With presidential elections scheduled for this April, Algeria will once again become the playground of Kremlinologists. For a few months, observers will try to dissect Byzantine power struggles that only insiders actually understand. The non-living world of politics will attract the attention of those who enjoy absurd and morbid spectacles, whereas the majority of Algerians will likely keep their distance from the electoral circus. In order to respect popular rejection while depicting the country at the end of Citizen B's fourth mandate, I propose to adopt a de-centered perspective. Over the next few months, we will travel to Africa, the High Plateaus, and Mickey's land. Naturally, we are ready to return to the political heart of the country at any moment if the protests that have erupted today lead to a large-scale social movement. Algerians thus remain in control of our itinerary. From the periphery, we will not lose sight of the essential: the political struggle to establish a social contract that ensures justice and dignity for all citizens. In the meantime and in tribute to Daho Ould Kablia, former minister of Interior who once suspected that his fellow-citizens preferred to go to the beach rather than vote, we start this series with a view from the Sea. To this end, we will benefit from the insights of anthropologist Tarik Dahou and environmental scientist Ibrahim Boubekri.
The sea occupies a particular place in the history of modern Algeria. It was once the interface allowing the insertion of the coasts of North Africa in international military, diplomatic and commercial games. Two sailors born on the Greek island of Lesbos, the Barbarossa brothers, conquered and organized the territory that has Algiers as its capital, before joining the Ottoman empire in 1519. It was also from the sea that the French troops landed to plunge the country into 132 years of colonial night. The Northern shore of the Mediterranean constructed Algeria as a haven for piracy, a lawless kingdom and a resisting entity that should be disciplined and conquered. But the sea was also a space of normalization and cooperation that allowed “barbaresque” Algeria to establish bilateral relations and join global financial circuits.
On the other shore of the Mediterranean, Algeria is still often depicted as a mix of mystery, violence and social suffering. Characterized by their alleged chaotic nature, North African coasts are portrayed as the origin of flows that cut across European cartographies of risks (terrorism, migration, drug trafficking). Delusions occur in cycles, as does the tide. Fortunately, the sea also carries its share of useful insights. It reveals a complex, developing Algeria, whose government and citizens constantly negotiate a tense modus vivendi.
Governing the Sea
The sea is at the crossroads of many central issues for contemporary Algeria (fishing, migration, marine transportation). As a resource, a social fabric and an area to protect, it is a crucial space of intervention for the Algerian government. Thus, Ibrahim Boubekri and Tarik Dahou underline that governing the sea is of the utmost complexity due to the presence of multiple actors and conflicting interests.
Ibrahim Boubekri: “The governance of the sea is problematic in Algeria because of the sectoral strategy that has been adopted for many years. Numerous ministries can intervene in the same territory (for example in the same fishing harbor), but without any real coordination or integration of their respective agendas. The lack of a single organization that play the role of “coast manager” fuels conflicts over how the sea is to be used (conflits d'usage) and leads to direct confrontations among various actors. Eventually, the biggest loser is mainly the environment but also local populations that depend on these resources and whose incomes are threatened.”
Tarik Dahou: “Different sectors of the state have conflicting prerogatives, which prevent the articulation of fishing policies and marine conservation. Thus, in El Kala national park, which I studied, one can observe that the strategies and policies of the department of fishing conflict with those of the department of national parks, which is in charge of monitoring protected marine areas. Obviously, maritime players take advantage of these conflicts in order to avoid further regulations, notably when they are carrying out illegal fishing activities that could be curtailed by additional surveillance.”
The sea thus reveals the government's difficulties in organizing, exploiting, and preserving an ecosystem in a coherent fashion. The shortcomings of the Algerian state and the tensions between its subdivisions are certainly not exceptional. They confirm the sectorization of a modern state apparatus, with the bureaucratization and the internal competition that are certainly familiar in many parts of the world. Society then has no other choice but to adapt as social groups try to take advantage of the government's limitations. At the same time, Ibrahim Boubekri and Tarik Dahou emphasize two essential stakes for Algeria in 2019: environmental protection and socioeconomic precariousness.
Development and the Environment
The ecological question is all the more sensitive as it necessarily goes hand in hand with an analysis of the government's economic strategies. Environmental sustainability and development are crucial issues in a postcolonial context. The doxa inherited from the Algerian revolution links the protection of the national territory to the improvement of the population's material conditions. Yet, this relationship is largely contradictory, as the pursuit of economic development often goes against ecological responsibility. In Algeria, this has resulted in a degradation of the environment that was already apparent in the 1980s.
Tarik Dahou: “With the liberalization carried out at the end of the 1990s, Algeria initiated a policy of privatization that targeted the fishing industry. The government dismantled the public company that managed it and financed the growth of the national fleet. Following, the government adhered to many international environmental norms and regulations. Nonetheless, over the last decade, Algeria has continued to subsidize fishing activities and invest in its fleet, a unique case in the Mediterranean. Despite a recent bolstering of the fishing industry compared to other countries, this policy has resulted in sustainability issues regarding fish stocks.”
Ibrahim Boubekri: “One of the issues plaguing marine ecosystems in Algeria is plastic pollution. The seabed is overwhelmed by domestic waste and especially plastics. There are many reasons for this, but in my opinion, the greatest problem is the lack of a proper policy for waste processing. The majority of coastal municipalities don't have the logistical means necessary to manage public disposal facilities. Another bitter fact is the current state of halieutic stocks that have been depleted continuously for two main reasons: pollution originating from the mainland and destructive fishing techniques (overfishing, habitat destruction).”
Coastal zones are exposed to the ravages of an economic system based on the exploitation of national wealth (whether it is fish or hydrocarbons). In a context where the government only belatedly realized the consequences of its developmentalist policies, the environmental crisis impacts seabeds, cities, and landscapes. It threatens both ecosystems and ways of life. Public authorities have added the notion of sustainable development to their discourses and policies, but this addition doesn't make all the contradictions disappear. As the government strives to reinvigorate the tourism sector by promoting its coastal regions (portrayed as “a balcony on the Mediterranean”), the construction of sea resorts leads to land saturation and resource over-exploitation. Government efforts to diversify the economy thus add a new element of stress on coastal ecosystems that are already under considerable strain.
Social Margins and Economic Precariousness
If environmental issues have received increasing attention since the end of the civil war, notably due to remarkable social movements, socioeconomic questions remain a priority. The place of the informal economy and the growth of temporary employment feed an endemic precariousness. The fishing sector is certainly no exception:
Ibrahim Boubekri: “In Algeria, three-quarters of the fleet are dedicated to artisanal fishing, involving small boats that are less than 12 meters long. These small fishermen do their job in very precarious conditions, from fishing practices to commercialization. This sector still operates in a very traditional manner. Fishermen face frequent periods of unemployment over the year, without any support from the authorities. These periods of unemployed can result from fish scarcity or weather conditions that prevent fishing due to insufficient navigational equipment. As a result, many fishermen have to get another job since it is extremely difficult to support their families through such an uncertain occupation.”
Given this description, one might be tempted to view Algeria solely in terms of the poverty and despair that results from the shortcomings of the state. Indeed, the Mediterranean is also the space of the harga, the emigration of a youth who seeks a better future in Europe while facing the punitive policies and contemptuous paternalism of the public authorities. The sea, thus, becomes a wall that traps a generation born after the civil war and a cemetery where their hopes lie on the ocean floor. Though this is certainly a powerful image, it fails to do justice to the resilience of grassroots actors, harraga or fishermen. Nor does it capture their ability to defend their interests and pressure the state. This is a crucial point according to Tarik Dahou:
Tarik Dabou: “In border areas such as El Kala, illegal fishing and smuggling have played a growing role in the daily life of coastal populations. The fact that these people rely on illegal activities for their livelihood changes their relation to the state. It places the state not only in a position of illegitimacy, but it also forces the state to renegotiate how it exercises social and economic control. While participating in the increase of these illegal practices - through the corruption of its administration and regulating bodies - the state must also adapt its interventions according to local contexts. For example, when the state tries to limit fraudulent coral exploitation, it faces the uproar of local smugglers, which can lead to violent acts. The state will then back off momentarily, allowing the perpetuation of coral trafficking and securing consistent sources of income for a region plagued by unemployment. Observing the governance of the sea at the local level reveals the ability of social actors to influence the government and the state, even when they are considered to be captive clients (because they work for the administration or have a formal job).”
Illegality and smuggling serve as spaces of circumvention granted by public authorities under the pressure of various social groups. In the summer, the young men who ask vacationers for payment in exchange for parking their car or using the beach umbrellas provided by coastal towns are another example of this negotiation from the margins. While the government reiterates its commitment to enforcing the law, this “beach mafia” is tolerated by local authorities. In their own way, the young men who rent beach umbrellas limit violence and impose a form of order on the beaches that they have privatized illegally. Despite their precariousness (or precisely because of it), they constrain public authorities and secure their position as informal beach enforcers.
Sovereignty and Globalization
Seen from the Mediterranean, the idea of social powerlessness comes with another inaccurate representation of Algeria, that of an isolated nation obsessed with its sovereignty. The sea, as we have seen, is sometimes depicted as a wall enclosing the South. There is certainly something Braudelian in how Frontex-led operations foster a fracture between the two shores of the Mediterranean. North African actors who collaborate with the European Union rarely miss an opportunity to denounce a Mediterranean framework that serves European economic interests rather than those of Southern countries. The situation, however, is not that simple.
Tarik Dahou: “Algerian politics are often analyzed exclusively in terms of nationalist practices of power or by focusing on the autonomy granted by the hydrocarbon rents. Nonetheless, politics are also influenced by the transnationalization of society and the economy. This evolution is visible from border spaces where international trafficking networks are developing. There, the mechanisms that enable the accumulation of wealth also reveal that international flows are central for local populations. This includes the flows that result from a globalization that occurs through illicit networks and activities. We must therefore reconsider how the state exercises sovereignty. Beyond the laws and the monopoly of legitimate violence on the national territory, this sovereignty appears to be the product of an ambiguous relationship with illegal activities. It is shaped by border actors, whether they are crossing the border or in charge of controlling circulation across it.”
Security-centered discourses depict the Mediterranean as a space of smuggling and human trafficking. The sea has been constructed as a borderland, where multiple state and non-state actors deploy different regimes of security to channel and repel danger, risk, and abjection. In the barbarian periphery, the Southern state is described as absent or failing. Yet, this state remains essential, both as a partner for Europeans and a producer of irregularities.
Tarik Dahou: “Beyond the nationalist rhetoric that proclaims Algeria's complete independence in regards to economic globalization, we can see an increasing globalization through illegality that is now integrated in the forms of government. While feeding off these illicit flows, state actors and smugglers contribute to an “offshorization” of the Algerian economy. This has various consequences at the political and local levels. On the one hand, it estranges local populations and state actors from a collective national project and it undermines the institutions of sovereignty. On the other hand, these dynamics are also integral to the mechanisms of state power, as the state appropriates the illegal strategies of economic accumulation in order to bolster its hegemony. The workings of sovereignty are thus paradoxical.”
The idea of a paradoxical sovereignty is important for many reasons. First, it allows us to understand how the production of the legal and the illegal, the distribution of privileges and the ability to turn a blind eye, remain essential to Algerian governance in 2019. Second, it allows us to situate Algeria in a broader transnational framework that is regulated by mechanisms of solidarity that are official (treaties, security cooperation, economic deals) and unofficial (tax fraud, black sites, trafficking). Seen from the Mediterranean, Algeria participates in the management of migration flows and in the “War on Terror.” Official spokespersons have offered to welcome migrants expelled from Germany. They have also proposed sharing their experience in the fields of national reconciliation and anti-terrorism with their regional partners. Far from being autonomous and isolated, Algeria participates in transnational regimes of security; the country is fully integrated in the legal and illegal networks that regulate and organize Mediterranean borderlands.
In conclusion, viewing Algeria from the sea reveals a country that is still experiencing a process of transformation marked by significant tensions. More than often, governmental priorities are contradictory and official discourses unable to capture the complexity of the social world. Grassroots actors and high-ranking officials both adapt their strategies in the face of multiple economic and environmental challenges. Algeria braces, protests, negotiates, resists. The country is nevertheless exposed to the effects of globalization, whose waves sculpt a landscape in perpetual transformation.
Ibrahim Boubekri and Abdallah Borhane Djebar, 2016, « Marine protected areas in Algeria: Future marine protected area of “Taza” (SW Mediterranean), continuing challenges and new opportunities facing an integrated coastal management », Ocean&CoastalManagement, n°130, pp. 277-289.
Ibrahim Boubekri et al., 2018, « Structure and spatio-temporal dynamics of the artisanal small-scale fisheries at the future MPA of “Taza” (Algerian coast, SW Mediterranean) », MediterraneanMarineScience, n°19(3), pp. 555-571.
Tarik Dahou, 2011, « Trends come and go. The community remains. », Cahiers d'Etudes Africaines, n°202-203, pp. 395-414.
Tarik Dahou, 2018, Gouverner la mer en Algérie. Politique en eaux troubles, Paris, Karthala.
 Leïla Ould Cadi Montebourg, 2006, Alger, une cité turque au temps de l’esclavage : À travers le Journal d’Alger du père Ximénez, 1718-1720, Montpellier : Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée, pp. 215-254.
 Hannah Farber, 2014, « Millions for Credit: Peace with Algiers and the Establishment of America's Commercial Reputation Overseas, 1795–96 », Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 34, No. 2, pp. 187-217.
 Salah Eddin Zaimeche and Keith Sutton, 1990, « The degradation of the algerian environment through economic and social ‘development’ in the 1980s », Land Degradation & Development, Volume 2 Issue 4, pp. 317-324.
 Tarik Ghodbani, Othmane Kansab and Abdelaziz Kouti, 2016, « Développement du tourisme balnéaire en Algérie face à la problématique de protection des espaces littoraux. Le cas des côtes mostaganemoises », Études caribéennes, n° 33-34.
 Hakim Abderrezak, 2018, « The Mediterranean Seametery and Cementery in Leïla Kilani’s and Tariq Teguia’s Filmic Works », in Yasser Elhariry and Edwige Tamalet Talbayev, Critically Mediterranean, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 147-161.
 On Islam as an intruder in Braudel's Mediterranean, see Claude Liauzu, 1999, « La Méditerranée selon Braudel », Confluences Méditerranée, n°31, pp. 179-187.
 Paul A. Silverstein, 2005, « The New Barbarians: Piracy and Terrorism on the North African Frontier », The New Centennial Review, Vol. 5, n°1, pp. 179-212.