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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 Guardian.

'[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 occurrence.

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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