The Algerian army, like the Turkish military, shows no sign of relinquishing its grip on power, and the speculation generated by the recent release of the two Islamic Salvation Front Leaders, Abassi Madani and Abdelkader Hachani as to whether general Liamine Zeroual is now ready for a genuine dialogue is just that: pure speculation.
The releases are no more than a sop to the western powers backing the junta which have been demanding a change of image if not policy, and to the secular political parties represented in the so-called parliament, returned in the rigged elections of last June. They come after the June poll and the election of general Zeroual as president in 1995 have failed to help stem the violence in the country or loosen the junta’s grip on power.
The reason for the failure is not surprising. The November 1995 presidential election was rigged, and Zeroual in any case is little more than a front for the military mafiosi that control power and resources in the land. The June poll, stage-managed by the army, gave the biggest number of seats (155 out of 380) to the National Democratic Rally (RND), newly created by Zeroual to assume power. With the 64 seats won by the corrupt and discredited National Liberation Front (FLN), which ruled Algeria as a single party for 30 years but now supports Zeroual, the government has a majority (58 percent) in an assembly which is toothless and cannot challenge the regime anyway.
Zeroual’s electoral ploys were in a way still-born. With FIS, the largest political organization, outlawed, it was plain from the beginning that no real change was in the offing. And despite the blessings of the Organization of African Unity and the Arab League - assisted by 103 international observers coordinated by the United Nations who, though critical, suspended judgement on the fraud - the Algerian people have rejected them as genuine power-sharing first steps.
If anyone was in any doubt, the continuing violence throughout the country has changed their minds. More than 300 people were killed between the June election and the release of Abassi Madani on July 15 (Abdelkader Hachani was released a week earlier). On the day before his release (and several days after Hachani’s) alone, 21 people were killed and 40 others injured when a bomb exploded in a market just outside Algiers, the capital. Another 103 were butchered by the regime’s forces a week later. There has been no let up in the killings since.
Western countries like Britain and the US - which welcomed the elections as an expression of the Algerian people’s desire to engage in peaceful politics - and Zeroual’s local political allies clearly felt some more concessions had to be given. They put pressure on the generals to show some gesture of accommodation towards the FIS. Such a gesture, they calculate, would isolate the ‘hardline fundamentalists’ of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) who are officially blamed for most of the violence, and would give the regime a more presentable image.
But the generals have come up with the gimmick of releasing only two FIS leaders, who should not have been in jail in the first place - keeping locked up the tens of thousands of Islamic activists they are unlawfully holding and torturing.
It comes as no surprise also that they have baulked at legalising the FIS which they continue to ban. The military mindset sees any positive gesture towards an Islamic movement or party as a potential threat to the secular establishment, which is the bedrock of their power and wealth.
The Islamic movement or party in question need not advocate the establishment of an Islamic revolution to run into trouble with the army, in Algeria or elsewhere, as the Refah party and former prime minister Necmettin Erbakan discovered when the Turkish generals elbowed them out of power recently. It is enough to call for a return to Islamic values in the conduct of public affairs for the universally corrupt junta, and the secular civilians that feed off them, to be alarmed.
The Algerian junta has tried to give some credibility to their latest ploy by dismissing the commander of the gendarme (national military police), which directs the State terrorist operations against Islamic activists. Major general Benabbes Gheziali, who was seen as a hardliner, was replaced by an alleged ‘moderate’ officer who, naturally, will be as combative or moderate as the top brass want him to be.
But Zeroual’s gimmicks are not working as the level of violence has not subsided and no credible Islamic leaders have come forward to his fold. With the president committed to defeating the Islamic activists on the ground, the FIS outlawed and the GIA beyond the pale, no such leader will step forward for a dialogue that is clearly hollow.
The west - which continues to support the junta not only because of the country’s rich oil and natural gas resources but also because of the fear of Islamic resurgence in the Muslim world - knows that without legalizing the FIS, the Islamic Salvation Army (SIA), the movement’s armed wing, will not stop fighting, and that the GIA has no incentive to do so, anyway.
A western diplomat quoted in the International Herald Tribune the day after Madani’s release said it was a ‘dramatic move’ but one unlikely to stop the violence because the FIS chief had no influence after a five year stay in prison. ‘It is not going to stop the violence, like the bomb in Baraki yesterday [July 14] or the massacres,’ he said. ‘There is no real reason to think that Madani can do that now. His time has gone by.’
A western analyst, Martin Stone of the London-based Control Risks, also told the same newspaper much the same thing. The SIA, he said, ‘is not going to stop fighting untill the FIS is legalized’ - adding that the GIA ‘has nothing to do with the FIS and it’s that group which is doing the urban bombings.’
But the west, despite this knowledge, will continue to support the junta, as their backing for the Turkish generals’ latest coup has shown. And the Algerian military will continue to cling to power.
While Muslims should rejoice in the release of any Islamic activists, it will be a mistake to fall for Zeroual’s latest trickery.
Muslimedia - August 16-31, 1997