Democracy crumbling in Algeria?

Kanishk Tharoor
19 April 2007

In recent months, the spectre of Islamist violence has grown across North Africa. After enduring a brutal decade-long civil war, Algerian Salafist radicals have regrouped under the ominous banner of "al-Qaida in the Maghreb" (AQMI). The emergence of AQMI heralded fears of the internationalisation of political violence in the region, fuelled in large part by the presence of numerous North Africans in the battlefields of Iraq. In Algeria, police and military posts in the interior of the country have come under increased threat in 2007, but on 11 April, the AQMI threat hit the heart of the political establishment. Bombs ripped through Algiers killing at least 33 people, in the first such violence witnessed in the capital since the black days of the civil war. The blasts coincided with a number of aborted and successful attacks in Morocco. Violence there has continued after raids into impoverished slum areas of Casablanca prompted reprisal bombings.

The international dimension 1

Islamic terrorism in the region has long been considered a distinctly Algerian phenomenon, confined to the country that denied the Front Islamique de Salut (FIS) – rightfully elected to power in 1992 – the right to rule. A civil war ensued in which over 100,000 civilians are thought to have been killed. The Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC) – the group said to have embraced the al-Qaida cause last year – emerged in the turmoil of the war to fly the Islamist militant banner.

What was once mostly a national insurgency has now taken on the dimensions of the larger "war on terror". Notably, Moroccan and Algerian officials have reacted very differently to recent developments. Algiers has readily acknowledged the involvement of "external" elements. At a recent rally against terrorism in the capital, Bouguerra Soltani, leader of the moderate Islamist Mouvement de la Société pour la Paix (MSP), claimed that "we are living through a new genre of terrorism... the executors of the attacks were Algerian, but the goal comes from the outside, from the cadre of international terrorism".

Meanwhile, Rabat has insisted that its terrorists are "home-grown", their causes restricted and local, despite evidence to the contrary. With Moroccans deeply involved in the Madrid bombings in Spain, the stern eye of international scrutiny has fallen on Morocco, as local officials scramble to head off the growing threat.

Adding to the muddle, Hassan Hattab, the founder of the GSPC, has disavowed his group's links with al-Qaida and urged a process of political reconciliation between the government and local Islamists. Whom Hattab, nom de guerre "Abu Hamza", speaks for at this point is uncertain. It also remains unclear to what extent the recent spurt of Islamic violence in the Maghreb derives material support and direction from a wider network of jihadists. Yet it is beyond doubt that the high profile of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of figureheads like Osama bin Laden, has galvanised militants across the region to adopt the symbols and trappings of a trans-national cause.

The international dimension 2

At the same time, the "local" conflicts in the Maghreb have become the stuff of international interest. Murli Deora, India's petroleum and gas minister, will tour Algeria at the end of the week in a bid to strengthen energy ties between New Delhi and Algiers. Talks will also touch upon security issues amidst fears over the stability of Algeria's energy industry.

Russian and Algerian officials are also locked in negotiations that could make Algeria the largest buyer of Russian arms. A deal thought to be in the region of $7 billion is on the table, and would provide Algeria with new batches of fighter and bomber jets, tanks and air-defence systems.

Algiers' growing strategic ties with the likes of Russia and India comes at a time of growing domestic dissatisfaction with European policy to the Maghreb. Algerians and Moroccans resent the EU's view of their countries as frontlines against terror, where violence welling up from the Sahel and the dusty interior of north Africa must be confined lest it spill across the Mediterranean. France, the former colonial master of the Maghreb, has grown particularly nervous about the re-emergence of the region's Islamist militants. North African countries are also being increasingly relied upon to hold back the tide of African immigration, making them key parts of Europe's regional security policy. Such a task is likely to become harder in the coming years unless significant work is done to mitigate the effects of climate change and growing economic discrepancies in sub-Saharan Africa.

The threat to democracy

Algeria's human rights record has never been sparkling, particularly during the course of the civil war in the late 1980s and 1990s that saw the notorious intelligence services, the Département de renseignement et de la securite (DRS), cut its teeth in authoritarian control. The imperatives of safeguarding Europe's frontier and Russian military support will heap further pressure on Algeria's democratic institutions, cowed as they are by the robust voice of the army.

Algeria does boast a lively domestic press and a plethora of parties that operate with more than a modicum of freedom. In the wake of last week's attacks, Algiers witnessed Madrid-style demonstrations against terrorism, urging civic action and a commitment to the democratic process. Politicians further encouraged participation in the impending 17 May elections as a "response" to the bombs and threats of the Islamist menace. The continuing heavy-handed activities of the DRS, like the disappearance of the Islamic student Abdelaziz Zoubida, will invariably undermine the legitimacy of such democratic pretensions, and spin the Maghreb into further chaos.

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