H. Osman Bencherif is the ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of Algeria to the United States.
For the last four years, Algeria has been in the forefront of the fight against Islamist (or fundamentalist) terrorism. Armed groups have sowed death and destruction, waging a war of terror that has affected Algerians from all walks of life. Violence has been directed not just against Algerian government personnel (judges, civil servants, police) but also against leading intellectuals, doctors, university professors, lawyers, veterans of the war of independence, singers, artists, and factory workers. A leading militant group threatens not just to kill the police and the soldiers but also "every mother, sister or daughter" of theirs.1
This contest between an underground Islamic movement and government forces is but one battle in a very large war taking place in many parts of the Muslim world, a confrontation between Western-style democracy and a totalitarian use of Islamic law (the Shari`a). It is shaping into a clash between two opposite visions of society, a conflict between two political world orders, an age-old battle for power over human lives -- the battle between the forces of freedom and tyranny, tolerance and repression, hope and despair, progress and regression, light and darkness.
Americans have an important role to play in this crisis, which is fortunate, for events in Algeria can have a major impact on U.S. interests.
THE CAUSES OF ISLAMIST VIOLENCE
What are the political causes of violence in Algeria? The Islamic movement in Algeria does not express a religious revolution. It is first and foremost a movement of protest of a young generation deprived of jobs, opportunity, human dignity, and hope. As elsewhere, militant Islamism in Algeria has drawn strength from what is considered to be decades of misrule and economic mismanagement, thriving on dissatisfaction and frustration arising from unemployment and social and economic inequities. Islamist activists seek to protest these social wrongs, which they perceive to be a violence done to them.
To better understand this phenomenon, it is necessary first to dispel the clichéd notion that today's violence in Algeria was triggered by the cancellation of the second round of elections in January 1992, elections the Islamists were likely to win. In fact, the formation of armed groups preceded the cancellation of those elections. Paramilitary groups began to emerge in 1989, partly as a result of the return of the "Afghans," veterans of the anti-Communist crusade in Afghanistan. These mujahidin -- or "freedom fighters," as President Ronald Reagan called them -- had been armed and trained by the Central Intelligence Agency. When the Soviets finally withdrew from Afghanistan in February 1989, many Algerian volunteers returned to their country, where they spearheaded the most violent Islamist groupings. Today, those Afghans form the hard core of the armed movement in Algeria.2
Violence in Algeria rode on the wave of Islamist militancy brought into the country by veterans of the war in Afghanistan. In November 1991, even before the first round of elections, two Algerian veterans of the Afghan war, Tayeb Messaoudi (known as Tayeb El-Afghani) and Abderrahmane Dahane (Dahane El-Afghani), led an attack on the military post at Guemmar in southeastern Algeria, hoping to acquire arms and ammunition for their guerilla groups. They butchered some fifteen young conscripts guarding the post, and got away with large quantities of arms and ammunition. Dahane was killed in an operation outside Biskra on December 1991. Tayeb became the most prominent figure of the Algerian Afghans until he was arrested in the course of a military operation in February 22, 1992 at Magrane, El-Oued, and executed in 1993.
The Afghans and their most radical followers had no interest in the ballot box. As they proclaimed in their inflammatory sermons, "Blood and martyrdom are the only way to seize power by force and establish an Islamist state." Ali Belhadj, the fiery second-in-command who represented the radical fringe within the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut--FIS), the main Islamist organization, stated on many occasions that "democracy is a stranger in the house of God."3 "If people vote against God's Law, that is nothing less than blasphemy," he declared. "In that case, the miscreants must be killed, for the simple reason that they want to substitute God's authority with their own."4 Lists were drawn up of people to be executed after the Islamist takeover. The Islamists radicals had apparently drawn up by mid-1993 a first list of some hundred intellectuals "marked for death."5 For example, Khalida Messaoudi, the leader of the Rassemblement Algerien des Femmes pour la Democratie, a leftist-secularist movement whose acronym (RAFD) means refusal in Arabic, received death threats and was to be executed on the central square of the suburb where she lived. Some two to three thousand people received similar threats during the same period. For the radical elementsFrench-speaking intellectuals belong to an elite that they want physically to eliminate.
The government's decision to cancel the second round of the elections was a desperate solution to a desperate situation. It was the lesser of two evils: democratic principles would be violated by cancelling the second round just as they would be seriously threatened by a theocratic, authoritarian, Islamist takeover. The army took a difficult step, but one that saved Algeria from an even worse fate.
In 1992, following the cancellation of the election and the crackdown on FIS, two major paramilitary groups emerged.
The Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armée, commonly known by its French acronym GIA), has claimed to be the only true representative of the Islamist movement and vows to establish an Islamist state by any means, among them its declared "total war" on the government. It considers anything or anyone connected with what it dubs "the impious, illegitimate state" to be a fair target. Anyone perceived of as linked in any way to the Algerian state, primarily the security forces, is singled out by these groups as a target of their terror. Most of the GIA's founding members were "Afghans."
The Islamic Salvation Army (Armée Islamique du Salut--AIS),6 was activated by FIS following the army's suppression of a general strike in June 1991, then joined by other underground groups and reinforced by veterans of the anti-Communist crusade in Afghanistan.
The two groups have antagonistic relations. The FIS has tried to distance itself from the GIA by condemning some of the latter's terrorist acts, without denouncing violence in principle. The GIA has emerged as the more brutal of the two groups, having taken responsibility for such atrocious acts as the Air France airliner hijacking and the suicide car bomb in downtown Algiers that killed 42 and injured 286. The GIA has preached all-out war against the government, implying its complete rejection of the FIS strategy to engage in dialogue with the authorities.
The GIA has been responsible for the most heinous crimes committed during the period of civil strife. It claimed responsibility for killing journalists opposed to Islamist views, declaring that "those who fight us with the pen shall die by the sword." Over the last two years, forty-nine journalists have lost their lives and more than two hundred others have had to flee the country. Journalists still resident in Algeria live in fear, staying in guarded hotels, or sleeping in the different places every night.
Women rank high among the casualties of terrorism. The Islamists associate the emancipation of women with the evils of modernism, secularism, and Western ways. Well-known leaders of women's associations have been killed as a warning to all liberated, progressive-thinking women in an attempt to rid Algeria of Western influences. Teen-age girls have been gunned down for not wearing hijab, the Islamist veil. Some of the worst acts were the abducting and forcing of women into temporary marriages of pleasure, an alien practice introduced by the Afghans.
Economic targets have come in the firing line as part of the Islamist strategy to wreck government efforts to stimulate economic growth. Islamists have burned down schools, public buildings, and industrial units: they have blown up bridges and power lines, and felled miles of telephone lines. Recent targets have included hydrocarbon development projects and a factory building pipes for a pipeline to transport natural gas to Europe.
The GIA has since September 1993 targeted foreign workers resident in Algeria, killing some eighty-two. These include French, Russian, Italian, Spanish, and Croat nationals. Victims have included seamen, diplomats, priests, engineers, and businessmen. The GIA considers foreigners the government's economic lifeline, and so to precipitate the regime's downfall by severing it. Toward this end, the GIA launched a lethal campaign against foreigners in the winter of 1994-95. On January 3, 1995, it sent an ultimatum to Western embassies in Bern, Switzerland, calling on Western governments to close their Algiers embassies by January 7. "After the ultimatum runs out, we can give no guarantees about lives of foreign nationals. After that, all unbelievers will be killed," the statement said.7 The Western embassies took this warning very seriously, and reduced their staffs to an absolute minimum.
In reporting on Algeria, journalists have tended to treat as equal the savage violence of armed Islamist groups and what they claim are brutal government forces. This view needs to be reappraised. The special anti-terrorist troops are not choir boys, but they operate under controls and within the limits of the law enforcement agencies. Excesses or abuses are the exception, not the rule, and have not been tolerated when they did occur. The highest authorities in the country have made quite clear their intention to fight terrorism and defend the rule of law without destroying that law. In contrast, Islamist violence in Algeria is a deliberate and systematic assault on civilians to inspire fear for political ends; in other words, it is terrorism.
THE ISLAMIST PROGRAM
An Islamist regime might mean catastrophe for those many observant Muslims who respect the tenets of their religion but who abhor religious fascism. They would be hunted down or driven out of the country. Nor would the Islamists necessarily get along with each other. The split between the GIA and AIS appears serious, as the former, which sees itself as the only movement carrying the "banner of jihad" against the "godless state," threatens to "wipe out" other Islamist groups.8 Recently reported clashes between the two groups foreshadow the frightening problems in Algeria should the Islamists prevail, for the brutality and savagery of their current actions prefigure the kind of violence Islamists would unleash once in power.
The brutality of these "green Khmers" could be no less awful than that of the Red Khmers of Cambodia. The Islamist ideology seeks physically to eliminate the entire category of intellectuals, journalists, and professionals because they are seen as enemies of Islam. Their violence could make the Iranian revolution look like a tea party.
In addition to its cataclysmic effects on Algeria, Islamist rule would send shock-waves throughout the region and across the Mediterranean to Europe. If extremists gain power in Algeria, refugees will flood north, imperiling Europe's political equanimity. The recent spate of terrorist attacks in France foreshadows problems to come. A GIA communiqué in October 1995 claimed responsibility for most of the terrorist attacks in France and spoke of military blows "in the heart of France and in its . . . biggest cities."9 These attacks point to Islamists intending to export their ideology to the North African immigrants in France.
ALGERIAN GOVERNMENT POLICY
The West preaches to the Algerian government the need for political dialogue with the Islamists. It is a mistake to seek out "moderate" Islamists to work with, however, for there are no moderates in revolutionary Islamism. Islamists may differ on tactics but they all share the final goal of an Islamist state in which democracy will be extinguished and civil liberties curtailed; in which women would formally become second-class citizens; and which would militantly spread Islamist revolution. "Moderates" turn out to be those Islamists who may draw the line at blowing up a car bomb but otherwise subscribe to the same principles as the "extremists."
For example, the leading FIS representative in the United States, Anouar Haddam, is widely seen as a moderate, an impression confirmed by his apparently conciliatory tone in public appearances in the West. But his true colors come out when speaking to the Arab press, when the benign mask projected to the West comes off.10 Haddam in fact represents a group of GIA sympathizers within the FIS. He justified a murderous car bomb in downtown Algiers on the grounds that it was directed at police headquarters.11 After the assassination of Mahfoud Boussebci, an internationally known Algerian psychiatrist, he publicly declared that the professor had not been murdered but sentenced to death by the movement.12 He blamed the wave of bombings in France on "the Algerian military security forces,"13 showing how he is prepared to absolve the GIA even of its most repugnant acts of terror.
Radical Islamism has peaked in Algeria and is presently in decline, to the point that it is difficult to see how Islamists might come to power. The Algerian people in their large majority have been appalled by the widespread killings of civilians, as well as indiscriminate bombings. The brutality and sadism have eroded support, infighting has hurt their cause. At this point, Islamists can neither win elections nor seize power by force.
Islamist attempts to bring the whole country to a standstill have failed. Public life continues, without a sense of paralysis. Children go to school and their parents to work. While the civil strife has revealed the frustration, the despair, the scars at the heart of Algerian society, it has also revealed the extraordinary courage of Algerians in the face of adversity and their refusal to be broken down by intimidation and terror. Algerians reject those who would pen them up in narrow ideological enclosures and force them into a social mold totally alien to their history, to their culture, and to the traditional mainstream of tolerant, enlightened Islam.
Recent history teaches us that regimes collapse only when the middle classes join the revolution and when those at the top lose confidence in their ability to survive. Neither of these conditions exists in Algeria. The Algerian middle class, however flawed they may think their successive governments have been, are horrified by the prospect of an Islamist takeover, and are standing by the government, the military, and security forces.
The Algerian government is well aware that any realistic hope for ending the ongoing crisis in Algeria must address legitimate grievances by providing economic growth, true justice, free expression, and a more accountable political system. It realizes that democracy and pluralism are central to the process of political liberalization; and it sees in Islam a tradition in which to frame modernity, not reject it. Islam has always been a dimension of Algeria's national and cultural identity. We must work out a way to combine the best of the tradition of Islam with modern democratic ideals. In this light, the government has taken several positive steps recently towards resolving the crisis.
First, it is working to improve the economy, as the international financial institutions have noted. Official estimates of economic growth in 1994 show an increase of 0.1 percent rather than the forecast of 3 percent growth contained in the April 1994 IMF stand-by agreement. The 1993-94 drought and oil-price fluctuations continue to weigh heavily on the economy. The availability of International Monetary Fund loans under the Extended Fund Facility will return some order to the state sector, allowing vital production input to be imported and enabling public-sector output to grow. Meanwhile, private-sector operators continue to benefit from legislative reforms which make life easier for them.
Secondly, it abolished the special court system set up to deal with suspected militant Islamists. Thirdly, in the spring of 1995 it introduced an amnesty law that has had some success in encouraging young men to defect from the underground groups.
Lastly, the authorities know that to break the vicious circle of economic distress and Islamic extremism, they need to overhaul completely the educational system; provide young people with a national program of vocational training; develop agriculture and water resources in the semi-arid areas; and launch a housing program. They need to educate their citizenry and improve the living conditions, which in turn will restore their sense of dignity and raise their level of civic consciousness. For young Algerians, this means that hope does not have to fly indefinitely at half mast.
As an illustration of what my government calls la rupture (the break) with old practices, I offer myself as an example. I am an educator, not a career diplomat, and have been teaching for thirty years, having started as a junior lecturer at the University of Algiers in 1965. Between 1979 and 1987, I was seconded to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and posted to the Algerian Embassy in London as cultural attaché, a position that still kept me in close contact with the academic world (via the government-sponsored students studying in the United Kingdom). I arrived in Washington to serve as ambassador on January 30, 1995; just one month earlier, I had been in the classroom teaching students at the University of Algiers. In fact, I had just finished with Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and I was about to start D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers in my course on twentieth-century English literature.
The powers that be knew perfectly who I am, and you can be sure that they did not choose me as ambassador to the United States because of a lack of candidates for this position. Rather, I believe they picked me to signal to everyone that the Algerian government's commitment to break with past practices is not just a rhetorical exercise.
The escalation of the civil strife in 1994 and early 1995 has reinforced the assumption of many American policy makers that militant Islam in Algeria is a rising and unstoppable tide. Some academics would have us believe that the U.S. government should resign itself to the Islamic political movement and learn to do business with it. But this is too fatalistic. There is an alternative to Islamism: democracy achieved by gradual, practical political and economic reforms. Democracy would not only contain militant Islam but also help bring about more efficient and accountable governments not threatening the interests of the United States.
Americans can take several steps to help avoid Armageddon in Algeria. First, take very seriously the threat that Islamism represents. Read and listen to the Islamists and note the viciously anti-Western, anti-democratic thrust of the rhetoric; these threats should be taken at face value. In this light, Anouar Haddam's reaction to a comment by Secretary of State Warren Christopher is worth noting. Christopher noted that the Algerian government has the right to self-defense in the fight against terrorism,14 to which Haddam responded with a threat that the Algerians would not forget Washington's support to the Algerian government.15
Secondly, the West has not developed enough attention to supporting the Algerian fight against Islamist terrorism. Together, we must develop a coherent strategy to oppose this scourge wherever it manifests itself -- a matter of great importance, for no Muslim country is immune from radical Islamism. Even in apparently stable countries, the ingredients of civil turmoil exist latently underneath the quiet surface, potentially posing a direct threat to global peace and stability.
Thirdly, Western states need to make sure their are not hosting radical Islamists. These latter have found nesting sites in the West and take advantage of Western freedoms; they should not enjoy those privileges. While FIS denies international support, cells operating in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Belgium, and the United States have been active in publicizing the cause, fundraising, and sometimes acquiring weapons for the armed groups. Intelligence sources have also reported that FIS supporters are acquiring weapons in Europe
Fourthly, Western states should bring real pressure to bear on those countries helping the terrorists groups active in Algeria. Iranian influence continues to grow throughout North Africa, while the Sudan acts as a regional center of gravity for the movement.
Fifthly, Americans should morally and materially support those who have the hard job of fighting terror in Algeria, the individuals standing up and putting their lives on the line so that their children can live in a civilized country. More broadly, Americans firmly and unequivocally ought to stand by the existing state in Algeria, a state that does not threaten U.S. interests. The West, and America in particular, must provide clear support for countries whose policies are not threatening their own, while combating terrorist activity. We need help in offering our youth an alternative to the bleak road to terrorism. The present Algerian government presents a better chance to achieve this than any previous one; its plans for political and economic reforms need support and encouragement.
Lastly, Western states should not pressure the Algerian government to open a dialogue with "moderate" Islamist elements. Last year, President Liamine Zeroual was in fact inclined to talk. He made the conciliatory gesture of letting Ali Belhadj and Abassi Madani, the two FIS leaders, move from prison to house arrest. Instead of reciprocating, Belhadj started sending messages spurring on the armed groups; and the GIA then hijacked an Air France jet, setting off another campaign of violence. This episode proves that there is absolutely nothing to be gained by appeasing the Islamists. On the contrary, such a policy puts a lot at risk.
CONCLUSION: A CLASH OF VISIONS
Soon after I arrived in Washington, I called on a high-ranking official at the State Department, and in the course of our discussion, he expressed his deep concern at the spiral of violence in Algeria. To illustrate his point, and aware of my academic background, he quoted to me at the end of our meeting a few lines by W. B. Yeats, the great Irish poet.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre,
The Falcon cannot hear the Falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
I recognized the opening lines of "The Second Coming," in which Yeats reverses the metaphor of the second advent of Jesus, a symbol of hope and salvation, to denounce the rise of totalitarianism in Europe of the late 1920s. Instead of the redemptive Messiah being reborn to save humanity, Yeats sees a hideous beast raising its head in the desert of the Holy Land. I quoted back the poem's concluding lines:
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
The rough beast, I told my host, has now taken the form of totalitarian Islamism and is raising its head in Algeria today. We have to recognize it as such and join our efforts to stamp it out.
The same idea that was under attack by fascism is now under attack in Algeria. If we do not face up to our responsibilities and confront that threat today, all of us will have to pay the price of our neglect tomorrow and ever after. This is a moment of decision for all of us. To quote the famous lines of W. H. Auden in his poem "Spain 1937":
. . . . . and the time is short and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.
Those words rang true when Republicans battled the fascist troops of Franco in Spain. They ring true today as we confront a new form of totalitarianism.
In mid-March 1995, I presented my credentials to President Clinton. On entering the White House, I was asked to write a few words in the guest book. The educator in me popped up, so, with help from Shakespeare and Shelley, I wrote:
In this glorious afternoon, let us hope that the winter of our discontent will soon be gone and that spring will not be far behind for the mutual benefit of our two peoples.
All those who have Algeria at heart can share this prayer and hope with me.
1 Al-Hayat, May 3, 1995.
2 The number of Algerians who joined the Afghan resistance has been variously estimated at 1000-3000. See The New York Times, May 12, 1993.
3 Le Maghreb, Oct. 20, 1989.
4 Horizons (Algiers), Feb. 23, 1989.
5 Newsweek, July 19, 1993.
6 Called the Armed Islamic Movement (Mouvement Islamique Armé -- MIA) until in the spring of 1994, when it took its current name.
7 Al-Hayat, Jan. 4, 1995.
8 Al-Hayat, Mar. 21, 1995 published a GIA communiqué warning the country's other armed Islamic factions to unite under its banner or face liquidation. Ash-Sharq al-Awsat, May 12, 1995 carried the GIA's call to other underground armed groups to rally under its banner.
9 Al-Hayat, Oct. 8, 1995. #142
10 This is a common pattern that also applies, for example, to Rashid al-Ghanushi of Tunisia and Hasan at-Turabi of Sudan.
11 Financial Times, Feb. 2, 1995.
12 Le Figaro, June 24, 1993.
13 Le Figaro, Oct. 10, 1995. #142
14 At a State Department press conference, March 28, 1995.
15 Ash-Sharq al-Awsat, Mar. 31, 1995; and The Washington Post, Apr. 1, 1995.
Related Topics: North Africa, Radical Islam | December 1995 MEQ
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