01 October 1997
Algeria's bloody conflict
Following news about yet another massacre in the war in Algeria, this time
of a family of 52 people, Robert Hughes takes a look at what's really
behind one of the world's 'unreported conflicts'
Given the reporting about recent massacres in Algeria, one would be
forgiven for thinking that the Algerians involved have a psychological
predisposition to violence. Take, for example, a recent report in the
'[A] group has reportedly emerged within the GIA [Armed Islamic Group]
which takes its extremism to new, preposterous and clearly blasphemous
lengths. ... They single out young women for their holy terror, especially
pregnant ones, so as to prevent them from giving birth to new Muslims. ...
If this suggests that Algerians have a natural bent for extremism,
historians and sociologists tend to agree.' (25 September 1997)
The article continues at great length to expose the 'sharp passions of
desert tribalism' - which are the 'natural disposition' of the Algerian
people. Moreover, its not just the Islamist opposition who are 'fanatic'
and 'demonic'. The government are extremist too. In the mutual fanaticism
shared by all Algerians, 'the mad consummation of extremist logic' means
that the military regime and the militant Islamists end up at 'the point of
operational collaboration'. Needless to say, the military regime must be
supported as the 'lesser' evil. 'Its fall would make all current massacres
pale into insignificance'.
While there are certain difficulties obtaining objective evidence about
what is really going on, we can be sure that the contention that Islamist
groups are the driving force behind all the massacres does not stand up to
scrutiny. There is widespread evidence of the influence of agent
provocateurs in their ranks and Islamist supporters have borne the brunt of
many of the recent outrages. According to the Washington Post, Bentalha,
scene of a massacre of over 200 people on 22-23 September, is 'considered a
stronghold for Islamic militants close to the Armed Islamic Group.
Bentalha, in the suburbs of Algiers, is also close to the large gendarmerie
barracks at Baraki and yet the killers were happy to spend hours conducting
the slaughter, apparently confident that they would not be ambushed or
apprehended. The leisurely slaughter of Islamist supporters, without
hindrance, in close proximity of military bases, has become a common
The conflict is certainly horrific but this has nothing to do with any
notion of a 'twisted Algerian psyche'. It is the result of the desperate
attempts by a corrupt, isolated, Western-backed regime to cling on to power.
The first signs of unrest emerged in the late 1980s. Austerity measures
were imposed in an attempt to solve Algeria's foreign debt problems. This
exposed the failure of the modernising project of the ruling National
Liberation Front (FLN), whose credibility rested on its heroic role in the
leadership of the fight for independence. The FLN attempted to contain
popular unrest by embarking on a programme of democratic reforms. But when
the newly-formed Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) swept all before it in the
first round of voting for the national assembly, the army decided that
things were getting out of control and established a military dictatorship
in January 1992. Robbed of their election victory and facing widespread
repression Islamists began to arm to fight the regime. The war had begun.
From the outset the military regime justified itself as the defender of a
secular democracy threatened by Islamist extremism. Democracy was upheld by
suppressing all democratic rights, banning parties and publications,
censorship, detention without trial of thousands of opponents, widespread
torture and assassination. In short, the military attempted to terrorise
the opposition into submission.
Given this record, many commentators have been reticent in proffering
support for the regime. While denouncing the Islamists as barbaric, they
also point to the repressive measures of the military. These commentators,
and NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have
constantly urged Western governments to intervene to safeguard human rights.
For these people, the problem is the reluctance of Western governments to
intervene. Speaking recently, the French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine
said 'We cannot do nothing. But what can we do?'. But the truth is that
Western governments have been intervening extensively in Algeria since
before the conflict started. The French government was instrumental in the
organisation of the original coup and continues to bankroll the Algerian
junta with almost $1 billion a year in direct aid. The World Bank, the IMF
and the EU have provided extensive financial aid and debt rescheduling. In
the first six months of 1996, the UK's Department of Trade and Industry
licensed 17 arms shipments from Britain to Algeria. Meanwhile, Western
governments demonstrate their concern for human rights by harassing
political exiles and imprisoning and deporting refugees. In 1996, only 2
per cent of Algerians seeking asylum in Britain were successful.
While the regime has attempted to legitimise itself through a series of
rigged elections the Islamist leaders have now abandoned any demands that
the regime should cede its power. Now they simply call for national
reconciliation and dialogue. The Islamic Salvation Army (AIS - associated
with the FIS, one of the two main groups fighting the regime) has called a
truce to come into effect from 1 October. The AIS denounced its militant
rivals as the 'criminal remnants of the perverse GIA extremists'. Belying
its image as irrationally hostile to all things Western, the FIS has
repeatedly called for the intervention of the United Nations.
A senior French politician has now called for the 'internationalisation' of
the conflict. France regards Algeria as its backyard and jealously
obstructs intervention by others, particularly the US. It may well be that
Western demands for dialogue are to be heeded. But this is not the same as
a resolution to the conflict. The involvement of the UN and western NGOs
will do little to produce a solution to the five year war. Any deal
sponsored by the West can only perpetuate the situation the West was
instrumental in starting and postpone indefinitely the day when an
equitable solution emerges.
For a look at the development of the situation in Algeria see A
fundamental confusion in LM77
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