearsome, archaic, unending war machine, which was prepared to smash the state, enslave the people, and attack the entire world. This, in turn, led to the most horrific war of annihilation seen by the world at the end of the twentieth century.

At the time, the King of Morocco, Hassan II, said in the manner of one proclaiming a brilliant idea, "Algeria will serve us as a laboratory, in which we will discover the true aims of the Islamists and how one should react in turn." This deadly ideology was something new to our region. In other places, it had already wreaked tremendous havoc, such as in Iran and Afghanistan, but these countries lie at the other end of the world and events tended to resemble the stuff of frightening fairy tales – the sort that one tells to naughty children.

After all, the Maghreb lies just outside the gates of Europe. The din can be heard even there and demands a reaction. Hassan's comment was extremely cynical, but that was what the man was like. He was capable of the worst, and he wasn't the only one. Europe had a plan and said, "They can go ahead and slaughter each other and we will then work with the victor."

Everyone shut their eyes tight

Algerians found themselves caught between two fronts. Islamists and the military pressured them to join their side. "Either you are for us or you are against us," they said and held a knife at one's throat or a pistol to one's temple. The cynicism of Hassan II and the West was certainly not popular with Algerians, yet, in fact, it corresponded to the reasonable approach of a laboratory scientist, who observes a failed experiment and asks if any useful conclusions can be drawn from it.

Demonstration in Tunisia on 25 January 2011 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Preventing the return of bararism: It is the task of the people of the South, but equally the democratic and developed world to help the revolutions achieve success, Sansal says

​​The biggest questions investigated in this "laboratory" were: "How far will dictators go in suppressing their people in order to ensure staying in power? To what point will the public in the West and the international authorities shut their eyes to these crimes? How much destruction will suppressed people bear without revolting, or to what extent will they demand revenge if they do revolt? And will they prefer a defeat for the Islamists or for the military, for the plague or for cholera? Will the people emigrate en masse? And then another important question – where does Islamism begin and where does it end? Who is the host of this virus, who tends to be afflicted by it, how can one detect it, and how can it be destroyed? And what are the repercussions for the price of crude oil?"

These are the real questions. In Algeria, once at the vanguard of the revolt, the rulers went and continue to proceed very far in their bloody suppression of the people, without managing to upset anyone, neither the UN Security Council or Western governments. At the time, no one demanded the imposition of sanctions on the Algerian state leadership, which is still in power to this day. Everyone shut their eyes tight and supported both parties to the conflict – the Islamists and the dictators.

Today, the world is impassioned about Libya and the situation of the Libyans. It is doing what must be done in order to provide help. But no one is lifting a finger for Tunisia or Egypt. No one says anything to Yemen or Syria – and not even to Algeria. It is as if the Titanic is sinking in ice-cold silence.

Similar causes never produce the same effects. There is always something that provides a difference, whether it be oil, the regional context, or current business activities.

The conclusion is simple: If the Arab revolutions fail, then the whole South – the Maghreb, the Sahel Region, and the Middle East – will become a new Iraq, a new Afghanistan, or a new Somalia. It is the task of all of us – first and foremost the people of the South, but equally the democratic and developed world – to help these revolutions achieve success. This time, we fight together against the dictators and deadly ideologies, as well as for a new civilization, for new international relations in the world, and for a global reconciliation, which alone is capable of preventing the return of barbarism.

Boualem Sansal

© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung/ 2011

Boualem Sansal, born in 1949, was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade on 16 October in Frankfurt. Sansal's new novel, "Rue Darwin," has just been published in France.

Translation: Nina Coon editor: Lewis Gropp

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