The Ghost of Algeria Past, the Ghost of Algeria Future?
Past events echo in Algeria. Time after time situations appear with bear uncanny resemblances to bygone situations and watersheds. The current crisis between a military-backed government and Islamist guerilla groups has produced more than its fair share of repetitions. The recent announcement of legislative elections for June 5 this year along with the President's party being formed, worsening drought conditions and the ongoing civil war create ominous signposts for the future in this war-torn North African state.
Parallels are often drawn by observers between the War of Independence the Algerian FLN fought against France (1954-1962) and the battle between the army and Islamists which has left between eighty and one hundred twenty thousand dead since the cancellation of free elections in 1992. Particularly the antagonism between the main Islamist political party in the parliamentary elections of December 1991-January 1992 - the Islamic Slavation Front (FIS) - and the ruling FLN closely resembled in manner and content the demands and threats of the French colonial powers and the revolutionary FLN. Following the military suspension of the elections and banning of the FIS, armed groups emerged which have combatted the military much in the form of the ALN of the 1950s.
To an extent some of these similarities were used by the FIS to highlight the degeneration and hypocrisy of the single-party state of the FLN. The FIS (pronounced like fils, French for son) repeated revolutionary slogans with an Islamist bent to promote the idea that it was the heir apparent to the FLN. The army weakened and divided the FIS prior to the 1991 elections, but could not prevent the party from securing almost a total majority of the National Popular Assembly in just the first round. The President was forced to resign and the FLN removed from government. The subsequent five years have been written in blood.
Afghan veterans, members of underground Islamist cells from the early 1980s, along with many disillusioned young members of the FIS and hundreds of army deserters formed a variety of military groups and cells around the capital Algiers, to its south on the Mitidja plateau and to the east and west of the country. Through alliances, mergers, fractures and in-fighting the cells have currently settled into the following structure. To the east and west of the country in largely rural areas, the Army of Islamic Salvation (AIS) fights the military whilst proclaiming its continuing allegiance to the FIS. To the south of the Mitidja plain the majlis eshura of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), led by Miloud Hebbi, does much the same as the AIS whilst claiming to represent all Islamist groups beneath its council. Around the suburbs of Algiers and to its immediate south the hard-line faction of the GIA led by Antar Zouabri (which split from Hebbi's GIA mid-96) carries out a blood campaign of terrorist bombings, mass killings and assassination of rivals and their families (be they military, volunteer pro-army vigilantes or other Islamists) whilst a smaller splinter group of the GIA - the Islamic Movement for Preaching and Jihad - targets political leaders and intellectuals.
Despite continuing army campaigns and announcements the Islamists are dwindling in numbers, the guerillas (especially Zouabri's GIA) return over and over to unlease new and bloodier attacks. Their actions have included the Metro bombings in Paris, the hijacking of an AirFrance Airbus during Christmas 1994, the murder of seven monks and the Archbishop of Oran. During Ramadan this year well over 200 people died in central Algiers, one of the most secured areas of the country, as GIA car bombs targetted celebrators after dusk. Young people in Algiers formed their own vigilante groups to prevent strangers parking in their neighbourhoods and questioning those acting suspiciously. This communal response and the arming of many villagers on the Mitidja plateau underline the loss of security control and expansion of armed resistance in Algeria.
Currently a retired general is Algeria's President. Liamine Zeroual was elected, in largely unsupervised elections, in November 1995. Only two moderate Islamists and a Berber leader stood as candidates against him. One year later a referendum was passed introducing guarantees for the military of legislative and judicial oversight of any elected government and paving the way for all Islamist and Berber parties to be banned by January 1998. Zeroual's plan for a return to stable government and international recognition as a democrat continues with legislative elections scheduled for June 5 and municipal elections pencilled in for the end of the year (probably November).
For Zeroual to contest legislative and municipal elections an organised political party structure was going to be necessary. For some time, observers have contended he would create a new party or use the rehabilitated FLN. On February 21 1997 the formation of the National Democratic Rally (RND) was announced by a close ally of Zeroual. The top union official in Algeria, Abdelhaq Benhamouda, was working on this task when he was gunned down in late January. This, combined with overt posturing by several generals last year and mysterious death of Zeroual's proposed chief of staff, fuel suggestions that the military is divided into two cliques each struggling for control over the other.
This sort of factional in-fighting is exactly the reason a weakened FIS was able to win the 1991 elections. The FLN was divided between a military faction led by General Khaled Nezzar and a bureaucratic faction championed by President Chadli Benjedid. Chadli's support for the FIS and the electoral process was seen by the army faction as a ploy to create an alliance between the popular FIS and internationally connected technocratic elite, thus alienating the military from power. Consequently the FLN spent more time campaigning against their own candidates in December 1991 than they did targetting the opposition groups. If the anti-Zeroual faction of the army - led by Intelligence Chief Gen Mediene - perceives Zeroual's RND as a move to create a legitimate power base without the eradicators of the military, a repeat of the events around the beginning of 1992 is not unimaginable.
And when it is considered that the move by Chadli in 1989 to introduce multi-party politics and distance himself from the army followed a bloody military repression of students and workers protesting the government's allocation of water rations during a drought (amongst many other issues which still trouble the country) the current water shortage in Algeria seems to bring the events of the past eight years full circle. Whether this is the chance for a new future or merely the prelude to an even bloodier chapter of Algeria's history can not yet be gauged.