Hugh Roberts is a senior research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science and a specialist on Algerian political history. Middle East Report recently asked him to give his view on the continuing violence in Algeria and what, if anything, western governments can do about the situation.

The current situation in Algeria is quite bewildering. On the one hand, the regime has held elections to national, regional and local assemblies and reconstructed political institutions to legitimate the state. On the other hand, the violence has worsened, with appalling massacres and other human rights violations. Credible observers have begun to blame the government itself for some of these massacres. As a result, outside forces, including the European Union and the United Nations, have begun to get involved. Can you explain what is going on?

All of these problems have a common source in the fact that Algeria since 1989 has been a state without a political system. With the introduction of the pluralist constitution in February of that year, the old one-party political system was abandoned. The attempted transition to a new system was aborted in 1991. In January 1992, the state explicitly stepped outside the formal framework of its own constitution with the creation of a wholly unconstitutional collective presidency, the High State Committee. This was superseded in January 1994 by an unconstitutionally appointed head of state in the person of defense minister Liamine Zeroual. Zeroual managed to restore constitutional legitimacy to the apex of the state apparatus by getting his position endorsed by the Algerian electorate in a formally pluralist presidential election in November 1995. Since then, he has been attempting to extend the mantle of constitutional legitimacy to the rest of the government through the restoration of elective representative assemblies at national, regional and local levels. These assemblies have only just begun to operate, however, and it is far from clear that they can tame the forces which have been unleashed since the end of 1991.

Is there a case for international intervention of some kind?

A number of voices have been calling for this, but the Algerian government is resisting any outside interference. The situation has been evolving, however, with the visit to Algiers of the European Union “troika” in January and the visit of a nine-member delegation of members of the European Parliament in February. These visits were accepted by Algiers as fact-finding missions that were quite different in nature from the kind of investigation advocated by those calling for an international commission of inquiry. It now seems that the European Union is unlikely to press for an inquiry and is inclined to leave this issue to the UN. The Algerian National Monitoring Commission for Human Rights is to present a report in March to the meeting of the UN in Geneva on human rights and civil liberties.

But does this obviate the need for a genuinely independent international inquiry?

There are grounds for regarding this proposal as entirely utopian. Even if the Algerian government yielded on this point, which is most unlikely, it is unclear how a team of investigators could hope to establish the truth about this or that incident, let alone the character of the violence in general. Who in Algeria in present circumstances would wish to testify? How could the testimonies of victims and other witnesses, and other evidence collected, be checked?

This leaves the problem where it is, with a cloud of international suspicion hanging over the regime. What credence in your view should be given to the allegations in the Western press, and the British press in particular, of government complicity in the violence?

These allegations concern all kinds of different things that arguably should not be lumped together. Claims that the security forces have been guilty of human rights violations in the form of torture and extrajudicial executions are one thing. Various human rights organizations have been reporting evidence of such violations for several years now. Claims that the army itself has been carrying out massacres as a matter of policy are quite another matter. These accusations have emerged only recently and existing evidence is contradictory. The main basis for these suspicions is the apparent passivity of the security forces towards the massacres committed last autumn in the hinterland of Algiers, in the immediate vicinity of military posts or police stations, and so on, which were alerted yet failed to come to the rescue. Conflicting accounts exist of the nature of the security forces’ presence in the vicinity of the massacres. Some versions speak of “barracks” full of troops. Others suggest that these were minor and weakly manned posts that lacked the capacity to intervene. My own view is that there was indeed a disturbing aspect to the behavior of the security forces last autumn, in the case of the massacres at Rais, Beni Messous and Bentalha. Circumstantial evidence suggests that they may have been under orders from their commanders, perhaps at the regional level, not to intervene. If this was the case, it does not follow that the army itself was committing the massacres. There may have been several different explanations for its inactivity, including the possibility that its command structure was temporarily paralyzed by factional disagreements at the top which we know were taking place at that time. As for the massacres in the Relizane region on and since December 30, these occurred in very remote mountain districts where there was no local military or police presence. Moreover, although the victims were former Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) supporters, the FIS itself did not blame the government or the army, but explicitly accused a splinter group from the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) of responsibility for the massacres. I am inclined to think that these various appalling events are far more complex than may be apparent to the outside world.

But doesn’t the refusal of the Algerian government to accept an inquiry suggest that it has something to hide? It seems that international calls for more transparency make no impression on Algiers whatsoever.

The Algerian state has been reduced since 1992 to the core elements of the executive, namely the army and the other security forces, the gendarmerie, police and intelligence services, plus the civil service. In no state in the world are these apparatuses “transparent.” “Transparency,” as an attribute of states, is a function of the activity of those representative and deliberative institutions by which the rest of the apparatuses of the state are held accountable. These institutions were nonexistent between 1992 and 1997. They have now been reestablished, but have only just begun to operate. It should also be noted that all but one of the political parties represented in the Algerian National Assembly support the Algerian government’s refusal to accept an outside inquiry.

What role does the French government play in Algeria’s relations with the international community? It appears to be the Algerian state’s main supporter.

The way in which this myth is endlessly recycled by the rest of the Western media, and especially the British and American media, is the principal index of the West’s refusal to learn from experience in the Algerian case, of the essential superficiality of western analysis and commentary. The reality is that France has an enormous strategic stake in North Africa, and wants Algeria to remain a French chasse gardee and be held to the status of a dependent client state. This interest consistently seems to have taken precedence over any French interest in peace and stability per se in Algeria in the short term. Instead, Paris has played both ends against the middle, giving support to the extreme anti-Islamist hardline faction in the army when President Zeroual was broaching a dialogue with the ex-FIS in 1994, encouraging calls for the re-legalization of the FIS a year ago — by which time, as it knew perfectly well, Zeroual was irrevocably committed to holding elections without FIS participation — then switching back to support the “eradicators” when the army had concluded a ceasefire with the FIS’s armed wing and Zeroual was once again exploring possibilities with certain FIS personalities.

Aren’t the implications of this analysis extremely pessimistic? You seem to be suggesting that the situation is entirely blocked, and that external pressures are contributing to the impasse.

There is little doubt that external pressures are tending to do precisely this, but the internal situation is not entirely blocked. Since 1992, there has been considerable evolution in several respects. In particular, the successful,holding of national, regional and municipal elections last year has reestablished the representative and deliberative institutions that have been lacking since 1991. This has opened up the possibility of diverting the complex conflicts between opposed viewpoints and interests into peaceful political channels. Whether this now happens to an extent sufficient to end the violence may be doubted. But it is certainly a precondition of ending the violence. What do you say to those observers who have argued that these elections were thoroughly rigged in favor of President Zeroual’s party, the Democratic National Rally (RND), and that the assemblies which have been set up are merely window dressing? First, it is quite wrong to regard the RND as Zeroual’s party. All the various factions within the regime are represented within the RND. Zeroual has his supporters in it, but so do other powerful figures who always have had agendas of their own. A major problem, in my view the major problem, in Algerian politics since 1989 is that factional conflict has been entirely unconstrained since the demise ofthe old single-party framework. The function of the RND is to provide a framework within which the various factions or “clans” may once again compete through nonviolent political maneuver within a definite set of rules and orderly procedures. It was probably the need to bring on board the main factions which accounted for the rigging which occurred. I do not doubt that there was an element of rigging, but I don’t wholly agree with cynical interpretations of this. It arguably represented a pragmatic compromise between two necessities: the need to guarantee the main factions in the regime and especially in the army a piece of the action in the RND so that they did not oppose or disrupt the return to the electoral process, and the need to provide for the effective representation of opposition points of view so as to give them a stake in the system.

The rigging which occurred seems to have been carefully calculated. In the legislative elections last June the RND was credited with only 35 percent of the vote and 41.5 percent of the seats, and ten parties in all are represented in the resulting National Assembly, including two Islamist parties which between them have 103 out of the total of 380 seats. In the regional and local elections last October the rigging was more flagrant, and opposition protests were undoubtedly justified, but these protests were at least partly successful, with over 250 seats initially awarded to the RND being reallocated on appeal.

But doesn’t the fact that the violence has continued and, if anything, worsened, bear out the pessimism of the cynics? After all, the worst massacres took place after the legislative elections.

The way in which the nature and focus of the violence has changed over time suggests that, in addition to the general background reason for the descent into violence, namely the collapse of the political system, there have been other reasons for it that have determined its rhythm and the character of its victims. A major factor behind the violence over the last six months ironically has been the ceasefire between the army and the FIS’s armed wing, the Islamic Salvation Army (AlS). Although the media tend to present the armed movements as only two in number — the AlS and its rival, the GIA, the reality has always been more complicated. There are smaller armed groups that have changed their alignments at various times and there are probably many local armed bands with no definite political allegiance at the national level. The proclamation of an AlS ceasefire September 21 polarized the confused nebula of armed groups as a whole into two bitterly opposed camps. Several groups outside the AIS have since joined its ceasefire, while others have been trying to sabotage it. The victims of the Relizane massacres were supporters of the AlS. It seems that those who are trying to sabotage the AIS-army ceasefire are attacking the AIS ceasefire at its weakest points, in western Algeria and the Mitidja. In other words, the very factor militating for an ultimate end to the violence has been tending to aggravate it in the short term. This situation is not helped by the fact that vocal currents in Algerian politics dislike the whole idea of a negotiated end to the Islamist rebellion — notably the so called “eradicateurs” in parties such as Said Sadi’s Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) — and certain “clans” in the power structure may well feel threatened by its implications.

You said earlier that the wrong questions are being asked. What questions should we be asking?

I think that rather than ask “who is doing the killing?” or “should there be an international commission of inquiry?” we should ask “what is the political condition that the Algerians need to establish if human rights are to be respected?” The answer is obvious once you think about it: accountability. This — and not “transparency,” which is meaningless cant — is the key issue. The central shortcoming of the Algerian state has been and remains today the fact that the formal distribution of political responsibility does not correspond to the actual distribution of power, a problem that has been greatly exacerbated since 1992.The Algerian security forces have been operating outside any framework of political accountability for the last six years. They have been laws unto themselves. This has been the single most important internal factor, not only in the human rights violations by members of the security forces that have occurred but also, more broadly, in the continuing instability within the regime. It is essential that the security forces be reined in and that they become subject to a measure of political accountability for their behavior.

Isn’t this itself utopian? The army has always been the real power. Who can bell the cat?

The army’s power has been exercised within four quite distinct political frameworks since 1965, when Boumediene’s coup ended the turmoil of the first years of independence. The first framework was Boumediene’s Council of the Revolution, which guaranteed representation for the army through its senior commanders, while leaving Boumediene and his ministers free to govern. Under Chadli Bendjedid, from 1979 to 1989, the army was directly represented on the National Liberation Front’s (FLN) Central Committee and Political Bureau, and the FLN functioned as a large forum for all the factions and tendencies within the regime. As a result, although the military commanders were the most powerful elements in the system, they could only act through the procedures in force within the party. These procedures formed a kind of institutional bridle and ensured a measure of political accountability, if not to public opinion, at any rate, to the wider political class as a whole. From February 1989 to June 1991, the army was relegated by the new pluralist constitution to a backstage role with the advent of the new political sphere structured by multiparty competition. The collapse of Chadli’s pluralist experiment in 1991 left the army commanders answerable to no one but each other. They have not only remained answerable to no one but each other ever since, but have also tended to invest in and manipulate the various political parties and the so-called independent press in the factional struggle within the army, thereby creating political chaos. In other words, the fourth political framework has been the antithesis of a political framework properly so-called, and the army’s position since 1991 has been quite unprecedented. I believe that this has been the main issue at stake in the duel over the last four years between President Zeroual and certain powerful generals, and that this is the fundamental and central element of the crisis of the Algerian state as a whole. Everything else depends on this. In particular, there can be no durable improvement in the human rights situation until this central issue is resolved. It seems to me that the only way this central issue can be addressed in present circumstances is for President Zeroual’s position to be decisively reinforced vis-a-vis the rest of the military hierarchy so that he can fully exercise the constitutional prerogatives he formally possesses as president of the republic, defense minister and commander-in-chief Only then would it become reasonable for the rest of the Algerian political class and international as well as domestic public opinion to hold him accountable for the behavior of the executive branch of the state in general and the armed forces in particular.

Is there any serious prospect of this?

An element of the army has always been serious about the army’s role as defender of the constitution. The unrestrained behavior of certain units of the security forces has caused a great deal of unease within the officer corps. As for Zeroual’s own position, it was significantly strengthened by the appointment of his close supporter Major General Tayeb Derradji as Commander of the National Gendarmerie last July and of Major General Rabah Boughaba as Commander of the First Military Region last September. How well Zeroual has come out of the most recent turmoil is not yet clear. The significance of the new parliament and the other assemblies needs to be assessed in this context. That they are far from fully democratic is certain, but the point is that by establishing these institutions, Zeroual has brought the civilian political class back into the governing process. In the process he has restored an element of public accountability and relativized the political influence of the army commanders, while arranging for the army to be represented within the upper house of the parliament by a number of retired generals, several of whom are his close allies. Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia’s recent declaration that the army should go back to its role of guarding the national territory against external threats seems to express his and Zeroual’s ambition to protect the fledgling political sphere, which has just been reestablished, from any fresh destabilization by those serving generals who have been throwing their weight around for the last seven years. A central aspect of the current drama in Algeria is therefore the conflict between those elements of the regime that have an interest in promoting a revival of political institutions and accountability as an integral part of the business of ending the violence, and those elements resisting this. The former are tending to allow the new representative institutions a genuine (if initially modest) role in the political process, while the latter seem to have a merely cynical view of these institutions as instruments of factional patronage and, as you say, as window dressing to fend off external criticism. The prospect of a significant improvement in the human rights situation in Algeria depends on the outcome of this conflict.

How to cite this article:

Hugh Roberts "Under Western Eyes," Middle East Report 206 (Spring 1998).

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