Looked at from afar, Algeria may appear to be the locus classicus of the conflict between 'civilization' (or democracy) and the forces of retrograde Islamism (or 'Islamo-fascism' as it is now called in some circles) into which the world risks being precipitated in the wake of the calamity of September 11. Specialist observers have mostly been wary of such simplistic judgements, because they know that it was only after the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS) was banned and thus denied a democratic path to power, having won impressive victories in the elections held in 1990 and 1991, that Algeria's Islamists resorted to the rebellion that inaugurated the violence which has ravaged the country ever since. But even the specialists have not fully accounted for the dynamics of the Algerian disaster, in part because of their failure to acknowledge the significance of the international context in which it has occurred, in part because of the widespread tendency to characterise developments since 1988 by reference to the war of national liberation.
It cannot be disputed that there have been many formal parallels. Anyone who reads Mouloud Feraoun's superb diary of the Algerian war, now published in an English translation at last, (1) will be struck by how much of his lucid commentary on the behaviour of the French authorities and the Algerian revolutionaries alike is relevant to the current drama. But discussions of the latter which conceive it essentially in terms of the former have tended to trivialise the original war. Thus the riots of October 1988 were called "the second battle of Algiers", (2) as if six days of rioting, in which at most 500 people died, could seriously be compared with the 15 or more months of terrorism and counter-terrorism which engulfed Algiers in 1956-1957 and killed thousands. More generally, to suggest that the analogy with the original, and the only real, Algerian war provides the conceptual key to understanding the violence which has ravaged the country since 1992 is to miss what has been specific to this violence, but many commentators have not hesitated to make this mistake.
Philip Naylor intermittently locates his study, France and Algeria, (3) in this questionable tradition when he calls the superficial liberalisation which occurred in 1989-1991 "Algeria's second revolution", (4) and suggests, on the strength of half a dozen bomb explosions in Paris in 1995, that "France's 'second Algerian war' was about to commence", (5) a notion already canvassed five years ago by Lucille Provost. (6) And, while he employs the Arabic word fitna to refer to the conflict, this is merely a matter of introducing a dash of local colour; that it has no analytical content is suggested by his reference to "Algeria's deepening civil war", (7) by which he signals his acceptance of the standard French conception of the drama. The most elaborate academic statement of this conception is that provided by Luis Martinez, (8) which I have already discussed elsewhere, (9) but the extent to which French views have in various other respects achieved hegemony in Algerian studies is well illustrated by Naylor's book.
After a brief survey of the colonial era and a somewhat fuller account of the decolonisation process under de Gaulle, the substance of the book is a chronological account of Franco-Algerian relations since 1962. Much of this account is based on diligent original research and fills a serious gap in the English-language literature, but the perspective which informs it tends repeatedly to mislead. The book has a theme rather than a thesis, namely the dichotomy it posits between French 'essentialism' - the ambition of successive French governments to promote a conception of France's essence "as a great and independent power" (10) in their handling of post-imperial foreign policy in general and relations with Algeria in particular - and Algeria's 'existentialism', by which Naylor means the Algerians' endeavour, once formal independence was achieved, to "re-become and remain themselves". (11) This theme is relentlessly adverted to at the conclusion of each chapter, but it is not so much an explanatory framework as a surrogate for one. And when it comes to explaining specific issues in the vexed history of Franco-Algerian relations since 1962, Naylor repeatedly proffers variations on the French version of these matters in lieu of a truly independent and penetrating account.
In part this is due to his neglect of important Algerian sources, which may explain the book's factual mistakes as well as its more tendentious interpretations. For example, his account of the successive disputes over Algerian oil and gas entirely ignores the testimony of Belaïd Abdesselam, (12) the Algerian energy minister who handled these matters from 1963 to 1977, while his account of the way Mitterrand's France aided and abetted the Chadli régime by clamping down on the Algerian émigré opposition, notably the Mouvement pour la Démocratie en Algérie (MDA), in the early 1980s is an awkward affair of euphemisms and significant silences. Thus we read of the French government's "watchful monitoring of Ben Bella's MDA"; (13) it is only if we scrutinise the fine print of the endnotes that we learn that this 'monitoring' included the French government's decision to ban the MDA's journal El-Badil and that "by this time, the MDA was headquartered in Switzerland", (14) a formula which falls short of informing the reader that Ben Bella had been arbitrarily expelled from France for no other reason than Mitterrand's concern to keep Chadli & Co. sweet.
Even more unacceptable is Naylor's summary representation of the extremely significant Ali Mecili affair, (15) in which an Algerian lawyer of dual nationality who was closely involved with Hocine Aït Ahmed's wing of the émigré opposition was shot dead at his home in Paris in March 1987 and his presumed assassin, Abdelmalek Amellou, although identified as an agent of Algerian military intelligence, was immediately flown back to Algiers on the orders of the French interior minister Charles Pasqua. Naylor's version of this incident omits all mention of Pasqua's role and refers merely to Aït Ahmed's 'claim' that the murder was the work of the Algerian services, when this is something which Ait Ahmed long ago convincingly established in a book, (16) a source which Naylor ignores along with another detailed account of the incident by Michel Naudy. (17)
The reason why this matters is that the way in which Paris's relations with Algiers degenerated into the French government's involvement with the personnel of the Algerian régime is an essential part of the sorry story of Franco-Algerian relations. From France's point of view, this is the story of the decline, if not corruption, of her original ambition to establish an 'exemplary' relationship with Algeria. From the Algerian point of view, it is the story of a shift from a form of cooperation between two states, which qualified but did not necessarily cripple Algeria's nascent sovereignty, to a complex and unsavoury system of patronage, reciprocal back-scratching and corruption which rapidly subverted this sovereignty, delegitimated Algeria's rulers in the eyes of their people and helped precipitate and perpetuate Algeria's political crisis. But France as well as Algeria has been a victim of this process. A consequence of Mitterrand's departure from de Gaulle's vision in this matter was the way in which it empowered the Algerian power élite in the post-Boumediène era to engage in the compromising of members of the French political class and thereby contributed to the disorientation of French policy from its original notional purpose of promoting the rayonnement (diffusion, influence) of France's noble 'essence'. For if France is not one of the main sources and champions of democratic principles for the rest of humanity, what is she? And once France allowed herself to be drawn by the short-sighted calculations of her politicians into conniving at the repression of democratic rights in post-colonial Algeria of all places, as she did in the 1980s and has done once again in the 1990s, how could she sustain her pretensions to being le pays des droits de l'homme?
Other instances of biased interpretation could be cited. They severely weaken Naylor's overall account of French-Algerian relations since 1962, despite the real virtues that much of his discussion possesses, and especially vitiate his account of these relations in the context of the last decade. A notable instance of this is his discussion of the French attitude to the Platform drawn up by the main Algerian opposition parties in Rome in January 1995, for he entirely misses the element of double-talk in French pronouncements on this issue. Again and again, French official statements, however inconsistent, are taken at face value and are assumed to have been made in good faith, while cynical interpretations of Algerian positions are proffered without hesitation. Thus we get the French version of the 1994 airbus hijack, (18) complete with the ludicrous claim that the Algerian authorities "had hoped that Layada" - i.e. the former leader of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), then in Algerian custody - "could mediate the Air France hijacking"; (19) we also get the French version of the 1995 Chirac-Zeroual stand-off, and of many other episodes besides.
Above all, however, this uncritical reliance on French theses concerning the Algerian end of the Franco-Algerian relationship colours Naylor's overall explanation of Algeria's descent into fitna, when he writes that "The FLN and the army were so deeply infused with foreign and particularly French values that they perpetuated an inauthentic culture antithetical to Algeria's fundamental Islamic values". (20) This is nonsense.
The FLN-state had many shortcomings, but in its heyday under Houari Boumediène it sustained an intelligent synthesis of modern, including French, developmental prescriptions and Algeria's Islamic values which was clearly acceptable to the vast majority of Algerians. It is only since the FLN-state was dismantled in 1989 that French values (or rather an uncritical impulse to ape French models) have definitively gained the ascendancy within the Algerian political class and military leadership, and the results speak for themselves. It is France's protégés, in particular the clique of former officers of the French army who rallied to the ALN at a late stage in the war, who have been at the helm of the Algerian state since 1989, and it is their reckless attempt to rule Algeria in contempt of Algeria's national realities which is primarily to blame for the conflagration which has ensued. That they have had an interest in deflecting the blame onto the FLN cannot be doubted and says a lot about the real nature of their project, but that is no reason for disinterested and objective scholarship to endorse their claims.
But it is now getting harder to evade reality, even in Paris. The truth about the dirty war which has been going on is seeping to the surface and slowly forcing a reappraisal of the situation. The books by Nesroulah Yous (21) and Habib Souaïdia (22) are important contributions to this process; the vivid testimonies of witnesses who have also been victims and survivors of the violence, they should be pondered by everyone with a serious interest in Algeria.
Yous provides a harrowing eyewitness account of the massacre at Bentalha, a township in the Mitidja plain some ten miles south of Algiers, on the night of September 22, 1997, in which over 400 people - men, women and children - were pitilessly slaughtered. It was this terrible event, following similar massacres at Raïs and Beni Messous a few weeks earlier (as well as a host of smaller massacres) which prompted calls for an international inquiry and launched the question 'qui tue qui?' The thesis of the Algerian authorities, that the massacres were perpetrated by Islamists and that the army, with the best will in the world, was badly placed to intervene, was endorsed by the French celebrity Bernard-Henri Levy, (23) but was never convincing to specialists, and does not survive a reading of Yous's book.
Qui a tué à Bentalha? drives a coach-and-four through the official version by recounting in detail the events which preceded the massacre as well as the massacre itself; how the authorities refused requests from Bentalha's residents for arms with which to defend themselves; how the security forces treated the local Islamist groups with a degree of indulgence that the civilian populations found incomprehensible; how, on the night of the massacre, most of the members of the local 'patriot' militia had been sent away for some relaxation in a coastal resort on the orders of the local army commander; how, during the massacre itself, the security forces were stationed on the edge of Bentalha and were aware of what was going on; how the neighbourhood of Haï El-Djilali, where Yous himself lived and which was specifically targeted by the attack, was repeatedly illuminated by huge projectors recently installed in a nearby field by the police, as if to light the attackers' way; how a military helicopter hovered over the scene throughout much of the six hours that the massacre lasted; how troops manning the roadblock at the entrance to Bentalha stopped civilians from nearby villages from coming to the rescue and even reportedly shot dead a policeman who tried to do his duty in this respect; and how the assailants were allowed to stroll out of Bentalha and escape down the main road south, the security forces making no attempt to intercept them, although well placed to do so.
Yous also records his conviction and that of his fellow-victims that their assailants, far from being Islamists, were actually members of the Algerian army. He suggests that they may have been a special commando or death-squad, and this suggestion has attained a large currency in recent years. It has to be said, however, that he does not and arguably could not establish this for a fact. While the commanders of Algeria's army are the last people in the world entitled to complain about peremptory judgments, in view of the number of extra-judicial executions they are known to have authorized, the case against them on the charge of actually perpetrating this massacre is not proven. What is established is that they have a lot of explaining to do, and Yous's testimony provides the basis of a prima facie case for the charge of complicity, as accessories before and after the fact, in mass murder.
It is no doubt this single weak spot in Yous's testimony which explains the sensational success of Habib Souaïdia's book. Souaïdia was an officer in the Special Forces created to spearhead the Algerian army's counter-insurgency operations. Unlike civilian witnesses such as Yous, Souaïdia was in a position to blow the whistle on the army commanders from the inside, and has done so with a vengeance. Having seen active service in the Mitidja during the first three months of 1993, he was redeployed to Lakhdaria (75 kilometres south-east of Algiers) in March 1993, and served there until late June 1995. He then suddenly found himself accused of theft and was detained for ten months before being summarily court-martialled and sentenced to four years in a military prison. Released in June 1999, he somehow managed to get to France, where he wrote La Sale Guerre.
The book has been seized on for the accounts it provides of atrocities committed by the army. Unlike the rumours which have circulated for several years, Souaïdia's testimony describes specific events, mentioning places and dates, and naming names. Much of this testimony rings true and has provided grounds for a group of Algerian intellectuals, including the historian Mohammed Harbi, to call in an open letter to President Bouteflika for legal proceedings to be undertaken in Algerian courts against the individual officers accused by Souaïdia of particular atrocities. These include a number of cases of suspects being tortured to death, an incident where a thirty-five-year-old man and a fifteen-year-old boy were burned alive, and numerous other extra-judicial executions of civilians as well as insurgents. But it is probably Souaïdia's claim to have participated in a massacre committed by the Special Forces themselves that has aroused most interest.
His story is that, while serving in the Mitidja, he was part of a late-night detail escorting a lorry-load of troops to a place called Douar Ez-Zaatria. While not present at the massacre itself, he affirms that this is what occurred, that the squad he had escorted perpetrated it and that one of their number virtually admitted this to him. (24) Thus Souaïdia's book seems to provide the missing link and so compensate for the element of uncertainty in Yous's testimony. If it is established that army death squads were committing small-scale massacres in the Mitidja in 1993, it is correspondingly easier to accuse them of large-scale ones four years later.
But has this been established? While official Algerian reactions to Souaïdia's book have mostly been in the vein of character assassination and so unconvincing, the response to the Douar Ez-Zaatria incident has been an emphatic denial that it ever occurred. This may not impress those committed to a partisan stance on these matters, but the rest of us may note that there are grounds for wondering about this. It is striking that, in respect of this incident, Souaïdia is unusually vague as to details, including the date on which it occurred, saying merely that it was "one evening in March 1993". At this early stage in Algeria's drama, however, the violence was taking the form of small-scale ambushes of security forces by the rebels and vice versa, and a wave of assassinations of prominent individuals; reports of collective reprisals by the army only emerged from late 1993 onwards, while reports of outright massacres of civilians only emerged in the second half of 1996 and early 1997, before escalating so dreadfully from July 1997 onwards. I have not heard of any other massacre of this kind as early as March 1993. And so I am sceptical. Souaïdia has stuck to his story under pressure, but he owes it to us to adduce additional evidence.
His testimony affords other grounds for scepticism. Since its virtue, for the advocates of legal action, is that he gives details and names names, it is striking that he should situate a bomb attack at the cemetery in Sidi Ali in 1992, (25) when it actually occurred in 1994 (a mistake repeated by the distinguished Italian lawyer, Ferdinando Imposimato, in his preface). And it is even odder that Souaïdia should name General Saïd Bey as the commander of the 1st Military Region in 1993 and early 1994. (26) By doing this, Souaïdia implicates Bey as the most senior regular army general below the Chief of the General Staff in the terrible practices that the army's dirty war involved in the Lakhdaria area, of which Souaïdia can speak as a credible witness. While General Bey has much to explain (notably most of the massacres of 1997, since it was his troops who failed to intervene), it so happens that he was not the commander of the 1st Military Region during the period in question; he was appointed to this command only in May 1994. Souaïdia has some explaining to do of his own.
The reason why this matters is that there is now a danger of well-intentioned international concern about the Algerian drama being channeled into a purely legalistic approach and so being co-opted by forces with no interest whatever in a progressive political solution to the Algerian problem. Both Yous's and Souaïdia's books have been enlisted by the advocates, not merely of an international commission of inquiry, but of proceedings before the International Penal Tribunal which is now being canvassed. Ferdinando Imposimato makes this clear in his preface to Souaïdia's book. Yous also expresses the same hope; (27) it is a measure of his entirely understandable despair that he should do so. It is therefore necessary to point out that Imposimato's position is not that of Souaïdia, who ends his book with a call for a national commission of inquiry and for the army commanders responsible for the mayhem to be judged in Algeria. (28)
This notion should not be dismissed as a pipedream. There is now a groundswell of opinion inside Algeria calling for the army to withdraw from its disastrous domination of the political sphere, and more and more elements of the civilian political class are demanding the advent of law-bound government and an end to arbitrary rule. The danger is that the advocates of international action will get their way in a manner which, pre-empting rather than assisting the democratization of the Algerian State, will merely confirm and institutionalise its reduction to the status of a Western protectorate on the Yugoslav model, in which French influence would predominate. This would not resolve the Algerian problem, but perpetuate it.
From this point of view, what is really significant about Souaïdia's book is not that the enthusiasts for Western intervention may derive ammunition from it, but the other evidence it provides, which has been largely overlooked, of what the generals' dirty war has done to the Algerian army and its claim to have been defending the Algerian state: military security officers blackmailing female university students to sleep with them as well as inform on their colleagues; (29) a general insisting on whose authority? that the army's job is to liquidate all Islamists, not merely those engaged in armed rebellion; (30) another general refusing to sign for a huge sum of money found in a car at a roadblock when Souaïdia had handed this in and asked, very properly, for a receipt; (31) a colonel instructing Souaïdia to provide an escort for a notorious Islamist 'emir', who had just surrendered, so that he could go and sleep with his wife (interestingly, the same 'emir' who was credited with the murder a few weeks previously of Abdelwahab Ben Boulaïd, the son of the principal leader of the FLN-ALN in 1954); (32) and, above all, the terrible demoralisation of the army itself, illustrated not only by the repeated purges, to the point that officers who said their prayers became automatically suspect, (33) but also the criminal activities - racketeering, (34) smuggling (35) and drug-taking (36) - in which officers engaged: the list is long and testifies to the extent to which the army has lost sight of its constitutional role and all conception of the State as well as the nation it is supposedly defending, and has been disgracing itself.
The irony in this is that it is while under the command of former officers of the French army, who have always prided themselves on their technical expertise and their knowledge of how a proper modern army should be run, that the Algerian army has sunk to this degraded condition. As Souaïdia observes, "the links which the criminal generals have with France are numerous and of long standing... It is not surprising that they utilize the same dirty methods (torture, massacres, napalm, manipulations and black propaganda of all kinds) as those of the French army against the Algerian people during the war of liberation". (37) They even used the same villa at Lakhdaria that the French torturers used against the ALN during the war, as Souaïdia discovered to his stupefaction. (38)
So the parallels with the original war certainly exist, and matter. But that does not make what Algeria has been enduring a mere sequel to the national revolution - let alone the unaccountable resurgence of a self-defeating Algerian tradition of 'political banditry', as Luis Martinez has notably claimed. They are evidence, rather, of the extent to which France has succeeded in insinuating her influence into the Algerian power structure at the highest level, and has suborned a major part of the power élite to her purpose of reducing Algeria to the condition of a client state. For the FIS did not emerge as a spontaneous reaction to FLN misrule, but as a deliberate ploy by the Chadli regime, backed by Mitterrand's France, to use the Islamists to channel popular disaffection into a utopian quest for the reign of virtue so as to deny Chadli's nationalist critics in the FLN a popular audience. Between 1989 and 1991, the FIS leaders were not at odds with Chadli and Co., but in cahoots with them, and especially in cahoots with Chadli's prime minister, Mouloud Hamrouche, the leader of the so-called 'reformers' whose project of rapid liberalization of the Algerian economy was the brainchild of Parisian advisers.
A premise of the Algerian disaster was thus the way in which France exploited the end of the Cold War - that is the disappearance of the principal external condition of Algeria's national revolution and subsequent independence - to force upon the Algerian government its own preferences in economic policy, and to induce it to spring a pluralist constitution upon a society entirely unprepared for this transition as a pretext for legalising the Islamists as the essential preliminary to instrumentalising them against the nationalists in the FLN. It was only when the FIS escaped Chadli's control in 1991 that the army intervened to slap it down and Paris adopted secularist rhetoric to justify its support for the resort to repression.
Thus the general context of globalization from 1989 onwards was crucial for the onset of the Algerian catastrophe. But what made this inevitable was the UN war against Iraq in 1991. For it was this which forced the FIS, in order to stay abreast of its popular constituency, to end its tacit alliance with Chadli and Hamrouche, who were obliged by their French connections to proffer no serious objection to Mitterrand's decision to join the Bush-Thatcher posse. The same Algerians who, having voted FIS in June 1990, had disapproved of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, were incensed by the massing of Western military forces in Saudi Arabia in the weeks that followed this, and outraged beyond bearing by the subsequent onslaught on a sister Arab country. It was this chain of events which, by pitting the FIS against the government, did for Hamrouche and the reformers, and by backing the army's intervention in June 1991 which overthrew Hamrouche and decapitated the FIS, Paris demonstrated how much her Algerian policy had to do with democratic principle long before she swallowed the later coup against Chadli and the canceling of the legislative elections.
None of these basic facts of recent Algerian history are considered by Martinez or Naylor. But they are indispensable to an understanding of the dynamics of radicalism and political violence in the contemporary Muslim world. The fact is that the West in general has, in the name of democracy and pluralism, relentlessly undermined the forces of modernist nationalism in countries such as Algeria, only to endorse and support the most savage repression in the name of modernity and even civilization - when the various kinds of virulent identity politics it has encouraged have escaped the control of the West's clients. The extraordinary recklessness of the assault on Iraq in 1990-1991 made the latter development inevitable in Algeria ten years ago, and there is no knowing what the collateral damage in Algeria of the West's next 'war of civilization' against a Muslim country may turn out to be.
At present, the outcome of Algeria's ghastly ordeal remains in doubt. But the development of a Western protectorate (elements of which already exist) through the operation of the new international legal machinery would be more likely to consummate the destruction of the Algerian polity than restore, let alone reform, it. Only the advent of genuinely representative and law-bound government in Algeria itself can constitute a progressive outcome to this terrible drama. And only the Algerians themselves can be the architects of this development if it is to be genuine and durable. The rest of us can only help, by clarifying what is at stake, or hinder, by sowing fresh confusion.
The development which authorizes a degree of optimism in this respect is one which none of these books could mention, since it has occurred only since last April, namely the revolt of the youth of Kabylia and parts of eastern Algeria against the contempt with which they, like the rest of their fellow-countrymen, are treated by the generals' régime. The principal slogans of this revolt, denouncing "le pouvoir assassin" and demanding "l'état de droit", showed that many Algerians have finally figured things out. Let us therefore listen to Mouloud Feraoun, in whose native village, Tizi Hibel, it so happens that the recent revolt began. In his entry for March 29, 1956, he recorded that
'a young man from Aguemoun tried to disarm a soldier: he used his head to hit the soldier in the temple. So the soldier shouted for help, and the patrol showed up. They caught the young man and took him to the police station... The young man must have been shot on the spot. On the human side of things, what will my brave colleagues... think of him? There is no doubt they will rush to condemn him. As for me, I take my hat off to him.' (39)
In subsequent entries Feraoun related that the young man was tortured for several days. Eventually, however,
'...young Mansour was shot like a dog. From now on, it is quite clear that the police will shoot Kabyles like dogs.' (40)
This is what has been happening in Kabylia this summer, except that it has not been the police, but the gendarmerie, the section of the Algerian army that since Independence has been most consistently dominated by the ex-French army coterie within the Algerian officer corps and most dependent upon French "co-operation", that has been shooting down young Kabyles like dogs.
But eventually France and her army had to leave Algeria, even if her soldats perdus in the OAS made a point of assassinating Feraoun in March 1962 before they went. Her second generation of lost soldiers, who since seizing control of the Algerian army have so thoroughly emulated their French tutors, are not immortal, however long their names may live in infamy. And the Algerians are men and women, not dogs, and by tradition rebels rather than bandits. So the young Mansours of today may yet be victorious.
For Naylor's notion that the Algerians' problem has been an existentialist one is at best a half-truth. The vast majority of Algerians have always known that they exist and that their country exists. It is only those elements of the Algerian élite most disoriented by contact with France who have succumbed to an identity crisis and allowed this to inhibit them from conceiving how their country should be governed. The primary content of Algerian nationalism and of the Algerian revolution was not so much the affirmation of an identity as the pursuit of dignity. The evidence of this summer is that this pursuit has been resumed, and sooner or later, both France and the Algerian army will have to come to terms with it.
1. Mouloud Feraoun, Journal, 1955-1962:
Reflections on the French-Algerian War. Edited by James D.
Le Sueur; translated by Mary Ellen Wolf and Claude Fouillade.
Lincoln and London, University of Nebraska Press, 2000. Return