Voici le temps des assassins, the bilingual Algerians could exclaim, echoing Rimbaud, when nearly a year ago, their intellectuals began to be slaughtered by Islamic fundamentalists. Poets and psychiatrists, doctors and professors, writers and journalists and their throats cut or their brains blasted by a bullet. In France, where those who had opposed colonialism still have a feeling of responsibility, an international committee was set up, headed by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, to help those intellectuals in danger. But it deliberately denounced the violence of the state as well as that of the terrorists. A wise move, since in this bloody mess the educated classes are not the only target, and the so-called God's Party, the Islamic Front of Salvation (F.I.S.), provides both the killers and many of the victims. Ever since the electoral process was dramatically suspended by the army in January 1992, when the Islamic Front was poised for victory, its members and sympathizers have been driven underground, arrested by the thousands, tortured, shot or deported to the Saharan desert. (For details see Middle East Watch's recently published report on Algeria.)
The government's attempt to solve a political problem by repression predictably had the opposite effect. The so-called ninjas, the hooded special squads from the army that hunt down bearded Muslims in the poor districts of Algiers, serve as recruiting agents for the F.I.S. Resistance is steadily growing. Last month, units of the Islamic underground attacked army barracks in the west of the country, and fatalities on both sides are now running between 200 and 300 a week. The country is drifting into a civil war in which the stakes are high, since a victory by the Islamic fundamentalists would have political consequences not just in neighboring Tunisia and Morocco but in Egypt and beyond. And the conflict is being waged amid a deepening economic crisis. The servicing of Algeria's foreign debt, which now amounts to 70 percent of the gross domestic product, absorbs the bulk of export revenues. Prices are up and investment and production are down, while unemployment is approaching a quarter of the labor force--a highly explosive factor in a country in which 70 percent of the population is under 35.
Is it still possible to prevent a full-scale civil war, to gain time and thus evolve alternative solutions? The "reconciliation conference," sponsored by the authorities at the end of January and boycotted by all key parties, was a total flop. The subsequent appointment to Gen. Liamine Zeroual, hitherto Defense Minister, as President of the Republic for a three-year term of "transition" was an admission of that failure. But tentative talks with the Islamists are apparently continuing behind the scenes.
To assess the chances of such efforts we must go back to the roots of the crisis. To the casual observer of the North African scene the present Algerian predicament is particularly puzzling. After all, Algeria was one of the few countries that gained independence thanks to a genuine resistance movement forcing out the colonial power, France. And only twenty years ago Algeria, with its "Islamic socialism," was described as a model of independent development and one of the leaders of the Third World. Admittedly, the other leader was Yugoslavia. Things were not quite as simple, or as attractive, as they were being painted at the time.
The Algerians did win their independence, but they inherited a country bled white by eight years of war and ruined still further by the mass departure of the European settlers, the million or so pieds noirs who in 1962 made up about a tenth of the population. Second, the people never seized power. It was usurped almost at once by the army--not by the resistance fighters but by the more regular army stationed on the Tunisian frontier under the command of Col. Houari Boumedienne. For the first three years after the revolution that army shared power with President Ahmed Ben Bella, one of the nine "historic leaders" who had launched the war of liberation. …