A Dark Path in Algeria

By Abdelkrim Debbih

The most recent serial massacres of civilian populations in Algeria have led the international community to raise questions about the real actors of the Algerian crisis. The confrontation that started with with the cancellation of the first pluralist elections in 1991, which were won by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), has resulted in more than one hundred thousands victims. It is undeniable, today, that this bloody drift is the result of the threat posed by the Islamicists on the future of the Algerian society. Taking advantage of the dead-ends of a totalitarian policy that has marginalized whole sectors of the Algerian society, the Islamicists have succeeded in channelling popular discontent, and in particular that of the youth, which represent 70 % of the Algerian population.

The young Algerians have been the victims of a social and economic crisis which is compounded by an identity crisis that results from the absence of any social space where they can freely express themselves. They thus found a refuge in a vision of Islam that contests the established order, that promotes egalitarianism, and that promises a better future.

Led by an inflamatory discourse into dark paths, these youth gave an electoral victory to the FIS, which then became a social force to be reckoned with. This electoral victory of the FIS forced the army to interrupt brutally the first pluralist Algerian experience. This violent intrusion of the army into the political process threw thousands of young FIS supporters into hiding, and the scene of political violence became, since then, the street.

Thus started a nameless war, that does not reveal its face, a war whose hostages are civilian populations that are not permitted to develop any political alternative. The logic of wall-to-wall security, and the struggle with armed Islamic groups replaced political dialogue and political competition. Political parties who shared democratic ideals and the idea of political pluralism are being and have been silenced under the excuse of the anti-terrorist struggle. That struggle is conducted by the Algerian government without regard to questions of legality (let alone legitimacy), and the army, clad with full powers, carries out a bloody repression that negates all elementary rights, throwing Algeria in a deep trap of lawlessness. Society is increasingly militarized.

An important part of the political class met in Rome in 1995 around a platform for political reconciliation, which was furiously rejected by the Algerian regime, prolonging the impasse. Confronted with the incapacity of the regime to find a way out of this crisis, villages formed self-defence groups that took over the responsibility of the anti-terrorist struggle. Civilian populations were thus drawn into an armed confrontation that was at first restricted to the army and to small Islamic groups, and this new development threw the country into chaos and political vacuum. Random attacks and massive repression created thousands of victims, while the army did not react. The lack of transparency in the management of the crisis, and the ban imposed on the media to prevent them from discussing the security situation made it impossible to identify the authors of the massacres perpetrated on the civilian population.

However, it must be said that the Islamicist drift is not the only explanatory factor of the violent (if not genocidal) chaos. The regime is determined to stay in power, no matter what price the Algerians will pay. This is why questions are raised about the real sponsors of the massacres that are attributed by the government to armed Islamic groups, these mysterious GIAs (French acronym for Armed Islamic Groups, or Groupes islamiques armés). These extremists split from the Islamicist party, which was the winner of the 1991 elections before they were declared illegal.

The intentions of the regime?

These massacres, because of their large scope, also raise questions about the real intentions of a regime who refuses to shed any light on mass assassinations. In spite of a repressive state of hysteria, and lacking popular support, those who are in power are unable to put forward a democratic alternative to what they claim they want to fight, though they do not admit this is so.

Thus, discredited in the international arena and weakened on the domestic front because of its policy of blind repression, the regime had to resort to tampering with the election results to prevent the free and democratic expression of the aspirations of the Algerian people. Even after having filled the political vacuum in a brutal way, the Algerian regime is in no position today to present itself as the guardian of democracy in the face of the danger posed by the fundamentalists. For many years the regime had presented itself to the international community as the ultimate obstacle against obscurantism.

Using anti-terrorist struggle as a pretext, the Algerian regime reinforced its control over the Algerian society and, as it did in the dark iron-fist period, it imposed its project of total control of the Algerian political scene. The democrats are now paying the price, as the Islamicists did before them. The democrats now realize with bitterness that the political project of the regime and that of the Islamicists converge in an absurd and suicidal logic, both aiming at forcing on Algerian society a single vision and a single order. Both the Islamicists and the Army, each in its own way, claim the legitimacy to do what they do, and use it to prevent Algerians from freely choosing for their society a political project that can guarantee peace and the respect for fundamental liberties in a state of law.

In the name of Islam for the former, and in the name of preserving the social order for the latter (a social order that turned out to be bankrupt), both the Islamicists and the government converge in negating popular sovereignty and democratic values. This explains the present bloody dead-end.

Abdelkrim Debbih, who lives in Montreal, formerly edited an Algerian newspaper.

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1998

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1998, page 18. Some rights reserved.

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