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Lord Risby: Algeria, our surprising new best friend

Screen shot 2012-01-10 at 17.48.20There are few countries so near to us which have had the gruesome and complex history of Algeria, which this year will celebrate fifty years of independence from France.  In 1830 the French removed Ottoman control largely for domestic reasons, to shore up the unpopular reign of Charles X.  In due course the white settler population grew to over a million and Algeria was administered as a département of France.  However, the colonial experience was not a happy one, and ended with extreme violence.

In the war which led to independence, grotesque cruelty was perpetrated on both sides.  By the late 1980s, a poor economic environment of rising inflation and unemployment led to the emergence of the Islamic Salvation Front (SIS) and in due course a civil war between militant Islamists and the army and security forces.  Horrific manifestations of militant Islam have left the deepest scars in the country, with 200,000 deaths, turbulence and destruction continuing beyond 2000.  Discrimination against the minority Berbers led to more bloodshed before concessions were eventually made to them too.

Yet by comparison with other Arab countries, and despite what might bubble below, overall the country has been remarkably stable since the Arab spring erupted.  Algeria has a massive $178 billion in reserves, low inflation, and is a major energy exporter.   A political reform process is underway, the state of emergency has been lifted, and a measure of media liberalisation is being undertaken.  In the past twelve months, state spending has soared with substantial salary increases and huge subsidies introduced on essential foodstuffs and oil.  With nearly 70% of the population under the age of thirty, the government initiated a $286 billion programme of infrastructure upgrading to create jobs.

Nevertheless, the fear of kidnapping and terrorist activity still haunts Algeria, which explains the total absence of tourists in a country of such size and beauty. The Government is openly nervous and very vigilant about anything that would put the country in a bad light, or ignite instability again. They speak with alarm at situations which have unfolded in other parts of the Arab world. By May, parliamentary elections should have been completed. Foreign monitors will oversee the process.  A wide spectrum of political parties will participate, but not extreme Islamists.  Hope and expectation has been expressed by the coalition in power  that the current stability will prevail thereafter, with an essentially unchanged political order.  Under a quota system, up to one third of members of parliament will be women.
Last week, Algeria received a British parliamentary delegation, arranged by CMEC, following very successful visits by William Hague, David Howell and Alistair Burt.  As l was able to observe, the desire to have much closer relationships with us is powerful and genuine.  The importance of the English language is now fully appreciated, and there are some who believe they remain too close to France.  It is certainly correct that whilst we have long-standing links with many Arab countries, historically this is much less true of North Africa.  There is a UK parliamentary friendship group in Algeria, and we will replicate this here.  We have an Ambassador there who is obviously well regarded, and who is driving closer links on both a political and business level. Despite some very successful British companies operating profitably there, we lag well behind our European competitors.
And, yes, they would like to have an association with the Commonwealth too.  Of course, there are many hoops to go through, but l cannot help but think that this aspiration at least will bring pleasure to one particularly admired head of state in her diamond anniversary year.  But whatever transpires, it is simply yet another manifestation of Algeria's desire to befriend us.  Last week, it really was a case of seeing is believing.


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