en Algeria reaps rewards of anti-terrorist war
By Roula Khalaf, Financial Times, January 14 2002
Algeria used to approach western governments with caution when seeking military equipment, knowing that its interlocutors would raise concerns about the military-backed regime’s human rights record.
The attacks on the US in September, however, have emboldened Algerian officials. « They ask for weapons every time they hold meetings with anyone, » said a western diplomat with experience in the country. « After September 11, they’re on the good guys’ list. »
More willingness to sell arms to Algeria is just one of the benefits expected to accrue to the North African country as its rehabilitation accelerates.
The regime’s claim that the civil strife that has racked the country since 1992, costing more than 100,000 lives, has been purely a « terrorist » assault by Islamist extremists is now more readily accepted, said diplomats.
Its warnings that an « international » network of terrorists was fuelling the crisis also seems more credible since the US included two Algerian radical Islamist groups on its list of organisations tied to Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the attacks on the US. European governments have finally heeded Algerian calls for a crackdown on Islamist opponents living abroad.
Algeria’s offer of co-operation with the US, meanwhile, won President Abdelaziz Bouteflika a visit to the White House in November, his second in a year. « Algeria is aware of the necessity and the importance [of the US attacks] because it has been fighting in the past alone for a tragic decade, with the indifference of many and the ingratitude of others, » Mr Bouteflika declared after meeting the US president.
But as Algerians this month mark the 10th anniversary of the eruption of the crisis, the government’s critics warn that bolstering the regime now misses crucial lessons about the origins of Algerian violence and the radicalisation of political Islam. « The west has not understood that internal terrorism in our case is caused by dictatorship at the top, » said Ali Yahya Abdennour, head of Algeria’s Human Rights League.
The turmoil was sparked by the army’s 1992 cancellation the second round of parliamentary elections to thwart a victory by the Islamic Salvation Front (Fis). The party, a nebulous grouping of radical and moderate Islamists, had caught the imagination of Algerians by its virulent opposition to a regime seen as inept and corrupt.
Stripped of an election victory and on the run from the wave of repression that followed the cancellation of the poll, parts of the Fis took up arms. While the party’s military wing targeted security forces, splinter groups became more radicalised, turning their fury on the population.
Fierce repression aggravated the crisis. Counter- terrorist units also were suspected of manipulating armed groups to discredit the Fis. That the army often appeared to stand by while civilians were massacred led human rights groups to call for investigations – a move the regime has always rejected.
Algeria’s army was successful in destroying the Fis as a political party. Attacks by two extremist Islamist groups – known by their acronyms GSPC and the GIA – continue. But the level of violence has been substantially reduced from more than 1,000 monthly deaths in the mid-1990s to an estimated average of 200 a month last year.
Although the two groups appear to have provided some recruits to Mr bin Laden’s organisation, their battle has little connection with the objectives of the international terrorist. They have never expressed enmity towards the US. The GIA was, however, accused of a wave of attacks in 1995 in France, the former colonial power and the main backer of the Algerian regime.
Yet the roots of the crisis and the reasons for the Fis’ emergence as a political force and its subsequent radicalisation have yet to disappear. Critics cite the overwhelming powers of an opaque military establishment, the lack of respect for the rule of law, and the inability to fulfil promises of social change in a still state-dominated economy.
Unemployment is estimated at about 30 per cent.
According to the World Bank, per capita income of about $1,600 in recent years is half its peak in 1986 while poverty levels have doubled in the last decade.
The frustrations of the population were evident last April as Berbers in the eastern region of Kabylia launched an uprising to protest against what Algerians call the hogra, the contempt shown by the authorities. After the killing of a young Algerian in police custody, protesters turned violent, attacking public property. A crackdown exacerbated tensions, spreading the unrest to other parts of the country. The region remains restive.
The radicalisation of the Kabyle youth, most of whom hold anti-Islamist views, was seen as evidence that Algeria’s troubles were far from over, despite the blow dealt to the Fis.
« The regime is now trying to capitalise on the international situation and to be recognised as a partner in the anti-terror campaign when it should be addressing the issues that trouble ordinary Algerians, » said Ikhlef Bouaichi, spokesman for the Socialist Forces Front, a Berber-based opposition party. « Exclusion and misery are what create violence and terror. »