The secular fundamentalists among Algeria’s ruling junta, who were behind president Liamine Zeroual’s decision to step down before the end of his five-year term, have notched up another dubious victory: the report of the United Nations fact finding panel that visited the country in July has called on the international community to support the regime’s ‘anti-terrorist struggle.’ But neither Zeroual’s ouster nor UN and western backing will enable the junta to impose its will on a country that has been careering out of control for some years.
In fact the upheaval that has been gripping Algeria in the last seven years is directly traceable to the generals’ decision to cancel the 1992 elections, which the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was poised to win.
Determined to perpetuate a political system in which they rule behind the scenes and siphon off the country’s economic resources, they only sponsor political parties or personalities that are willing to serve as cover and take orders from them.
It was these powerful generals who, in January 1994, appointed Zeroual as head of State, convinced that he, a retired non-controversial general, would be subject to their control. A year later, they nominated him as the army’s candidate in the 1995 presidential elections, which he won. That is why his sudden resignation, announced on September 11, is being attributed, both in and outside Algeria, to his loss of the junta’s confidence in him rather than to his own personal decision to quit. Even his failing health is being discounted as a contributing factor.
Zeroual, who was due to serve until November 2000, said he would hand over power in February next year after presidential elections which he would not contest. According to media reports, his decision to step down came during a stormy six-hour meeting with top commanders led by the chief of staff, Muhammad Lamari. The general and his hardline colleagues, known as the ‘eradicators,’ are opposed to any negotiation with FIS, seeking to defeat it by force of arms.
Barely explaining his unexpected move, the president said he was stepping down to reinforce the democratic course he had set for the country on his election in 1995. But few Algerians believed that the move would advance the cause of democracy since the next president would be chosen by the generals as Zeroual himself had been. And in any case his successor would only enjoy the powers conceded by Lamari and his cohorts rather than those prescribed by the constitution.
At any rate, it would be stretching the point to argue that Zeroual is wedded to democratic values and norms, as his five-year stint in power amply shows otherwise. Although no one has so far accused him of financial fraud, he is no stranger to political corruption. The 1997 parliamentary and local elections, the democratic showcase of his term in office, were massively rigged.
Moreover, Zeroual has been willing to act as a cover for the junta, and US and European Union interests, abdicating his constitutional duties to rule as an independent president. In fact, it was the democratic veneer of his presidency that western governments used to justify their political and economic support for the junta’s murderous war on the country’s Isamic movement. It was his election in 1995, for example, that Washington used as a pretext for ending its informal contacts with leaders of the FIS.
But they were not above ignoring the widespread accusations of vote-rigging during the 1997 national and municipal polls. And, as cynical as ever, they are justifying their continued support for the shadowy generals on the ‘democratic departure’ of the president, arguing that he was not pushed out of power as result of a coup.
There is little doubt that Zeroual was told to leave, and had to resign to avoid being sacked. But the reasons for his ouster which most observers cite are not as water-tight as they appear to be. Observers say he turned out to be too independent-minded and too conciliatory to FIS. They cite the truce declared by the armed wing of FIS, the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), as the main stumbling block.
But it was the junta, not Zeroual, who had negotiated the truce in the first place. And the president had never in any case, agreed for the lifting of the ban on FIS - the first logical step towards serious talks between the regime and the Islamic movement.
A more reasonable conclusion would be that Zeroual was abandoned by the generals because he had outlived his usefulness to them. His vigorous implementation of an IMF-devised austerity programme has brought about widespread unemployment and poverty to the majority of Algerians in a country rich in mineral and oil wealth, and with a population whose majority is under 18 years of age. Even the normally docile Algerian trade unions have threatened to stage a general strike. And there is great fear in army circles of street riots similar to the 1988 upheaval.
But Zeroual’s most serious failure, in the eyes of the generals, is his failure to pin reponsibility for the violence gripping the land on the Islamic movement. The president campaigned on the platform of ending the violence during the 1995 presidential poll. The generals know that the violence will be stemmed as soon as they cease fomenting it. Their main concern is that, despite their propaganda efforts and the helping hand of the western media and politicians, the Islamic movement is not being exclusively held responsible for the mayhem and the disappearances, and that their role has become public knowledge.
This failure on Zeroual’s part explains the UN’s extraordinary decision - no doubt inspired by the west - to step in and urge international support for what it called the government’s struggle against terrorism. The report of the UN panel, despatched to Algeria in July, which was released on September 16, said the regime deserved such backing. The panel, led by Mario Soares, the former Portuguese president, tried to restore some semblance of credibility in its conclusions by calling on the regime to address complaints of human-rights violations and disappearances.
Although it was called a ‘fact-finding panel,’ it failed to report on whether the complaints were justified.
But it had time for an unrelated issue, urging the government to accelerate its privatisation programme, unwittingly revealing the hand of western governments in its mission.
Even Amnesty International, no friend of Islamic movements, called the report a ‘white wash’, and said it had a tendency to report the government’s analysis of ‘terrorism’ and gloss over violations by government forces.
But this failed to spoil the Algerian junta’s celebration, who expressed ‘great satisfaction’ at the report’s conclusions, and were not above ‘rejoicing’ at the discomfiture of those human rights organizations, whose occusations had been scotched by the UN report.
Muslimedia: October 1-15, 1998