The Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), the armed wing of the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), announced on June 6 that it would end its armed struggle against the government permanently, and place its forces under the states’s authority. Abdulaziz Bouteflika, Algeria’s new president, said in a statement the same day that he would instruct his government to prepare draft legislation that would absolve those laying down their arms. But Bouteflika’s guarded response to a radical new offer of peace reflects his military masters’ opposition to any deal short of outright surrender and is, therefore, unlikely to usher in the reconciliation the country needs.
But both moves - confirmed in an unprecedented exchange of letters between Medani Mirzak, the commander of the AIS, and Bouteflika on June 6, and broadcast the same day on government television - are widely seen in Algeria as auspicious new initiatives, and have rekindled hopes for a political settlement of the conflict. This optimism is encouraged by press reports suggesting that Bouteflika’s instructions to his officials to prepare draft legislation will soon lead to an amnesty covering AIS fighters and members as well as supporters of FIS.
Those who believe that the president is seriously seeking a settlement argue that he needs to restore his credibility, which was badly dented by the dubious manner of his election as sole candidate in April’s elections, and that a settlement of the conflict would transform him into a national hero overnight. They also praise him for publicly negotiating with the AIS when both the army and the outgoing administration of general Zeraoul could only do so secretly.
Officials of the former president reached an agreement with the AIS in October 1997, which led to the unilateral declaration of an unconditional truce by the armed wing of AIS, but strongly denied doing so; while the army claimed that they would never negotiate with ‘terrorists’.
But the above arguments seem to ignore several facts: that although the AIS has been maintaining its truce since October 1997, the violence continues to this day; that FIS and its armed wing are not the only parties to the conflict; that Bouteflika has very little control over the generals and the militias they have armed, that are largely responsible for the mayhem; and that Bouteflika has so far made no attempt to appease the opposition candidates in the April polls, who pulled out at the last minute accusing the army ofrigging them in his favour.
Indeed, the AIS moves are in some respects themselves divisive. The political leaders of the FIS did not all support the force’s decision to negotiate secretly with the army, and regarded the October 1997 unilateral truce as controversial. And FIS is even more divided now over the AIS truce, which goes too far in some respects - especially in its offer to join the army to fight the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and others still engaged in combat.
In fact Bouteflika’s apparent decision to confine initial negotiation to the AIS, or even the FIS, is thought to be the result of the strategy pursued by the army throughout the conflict, which has been to divide the Islamic opposition. There are those who claim that it has indeed succeeded in secretly co-opting the AIS, whose militias are alleged already to be fighting the GIA on the side of the military.
Equally, the AIS may have been tricked into the 1997 truce by the army by the offer of a genuine reconciliation involving the release of the FIS leaders and supporters, and the return of the movement to political life. A report by the correspondent of the London-based Financial Times on June 7, suggested as much, quoting sources ‘close to the AIS’. “Those close to the AIS said yesterday that the militants were promised by Algeria’s army in 1997 that the cease-fire would lead to a reconciliation”, it said. “Their understanding is that release of political prisoners and FIS leaders, and the integration of the AIS into Algeria’s military or paramilitary forces, would be followed by a return of the movement to the political scene under a new formation.”
If the claims that the AIS has sold out to the army or been tricked by it into a false reconciliation are true, then the generals - who are the final arbiters of power in the land - must believe that they can divide the Islamic groups, and that they have already done so to a great extent. And if they can infiltrate and divide the largest Islamic group, why should they accommodate smaller ones, or, indeed, the secular political establishment, which is corrupt and even easier to manipulate.
The conviction that they can prevail upon the Islamic opposition is in line with the mantra of Arab dictators - these days so fashionable in Egypt - that ‘Islamic terrorists can and must be defeated on the ground’. It is reasonable to assume that president Husni Mubarak of Egypt, who came to Algiers for talks with Bouteflika on June 8, must have urged his Algerian counter-part against significant concessions to the ‘Islamic terrorists’.
Mubarak was invited, at short notice, to discuss the Organization of African Unity (OAU) summit in Algiers next month. According to a foreign ministry statement on June 7, “the visit will allow the two leaders to exchange views on matters of mutual interest, including...the expected OAU summit”.
The July summit of African heads of state will discuss and adopt, an anti-terrorism agreement targeted at Islamic movements worldwide. The draft is based on the Arab League anti-terrorist pact, which came into force on May 7. (see previous issue June 1-15, 1999) Bouteflika, who will chair this venomously anti-Islamic summit, and who is expected to do his utmost to make it a success, will not allow himself to be seen to be soft on ‘Islamic terrorism’. The legislation he is preparing is unlikely to go beyond compromising the FIS, and will most certainly avoid the risk of provoking the wrath of his masters, Algeria’s blood-thirsty secularist generals.
Muslimedia: June 16-30, 1999