The following is the edited text of a discussion at the Sadat Forum held at the Brookings Institution on September 10, 1998. The cosponsors are the Brookings Foreign Policy Program and the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland.
CAMERON R. HUME, U.S. ambassador to Algeria
Ever since January 1992, when Algeria's military canceled elections to prevent victory by an Islamist party, commentators have looked to Algeria to see what can go wrong when an Arab Islamic society tries democracy. Throughout the past six agonizing years of savage violence and shrinking economic prospects, it often seemed that Algeria was on the brink of failed-state status.
Now, with the rate of violence reduced and with the economy off IMF life-support systems, Algeria may be turning the comer. If its second try at democracy succeeds, this outcome would augur well for democratic transitions elsewhere in the region.
The heyday of independent Algeria was in the 1970s. The long struggle for independence still gave revolutionary legitimacy for the National Liberation Front's (FLN) one-party state. Rising petroleum receipts funded the socialist economy and welfare state, and even sufficed to buy abroad the food Algerian agriculture was failing to produce at home. The entire system was built on the myth that petroleum receipts would always rise.
The oil-price collapse of 1986 shattered that myth. Per capita income dropped from $2,600 to $1,600, unemployment rose to 30 percent and social conditions deteriorated rapidly. Economic decline shattered the legitimacy of the state socialism.
Just ten years ago, disgruntled citizens marched to the center of Algiers. While it is not clear who fired the first shot, the security forces fired on a crowd for the first time since independence. More rioting and shooting took place in the weeks that followed. Any lingering legitimacy for the FLN's monopoly of political power was gone.
Then in 1989, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the basis for the strategic decision to rely on Moscow for military equipment, doctrine and training was swept away. The Algerian establishment was reeling.
Change became inevitable. A reform government opened the country to a free press and multiparty elections. In December 1991, the FIS won outrigh
In November 1995 Lamine Zeroual, the retired general then serving as president, campaigned for the presidency on a platform of peace and reconciliation. Three other candidates ran. Over 70 percent of the electorate voted, and Zeroual received over 60 percent of the votes. The country accepted this outcome as legitimate. For the first time Algeria had a democratically elected president.
Since then other elections have been held for parliament. The economy has been stabilized by an IMF program, but living conditions have not improved. The level of violence, while still threatening in most areas of the country, is now only half what it was two years ago.
THE ROOTS OF THIS CRISIS
This crisis is about political power, who holds it and why. The military is the most powerful national institution, but the one-party state no longer exists. Several political parties compete in parliament and throughout the country, newspapers exercise much freedom, and civil society is active. Will the military-bureaucratic oligarchy reinforce its position of power, or will lively democratic pressures erode the status quo?
The crisis is about legitimacy. The revolutionary legitimacy of the FLN is gone. Does legitimacy come from popular choice expressed in free and fair elections? Or, does it come from the degree to which the state is ruled in accordance with Quranic injunctions? Must not one or the other test of legitimacy predominate?
The crisis is about the economy. The conservative option, preserving the inherited model, will freeze the distribution of benefits. The free-market option, if conducted under the rule of law, will expand economic opportunities and give younger people the chance to compete for benefits. Will the economy stagnate or will it open up to the global marketplace?
The crisis is about identity. Nationalism, Islam and democracy are all part of the national identity, but will one of the three elements predominate?
WHAT ABOUT DIALOGUE?
First, an inclusive dialogue is needed to bring this crisis to a successful conclusion, but such a dialogue might now be a hazardous exercise. Why?
- There is the question of who, particularly with regard to the GIA terrorists, negotiates and with what authority. Put simply, there is a lack of credible, authoritative interlocutors.
- There is a question of what to negotiate. It would seem prudent to insist that any such negotiation take place within the framework of Algeria's new institutions and that it not put into jeopardy the fundamental choice of democracy.
- There is the question of violence. Must individuals and groups condemn and renounce violence in order to take part in political negotiations? This question is best left to Algerians.
The U.S. government should be guided by its overall policies on terrorism. As the secretary of state said at the memorial service honoring those killed by the bombings in East Africa:
Make no mistake. Terror is the tool of cowards. It is not a form of political expression and certainly not a manifestation of religious faith. It is murder, plain and simple, and those who perpetrate it, finance it or otherwise support it must be opposed by all decent people.
Even in the absence of a broad political dialogue that would include, rather than exclude, as many Algerians as possible in the country's political life, the United States can take steps that will help Algerians resolve their crisis.
A U.S. ROLE
Overall our strategy must help Algerians widen their horizons and expand their contacts. Algerians need the benefits of modernization and globalization. The following are key elements of such a strategy:
- We should promote democratic institutions. The United States has insisted on freedom of the press, and Algerian newspapers now cover a wide range of political stories, including many but not all of the security and political subjects that were taboo only six months ago. We argued for free and fair elections, and, despite real flaws in the elections, there is a popularly elected president and national assembly. U.S. government funded programs support the work of the assembly. The trade-union movement is now relatively free from state control, and we fund an active AFL-CIO training program for Algerian trade unionists. The United States is again ready to work with Algerians to ensure that their upcoming presidential elections are free and fair. We hope they accept that offer.
- We should promote the rule of law. Algeria must meet its international obligations by permitting the International Committee of the Red Cross unfettered access to its prisons. The Algerian government needs to be more scrupulous in insuring that any cases of abuse by its security forces are turned over to the judicial system. A complete and credible accounting of those missing must be given to their families. Algerian and foreign observers should be free to study the internal situation. We should consider making available the kind of training given to police in Haiti and Bosnia so that police activities at the local level are consistent, visible, fair and in accordance with the rule of law.
- We should promote the development of a free-market economy. Here the greatest needs are to give more initiative to private enterprise, to encourage the most productive use of the country's capital and human resources and to connect the economy to world markets. This year Under Secretary of State Stuart Eizenstat announced an initiative for U.S. economic cooperation with Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco that will include encouragement for the private sector, support for structural reform, an approach to the three countries as a region for economic activity and increased high-level contacts.
- We should cooperate on regional security. Cooperation should include occasional consultations between the two militaries, training in non-combat subjects, and simple joint exercises such as the recent search-and-rescue exercise with the Algerian navy. We should emphasize the role of the military under civilian control. While security cooperation will not be the central element of U.S.-Algerian relations, we cannot exclude it from a comprehensive approach aimed at changing the circumstances that now impede a solution to Algeria's crisis.
Such a strategy will require the U.S. government, U.S. business and U.S. civil society to each play its part. If successful, this strategy would give hope to the parties of democracy elsewhere. Right now, despite the enormous risks ahead, the odds are improving that Algeria will reach the goal of accountable representative government.
WILLIAM B. QUANDT, Harry F. Byrd Professor of Government at the University of Virginia
No one would deny that Algeria is in a deep crisis from which it is not going to exit immediately. It is a complicated crisis, with a political as well as a very profound socioeconomic dimension and an undercurrent of persistent violence.
Having said that, I also think that the image we sporadically get in the Western media is perhaps a bit apocalyptic. There is the notion that Algeria is on its way to becoming a Somalia or Afghanistan or Lebanon. When you are in the country, it does not feel that way. There still is a society. There still is a state - in fact, a state that is largely in control of the country and its resources. Most of the people, most of the time, can go about their business in a deceptively normal way. In large parts of the country, especially in the east, where there has been a truce in effect for most of the past year, there is not much violence at all.
The violence is a huge factor in what we see from the outside. It is also a big issue for people who live there, but they are used to it in the way people who live in Washington, D.C. are used to the amount of violence that goes on here. It does not affect them on any given day. It is somewhere else. Perhaps that is a bit too gentle; there are moments when it becomes a very big issue for lots of Algerians. But much of the violence recently has been in the countryside or at least away from the center of Algiers. As a result, other preoccupations, particularly of a socioeconomic nature, have come to the fore.
Generally, my view of Algeria is a little less gloomy than some people's, though I think the crisis is a profound one. But it has a great deal to do with the generic problems of making a break with the past. Algeria was almost the quintessential authoritarian state: one party command economy, state-controlled resources, the government bossing everybody around but promising that, if you do not cause too much trouble, we will take care of you. A lot of states have tried to manage their affairs that way, and most of them have run into trouble. We are seeing how difficult it is for Russia and other authoritarian regimes, as well as for Algeria, to break with that model and find an alternative without a total collapse of the society.
The transitions that occurred in places like Spain and Portugal and Greece made us think it might not be so difficult. These were authoritarian regimes that made a fairly smooth transition to democracy. A lot of Latin American countries appeared to do the same. What happened in places like Algeria when they started their transition away from the authoritarian past toward a more pluralistic experiment?
This type of transition is always difficult because vested interests are affected, and small mistakes can have big consequences. In Algeria a great many mistakes were made early on in the attempt to make the transition, some of which turned out to be catastrophic. I do not see this as a problem of political Islam or a culture of violence, although this idea is widespread. Go anywhere else in the Middle East and say, "Why does Algeria have this deep crisis?" The Egyptians say, "The Algerians are violent people; they live in mountains. That is the way they have always been." This is not good enough. It is too easy to explain any country's problems by "that's the way they are."
The specific crisis in Algeria resulted from a whole series of political choices that were made beginning about a decade ago. How should one handle the obvious failure of the old system against the backdrop of an economic crisis that eventually produced a popular uprising?
Just about ten years ago, in October 1988, most people were surprised that without any single obvious cause hundreds of thousands of young Algerians poured out into the streets. They were against the party. They were against the regime. They were just angry. Algerians are filled with conspiratorial explanations about what was going on, that it was a plot within the regime. But there were a lot of people prepared to take to the streets. And although they were not all just being manipulated, there was an element within the regime trying to play on this to even scores. This is a part of Algerian politics, maybe part of everybody's politics.
People were surprised that the regime responded, not by doing what Hafiz al-Asad did in Hama - repressing the uprising - but by opening up and trying to outmaneuver some of its own political rivals by appearing to be the champion of reform. It is one of those moments worth pondering. How does a regime go from being a tightly controlled party to suddenly being the single most democratic country in the Arab world? Almost overnight, there were parties, civic organizations, cultural groups, Berber groups. Any Algerian who lived through 1989-90 says that it was a really exciting time.
It was also the time when the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) emerged almost from nowhere as a mass movement. This raises the question, what was the FIS, and what is it today? Was this an instance of fundamentalist religion showing its face in politics, perhaps like Khomeini in Iran, or was this a socioeconomic movement merged with a relatively small religiously inspired opposition that had been there throughout the 1980s? If you look hard enough you can find roots in the 1930s and I960s. But, by and large, Islam as an autonomous theme in politics had been co opted by the nationalist movement. It was just part of what Algerian nationalism was. It was not an independent Islamist phenomenon on a mass scale, but very quickly it emerged as such.
I tend to interpret the FIS as the merger of a relatively small Islamist inspired opposition, which had emerged in the 1980s but was not a mass phenomenon, with a mass base that was created by a socioeconomic crisis. Oil prices collapsed in the mid-l 980s. The educational system, which had generated mass education but no jobs, was producing the first generation to hit the streets with nothing to do. And the Algerians with their perverse sense of humor had a name for those people, hittistes, people who hold up the walls. They just stand around. These are people who had been exposed to modernity. Their appetites had been whetted, but there was nothing for them to do. If you look at the statistics for unemployment, these hittistes would never have a full-salary job in their entire lives. They could make money from drugs and the black market, but there was no chance that they were ever going to have a real job. Not surprisingly, they became the shock troops of the FIS. They were very angry. They had done what the regime had told them to do: they had gone to state schools; they had studied Arabic. And they noticed that all the jobs were going to the French-speaking sons of the elite. The FIS was not a tightly disciplined and organized party. It was a front that rolled into a kind of opposition wave. Whatever your grievance was, this was the way it was going to be expressed. Initially it was relatively peaceful. There was a lot of political activity in 1988-89 and not very much violence.
I am not going to dwell on history, but I think one has to come to terms with what the FIS was. Was it all of Algeria rising up against the regime? It was not. About a quarter to a third of the populace very strongly identified with the FIS. The evidence for this comes from two elections in which the count was relatively fair. What about the rest of the population? They voted either for the old FLN (National Liberation Front) or Berber secularist parties or independents, or stayed home. A great many Algerians were simply fed up with politics. They did not trust the FIS; they did not trust the regime; and they did not vote. So in 1991 the FIS was on the verge of an electoral victory without really having the overwhelming majority of Algerians behind the movement. They were organized, and - given the electoral system that was being used in 1991 - on the verge of not just a majority but a landslide.
The military panicked. They decided to step in and annul the second phase of the elections. It is from this point that the deepening of the crisis takes place. The choice was made to suppress the FIS, to end this experiment in unbridled democratization, and to try a much more controlled, top-down, limited opening of the political system after some degree of order was restored.
Of course, it did not entirely work that way. The FIS did not just disappear. The leadership was arrested. During 1992, 1993, 1994, the Islamist movement, which comprised a whole spectrum within it - extremists, moderates, everyone - was decapitated. What was left were some of these young alienated people, very radicalized and with nowhere else to go politically, who went into business for themselves with small groups of followers, usually neighborhood acquaintances, and set up shop as armed Islamic movements to bring down the government. There was a more organized part of the FIS that went underground to challenge the regime.
What came to be the GIA (Armed Islamic Group), I think - and not everyone agrees with this - was a kind of radicalized off-shoot of the Islamist movement that melded with neighborhood gangs, criminal elements, and those who thought they could become the next big leader of the Islamist movement and realized that a lot of people bitterly hated the regime. They could count on, if not active support, a lot of tolerance from ordinary people.
I see the GIA, the ones responsible for a lot of the violence, as a home-grown phenomenon. I do not see it as an off shoot of something happening in Tehran or Afghanistan, although the whole climate in the Middle East has been affected by the Iranian revolution, and there were some individuals trained in Afghanistan. But this was mostly a local phenomenon, not "Islam International," as some Algerian government people would have you believe. At the same time, this is not the regime trying to discredit Islam by setting up death squads and claiming they are Islamist extremists. I think the GIA is a real phenomenon that has its own origins, and they are not from the regime or some foreign country.
That view is not shared by all Algerians or even perhaps by most. If you ask an Algerian who the GIA is, you will find out a lot about the respondent's politics. Some people will say it is just the regime's death squads: you want to stop the violence, talk to the regime - it has nothing to do with Islam. Others will claim that these are Islamic terrorists, saying, What can you do? You have to repress them.
It is a difficult phenomenon to deal with. There is no center to it. There is no Khomeini. There is no single leader you could negotiate with if you wanted to, unlike the FIS's armed movement, which had more structure and eventually agreed to a negotiated truce about this time last year. (As far as I can tell from talking to those who have traveled to the Eastern part of the country, the truce with the FIS's armed group, the Armed Islamic Front [AIS], seems to be holding up reasonably well.)
Part of the problem with the violence is that, first, the regime has not been very imaginative in trying to isolate the GIA. They tend to be indifferent to attacks on other Islamist elements. Once the AIS made a truce with the regime, the GIA of course saw them as enemies, and in some cases rightly so. The regime wanted to use the AIS against the GIA. In some of the massacres that took place in the fall of 1997, the regime appeared to not make much of an effort to go to the aid of the people who were being slaughtered. That seems to have changed a bit recently.
The government does not have much credibility. Ordinary Algerians seem to be fed up with both the regime and the GIA, but there is no alternative in place. [Editor's note: Shortly after these remarks were made, President Zeroual announced that he would step down before the end of his mandate and new presidential elections would be held in April 1999.] The conflict has been going on now in an intense form since 1992. An average of 200 people per week have been killed, at least 75,000 overall. The numbers may be down somewhat, but it just goes along at this level. Yet the vast majority of Algerians do not seem to have taken sides. When they are supposed to go out and vote, they will, but not with much enthusiasm. There are occasional demonstrations in the street, but they are relatively small. There has been no surge of popular support one way or the other. It is as if people just want to stay out of the way as two rather contemptible organized and violent groups go after one another.
It is unlikely that the regime is going to be overthrown. It has managed to forge a truce with the main armed Islamic · groups, but it has not been able to bring an end to residual terrorism despite continual promises to do so. I think this has something to do with the very fragmented structure of the armed opposition. This is not Lebanon, with organized militias whose leaders can all go to Taif and say, "Fine, let’s make a deal," and give the orders. The fighting in Lebanon actually ended very quickly after Taif. The Lebanese conflict was far more violent than what is happening in Algeria. Some 300,000 Lebanese were probably killed, about a tenth of the entire population. But when the conflict ended by political agreement, the fighting stopped and the militias went home. You cannot achieve that as easily in Algeria because there are so many small groups acting by now relatively autonomously and without a political agenda. You cannot identify what it would take to appease the GIA because there is no unified GIA; there are lots of little groups. What do you do? You either crush them or co-opt them or isolate them. But there is no program. The government says, OK, we'll teach more Arabic, open more mosques, be better Muslims - that does not do it. The other side says, the regime has to be overthrown; the non-believers have to be killed. It is very difficult to deal with that kind of a movement.
So the regime is locked into its strategy. The extreme opposition is, I think, beyond the pale of political negotiation. And most Algerians are fed up with the mess they are in. There are encouraging signs, though you have to look hard to find them. In my last couple of trips there, I have noticed more of a political life than you might think from my description. For example, when I was there in spring 1998, the parliament had been recently elected. It is a rather energetic place with a lot of opposition parties. The regime, of course, ensured that it had the largest number of seats, but by Middle East standards this is not a parliament overwhelmingly dominated by the government party. Look at the distribution of seats. The government coalition has a fairly comfortable majority, but not Hafiz al-Asad-style, with 99.9 percent of the votes all lined up. Although the elections were not perfect, they reflect at least something of the distribution of power. The regime's party did not get a majority, and there are fairly vibrant opposition parties. People I talked to in the parliament think they can make use of this institution to bring about change.
The other positive element in the Algerian scene is the press. The one thing that has survived from the original democratic opening of 1989-90 is a relatively free and open press. You would be surprised what you can read in Algeria today compared to Tunisia next door or most other Arab countries that I am familiar with. An editorial about a year ago in El-Watan, which is not viewed as strongly oppositionist but has a critical tone to it, attacked President Lamine Zeroual by name, Betchine by name, Tewfik by name, and said: All of you are ruining our country; if you do not change, people are going to rise up against you. This was actually printed. (Of course the writer did go to France for a little while, but it was printed.) And there were other things along the lines of "you guys who govern us think we are a bunch of jerks, and if you keep treating us that way, people really are going to get angry and it is going to tum out badly for you." That tone has not totally disappeared. Things pop up from time to time. One of the great virtues of the Internet is that you can read three or four Algerian papers daily. What they are able to say is much more frank than you might think. Compared to AI-Baath in Damascus or Ad-Dustur in Tunis, this is a press that is still worth reading.
The parliament and the press and the small intellectual community are still centers of some hope for a more democratic Algeria in the future. The military and the regime are discouraging in that regard, but I would not give up on Algeria. It is also not accurate to conclude that the only thing happening there is terrorism and violence. It is a much more vibrant society and a much more interesting one.