The horrors of war aren’t over yet
The horrors of war aren’t over yet
From The Economist print edition, Jul 11th 2002
An independence-day bomb recalls Algeria’s unfinished civil war
EVEN by Algeria’s gruesome standards, the bomb that last week killed 38 people-shoppers at a busy weekend market in Larba, a small town near Algiers-was particularly distressing. The attack, blamed on Islamic militants, came on July 5th, as Algerians marked the 40th anniversary of their independence from France. Although their country has been tearing itself apart for a decade, pride in the struggle for freedom was one of the few things that Algerians could agree on.
The country’s strife has diminished in intensity, fading from the international headlines. But it is far from over. Some 800 people have already been killed this year. A few days before the explosion in Larba, 13 passengers on a bus were machinegunned in an Algiers suburb. Since then, 14 more people have been killed.
The violence has become so endemic that the world pays scant attention to yet another bunch of Algerians being killed. Western governments long ago stopped their exhortations, half-hearted at the best of times, to the Algerian authorities to resolve their country’s crisis by allowing democratic change. Eight years of deadly civil war had been set off by the army interrupting an election to prevent an Islamist party from winning. Now, although Algeria holds elections with all the trappings of a democracy, the country remains a thinly-veiled military dictatorship.
Even that thin veil may be drooping as signs appear of a renewal of the struggle for power, in this case between President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and one or other of the factions in the powerful intelligence and military establishment. An unnamed « authorised source » in the normally tight-lipped defence ministry recently told a local newspaper that in backing Mr Bouteflika’s accession to office in 1999, the army had picked the « least bad » of the presidential candidates. In particular, he criticised Mr Bouteflika for discouraging Algerian civilians from mobilising alongside the army to defeat terrorism.
The army chief of staff subsequently called the press together in order to make conciliatory noises. But an expected announcement of changes in the military hierarchy failed to materialise on independence day. The swipes at Mr Bouteflika, it is thought, may have been occasioned by a dispute over who should be promoted into, and who should be retired out of, the charmed circle of military power brokers.
As the generals bicker, Algeria sinks deeper into crisis. The Berber-speaking region of Kabylia has been in a state of civil disobedience for over a year, with the Kabyles calling for an end to the government’s repressive practices. The disturbances are not confined to Kabylia. Throughout the country, people are rioting, armed with a long list of grievances that range from corruption to unemployment to water shortages.
The Algerian army, meanwhile, has been trying to salvage its reputation at a court in Paris. Khaled Nezzar, the regime’s strongman when the 1991-92 election was cancelled, is suing a young dissident officer, Habib Souaidia, for defamation. Speaking on French television, Mr Souaidia claimed that « the generals killed thousands of people. » His book, « La Sale Guerre » (The dirty war), published in France, alleges that soldiers dressed as rebels massacred civilians (in a bid to turn hearts and minds against the Islamist rebels) and that the security forces tortured many Islamist prisoners to death.
The trial has turned into a debate over the army’s decision to abort the election. General Nezzar’s witnesses argued that the army had saved the country from falling into the hands of a barbarian horde. But a dissident intelligence officer, Muhammad Samraoui, was one of the witnesses who gave the game away by telling the court: « We established a list of the most dangerous people and demanded their arrest. But in vain: they were needed [to be free] to create terrorist groups. Instead we arrested others right, left and centre. We were trying to radicalise the movement. »
A verdict is expected on September 27th. But the French prosecutor has already requested that, in the interests of free expression, no penalty should be handed down to Mr Souaidia. « It is not », she said, « the court’s business to write history. »
The generals are unlikely to be perturbed. In the post-September 11th world, they have made new friends. Mr Bouteflika has received a warm message of congratulation on his country’s independence anniversary from George Bush, in which Mr Bush describes Algeria as America’s ally in the war against terrorism