Past walks with the present in Algeria's bloodletting

The Agony of Algeria
July 17, 1998

Since spring 1997 the bloodshed in Algeria has sunk to new depths. At first sight explanations for the massacres seem straightforward: a holy war, the work of Islamist insurgents incensed at the ruling military clique, which quashed elections the fundamentalists were poised to win in January 1992. In reality, the truth is much murkier, a fact tellingly underlined by the way in which so many Algerians hold the generals to be just as responsible for the bloodletting.

Getting a proper perspective on the crisis has proved difficult in the English-speaking world. In part this ignorance stems from the intellectual predominance of France. Traditionally Algerian studies has always been seen as the preserve of the former colonial power, while in Britain it has occupied a marginal status, confined to the fringes of French or Middle Eastern departments. In part, too, it is testament to the basic fact that Algeria has become such a dangerous place. Yet the outcome of the Algerian crisis has enormous implications not just for France but for the European Union as a whole. Algeria supplies the EU with huge amounts of oil and gas. The spectre of another Iran could destabilise the Mediterranean, encourage similar movements in Morocco and Tunisia, and produce a flood of refugees unwilling to live under a hard-line Islamic regime.

For all these reasons Martin Stone's The Agony of Algeria is timely and significant. As a starting point he rightly recognises the historical importance of October 1988, the moment when the army suppressed rioting in Algiers, killing more than 500 people. This single act destroyed forever the popular legitimacy of the army. Thereafter the regime had no choice but reform, introducing a multi-party system in February 1989. The bulk of the book focuses on the fallout from these events, but in doing so - and this is one of Stone's strengths - he never loses sight of the need for a historical context. The period of French colonialism beginning in 1830, the bloody war of liberation between 1954 and 1962, the successive independence regimes of Ahmed Ben Bella, Hourai Boumedienne and Chadli Benjedid: Stone always links the past with the present, and here the crux of his argument is the problem of national identity. Questions left unresolved at independence in 1962, he maintains, are at the root of the present predicament because it is at this point that a small westernised elite within the military took power, using the imperatives of nation-state building to suppress debate about Algerian identity. Thus the regime's constitution blended third-world socialism with pan-Arabism and Islam and the result, Stone says, was a compromise that tried to appeal to everybody but was rejected by all.

This makes the state's progressive loss of legitimacy a key theme, and by the mid-1980s Stone underlines the extent to which there was generalised disaffection. For Islamist dissidents the regime was an atheist western import, fundamentally socialist, secular and anti-Muslim. For the Kabyle minority the notion of an Arabo-Islamic identity, an article of faith in the eyes of the one-party system, was anathema because it denied the place of Berber culture in Algeria. For the young, who bore the brunt of the economic crisis, the ruling elite was routinely denounced as corrupt and self-serving.

Stone's study is a welcome introduction that provides the keys for deciphering the Algerian crisis. It should be required reading not just for academics and journalists studying North Africa, but also for all those mandarins grappling with the intricacies of an ethical foreign policy.

Martin Evans is a lecturer in French and European studies, University of Portsmouth.

The Agony of Algeria

Author - Martin Stone
ISBN - 1 85065 175 2 and 177 9
Publisher - Hurst
Price - £40.00 and £14.95
Pages - 4

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