TOPICS > Politics

Bloodshed in the Desert

January 22, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
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CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: This car bombing in downtown Algiers on Sunday was the most dramatic evidence of renewed violence in this nation of 28 million people, mostly Arab and native Berber tribesmen. The car bomb killed at least 42 people and injured 100 others.

More bombings and killings yesterday and today raised the death toll in the last two weeks to 150. Violence in Algiers has been on the increase since 1992. That year Algeria held its first free election since it gained independence from France 30 years before in a long and brutal struggle. The Fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front, or FIS, won a stunning victory in the first round of the vote.

But the army-backed government canceled the second round and installed its own president. In response, the Islamic militants mounted a terrorist campaign, massacres, decapitations, slaughter in the villages, and bombings in the city. Government-sponsored militias have used their own tough methods, including air raids and torture in their efforts to crush guerrilla groups.

Journalists, foreign workers, priests, and nuns have been murdered by Islamists in the bloody conflict. An estimated 60,000 people have died since 1992. Until recently, the government appeared to be gaining the upper hand. In November, Algerian voters endorsed constitutional changes proposed by the government to outlaw political parties based on religion, language, or ethnicity. The Islamists boycotted the vote and violence intensified.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: For more on the story now we have two Algeria watchers. Boutheina Cheriet is a professor of education at the University of Algiers. She’s currently a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. Andrew Pierre is a professor European politics at the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. He’s the author of the recent book, The Algerian Crisis: Policy Options for the West. And starting with you, Ms. Cheriet, what’s behind the recent violence in Algeria?

BOUTHEINA CHERIET, Brookings Institution: What is behind the very recent violence in Algeria, and I’m talking about the last few weeks, is actually sheer provocation on the part of the authorities by issuing the amendments that they issued on the Constitution.

This is a Constitution that was developed in 1989 in order to bring in the multiparty system in Algeria after a long period of about 30 years of mono party system based on, you know, the party that had led the country to win the war of liberation over the presence of France. And the amendments were supposed to introduce some new clauses about the fact that, you know, the opposition, or you know, political formations could not be established on the basis of religion, ethnicity, and language.

So we were going, in fact, square one before the 1890 Constitution establishing the multiparty system for the simple reason that, in fact, Algerian public opinion is made mainly of, you know, people who are sympathetic to the Islamist stance, people who have been for a very long time behind also the Berberis stripe, and maybe we will be able to explain later on what is the Berberis stance, and, and a language that is, you know, in fact, the problem is not only the Berber language and the Arabic language, the Arabic language being the official language and the national language of Algeria. It is also various Berber languages that exist in the country, and I talk about provocation for the simple fact that this is not encouraging at all the opening up of the political system.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But when you mean, when you say sheer provocation, you mean the government did this deliberately to provoke violence, or the result of the government’s action provoked violence?

BOUTHEINA CHERIET: I cannot confirm the fact that it was done in order to provoke the violence, you know, on purpose, but all we can say is that given the data that they had about the situation in Algeria, and the political claims that exist in Algeria. The fact of going back, as I said, to square one that is trying to monopolize all discourses, all political discourses in the country, is absolutely of no use, especially if you are facing Islamist groups such as the ones we are facing in Algeria.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Pierre, do you have anything to add to that?

ANDREW PIERRE, Johns Hopkins University: The violence has been going on for four years and in some ways the violence now could be an act of desperation on the part of the armed Islamic group which is the terrorist group in Algeria, because in some ways they’re losing out.

The government has succeeded in having a presidential election in which President Zeral was elected. It had a referendum, some people call it a sham referendum, and that may be correct. And it’s moving towards a municipal, and then parliamentary election. So the government is making the claim that it is moving towards the democratization of the country. I have some doubts about that myself.

But with that claim getting some international support, it is not surprising that the armed Islamic group or the radical elements are creating this violence in order to show the government is not in control of the country; that the path which it wants to go is not going to work; and to generally intimidate the scare that the Algerian population unsettle the situation not only in Algeria, I might add, but also in France.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Now, you say the armed Islamic group. Now, explain the armed Islamic group and how it fits into the group of opposition Islamic groups that exist in the country.

ANDREW PIERRE: Well, as I say, none of this group has had a change of leadership. It is certainly the terrorist elements. There’s a dispute as to whether it is directly linked to the FIS, which is the Fundamental Islamic De Salvation, which is the main but not the sole Islamic group. I do not think it represents a large proportion of the opposition to the government, but it is the group which is willing to undertake very violent, extremely violent acts.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Ms. Cheriet, can you help us understand further these different groups?

BOUTHEINA CHERIET: Yes. Well, in fact, the groups that we are talking about quite a lot are the most radical ones within the Islamic movement, and they have existed, I should say, since the early 80′s. We had, you know, a first group going to the bushes, so to speak, and you know, claiming that regime in power was illegitimate and that we needed to establish an Islamic republic in Algeria.

And there were, you know, there was fighting actually in some of the mountains of Northern of Algeria between the army and this particular group led by, you know, a militant Islamist called Bouyali who had become, in fact, if you want, the hero of the groups that we know today.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But their aim was to–excuse me, their aim was to establish an Islamic state, Algiers as an Islamic–Algeria as an Islamic state.

BOUTHEINA CHERIET: Yes, absolutely.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: On the order of Iran or–

BOUTHEINA CHERIET: No, not at all. I think we have to take into account the Algerian situation, per se. I think that what has led to the very unexpected and paradoxical fact that there is one of the most radical Islamist movements in the Arabic world today have appeared in the context of Algeria is the fact that we had for a very long time a monopoly on the part of the state over, you know, society and over the claims of society. At no point in time the claims of society, be they on the linguistic grounds, as I said before, or religious grounds have been taken into account by the state.

We’re talking about a society that has been colonized for a very long time also by a totalitarian state, as France used to be in Algeria. And people have been used after independence, you know, under the promise of a socialist society, you know, that Algeria has been socialist for about 30 years of its independent history since 1962 had been used to a discourse of egalitarianism. But at the same time, this was attached totally, you know, put aside the other claims that existed in Algerian society for a very long time.

I can say that, for example, what you would call here the ethic problem, which is the Berber problem in Algeria, that is, the population of Algeria is, in fact, originally Berber. It has been Arabized by the Arab conquest under the coming of the Muslims in the 7th century, but this is basically a Berber population, but there are pockets where people are still speaking the Berber language, and the Berber question was also posed during the war of liberation.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Okay. So fundamental you’re saying that people are protesting some in a most violent way against their lack of–their inability to have any representation in government.

BOUTHEINA CHERIET: Absolutely.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Most of its targets have been women, journalists, and foreigners. Mr. Pierre, do you have any sense of why that is?

ANDREW PIERRE: Well, foreigners to get them out; journalists so they don’t report the bad news; women, the women who don’t wear the veil, who don’t follow Islamic principles, let’s say.

But there’s a lot of recklessness and uncertainty as to why it is that certain groups are targeted. I’d like to add, if I may, that the conflict in Algeria today is between two extreme movements, and the center unfortunately is not represented at all. The armed Islamic groups, only a small portion of those who might vote against the current government–the current government is led by military junta, which is very isolated, which they are the sons, in some cases, the real people, the generals who won the war against the French. They haven’t traveled much. They have a failed socialist state.

Some of them got their military training in Russia. And the tragedy–it is a tragic situation in Algeria. The tragedy is that it is the two extremes which are setting the boundaries of this conflict, whereas, in the center the majority of the Algerian people are not represented and are scared to death.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What impact–you say scared to death–what other impact has all this violence, the violence on the part of the military, the extremists, as well as the armed Islamic groups, had on the population? I mean, is there any support for this at all among the population?

BOUTHEINA CHERIET: Not at all. Not at all. I mean, the population has really demonstrated since, in fact, the presidential elections of ’95 and the referendum recently in ’96, the population has been showing a strong will, you know, and a strong wish towards a political settlement of this polarized conflict, as Andrew was saying, between the technocratic military junta and the radical Islamist groups who, by the way, have most, most of them have been trained in Afghanistan, so there is a little bit of history to mention here.

But the population has been showing that they wanted a political settlement. Now, this message has not been understood in these terms by the regime. It has been understood in terms that we are giving you a mandate to do whatever you like. And in fact people are really wishing for a political settlement, and I believe it is not in the horizon.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Pierre, do you agree that the political settlement is not in the horizon?

ANDREW PIERRE: I would say that at the present time you have a deadlock, you have an impasse of two sorts. First of all, there’s a civil war going on every day and, in effect, neither side is going to be able to win, neither the military are going to be able to eradicate, as they say, Islamic groups and neither will the terrorist groups be able to take over the country.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So will outside powers be able to have any influence, like the United States or France?

ANDREW PIERRE: I think that’s the absolutely key question because, in my judgment, the Algerians have dug themselves into a hole which they cannot get out by themselves.

And it is up to the international community, principally the Europeans, because they’re the ones who are most directly involved, but with the support of the United States to create a frame work for dialogue between the various Algerian parties.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Briefly, do you think that would work? I mean, what are the prospects for that?

BOUTHEINA CHERIET: Yeah. I think there has to be pressure over the regime in order that it really opens up sincerely. And I think I should also mention the difficulties that this regime is in in terms both of political de-legitimation of it and the economic difficulties that it is, you know, it has on its hands. I think that there is an incapacity for it to solve the problems, and I think that there is–there are other examples worldwide that, you know, could give us a good sort of positive lesson, South Africa amongst others.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Thank you both for joining us.