By Jean-Marc Mojon
By Jean-Marc Mojon
ALGIERS, May 15, 2012 (AFP)
Algeria’s traditional bars are closing one after the other but illegal outlets are mushrooming, in a prohibition-style game of cat-and-mouse played out with an increasingly Islamic state.
Islamist parties may have suffered a stinging electoral setback last week but Algeria’s Islamisation has been driven chiefly by the old ruling party, which took the lion’s share in the polls.
“This used to be a night club,” 33-year-old Slimane said as he sipped his whisky at the bar of a restaurant near the Martyrs monument towering above Algiers and its stunning bay.
“Soon, it’ll be just a restaurant with no bar, then a restaurant where you can’t drink with your food, and it will have one thing left to do: close down,” the young entrepreneur said.
Dozens of bars and off-licences have definitively closed in recent months, including taverns that had existed since the French colonial era, in a country that is almost entirely Muslim but where many remain fiercely secular.
“At this rate only a handful of hotels will still serve alcohol legally,” said Liamine, an engineering student, as he ordered another round for his table of friends, all gussied up for a night of boozing.
“Beer is so expensive there, only those who ban it will be able to afford it. That’s the problem with prohibition Algerian-style, Al Capone and the cops are one and the same,” he said, erupting into roaring laughter.
The state is by far the country’s largest wine producer, with a turnover topping $150 million.
The pressure on Algeria’s watering holes started increasing markedly in 2006 when an Islamist trade minister decided to impose tougher checks on licences.
But for every legal bar closed down by the authorities, several other illegal ones open.
Consumption even grew 10 percent last year, according to Ali Hamadi, head of the Algerian Association of Algerian Beverage Producers (APAB).
In Kabylie, a Berber region east of Algiers with a strong secular tradition, most bars no longer have licences but so-called “clandestine bars” operate openly and face little pressure.
“I asked for permits and didn’t get them. Now I don’t want them. In Algeria, paperwork brings problems,” said Arezki Lagha, a burly Kabyle sporting a grey tip-curling moustache and an ear ring.
His bar in the Tizi Ouzou region has a car park, a terrace with fancy lighting and grotto-like masonry. It became popular for its mascot, a domesticated boar that could drink dozens of beer bottles in an evening.
It was shot by a hunter last year but patrons still flock to eat local delicacies such as porcupine meat — or wild boar — and knock back a few bottles of local beer.
“Algeria was never Islamist. Muslim, sure — Tizi Ouzou has the highest concentration of mosques in the country — but not Islamist,” said Ammar Lagha, an architect with combed back hair, suit and tie and a stentorian voice.
“In a place like this, sharing a few drinks is like a way of combatting Islamism,” he said.
Creeping Sharia compliance however is not immediately reflected in the political landscape, as last week’s legislative polls results might suggest.
The largest legal Islamist group failed to surf the post-Arab Spring “Green wave” and even lost ground but it was already part of the governing coalition and may yet be asked to stay in.
Analysts say the regime’s attitude to alcohol is just an illustration of a broader strategy which involves being both the arsonist and the fireman.
“It’s a complex relationship… but there is a consensus between the state and the Islamists to use religion for political purposes,” Hocine Belalloufi, author of a just-released book on Algerian politics, explained.
“There is a regime that is constantly feeding both sides of the crisis,” he said, alternately defending religious conservatism and posing as the last defence against Islamism.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s administration introduced prayer calls interrupting programmes on state television and launched the construction of the world’s third largest mosque.
Lila Hadjarab, an opposition MP, argued these were only some of the concessions made by Bouteflika to the religious camp and that his ruling National Liberation Front was now “Algeria’s main Islamist party”.
“The regime can raise the spectre of Islamism seizing power but it’s already in power,” she said.
Back in the 1970s, former President Houari Boumediene uprooted most of the vineyards planted by the French, a move meant to please nationalists as much as Islamists.
But alcohol consumption skyrocketed during the darkest years of the civil war in the nineties, after hardline Islamists declared a zero-tolerance policy.
Bouteflika came to power in 1999 and, as he tried to reconcile the country after the war, fresh curbs on alcohol were introduced.