Ahmad Awyahya, Algeria’s justice minister, has announced that Ali Bilhaj, the deputy leader of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), who has been serving a 12-year prison sentence since 1991, will not be released early, and that the ban on FIS will not be lifted. The announcement was made because of speculation that Bilhaj was about to be released and that FIS, which was banned in 1992, would soon be able to resume its activities as a legally recognised political organisation. Both the announcement and the speculation coincided with the collapse of public confidence in the regime’s ability to govern, with a dramatic rise in FIS’s public profile, and with a resurgence of violence in the countryside. In the first fortnight of August alone, more than 100 people were killed in the western and central regions of the country in attacks by armed groups: a chilling reminder that Bouteflika’s cherished ‘civil concord’ programme has failed to end the ‘civil war’.
Awyahya would not even allow himself to refer to the Islamic movement by name. He simply said, on August 19, that “we refuse to return to a period of anarchy, as we refuse the return of a banned party.” It was open to those who dreamt of returning to a period of chaos to “cling to their dream”, he added, but he would not accept the re-emergence of a party that had been “legally dissolved”. He was alluding to the FIS’s dissolution by a court order, after the cancellation of the elections that it had been about to win.
The justice minister used similar language to explain his objection to the release of Ali Bilhaj, saying that “those who seek to spread their ideas want to bring about whatever may make their dreams come true before July 5” (Algeria’s annual independence day is July 5). He was referring to widespread speculation on the eve of the independence celebrations that the president would exploit the occasion in order to release Bilhaj on grounds of ill-health. But the occasion came and passed and no action was taken either to release Bilhaj or to end the house arrest imposed on Abbas Madani, head of FIS. Madani and Bilhaj were convicted in 1992 on security charges and sentenced to 12 years in prison each, but Abbas Madani was transferred from his prison cell and put under house arrest at his parents’ home in Algiers. Bilhaj was left to continue to serve his sentence in a jail in Baledah.
There is, of course, nothing new about the regime’s assertion that the ban on FIS will not be lifted and that its leaders will not be freed. Both the president and his ministers say the same thing over and over again. In fact, Awyahya’s recent reference to judicial orders is borrowed from Bouteflika’s speeches, which often repeat his “refusal to interfere in judicial matters”. But both the timing and language of Awyahya’s assertions are appalling. Not only have social and economic problems throughout the country reached crisis levels, but the Berber agitation for cultural and political concessions has also gathered widespread support, and polarisation among the country’s political groups has brought about a political vacuum that the governing military, political and commercial-industrial elites can exploit for their own ends. Never before has the need for national reconciliation been greater, but Awyahya has chosen instead to provoke the country’s largest political movement.
This explains the strong criticism, particularly by Islamic groups, of Awyahya’s unnecessary brinkmanship. Even newspapers supporting the president have joined in the censure. The Nation Reform Movement, led by Abdullahi Jabu-Allah, on August 19 called in a statement for “calming measures” to relieve the country’s explosive situation. The measures proposed include the release of all political detainees, including Madani and Bilhaj. The NRM expressed surprise at Awyahya’s “hardline language” at a time when there was widespread talk of national reconciliation.
Al-Habib Adami, the secretary-general of al-Nahda Movement, which has two seats in the ruling coalition, also called for the release of political detainees. Adami said that “there can be no end to the crisis except through a real national reconciliation meeting several demands — including the release of political detainees.”
But even L’Expressione, a secular daily paper which supports the president, was critical of the timing and content of Awyahya’s statement. The minister was wrong to air his views at a time when “assassinations have intensified in several regions of the country,” it said. The newspaper criticised Awyahya for interfering in a field specifically reserved for the president by the constitution, adding that if president Bouteflika thought that Bilhaj’s release would advance national reconciliation, he would not hesitate for a moment to issue an order to that effect.
The paper is clearly indulging in wishful thinking, and in backing a president who has apparently neither the inclination nor the power to address the burning issues of his country. Bouteflika is either away from Algeria or, when he is not, is content to rely on rhetoric. When he was on his recent state visit to the US, after several visits to other countries, a joke began to circulate in Algiers: “When will Bouteflika pay a state visit to Algeria?” As for rhetoric, his response to the mounting Berber campaign was typical: on August 16 he said that the campaign was aimed at national unity, but added: “Algeria is a beautiful virgin loved by all Algerians, each in his own way.” Some of Bouteflika’s excessive rhetoric refers to the country’s rampant corruption: “I will go to the extent of risking death to fight corruption,” for instance.
But neither rhetoric nor habit of accusations against foreign parties of conspiring to break up Algeria (as, for example, in the case of the Berbers’ campaign) will defuse the critical problems facing Algeria’s Muslims. The sooner Bouteflika and his ilk go, the better.