News from Algeria: 16 Years of Failure to Bring Stability
- Algeria: 16 Years of Failure to Bring Stability
By Mustapha Ajbaili
Mon. Aug. 25, 2008
The spate of deadly attacks that rocked Algeria last week and left up to 60 people dead remind that stamping out what the government calls remnants of “terrorist” groups can be achieved neither by direct armed confrontation nor by flashing around loosely defined catchphrases of “National Reconciliation” and “Civil Concord.”
The bombings of last week came after a short lull in attacks by armed groups in Algeria since the mid-December 2007 bombings, including an attack on UN headquarters in the capital city Algiers, which left 41 people dead.
The government sought to downplay the attacks, and Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni said they were but a desperate move of “terrorists” who were pushed “to the wall.”
Similar statements were often voiced after each attack, and the government consistently failed to admit that both its security and political campaigns have so far been ineffective in bringing durable peace and stability to Algeria.
Since 1992, the security approach was largely based on direct armed military confrontation with different groups across the country. However, this approach hitherto failed because, as some analysts see, it had little of underground activity. First, the state failed to respond to the needs and demands of its people before they point guns at it. Second, the state’s securities failed to conduct pre-emptive attacks on dangerous cells before they explode.
This strategy has been largely successful in the neighboring Morocco whose security services recently managed to foil several attacks meanwhile the government continues to make genuine efforts to improve the lives of those likely to carry guns if their demands are neglected. For example, the government responded to the deadly attacks that struck Casablanca in May16, 2003, by allocating $95.8 million to social projects in Sidi Moumen, a poor neighborhood in the outskirts of Casablanca and the home of the perpetrators.
With its oil and gas revenues predicted to top $80 billion and a trade surplus of more than $22 billion in 2008, Algeria can obviously do better than Morocco, which exports no oil or gas, to improve the economic and social life of its youth.
With the current blind confrontation policy in Algeria and so long as armed groups are determined to fight, which they seem to be, prospects of peace are slim. In fact, ending violence in Algeria with the current state policy is similar to ending “international terrorism” without realistically addressing its fundamental causes.
The attacks of last week, whatever their motivation—despair or commitment to a course of action, uncovered also the failure of state’s political strategy to put an end to violence since 1992, when the army cancelled the second round of elections and outlawed the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) which was then predicted to gain landslide victory. The FIS, which subsequently led to the Islamic Armed Group (GIA) and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), took arms and fought the state and its employees in a civil war that claimed 150,000 lives according to official reports.
The Making of Discord
In 1999, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika sought to reduce violence and he drafted the “Civil Concord Law,” supported by the parliament and ratified in a sweeping “yes” vote referendum. The law aimed at ratifying a previous ceasefire agreement between the army and the armed wing of the FIS, the precursor of today’s armed groups.
Bouteflika was ready to turn the page, but as the saying goes, "before one can turn the page, one must read it." Bouteflika failed to read the page; his “Civil Concord,” despite together with his reform policies succeeded to dramatically bring down the level of violence, did not extend amnesty to those convicted for “blood crimes.” This kept still a large number of armed persons holding to arms.
Besides, the withdrawal of six out of seven candidates in the eve of 1999 presidential elections, which left the remaining army-backed Bouteflika to win, widened the base of opposition and encouraged many to continue the fight, which was perceived the only means to bring change, now that political engagement became futile.
In his second mandate after the 2004 presidential elections, widely praised for some transparency after few changes in the electoral law and repeated declarations by the military of its neutrality, Bouteflika announced a program of "National Reconciliation" that offered hardly anything new from the previous “Civil Concord Law” program.
The "National Reconciliation" is loosely defined as bringing violence to an end by "reconciling Algerians with themselves and with their state." The program failed to provide a realistic answer to the demand of transferring genuine authority to the civilian institutions of government, including the executive, legislative and judicial branches.
As has noted historian Hugh Roberts, "It has long been clear that only by providing institutional channels for the peaceful expression of competing outlooks and interests could the Algerian state hope to end the violence which had been ravaging the country."
Unwilling, however, to give up its behind-the-scenes intervention in politics, the army instead continues to push for unrelenting military action against those who challenge the status quo. President Bouteflika appears to yield to this pressure after launching his "National Reconciliation" program in 2006 when he said, "The wretched remnants of terrorism are inevitably bound to disappear. We shall not be happy until we have eradicated it forever as the rule of law becomes established."
Bouteflkia’s statement indicates that he was unable to deliver the kind of genuine political reform necessary for durable peace if it threatens to displace the army from sites of political influence. If peace and stability to be successful in Algeria, the army must step back and let effective political representation for the population via vibrant political parties and civil society organizations and transparent elections take place.
Mustapha Ajbaili is a staff writer and assistant editor for the Muslim Affairs page of IslamOnline.net. He holds a BA degree in journalism and is now studying for a master's degree in journalism and mass communication at the American University in Cairo. mailto mustapha.ajbaili@... to reach him.
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Alfred de Montesquiou, Associated Press in Algiers The Guardian, Wednesday August 20 2008