Death and dissent as Algeria goes to polls

Death and dissent as Algeria goes to polls

After a decade of bloodshed, few bother voting and power remains in hands of a shadowy clique

Giles Tremlett in AlgiersThe Guardian – 31 may 2002

In the rubbish-strewn streets around the Sunna mosque in the run-down Bab el Oued district of Algiers, where Algeria’s fundamentalist movement was launched 13 years ago, the fires of Islamic dissent still burn.

Among clusters of unemployed men talking politics here and in the narrow, twisting streets of the casbah the talk was of a shadowy group of men known as le pouvoir (the power), or les décideurs (the deciders).

A closed club of former and serving generals, the décideurs have run Algeria during a decade in which 100,000 people have died in a bloody civil war with Islamists. As Algerians voted half-heartedly in a parliamentary election yesterday, few doubted that this sinister clique of men in uniform would remain in charge.

« Why should I vote? There is no point. Nothing changes, » said Yassine Zafir, who is unemployed, as he loitered at a tailor’s shop in the casbah’s Rue Benachere.

The decideurs club includes generals such as Larbi Belkheir, chief aide to President Abdulaziz Bouteflika; the army chief Mohamed Lamari, the counter-espionage boss, Smain Laribi, the former defence minister Khaled Nezzar and the feared intelligence service boss, General Toufik Mediene.

« The terrorists are the army, » said Mohammed, 22, as he sat in a cafe near the mosque where 28 preachers founded the first fundamentalist group in Algeria, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in 1989. « Up with the FIS. »

The FIS has been banned since 1992, when the army seized power after it appeared likely that the FIS would win the general election and introduce an Islamist government.

Its violent offshoots, the Armed Islamic Groups (GIA) and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, are on the run.

Antar Zouabri, the leader of the GIA, was shot dead in February. Where once corpses piled up at a rate of more than 1,000 a month, now there are between 50 and 100 a month.

That did not stop GIA members from marking the election with a massacre yesterday, killing 23 nomads camped near the village of Sendjas. According to police, in a typical act of savagery three men had been burned alive.

The police state created by the generals remains in place. Mr Bouteflika, a former foreign minister, is widely viewed as their puppet. « Bouteflika is all right, » said one elderly fundamentalist worshipper in Bab el Oued. « He would do some good if he was allowed to. » Just a few years ago the Bab el Oued area was so dangerous that it was, in effect, out of bounds to foreign journalists.

Armed plain-clothes police, radios hidden in rolled up newspapers, still dog foreign journalists wherever they go, but now they are there to watch the media, not those who might attack.

When a French TV crew went to the Kabylie region this week, a police car following them was stoned by angry Berbers.

Trouble flared there yesterday as militants confronted police and barricaded off several towns to support their demands for a boycott. Algeria’s minority of five million Berbers want a semi-autonomous government for their heartland in Kabylie.

Algeria’s army still has hard questions to answer about its own role in the orgy of violence that erupted after 1992.

« The army was also killing indiscriminately to smear the Islamist terrorists, » said Habib Souaidia, an exiled paratroop officer who claims to have witnessed massacres. He said he had been ordered « to exterminate anyone who supports the Islamists, not just terrorists ».

In a recent book about a massacre in the village of Bentalha, a survivor, Nesroulah Yous, raised doubts about the true identity of the « professionals » wearing « false beards » whom he saw kill 400 people. Their victims were mainly Islamic sympathisers.

The military have denied that they or the secret police were involved in killings.

With human rights groups saying more than 3,000 people are still unaccounted for, Algeria’s generals fear they might be pursued in foreign courts like General Pinochet of Chile. A torture case against Gen Nezzar in Paris was dismissed recently.

Officials claim that many of the missing are fighting for radical Islamic groups, but have refused to name names.

Dissenters warned that yesterday’s elections, expected to maintain the current coalition of nationalists and moderate Islamists, will change nothing in Algeria so long as the military remains in control.

« These elections are not go ing to change anything because justice is sick and without justice there will be fraud, » said Ali Benhadj, a jailed FIS leader, in a letter published in an Algerian newspaper.

At a polling station visited by the Guardian in the Kouba district of Algiers, only 23 of the 591 registered voters had bothered to cast their ballots by the half-way point.

One western diplomat said: « They are claiming these will be the most free elections ever. That, unfortunately, is not saying much. » Few believe they will do anything to loosen the grip of les décideurs .

1962 Algeria gains independence from France after a bloody liberation war
1965 Col Houari Boumediene grabs power in a coup as a single-party Socialist state is consolidated
1989 Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) founded
1990 FIS wins 55% in local elections in first free vote
1991 June FIS calls a general strike. Military declares a state of emergency
Nov First armed islamist attack in Guemmar, in the east
Dec FIS comes top, with 47% of vote, in first round of national elections.
1992 Jan-Feb Parliament dissolved by decree, state of emergency continued. Army grabs control
March FIS banned
1992 Armed Islamic Groups (GIA) formed
1994 Gen Liamine Zeroual becomes president
1995 Exclusion zones set up in south to protect Algeria’s vast and rich oil and gas fields
1997 Anti-Islamist militias legalised. Non-extreme Islamic political parties allowed to stand at elections. 700 killed in massacres at Bentalha, Sidi Hamed and Beni-Messous
1998 Zeroual stands down, Abdelaziz Bouteflika takes over
2001 80 killed in riots in Kabylie region supporting autonomy for Berbers. Oil-rich Algeria sinks to below number 100 on world wealth chart