Democrats caught in the crossfire

November 10, 1995

To understand the violent conflict that has been tearing Algeria apart for almost four years it is necessary to understand the country's politics - the character of the current government as well as those forces opposed to it.

There are three groups, each with its own interests. There are those operating within the government, gathered around the army, who refuse to meet the people's demands for change. There are the Islamic fundamentalists, whose hand is strengthened by the unpopularity of the government. And there are those who campaign for democracy.

The political ideology of the fundamentalists, as voiced by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), is in tune with the thinking of many ordinary Algerians. The average Algerian sees the government's failure to clamp down on corruption, without grasping that it is inherent in the present political regime, part and parcel of the existing government's power-structure.

The average Algerian's line of reasoning goes something like this: if the army does not have leaders who are honest and incorruptible, then sovereign power should be taken away and returned to God. Leaders who fear God and obey the divine texts will not be corrupt.

This argument is supported by many who want neither a religious regime nor a fascist one. They simply call on God to limit the despotic nature of the existing military government.

There is little to choose between the fundamentalists and the existing regime. What is at issue are not two different and positive ideas about sovereignty, but two different ways of denying power to the people. In any case Algerians' desire for a divine sovereignty, said to be part of a cultural identity which Muslim people cannot escape, would not be so forcefully expressed if the country's government had been constitutional from the outset.

The Islamic votes cast by millions of Algerians in 1992 indicate a desire to abolish a deceptive power-structure which formally invests authority in the presidency and government, but while, in reality, control is exercised by the army through hidden means. The notion of divine rule has attracted so many enthusiasts only because the army's power has placed such harsh curbs on the freedom of those citizens who can see very real problems with the country's current political management. For such citizens the only solution appears to be - entrust sovereignty to God and He will ensure that Algeria's human leaders behave properly.

Telling Algerians that this notion contradicts the basis of the secular state, the bedrock of democracy in France, takes the debate down a cul-de-sac, since for most Algerians the French secular state brings back only the memory of colonialism, which was far from democratic for native Algerians.

It can be argued that if power, acquired by universal suffrage, were exercised and held in the name of God by leaders of the Islamic Salvation Front, this would be preferable to the current situation, whereby a duplicitous power is held by the army. For, even though power will then be exercised in the name of God, those wielding power, because they are identifiable, will be accountable for their actions and responsible to those who elected them. Moreover, exercising power in the name of God allows any believer to legitimately hope for the right to wield such power. Only senior army officers have access to power wielded in the name of the army.

But it is probable that if the Islamic opposition does gain power it will set up a regime identical to the one it is fighting, the only difference being that power will be held by a charismatic leader who declares himself chosen by God. As in the present regime, the legal system will probably be under government control.

The real opposition comes from the democrats, who desperately hope to be able to transfer sovereignty from the army to the electorate and to set up a multi-party system. But although they still command considerable popular support, the democrats have lost some of their appeal. Identifying neither with the army, which seeks to use them to gain credibility with the international community, nor with the fundamentalists, the democrats, who reject violence, have been weakened by the escalation of conflict within Algeria.

They are also divided over who is their real opponent. Is it better to neutralise the fundamentalists, even if it means playing the military government's game a little longer, or is it better to move towards multi-party democracy, even if this risks benefiting the fundamentalists?

This debate began the day after the second round of the elections were cancelled, although it had no influence on the course of events, since the military had already cancelled the elections and the fundamentalists had committed acts of armed violence.

The democrats draw their convictions from western influences - leading to the charge that their idea of democracy does not appear to be home-grown, particularly since it is being advanced by an elite which profited financially from the one party regime; an elite conversant with French culture, the culture of the old colonial power.

The present government recognises neither the fundamentalists nor the democrats as legitimate opposition groups. It regards power as a booty of war, not as a public right. Power is not to be transferred through the electoral system to the opposition. Rather it is an object to bargain with - whereby opposition leaders can be offered government posts, carrying only illusory power, because the holders of such posts have no effect on the structure of the regime.

Thus the democrats find themselves at an impasse, faced by a government that does not want to relinquish power and faced also by fundamentalists who are trying to impose themselves by violence, and who may then reproduce a single party regime and create their own legitimacy for at least 20 years.

The democrats want a return to the ballot box, a strengthening of the legitimacy of elections, the right to freedom of expression and a guarantee of the independence of the judiciary. This must be the bottom line of any deal with the fundamentalists. For such an agreement to be credible, it must also be backed by the army, which would first have to renounce power, becoming instead an arm of the state divorced from electoral affairs.

The FIS, by signing the Rome Charter, an attempt to agree on conditions for peace, showed its willingness to accept the electoral contest suggested by the democratic opposition. But the army must guarantee to respect such agreements. The problem is that the army does not speak with one voice and is itself riddled with different opinions about these agreements.

Lahouair Addi is professor at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Lyons, France.

Algeria since independence

1962 Algeria gains independence from France. For years after what Algerians call "the political-economic mafia" rules the country.

1992 The fundamentalist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), is headed for a landslide victory after winning the first round of democratic elections. The experiment in democracy ends when the elections are cancelled. The president quits, handing over power to the military. A civil war between Islamic fundamentalists and the government escalates.

1995 Four contenders stand for election to the Algerian presidency. The election is boycotted by the Islamic Salvation Front. The man most likely to win is retired general Liamine Zeroual, the president of the military government. The death toll is about 45,000. Bombings terrorise Paris too.

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