5 - 11 August 1999
Issue No. 441
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
The bloodshed may have abated, but the country is still torn. Amira Howeidy, in Algeria, investigates the plans and problems of some very uneasy bedfellows as the "new era" -- complete with conflict, broken promises and efforts to make the best of a bad situation -- dawns on a country still reeling from seven years of civil strife
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'Determined to make peace'In an exclusive interview, the icon of the "new era" in Algeria, President Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika, explains why he is determined to achieve peace -- and thwart any FIS attempts to stage a comeback
Leaders of the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) will not be allowed to become politically active or revive their party, Algerian President Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika told Al-Ahram Weekly. FIS members who did not instigate, practice or assist in violent acts may become politically active, he explained, "by joining the [Islamist-oriented] parties of [Abdallah] Gaballah and [Mahfouz] Nehnah".
The FIS, armed groups, high unemployment rates and a shattered economy make up only part of the legacy Bouteflika inherited when he took office last April in elections marred by accusations of fraud. His six rivals pulled out on the eve of the polling in protest.
Bouteflika's early attempts to resolve the Algerian crisis have been restricted to a discourse of optimism marked by key words such as "peace", "reconciliation" and "'concord". To many, this terminology sums up the policy and philosophy of what is described as Algeria's "new era". Although he reiterates that he prefers to "name things", Bouteflika remains vague on the specific moves he will make to achieve peace, reconciliation or concord, other than offering the Civil Concord Law. Moreover, he will not specify the parties involved in this process. "Reconciliation means that all parties have to make concessions; both winners and losers... This is a difficult equation... It is a reconciliation with the 'self'," he told the Weekly in an exclusive interview at the presidential palace earlier this week.
Expressing high hopes for the outcome of the Civil Concord Law, passed unanimously by the upper and lower houses, which offers a staggered amnesty, Bouteflika is keen on putting it to a referendum on 16 September. "If the Algerian people say they want peace [by voting in favour of the law], I will give it to them," he said.
The most conspicuous of the files open before Bouteflika, that of the FIS, remains, to say the least, a hot potato. Although the Civil Concord Law -- by pardoning those who did not directly participate in massacres, rapes or the placing of explosives in public places -- regulates the status of all those, whether imprisoned or on the run, who were involved in the violence, the situation of the FIS and its armed wing, the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS) remain unclear. After all, the crux of the conflict -- which erupted in 1992 after the army scrapped elections which the FIS was poised to win -- continues to pit the banned party against the Algerian regime. Will the ban imposed on FIS leader Abbasi Madani, who is under house arrest, be lifted? What is the current status of negotiations between the AIS and the Algerian army?
Bouteflika's face changes at the mention of the FIS. "The FIS is finished, there is no such thing as the FIS... I didn't make that decision, it was banned in 1992... A dialogue [with the FIS or other political forces] is out of the question. I make all the decisions. I am the head of the state. I am fully in charge," he said.
He described Madani as a "dignified man. I have only praise for his position as a nationalist. He was on the firing line in the 1 November revolution, and was imprisoned during the [liberation] war. He is a true mujahid." Madani, said Bouteflika, "gave his blessing to the steps taken with the AIS, which have transformed its cease-fire position into a permanent truce. Fourteen members of the FIS Shura [consultative] Council issued a statement supporting the stance of the AIS. But among those with considerable weight who responded neither positively nor negatively [to the cease-fire and the law] are [imprisoned FIS leader] Ali Belhaj and [Abdel-Qader] Hashani. The rest are insignificant."
Movements that "politicise Islam" said Bouteflika, "have no place [in Algeria]." And what if FIS cadres attempt to register a new party under a different name in compliance with the new laws and amended constitution? Bouteflika rejects the idea categorically. "No one -- not the military, not civilians, not politicians -- is going to outbid me. My position is clear, my religion is sound and my convictions are well known. So don't get confused. Those who caused the blood to flow should not expect a medal for their action. Who has the right to license the killing of Muslims?"
As for FIS members establishing a party, maintained Bouteflika, "we shall see when the time comes. We will see whether it can help put an end to the civil strife or add more fuel to the fire. In all cases, we will guard against it. The state is strong. Algeria is not weaker than other countries. It could be stronger. And we will not allow anyone to patronise us."
Bouteflika said that, in suggesting the Civil Concord Law, he was offering a "legal umbrella" for the cease-fire initiative observed by the AIS since 1997. He argued that the AIS wanted the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) to be treated differently in setting the criteria for the amnesty. "I have to distinguish between those who killed or raped and those who joined the armed groups but never committed such crimes. The same applies to those who supported or sheltered the armed groups and those who issued fatwas encouraging them to kill," he explained.
Cancelling the 1992 elections, added Bouteflika, was indeed an act of violence, "but it was a reaction to the violence committed previously by the armed groups."
"Even before the elections were scrapped, the army and the armed groups exchanged fire for one week in Jemar after the former attacked the latter. It was at this point that [the army realised] that the conflict was not simply over ballot boxes. It was much more dangerous than that."
Describing the Algerian crisis as "both a political and security one", Bouteflika argued that when Algerians voted for the FIS back in 1991, "it was simply because they wanted to vote against the state. It was an angry reaction to the state of corruption and not an ideologically motivated decision." If the FIS had come to power, he said, "they would have been even more corrupt. The elections were a desperate game. Each party played its game and the Algerian people paid the price."
Violence could consist of a verbal accusation, he elaborated. "With my own eyes I saw how the FIS went to the mosques and put up signs saying 'whoever doesn't vote for us is an atheist'. This is terrorism. Words can be extremely lethal. So before resorting to violence, they used intellectual terror tactics."
Since he was elected, Bouteflika's habit of "stating facts" has surprised many. The number of those killed in the seven-year conflict, for instance, which he set at a staggering 100,000 "was actually meant to shock people into realising the gravity of the situation". Officials in the previous administration had placed the death toll at 30,000, which, to Bouteflika, "was a low figure cited deliberately to underplay the crisis".
And the truth? "Honestly, no one but God really knows how many people were killed in Algeria."
The fate of the 10,000 missing Algerians is also unknown, said Bouteflika, whose own nephew "disappeared" in 1989. "Today, I am the president, and I can't even find my nephew, who was probably killed."
His task is arduous, the legacy he has inherited problematic, to say the least. "But I am determined to make peace, and I'm prepared to die for it," he said.