|Political Violence and the Prospect of Peace in Algeria|
Dr Youcef Bouandel
Ever since the interruption of the democratic process in January 1992, Algeria has experienced a level of violence hardly seen in any part of the world. Indeed, such led some observers to crown Algeria the world leader in violation of human rights. Depending on the sources, the violence claimed between 100,000 to 200,000 lives, in addition to thousands who have disappeared. Officially, Islamist 'terrorist' groups have been responsible for the massacres. However, recent defectors from the Algerian security forces claim that factions of the Algerian army are behind most of the massacres. They also claim that some terrorist organizations, such as the infamous Groupe Islamic Arme (GIA) are the creation of the Algerian secret services. Regardless of the explanations one may have regarding the violence, the authorities credibility has been tarnished by its non-assistance to endangered civilian villagers being massacred in the vicinity of military barracks.
Before one can address the prospect of peace in Algeria, it is vital to discuss the attempts made so far in the quest for peace. These attempts and their shortcomings provide the necessary background to any discussion relating to the future of political stability in Algeria.
During Algeria's painful near civil war conditions, the successive authorities in Algiers have implemented reforms to attempt to reduce the violence and establish civic peace. Former president Liamine Zeroual introduced the Rahma (clemency) Law: an attempt to put an end to the violence, which provided that the 'terrorists' who gave themselves up would be treated leniently. Nonetheless, the most spectacular of these attempts to end the violence came after April 1999. The date marked the 'election' of current president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. During his election campaign, Bouteflika promised to put an end to the violence that had been ripping the country apart for the previous seven years. Indeed, in July 1999 Bouteflika introduced the Law on Civil Harmony: an attractive package to disarm 'terrorist' groups. In order to give this Law more credibility, in addition to its adoption by the Parliament, the President introduced a referendum in September 1999. The Law on Civil Harmony excluded the death penalty, regardless of whether the Algerian Penal Code provided for it or not. For crimes involving collective massacres, the Law stipulated a maximum imprisonment period of twenty years. Other penalties were less severe, depending on the nature of the crime committed. This Law offered exemption from prosecution if the offence had not involved death, even if they were involved in acts of 'terrorism and subversion.' However, these measures were conditioned upon the armed groups voluntary surrender to the authorities within six months of the adoption of this Law. Failing to give up arms by 13 January 2000, the authorities would engage in a ruthless battle against these armed groups. Before this deadline expired and with a few 'terrorists'only having given themselves up, the President introduced ‘la grace amnistiante’; a controversial measure with no public debate that gave a blanket exemption to two armed groups.
These measures, while permitting the Islamists to surrender voluntarily, have by implication, exonerated members of the security forces from any involvement in the tragedy or judicial consequence. Indeed, it would be absurd to talk about pursuing the security forces - who have been engaged in a relentless war to eradicate 'terrorism' - for alleged massacres and extra judicial killings while the 'terrorists' themselves have benefited from clemency measures and have reintegrated into society. There are also other problems with regard to the transparency of the probation commissions that are empowered to oversee the application of this Law. Where there have been prosecutions, against the military and security forces, they were levied against lower-ranking members.
The President's attempts, while justified and intended to end the violence that have been sweeping the country for almost a decade, are less likely to achieve their intended results. These measures may reduce the level of violence in the short run, but they will leave a lot of questions unanswered.
Since Bouteflika came to power, in April 1999, the levels of violence have been drastically reduced. As a matter of fact, not only have Non-Governmental Organisations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, been invited to the country after an absence of four years - in the case of Amnesty - they were free to visit different parts of the country and testified to the improvements. Yet, it does not mean that the problem has been resolved. The Algerian press continues to report massacres on a regular basis in different parts of the country. What the Algiers authorities have tried to achieve thus far is peace by Decree. The President initiates, the Parliament passes and the population vote in a referendum for a law and suddenly peace is expected to be the end result. However, history shows that this is not the case. Peace can only be achieved once justice is seen to prevail. Rigoberta Menchu, the Guatemalan Nobel Peace laureate succinctly put it: 'Peace without justice is only a symbolic peace.'
Despite these improvements, the regime in Algiers still lacks popular legitimacy. The population's almost total obliviousness to the recent legislative, local and regional elections - given the very low turnout - is the most uncontested example. What makes the situation even more disturbing and questions the extent to which peace has been achieved are the tragic events of Kabilya. The region, which has been at the forefront of so many demands - political, social, economic and cultural - has been very unstable for almost two years now. The region's challenge to the authorities in Algiers has not only been serious, but resulted in more instability and loss of
life. The continuous instability in the region, which had temporary ramifications on other parts of the country, has seriously questioned the extent to which peace may prevail in the country.
The violence that has been ripping through Algeria for the last decade is arguably not beyond the control of the Algerian authorities. However, the relative inattention of western governments has not helped either. The Algerian authorities are quick to point to interference in their internal affairs. Here, France's position is particularly delicate. The love-hate relationship that exists between the two countries has put France in a better position compared to the rest of the world to influence, at least on an informal level, the development of events in Algeria. However, being the former colonial power, elements of Algerian society would still resist what they perceive to be meddling in their affairs.
The continuous violence certainly has benefited many people in the country. The violence exacerbated the corruption and led many people to accumulate illicit fortunes. Moreover, the manner in which the violence could be ended has not been well thought. The attempts that have been made so far, especially the Law on Civil Harmony, have been rather one sided. Thus, a just and comprehensive peace can only be achieved once justice is seen to prevail. This could take the shape of a Truth Commission that would shed more light and identify the shared responsibilities of the massacres. After the responsibilities are shared, reconciliation can begin and peace can be
Dr Youcef Bouandel is Senior Lecturer in Politics, Department of Policy Studies, University of Lincoln, UK.