La Sale Guerre
The Battlefield: Algeria, 1988–2002, Studies in a Broken Polity
Time for Reckoning: Enforced Disappearances in Algeria
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.