Well I for one am relieved that January is over. Not because I have been perturbed by the British demanding the return of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, nor because I am constantly nauseated by bombardment of the latest Monica Lewinsky and Kenneth Starr news flash and am hoping for relief. (There have been 112 articles about the SCANDAL in the Washington Post in the last thirty days). No, the real reason that I welcome the cold month of February is because it marks the end of Ramadan and hopefully the conclusion of this year’s sprees of stabbing, hacking, axing, shooting, bombings, burning, torture and decapitations that have plagued Algeria for the past six years, with a traditional escalation of violence in the holy month of bombings.
The internal violence allegedly orchestrated by the hard-line Armed Islamic Group is responsible for butchering more than an estimated 80,000 civilians, mostly civilian men, women, and children under the cover of night. The killings began in 1991 after the current government annulled elections in which the Islamic Salvation Front swept to a first-round victory.
Algeria’s history has been volatile. After a bloody eight-year war of independence with France, 30 years of corrupt one-party socialist rule, and severe economic and social problems in the 80’s, Algerians turned to their Islamic roots seeking a sweeping change in the apparatus of the state.
The previous repression of the Islamic movement ignited a wave of extremist violence, which served only to weaken its popular support and alienate many Algerians.
The Killings. Why?
Though the numbers of dead are difficult to calculate accurately, one facet of the killings is becoming more and more finite: the arbitrary fashion with which these brutal massacres are being conducted. Ramadan is the holiest month of the year for Muslims, who fast from sunup to sundown for the entirety of the month. “Every Ramadan is like this,” said an Algerian academic to the Washington Post, “For them, [ the “terrorists”] Ramadan is the month of Jihad, because in the history of Islam, all the conquests happened in Ramadan.
Under the logic of Jihad, or Holy War, the elimination of the impure by those executing the attacks secures the killer’s salvation. In the beginning of this Jihad against the “impure,” most attacks were manifested in the form of car bombs. The bombs, designed to destroy the growing faction of western secular culture, targeted journalists, diplomats, singers or writers and thus required substantial planning. During the past Ramadan, however, civilians of all kinds seemed to fulfill the requirements of the Jihad: men, women, children, the elderly and generally those who had no political affiliation. Additionally, the brutality with which the killings are conducted is more ferocious than in previous years, and the more brutal they become, the less morally or militarily logical they appear.
The Government’s Role
There is a growing suspicion among some Western diplomats that the killings may not be exclusively the craft of the Islamic fundamentalists.
The national insecurity that results from the bloodshed has halted any possible democratic rebirth. And it is being rumored that the government, the same government that quashed the previous elections in 1991, is still pursuing this goal of solidifying its legitimacy by military rule, for military rule.
The proximity of the killings to army bases, the ability of the assailants to roam the countryside, and the slow reaction of the army has raised some eye brows. Amnesty International has reported two instances last year in which villagers fleeing a massacre were turned back towards their villages by the army.
Effects on the West
Though many states that have borders near Algeria denounce the killings and call for humanitarian action, nothing essentially can be done.
Algeria is still a sovereign state whose borders -under international law- must be respected regardless of the fact that states like Morocco, Tunisia, and France fear a spill-over of Islamic fundamentalism. However, the West and specifically the United States and France have concerns other than humanitarian.
There are vast and lucrative oil and gas fields in southern Algeria that are important to both U.S. and French interests.
Consequently the French government in an effort to promote more anti-terrorist activity in Algeria, said, “France recalls the legitimate right of the Algerian population to be protected….the duty of the every government is to permit its citizens to live in peace and security!”
The government of the President of Algeria Liamine Zeroual, issued a response to Western states’ concern; “Algeria, the sovereign state, renews its categorical rejection of any attempt to interfere in its internal affairs.” The outrage was predictable in that Algiers did not appreciate being bullied by its former colonial power or the West.
As late as Feb. 12, a European Parliament group was frustrated in an attempt to mediate or begin any substantial inquiries into the violence. They left quoting the Algerian mantra; “Algeria needs no judges.”
And furthermore, any substantive fact-finding mission would be viewed as an illegitimate interference in domestic affairs. Though the government has rejected any substantial international inquiry, it has been effective in confining the violence to certain regions, namely in the Relizane region south of Algiers.
What needs to be done?
It seems that every measure to establish talks and conciliation between the fundamentalists and the government within Algeria is disrupted by some incident of violence, causing the regression of any lightening of bloodshed. If the militants do not destroy talks, it appears that the military backed government does. In a meeting in Rome in January 1995 the Islamic Salvation Front and other groups called for “non-intervention of the army in political affairs” and the “rejection of violence as a means to acceding to or maintaining power.”
But this declaration was denounced by the government because it insisted that the Islamic Salvation Front is a banned group and cannot be negotiated with.
In late September of 1997, the Islamic Front issued a public statement instructing its followers-mostly those belonging to the Armed Islamic Group- to stop the bloodshed for the first time since the six year insurgency began. The statement was released in response to the July 15 discharge of Abassi Madani, an Islamic Salvation Front leader, an act that previously would have seemed inconceivable in light of the stalling negotiations. This small progress, however, was for naught, as terrorist activities resumed after the Oct. 23 semi-democratic elections reinforced the Zeroual Government’s power.
Since neither Western nor Middle Eastern states nor international organizations have any power to significantly alter the bloody plight of Algerian citizens, Algeria must do something itself.
If it is indeed only the Armed Islamic Group that is terrorizing the countryside then they must standby their 1995 declaration rejecting violence as a “means to acceding or to maintaining power.” Further violence serves only to weaken their already fledgling power base in the country and dissolves any sympathy from the rest of the world.
Through such gruesome and random violence they prove themselves only to be heartless killers incapable of leading a state. They must stick to dialogue, not bombs or throat slashing. However, if it is the government that is responsible for the bloodshed then surely at some point, it must realize that creating chaos in ones state in order to destabilize democracy will eventually leave Algeria a bombed out and weary shell.
If violence and destruction continue,
there might not be a place for these factions to fight over.
In a Nov. 27 piece, Middle East comentator Osama El-Sherif noted that “Militant Islam is a relative newcomer and it appears only when political Islam has been purged and stamped out.” Algeria should follow Jordan’s 1989 lead in allowing its Islamic groups- which were democratically elected- to run their course.
The Islamic hard-liners in Jordan eventually lost favor with the populace because of their apparent ineffectiveness and now pose no threat to the state. The Algerian government must not concede the entire state: it must simply share power. If President Zeroual’s movement could permit such a thing, resource rich Algeria could be a untroubled and prosperous place to live and we then could then put away -but not forget-the memories of those painful six years.