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Where all parties are guilty

15 March 2003

12:00 AM

15 March 2003

12:00 AM

THE BATTLEFIELD: ALGERIA, 1988-2002 Hugh Roberts

Verso, pp.402, 17

Algeria is one of the most pitiful of failed Arab states. For ten years and more, the news has been coming in regularly that people somewhere in that country have been butchered. Qui tue qui? is the question Algerians themselves ask. Here is a civil war, all the more sinister for being undeclared and undefined. The ruling elite control the Front de LibZration National, the FLN, and the army, and they say that the killers are Islamists, extremists from the Front Islamique du Salut, the FIS. The Islamists counter-claim that the FLN and the army are responsible for atrocities. The truth is unobtainable, but seemingly all parties are guilty. There are at least 100,000 victims – twice as many by some estimates.

Things ought to have turned out better. FLN credentials go back to its successful rebellion against France, and the gaining of independence in 1962. Nationalism had united the diverse elements of the country, Arabs and Berbers, religious and secular, even and sometimes especially intellectuals brought up on French culture. Accompanied by much good will, Algeria became a pre-eminent symbol of hope and progress for the post-colonial world. It was also a rich country with huge reserves of natural gas and oil. Self-proclaimed socialists, the FLN leaders willingly entered the Soviet orbit.

In the event, nationalism and socialism proved to be bogus in the context, mere covers for strong-arm rule with no prospect of introducing civil society. Power belongs to the FLN and the army, the men with the guns. Rather than devise a constitution capable of sharing power and mediating conflicts of interests, the elite made sure to have a president behind whom they could shelter for the real and serious business of dividing the spoils between themselves. Corruption rules. The elite’s contempt for the rest of the population is supreme. In the name of Islam, the FIS rejects this contempt, and so faith and secularism seem to square off.


At the end of 1991, the FLN allowed legislative elections which had been rigged, but not sufficiently. When the FIS won, the FLN annulled the elections, arrested the Islamists’ leaders, and herded their followers by the thousand into concentration camps. Since then, the Algerian state has dissolved into Orwellian violence without end, of a kind familiar to the Arab world, for instance in Sudan or Lebanon. Nobody has been brought to account for it.

Hugh Roberts has known Algeria since the early Seventies, and is one of the foremost commentators on that country. The Battlefield consists of conference papers, articles and reviews written by him over the last 20 years. By its nature, it lacks the broad sweep, and takes for granted the reader’s general knowledge of Algeria. Concentrating on Algerian politics in minute and often ephemeral detail, this is a book for specialists, written in the dry style of the social sciences.

All the same, it is worth persevering to extract Roberts’s perceptions and arguments. Algeria, he thinks quite rightly, is almost impenetrable to an outsider. Deep tribal and ethnic loyalties operate. In common with all Western commentators, he is reduced to a vocabulary of factions, currents, tendencies, splinters, when really some ambitious careerist is making a bid for power and money, attracting clients on the way. The FLN and the FIS emerge from the same background and share much the same values. What they fundamentally disagree about is the sharing of the spoils. To talk of civil war between secular and religious is simplistic; this is a faction fight, maybe even a counter-revolution.

The FLN rulers and army generals have had to decide whether to make concessions to the FIS or eliminate them by whatever means are available. Rulers of almost all Arab countries have faced this choice in dealing with their assorted challengers; and in the manner of Hafiz Assad in Syria or Saddam Hussein in Iraq they have had no trouble resorting to mass murder. Left to themselves, the FLN have shown a preference to opt for conciliation, Algerian tribal-style. But whenever this course is tried, France weighs in to obstruct it and ensure more blood-letting. Roberts is most instructive on the subject. The collapse of the Soviet Union, he points out, drained meaning out of socialism, and further allowed France to reclaim Algeria as a client state. Two motives are impelling the French, a fear of Islamism and the long-term programme of enlisting Arabs and Africans in their struggle against the United States. The European Union, Roberts shows in a pioneering chapter, is the arena in which the French exploit and extend the Algerian crisis for their own imperial purposes.

Left to themselves, the Algerians in Roberts’s opinion could overcome the sustained misgovernment which is the root cause of their plight. He says, again no doubt rightly, that all Algerians long for a law-based society, and the recipe he offers for it – rather tentatively – is a return to the nationalism of their original revolt against France. Success for American policy in Iraq, and consequent failure of French policy, might allow Algeria to be among other countries to benefit.


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