Algeria book fair ban exposes stability debate

Reuters News
Posted: Nov 18, 2015 11:21 AM

By Lamine Chikhi

ALGIERS (Reuters) - Organizers of an international book fair in Algeria last week confiscated more than 100 books on jihadism and the Arab Spring, highlighting sensitivities over regional turmoil in one of the few Arab countries to remain relatively unscathed.

The fair drew tens of thousands of visitors to its stands, scores of foreign publishers and praise from officials for one of the country's top cultural events.

But the seizure of the books showed that stability is a delicate issue in a country still emerging from a decade of war in the 1990s, and which watched uprisings topple other North African governments in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt four years ago.

For Algerian authorities, the subsequent chaos in neighboring Libya and militant attacks across the border in Tunisia are a reminder of their own 1990s war with armed Islamists that killed 200,000 people.

Book fair organizers said the ban was to keep publications in line with the event's policy. But one Algerian author, Walid Belkebir whose book "Arab Spring postponed… in Algeria" said it showed the unofficial taboo on discussing such uprisings.

"We decided to seize 106 books, including this one that speaks about Arab Spring because they did not respect the editorial line of the book fair," book fair general manager Hamidou Messaoudi said.

He said the seized books were subversive, and constituted a threat to the country's stability.

Attracting more than 1.4 million visitors, the fair invites around 50 countries to participate with more than 600 foreign publishers taking part. Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal and other dignitaries came to the event of lectures, conferences, and international presentations.

But while Algerian officials are proud to say that the country is stable, a rarity in the region, Belkebir said the book ban revealed their concerns.

"The Arab Spring is taboo in Algeria," he told Reuters. "Algeria's stability in comparison with the countries that were hit by turbulence doesn't mean that Algeria's domestic situation is immune from possible unrest in the future."

The Algerian writer denied that his book is a threat to stability, or that it "contains poisonous ideas" as he said he was told by the fair organizers. "I am a university teacher who has written a book, is it a crime?" he said.

One government official said Belkebir's book, which was published in Jordan, was problematic because it says Algeria was not immune from the kind of unrest affecting its neighbors.

When uprisings in 2011 ousted leaders in neighboring Tunisia and Libya, Algeria was shaken by a series of protests and riots over social demands. But it managed to ease tensions by using billions of dollars in oil revenues, offering pay rises, free loans, and subsidized houses.

Now the current crash in world oil prices could be a challenge for Algeria, a major oil and gas producer that relies heavily on its energy exports for state budget.

Algeria still has billions in foreign reserves and little foreign debt, but oil and gas pay for a vast welfare program for everything from housing to subsidized electricity, food and fuel that have helped ease social tensions in the past.

(Editing by Patrick Markey and Dominic Evans)