Spring in Algeria was unseasonably wintry. After all the rain and snow, the city parks of Algiers were a profusion of color and birdsong in the summertime, the countryside a vibrant shade of green. Wildflowers surrounded the parking enclosure at the busy new international airport. “Things are coming along,” says Hocine, in his early twenties, trilingual with university-level studies in business, but unemployed, as he wends his way through the packed traffic into town. “Boutef [President Abdelaziz Bouteflika] has made things move.” Things move slowly, perhaps — easy consumer credit has clogged urban roads with privately owned cars. But the signs of change are ostentatiously visible. After a decade of war and isolation, Algeria appears to have entered the global market and embraced its attractions with a vengeance.

Outside Algiers’ central post office, a giant screen mounted on a Warner Bros. truck shows weekend soccer matches — and Tom and Jerry cartoons on weekdays — to a more or less permanent crowd of men with little else to do on the terraces of Boulevard Khemisti. Quick, the French burger chain, has opened premises on the corner of the Place de l’Emir Abd al-Qadir, brazenly facing the equestrian statue of the nineteenth-century national hero and the Third World Bookshop, an icon of Algeria’s place at the head of the newly decolonized nations, many of them nominally socialist, in decades past. Branches of Société Générale and BNP Paribas, two of the largest French banks, have proliferated across the capital. On the main street of El-Biar, a suburb above Algiers, a banner advertising satellite TV subscriptions exhorts passersby (in English) to “See it first! See it now!” In downtown Oran in the west of the country, smiling students pictured on the billboard of a private language school encourage others to “Learn English the American way!” Algiers’ city center is illuminated at night in elaborate arrangements of white lights, and toward midnight one can take a taxi from Aïn Benian, in the far western suburbs beyond the Baïnem forest — a training ground for Islamist guerrillas in the early 1990s, and now frequented by middle-class women out for a jog — almost to the other end of the city, not only without undue risk but at a reasonable fare.

None of this, of course, means a straightforwardly happy end to the political and economic crisis from which Algeria has lately emerged. “Politics is like the weather,” says Kasim — a taxi driver who prefers working on Fridays because the relative quiet reminds him of “the way things were in the 1970s” — “you can’t trust the forecast.” Even before the three bombs that struck prominent targets in the capital on April 11, post-war Algeria was an unpredictable mixture of moods. On that day, suicide bombings ripped the façade off several stories of the Qasr al-Hukuma (the city center tower block, formerly seat of the French Government General, that now houses offices of the Prime Minister and the Interior Ministry) and destroyed much of the East Algiers divisional police headquarters in the suburb of Bab Ezzouar, killing 33 people and injuring over 200. In the importance of the targets and the scale of the damage inflicted, the April attacks were the most dramatic terrorist operations since the end of what is now universally known as la décennie noire, “the black decade,” or sinin al-irhab, “the years of terrorism.” The war that began with the military’s January 1992 suspension of legislative elections being won by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the resignation of then-President Chadli Benjedid and the assassination of his successor, Mohamed Boudiaf, six months later, is these days referred to in everyday conversation as a chapter of the past. But the Algiers bombings were a reminder that, while in most of the country and for most people the war of the 1990s is effectively over, Algeria’s transition remains uncertain.

Subsequent bombs in May and June in the cities of Constantine and Tizi Ouzou killed two and injured 12, and a truck bomb driven by a suicide bomber killed eight soldiers at a barracks in Lakhdaria in July. On September 6, a suicide bomber killed 20 people and injured 107 in a crowd gathered to meet a presidential visit to the town of Batna, and two days later another truck bomb driven into the coast guard barracks at Dellys killed 37. Sporadic, smaller-scale attacks on security personnel and civilians continue to occur in rural districts across the country, bringing to the surface fears of a “return to the years of bloodshed.”

Jihad Reloaded?

But rather than opening a new round of hostilities, the April 11 blasts and subsequent attacks were part of a longer-term pattern. Seemingly intended to raise the profile of Algeria’s insurgents in advance of the May 17 legislative elections, the coordinated bombings in Algiers were the culmination of several months’ gradual upswing in the low-level, intermittent violence that has persisted in parts of the country since the war gradually wound down during Bouteflika’s first term (1999-2004). On October 30, 2006, two car bombs targeted police stations in eastern suburbs of Algiers. On December 10, a bus carrying foreign employees of Brown and Root-Condor, an engineering and construction firm then jointly owned by Halliburton and the Algerian national oil company, Sonatrach, was attacked at Bouchaoui, west of the capital. Further attacks occurred in the first few months of 2007: at Aïn Defla, a town hemmed in by forested mountain ranges; near Tizi Ouzou and elsewhere in restive, Berber-speaking Kabylia; and at Boumerdès, a town east of Algiers only now recovering from the massive earthquake that destroyed much of it in 2003. Major army and police operations against armed groups were reported in the Dahra mountains, in the Amizour district of eastern Kabylia, and in the Nememchas range near the Tunisian border. Between January and the end of July, according to a tally in Algerian newspapers, 265 people were killed in engagements between insurgents and security forces. [1]

The elusive target of the army’s constantly renewed “mopping-up” efforts, and the declared perpetrator of the recent string of attacks, is the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), the last remaining “irreducible” Islamist guerrilla organization, and notionally the inheritor of the radical GIA (Armed Islamic Groups) that emerged at the height of the terror of the mid-1990s. A videotape of the Bouchaoui ambush, modeled on those issued by insurgent groups in Iraq, claimed GSPC responsibility for that attack, and statements to Al Jazeera subsequently did the same for the Algiers, Batna and Dellys bombings.

In January 2007, the GSPC announced it had a new name, the Base of Jihad in the Islamic Maghrib (Qa‘idat al-Jihad fil-Maghrib al-Islami), or more conveniently for the newspapers, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib. Having already endured the region’s most extreme and protracted conflict between armed Islamist radicalism and state repression, Algeria thus paradoxically found itself dragged into the fray of Osama bin Laden’s “global jihad” and its symbiotic twin, President George W. Bush’s “global war on terror,” at the very moment that its own war was nearing exhaustion. Algeria’s Islamists, eager to remind the world of their struggle since it was upstaged by the September 11, 2001 events, Afghanistan and Iraq, have good reasons to play up the potential of Algeria, and North Africa as a whole, as part of a global war of Muslim solidarity. The Algerian security apparatus, keen to enhance its newfound status of “key ally” in US regional strategy, is also not averse to casting Algeria’s persistent insurgency as a new front in the war on terror.

The Algerian insurgency, prematurely labeled “residual” by government spokesmen as early as 1996, has clearly found in world events since 2001 not only a new relevance but also new motivations for its recruits. If the failure of domestic Islamism, in Algeria as in Egypt and elsewhere, to overturn its “near enemy” of corrupt and impious government was a major spur to the globalization of jihad for Islamism’s most radical fringe, the imagination of a global struggle also seems to have renewed the energy of those whose targets are still to be found nearer to home. Outrage at the US-led invasion of Iraq, and inspiration from the success of the anti-occupation and sectarian insurgency, combined with heightened crisis at the regional level, from Palestine and Lebanon to Iran and Afghanistan, appear to have given a shot in the arm to Algeria’s beleaguered and partially demobilized Islamists. Some of them, indeed, have found a more active field in the small element of the Iraqi insurgency composed of al-Qaeda-inspired “foreign fighters.” [2] In this context, the GSPC’s restyling as the local franchise of a highly successful brand recognized worldwide is merely a sound business move. The Islamists, too, know that post-war Algeria is a niche in a global marketplace.

Smoke and Mirrors

But this is probably the limit of the relevance of global and regional factors for understanding of what has been going on in Algeria. The rebranding stunt does not in itself signal a new war, at least not yet. Nor is a full-scale return to the old one likely. Exaggeration of a local “al-Qaeda threat” imagined as globally organized functions, in the marketplace of news, spin and rhetoric, as the obverse of another set of conspiracy theories that circulate in Algeria, and more especially in France and in cyberspace. Algeria’s crisis has for a decade supported vigorous trading on speculation, testimony and more or less well-informed analysis, in both print and electronic media, which has frequently explained the GSPC — and the GIA before it — as mere instruments, if not inventions, of their ostensible opponents in the Algerian security services. [3] Such theories are encouraged by the regime’s opacity and by the mysterious circumstances of such figures as supposed GIA leaders Hassan Hattab and Amari Saifi, aka Abderrazak “El Para,” or Abdelqahar Benhadj, the son of FIS leader Ali Benhadj. Hattab, sentenced in absentia by separate courts (to death and life imprisonment, respectively) in June, apparently gave himself up on September 22 having negotiated an amnesty, and is due to be retried. El Para, the army deserter-turned-Islamist reportedly responsible for the abduction of 32 European tourists in the Sahara in 2003, was said to be in Algerian custody after extradition from Chad. His trial in Algiers was postponed in May 2007, the defendant having inexplicably failed to appear at hearings. In February 2007, Ali Benhadj, the young firebrand preacher who became second-in-command to FIS founder Abbasi Madani and served 12 years in jail after 1992, accused the security services of kidnapping his 20-year old son, who shortly afterwards appeared in an “al-Qaeda” Internet video exhorting young Maghribis to join the jihad. The son was then rumored to be among those killed in a battle between guerrillas and the army in late July.

Just as much as speculation about “al-Qaeda” activity, or the recurrent reports (denied by Washington) of projected US bases in Algeria, and whatever their basis, conspiracy theories surrounding the GSPC feed Algeria’s climate of uncertainty. In the process, they attribute to the guerrilla groups a greater reach than they probably possess, and simultaneously ensure the security apparatus perennially renewed power in a state of emergency not relaxed since 1992. For the purveyors and consumers of global media, they provide a simpler and more intelligible cause for the country’s persistent troubles — the fanatical terrorism of Jihad International, or the deliberate orchestration of occult power plays within the regime — than perhaps really exists. [4]

Beyond providing favorable circumstances and sources of inspiration, however, the regional crisis and the “global jihad” have not caused the upturn of violence in Algeria, and sensationalist assessments of the Maghrib as presenting another new front in the war on terror are wide of the mark. If the need to demonstrate the persistence of insurgency in Algeria is partly the result of the armed Islamists’ anxiety to prove that they still have something to contribute to a broader enterprise, their renewed violence finds its seedbed more in domestic political and social conditions than in the global ideological ether. The firefight between unidentified gunmen, allegedly infiltrated from Algeria, and Tunisian security forces in December 2006 and January 2007, and the series of bombings and attempted bombings in Casablanca in March and April, were seized on as evidence of a coordinated regional escalation, but were more probably independent, simultaneous responses to a shared set of circumstances. [5] While the insurgents’ self-image may be framed in terms of undefeated jihad on a global scale, what they really have in common is their recourse to self-destroying violence without any actual political program as the only remaining riposte to the tightening of domestic authoritarianism and the sterile impasse reached by domestic politics under a masquerade of “democratization.”

Voting with Their Feet

Watching the streets packed with celebrating crowds in Algiers on the evening of May 17, an American observer quipped that the winner of the day’s legislative election was hizb kurrat al-qadam — the soccer party. The victory of Algeria’s ES Sétif, the 2007 national league champions, over Jordan’s Faysali in the final of the Arab Champions’ League in Amman brought people bursting with patriotic enthusiasm out into streets that had been virtually empty all day. An almost complete popular disinterest in the elections was palpable throughout the campaign as well as in the record abstention level on the day itself.

The official turnout of 35.65 percent (down from a former record low of 46 percent in the May 2002 legislative elections, and quickly reduced on the street for the purposes of general conversation to an unofficial abstention rate of 80-85 percent) was evidence, according to Interior Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni, of society’s “maturity and commitment to the democratic process.” Algerian voters, he explained, “have become more demanding,” and expect their politicians “to adapt more realistically to the developments and changes experienced by society at large.” [6] The discerning electoral consumer was unimpressed by the lines currently on offer, and it was up to the parties to raise their game to new standards. If Zerhouni intended to put a brave face on the gulf separating Algerians from the political class by congratulating the citizenry for its good taste in staying away, he was not altogether wrong. The press had done its best to rouse voter enthusiasm with daily reporting of pre-election maneuvers by a bumper crop of parties and personalities. There were disputes over names on the electoral lists of the National Liberation Front (FLN), the country’s single party from independence in 1962 to 1989, now recuperated by Bouteflika. In the wake of the April bombings, former Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, leader of the National Democratic Rally (RND), resurrected the 1990s rhetoric of “eradicating” Islamism. Algeria’s oldest opposition party, revolutionary veteran Hocine Aït Ahmed’s Socialist Forces Front (FFS), apparently self-destructed. Trotskyist Workers’ Party leader Louisa Hanoune fulminated against the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the threat of privatization to the nation’s industrial patrimony. There was a ruinous split in the Islamist opposition party, Islah, a faction of which succeeded in ousting party head Abdallah Djaballah (the second time Djaballah has been removed from a party he had himself founded and led to prominence). But the crushing disinterest manifested on election day was due less to the rainbow of calls for abstention (from communists, Berber activists, the FFS, Djaballah and even “al-Qaeda”) than to a principled disdain for the whole affair.

Recognition of the depth of popular dissatisfaction, and laying the blame on the parties’ under-performance, was perhaps the political class’s only available reaction. But their disingenuous self-criticism, and the modicum of transparency seen in the low official turnout, laid only a thin veneer over the system that in fact created and sustains Algeria’s curious multi-party authoritarianism. The kaleidoscope of political groupings that has occupied the stage since 1989 is not entirely without significance: Despite the renaissance of the FLN since the late 1990s, there is no longer a single party, and the different opposition and government parties provide spaces in which a certain real politics, as competition for influence and access to the distribution of resources, plays out. But substantive competition between policy programs is distinctly lacking and the degree to which the parties directly express society’s own complexity is very narrow. “Politics is like cooking,” raps Amazigh Yacine of the iconoclastic group Gnawa Diffusion, “and around the dish of Algeria teeth and appetites are sharp.” But the metaphor expresses only popular hunger outdone by political voracity. Rather than translating the struggles of ordinary Algerians, the choices on ballots — 24 parties and 104 independent lists in May 2007 — present a menu from which Algerians are invited to choose dishes that differ widely in color but minimally in taste.

The parameters of Algeria’s party politics are clear to all concerned. One can opportunistically graft oneself onto the system and hope for a seat here and perhaps a portfolio there, or one can accept the role of principled, and impotent, opposition. Competition is limited to that between individual personalities and local or factional solidarities. These parameters largely explain apparent aberrations like the fourth-place success of the Trotskyists (26 seats) and the implosion of Islah (which plummeted, without its leader Djaballah, from 43 seats in the last parliament to three after May 17), as well as the proliferation of independents affronted at their omission from party lists, and the embarrassing multiplication of tiny and obviously artificial “smurf” (sanafir) parties that between them gained 49 seats. It goes without saying that the same factors explain the persistent exclusion of more serious alternative contention by figures like Ahmad Taleb Ibrahimi, a distinguished conservative with a long ministerial career in the 1960s and 1970s, whose Wafa’ party, identified by many as the inheritor of the FIS, was stillborn for lack of official recognition and whose second presidential bid in 2004 was eliminated by the constitutional court. The swath of consensus within the system over what is not to be discussed is much broader than the field open to democratic debate.

Algeria is not a dictatorship and its regime is not monolithic, but neither has the multiplication of electoral options delivered a transition from the top-down rule of bureaucratic technocracy to one of real political alternatives arbitrated by sovereign popular decision. Nor has the bustle of onstage political business visible from the spectators’ gallery challenged the seniority of the real deciding powers backstage and in the wings. The function of elections, as every politically savvy Algerian on the street knows full well, is to effect a periodic redistribution of shares among the majority stakeholders — in the current configuration, the “presidential alliance” of parties grouping the “historic” FLN, the “democratic-republican” RND and the Islamist Movement for the Society of Peace, who between them collected 249 of the 389 seats up for grabs in May. The logic of the system is that of a factional political class having absorbed competition along party lines as the expression of its own divisions. These, notwithstanding real disagreements and very real rivalries, are nonetheless essentially superficial, and beneath them is an underlying consensus. After the war, the primary concern of the consensus is the return to a manageable political and social status quo ante. And with recovered stability goes the businesslike acceleration of those aspects of neo-liberal economic reform that can coexist with the entrenched interests of monopoly importers and keep afloat the bubble that sustains the enrichment of the already rich.

Capital Consumption

All over northern Algeria, capitalism is vigorously under construction. The visible energy of both public and private investment is most striking in the country’s massive building boom. Housing, infrastructure, hospital and university facilities and international hotels rise from building sites to surprising heights and with vertiginous speed. As elsewhere in Africa, the frenzied pace of construction is kept up primarily by thousands of Chinese laborers, working 12 hours per day on two-year contracts, housed and fed on site, and paid on the return home. Occasionally a complaint is heard that the breakneck pace of urban development has largely bypassed Algeria’s unemployed, but the more common view of the Chinese work force is a grudging respect.

The showpieces of Bouteflika’s first term were two documents aspiring to bring about the country’s political reconstruction. The “civil concord,” submitted to a September 1999 referendum, was generally supported as an effort to end the violence and induce insurgents to lay down their arms. Approved with much reduced popular support in a second referendum in September 2005 and enacted in February 2006, the expanded law on “national reconciliation” provided sweeping guarantees of amnesty. The promise of Bouteflika’s second mandate is to be Algeria’s physical reconstruction, with the building of a million housing units by 2009. High oil prices created a surplus of $32.5 billion in 2006, allowing the government the luxury of unassailable foreign exchange reserves. Gross domestic product has grown at around 5 percent, the economic recovery program in place since 2001 has attempted to reinject investment into a public sector throttled by structural adjustment in the mid-1990s and, in keeping with the presidential emphasis on the nation’s return to the global stage, the public debt that forced Algeria into rescheduling, devaluation and IMF measures in 1993 was paid off in 2006. After the suffocating isolation of the 1990s, the arrival of Chinese workers, Emirati investors, US business partners, European consultants and even French pieds noirs tourists is a welcome sight to many.

But what does Algeria’s reinsertion into the world market really mean, and for whom is the country’s economic recovery working? Hocine (stuck in traffic again in Bab el Oued) sums things up neatly: “There are two kinds of people in Algeria. There are the rich, who have everything going for them. And there are the poor.” With an estimated quarter of the population living below the poverty line, and unemployment officially at around 12 percent but possibly 40 percent and anecdotally higher among people under 30 (who account for over half of the population), the opening of Algeria to the neo-liberal global economy has sharpened an already highly unequal distribution of benefits. The school-age (5 to 14) population is 25.3 percent of the total, and after the ravages of the war and budgetary austerity, the overloaded and resource-starved school system struggles to equip the rising generation for success in a brave new competitive world. Prospects for most of the country’s youth, who have grown up amidst violent upheaval and who look anxiously for something better in the near future, remain very limited. Family connections and patronage are far surer recommendations than education and training, and private employers, according to some young job seekers and those advising them, can be even less meritocratic than the public sector. While ostentatious villas mushroom in some districts, so do the precarious shantytowns on their unclaimed edges, and the entrepreneurial energy of the long-standing urban poor, the recently unemployed and the war’s million or more internal refugees from the countryside has to find outlets wherever it can.

At the other end of the spectrum, the vision of possibilities unleashed by unrestrained private enterprise runs to surreal extremes. The tale of Rafic “Moumen” Khalifa, the young man from Algiers who reportedly began with 1,500 euros and a modest family pharmacy and ten years later owned a bank, a TV station and an airline in a business empire clearing 200 million euros in profit, was “obviously too beautiful to be true.” [7] The Khalifa group collapsed in 2003 with $45 million missing from its flagship private bank; while Khalifa himself had long since fled to London, 15 of his executives and others implicated in the bank’s collapse were sentenced to prison terms in March. While the primary victims of Khalifa’s corporate fraud and personal incompetence were the group’s employees and small private investors, ordinary Algerians drawn in by the hope that “finally, we can have the good life, too,” [8] some of those implicated had invested public money in the group’s enterprises, allegedly on untraceable instructions from above.

At the same time as the Khalifa collapse exposed the country’s most spectacular private business empire as a flimsy and inept artifice, international observers and experts shook their heads at the lack of progress actually made in opening up more sectors to foreign investment and privatizing the country’s state-owned enterprises. The avenues open to private investment in fact remain limited, while the remaining public industries, running constant deficits that are bailed out by the soaring hydrocarbon surplus, can be neither efficiently retained nor advantageously sold, and the regime appears indifferent to their fate. Neither predatory international capital nor a stifling state dominates Algeria’s economy. Foreign direct investment in Algeria in 2002-2006 remained at only 2.6 percent of GDP. [9] An estimated 25-35 percent of money in the economy circulates outside official banking circuits, and the informal economy accounts for a commercial sector at least this large.

Both the limits and the excesses of “economic reform” provoke the ire of commentators and public opinion. But just like its politics, Algeria’s economic system functions according to a particular logic that is no less effective, and no less intractable, for failing to fit neatly into neo-liberal categories. In the post-war recomposition of a relatively secure and stabilized division of privilege and access, the powerful interests at work have grown up around real estate speculation, import licenses (or privileged access to shipments that can be skimmed off at the port of entry) and the black market, retail franchises and niche markets in domestic production. These have found ways to expand their own spaces of private enterprise without needing to dismantle the relics of a national industry that once promised independence and prosperity to the nation, and now serves to absorb at least some of the otherwise redundant workforce as well as to placate opinion sensitive to the sellout of revolutionary patrimony.

All is not unrelieved gloom, of course. There are Algerian enterprises that generate employment and profits, and success stories in the production of high-quality, low-priced goods for the domestic market. There is internal as well as foreign investment. The basis of the system, however, is fundamentally the same as it was before the war. Hydrocarbon exports (oil to the US, gas to Europe) account for 98 percent of export earnings and two thirds of total revenue. Local fortunes are to be made in imports, property and construction, and the domestic economy is one of consumption rather than production, dependent on the pipelines leaving Algeria’s ports and the container ships coming in, without a self-sustaining base that might survive the interruption of either, or the reversal of their prices. The stability of the country and the regime is measured in currency reserves (three years’ worth of imports, as Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem asserted reassuringly early in 2007) and the resilient continuity of the state after the exhaustion of the conflict (apparent in the security apparatus deployed across the country on election day). The bases on which they rest, however, are palpably fragile. The only apparent option being pursued by the governing coalition of more or less balanced interests that has resulted from the ending of the war is the continuing consumption of the state’s financial as well as symbolic capital so as to avoid not only the unraveling of the system that is feared by all, but also its gradual supercession by a more open and sustainable political economy that might constitute a genuine transition for both public freedoms and public prosperity.

À bout de souffle?

Unsustainably addicted to the status quo of an unpopular, unaccountable and transparently self-serving system, a closed division of privilege and the entrenched interests of commercial and security hierarchs, Algeria’s post-war balance of power is a delicate and brittle thing. Bouteflika’s second mandate, ironically but appropriately, displays a certain fin-de-siècle “Mitterrandism” in the pursuit of legacy-making grands projets — “national reconciliation,” housing, a cross-country highway, a new airport and (at last!) a subway system for Algiers. The end of the war — or at least the attenuation of the crisis — is framed as the personal benevolence of the president pictured for reelection in 2004 as “the Man of Peace,” heir to all that is greatest in the nation’s traditions (“From Abd al-Qadir to Abdelaziz” proclaim posters still to be seen around the country.)

The energetic burnishing of the image, though, fails to hide an underlying exhaustion and the critical lack of longer-term perspectives. Since his hospitalization for emergency abdominal surgery in Paris in late 2005, and despite his best efforts to dispel them, rumors have persisted over the president’s health, and the question of succession looms large. As the generation of the war of independence, some of the world’s youngest national leaders 40 years ago, and of whom Bouteflika was the last representative able to stand for the presidential election in 2004, passes away, the inevitability, at least, of generational transition is bound to assert itself. But it is far from certain that this will mean a substantive political change, or a resolution of the pressures and conflicts that produced the violence of the past 15 years, and which have not dissipated with it.

Even less is it certain that official responses will be adequate to dealing with the consequences of the war. After repeatedly asserting the near “eradication” of “residual terrorism,” the state has been able to achieve as much of a victory as the inglorious war offered, but declaring “concord and reconciliation” has left the conflict fundamentally unresolved. The provisions for amnesty, and corresponding lack of accountability, central to Bouteflika’s civil concord and national reconciliation platforms have been criticized from two opposing points of view, both of which hold the compromise of “reconciliation” responsible for creating the potential for new violence. One section of opinion (the “eradicator” camp of the 1990s) sees Bouteflika’s position as encouraging recidivism among diehard Islamists committed to violence. Another (believing the security services themselves to have been responsible for much of the violence, even some of that attributed to the GIA and other groups since the mid-1990s) sees the “civil concord” as protecting the freedom of action of security services responsible for thousands of “disappearances” and suspected of continuing to manipulate Islamist groups for their own ends: the indefinite preservation of the state of emergency and their own lucrative position in the power structure. [10] The only certainty is that the truth about the thousands of people kidnapped by insurgents or “disappeared” by the security services, and the 100,000 to 200,000 deaths that the war is now, routinely and vaguely, said to have cost, will not be known, justice for them or those who survive them not done, and public debate on the whole “national tragedy” silenced in the interests of “turning the page.” “For me, my problem wasn’t the state, it was the terrorist, the Islamist who was my neighbour, to whom I never did any harm and who did harm to me,” says Ali Merabet, spokesman for the Somoud group that represents the families of victims of terrorism, and whose two brothers were kidnapped and killed by a local armed group in 1995. “But we realised that [with the law on national reconciliation] they’d got together; they’d done a deal between themselves… If the person responsible for murdering my brothers is protected by the state, who is the real aggressor?” [11]

Protests like this from Algeria’s combative civil society, however, add up to so many voices in the wilderness. In the short term, the shoring up of the existing system, after its reabsorption of most of the Islamist constituency and the adoption of a policy of managing the recent past by feigning to have forgotten about it, benefits from another consequence of the war: the forcible depoliticization of the population. Far from mobilizing society in different ideological causes and crystallizing lines of opposition that might thereafter reach a properly political settlement, as some had hoped, the horrific war turned Algerians against themselves and each other in extreme and apparently inexplicable violence, closed off political lines of negotiation and exhausted the prodigious social energies liberated at the end of the 1980s in heroic efforts at mere survival. If the resort to violence as a viable oppositional option has been thoroughly discredited, credibly oppositional politics are no less excluded. In this context, the generalization of Islamism as social orthopraxy — as a set of behaviors and attitudes — that can be seen in Algeria is as much a flight from politics as it is a dormant political force. The Islamist project of 1992, as a political agenda with a social movement to carry it, has been destroyed. Increased piety today goes together with the pursuit of consumerism, and the recrudescence of violence in imitation of the “global jihad” is an existential, not a political, Islamism: seeking self-realization in self-immolation to gain the hereafter in the absence of a way to change the world below. The suicide bomber is only an alternative to the harraga, the clandestine emigrant who burns his papers before the desperate and frequently fatal attempt to cross the Mediterranean in search of something better beyond.

While the basic contradictions and exclusions of the system remain unresolved, the political class preoccupied with its own internal squabbles over the spoils, and the ground under it singularly shaky, Algeria’s present regime is less transitional than it is an attempt to maintain itself indefinitely, silencing awkward questions and postponing the unprepared shift of power to a new generation. Without the legitimacy of either the old, unifying revolutionary project, or the institutionalized pluralism of rule-bound contestation, the only guarantee of stability remains the repressive state apparatus that, having won the war, has also largely suppressed society in the process. Post-war Algeria thus displays the frightening fragility as well as the remarkable resilience of the system that has inherited the sideways slide from the single-party authoritarianism of two decades ago to the less easily categorized, but certainly no more democratic, dispensation that prevails today. There is nothing in the current situation to promise that anything resembling ideal schemes of democratization will come out of it.

Over coffee, a friend observes that perhaps the logic of things has produced a moment of peace, but “all the mechanisms of violence are still in place”: Society’s unresolved stresses threaten to break through the country’s political exhaustion and consumerist preoccupations. The bloody attacks in Batna and Dellys, occurring just before the beginning of Ramadan, brought back the anxieties of ten years ago. Nabil Belkacem, the 15 year-old suicide bomber who killed himself in the attack on the coast guard at Dellys, was born in 1992, the year the war began. The worst fear may be that more young men who have grown up during Algeria’s troubles, who have come of age amidst the rhetoric of global war and for whom a more promising future has failed to emerge might be found willing to embrace a “martyrdom” that transcends more worldly, but less achievable, aspirations. The challenge that no one is apparently ready to face would be that of transforming the country’s sclerotic political field so as really to reflect in it the problems and aspirations of a society as robust and dynamic as it is frustrated and apprehensive. But, at the same time, as they generate fear and uncertainty, and even the possibility of new violence, the non-resolution of the conflict and the inertia of the system that has survived through it are nonetheless a respite from a decade and more of extreme crisis — and the one thing that most Algerians today are sure of is that they want no more war.


[1] Reuters, August 4, 2007.
[2] A Saudi estimate in 2005 claimed that Algerians accounted for 20 percent of non-Iraqi insurgents. Anthony Cordesman, Iraq and Foreign Volunteers (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, November 17, 2005).
[3] The “revelation” most widely considered credible is that of former Col. Mohammed Samraoui, Chronique des années de sang (Paris, Denoël, 2003). Samraoui, a high-ranking officer in the military security apparatus in 1990-1992, granted asylum in Germany after his defection is 1996, was arrested in Spain at the Algerian government’s behest in October 2007.
[4] See Paul Silverstein, “An Excess of Truth: Violence, Conspiracy Theorizing and the Algerian Civil War,” Anthropological Quarterly 75/4 (Fall 2002).
[5] Moroccan analysts as well as politicians agreed that the Casablanca bombers were “homegrown” — though the intention, at least for the politicians, was no doubt to play down the suggestion of “contamination” from Algeria. See the commentary in TelQuel, April 14-20 and 21-27, 2007 and in al-Masa’, special edition, April 2007. Evidence of regional coordination, on the other hand, was seen in reports of Moroccan, Tunisian and Libyan nationals identified among Islamist casualties of army operations near Tebessa in late July. Reuters, August 7, 2007.
[6] Liberté, May 18-19, 2007.
[7] A member of Khalifa’s Paris social set quoted in Time, September 14, 2003.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Economist Intelligence Unit, July 23, 2007.
[10] See, for instance, International Crisis Group, The Civil Concord: A Peace Initiative Wasted (Algiers/Brussels, July 2001) and Eric Goldstein, “Algeria’s Amnesia Decree,” OpenDemocracy.net, April 10, 2006.
[11] Interview in Daikha Dridi, Alger, blessée et lumineuse (Paris: Autrement, 2005), p. 82.

How to cite this article:

James McDougall "After the War," Middle East Report 245 (Winter 2007).

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