The last four months in Algeria have left more than 650 civilians dead and significantly more wounded. During the month of Ramadan alone (January 10-February 7, 1997) the latest wave of car bombings and massacres killed more than 350. As many as 60,000 have died in the civil war triggered when the army seized control of the country in January 1992, canceled the upcoming legislative elections that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was poised to win, forced out the ostensibly constitutional regime of President Chadli Benjedid, banned the Islamic opposition groups (primarily the FIS and the Armed Islamic Group) and detained thousands of their sympathizers in Sahara desert camps.
In 1995, the war between state-armed groups and the Islamic opposition was further fragmented and factionalized by the establishment of government-armed “defense groups” that have become an important part of the army’s effort to “eradicate” the Islamic opposition. These militia groups now have more members (approximately 200,000) than the army itself (approximately 105,000).
National debate reflects divisions between, on the one hand, supporters of the military regime and its hard-line “eradication” policies and, on the other hand, those opposition groups, some politicians and even some key military leaders, who are now calling for national “reconciliation” and dialogue with the Islamic opposition groups. Due in part to the Islamists’ implicit support of reformist policies that focus on liberalization and privatization of the economic sector in Algeria, US policymakers — in contrast to their support for “eradication” policies toward Islamist opposition groups in Egypt and Palestine, for example — thus far have tended to advocate national inclusiveness and reconciliation. The December 6, 1996 arrest of Anouar Haddam — president of the “Parliamentary Delegation of the FIS Abroad” — by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, however, may reflect a shift in US policy toward that of the Zeroual regime.
A January 1995 peace pact — signed in Rome between eight Algerian parties, including the FIS, and calling for national dialogue and an end to the violence — was rejected by the government as orchestrated by foreign players interested in promoting the Islamists in Algeria. While parliamentary elections have been scheduled for June 5, President Liamine Zeroual preempted their impact by giving himself veto power over elected lawmakers. Likewise, November 1996 amendments to the constitution banned religion-based political parties and created a second house of parliament — one third of whose members shall be appointed by the president.
In the Algerian La Nation, Ali Yahia Abdennour, president of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, writes: “The Algerian people want peace. The government has ruled out [possible] solutions to the political crisis in favor of the politics of confrontation, offering revisions to the constitution that normalize totalitarianism…and accentuate the lack of democracy. The separation of executive, legislative and judiciary branches is the key to democracy; here, the executive and legislative have atrophied and the judiciary serves the executive. This is not a separation but a confusion of powers — a dictatorship…. All national energies should be directed in search of civil peace and dialogue, one that is inclusive, political and conciliatory.”