Selima Ghezali was born in Bouira, Algeria in 1958. After obtaining a degree in literature, she began working as a teacher of French at the Khemis el-Khechna high school, where she was active in the General Union of Algerian Workers. In the 1980s, Ghezali joined the Algerian feminist movement then fighting the implementation of Algeria’s repressive family code. She later became president of the Women’s Association of Europe and North Africa and chairwoman of the Association pour l’Emancipation des Femmes (Association for the Emancipation of Women).
In November 1994, she became Algeria’s only woman newspaper editor when she, along with six permanent journalists and four freelancers, took over La Nation, a privately owned, Algiers-based French-language weekly with a circulation of 40,000. La Nation refused to handle “security-oriented” news that had to be submitted to the authorities for censorship and advocated a peaceful, political solution to the Algerian crisis. It lent its support to the Sant Egidio declaration in Rome in January 1995. Later that month, La Nation was suspended after it published a letter from Ali Benhadj — the second highest-ranking figure in the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS, by its French acronym) — to the government’s communications minister; again in June, after it backed a FIS call for demonstrations; and three times more during the presidential election campaign in November 1995. In 1996, La Nation was shut down three times, once for publishing a report on human rights in Algeria.
In January 1997, Salima Ghezali came to the United States to accept, together with Algerian human rights lawyer Abdennour Ali Yahia, the 1997 Oscar Romero Award from the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, presented every alternate year to organizations or persons who distinguish themselves by their courage and dignity. In March 1997, the New York-based World Press Review named Selima Ghezali “international editor of the year.” Geoff Hartman spoke with Selima Ghezali in Washington, DC on January 15, 1997.
Since 1992, there have been several attempts to initiate dialogue among the various political parties in Algeria. What effect have these initiatives had in promoting reconciliation in Algeria?
The history of attempted reconciliation goes back to January 13, 1992. After the cancellation of parliamentary elections, a meeting was held between Abdul Qadra Hashani of the FIS, members of the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the Socialist Forces Front (FFS) — the three parties that won seats in the parliament. This type of meeting among opposing political parties was a first for Algeria.
The proposal for dialogue made at that time was rejected by the government. Then, in 1995, the meeting of the opposition parties in Rome — under the auspices of the Community of Sant Egidio — produced a 14-point platform. This was the first time in the Arab world that a public accord was signed by Islamists, non-Islamists and several other political parties — almost all of the most important Algerian political players. Although they were invited, the Algerian authorities declined to participate and, ultimately, rejected the platform. In this sense, they are morally responsible for the 15,000 deaths that have occurred annually since the rejection of the Rome platform.
The 1995 Rome conference was a very important political step in the history of this crisis in Algeria. It was the first time that different opposition groups met together, negotiated and agreed upon a text that, in retrospect, is one of the most democratic in the Arab world. The Rome 14-point platform calls for civil liberty, respect for international conventions and multi-party democracy.
What was the government’s response?
The government responded very harshly. They began organizing protest marches against Sant Egidio, portraying it in the media as the resumption of the Christian Crusades. On TV, during any coverage of Sant Egidio, they repeatedly showed a huge church with an enormous cross in the background. The government called the conference supporters “Sant Egidio crusaders.”
Algeria’s foreign minister and its ambassadors abroad rejected the conference as foreign intervention into Algeria’s internal conflict. Official propaganda also labeled it as a surrender to the Islamists. European governments immediately backed down under this heavy Algerian and French pressure, which was remarkably effective in discrediting the Rome conference.
Have there been similar initiatives since the Sant Egidio conference?
Those who worked on Sant Egidio continued their work despite the hostile atmosphere surrounding them. In November 1996, they produced an appeal for peace that was signed by 34 prominent figures — politicians, journalists and cultural critics — representing all ten political currents. The appeal, self-described as “An Appeal by Citizens,&rduqo; was initiated in Algiers by Algerians. We were sensitive to the attacks against the Sant Egidio conference for having been prepared under the auspices of the Catholic Church, and so on. The appeal recognizes the balance of forces in Algeria. As part of our call for peace, we asked that the armed opposition groups unilaterally declare a ceasefire, and that the government free political prisoners and terminate the state of emergency.
The appeal has been signed by 10,000 citizens. In a climate of repression where people die for nothing, I cannot stress enough the significance of the act of signing this appeal. Since the publication of this document in the press, the authorities have forbidden further meetings to discuss it or the publishing of any material related to it. There was a lot of hope following the Rome conference. Unfortunately, the Algerian authorities have shown that they are not ready for this kind of overture.
The official position maintains that there is no political solution to the conflict. This has led to an escalation of violence by the authorities and the opposition and has narrowed political opportunities. This includes heightened censorship, a ban on political meetings and the formation of armed “self-defense” groups.
What is the structure of censorship and how widespread is it?
All Algerian-based newspapers rely on state-run publishing houses. There are three major publishing houses in Algiers, one in Oran and one in Constantine. All have been controlled by the Interior Ministry since the state of emergency was imposed in 1992. Initially, control was exercised in an irregular way. Sometimes, papers were not censored but journalists were arrested. Since 1994, when a law concerning security information was passed, censorship, although revamped, has still been exercised irregularly. After the presidential elections in 1995, permanent bodies of censorship were established in every publishing house. The authorities closed our newspaper for the three weeks just before the elections.
According to some sources, the “self-defense” groups now have about 200,000 members while the regular army has only 105,000. What is the relationship between the government, the army and the “self-defense” groups? What are they exactly and how do they function?
These “self-defense” groups are actually militia that defend certain political groups. They act on their own or together with members of the armed forces. They are funded by the government. Weapons, uniforms and other things are supplied by the authorities. Each political faction has its own separate militia. They are controlled by political personalities rather than by government agencies, however.
The idea to establish these militia groups was first proposed by former Prime Minister Redha Malek about two and a half years ago. After the assassination of several intellectuals and artists, he said that “fear must be transferred” from the people to the armed Islamist groups.
The authorities claim that all attacks against the civilian population are perpetrated by Islamist groups. There have been cases, however, when some attackers have been recognized and known not to be Islamists. Very often the victims’ families are related to members in the armed Islamic groups. In such cases, it doesn’t make sense that they would be attacking themselves.
There are many theories about the perpetrators and the motivations behind these violent attacks. There are those who believe that the families of the armed Islamist groups are supporting them and must, therefore, be repressed in order to cut off any support to the Islamists. Since it is impossible to write or say openly that the militias are behind some of these attacks, all of the responsibility falls on the armed Islamist groups.
In the beginning, the attacks had specific targets. Lately, however, we have seen an increase in the number of massacres in rural and isolated areas in addition to the car bombs and explosions in urban areas. Usually, the situation is described in terms of two sides to the conflict: the army and security forces versus the armed Islamist opposition groups. In fact, it is much murkier than that. Repression by the security forces and the government was concentrated on cutting off the leadership of the Islamists. This, in effect, led to the groups’ fragmentation and division. There are now many groups that have no precise ideology or are linked more to criminal than political elements. Some of the violent massacres are related to sociological phenomena such as familial or tribal conflicts. Families themselves are divided between members of both the security forces and Islamist groups.
On the ground, these militia have become a link between the security sphere and the political sphere insofar as they have connections with local administrators, especially government-appointed officials who have replaced elected officials. The situation has deteriorated into a kind of feudalism in which local politicians use the deadly force of the militias against their rivals.
This current state of chaos must be understood in the context of the history of the conflict. The violence began in 1992 with the cancellation of the elections. There was violence before then but it became much more widespread after the crackdown. The Islamist opposition began by assassinating police and military officers. But there was also state violence, which actually preceded the Islamist violence. That began with the widespread arrest, detention and torture of more than 17,000 people in the south.
The Islamist violence had specific targets at first. The targets included police officers and security personnel, or politicians who had backed the January 1992 military coup. At the time, there were no civilian protests against the cancellation of the elections because many people were afraid of the Islamists.
There was an escalation of violence during the first two years of the civil war. At the same time, the state-controlled press and government officials blamed the civilian population for not being active in the struggle against the Islamists. Meanwhile, the armed Islamist groups also issued leaflets and cassettes in which they attacked the civilian population for supporting the repressive government. While officials were angry at civilians for their silence towards the Islamists, the Islamists were angry at civilians for supporting the repressive government. That is why neither the authorities nor the Islamists felt any moral responsibility towards the people and both sides could massacre, kill and bomb with moral impunity.
Many international pundits thought that the November 1995 presidential elections would start a political transformation in Algeria. This, however, has not been the case. There were elements at that time that could have enabled President Liamine Zeroual to break the status quo. There was popular enthusiasm for the elections. In voting for Zeroual, the candidate of the army, voters sought to give him a mandate to open dialogue.
The president and his team made a series of unfortunate choices. First, they rejected any possibility of dialogue. They also aggravated the social situation when, in one of their first acts after the election, they withheld part of the salaries of government workers, the last bastion of support for the government. The social conflict worsened; there were strikes. A student strike closed all universities for three months at a time when schools should have been reopened. At this time, the government initiated no negotiating effort.
Arrests have continued in the same manner, but a couple of things have exacerbated the situation, such as a ban on political party meetings and, mostly notable within the last year, a crackdown on management positions in factories. Several thousand people in management have been arrested as part of what is called an anti-corruption drive. This has created an atmosphere of panic among those who should constitute the backbone of Algerian society.
With growing inflation and impoverishment, a person with an average salary can no longer afford the cost of food. Even a university professor cannot both pay the rent and eat. With 75 percent of the population 30 years old or younger facing grim prospects in employment, housing and overall quality of life, it is a bad situation.
What are your thoughts on the upcoming spring parliamentary elections?
The first questions one must ask is — give the daily attacks and massacres and overall unstable security situation — what kind of elections will they be? Also, among the political actors, there are some who are armed. For example, one who runs for a parliamentary seat, might be up against someone who controls a militia.
The importance of the elections was minimized by the referendum on the new constitution in November, which the government falsely claims was supported by a majority of Algerian voters. This revision in the constitution removed any significant power from the elected parliament. It is all left in the hands of the president and the newly created higher chamber, the Senate. Even if these elections were free and fair, the stakes would not be that great.
What has been your personal experience as an editor of a newspaper in Algeria during this period?
Of course, I am always afraid, but sometime the anger is stronger than fear. I come from a modest family with nine brothers and sisters who all received an education thanks to free schooling. As all Algerians, we were eager to help develop the country after independence. This has not failed totally because Algerians still have some valuable expertise on a collective level. As a result, I feel appreciative of everything that I have received, and I feel it is my duty to return this to Algerian society and to the country.