Two years ago, Algeria’s army displaced the ostensibly constitutional regime of Chadli Benjedid to forestall an all-but-certain victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in a second round of elections scheduled for a few weeks later. The chief consequence of that army intervention is a war whose daily savagery has killed between 20,000 and 30,000 people, most of these in 1994.
This war has been mostly invisible on the outside. The glimpses available through the media have chiefly highlighted the atrocities of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). The army’s use of napalm and summary executions, for instance, passes without notice or comment. That the armed Islamist factions have targeted Algerian intellectuals, women and journalists is well known. Less obvious has been the state’s efficient muzzling of the Algerian press. One Algerian who still publishes a critical intellectual journal there told us recently that what he personally fears most is a state-sponsored attack made to look like the work of an Islamist hit squad.
This friend made several other crucial points. First, the continuity of today’s military regime with its predecessors outweighs the rupture of the January 1992 coup. Second, a core project of the Chadli government was to transform Algeria’s economy along doctrinaire free-market lines; the reformist wing of the political elite originally encouraged the “Islamic trend” as a way of outflanking liberalization’s opponents both in the state apparatus and in society at large.
Third, he said, this civil war only engages civilians as victims. It is a war between armed groups of a state and an Islamist opposition, both of them fragmented. “When the armed opposition groups took control of whole regions during Ramadan [March-April] 1992,” he noted, “there was no popular outpouring such as happened in Iran.” His outlook is for a scenario resembling Colombia or Peru, where the state controls economically and politically strategic points but whole areas remain outside of its domain. While far from ideal, the situation could be worse from the perspectives of the regime and the international bankers who do not wish to write off Algeria’s $26 billion debt: “All the important issues — democratic institutions, social justice, corruption — have been subordinated to the terrorist question. A perfect foil for keeping the army in power.”
This scenario, though it incorporates the reality of Algeria’s debt trap, may understate the extent of popular support for some sort of Islamist regime. The Islamists themselves, moreover, have persistently avoided articulating opposition, even at a level of populist demagoguery, to the plans of the Algerian free marketeers. This is one reason why Washington, unlike Paris, has argued for “a strategy of inclusion and reconciliation” rather than simple repression in Algeria — an approach that stands in marked contrast to its support for “eradication” policies when it comes to Islamist opposition forces in Egypt and Palestine.