The Algerian Crisis: Not Over Yet
Africa Report N°24
20 Oct 2000
Since December 1991, Algeria has been seized by a wave of violence, which achieved, between 1992 and 1998, the status of virtual civil war. That war was fought between, on the one hand, a military-backed regime and, on the other, a complex, clandestine opposition derived from the country’s banned umbrella Islamist movement, the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS – Jabha Islamiyya li’l-Inqadh). It was triggered by an army-backed coup that blocked the electoral victory of the FIS in the 1991 legislative elections. Official figures put the number of people killed during this period at some 100,000 – or 1,200 deaths a month.
In April 1999, a page was turned in Algeria’s lengthy political crisis with the election as President of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the military’s preferred candidate and the country’s veteran Foreign Minister under President Boumediènne in the 1970s. Following Bouteflika’s election, hopes rose and violence receded, as the new President introduced a limited amnesty for the perpetrators of violence – the Law on Civil Concord – and promised further fundamental reforms designed to bring the crisis of violence in the country to an end.
Today, however, those hopes have been largely dashed. Violence is, once again, on the rise. The amnesty decreed last year has been only partially successful; the Civil Concord Law was denounced by the Islamists as a police measure rather than a reconciliation policy. Eighteen months after Bouteflika’s election, there is a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the President’s performance among members of the Algerian elite and the Algerian military.
In short, the country’s crisis is far from over and the fundamental issues that caused it have not yet been properly addressed. In particular, no attention has been paid by the authorities in Algiers to addressing the key issues around which violence erupted in 1992-93: the need to fundamentally restructure and relegitimise the Algerian state, accept the failure of the strategy of eradication of the Islamists and open up the political process. For the Islamists, there must be legitimate means for them to express themselves within the formal political arena. For the legal political parties, there must be an opportunity to participate meaningfully in political life, and to make the government and institutions of the state accountable to elected politicians – something that would mark a significant new departure in Algerian politics.
Against this background, the role of the Algerian armed forces in Algeria’s political life is critical. The army, which continues to see itself as the guarantor of Algeria’s stability, retains an intimate involvement in the country’s political affairs. And while tackling the army’s role in politics and subjecting the army to civilian control must be a vital goal for any reform program, winning the army’s support for change will be an enormous challenge. Much will depend upon the way in which political change is managed in the coming years and the ability of Algeria’s political leadership to persuade the military that its core interests will not be adversely affected by change.
Resolving Algeria’s crisis effectively will also require new thinking and a new approach on the part of the international community and, in particular, the European states and the European Union, which have an especially important stake in the outcome of the crisis. Until now, European attitudes towards Algeria have tended to put a premium on maintaining the stability of the regime and containing violence, without paying sufficient attention to the root causes of the conflict. A strong Algerian military has been seen as the best means of keeping a lid on unrest, avoiding massive outward migration and the possible spill-over of terrorist violence into Europe itself, and preserving Europe’s supply of crude oil and natural gas. For their part, European states have largely accepted that they have no role to play in determining Algeria’s future political complexion. This approach has been only partially successful. With a few exceptions, violence has not come ashore in Europe, but has been contained within Algeria; there has been no massive influx of Algerian refugees; and oil and gas has continued to flow. However, as this report demonstrates, the situation remains highly precarious, the country remains in crisis and violence is escalating again.
To the Algerian President and Government:
1) Establish a transitional government composed of the political parties that contested the 1991 elections.
2) Give legitimate political expression to Islamist political aspirations and sentiments. This would not necessarily require the Government to relegalise the FIS, but could involve, for example, recognising WAFA, Talib Ibrahimi’s party, the acknowledged successor to the FIS.
3) Engage in a public and transparent dialogue with all Islamist groups, under the leadership of WAFA, with the help of a neutral third party. There is little doubt that any initiative of this kind will have to take account of the Sant’Egidio Accords.
4) Dissolve the National People’s Assembly, regional and municipal authorities, and set a time frame for new communal, legislative and presidential elections.
5) Establish a constitutional review process, designed to produce proposals for restructuring the political system to provide for genuine transparency, greater accountability and free political participation of all parties. As part of this process, the role of the Algerian army within the political system and as an integral component of the political structure must be redefined.
6) Establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, along the lines of previous examples in Chile, Argentina and South Africa, that includes international observers. The reconciliation process should address the legitimate concerns of those who have been victims of the violence.
To the European Union and other international players:
7) Support a dialogue between the Algerian government and the Islamists by providing facilitation and a venue.
8) Encourage Algerian acceptance of the Barcelona Charter, which promotes North-South partnership, liberalisation of the economy, good governance and respect for human rights, as part of its entry into the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership Initiative (known as the Barcelona Process).
9) Support the political reconstruction process in Algeria, particularly over support for the growth of civil society and for measures designed to end civil violence.