Algeria: How Clean Can One Wipe The Slate?

Widespread violence in a society has deep roots.  A good deal of the violence during the years of the Government of Algeria – Islamist conflict was also the result of family feuds, struggles for local power, conflicts over land, criminal killings for control of trade or the drug traffic lightly disguised as ideological conflict.  It would be useful to try to analyze the deep cultural and generational tensions within Algerian society so as to understand better the ferocity of the killings and the pattern of revenge.  But such analysis would need more than one article.

Thus, as a framework, we can look at recent Algerian history as an unfinished drama divided into three acts.  The first act begins in 1962 with Independence, after the 1954-1962 independence struggle from France and the flight of over a million French settlers from Algeria.  This first act was dominated by the army formed during the war for independence.  The army ruled through a single party – the National Liberation Front (FLN from its name in French).  Houari Boumedienne was in power from 1965 to 1978; Chadli Bendjedid from 1979 to 1992.

The credibility of the army as ruler was slowly eroded by its economic mismanagement, its open corruption, its favoritism for a small circle of officers who divided the economic benefits among themselves.  The military controlled the press and other media, and there was no possibility for a structured opposition.  It was only in 1988 that country-wide riots broke out over the rise in the price of bread – leaving some 500 dead.  This degree of popular discontent was made obvious even to the least observant of the generals.  Thus, at the end of Act I, the army decided to hold multi-party elections, even helping to create parties so as to split any opposition into such small groups that none could rule.  Elections for Parliament were to be in two rounds, the first round could have numerous candidates in each district; the second round would be a face off between the two having secured the larger number of votes.

Act II begins in 1991 with the first round of elections.  Suddenly, the ruling strata discovered unknown local leaders who had been working in the shadows of local mosques, stores and schools.  They came suddenly to the fore chanting "God is Great" and calling themselves the "Islamic Salvation Front" (FIS from the name in French.)  They had long beards, were uneducated in a modern sense and had no standing in the army nor in the government-run economic firms.  The ‘invisible’ had arrived on the scene.  After a moment of surprise as no one in the military had foreseen such a result, the military recognized that elections were a bad idea.  If there were a second round, the FIS would most likely have the majority of the Parliament, and God only knows what they would do. Therefore the military annulled the elections.  There was no second round, and those elected because they had more than 50% in the first round could not hold office.  In fact, there would be no Parliament.  It was not until 1995, that there began a slow introduction of voting for President, Parliament and local assemblies but under close government supervision and without the participation of the FIS.

Following the military’s blocking of the election process, the Islamist groups began a campaign of terror, especially in the countryside where they had sympathizers and where guerrillas could hide in sparsely populated mountainous areas. The government responded to terror with terror, widespread arrests and ‘disappearances’.  Moderates, liberals and the indifferent were caught between the two fires.  The national economy, except for oil and gas exports, ground to a halt.  In a country where 75% of the population is under 30 years and many have difficulties finding work or adequate housing, the number of discontented grew.

Both the military and the Islamic groups were divided within themselves; the diverse factions in the military had difficulty articulating a coherent policy, and the leadership never had a broad base.  Likewise, the Islamic groups were divided among themselves into small, fairly autonomous groups loyal to local commanders. There were some 50 to 60 Islamic extremist groups.  Although the Islamist groups drew their strength from socio-economic discontent, they had no coherent socio-economic policy to present except a vague call for Islamic justice and equality. The Islamic guerrillas were reinforced by a floating population of Islamic fighters coming from Afghanistan, Sudan and elsewhere who had no stake in finding a broadly acceptable compromise to tensions in Algeria.

The rest of the decade long Act II took place on a largely dark stage.  There were gunshots, screams, rapes, kidnappings, knives shining in the moonlight.  Every so often, a brief spot light flashed on the stage when the military and bearded figures were seen moving, talking, fighting, but the plot was unclear, the actors kept changing roles, and the stage returned to darkness.

Act III began with the reigning military unable to mobilize public opinion in its favor and trying to bring in as leaders ‘old-new’ men who were not associated with the current policies.  The first was Mohamed Boudiaf, a hero of the 1954 -1962 war of independence who had been living in exile since 1964. Shortly after his return as president of a governing council, he was assassinated in a public meeting.  Who ordered his death has never been clear.  But the star of Act III and current President is Abdelaziz Bouteflika who had been waiting in the wings for nearly two decades.  In the mid 1970s, he had been the Minister of Foreign Affairs and a leader in the United Nations for the creation of a New International Economic Order (NIEO).

He was often the spokesperson for the ‘Group of 77’ as the developing countries were called in UN economic debates.  He was a master at the ‘creative compromise’ or in papering over differences with a good slogan – the evaluation depending on one’s own position.  His first major action as President was the "concorde civile" – the civil pact-which allowed the Islamists who had taken arms and were  living in mountainous areas in the north of the country to reintegrate their villages and cities.  Some 5,500 men came down from the hills in exchange for the ability to exercise a growing civil power for Islamist themes basing themselves on the old slogan "Algeria is my country; Arabic is my language; Islam is my religion."  It is estimated that about 1000 men refused the civil pact and have made their way to the sparsely populated south of Algeria – the frontiers with Niger and Mali where they are waiting and preaching. The overall level of violence has dropped dramatically but has not disappeared.  There are still revenge killings as well as murders attributed to Islamists.

The Peace and Reconciliation referendum may be the sign of a new departure, of new economic and social policies that benefit the young and the poor.  All societies need rituals which bind them together in a common understanding.  The political, economic and social trends in Algeria merit close watching.

Rene Wadlow is editor of the online journal of world politics and an NGO representative to the UN, Geneva. Formerly, he was professor and Director of Research of the Graduate Institute of Development Studies, University of Geneva