Last month, I mentioned that I was headed to Algeria in June as faculty for a legislative workshop to be presented to members of the Algerian parliament.
I was invited on the trip along with three other U.S. state legislators as part of the U.S. State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). This program began under the Bush administration in 2002 and is aimed at helping emerging democracies strengthen their governments.
Algeria is the second largest country in Africa and almost all of its population lives along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The Sahara Desert occupies the rest of the country. It describes itself as a North African country rather than of the Middle East. Algeria was a French colony, referred to by some Algerians as the “long colonial night,” until 1962, when it gained its independence after a long and bloody war.
In the 1990s, Algeria went through much internal violence as Islamic fundamentalists sought unsuccessfully to take control of the central government. They refer to the 1990s as the “dark decade” as more than 200,000 Algerians were killed and many others just disappeared.
Much of the business and education of the country is still conducted in the French language and is quite Western in some ways, but the national language is Arabic and 99 percent of the population is Muslim. Yet, a more secular population was also evident in the city.
As they continue to define their own national identify, I found the Algerians to be warm and welcoming to our efforts to work with them. I had learned a few phrases in Arabic and they responded very generously in return, helping me add to my vocabulary and gently correcting my pronunciation as needed.
We stayed in the capital city, Algiers, and until we left, we were accompanied by a well-trained and armed security detail. This level of security was provided as al-Qaeda has been active in Algeria. The national military and police forces were also evident throughout the city.
Our particular charge in the three-day workshop that we presented was to explain how we stay connected to our district’s issues and our constituents. We were asked to describe what we do to foster communication with constituents, which in turn enables us to better represent our areas at the Legislature. In addition to the nitty-gritty details of being legislators, we also talked more generally about the American democratic process and how we view our roles as legislators in that process.
The legislative team that went to Algiers included a state senator from Texas, another from Iowa, a state representative from Arkansas and me. It was a bipartisan team with two Republicans and two Democrats. We were also joined by a senior staff member from the California Legislature as the workshop was also open to staff of the Algerian parliament. The National Conference of State Legislatures administers the grant and sent two staff members. It was a small, but diverse group and each of us were invited based on past legislative work.
I was asked to address a few particular topics, including how to represent a large geographic district with few resources provided by the state, how to include the youth voice in the legislative process and the issue of constitutional reform efforts. We spent three days sharing best practices from our states and fielding questions from the members of Parliament. The members of Parliament are more comparable in stature to our federal legislators, but the lack of resources that they have in their districts and the desired greater direct contact with constituents led the organizers to seek state legislators as workshop presenters.
It was a fascinating experience to be in Algeria and with their legislators, even if for only a short time. We Americans were challenged to define what democracy means to us and to see it through the eyes of a different culture and nation, attempting to strengthen its own democratic government in today’s world. I’ll be posting more on this trip on my Web site soon.