Algeria is in the grip of political, economic and security problems after 40 years of ‘independence’ that came at a heavy cost to its people, many of whom believe that things will not improve in the foreseeable future. This gloom springs from the widespread perception that under the new parliament — composed mostly of politicians under the control of the military and a president who was the generals’ candidate in the first place — the problems facing the country will not be tackled with the urgency they demand.
But president Abdul-Aziz Bouteflika and top army generals, speaking at functions held to celebrate the 40th anniversary of independence, have tried to paint a brighter picture, boasting that ‘terrorism’ is finally defeated, national reconciliation achieved and democracy introduced. However, one general warned political leaders that the army would not let them encroach on certain functions reserved for it; Bouteflika pleaded to be allowed to govern in peace, but the largest bomb-explosion in more than two years coincided with the independence celebrations, confirming the impression that the military is still in control and that violence is still the norm.
The bomb explosion occurred on July 5 in a crowded market in Larba town, 25 kilometres (15 miles) south of Algiers, the capital, killing 35 people and injuring 80. By the following day 14 of the wounded were dead. The bomb, with several smaller blasts, occurred despite increased security measures in Larba and other towns in the region of Blida. Security officers had set up checkpoints on all roads leading into the town. The area is known as the “triangle of death” because of the large number of killings there attributed to the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and to death squads believed to be linked to the army. No one has so far claimed responsibility for the bombing, but the security forces blamed it on the armed Islamic groups. The GIA and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat have — unlike the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) — rejected the reconciliation accord presented by Bouteflika after his election in 1999, and have been blamed for many acts of violence.
The Larba bombing took place only three days after General Muhammad Lamari, the army chief of staff, boasted at a press conference on July 2 that the government had won its long campaign against the Islamic groups. This is, of course, nothing new: the Algerian authorities have been claiming for five years that terrorism is only “residual” and that the conflict is practically over. According to government figures, more than 100,000 people have died since 1992, when the country was plunged into violence shortly after the army cancelled an election that FIS was about to win. There has certainly been a marked decline in violent deaths in the last two years; the last serious attack in the Larba area took place last August, when ‘suspected rebels’ killed 23 villagers in a raid. But there has been a resurgence in violence this year after security forces shot dead Antar Zouarbi, the principal GIA leader, on February 8.
But General Lamari did not confine his remarks at the press conference — the first of its kind since his appointment as chief of staff in 1993 — to boasting about the government’s triumph over ‘terrorism’. He named the date for the release of FIS leaders Shaikh Abbas Madani and Ali Bin Haj, set conditions for the appointment of ministers of defence by the president, and vowed never to allow the indictment of members of the armed forces for acts committed during their ‘suppression of violence’ in the Kabila Berber region; he said that the government was entirely to blame for the mismanagement of affairs there. The Berber residents of the region, who are demanding cultural and political autonomy, have been involved in clashes with security forces, and boycotted the recent parliamentary elections.
Lamari’s remarks could not fail to give the impression that the army has considerable influence over what decisions the government can and cannot make. When he said that two FIS leaders would be released in July 2003 — and that the army chiefs would not attach any conditions once they were released— he clearly implied that the army was in a position to veto their release at an earlier date, or to attach conditions. But his remarks on the appointment of ministers of defence by the president were even more stark. “The only condition the military establishment imposes and insists on is that the person appointed is an Algerian — in all cases,” he said. According to sources quoted in newspaper reports, Lamari was casting doubt on the patriotism of certain officials. And since patriotism is such a vague criterion for the appointment of a minister, the army in effect wants a veto on all such appointments.
But Lamari, obviously aware of the impact of his remarks, hastened to add that there was no conflict between the generals and president Bouteflika, saying that the functions and powers of the president and the army are clearly set out in the constitution, and that he, as chief of staff, is in constant consultation with the president. However, he refused to answer a journalist who asked about an earlier attack by another general on Bouteflika’s performance in office. The president himself has called publicly on unnamed senior officers not to violate the constitutional rules specifying their powers, and not to imperil army unity.
Addressing a group of senior officers on July 4, Bouteflika criticised certain sections of the army that were determined to divide it, saying that the unity of institutions is of paramount importance. Journalists interpreted his remarks as a reference to the strong criticism in a newspaper interview by an “authorised source of the ministry of defence”, who several days earlier had taken him to task for his shortcomings as president. This is the second time in two years that Bouteflika has used strong language while addressing a gathering of senior army officers. The first time was in July last year, when he told such a gathering that there are “certain officers who are a burden on this establishment”. But despite his public criticism of unnamed officers, he has not ordered the sacking or even disciplining of any of them, probably because he cannot, although as president he is the chief commander of the armed forces under the Algerian constitution.
On the day before, the president had tried to defend his reconciliation accord of 1999 against accusations of failure, as well as the recent elections, which were widely dismissed as fraudulent and undemocratic. In his address to an international peace conference organised by the government, he asserted that the accord put an end to the “artificial discord” sown among Algerians by troublemakers. He also claimed that the elections were conducted in strict accordance with the law and democratic norms — adding that it was unfair to expect “within weeks what took others centuries to do”.
But clearly Bouteflika is unconvincing on both counts, because FIS, the largest opposition party in the country, was not allowed to take part in the elections. There can be no reconciliation without a political settlement with FIS, and no ‘democracy’ while millions of Algerians who support it continue to be disenfranchised.