Severine Labat is one of the most informed French political scientists on Algeria, author of “The Algerian Islamists” (Editions du Seuil, Paris 1995), and currently working on a book on the subject of Hamas, she is one of the rare experts who know -- as much as anyone can really know -- the secret structures of the Algerian regime. In this exclusive interview she attempts to make some sense of the Algerian question.
Q: What is the nature of the Algerian conflict? Is it a civil war?
Severine Labat: It is a difficult question; a lot is at stake. Some people claim it is a civil war, with two sides, the Islamists and the military. Others, referring to the standards of civil wars, for example Spain and Lebanon, say: “No, we have not reached this stage”. Personnally, I would say it is a war against the civilians, waged by two militarised clans who have taken the population hostage, to swing it to their side.
Q: Are the massacres that shocked the international community towards the end of last year something new, or something that has been going on for some time but previously largely ignored?
A: I would say both. It has been a dirty war from the beginning; at one time repression was going on on a wide scale, there were many cases of extrajudicial killings. But the massacres which occured last September and October, on such a scale, with several hundred victims, this is something new.
Q: Why? What is the aim of such aggressions?
A: I told you: the Islamists want to force the population to swing to their side. They also want to publicise their fight, to bring it to the attention of the World media.
Q: But surely there are other ways to do it? The Palestinians did it by hyjacking planes, not by massacring civilians.
A: Don’t forget that at that time the Palestinians’ fight was a just cause, it created an echo in the Arab world and in the West. But the Islamists’ cause is not really seen as a just one; it is more difficult to bring the attention of the media to it. When a plane was hijacked by the Palestinians, all the world’s cameras were filming it but in Algeria, there is such a news black-out... This escalation of violence aims at breaking the wall of censorhip -- it is difficult to ignore such massacres. But these massacres are also the result of the “privatisation” of the war: unable, due to the shortage of troops, to control the countryside, the government decided to arm militias of “patriots”. In many parts of the country the State has totally abdicated. A logic of vendetta is now prevailing. The people who are massacring villagers are coming from these same villages: people are taking revenge on villages which refuse to help the guerrillas and the truce signed last October (1997) by the AIS (the FIS armed wing) probably led to cases of denouncement: “patriots” are also avenging the deaths of friends; there are many excesses.
Q: How do you explain this barbarity in a country whose youth is fairly well educated?
A: Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader, graduated from the Sorbonne! Education is not a guarantee against barbarity. Algeria is going through a process of unprecedented social and political decomposition. On the plain of Mitidja, where a lot of violence is taking place, a population of poor uneducated peasants were displaced by the French during the war of independence and forced to settle in camps: the young people who form the rank and file of the Islamists were born in these camps. But this violence is not unique to Algeria: several books were published recently showing that the same thing happened in Greece, during the 1940,s and in the Soviet Union after the revolution of 1917 and more recently in Lebanon, many babies were slaughtered while suckling at their mother’s breast. Violence is more a human problem than the Algerians’ nature.
Q: Who is doing what? The recently published US State Department Report on Human Rights says that “questions have been raised about the security forces’ indifference to, or complicity in, civilian deaths.
A: Why are people raising this question? Because the Algerian power is one of the most opaque. Do you know any other country whose real chief is unknown? Do you know the names of the 20 generals who make up the general staff and run the country? We don’t know them. We are dealing with this country like “Kremlinologists” in the old days of the USSR. When we study the power structure in Algeria, we know the names of General Zeroual, the official head of state, the names of General Betchine, of General Lamari, of two other generals heading the S.M. (military intelligence), and of the famous General Tewfiq -- of whom there is no picture. We know there are many clans: there generals were only 20 to 25 years old at the end of the war of independence in 1962 and until very recently they were colonels, the grade of general is a new creation.
They were formed in different military academies, with opposite ideologies, some of them in France or at Westpoint (USA), others in Arab countries, in Syria and Iraq and a large group in the Soviet Union. Some are francophones, other arabophones, some are secular, other Islamists. Some of these officers were fighting with the NLF, inside Algeria, others were with the ALN (Algerian Liberation Army) in Morocco and Tunisia. Some of them did not even fight during the war. There is the general staff, the governors of military regions -- General Khaled Nezzar, former chief of staff, is supposed to run the show... although some people claim he is terminally ill. The only thing we know is that they meet in full caucus and that they take their decisions unanimously. But are there, further down in the hierarchy, reformists officers perhaps eager to to purify an army whose reputation is tarnished by charges of corruption? Is there a young captain who sees himself as Nasser? Nobody knows. Nobody knows anything, there are only rumours in this country -- and this is why one suspects officers are settling accounts within the military establishment, this is why the question is raised: who is killing whom? What is at stake is the control of the oil revenues -- $11 billion a year.
Q: Why is there such a silence on the violation of human rights by the government, on the government’s repression?
A: There is a total black-out on the repression, just as there is not one word on the army’s losses! Amnesty International has recently launched a new campaign on the 10,000 disappearances, so their case is raised again. But the death of an Islamist does not count like the death of another person. There are no more prisoners, no more trials, the Islamists are considered to be an illegitimate cause, so it is not illegitimate to shoot them.
Q: If, as the government alleges, the Islamists are responsabile for these massacres, why are the Algerians so fearful of any foreign commission of investigation?
A: The Algerians are terribly nationalistic, this is a fact. Then, the authorities don’t want anybody to nose around their affairs, it is like a woollen ball, if you start to fiddle with it the whole thing will unravel: the divisions between the army and the military intelligence, the divisions inside military intelligence, the divisions inside military intelligence and its links with SONATRACH (the Algerian national oil company) bank accounts.
Q: Why is the West keeping so quiet?
A: The European countries say: “This is a French file, let France deal with it”. The Americans? They are concerned by only two things: the risk of contagion spreading to Morocco and the security of the oil and gas fields. The political file they consider too “rotten” to touch, and they leave it to France.
Q: And the Arab countries? Why the silence there?
A: The rule, within the Arab league, is not to interfere in the internal affairs of other sister nations. Many of them from Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Libya, Saudi Arabia are confronted with the same kind of problems with their own Islamists. So they are very cautious. But recently the sheikh of Al Azhar mosque, in Cairo, stated that the situation could not go on like this for ever...
Q: Would the arrival of an Islamic regime in Algeria be such a catastrophe?
A: France is afraid it would destabilise its expatriate community of three million North Africans. There is the spectre of Europe being flooded by the arrival of unlimited numbers of boat-people from Algeria. Already some 100,000 Algerians have left the country since the beginning of the conflict. If there is an Islamic regime and the television shows mass hangings of intellectuals and secular people, it would be impossible not to open the borders.
Q: Yes, but even an Islamic government would wish to sell its oil, to do business as usual.
A: Yes, but besides the relations from government to government, there are more personal networks: for example, Algeria is buying massive quantities of medicines from private French companies, these sales generate very big commissions: some people would lose a huge amount of money if there were a change of interlocutors.
Q: Do you know what is left of the GIA (Armed islamic Group)?
A: There are two theories. Some people claim it is a very well structured pyramidal organisation. I disagree and think it is now atomized and destructured. It is an horizontal organisation, with little contact between the different groups. There is probably a more organised nucleus, able to communicate with the outside world, with a mobile telephone, with its “spokesman” in London, who by the way is not an Algerian. But it is the same thing: we do not know the names of its chief, of his lieutenants. Ideologically, it is very weak, very spontaneous. More than anything else, it is very Algerian, very regional, very poor politically. One could think that this movement would structure itself with time. But it is the opposite, it is going from bad to worse. Who are they recruiting? Desperados! It is difficult to make publicity for such a movement. They still number only about 3,000.
Q: How can such a small number of fighters create so much trouble?
A: In France, the militants of “Action Directe” were not even a dozen. How many people were active in the “Red Brigades”? How many “soldiers” are there in the IRA? You don’t need a large number of people to destabilise a State...
Q: How will all this end?
A: It will be a typically Algerian solution: the Islamists will be defeated, but a large part of the FIS programme is already implemented -- its conservative points, not its revolutionary elements. There are eight islamist ministers in the government. Some cadres of the FIS could be allowed to have a political activity. Slowly, violence will be represed and will exhaust itself. The army will keep its prerogatives. Definitely, the Islamist movement in Algeria has lost all possibility of taking power as a hegemonic force.
(The Middle East magazine, June 1998)
Droits de Reproduction strictement réservés © Chris Kutschera 2002