Violence in Algeria has increased considerably in recent weeks and has now spread from outlying districts to Algiers, the capital, and holiday resorts in its vicinity. The attacks apparently occur at random, and responsibility for them is seldom claimed by anybody, with the result that Algerians throughout the country feel unprotected and bewildered. But the main preoccupation of the authorities that have failed so dismally to protect them is to blame the breakdown of public security on ‘Islamic armed groups’. Not surprisingly, they receive automatic backing from the secular Algerian elite, with politicians, writers and media moguls competing to air their anti-Islamic dogmas and declare the armed forces innocent of any role in the escalating violence. The ruling political, military and economic mafia clearly hopes that the unrest will have the dual effect of deflecting attention from its mishandling of the country’s affairs and from its plunder of public resources, while discrediting the Islamic movement.
The violence reached Algiers on August 29 in the shape of a bomb-explosion in the heart of the city, which injured 34 people. According to security officials, the explosion was the first of its kind in the capital for two years. Ominously, the bomb was hidden in a plastic bag and left on the busy Rue de Chartres, which leads to a crowded ‘working-class area’ that was the site of numerous bombings in the 1990s, when the violence was at its height.
Only two days before the explosion, the security forces were boasting of killing six members of an armed Islamic group in an ambush east of Algiers on August 26, to show that they had the situation under control. But on the very day of the ambush, eight people were killed in a massacre west of Algiers, and all that the security forces could say about it was that they were in pursuit of the terrorists responsible. And when, less than a week earlier, 22 people had been killed in a single attack in the same area, they took refuge in silence. Certainly the relatives of the more than 30 people reported killed in separate massacres during the first four days of this month are not likely to be impressed by the authorities’ inability to protect their citizens.
On September 1 five members of one family were killed in Biadha, and nine people were killed in a brothel in Tiaret (the authorities are investigating whether that was a political or criminal attack, according to media reports). On the following day attackers killed three people and wounded two others on a beach in western Algeria. But the worst attack was on September 4, when eight vacationers were killed at a tourist complex near Algiers. The attackers entered a restaurant in the town of Zeralda, 40 kilometres (25 miles) west of the capital, and fired assault rifles, withdrawing at leisure after accomplishing their mission. In only three weeks more than 160 people were reported killed.
Both the authorities and the secular media generally blame two armed Islamic groups, said to be led by Hassan al-Khattab and Antar al-Zwabi, for the individual attacks — particularly those that take place in Algeria’s eastern and western regions. The two groups are opposed to president Bouteflika’s ‘civil concord’ programme, unlike the Islamic Liberation Front (FIS), which has accepted it and disbanded its armed wing accordingly. But despite this, secular politicians and army generals hold FIS responsible for the overall violence that has engulfed the country since 1992, when the Islamic movement was banned and its leaders were jailed. Even retired generals, such as Khalid Nezar, have crawled out of their quiet retirement to blame FIS and its leaders for the recent attacks. Writers, such as playwright Rashid bu Judrat, who are wedded to Francophone values and dismiss Islam as backward, and Islamic activists as extremists, openly defend the military, placing all the blame entirely at the Islamic movement’s feet.
Nazer, who was minister of defence in 1992, when the elections FIS was poised to win were cancelled, called on Algerians, in two recent interviews within a week, to continue their support for the decision to cancel the poll. Holding Sheikh Abbas Madani, the FIS leader who is under arrest, responsible for all the bloodshed during the last decade, he said that he was calling on those who had backed the decision 10 years ago to continue to do so, “not to defend Nezar but the values it was seeking to protect”. He warned Algerians that they were faced with two choices: “a reactionary and unjust society” or “a modern democratic project which guarantees democratic freedoms.” There was no trace of irony in his voice as he spoke in defence of the decision, in which he was clearly involved, to cancel the most democratic elections that Algeria has ever known.
The retired general was not alone in upholding the decision to cancel the elections of 1992 and to blame FIS for the bloodshed since then. Bu Judrat, the playwright who recently returned from exile in France, said in a magazine interview on August 20 that he was back to defend his country and the Algerian army. He told the Saudi-owned al-Wasat magazine that he was against Islamic extremists and would continue to absolve the military of all responsibility for the decade-long bloodshed. Bu Judrat, who worked against FIS during the 1992 election campaign, wrote a nasty book against the movement the following year.
The two men aired their predictably pro-army, anti-FIS views soon after Ahmad Awyahya, Algeria’s justice minister, issued a statement attacking the movement and its leaders. He said on August 19 that the ban (1992) on FIS would not be lifted, and that Ali Bilhaj, its deputy leader who is serving a 12-year prison-sentence, would not be released early. Both Awyahya’s statement and Nezar’s interviews raised the level of public debate, and with it the profile of the Islamic movement. The minister was roundly censured for his inopportune and irresponsible intervention, while Nezar was accused of being a war-criminal, deeply involved in the bloodshed and in the abduction of the many thousands of Algerians missing since 1992.
At one of his media interviews, the mother of a missing son accused Nezar of abducting him seven years ago, and described him as “Algeria’s general Pinochet”. In two statements by FIS and the Islamic National Reform Movement, he was held responsible for the mayhem because of his role in the cancellation of the poll (1992). In one he was even compared with Slobodan Milosevic because of his involvement in “genocide and ethnic cleansing”.
Even the secular NCF has called on the government to take steps now to prevent the army, government and ruling-party officials from participating in the expected rigging of next year’s local and general elections. The party demanded the enactment of new laws, and regular consultations between the government and the opposition parties. One of the specific measures the new law should prohibit is the practice of placing polling-stations inside army barracks, the NLF statement said.
But Bouteflika, the nimble nomadic president who is often out of the country, might not have been around to hear the NLF plea. He was probably somewhere on his way back from the UN’s world conference on racism in Durban, South Africa.