Courtesy Reuters

Algeria's Army, Algeria's Agony


Western opinion is surprisingly untroubled by Algeria's anguish, which has lasted more than six years and claimed almost 100,000 lives. The two main reasons for Western indifference are hostility toward the Islamist rebels, who are widely seen as intolerant, and the opacity of the Algerian political system. To penetrate the fog and understand the crisis, one should focus less on the Muslim fundamentalists and more on the key player in Algeria's politics: the army.

Islamist guerrilla warfare broke out in January 1992, after the army canceled elections won by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). Blocked from running the state, the FIS was banned in March 1992. A subsequent crackdown drove its moderate wing to rejoin the radicals, who resorted to violence after the elections' annulment. The Islamists targeted military vehicles, barracks, the police, and government buildings. Another Islamist organization, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), then appeared and went even further, killing intellectuals, journalists, women, and foreigners and massacring villagers in western Algeria. But the lack of information about the GIA murders bred widespread skepticism about the group's identity. Many observers suspect that the GIA is a product of the state's intelligence service, designed to discredit the Islamists. These suspicions have been heightened by the Algerian government's sharp refusal to allow any international inquiry into the massacres.

Violence is erupting in Algeria in an almost total information blackout. This is hardly by chance; the regime has always preferred the clandestine to the transparent. Only the tip of the iceberg, the most insignificant area of decision-making, is visible. Understanding Algeria's crisis and its possible resolution requires looking beyond the Islamist movement, the focus of most Western attention, to the country's political structure and to the real power in a terrorized land: the army. The Islamists are not the only ones resorting to violence.

The state's power, inherited from the war of liberation from France of 1954-62, takes two forms: the army and the government. This dates back to the

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