Benjedid speaks out, exposing another dimension of Algeria’s nightmare

Abbas Fadl Murtada

Dhu al-Qa'dah 22, 1421 2001-02-16

Special Reports

by Abbas Fadl Murtada (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 29, No. 24, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1421)

After nearly a decade of silence, former Algerian president Chadli Benjedid has spoken. In statements to Algerian journalists last month, Benjedid responded to criticism describing his 10-year presidency as the “black decade” and accusing him of making a deal with the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique de Salut or FIS). Denying that he had had any deal with FIS, the former president explained that in fact he dismissed former prime minister Mouloud Hamrouche because of the latter’s refusal to use force to break up street-gatherings of FIS supporters. He also claimed that he was not forced to resign but did so voluntarily.

The significance of Benjedid’s statements lies not in the fact that they contained any spectacular revelations, for they did not. Their significance lies simply in the fact that he has spoken at all, for Benjedid reportedly gave a “pledge of silence” in return for his life and reputation, following the January 1992 coup which robbed FIS of electoral victory. His passport was confiscated and was not returned until about a year ago. Little wonder, then, that Benjedid’s statements are largely regarded as another sign of conflict within the ruling establishment. Some observers view the statements as part of an army scheme to bring Benjedid back to power. The army has always played an important role in Algeria’s political life.

It is not difficult to sense the ghostly presence of the military establishment. As well as denying accusations against him, Benjedid is clearly trying to absolve the army of its responsibility for the political crisis and reign of terror visited upon the country since January 1992. Yet the statements also point to a rift between president Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the army. In response to Benjedid’s statements, Bouteflika criticised severely the former president and those whom he accused of seeking to obstruct his “civil concord policy.” He also accused the country’s legal political parties of corruption, describing them as “the parties of posts and gains” (ahzab al-manasib wal-makasib). More importantly, Bouteflika underlined on a number of occasions that his rule is based on what he calls “popular legitimacy.” In a country where the president’s power rests mainly on the support and endorsement of the military establishment, talk of “popular legitimacy” is no small talk. Bouteflika’s effort to anchor his regime’s legitimacy in an appeal to popular consent indicates the erosion of the generals’ support of his regime.

There is no doubt that the widening rift between Bouteflika and the army points to another, largely ignored, aspect of the bloodbath in Algeria: the incessant factionalism which has long riven the ruling establishment. Since its ‘independence’ in 1962, Algeria has been in the grip of a labyrinth of political factionalism, a landscape of shifting alliances in which the army has been the dominant faction. Without meaningful political or judicial processes, the Algerian state, subjugated by the army hierarchy, has functioned more as an instrument to implement policies dictated by the army than a harmonious constellation of policy-making bodies. Having hijacked the post-independence state, the army has become a shadowy oligarchy that controls most of Algeria’s oil-wealth.

A major fault-line in the long-running crisis is the one between the Francophones and the so-called Arabists/Islamists. This schism encapsulates a set of diametrically opposed perspectives on the country’s identity, history and future. It should be noted that in Algeria, Arabism/Islamism does not refer to a programme of action to establish an Islamic state, as it means to many contemporary Islamic movements. It refers mainly to a tendency to embrace Islam as a visible symbol of cultural identity shared by most Algerians, rather than to a system of spiritual and temporal values. Some Algerian intellectuals have referred to this dichotomy as a tension between “Bin Badis and Paris.” Berber-born Shaykh ‘Abd al-Hamid Bin Badis (d. 1940) was one of the most prominent advocates of Algeria’s Arab and Muslim identity. In 1931 he founded, with a group of other Salafi ‘ulama, the Association of Algerian Muslim ‘Ulama (Jam’iyat al-’Ulama’ al-Muslimin al-Jaza’iriyyin) which worked to revive Islam in Algerian society, mainly by a network of Islamic schools.

The early years after 1962 saw an upsurge in the Arabist/Islamist trend. This suited the ruling National Liberation Front (Front de Liberation Nationale or FLN), which appropriated Arab national and Islamic religious symbols to cloak the totalitarian political program it sought to impose. It launched an enormous propaganda effort to validate its claim of a philosophical compatibility between the Arabo-Islamic heritage and socialism. The state devoted substantial resources to Islamic education and religious institutions, in part to keep the ‘ulama under control. It also instituted a massive educational programme to Arabise society.

However, as later developments demonstrated, these efforts failed to arrest the expansion of pro-French activity. The Arabist/Islamist trend continued to be restricted to a faction of the FLN, by some Algerians nicknamed sarcastically “the bearded FLN”. Francophony continued to thrive beneath the cloak of Arabisation. The opportunistic Francophones lay low, adopting what might be described as a chameleon-like technique, often paying lip-service to the Arabo-Islamic heritage to cover their adherence to the manners, culture, language and arrogance of the former colonisers. One indication of the enduring subversive existence of the Francophone legacy was the continued use of French as the main language of government and industry in the 1960s and 1970s. Algerian Francophony was wedded to isolationist trends in the Kabyle Berber community, who regarded Arabisation as synonymous with the negation of their cultural and ethnic identity. This explains why some parts of the Kabyle community exhibited higher rates of Francophony than the rest of the population.

The recent war of words between Benjedid and Boutaflika coincided with a number of moves that indicated increasing tension between the Francophones and the Arabists/Islamists in the Algerian political establishment. Foremost among these developments is the decision by the interior ministry not to authorize Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi’s Fidelity and Justice Movement (known as Wafa). A candidate in the last presidential election who was among those who withdrew at the last minute, Ibrahimi is considered one of the leading Arabists/Islamists in the FLN. Justifying his refusal to legalise Wafa, interior minister Noureddine Zerhouni said that most of the movement’s leaders were FIS cadres.

The Francophones have gained ground since 1992. Since Arabism is closely associated in the Algerian consciousness with a return to Islam, the army enlisted the support of the Francophones in their confrontation with the Islamic movement. One symptom of this can be seen in the government’s encouragement of the country’s French-language press at the expense of its Arabic counterpart. Asphyxiating the Arab press became part of the regime’s broader effort to eradicate the Islamic movement.

Aware of the growing influence of the Francophones, Bouteflika made a number of moves intended to get the support of Francophone circles for his row with the army. One such move came in November, when he formed a committee to reform the structures of the Algerian state. Among its goals is to draft a new constitution that will vest more authority and greater powers in the president. Bouteflika appointed Missoum S’bih, a hardened Francophone, as head of the committee. S’bih started his political career in the French colonial administration. He was then appointed ambassador to Canada and the Benelux countries. Former president Ali Kafi once described S’bih as the leader of “France’s Party” in Algeria.

The army is certainly too powerful to be taken on directly, so it might be expected to continue to call the shots in policy-making. It is believed that the military compelled Bouteflika to appoint former interior minister General Larbi Belkheir as head of the presidential office, replacing Ali Benflis, who became prime minister. Belkheir was one of the mainstays of the Benjedid regime, and one of the principal architects of the confrontation with FIS.

However, as shown by its performance over the past decade, the military cannot really have the ability to defeat the armed Islamic opposition. When he announced his “civil concord” last year, Bouteflika threatened the armed groups with “severe measures” if they did not lay down their weapons. But subsequent developments showed that the threat was not taken seriously. Nor was the government’s security apparatus able to implement the “severe measures” it threatened to resort to in order to “eradicate” the Islamic activists.

In practice, the “civil concord” policy amounted to a deal between the Algerian government and the FIS armed wing, the Islamic Salvation Army (Armee Islamique du Salut or AIM), to lay down its arms. By not negotiating with the political leadership of FIS, the government ignored the political stalemate gripping the country in favour of trying to come to terms with those who have taken up arms against it. But more radical groups, such as Antar Zouabri’s Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armee or GIA) and Salim al-Afghani’s Salafi Call and Struggle Group (GSPC) have rejected the “civil concord” policy. These groups define themselves by absolutes, in a somewhat exclusivist, us-versus-them salafi worldview. Like their adversaries in the military, they reject limits on their tactics, and may be guilty of some activities that most Algerians believe to be the work of government agencies. The political blindness of the army and some elements in these groups means that the violence will continue, and also the political stalemate.

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