Abdelkadar Hachani: Islamic leader with a vision of national reconciliation in Algeria

Abdelkadar Hachani

Islamic leader with a vision of national reconciliation in Algeria

Douglas Johnson, The Guardian, November 26, 1999

The Algerian Islamic leader Abdelkader Hachani lived in a modest dwelling in the heights of Algiers, near to the Christian basilica Notre Dame d’Afrique. Dressed in a long white robe, he would walk to the mosque for regular prayers, apparently without personal guards or military supervision.

On the day of his death, he walked to his dentist. There were few people in the waiting room where he sat. Suddenly, a man entered, clearly knowing that Hachani was there, and fired two or three shots, directly hitting his target in the nape of the neck. Some sources claim there were two gunmen. The killer – or killers – then left and quickly disappeared, no one attempting to follow. Hachani was rushed to the Maillot hospital, but urgent surgery failed to save him. He was 44, married with two children. He was apparently the sort of man Algeria needed.

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Hachani was born at the height of the Algerian war of independence. His father fought with distinction against the French and later became secretary-general of the former combatants’ association. Hachani received the best of educations, mainly at the University of Constantine, and he learned French, speaking it as well as he spoke Arabic. Most importantly, he studied engineering – with great success – and was soon working in the Algerian national petrol company, Sonatrach. He was the leader of the technocrats, and it was said by European observers that men like him would transform Algeria.

But perhaps he found this life too easy; perhaps his conscience was troubled. While never rejecting the need for Algeria to progress economically, he turned to Islam. He became a militant and was increasingly prominent during the 1980s.

In 1989, Hachani was among the 35 founders of the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), who thought it was through Islam that Algeria would find salvation. They fought the elections of Dec- ember 1991 and won a clear victory. But the government and the army had already shown they would not allow the FIS the freedom of a democratic party; in the preceding June they had arrested two key FIS leaders, Abassi Madani and Ali Benhadj. So it fell to Hachani to lead his party to victory – and the elections were promptly annulled.

On January 23 1992, Hachani himself was arrested on the pretext that he had called on soldiers to desert, an allegation that was certainly untrue. Simultaneously, the government encouraged his enemies, particularly those violent Islamists who disagreed with Hachani’s faith in the democratic process. There were also technicians who thought only in terms of economic gains, and found his attachment to Islam irrelevant or a hindrance.

Hachadi’s imprisonment was therefore harmful to the general state of Algeria. As the civil war grew in intensity – officially there were 100,000 deaths between 1989 and 1999, and even this is considered to be a serious underestimate – attempts were made to negotiate with Hachani. But he insisted that any agreement must include all imprisoned Islamists, as well as those who were still fighting.

He was in Serkadji prison for more than five years, without ever being put on trial. In February 1995 more than 100 prisoners in the jail were murdered by the forces of order, the majority being Islamists. Hachani endeavoured unsuccessfully to intervene and stop the massacre.

He never forgot what happened in Serkadji. In July 1997, he was released from prison and ordered not to take a job. From time to time he was re-arrested for short periods, and was supposedly put under police supervision. His policy was to revive the FIS. Although it had been dissolved and declared illegal, Hachani believed that it remained an important force, one that was deeply implanted in the consciousness of Algerian society.

The election of President Abdelaziz Bouteflica last spring, and his introduction of a law offering rebels six months to hand in their arms – with the assurance that they would not be punished for past actions – aroused many hopes of peace, especially in the international context. But Hachani did not accept this measure.

He continued to act as the leader who would bring together the different Islamic political groups. He rejected the claim that Bouteflica’s overtures had divided the Islamic movement, claiming that the only way forward was to institute a political dialogue with the aim of establishing a system of govern- ment that could bring about national reconciliation. He believed that leading Algerian personalities should set up a committee of peace, and thus became the focus of opposition to the president.

Bearded and dressed in traditional Moslem costume, Hachani looked the complete Islamic leader. But when he discussed Algerian affairs with European journalists, he was calm, careful, tolerant, the essence of a reasonable man, arguing against an unreasonable government.

In a country like Algeria, which has known many dramatic assassinations, the killing of Abdelkader Hachani is particularly tragic.

• Abdelkader Hachani, Islamic leader, born 1956; died November 22 1999