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Algeria Slides Into Civil War | The Nation

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Algeria Slides Into Civil War

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Voici le temps des assassins, the bilingual Algerians could exclaim, echoing Rimbaud, when nearly a year ago, their intellectuals began to be slaughtered by Islamic fundamentalists. Poets and psychiatrists, doctors and professors, writers and journalists had their throats cut or their brains blasted by a bullet. In France, where those who had opposed colonialism still have a feeling of responsibility, an international committee was set up, headed by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, to help those intellectuals in danger. But it deliberately denounced the violence of the state as well as that of the terrorists. A wise move, since in this bloody mess the educated classes are not the only target, and the so-called God's Party, the Islamic Front of Salvation (F.I.S.), provides both the killers and many of the victims. Ever since the electoral process was dramatically suspended by the army in January 1992, when the Islamic Front was poised for victory, its members and sympathizers have been driven underground, arrested by the thousands, tortured, shot or deported to the Saharan desert. (For details see Middle East Watch's recently published report on Algeria.)

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

The government's attempt to solve a political problem by repression predictably had the opposite effect. The so-called ninjas, the hooded special squads from the army that hunt down bearded Muslims in the poor districts of Algiers, serve as recruiting agents for the F.I.S. Resistance is steadily growing. Last month, units of the Islamic underground attacked army barracks in the west of the country, and fatalities on both sides are now running between 200 and 300 a week. The country is drifting into a civil war in which the stakes are high, since a victory by the Islamic fundamentalists would have political consequences not just in neighboring Tunisia and Morocco but in Egypt and beyond. And the conflict is being waged amid a deepening economic crisis. The servicing of Algeria's foreign debt, which now amounts to 70 percent of the gross domestic product, absorbs the bulk of export revenues. Prices are up and investment and production bare down, while unemployment is approaching a quarter of the labor force--a highly explosive factor in a country in which 70 percent of the population is under 35.

Is it still possible to prevent a full-scale civil war, to gain time and thus evolve alternative solutions? The "reconciliation"conference," sponsored by the authorities at the end of January and boycotted by all key parties, was a total flop. The subsequent appointment of Gen. Liamine Zeroual, hitherto Defense Minister, as President of the Republic for a three-year term of "transition" was an admission of that failure. But tentative talks with the Islamists are apparently continuing behind the scenes.

To assess the chances of such efforts we must go back to the roots of the crisis. To the casual observer of the North African scene the present Algerian predicament is particularly puzzling. After all, Algeria was one of the few countries that gained independence thanks to a genuine resistance move, ment forcing out the colonial power, France. And only twenty years ago Algeria, with its "Islamic socialism," was described as a model of independent development and one of the leaders of the Third World. Admittedly, the other leader was Yugoslavia. Things were not quite as simple, or as attractive, as they were being painted at the time.

The Algerians did win their independence, but they inherited a country bled white by eight years of war and ruined still further by the mass departure 'of the European settlers, the million or so pieds noirs who in 1962 made up about a tenth of the population. Second, the people never seized power. It was usurped almost at once by the army--not by the resistance fighters but by the more regular army stationed on the Russian frontier under the command of Col. Houari Boumedienne. For the first three years after the revolution the army shared power with President Ahmed Ben Bella, one of the nine "historic leaders" who had launched the war of liberation. Then, after kicking Ben Bella out, Boumedienne took over. When he died in 1976, another colonel, Chadli Benjedid, was picked to preside over the regime on its road to ruin. Yet throughout this period the army did not rule alone. It did it in conjunction with the National Liberation Front (F.L.N.), the resistance movement turned instrument of authoritarian rule.

Thus, from the very start, power flowed from above. It was allegedly exercised for the people, though certainly not by the people. All the key jobs at all levels in politics, administration and the economy went to hand-picked members of the F.L.N. Rapidly the privileged caste developed its vested interests. Nepotism grew, corruption spread, the gap between the rulers and the ruled widened. When in 1990 after nearly three decades of one-party rule the system was badly shaken by an electoral contest, the analogy that naturally came to mind was the crumbling regimes of Eastern Europe.

Actually, the Algerians started their perestroika at the beginning of the 1980s. But the shift was not the result of a movement from below. As in the Russia of today, it was part of the struggle between clans and factions within the ruling party and the army over the best way to perpetuate their power and privilege--through state channels or through privatization? Where the two models differed was in the role attributed to religion. The Algerians, from the start, had emphasized the Arabic and Islamic nature of their regime, although it was only under Benjedid that it acquired fundamentalist over- tones. Even earlier, however, presumably to counter secular "Marxist" influences, the regime brought fundamentalist masters from the Middle East to teach literary Arabic in its schools, thus sowing the seeds of its own destruction.

The hour of reckoning was put off by profits from petroleum, Algeria's almost sole source of foreign exchange. The windfall gains from the second oil shock in the late 1970s were used, however, to import consumer goods rather than to invest in future jobs. When the trend was reversed, as a result of the drop in the price of crude and the fall of the dollar, which reduced Algeria's petroleum revenues by 80 percent between 1985 and 1991, everything was ready for an explosion.

It happened in October 1988, when, driven to despair by rising prices and the absence of prospects, the angry young men from the overcrowded slums of Algiers took to the streets. It was, incidentally, during those riots that the future leaders of the Islamic Front, Abbasi Madani and Ali Benhadj--now serving twelve-year sentences each but possibly tomorrow's negotiators--first gained prominence. The army was called to the rescue and the riots were quelled in bloody fashion. The regime, however, did not alter its policy of liberalization, moving rapidly toward the legalization of opposition parties. In the local elections of June 1990 its popularity was put to the first real test. Since the Front of Socialist Forces (F.F.S.), headed by Hoceine Ait-Ahmed, another "historic leader," boycotted the poll, it was essentially a trial of strength between the F.L.N. and the newly created F.I.S. With the Liberation Front now standing for privilege and corruption, the Islamists could parade as champions of the downtrodden, offering them dignity now and salvation in the hereafter. Their victory was undisputed. The F.I.S. won 54 percent of the votes cast and conquered some 850 town halls throughout the country.

The authorities did nothing to refurbish their tarnished image. They acted as if they were sure of victory--or, more likely, as if President Benjedid had reached a deal with the fundamentalists. Whatever the case, the government's policy was suicidal. In preparation for a parliamentary poll the following year, it introduced an electoral system, modeled on France's and based on single-member constituencies. An absolute majority was needed to win in the first round and a simple one in the second. It was a system designed to amplify national trends and favor the strongest party.

And so the inevitable happened in December 1991. Although the Islamic Front's share of the vote dropped to 47 percent, this was enough to win 188 seats outright and to guarantee a landslide victory in the second round. The F.L.N., with 23 percent of the vote dispersed throughout the country, garnered only fifteen seats. The F.F.S., with its 7 percent of the vote concentrated in Ait-Ahmed's strongholds, took twenty-five seats.

The final outcome, however, was beyond doubt, and thus the F.L.N. government was faced with a momentous choice. Should it give the benefits of democracy to its enemies, hand victory on a plate to a fundamentalist party, which makes no secret of the fact that once it has imposed an Islamic state there will be no question of going back to a secular society? Should it give power to a party that would deprive half the electorate of a role in society, since its attitude toward women is an Islamic version of the Nazi ideal of Kinder, Kirche, Küche, hardly improved by the veil? But, on the other hand, can you accept the will of the people only when it suits you and ignore it when it goes against you?

The huge demonstration sponsored by the Front of Socialist Forces in Algiers right after the vote, with its message of opposition to both the police state and the religious one, pointed toward a solution. Could the alliance between the intelligentsia defending human rights and the people, a link still weak and full of contradictions, have grown into a major political force?

There was no time for such a movement to develop; the army intervened, put off elections till doomsday, banned the F.I.S. and drove it underground, removed Benjedid from the presidency and replaced him with a five-man High State Council. To prove it was in earnest, at the head of the council the army installed a political outsider, Mohammed Boudiaf, who, although a "historic leader," had spent the past twenty-eight years in Moroccan exile. Whether this solitary hero could have mobilized the people and smashed the ruling political mafia remains a question. Five months later he was shot dead. Whoever pulled the trigger, the negligence of the security services made it plain that powerful interests were keen on his disappearance.

And so things went back to normal. The members of the old nomenklatura were again shifting among top jobs in the administration, The trabendo, the black market in smuggled goods, prospered. Discontent grew. Indeed, things became worse. No foreign capital would venture into such a climate of political uncertainty. Repression, as those who fought the French should have known, merely strengthened the resistance, whose counterblows have maddened the authorities. In reprisal, Islamic sympathizers are now being murdered by semiofficial death squads. The fundamentalists are not only fighting back against the troops; they have also targeted secular intellectuals in a policy not of blind terror but, as was rightly pointed out, of terror designed to render the people blind.

After two years of treatment that was supposed to cure the country, this is the predicament from which the rulers are now trying to extricate themselves. The military solution, which some people, notably the ex-Communists, still advocate, is obviously a blind alley. Five years ago, a political, though not democratic, case could be made that such drastic action could win time, which could be used to purge the establishment, carry out radical reforms so as to win over the people and isolate the fundamentalists. I Clearly, the opposite has happened, The Islamic Front has consolidated its base and no one can now gain popular acceptance without a genuine electoral test. But the reverse prospect, a victory for the fundamentalists, known as the Iranian solution, is also ruled out by most experts, on the grounds that the Islamic fighters cannot defeat the army, that in the fight against fundamentalism the army could rely on a great deal of support in the country and, last but not least, that a sweeping victory for the F.I.S. would provoke the mass exodus of the bilingual, French-speaking professionals and thus further cripple the economy.

It is between these two extremes that the scope for a bargain apparently lies. Most of my Algerian friends, with a perfect anticolonial record and an allergy to fundamentalism, nevertheless argue that, while a reconciliation conference should be held and attended by all parties, the crucial deal must be struck between those who are fighting, the Islamic Front and the army. Both must make concessions. In order to resume the electoral process, from which it hopes to emerge victorious, the F.I.S. must accept conditions insuring that its victory will not be irreversible, that it will not install a religious tyranny, that it will preserve scope for the development of secular forces. Once this is agreed, a parliamentary election could be held, preferably under a system of proportional representation, which would allow smaller secular parties to play a role. The army, for its part, must give up its rule, by proxy or otherwise, and through a long transitional period act as guardian of the constitutional pact, protecting the country from dictatorial and fundamentalist temptations.

A tall order and one raising a host of questions. It is not certain that the F.I.S. is still willing to compromise and, if it is, that it could count on the cooperation of the,Islamic fighters. Should the army and the F.I.S. reach an agreement, it does not have to be on a democratic platform. They could share power in an Islamic dictatorship and still win the blessings of the international financial establishment. After all, the F.I.S., linked to commercial capital, to the souk, is no enemy of private enterprise.

Finally, I must mention the mood of my Algerian friends, mostly women, who echo the anguished cry of one academic still teaching in Algeria: "If the barbus [bearded ones] get hold of power, there is no future for me in my country. I shall pack and go and and I won't be the only one. We shall be a legion."

The chances of heading off this collision seem slender. Yet the Algerian message, though strewn with corpses and written in blood, is not very different from the one the left is now getting in various parts of the world. Its failure to provide progressive rational solutions and to mobilize people behind them has given dangerous opportunities to the forces of unreason. In the abstract, it is easy to say where the way out in Algeria lies: in an alliance between the progressive intelligentsia and the bulk of the working people, based on a democratic program with sufficient social content to attract the exploited now seeking solace in Islamic salvation. But we are not there. All over the world, the left is fighting rear-guard actions, staging holding operations, trying to gain time to rally people around a new vision. That seems a defensive and not very exalted task, Yet, if he fail, we shall really find ourselves in le temps des assassins.

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