Abdelaziz Bouteflika
Abdelaziz Bouteflika; drawing by David Levine


General Khaled Nezzar is often called the “godfather” of Algeria. He is a senior member of the group of generals, active and retired, who control from behind the scenes the pouvoir—the military-financial “power” that rules the country. He lives in Hydra Le Paradou, an elegant neighborhood of white stone villas and palm trees, high in the hills of Algiers, where well-to-do French colons used to live, enjoying Le Paradou’s spectacular views. After Algeria achieved independence in 1962, their houses were occupied by high-ranking members of the National Liberation Front, or FLN. Le Paradou has preserved an aura of colonial splendor, whose serenity is disturbed only by omnipresent surveillance cameras and police stations.

“When journalists come to visit here, they can’t believe this is Algeria,” said Nezzar, a big, earthy man who tends to punctuate his sentences with loud bursts of hoarse laughter. Sitting in the huge living room in early December, I could understand their astonishment. Nezzar’s mansion is a Bel Air fantasy of French royal style with marble floors, Oriental rugs, florid upholstered chairs, and enormous crystal chandeliers. Men like Nezzar come to Le Paradou to forget that they are in Algeria, but Algeria hasn’t forgotten them. The residents in the hills are bitterly resented by those who live below, in the increasingly impoverished neighborhoods of the Casbah, Belcourt, and Bab el-Oued—neighborhoods that, thanks to shoddy housing construction, were especially hard hit by the May 21 earthquake which left more than two thousand Algerians dead and thousands homeless. Nearly half of Algerians voted for the fundamentalist party, the Islamic Salvation Front, or FIS, in the first round of legislative elections in December 1991. Although the FIS won the support of the masses of Algerians by campaigning against the corruptions of the pouvoir, it advocated strict observance of Muslim law (“The Koran is our constitution” was a favorite slogan), and many feared it would put an end to Algeria’s experiment with democracy.

The FIS was about to defeat the FLN in the second round of elections, but Nezzar and his army colleagues made sure that never happened. Always suspicious of the democratic experiment that began in 1989, General Nezzar, who was then Algeria’s minister of defense, forced President Chadli Bendjedid, who came to power with army support in 1979, to resign. The elections were canceled, and two months later the FIS was banned. Nezzar declared a state of emergency. The Islamic Salvation Army, the FIS’s armed wing, responded with attacks on government security forces. They were soon joined by more radical outfits like the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), a nebulous network of jihadists that included a number of self-described “Afghan Arabs.” The jihadists assassinated secular intellectuals and unveiled women; they finally turned against their own followers when they showed insufficient zeal for holy warfare.

The “conciliators” among Algeria’s political leaders, among them several former ministers, advocated a political solution, starting with negotiations with the FIS; but the hard-line “eradicators” led by General Nezzar won out. They struck back ruthlessly, borrowing tactics the French paratroopers used against the FLN, including torture, summary execution, and secret detention in camps in the Sahara. Tens of thousands of Algerians, some of them Islamic radicals but many of them ordinary civilians and soldiers, have been killed since 1992; about seven thousand have disappeared, mostly at the hands of security forces, according to a damning report released late this February by Human Rights Watch. The violence has subsided since 1997, when the FIS laid down its arms, but the GIA and other rebels remain active. Almost every day, a few people die in political violence, a pattern that has become so familiar that no one in Algeria pays much attention. The regime, now headed by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was elected in 1999, appears to have no interest in stopping the violence; one former high-ranking Algerian official told me, “The state can’t let terrorism die. It’s the only thing keeping it afloat.”1

On his recent visit to Algiers, William Burns, the US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told President Bouteflika, “Washington has much to learn from Algeria on ways to fight terrorism.” But what exactly does it have to learn? “If we had let the Islamists win, Algeria would have become Afghanistan and you would have had to bomb us,” Nezzar said, laughing loudly. I passed on Nezzar’s remark to Ahmed Djeddai, the secretary of the Socialist Forces Front, a social-democratic opposition party, largely made up of Berbers, the non-Arab minority who speak their own language and make up between 15 and 20 percent of the population. He sighed with a weary, theatrical air. “If you look at Algeria today—100,000 dead, maybe more; thousands handicapped; a million displaced—it seems to me that the generals are the ones who’ve turned this country into Afghanistan.”


Nezzar, who retired eight years ago, was born in 1937 into a Berber peasant family in the Aures mountains. As a young man, he served as a noncommissioned officer in the French army, defecting to the rebel side in April 1958 along with a group of young men now known as the “French army deserters.” Houari Boumedienne, Algeria’s president between 1965 and 1978, welcomed the French army deserters because, as latecomers to the independence struggle, they lacked nationalist credentials and could be more easily controlled than the guerrilla veterans in the army. Boumedienne’s legendary cunning did not fail him. When a group of former guerrillas in the Algerian army tried to overthrow him in 1967, the French army deserters put down the coup. Over the last two decades, the deserters have achieved a dominant position in the army. They have solid backing from the French government, send their children to school in Paris, and are believed to have lucrative ties to French companies that do business in Algeria. This has earned them the unenviable reputation, among their own people, of being the hizb Franca, the party of France.

Over the last few years, Nezzar has emerged as the unofficial spokesman of Algeria’s notoriously taciturn generals, defending the army’s honor in the face of mounting allegations of human rights abuses. In the spring of 2001, Habib Souaïdia, a former officer in the special forces, now exiled in France, published La Sale Guerre (The Dirty War), a scathing account of the counterinsurgency campaign. Souaïdia claimed to have witnessed his army comrades engaging in torture, rape, and wanton killing. They occasionally did so, he said, while disguised as Islamic rebels. Since then, several former members of Military Security—the intelligence services—have asserted not only that the military infiltrated the GIA, but that it helped to carry out attacks on French targets such as consulates and business offices at a time when France appeared to be wavering in its support for the eradicators in the Algerian government. Troubling questions have also been raised about the army’s mysterious failure to protect its own citizens during the large-scale rural massacres in 1996 and 1997. Just who carried out many of the massacres remains unclear. But the massacres took place in villages near military barracks, and were observed by military helicopters flying over the killing fields. Brutalized by the war, terrified of terrorists, and furious at those who harbored them, the army apparently saw no reason to defend villagers who had supported the FIS.

Nezzar has been stung by these allegations. Shortly after the appearance of La Sale Guerre, while he was in France promoting the book of memoirs he wrote in 2001,2 three Algerians in Paris, relatives of “disappeared” Islamists, brought suit against him for torture and other crimes. He flew back that evening. Last June, during the fortieth anniversary of Algeria’s independence, he returned to France to sue one of the Algerian relatives for defamation. He lost his case, but that is not how he sees it. “The defamation suit was just a pretext for me to explain the army’s position, and to show the world that there is another account of what happened in Algeria. That is the essential thing, so in that sense I won.”

When I asked Nezzar about Algeria’s seven thousand disappearances—a number that Algeria’s human rights commissioner has confirmed after years of official denial—he grew impatient. “That’s false. The number is closer to four thousand, and only 213 of the disappearance cases are unresolved. The rest are now with the rebels, or they’re dead, or they’re in prison. Two hundred thirteen people are still a lot, but it’s not as if this is Chile.” He sprayed his mouth with breath freshener. “I am a democrat. I am not an eradicator.” “You’re not?” I said, caught off guard. He smiled. “Yes—for those who remain underground. For them, there is only one solution: eradication.”

Eradication has produced results, he said, observing with satisfaction that the rate of terrorism was down considerably, and that the legal Islamist parties poll less than half the votes the FIS did a decade ago. Still, political Islam has not been wiped out altogether. “Our problem hasn’t been solved. I don’t see much of a difference between moderate and radical political Islam. When someone tells me of a moderate Islamist government, I wonder what they’re talking about.”


Algeria has been under military rule since 1962. Elections, whether for president or for members of Parliament, have been rigged and controlled by the army leaders. The military’s supremacy dates back to the war of independence, a time of merciless competition between the “forces of the interior,” the political leadership within Algeria, and the “forces of the exterior,” the army and bureaucracy based in Tunisia and Morocco. While fighting against the French, they were also fighting one another for control of the future state. During the Battle of Algiers of 1956 and 1957, the most capable leaders of the interior forces were eliminated by French death squads. Those who survived had little choice but to accept the leadership of the exterior forces. In December 1957, Abane Ramdane, the brilliant architect of the Battle of Algiers, was executed by his “comrades” for insisting on the primacy of the interior.


A turning point in the war, Abane’s assassination was plotted by the “Oudja clan,” a clique led by Abdelhafid Boussouf that had gained a foothold in the army and intelligence services of the exterior.3 The Oudja clan included, among others, Colonel Boumedienne; Ahmed Ben Bella, the country’s first president; and President Bouteflika. In the summer of 1962, Boumedienne’s forces overthrew the Provisional Government of the Republic of Algeria, which had signed the Évian peace accords with France, and installed Ben Bella as president. Three years later, Boumedienne overthrew Ben Bella in another military coup and placed him under arrest for the next twenty years. Since Boumedienne’s death from a mysterious illness in December 1978, Algeria has undergone numerous convulsions, yet none of these has seriously undermined the power of the army, the Oudja clan, or Military Security, the intelligence services that make up the regime’s “spinal chord.”

Many Western observers hoped that the collapse of the FLN dictatorship in 1989 would challenge the pouvoir of people like General Nezzar, but this expectation was based on a misleading analogy with the Soviet experience. Contrary to myth, the FLN was never a Soviet-style party but rather an instrument of the military, with little power of its own. As the British scholar Hugh Roberts observes in his remarkable study The Battlefield, the 1989 constitution that legalized political parties did little more than replace “a monolithic façade with a pluralist façade.” Algerians can openly speak their minds, but they act as if there is always someone listening—and there often is. The lively and opinionated press almost never criticizes members of the army, or of the “political-financial mafia.” Political parties include several legal Islamist parties, two Trotskyist parties, and two rival Berber parties, but, as one former high-ranking official told me, “They are not so much parties as groups jockeying for influence in the military.” The elections, as Roberts says, reflect “outcomes of decisions taken by the power-brokers in the regime.” The pouvoir has survived the transition from one-party rule by continuing to rule as it always has: in the shadows, hardly visible to the public.


Like the political system, the Algerian economy suffers from acute paralysis. Unemployment runs over 30 percent, and there is such a severe housing shortage that most apartments squeeze in three generations of a single family. The streets of Belcourt and Bab el-Oued, where government buildings are often scrawled with pro–bin Laden graffiti, are filled with hittistes, aimless, unemployed young men. Algerian industries, some of which are said to be controlled by the generals, run far below capacity. The most dynamic sector in Algiers is the black market. The Jewish merchants who used to own shops on Baba Azzoun, a street hooded by porticos, have been replaced by trabendists, men who sell everything from jewelry and spices to jeans and lingerie. It was the trabendists who arranged financing for the Islamist movement; it is to them that the Mercedes cars parked outside mosques belong.

Far from speeding up the liberalization of Algeria’s heavily centralized economy, the country’s precarious peace has slowed it down. Economic reform was easier to accomplish at the height of the civil war of the 1990s, when Islamists burned down inefficient state-run factories. Local conspiracy theories, in which the Algerian imagination has found one of its most creative outlets, now view the Islamists as working on behalf of the political and financial mafia. In the novel Double Blanc, a popular thriller by Yasmina Khadra, a former army officer, a police investigation of a murder attributed to terrorists reveals a “diabolical plot” by the mafia to “gain control of the country’s industrial patrimony.” “Privatization is stalling for purely dogmatic reasons,” Abdelaziz Rahabi, a former minister of communication under President Liamine Zeroual and, briefly, under Bouteflika, complained to me. “Algerians don’t want to give up the family jewels.”

A fable of postwar economic recovery is told each night on the state-run news. One evening, I watched a breathless report about a Sheraton hotel being built for ninety million euros by a Chinese company on the Libyan border—“proof,” said the anchorman, “of Algeria’s spirit of cooperation with her neighbors.” A far less encouraging, though more telling, fable may be found, however, in the spectacular rise and fall of the so-called Khalifa Group, a publishing, banking, air transport, and pharmaceutical empire that mysteriously appeared on the scene six years ago. Presiding over Algeria’s “first private empire” has been a baby-faced, thirty-six-year-old mogul, Rafik Khalifa, who is arguably more famous for his extravagant parties (attended by such friends as Gérard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve) than for his skills as an entrepreneur. Although he portrays himself as a self-made man in his autobiography, Khalifa does not lack for connections. He is the son of a prominent Oudja clan member who helped organize Algeria’s intelligence services during the war of independence. His partner, Abdelghani Bouteflika, is the President’s brother.

On February 24—five days before Jacques Chirac arrived in Algiers on the first state visit by a French president since independence—Khalifa’s luck ran out when three of his associates were stopped at Houari Boumedienne airport just as they were leaving for Paris. They were caught with two million undeclared euros in cash; two of them were arrested. (Since the arrests were made, Khalifa, who was in Paris at the time and is now said to be in London, has not set foot in Algeria, where he is all but certain to meet the same fate as his associates.) A week later, the Bank of Algeria placed Khalifa Bank, the country’s only private bank, under trusteeship, for fear that it might imperil the country’s entire banking system. According to a source close to the Ministry of Finance, the Khalifa Bank was illegally making use of hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds, with the apparent blessing of the state. Why the government suddenly decided to move against Khalifa has been a subject of heated speculation, much of it suggesting that Khalifa was a casualty of Chirac’s visit. Widely criticized in the French press and parliament for alleged corruption on the basis of evidence reportedly leaked by French intelligence, the “emperor of Algeria” had become a liability for Algeria’s rulers, who are eager for a rapprochement with France.

Algeria’s economic impasse is, paradoxically, a symptom of its considerable wealth. The country is the world’s third-largest exporter of natural gas, and an oil producer of growing significance. “This country has survived thanks to petroleum,” Lamine Chikhi, a journalist at El Khabar, an Arabic-language daily with close ties to the hard-line army “eradicators,” told me. In recent years French oil companies and American oil companies, among them Halliburton, have been competing with increasing fierceness for influence in the Sahara. Chikhi assured me that Dick Cheney, Halliburton’s former CEO, “knows Algeria very well.” With the catastrophic failure of Boumedienne’s project to industrialize the country in the 1960s, Algeria has become more dependent than ever on oil and natural gas revenues, which account for over 90 percent of the country’s export earnings. “Petroleum might be a blessing for those who don’t have other resources, but for us it’s a curse,” Rahabi says. “We have two million kilometers of land in the Sahara that could be used to develop tourism. Thirty years ago, we exported food; now we import it. This isn’t a problem of ecology. It is fundamentally a problem of management.” It is also a problem of politics. As long as oil and natural gas remain plentiful, Algeria’s leaders will have little incentive to dismantle the system that has made them rich, particularly if doing so threatens their privileges.


A longstanding member of the Oudja clan, Abdelaziz Bouteflika is unlikely to transform the system, although he clearly wants to reform it. Bouteflika served as Boumedienne’s foreign minister during the 1970s, when Algeria seemed an increasingly prosperous and confident country, and was a leading contender to succeed him. The army, to its lasting regret, chose General Chadli Bendjedid instead. In his efforts to weaken left-wing nationalists in the FLN and in the trade unions who opposed his plans for economic reform, Benjedid worked out a reckless partnership with Algeria’s quickly growing Islamist movement. Partly thanks to such support, the Islamists were uniquely poised to profit from the legalizing of political parties. The ironies of the regime’s position since 1991 as the country’s only defense against fundamentalism are not lost on Algerians. As one of Khadra’s characters puts it: “The firemen…were the pyromaniacs themselves.”

Bouteflika, who won 74 percent of the vote in the April 1999 elections, is, like his predecessors, the army’s candidate. Algeria wants to put the war behind it, to climb out of its isolation and to attract foreign investment; to do so, it needs someone who can mend relations with the Western nations, which have looked at Algeria with horror, puzzlement, and fear that the violence might spill beyond the country’s borders. Bouteflika may lack personal appeal, but he is a shrewd diplomat who knows how to talk to au- diences in Washington and Paris. He has had two meetings with Bush in the White House and promised Algeria’s full cooperation in the war on terrorism. He recently declared himself “a friend” of the United States in a column in The Washington Times—a deeply unpopular position in Algeria, where anti-Americanism of an unusually virulent strain has been on the rise since the Iraq war.

The American government, badly in need of Arab allies—preferably oil-rich ones that can lessen American dependence on Saudi oil—has rewarded him handsomely. On his recent trip to Algiers, Assistant Secretary of State Burns promised to sell arms to Algeria, including attack helicopters. There have been joint training exercises between the Algerian and American armed forces, and friendly visits by Algerian army officers to American bases in Europe. Just after the September 11 attacks, General Abdelhamid Touati said, “We can’t squander this opportunity.” Bouteflika got the message.

In his efforts to promote “national reconciliation,” however, Bouteflika has been far less successful. His principal attempt at reconciliation with the Islamists, the Civil Harmony Law, was overwhelmingly approved in a popular referendum in September 1999. The law offered amnesty to rebels willing to surrender, so long as they hadn’t committed rape or murder. Thousands were given amnesty, but their worst past crimes were overlooked, and many men with blood on their hands walked free. The failure to punish or even judge former terrorists sowed bitterness among Algerians, most of whom regard the law as a typical backroom deal between the pouvoir and Islamist rebels.

Bouteflika has also retreated from a promise to investigate Algeria’s seven thousand disappearances, an issue that has complicated the government’s efforts to establish better relations with the European Union. None of the families of the disappeared has been provided with specific information about the fate of their relatives or with compensation for their losses. None of the killers has been punished. In a speech made shortly after his election, Bouteflika spoke sorrowfully of Algeria’s “10,000 disappearances,” including that of his missing nephew. But at a rally for the Civil Harmony Act, he reacted testily when a group of mothers pleaded for information about their sons. “I haven’t got your children in my pockets. How can you put this war behind you if you don’t forget?” These families have not yet received an official apology; nor have safeguards been instituted to prevent the new disappearances if Military Security deems it useful. Bouteflika’s human rights commissioner, Farouk Ksentini, has expressed the view that most of the disappeared “had nothing to do with the armed groups.” Yet he has also endorsed a general amnesty for the killers so that “Algeria can turn the page and move forward.”

This seems a long way off. Algerians remain furiously polarized: split between those who want to conciliate the Islamists and those who want to eradicate them, caught in a chronic cycle of recrimination and counter-recrimination. A journalist I know described the eradicators as “Francophiles who despise their own people.” The eradicators are not in a forgiving mood either. “The Islamists are snakes,” I was told by Mahfoud Bennoune, a sociologist who lives in the Club des Pins, a luxurious, high-security compound on the outskirts of Algiers where the pouvoir houses high-ranking officials and pro-military intellectuals. Anyone who opposed the cancellation of the 1991 elections, he suggested, was either deluded or guilty of fellow traveling with terrorists. Although he hates the pouvoir, he has made his peace with it: “If I have to choose between killers and thieves, I will always choose the thieves.”


Despair over the future has fed a wave of nostalgia for the Boumedienne era. “We were prosperous, we had a sense of national unity, and we were proud under Boumedienne,” Ihsane el-Kadi, one of Algeria’s best journalists, told me. “We didn’t need to publish articles in The Washington Times telling the Americans they have a friend in Algiers.” In fact, many of Algeria’s problems today are a legacy of Boumedienne’s policies: the investment in heavy industries that soon became inefficient fiefdoms; the hiring of Egyptian Muslim Brothers to teach Arabic in schools, which ultimately became bastions of political Islam. Memory, however, is selective, and it is not Boumedienne’s errors that Algerians remember. They remember the austere son of peasants whose regime fed Algerians and taught them to read, the statesman who made Algeria a force in the nonaligned movement. They remember him, above all, as the one Algerian leader who was able to keep under control the tensions between the country’s warring ethnic, regional, and ideological families.

Since Boumedienne’s death in 1978, these groups have quarreled incessantly over Algeria’s definition as a nation. Arabs insist that the country is Arab and a part of the Middle East. Berbers insist with equal passion that Algeria is Berber, not Arab, and that they have more in common with southern Europe, particularly Spain, than with the Arab world. The Islamists see Algeria first and foremost as a Muslim country. The French-speaking elite proclaims its support for a secular republic, but is mainly interested in keeping a tight lid on political activity in the mosques. What is more, all these groups seem to believe that they are the authentic heirs of the wartime FLN—the “true FLN,” as opposed to the “false FLN” of their adversaries—and that their adversaries are in thrall to ideas imported from France, or Egypt, or Saudi Arabia.

The cruel potential of Algeria’s ethnic politics is on display in the Berber region of Kabylia. Tizi Ouzou, Kabylia’s largest city, is a two-hour drive east of Algiers, but it might as well be another country. It’s an ugly, dusty town that reeks of gas, with barely paved streets and empty lots sprouting with weeds. All the signs are in French and Tamazight, the Berber language, never in Arabic. Graffiti praise the arushes—committees of village notables that have recently become more powerful, virtually eclipsing Kabylia’s traditional political parties—and the MAK, the Movement for Autonomy in Kabylia. The problems of the Kabyles—unemployment, poor housing, rough treatment by the authorities—are no different from those of other Algerians. But those grievances are exacerbated by a deep sense of cultural oppression. Although the Kabyles made great sacrifices in the independence struggle, the government has needlessly estranged them by defining Algeria as an “Arabo-Muslim” country, and by suppressing the Tamazight language until recently. In late April 2001, violent demonstrations broke out in Tizi Ouzou after an eighteen-year-old man died while in the custody of the hated gendarmes. Protests spread swiftly to neighboring cities. The gendarmes killed dozens of Kabyles.

Like many Kabyles of his generation, Brahim Salhi, a fifty-year-old sociologist living in Tizi Ouzou, is worried about the Berber revolt of the last two years. The “Berber Spring” of 1980, the uprising in which he participated as a young man, was organized by left-wing opposition parties advocating cultural pluralism and democratic liberty. Today’s protests, he says, are violent, anarchic affairs that express little more than anger and bitterness. “There is a complete absence of political mediation.” Into that void have stepped the arushes, which reach their decisions by consensus rather than voting and which exclude women—a disturbing sign. “If the problems in Kabylia aren’t solved,” one former member of the FLN central committee hinted darkly to me, “it could become another Kosovo.”


Algiers at night is an edgy, desolate city. Late one evening, I passed a vegetable stand run by a group of young men dressed in the Afghan style, with long beards and flowing robes as if to proclaim their Islamist loyalties. “Their wings have been clipped,” said my driver, a veteran of the independence struggle. “You know how the Tunisians handled them? They scooped out their eyes with coffee spoons. The only way to pacify them was by ferocious repression. We’re just beginning to breathe again.” I asked him which party he had voted for in 1991. Sheepishly, he admitted that he had voted for the FIS “to spite Chadli.” The next day, he said, he regretted his decision, but many others did not.

The appeal of radical fundamentalism has declined, thanks to brutal state repression and rebel atrocities. Yet political Islam remains a powerful current in Algerian politics, and the leaders are, not for the first time, working hard to persuade the Islamists to join them. The Movement for an Islamic Renaissance, a legal party led by Sheikh Abdallah Djaballah, whose face can be seen on posters throughout the Casbah, won an impressive forty-three seats in the National Assembly in last year’s elections, and Bouteflika is courting him with an eye on the 2004 elections.

In the optimistic view of Hugh Roberts, this suggests a “movement towards reabsorbing Algerian Islamism back into the broader nationalist tradition.” The reconciliation has sharply defined limits, however. The FIS remains illegal, and its leaders are under house arrest. The leader of a moderate Islamist party, the Wafa, Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, a former high-ranking FLN official and one of Algeria’s most respected politicians, is barred from running on the grounds that the Wafa numbers among its leaders several former FIS activists. In fact, it is less fundamentalist than Djaballah’s party, which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood. What makes the party threatening to the establishment is the popularity of Ibrahimi, who could potentially rally the nationalist and moderate Islamist opponents of the pouvoir.


In early December, the daily Liberté published a short article, “50 Million Algerians in 2050.” The picture below the headline showed a destitute young girl, sitting barefoot on a dirt-side curb. In 1962, there were fewer than ten million Algerians; today, there are over thirty million. Eighty percent of them are under thirty, and they have no say in how Algeria is governed. As Abdelaziz Rahabi told me, “The men who made the revolution still think of themselves as the generation of fire, and everyone else born after the revolution as the generation of ashes.” The generation of ashes has been taught in school and in the endless commemorations of “the revolution” that the only way of achieving political change is through armed struggle. The generation of fire, which canceled the 1991 elections and which has failed to create democratic institutions or a functioning economy, has given them no reason to think otherwise. An increasing number of young people are leaving; outside the French embassy, not far from Nezzar’s villa, a long line forms each night at six o’clock, waiting until the next morning to apply for work visas. When Chirac recently visited Algiers he was faced with crowds shouting, “Visas, visas!” Some of those unlucky enough to stay behind become hittistes. Others drift into crime. And some join the maquis, the rebels in the mountains.

One afternoon, a friend took me to a bar next to the entrance to the Casbah. Inside, young men in jeans and leather jackets sipped beer and stared dully at a soccer match. My friend, a man in his early fifties, said, “Men who have a little money come here. Men who have a little more buy drugs. The men who have nothing go to the mosque. The guys you see here don’t care about the revolution, or about what happened to Abane Ramdane. They don’t even have a place to have sex with their girlfriends. They go to the for-est with a girl and do their thing and then they get arrested on a morals charge. There are Algerians in their forties who’ve never been married because they can’t find housing. You want to understand why people end up in the mosque? They have nowhere else to go.” The morning I left, my friend had news for me: he was applying for a work visa to go to South Africa.

This Issue

July 3, 2003