Algerian President Abdulaziz Bouteflika claimed spectacular diplomatic success last month when he concluded security accords with the US and NATO and signed an economic agreement with the EU that provides, on his own insistence, for cooperation in the “war against terrorism”.
But the Algerians are not overwhelmed by their president’s ‘triumphs’. They see them as coming at the expense of vital internal reforms, as being mainly in the interests of other states, and as putting too much emphasis on security issues. French president Jacques Chirac visit to Algiers in December was considered insignificant even by pro-French Algerians.
Bouteflika went to Washington in November. He expressed his condolences for September 11 and declared his support for the “war on terrorism”. He also discussed economic agreements and cooperation accords. The extent and nature of his readiness to cooperate with Uncle Sam became clear a month later when a US official visited three North African countries, including Algeria.
At a press conference on December 9 William Burns, US assistant secretary of state, said that his country was training Algerian ‘security experts’ to fight terrorism, and that his discussions would strengthen the two countries’ anti-terrorist cooperation. His talks also covered the conclusion of an economic accord in the near future, he said, adding that US companies were ready to invest in Algeria. A report in the International Herald Tribune on December 17 also confirmed that Washington and others had agreed to sell Algiers “non-lethal equipment including night vision gear to help the fight” against the Islamic insurgency.
Later in December, Bouteflika met EU and NATO officials in Brussels. He joined Romano Brodi, president of the EU commission, to initial an economic pact on December 19, with Tunisia and Morocco. The next day Bouteflika joined George Robertson, NATO’s secretary general, to sign a security pact, making Algeria one of only three countries in the Mediterranean region to have such ties with the EU, the others being Israel and Jordan. The pact calls for strict secrecy in respect of documents on security, intelligence and military matters to be exchanged between the parties. It is known to provide for the exchange of intelligence information, and for equipment and training of the Algerian army to help it to fight ‘terrorism’.
Bouteflika sought to explain the economic agreements with the EU and the US as an opportunity to give the Algerian economy the lift it needs. But critics at home dismissed them as the result of competition between US and EU companies to tap Algeria’s oil and gas resources, arguing that only those politicians and businessmen with links to the pouvoir (the shadowy generals who rule Algeria indirectly) will benefit. Louisa Hanoun, the head of the Labour Party, said that foreign countries were exploiting globalisation to press their economic interests in Algeria.
Hanoun, who is no friend of Islamic activists, blames the violence in the country on ‘death squads’ allied to the armed forces. Speaking at a weekly forum arranged by an Algerian newspaper, she recalled former president Zeroual (1994-99) admitting to her that “death squads with no links to Islamic groups” were responsible. According to her, Zeroual stressed that the groups were not connected with the government but to the “economic mafia given rise to by economic liberalisation”.
This is the first time that an Algerian politician has been quoted as admitting the existence of death squads, although most Algerians accept that the government is involved. Nor is Hanoun alone. Referring to the thousands of Algerians who have disappeared in the last decade, Mahmoud Khelili, a human-rights lawyer, said on December 17 that “the government itself was responsible for some — perhaps many — of the killings attributed to the guerrillas.” He also criticised Bouteflika for his other failures: “Bouteflika hasn’t fixed anything... Justice, corruption, education— it has not been fixed. I don’t see the day yet when you can just buy medicine here and not have a friend sneak it in for you.” (International Herald Tribune, December 17.)
The article also reported that Maloud Brahimi, former head of Algeria’s League of Human Rights, doubts whether Algeria’s “new friendship with the west will be a good thing”, as do “many other Algerian intellectuals”. He also crticised the regime for maintaining the decade-long state of emergency, and for the banning of critical newspapers, such as the recent closure of the weekly magazine Mawid.
If Bouteflika was hoping that his diplomatic antics would improve his reputation at home, the widespread criticism of his efforts shows that he will be disappointed. Whether he secures a second term in 2004 will be decided by the generals, who picked him as their candidate two years ago. If his performance does not improve, they may soon decide to replace him with someone else instead.