The Charter of Peace and National Reconciliation – approved in a referendum in early October – is ostensibly intended to lay to rest the aftermath of a conflict that lasted for more than a decade, in which at least 150,000 Algerians lost their lives. To achieve this the Charter offers an amnesty to the repressive armed forces who were mainly responsible for the bloodshed, and to the Islamic groups confronting them. But in reality the main beneficiaries are the armed forces and security forces, in particular the generals who brought Abdul-Aziz Bouteflika to power in 1999. The amnesty extended to the Islamic radicals is so flimsy and grudging that Islamic groups, particularly the leading Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat, have turned down Bouteflika's dubious offer, and made their own conditions for acceptance.
The Charter purportedly grants a pardon to members of Islamic groups in prison or still being sought, or even still fighting, provided that they lay down their arms. Moreover, those who are not implicated in massacres, rapes and bombings in public places will not be tried for murder. But the army and security forces are absolved unconditionally from any punishment – or even criticism – at all for the mass murders committed during the repression of the Islamic resistance, for the thousands of disappearances and for the general suppression of human rights of Algerians. The number of people arrested who have not come back or been seen since is at least 6,000; the higher number of 10,000 is considered by many to be more accurate.
In fact, it was the armed forces that were responsible for the aggravation of the conflict in the first place by their intervention in the general election of 1991 after FIS, an Islamic party, had won the first round. This led to resistance by Islamic activists, who were supported by many Algerians, including nationalists, and to a brutal counter-insurgency that is blamed both locally and internationally for the disappearances and for several unexplained large-scale massacres of villagers in the presence of the army. Bouteflika and the generals have so far refused to order any investigation into either the disappearances or the massacres, preferring to blame the Islamic groups not only for these crimes but for all the bloodshed and violence during the conflict.
The peace and national reconciliation that the charter offers are therefore false, aiming, as they do to put the crimes committed by the regime and the armed forces totally in the past. Not only will no questions be asked about the massacres and disappearances, but the corruption and other crimes committed by the generals, civilian politicians and businessmen (known collectively as the “mafia-politico-financiere”) will be forgotten. Only Islamic activists, naturally opposed to these crimes, which continue to be committed to this day, will be pursued, because they are classified as ‘terrorists' by existing laws. The charter adopts this line and says only that Islamic activists will not stand trial for murder unless implicated in massacres, rapes and bombings “in public places”.
Moreover, there is little doubt that the regime cannot be trusted to interpret the charter fairly even though it is already heavily weighted in its favour. For example, the regime lied about the level of support for the charter during the recent referendum. Official figures said that 97 percent of voters backed it on a turnout of 82 percent, while the opposition parties said that only a quarter of the official figure turned out to vote. But there are those who argue that, although the official figures are greatly exaggerated, a majority of voters backed the charter because most Algerians are fed up with the aftermath of the bloodshed and want a genuine peace instead of the current false calm. But even if this were true, most Algerians distrust Bouteflika and do not believe that he or his regime is capable of bringing about the necessary changes, including the transformation of the country's miserable economic condition, which continues to persist despite its enormous oil-wealth.
There are very good reasons for the widespread lack of trust in the regime: there can be no peace or reconciliation while it persists in waging war against Islamic groups or activists under the pretext of fighting local and international ‘terrorism'. In fact Algeria's current government is a strong supporter of the West's war on ‘Islamic terrorism', partly as a result of strong external pressure. As it happens, many committed Islamic activists of Algerian nationality or origin are supporting Islamic causes in many parts of the world. Many of them are being repatriated, which explains the strong pressure from the US, the EU and Russia on Algiers to deal with them as terrorists (in some cases on the basis of ‘evidence' extracted as a result of torture by those handing them over).
In these circumstances, it is not surprising that the leaders of Islamic groups who are not in prison but are in hiding are rejecting the charter unless certain conditions are met first. In an interview on October 15 with ash-Sharq al-Awsat daily, for instance, Hassan Khatab, the founder of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, who is in hiding, gave several conditions for his cooperation with the scheme. Saying that he was still waiting to see “concrete measures” taken by the authorities after the referendum, he specified three that must be implemented first. These include the lifting of charges against members of the Ikhwan who dared to resist the military coup of 1991, and the treatment of all people equally. He went on to say that the regime must stop searching for him and his colleagues, must free Ali bin Hajj, the second leader of the Inqath Islamic Group, and must allow him to play a role in the national reconciliation. The ban on the group must also be lifted, and it must not be blamed for the past bloodshed.
Clearly, unless these conditions – and others – are met there can be no national reconciliation. The elite business and ruling class – the “mafia-politic-financiere” – and the foreign powers that have Bouteflika's ear will not allow these conditions to be implemented. According to them there should be no room for Islamic groups in Algerian politics. But significantly – and fortunately – Algeria's Islamic activists are not being intimidated.