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Book Review

Algeria's agony lost in the paucity of western scholarship

Zafar Bangash

THE AGONY OF ALGERIA By Martin Stone. Published by Columbia University Press, New York, NY, US. 1997. pp. 274. Pbk: US$16.50.

Hardly a day passes by without newspapers and magazines reporting a massacre somewhere in Algeria. Thanks to western propaganda, members of the Islamic Movement are routinely blamed for such massacres without offering any proof. Since Muslims are the bad guys these days, no proof is deemed necessary.

That Algeria was heading for trouble was evident to informed observers long before the annulment, by the military junta, of the second round of parliamentary elections in January 1992. The first round was won by the Front Islamique de Salut (FIS or the Islamic Salvation Front) with an overwhelming majority (188 out of 230 seats contested). Had the second round been allowed, the FIS would have gained more than a two-third majority in parliament.

Support for the FIS was not just a protest vote. Thirty years after independence, the nationalists had brought the country to the brink of disaster. Not a poor country, the vast oil and gas resources of Algeria were squandered by the FLN regime in cohouts with the military establishment. By the time, the first multi-party elections were held in December 1991, unemployment, especially among the youth, was more than 30 percent and the country had acquired an external debt of $30 billion.

Ironically, those who emerged in leadership role after independence had played little part in the resistance against French colonialism. The fight was waged by the mujahideen who took the brunt of casualties. More than a million people were martyred in the struggle from 1954 to 1962. The spirit of jihad was awakened by the ulama. Once the French occupiers were defeated, the mujahideen and the ulama were sidelined. The current struggle in Algeria is the unfinished business left over from the fight against French colonialism in 1962.

In The Agony of Algeria, Martin Stone, head of research at Control Risks Information Services in London (UK), gives us a brief overview of Algeria’s history from the beginning of its colonial phase. He brings us upto the June 1997 elections. Given the paucity of literature in English on Algeria, any material is useful. Stone’s treatment, however, is largely descriptive. While a chronological approach is helpful in that it places history in proper perspective, the book is weak in its analysis of events and their likely causes. More seriously, many conclusions are merely speculative. Similarly, it offers no solutions for the future.

Stone posits two hypotheses: first, that the Algerian constitution left three issues unresolved; second, that by 1988, the major institutions of State had lost legitimacy. He states that the role of Islam, decline of the left and tensions between various factions, clans and other groups that had been papered over during the war of liberation were left unresolved even after 30 years of independence. It was these issues that came to a head, first in 1988 and then in 1991-92.

While the Front de Liberation National (FLN) claimed legitimacy as the party that spearheaded the liberation struggle politically, the military, Armee de Liberation Nationale (ALN), claimed legitimacy on the basis that it had waged the battle. Like most ‘third world’ countries, the Algerian elite played on the people’s sentiments to make up for political legitimacy. This, however, was no longer sufficient 30 years later. The new generation had little or no experience of the liberation struggle.

By 1988, there had been a massive shift in the population balance. Emphasis by successive regimes on industrialisation had resulted in the depopulation of the countryside and creation of sprawling slums in the cities. This had a disastrous effect on the country’s agriculture necessitating imports of food grain. On the other hand, a large army of young people swelled the ranks of the unemployed in the cities.

Thirty years of State propaganda and a steady diet of socialist rhetoric had politicised the population without the regime fulfilling its minimum obligations of providing employment to the millions. It became clear that the FLN and the military were only interested in looking after their own financial interests while the masses were asked to make sacrifices. Corruption was widespread and as it became more visible, resentment among the masses escalated.

Stone narrates these details in a straight forward manner. Where he errs is in some of his claims. He alleges that the religious scholars turned against the regime because they lost land as a result of land reforms. Even if this were true, the land reforms did not help the regime feed its burgeoning population.

In discussing the economic crisis (pp. 81-101) he states that departure of the French created a setback for the regime’s economic efforts. The French had managed the economy prior to independence. Additional blow was delivered by the flight of pied noirs. Coupled with rising corruption and the ostentatious lifestyle of the ruling elite, the masses turned against them. This is true but explains only partially what was happening in Algeria.

Stone identifies 1988 as a turning point in Algerian history. There were widespread food riots and the military resorted to brute force to quell them. This turned out to be a disaster. Whatever little legitimacy the ALN and the FLN may have had, was lost as a result of this action. From then on, it was merely a matter of time before the regime would collapse under its own incompetence.

Stone says that Chadli Benjedid, the last president before the junta took direct control, tried to arrest the situation by introducing political reforms and trying to undercut Islam’s appeal by relaxing some controls but was overtaken by events. Allowing other political parties - Front des Forces Socialistes (FFS) and the FIS - was a political sop that came too late, at least for Benjedid. He was swept by the military which did not want to lose its privileged position.

By introducing new issues into the Algerian debate - for instance, his insistence on the Berber question - Stone is likely to confuse rather than enlighten readers. Algeria’s current problems do not stem from the alleged political grievances of the Berber Kabyle (who are at most 20 percent of the population). They have a party, the FFS, representing their interests. In most societies, minorities often feel disadvantaged unless they are in power.

Stone admits that the civil war started when the military junta annulled the second round of elections but he is merely speculating when he asserts that ‘it was by no means clear that the FIS would have attracted anything near the same level of support in 1997 as it did in 1991’ parliamentary elections (p.122). Is there any proof in the absence of FIS’s participation? In 1991, western commentators had speculated that the FIS would not do so well in the December 1991 elections because voters had already seen their performance at the local level for more than a year.

The author is full of praise for general Liamine Zeroual’s political acumen who, as the junta’s front man, first conducted a fraudulent presidential election in November 1995 claiming to have won a large majority and then enacted another fraud in June 1997 in which the regime created its own party, the Rassemblement National Democratique (RND), in February, which swept the polls three months later!

Uncritical acceptance of such political acrobatics by the regime bring into question Stone’s objectivity. He also describes the June 1997 elections as the ‘first-ever multi-party parliamentary elections, the first ever occasion that the country had completed a full electoral process’ in Algeria (p.121). How he can dismiss the December 1991 elections, also organised by the regime as not multi-party, is difficult to fathom.

While he admits that there was some degree of fraud in the 1997 elections, he goes on to assert that ‘there is no doubt that the RND genuinely won the largest number of votes. For whatever reason the party’s pro-government, anti-Islamist stance struck a chord with the majority of Algerians...’ (p. 122). Why, we are not told.

Readers are expected to accept, without the author offering any explanation or proof, that the majority of Algerians were impressed by the RND which had come into existence barely three months earlier and that they had suddenly turned away from the FIS. Since the FIS is banned and therefore, not allowed to contest the elections, with the vast majority of its leadership either in jail or in exile, Stone’s assertion carries little weight.

Political opinion aside - unfortunately all too common among most western writers on the Muslim world - his bold assertion that almost all acts of terrorism are perptetrated by members of the Islamic Movement, is untenable. In recent months, evidence has emerged through the testimony of former members of the Securite Militaire that they have been involved in acts of gruesome murder. Confessions by such former agents have been carried even in the western media - The Independent, London (October 31, 1997), The Observer Sunday, London (November 9, 1997), Le Monde, Paris (November 10, 1997) and The Observer Sunday, London (February 8, 1997).

These former agents of the regime have also admitted that the summer 1995 bombings in Paris were the work of the Algerian secret service. It should not be difficult to surmise why the junta would resort to such tactics. One must look for motives. What motives would the Islamic Movement in Algeria have if it was involved in a bombing campaign in Paris? It certainly could not hope to scare the French government away from its support of the junta?

The flip side of the coin offers a more plausible explanation. The regime had much to gain by indulging in such acts since it would add to the propaganda campaign against the Islamic Movement painting them as ‘uncivilised’, prone to terrorist acts and, therefore, unworthy of western support even if they won the election. It had the additional advantage of dissuading western governments from exerting pressure on the Algerian regime to hold a dialogue with them for a political compromise.

Yet Stone’s uncritical acceptance of the regime’s propaganda, and indeed propaganda in the west, about the nature of the Islamic Movement, shows one of two things. Either Stone is not fully aware of the reality in Algeria, or he is deliberately misinforming his readers. In fact, his lack of understanding of some basic facts of history is surprising given his claims to being an ‘authority’ on the Middle East.

For instance, he says Jamaluddin Afghani is an Egyptian (p. 146). His name alone should have alerted Stone to Afghani’s origin. Afghani was from Iran (born in Asadabad, to be precise) but for political reasons, chose to adopt the name Afghani. He had also spent time in India, France and Turkey. Would it be accurate to call him an Indian, French or Turk?

Stone does not say how to end Algeria’s current agony. His antipathy towards the Islamic Movement leaves the impression that he sees no role for FIS in a future political arrangement. At the same time, the junta has lost all credibility and militarily it has not been able to crush the Islamic opposition. So what does he propose for the country’s future?

One is left out in the cold. The tragedy is that the one solution that should be stated unambiguously has been ignored: the wishes of the Algerian people should be respected since they had voted for FIS in such large numbers. It is not enough to say that a junta-created party - the RND - won the June 1997 elections, through fraud as the author himself admits, so the FIS has lost support. This is political chicanery, not scholarship.

The suffering people of Algeria deserve better.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 2

Rabi' al-Thani 18, 14381998-03-16

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