Algeria: the real lessons for Egypt

By IndepthAfrica
In Algeria
Jul 16th, 2013
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algeria-riotFor all its problems, Algeria never became an Islamic state. Like Algerian progressives in the 1990s, Egyptian progressives now have to carve out the space to construct a credible alternative under the shield of the new transitional process, and simultaneously challenge the military’s human rights abuses

“Enough is enough,” insists Cherifa Kheddar,  whose brother and sister were murdered by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in June 1996, and who is the President of Djazairouna, the Algerian Association of Victims of Islamist Terrorism. She is right. One of the consequences of recent events in Egypt has been a renewed cascade of misrepresentations and misinformation about what happened in Algeria in the 1990s. Though each context is unique, the lessons that can be learned from Algeria then for the situation in countries like Egypt now make it critical to challenge the misinformation.  So much blood was spilt in the fundamentalist assault on Algeria that it is immoral not to remember what actually happened.

I have just finished three years of research on progressive opposition to fundamentalism across Muslim majority countries from Afghanistan to Mali, for my forthcoming book, Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism. But I began in Algeria by interviewing scores of survivors of the 1990s Islamist violence in places like Kheddar’s hometown Blida inside what was then-called “the Triangle of Death.” The voices of the people I spoke to must be heard to understand their history.

Instead, we are treated to boilerplate accounts. Almost no one seems to talk to the many Algerians who challenge that narrative.  And no one seems to bother to talk to women. You cannot understand what happened in Algeria, and what it means today, without doing both of these things.

Post-independence socialist rule waned when Chadly Benjedid became President in 1979. Like Sadat, he used the rising fundamentalists to scare critics on the left, a game which got out of control.  Benjedid’s unregulated privatization generated a huge gap between haves and have-nots. This provoked a youth-led revolt in October 1988; the army killed 500 in a week. Afterwards, the government placated the public by launching an ill-conceived electoral process and legalizing opposition parties, including the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) whose composition violated Algeria’s constitutional ban on parties based on religion.  This moment of “democratization” – which did unleash independent media and fostered tremendous optimism – was exploited by the FIS whose precursors had been militating in mosques and had a considerable head start.

The FIS participated in the electoral process while its leaders said they did not believe in democracy except as a means to come to power, and its associates were already engaging in violence against women and young conscripts. Most of this was overlooked by outsiders too busy celebrating the advent of a multi-party system. One summary version of Algeria’s 1990s trajectory is reiterated in the West – the fundamentalists were participating in the elections, their victory was stolen and that was when trouble started. This is a gross oversimplification.

Openly declaring they would abolish democratic institutions, the FIS leaders proclaimed that they would rule through a majlis al-shura, a cabal of clergy. They described the mixing of the sexes a “cancer,” and besieged women’s college dorms. Their prescription was simple. “Islam is the solution.” Their words and deeds terrified liberal and leftwing Algerians. The FIS second in command Ali Belhadj asked, “if we have the law of God, why should we need the law of the people?” About non-fundamentalist Algerians, he raved “one should kill these unbelievers.”

One of the worst fallacies today about this time period is that there was no popular support for the Algerian army’s subsequent action. “Millions of Algerians did not pour into the streets either to demand or denounce the cancelling of elections in 1992,” writes Hicham Yezza in an article on openDemocracy. This completely obscures the reality that there were in fact mass protests calling for the interruption of the electoral process.

In the opening days of 1992, as documented inter alia by journalists Hassan Zenati and Ricardo Ustarroz at the time, at least three hundred thousand people demonstrated on the streets of Algiers, long before Facebook, Twitter and cellphones. Some who took part estimate this number to have been much higher – up to 500,000 or even a million. They called on the government to save the republic when it looked like the FIS would win, establish an Islamic state, and never relinquish power.  At the time, Usatarroz wrote about the first round of voting, that “fresh elections for many of the seats won by the fundamentalists may have to be held because of complaints of ballot rigging and other irregularities in 140 constituencies.”

Cherifa Kheddar, who participated in protests then, reminded me last week that “a million citizens – women first among them – took to the streets of Algiers.  We asked the authorities to stop the electoral masquerade. We refused the Iranization or Sudanization of our country.”  In response, these opponents of theocracy received threats from Islamists telling them their only choices were a boat or a grave.

On January 11, 1992, the military-backed government heeded the call to stop the flawed process that would have given the FIS the reins of state to implement those threats. As terrible as things became afterwards, many argue it would have been worse had Algeria’s murderous fundamentalists been allowed to dismantle the republic from the inside.  As a newspaper publisher told me, “we would have become Afghanistan.”  “Winning elections alone is not democracy,” feminist psychologist Cherifa Bouatta who has long worked with women victims of the nineties violence reminded me in 2010. “It can lead to eternal dictatorship.” Herein lies an interesting quandary. For Western liberals and leftists now lecturing Egyptians about democracy, does that concept require a willingness to vote your republic – and yourself – out of existence? This is not just any passing government that is at stake in Egypt – it is rather the one which is set to promulgate the next constitution, a document that can affect the lives of generations of the country’s citizens.

Another of the grave misrepresentations circulating now about what happened in Algeria is that those who supported the interruption of the electoral process did so based merely on hypothetical fears. Algerians had already been grappling with disastrous local rule by fundamentalists since the municipal elections of 1990, which Yezza correctly points out in his piece. The FIS city councils were incapable of doing much other than banning cultural events.  “They said, ‘one day your turn will come,’” TV music producer Aziz Smati remembers. “There were lists of people they would assassinate when they took power.”

The threat to Algerian ways of life was existential, but this was misunderstood in a West that often considered the fundamentalists democrats, and stereotyped their opponents – who were in fact almost all staunch Algerian nationalists – as “Francophiles,” a smear that now reappears in today’s media coverage. “We tried to explain to them,” Cherifa Bouatta told me of Westerners, “that fundamentalism was the end of everything.  It was the death of our country.” Moreover, the Islamists openly proclaimed what they were planning. “No Charter, No Constitution, said God, said the Prophet,” was one of their favorite campaign slogans. This was but further proof of what Yezza dismisses as “Islamism’s supposed inherent and sinister impulse to deploy democracy’s own mechanisms to subvert and eventually destroy democracy itself.”

As former journalist Malika Zouba remembers, “the Islamists promised that they would change everything in Algeria. Women would go back home. They told us in their sermons and their electoral campaign that there would be no constitution, just the Sharia. That we would lose all we had fought for all our lives.”  While both men and women spoke out against growing Islamism, it is no accident that women’s rights activists were among the first to do so and were prominent amongst those calling for the interruption of the electoral process.  In Bouatta’s words, “this rise of fundamentalism was terrifying for us as women.”

In any case, the cancellation of the second round of parliamentary elections was no panacea.  A “dark decade” ensued with the military-backed government on one side and fundamentalist armed groups on the other.  Most of the bloodletting was directed by the armed groups against ordinary civilians, killing as many as 200,000. “The whole civilian population was taken hostage,” Cherifa Bouatta told me. Yet, Western narratives  – especially on the left – often implied that Algerians deserved the violence because they supported cancelling the elections.  We are seeing this again now with regard to Egypt.  Fundamentalists are deemed to have the right to rule, and when that is taken away, to kill anyone in their way.  They assume this power as well.  For example, on July 13 at a pro-Morsi rally in Tunis, Sahbi Atig, the head of the Ennahda bloc in the Tunisian constituent assembly, threatened that “all those who dare to kill the will of the people in Tunisia or in Egypt, the Tunisian street will be authorized to do what it wants with – including to shed their blood.”

Actually, if they choose to murder now, the region’s fundamentalists will have made a choice for which they alone are responsible and for which their fellow citizens will hold them accountable. The same is true for Egypt’s army which has already killed some 60 protestors. As the Algerian journalist Mustapha Benfodil, recently wrote of Egypt’s military chief, “after having kicked the Ikhwan out of the Itihadiyah palace, the most difficult task lies before the army leader: avoiding a bloodbath.”

Of course, there was also violence on both sides in Algeria. Though the overwhelming majority of the victims were those attacked by the fundamentalists, the forces of the state went on to use arbitrary detention, extra-judicial executions, and grisly torture, and carried out some eight thousand forced disappearances, all of which were grave violations of human rights. And the army has also remained a major force behind the scenes to this day with troubling consequences for democracy, and the rule of law.

What then are the real lessons of Algeria for Egypt and other countries today?  First and foremost, it is a gross error to underestimate the danger posed by movements that wield God as a political weapon, that are overtly committed to inequality.  I cannot often enough cite the words of education reformer Salah Chouaki who wrote shortly before his assassination by Algeria’s GIA ,“the most dangerous and deadly illusion… is to underestimate fundamentalism, the mortal enemy of our people.”

Another lesson is that while one may sometimes have to choose the lesser of two evils to survive – both physically and politically, one must never give up on constructing a better alternative.  “I am sick of having a choice between dictatorship and Islamism. Our aspiration for democracy is real,” Leila Aslaoui recently told the Algerian newspaper El Watan.  However, that search for genuine democracy must include not only a rejection of autocracy, but also a commitment to socio-economic justice, and to minority and women’s rights, and an unrelenting struggle against the fundamentalism which threatens them.  Aslaoui, who supported both the Algerian and Egyptian military interventions, and whose own dentist husband was murdered by Islamists in his Algiers office due to her opposition to extremism, also said about the 90s, “we knew who was protecting us and who was cutting our throats.”

Like Algerian progressives in the 1990s, Egyptian progressives now have to carve out the space to construct a credible alternative under the shield of the new transitional process, and simultaneously challenge the military’s human rights abuses which are in no way justified. That is no easy task (it is already worrying that they are reportedly not being consulted about the new constitutional process). These activists need both international support and understanding of the situation they face to have a chance at fulfilling it – two things their Algerian counterparts never received. In the meantime, it is critical that the security of Egyptian progressive activists be guaranteed. When the Algerian fundamentalists escalated their jihad, they went first, as I have written in an earlier article for openDemocracy, for those who dared challenge their dominion.

The balance sheet of the Algerian military’s intervention remains mixed. However, many survivors of fundamentalist violence believe the outcome would have been much worse if the FIS had seized power and terrorized from above rather than from outside the power structure.  And, for all its problems, Algeria never became an Islamic State. The lessons that can be learned from the country’s turmoil then – as told by real survivors -make it critical to remember this history now.

The lack of international solidarity with non-fundamentalist Algerians at the time remains a bitter pill for many, and may sadly be an experience shared by Egyptians.  But there is also reason for optimism if the world takes a smarter stance on Egypt and supports those committed to substantive democracy.  I think of the words of Aziz Smati, a paraplegic today after a 1994 attempt on his life by the GIA. “During 10 years they didn’t succeed, so I don’t think they ever will. Algeria will never become an Islamist country.” That is among my hopes for Egypt.

Karima Bennoune is a Professor of Law at the University of California, Davis School of Law, former Amnesty International Legal Advisor, and author of the forthcoming book, Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism, published by W W Norton & Co, 2013.

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