Ironically, the world has awakened to the horror of events in Algeria at a time when it may be too late to offer any constructive advice or to exert any political pressure on the current regime. A few years ago, the violence, which by now has killed many thousands of civilians, could be seen as having clear political origins. There were still some possible courses of action outsiders could recommend to the Algerian government. And, at the time, the regime was so divided over what policy to adopt toward dissident Islamic political groups that it is at least possible that some of Algeria’s leaders could have been persuaded to listen. But nothing was even attempted. Outsiders, frightened by visions of an amorphous, vengeful Islamic movement and anxious to keep on the right side of the Algerian government, limply gave the regime the support it asked for.
Now the carnage has become so widespread and its methods so vile and so incomprehensible that it has forced itself on the world’s attention. Again and again we hear of terrorists descending on a village to spend a long night hacking people to death, cutting their throats, tossing their children into burning houses. But the new men of violence are probably beyond any possibility of political bargaining. Most of the people with more understandable aims and motives, with whom a political bargain might perhaps have been struck, have by now been forced to the margins of political life. Talk of a political solution is becoming almost irrelevant.
So visiting outsiders, such as the recent delegations from the European Union, anxious to do something, are reduced to pleading for information, for a little light to dispel the murk of rumor, suspicion, and censorship. At best, they would like some kind of international investigation. A great many questions demand answers. Who, for a start, is to blame for these seemingly senseless murders—murders for which Muslim groups seldom claim responsibility? Why is nobody brought to trial for them? Why hasn’t the army, sometimes within earshot of the victims’ screams, intervened to stop the slaughter?
There are, for now, no clear answers. According to the Algerian authorities, the murders are all the work of Islamists (an ugly expression, but one that has become the accepted way of describing radical, militant, or fundamentalist Muslims). In particular, they are carried out by the GIA (the French acronym for the Armed Islamic Group), which is trying to overturn the regime by terrorizing the population and is on the point—always, we are told, on the point—of being wiped out by the security forces.
Much of this is true: Islamist terrorists are almost certainly to blame for most if not all of the recent ghastly killings. But many mysteries remain. There is little hard evidence for the GIA’s responsibility. Most of the murders take place in Islamic strongholds, even GIA strongholds, in a triangle of villages south of Algiers. The army’s role and its inability to protect civilians have so far not been explained. And the GIA, despite the killing of its leaders and many of its fighters by government forces, continues to defy the authorities.
However urgently answers are looked for, they cannot be expected from Martin Stone and Michael Willis, both of whom finished their books well before the latest and cruelest manifestation of Algerian violence. Mr. Stone just manages to mention the June 1997 parliamentary election; Mr. Willis, whose work is based on his Ph.D. thesis, barely gets as far as 1996. This means that the latest mysterious developments, let alone their solution, are outside the range of both writers. But what they do, and do extremely well, is explain how it all came about.
Their approaches are different. Mr. Willis’s is chronological. Based on books, news clippings, and interviews, his book still reads a bit like a dissertation as he carefully traces the rise of Algerian Islamism from its early days during the 132 years of French colonial rule, its short moment of glory when it seemed about to take power in the late 1980s, and its subsequent crash. Mr. Stone’s approach is more thematic, a little brisker, and more opinionated: it also provides a more accessible account of the Algerian crisis for the general reader. But both books are well-written and their material is skillfully presented. Their conclusions are illuminating, and similar.
Both authors argue that the re-emergence of Islamism in 1988, after its long sleep in the shadow of Algeria’s first quarter-century of independence, was the result of a political rather than a religious movement. The distinction is crucial: the Algerian Islamic movement was not, at least at its beginning, part of a region-wide, awe-inspiring fundamentalist manifestation, but a fairly straightforward political phenomenon that could probably have been dealt with or contained by political means.
Mr. Stone writes that it is important to grasp that the FIS, the Islamic Salvation Front, the main Islamist party, is
a radical nationalist party that articulated its policies in the context of Islamism rather than as a purely fundamentalist organisation, such as the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt.
In other words, a party espousing Islamic principles arose in modern Algeria not because people were seeking Paradise in the next world but because, disgusted with a corrupt and profligate regime, they sought better conditions in the world they lived in.
Islam became more powerful at a time when Algeria’s secular authorities were in disgrace. As Mr. Stone says, “The three pillars of Algeria—the army, the party [i.e., the FLN] and the state—had become so tarnished by corruption and mismanagement that in the minds of most Algerians they had forfeited their ‘right’ to rule.” The nationalist fervor of the eight-year war of liberation against France, which ended with independence in 1962, had long since dissipated. The legitimacy of the FLN, the National Liberation Front, the state’s one and only party, derived from that war. But over the years, the FLN became demoralized, turning into a mere façade behind which the quarrelsome factions of the military and civilian elite ran the country’s affairs, for the most part inefficiently.
Corruption was pervasive, rumored to be on an epic scale, with payoffs allegedly going to officials at every level of the bureaucracy. Mismanagement was everywhere evident. Algeria had staggered through a phase of cumbersome state planning and heavy industrialization. It was saved from disaster by its oil and gas revenues, which make up about 95 percent of its exports. But then, in the mid-1980s, oil prices crashed. At the same time, the government was moving toward economic reform and privatization. This led to a loss of a great many jobs in state-owned industries, and new, much more obvious, inequalities of income. About three quarters of young Algerians—and most Algerians are very young—were unemployed. Without money or homes or even rooms of their own, the young urban jobless—known as hittistes—became increasingly desperate.
In 1988 frustration exploded into riots. These were put down by the army, brutally. Perhaps 500 unarmed civilians were killed. The official figure was 150 but, then as now, the regime shrinks from acknowledging embarrassing statistics. The country’s current prime minister, Omar Ahmed Ouyahia, disclosed in January that 26,563 people (soldiers, guerrillas, and civilians) have been killed in the six years of violence that have plagued Algeria since 1992. Most observers believe 65,000 to be closer to the mark—and Mr. Stone himself quotes an even higher estimate of 120,000 killed. Nobody knows the true figure.
Be that as it may, ten years ago the government, then headed by President Chadli Benjedid, responded courageously to the violent protests of 1988. When we look at the riots with the benefit of hindsight, we may suspect that Chadli’s courage may have been too bold and precipitate. He dramatically tried to reform the old authoritarian system. The army was sent back to its barracks. A new constitution allowed for free elections, a liberated press, and the organization of opposition political parties to compete with the long-dominant FLN. A multitude of parties sprang up. One of them was the FIS, a new party which, as Mr. Willis explains, was more an offshoot of the old Islamist movement than an organic part of it.
Although the Islamists have been accused of whipping up the 1988 riots, Mr. Willis says this was not so. In fact, he shows that Islamist politicians were taken by surprise by the riots. In their aftermath they had hastily to set up organizations in a new Algeria which suddenly was promising political freedoms unheard of in any other Arab country.
Above all, the FIS, under its relatively moderate leader, Abassi Madani, and his fiery sidekick, Ali Belhadj, sought to inherit the revolutionary nationalist tradition that the FLN had allowed to become so disreputable. In conscious imitation of the FLN, the new party organized itself with extraordinary speed into a mass movement, collecting votes not only from the jobless young but from a broad section of the middle classes and among the middle-aged.
Yet the party’s aims remained, and remain, ambiguous. Amid the excitement, it never got around to formulating a clear program. Its emphasis, as always with Islamist movements, was on women. It was prepared to dictate what they should wear (hedjab, or a headscarf), how they should be educated (single-sex schools), and, indeed, what they should do with their lives (with exceptions, stay at home and look after their families). But most matters were left vague. Did the FIS believe in pluralist democracy? How far would it go in pushing for its theoretical goal, an Islamic republic based on Islamic law? Nobody really knew. In economic affairs, the party leaders stressed their strong belief in private enterprise. But their attitude toward foreign investment was a good deal less certain.
The FIS’s first success was in the 1990 local elections, when it won several municipalities. This was a crucial development. It meant that, for the first time, an Arab Islamist party could be judged on its record. Would the new mayors and councilors turn Algerian towns into mini-Irans? If they did, it would be clear to all that they should be kept out of national political life. As it turned out, the results were inconclusive. The new FIS bosses did not do anything monstrous. The press, watching vulture-like, reported that, in one town, they banned shorts and swimsuits in the street. In another, they banned wine shops, in another, rai, a form of popular music. But, Mr. Willis writes, some of these measures had been passed earlier by the FLN-controlled authorities and were merely enforced by the FIS. His conclusion is that the FIS’s short time in municipal power, though undistinguished, did not introduce any “dramatically draconian social measures.”
Yet the regime, and Algeria’s French-speaking, secular elite, were thoroughly frightened, and not without reason. The FIS (by this time without its two leaders, who had been arrested after fresh riots) went on to win a convincing victory in the first round of the delayed general election in December 1991. Though the party got no more than 47 percent of the vote, it won 188 of the 231 parliamentary seats that were decided in the first ballot. The second round, for the remaining 199 seats, was due in January 1992. President Chadli Benjedid was ready to go ahead with the elections, believing that with constitutional constraints (and with the army in readiness behind the scenes) a FIS-led government would be manageable.
The generals, as well as some powerful civilian hard-liners, did not agree with the President. And the victorious FIS, as Mr. Stone points out, did nothing during this short vital pause to reassure the fainthearted. So, in the interval between the two electoral rounds, the President’s power began a swift decline. He was forced by his generals to resign, the elections were canceled, and the army returned to run the country openly (it had, in effect, run things from independence until the new constitution was promulgated in 1989). The FIS was banned.
From then on, Algeria’s social and political history has all been downhill. Economically, however, it has prospered by reforming its economy, obtaining new loans and rescheduling its debts. It has welcomed a host of companies to exploit the oil and gas in its deserts. In 1997, before the current tumble in oil prices, it recorded a foreign trade surplus of $5.7 billion, an increase of $1.4 billion over 1996. But the violence since January 1992 has been unremitting.
To begin with, the FIS’s young militants attacked police outposts and other military targets in a declared bid to get the ban on their party lifted, the election results reestablished, and their leaders let out of jail. The army hit back hard, with widespread arbitrary arrests. Reports circulated of systematic torture, disappearances, extrajudicial killings.
As the armed struggle grew more intense, the cycle of terror widened, with all perceived servants and supporters of the military regime deemed legitimate targets. The FIS, from time to time, claims it does not attack civilians. But, in the spreading violence, secular writers, teachers, and other professionals have been assassinated. Women who refused to cover their heads have been harassed and some of them were killed. What this means to a modern, educated Algerian woman is described by Khalida Messaoudi, a brave feminist from Algeria’s Berber minority who once opposed the FLN and was later condemned to death by the FIS, in the short book Unbowed, first published in France in 1995, and now published in an English translation. In her book, a series of interviews with the French journalist Elisabeth Schemla, she has much to say about the political implications of the Islamists’ attitudes toward women.
K.M.: When I read Colomba by Prosper Mérimée, it reminds me of the status of women in traditional Algerian society. Yet, Colomba is Christian, and we are Muslims. One should not look for the answers in religion as a faith. Besides, Algerians have been Muslims for fourteen centuries, but emotional and sexual destitution has become an alarming social phenomenon only in recent years.
E.S.: If Islam is only a pretext, as you suggest, then what underlies this fixation?
K.M.: Sexuality. The fundamentalists, like any totalitarian movement, want to exercise absolute control over society, and they fully realized that the place to start was by seizing control of women’s sexuality, something Mediterranean-style patriarchy facilitates. In addition, like all purifiers, they hate and persecute difference, which inevitably accompanies democracy. Now, what women represent is desire, seduction, mystery, trouble, and also alterity, which is immediately visible on their bodies. That is why the Islamists are so anxious to hide the female body, to veil it, to make biological difference disappear from the body’s external signs. The women who refuse to submit to this become perfect targets, because they embody the Other that the fundamentalists need to mobilize and rally people to their cause. This was even easier in Algeria during the time when the fundamentalists were gaining influence, because women were the most vulnerable members of society and had been made even more vulnerable by the preexisting systems, colonization and then the F.L.N.
By 1993 new and even less disciplined factions emerged from the shadows. The most sinister of these was the GIA. The FIS was still fighting, at least in theory, to restore its legal status, but the GIA, as Mr. Willis writes,
drew its inspiration, as well as its members, from that part of the Islamist movement that rejected the idea that an Islamic state could be installed by constitutional and legal means, believing instead that force of arms was both morally and practically the right way to achieve this aim.
Its guerrillas, ready to fight or kill anybody in pursuit of this goal, were the jobless young; its leaders included “Afghanis,” i.e., Algerians who in the 1980s had fought against Soviet troops in Afghanistan, that CIA-supported hothouse of fundamentalist militancy.
Its targets included anyone thought to be opposed to Islamism. Foreigners, also, were put in this category. The first to be killed were two French surveyors in 1993: after that all Westerners, having been told by the GIA to leave, were theoretically at risk. Mr. Willis suggests that the GIA chose relatively well-known Algerian civilians for assassination, at least in its early days, in order to accrue notoriety and thus seize the initiative from the other groups, in particular its chief rival, the FIS.
But nowadays the GIA’s victims are referred to by their numbers, not by their names. The people slaughtered may be the families of members of the security forces, or of FIS guerrillas or other Islamist competitors, or of the self-defense militia that the army rashly set up in a number of regions. There are feuds and vendettas between armed groups, between them and the government-backed militia, even disputes over land ownership. But none of the above is sufficient explanation for the endless killing, mutilation, and rape. Who profits from all this spilt blood is wholly unclear.
Nor is it clear why the Algerian regime, after seven years, has been unable, as Mr. Stone writes,
fully to eradicate a disparate coalition of crudely armed guerrillas and urban militants whose combined strength amounted to perhaps less than 10 per cent of its own military.
Nor has there been any adequate explanation for the army’s failure to protect civilians being slaughtered yards away from its own outposts. The kindest explanation is that the army is largely composed of young national-service conscripts who are undertrained and frightened, and who shut themselves safely up in their barracks at night, closing their ears to any screams that might reach them. The most malign of the rumors about Algeria’s often brutal security forces is that they carry out some of the massacres themselves. No evidence for this charge has been produced. Yet the GIA, particularly in its early years, was undoubtedly infiltrated by Algeria’s intelligence services. One sign of the extent of this infiltration was the ease with which GIA leaders were regularly caught or killed—although this in the end had minimal effect on the group’s activities. It is easy to surmise that Algeria’s armed forces might, at times, have gone along with the GIA’s excesses to blacken the Islamist image, and to underline the argument of the army leaders that all Islamist activists are vile terrorists, beyond the bounds of human discourse, with whom it is impossible to make a deal. But there is no evidence for this.
Could a deal with the Islamists have been struck? Liamine Zeroual, who was appointed president by the army in 1994—and was then elected in a more legitimate and convincing way in 1995—tried on several occasions to negotiate with the FIS leaders, Madani and Belhadj, while they were still in Blida prison. (They were later released, but only when the FIS itself seemed a spent force.) Mr. Willis cites Mr. Madani’s pledge, in a letter written in 1994, “to abide by: party pluralism and to allow free opinion and to encourage diversity of programs and forms of interpretation; the freedom of initiative and the acceptance of the changes of government through elections….”
That pledge, if Mr. Madani meant it, and if he could get his party to subscribe to it, sounds reassuringly democratic. A further development was even more reassuring. In January 1995, a Catholic community in Rome, Sant’ Egidio, called a conference. The community, which had previously helped to foster a peace agreement in Mozambique, invited all of Algeria’s political parties, including the FIS, to a meeting. The FIS was represented in Rome by a senior leader-in-exile, and the party’s line, reflecting Mr. Madani’s pledge, was confirmed in letters and in telephone conversations with the then still-imprisoned Mr. Madani and his less accommodating partner, Mr. Belhadj. The result was a signed document that explicitly agreed to the main tenets of liberal democracy. It proclaimed respect for “alternation of power through universal suffrage” and supported “the guarantee of fundamental liberties, individual and collective, regardless of race, sex, confession or language.” Above all, it rejected “violence as a means of achieving or maintaining power.” Such principles, as Mr. Willis says, had never before been unambiguously backed by the FIS.
But the Algerian government’s response was to reject the document, and the promise of peace that lay behind it, out of hand.
This rejection, both at the time and in retrospect, seems a missed opportunity of tragic proportions. Virtually all of Algeria’s political parties were pressing the regime to bring the FIS back into Algerian politics. And, at that time, the FIS’s leaders had considerable, though far from complete, authority over Algeria’s militant dissidents. If the government had entered into serious negotiations about decriminalizing the FIS, they would, at the very least, have had a good chance of curtailing the violence. A line could have been drawn between moderates and extremists, with moderates given political legitimacy, and the extremists identified and dealt with.
If only… Modern Algeria is a tragedy of missed opportunities. The regime doubted the sincerity of the FIS conversion to democratic principles, and ignored it. This snub by a skeptical regime led to the erosion of the FIS’s authority, and eventually to its being marginalized, while increasing the power of the GIA. It is worth remarking that during these past few months of particularly horrific events, the FIS’s own military arm has, almost unnoticed, been observing an official cease-fire.
From the first days of violence in 1992, the Algerian regime has been divided between conciliateurs and éradicateurs: those who believed a settlement could be negotiated with Islamists who abandoned violent means and those, including many top army officers, who thought that the Islamist movement could and should be defeated by all means possible. President Zeroual, a retired general and former defense minister, is usually given credit for being a conciliateur who, in the end, could not convince the hardliners in his own government and in the army. Mr. Willis takes seriously, perhaps too seriously, his various attempts in 1994-1995 to negotiate with Mr. Madani when he was in prison. These attempts failed, he writes, partly because the FIS leaders insisted that any call for a cease-fire must be preceded by their release.
Most Algerians saw Mr. Zeroual as a possible savior. When, in 1995, he pursued his program for bringing democracy to Algeria (minus the Islamists), they enthusiastically elected him president. It has always been wrong to dignify Algeria’s violence with the name of “civil war.” Militant Islamists may have been inspired by the example of Iran in 1979, when the mullahs came to power on the back of a genuinely popular revolution. In Algeria, despite the flow of recruits (mainly the jobless young) to the guerrillas, most people, in Mr. Willis’s words,
seemed to avoid involvement or association with either side in the conflict, realising that in the increasingly violent and bloody battle any expressed sympathies were liable to invite retribution from the other side.
Wishing a plague on both houses, Algerians voted for Mr. Zeroual in the hope that he would bring the whole bloody business to an end.
He could not, and by the time of the parliamentary election in June 1997, enthusiasm and faith had dribbled away. The election was rigged in favor of a new party, the National Democratic Rally (RND), hastily cobbled together to represent the powers-that-be, notably the army; moreover, the new parliament’s authority had been sharply cut. Afterward, the carnage, much reduced during the election, hit new heights. On one side, bombs in Algiers, mass civilian killings in villages or on the roads, the unremitting slaughter of innocent civilians. On the other, the army’s ever more violent counterterrorism—arbitrary arrests, systematic torture, summary executions—combined with its strange inaction at the scenes of civilian massacre. Faith that Mr. Zeroual could conjure up a settlement out of this horror has all but faded.
Today Algeria’s press is vigorously censored, and foreign correspondents are kept under watch by security forces. But enough information is reaching the outside world to disturb a great many people. Until very recently, nobody had thought of interfering. Algeria’s fellow Arab governments, several of them worrying about their own Islamist dissidents, stuck rigidly to their hands-off policy. The United States tended to see the crisis as a European problem. And Europe has long taken its lead from France, Algeria’s old colonial power.
Mr. Stone is succinct on the way France has handled the Algerian crisis. France’s view of Algeria, he writes, was based on three premises. First, that the crisis was a simple conflict between the state and the Islamic movement; second, that this “fundamentalist” movement was working for an undiluted Islamic republic; and third, that such a republic would be not only an unmitigated disaster for Algeria but would throw France into turmoil, not least by the arrival of millions of anti-Islamist boat people on its shores.
But even France now feels that the Algerian state could profit from outside guidance. So, in a stumbling, embarrassed sort of way, the European Union is trying to inquire into what might be done. In January it sent a delegation of junior ministers for a day of talks with Algerian officials, opposition leaders, and journalists. They arrived bearing both gifts—offers of humanitarian aid for the victims of massacres—and requests—that the Algerians allow in a United Nations human rights rapporteur. On both counts they were not only snubbed but were scolded for allowing Islamic “terrorists” to seek asylum in their countries. A follow-up visit by other representatives of the European Union fared little better.
But even if the Algerians had been more receptive, what could, or should, the Europeans have advised? It is easier, by far, to know what should have been done in the past than what should be done now. Writing this past February in the Saudi weekly al-Majalla, an Egyptian Islamist, Fahmi Howeidi, drew ten lessons from the Algerian experience. His first three are worth repeating. Democracy, he writes, should not be undermined for the sake of upholding democracy: the army may have thought that it was protecting Algerian democracy from Islamic fundamentalism, but the FIS victory in the 1991 election should have been respected. Second, terrorizing terrorists is no solution; violence by the security forces has bred ever more Islamist violence. Third, the lack of honest information leads to unseen horrors. “When transparency is absent,” he writes, “bats flock out of the darkness and chaos reigns.” So they do, and so it does.
—March 25, 1998
April 23, 1998