Sunday, December 3, 2017

The unlikely domino

Ahmed Ouyahia, "The Eradicator" - Prime Minister of Algeria. (Wikicommons: Magharebia). "We are the kings of our home!"

When political change comes to a world-system, does it begin near the center and then spread outward? That seems to be the common view. Karl Marx predicted that communism would first triumph in the U.K., France, and Germany, yet he was proven wrong. In 17th century England the "Levellers" called for giving all men the right to vote, an aim first achieved in the United States and only much later in England. Similarly, the late 19th century saw women gain voting rights in Scandinavia, some Australian colonies, and some western U.S. states. Not until 1928 were the same rights recognized in the U.K. 

The center is an interesting place for new ideas, but it's terrible for getting them implemented. It’s the place where power is concentrated, where resistance to change is strongest, where the elite has been established the longest, and where the elite has diverged the most from ordinary people in terms of self-interest and social distance. So the center is where new ideas have the most trouble spreading through all social strata and gaining acceptance. 

The situation is different farther out on the periphery of a world-system. Social distances are generally shorter and the elites less entrenched. This is partly because peripheral societies tend to be more recent—often beginning as colonies of central societies—and partly because weaker control by the center and greater contact with other world-systems may make them the scene of war, rebellion, and social upheaval, which in turn means replacement of local elites. New ideas can thus percolate more easily throughout the whole of a peripheral society

These are tendencies to be sure and, as such, may not always hold true. The periphery may be a quiet backwater where elites stay put and become more distant from the people. Furthermore, a new idea may face hostility not only from the elite but also from ordinary people. Communism, for instance, was admired in the Muslim world for its opposition to Western imperialism, but its atheism made support impossible among the working people it targeted.

In writing this series I'm simply arguing that public sympathy isn't the only factor in the spread and acceptance of new ideas. There is also elite hostility, and that factor tends to be more formidable at the center than at the periphery.

The next two to three years

A nationalist bloc of European nations has formed on the periphery of the Western world—Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Austria, and Hungary. This has happened not only because public sympathy for nationalism is stronger there but also because elite hostility is weaker. The elites are less differentiated from the rest of society; consequently, there is more social cohesion and commonality of purpose. Finally, the language of the Western world being above all English, the centre has trouble maintaining ideological conformity in those countries where English is poorly understood and where ideology, like culture in general, tends to be locally produced.

In my previous posts I’ve argued that the nationalist bloc will spread outward into culturally similar countries, as well as into countries where post-national elites are unpopular and weakly entrenched. By the year 2021 this bloc will cover a much larger area: almost all of central and eastern Europe, plus Italy. 

It will also include a seemingly unlikely area that isn't European at all, an area that is, in fact, African and Muslim.  

Background to the migrant crisis

Population pressure has been mounting in sub-Saharan Africa for some time. While fertility rates have fallen throughout most of the world, often dramatically, the picture is different in this world region. Fertility declines have at best been modest, and in some countries, like Somalia, fertility has actually risen. The current pace of population growth will continue even if fertility rates fall dramatically:

Rapid population growth in Africa is anticipated even assuming that there will be a substantial reduction of fertility levels in the near future. The medium-variant projection assumes that fertility in Africa will fall from around 4.7 births per woman in 2010-2015 to 3.1 in 2045-2050, reaching a level slightly above 2.1 in 2095-2100. After 2050, it is expected that Africa will be the only region still experiencing substantial population growth. As a result, Africa's share of global population, which is projected to grow from roughly 17 per cent in 2017 to around 26 per cent in 2050, could reach 40 per cent by 2100.

[...] It should be noted that the population of Africa will continue to increase in future decades even if the number of births per woman falls instantly to the level required for stabilization of population size in the long run, known also as "replacement-level fertility". Growth continues in that scenario thanks to the age structure of the population, which is currently quite youthful. The large numbers of children and youth in Africa today will reach adulthood in future decades. Because of their large numbers, their childbearing will contribute to a further increase of population even assuming that they will bear fewer children on average than their parents' generation. In all plausible scenarios of future trends, Africa will play a central role in shaping the size and distribution of the world's population over the next few decades. (United Nations, 2017, p. xxii)

Meanwhile, the inevitable has begun. When the slave trade ended in the early 19th century there began a long period when relatively few people left sub-Saharan Africa. Some did, but their numbers were relatively small—Senegalese riflemen, Somali seamen and, later, university students. This hiatus came to an end in the early 1970s. To fill insecure, low-paying jobs, French employers extended their zone of recruitment to sub-Saharan Africa, and this example was followed by employers elsewhere. Even Greece began to recruit African labor for jobs in construction, agriculture, and shipping (Pteroudis 1996).

The stream of migrants continued despite the economic slowdown that set in with the Oil Crisis of 1973 and the 1982-1983 recession. They came for the most part on temporary visas and then overstayed. Large-scale illegal entry did not begin until the early 2000s, via a route across the Sahara to Libya and then across the Mediterranean to Italy by boat (De Haas 2008). In 2008, Silvio Berlusconi, signed a treaty with Muammar Gaddafi to block this route, but enforcement collapsed with Gaddafi's overthrow and murder in 2011. The result was a surge in African migration.

Yet this surge is only the tip of the iceberg:

[...] it is a misconception that all or most migrants crossing the Sahara are "in transit" to Europe. There are possibly more sub-Saharan Africans living in the Maghreb than in Europe. An estimated 65,000 and 120,000 sub-Saharan Africans enter the Maghreb yearly overland, of which only 20 to 38 per cent are estimated to enter Europe. While Libya is an important destination country in its own right, many migrants failing or not venturing to enter Europe prefer to stay in North Africa as a second-best option (De Haas 2008).

African migrants currently take three routes to Europe: a western route via Morocco and Spain; a central one via Libya and Italy, and an eastern one via Egypt and Greece. Given the chaos in Libya, the central route is shifting to Algeria, and that country is increasingly becoming their final destination. "Our studies revealed that more than half of the migrants in Algeria actually live there," explains MDM. [Médecins du Monde]" Even if this was not their plan at the beginning, they end up finding a job and settling in one place." (Matarese 2016)

A changing response

Until recently, the official Algerian response has been similar to that of Western countries. Last July, the government announced plans to grant at least some of them residency rights and job permits. These measures were announced in a sympathetic tone:

"The presence of our African brothers in our country will be regulated and the Ministry of the Interior is using the police and the gendarmerie to take a census of all the displaced people," said Tebboune, who was replying to the concerns of deputies of the National Popular Assembly during debate over the government's action plan.

[...] "There are parties who wish to tarnish Algeria's image and label it as a racist country,' said Tebboune, who added: "We are not racists. We are African, Maghrebin, and Mediterranean."

"Africa and the Arab world are the natural extension of Algeria and the space in which it has evolved and developed," said Tebboune, underscoring "the moral and human duty that requires us to provide assistance to our brothers who are forced to flee their lands because of poverty and the torment of war." (Huffpost 2017)

Other members of the government, however, were less sympathetic. Also last July, the Minister of State, Ahmed Ouyahia, condemned the growing numbers of African migrants:

The African community that illegally resides in Algeria brings drugs, delinquency, and other scourges. One cannot say to the authorities: "Throw them into the sea" but one must live in Algeria legally.  [...] People will say to me "human rights!" but we are the kings of our home! (RT 2017)

Public opinion has also turned sour. In June of this year, an anti-migrant campaign was launched on the Algerian social media via the hashtag No to Africans in Algeria! This slogan may sound strange in a country that is, in fact, in Africa, but the reality is that the average Algerian feels more in common with Europe or the Middle East.

Anti-migrant discourse is summed up by this comment:

[...] these Africans from all over the Sahel think they're in conquered territory, being arrogant and threatening. They forcefully demand money and not food. They're everywhere and present a sorry picture of what a human being should be. Begging, nothing but begging from these hefty guys who are more athletic than Cristiano Ronaldo and who refuse to roll up their shirtsleeves and work. Now they're no longer content to be in southern Algeria; that's no longer their fine seigneury. They're moving into the coastal cities. There are hundreds of thousands of them, and more come every day. (RT 2017)

Threatening behavior might work in Europe, where the average citizen feels that only the police are entitled to respond to threats with violence. In Algeria, however, the police are a relatively recent institution, as is State authority in general, and every adult male feels entitled to use violence if threatened or even insulted. An exchange of insults can quickly escalate into fighting by both parties:

Kader, an Ivorian who has been in Algeria for six years, said there was a growing number of Guineans in Algiers. "They don't know the country, and they react very badly the minute an Algerian is rude to them or insults them. It ends up in a fight, and people get hurt." (Chenaoui 2017)

A single incident may become a riot. In March 2016 more than a hundred residents of a small town south of Algiers showed up at an abandoned shopping center where migrants were living and assaulted dozens of them in retaliation for an alleged rape (The Observers 2016). At about the same time in another town, some 300 local inhabitants surrounded and attacked a refugee reception center after a migrant from Niger murdered a local resident during a break-in (Huffpost 2016)

Last August, Ahmed Ouyahia was appointed Prime Minister, and migrant policy has grown increasingly hardline. Since August 25, more than 3,000 migrants have been summarily deported to Niger, including many from other African countries (HRW 2017). There is a striking similarity here to Israel’s response when African migrants began pouring into that country. It, too, initially responded like Western states but did an about-face partly because of the magnitude of the problem and partly because of pressure from public opinion. Whatever one thinks of either country, they are both fundamentally democratic, more so in fact than most Western countries. The elites cannot defy public opinion because they’re too close to the public and because they lack the firm ideological control that makes defiance possible.

Algeria, like Israel, will have to adopt harsher measures against the migrant influx. Unlike Israel, the migrant population is much larger and will continue to grow through natural increase alone. Meanwhile, public opinion is radicalizing. The situation may become like what we see in Greece, but without the external coercion that comes with being an EU member.

The migrant issue will loom large in Algeria's 2019 presidential election. Ahmed Ouyahia may run as a Trump-like populist candidate. He may even, à la Trump, call for construction of a fence along the southern border. And like Trump he has already been condemned by human rights groups, notably for his role in the "eradicator" faction that pushed for all-out war against the Islamist insurgency in the 1990s.


Chenaoui, Z. (2017). Adrift in Algiers: African migrants marooned in a new transit bottleneck, The Guardian, October 31

De Haas, H. (2008). Irregular Migration from West Africa to the Maghreb and the European Union: An Overview of Recent Trends, International Organization for Migration, Geneva

HRW (2017). Algeria: Surge in Deportations of Migrants. Apparent Racial Profiling, Summary Expulsion of Sub-Saharan Africans, Human Rights Watch, October 30

Huffpost (2016). Après les affrontements de Ouargla, 700 migrants subsahariens transférés à Tamanrasset (Wali), March 3

Huffpost (2017). Abdelmadjid Tebboune : La présence des migrants subsahariens sur le territoire algérien sera réglementée, June 24

Matarese, M. (2016). Migrants in Algeria struggle for acceptance, Middle East Eye, January 6

Pteroudis, E. (1996). Emigrations et immigrations en Grèce, évolutions récentes et questions politiques, Revue européenne de migrations internationales, 12, 159-189 (Espagne, Portugal, Grèce, pays d'immigration).

RT (2017). L'Algérie raciste ? Une directive anti-migrants, finalement retirée, fait polémique dans le pays. RT en français, October 3

The Observers (2016). Police watch as locals attack migrants in Algeria, March 29

United Nations (2017). World Population Prospects. The 2017 Revision, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, Volume 1, Comprehensive Tables