North African diversities: an Algerian odyssey

Algeria wrested independence from France in 1962 after a bitter and extremely violent eight-year struggle. The legacy has continued to shadow its efforts to create a workable model of development and a humane life for its citizens. Francis Ghilès invokes a wealth of memory from his years reporting Algeria - in particular, a pivotal few months in 1991 - to reflect on a compelling country's troubled half-century.

Francis Ghilès
10 July 2012

"We are going to teach Morocco and Tunisia a lesson in democracy." General Larbi Belkheir, the Directeur du Cabinet Présidentiel told me in June 1991 just after I had finished interviewing Algeria's head of state, Colonel Chadli Bendjedid (alongside Edward Mortimer, my colleague at the Financial Times). Algeria was boiling; the standard of living was plummeting; an authoritarian state that had ruled for three decades was facing increasing demands for reform; the Islamists were on the rise; more free and open elections than ever before, two years after the fall of the Berlin wall, seemed inevitable.

The president had just appointed a new cabinet headed by Sid Ahmed Ghozali, who had been foreign minister in the outgoing government of Mouloud Hamrouche and was best known for his time as director of the state oil-and-gas company Sonatrach during President Houari Boumediene's rule in the 1970s. The new government’s most prominent minister internationally, however, was Lakhdar Brahimi, former ambassador to Cairo and London and one of Algeria's most respected diplomats. Brahimi had recently negotiated an end to the civil war in Lebanon (1975-90), sealed by the Taïef agreement; a decade later, he was to run Afghanistan for the United Nations in the wake of the overthrow of the Taliban.

Algeria's then economy minister, Pr Benissad, was the dean of the faculty of economics of Algiers. He spent only six months in charge of this key portfolio, during which he behaved like a lamb thrown into a cage of wolves. A debonair academic, he was manipulated by forces out to destroy the bold economic reforms launched by the previous government.

A train-wreck in slow motion

Larbi Belkheir, whom I interviewed that day in 1991, was the godfather of Algeria for twenty years after Chadli Bendjedid became president in 1979. He was a man of bottomless corruption, always willing to play (and be handsomely paid by) French interests against genuine Algerian ones. The danger of brinkmanship reflected in his brash comment was (as so often in the middle east) magnified by the delusional belief of the main actors - in this case, Larbi Belkheir himself and Sid Ahmed Ghozali - that they could control events.

They ended up believing that when Algerians came to cast their vote in the first round of the first-ever multiparty parliamentary elections on 26 December 1991, the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) vote could be contained. The French ambassador in Algiers, Jean Audibert, fully shared their delusion. The FIS had been legalised by Kasdi Merbah in September 1989, a decision opposed by his successor as prime minister Mouloud Hamrouche; but Hamrouche went on to redraw the electoral map and bring in a lot of young blood in the hope of regenerating the ruling Front de Liberation National (FLN). Whether that would have prevented the victory of the FIS on 26 December is anybody’s guess; in the event Hamrouche's own replacement Sid Ahmed Ghozali played with fire and quickly became intoxicated with his own rhetoric.

When asked one day why he had taken to wearing a bow-tie, Ghozali flippantly answered that it was "in order to pray more easily". Many Algerians took this as an insult and the cartoonists (in what was then a very free press) had a field day. The prime minister was usually portrayed as a bee with his bow-tie drawn as a miniature propeller, buzzing around as he collected pollen (ideas) from all and sundry. Ghozali loved whisky but took to praying in public, notably on airport tarmacs as he waited for flights. There was ever nastier skulduggery, often initiated by the prime-minister’s entourage, which soon turned Algerian politics into a very unpleasant business indeed.

At the same time, a true "yellow press" emerged, alongside new names in Algerian journalism such as Malika Abdelaziz and Nourredine Khelassi who were the honour of their trade. Le Soir d’Algérie reported Italy's decision to refinance its bilateral debt with Algeria, in response to Algeria's new policy (initiated by the governor of the central bank, Abderrahmane Hadj Nacer) of refinancing the country’s foreign debt to avoid a rescheduling. The paper quoted criticism by the French ambassador of his Italian counterpart, Antonio Badini; Italian policy was "une politique de pacotille et de pochettes surprises, une diplomatie de majordome" (a policy of low-grade goodie-bags, a diplomacy of servants), thundered Audibert, who accused me privately of supporting the policy of a governor who, he insisted, was "one of the most corrupt men" he had ever met.

I replied that I was ashamed that he was the ambassador of my country in Algiers and that I would never set foot in his office as long as he remained France’s man in Algiers. It took me a few more months to fully appreciate that Audibert was not just acting as a proxy to the dirty-tricks department of the prime-minister’s office, and that there was a logic to his behaviour. Meanwhile Ghozali, who at his first cabinet meeting had wondered aloud of how he might find "fault" with Hadj Nacer in order to have a pretext to dismiss him, hit upon the idea of accusing the governor of selling gold from the central bank, a transparent lie if ever there was one. This forced the governor to justify his policy to the Assemblée Nationale Populaire where an MP from the FLN’s old guard who was not particularly enamoured of the economic reforms of the previous two years expressed his disgust at the descent of Algerian politics into the gutter.

The FIS leaders Ali Belhadj and Abassi Madani had been arrested during the failed general strike they had launched in June 1991 (which was the ostensible reason for Mouloud Hamrouche’s downfall), and now languished in jail. The absence of a reliable electoral-roll was a portent of trouble to come. The gutter press was having a field day. L’Hebdo Libéré, owned by a former presidential spokesman and pimp of the president’s sons, was attacking all and sundry (not least Hadj Nacer). The prime minister appeared unconcerned by the mounting chaos, ever more in love with his own brilliance as he popped up in endless European and Arab media interviews and TV shows. The Algerians jokingly referred to their new cabinet as Hukumat Mickey, a "Mickey Mouse government".

There were however some sober and dissenting voices, though never expressed in public. Lakhdar Brahimi was too worldly-wise to believe that the FLN could save itself in the midst of the worst economic and social crisis the country had ever known, and the endless pandering to public opinion which characterised leading politicians during that fateful summer and autumn of 1991.

For his part, the incorruptible governor of the central bank had since 1989 been a key ally of the then prime minister Mouloud Hamrouche as he sought to liberalise the very centralised and corrupt management of the country’s economy. Abderrahmane Hadj Nacer was highly respected in Washington and in Rome, in Tokyo and Madrid; but many in these capitals were unaware of (and the French ambassador had seemingly forgotten) the advice given by Francois Mitterrand’s first foreign minister Claude Cheysson to those who were posted to Algeria and convinced themselves after a few months that they understood the country well. "Après plusieurs années en Algérie vous croierez comprendre ce pays mais il vous réservera toujours des surprises."

Jean Audibert, ahead of the municipal elections of May 1990, had assured Francois Mitterrand that the FIS would gain no more than half the vote. He was proved wrong. His forecast ahead of the December 1991 vote was equalled misjudged, but did nothing to dent the infinite confidence he had in his own judgment: he shared with many Algerian leaders a Marie Antoinette syndrome - for they too simply could not believe what they saw, nor understand why the people did not love them.

Another very astute Algerian expressed growing concern. Mohammed Yazid, who was always present when I saw Lakhdar Brahimi on my frequent visits to Algiers as the Financial Times's north Africa correspondent, was then head of the Algerian think-tank the Institut de Stratégie Globale (ISG). He had been the FLN’s man at the United Nations in the later years of the bitter fight against France (1954-62) and age had made him wise. In October 1991 he invited me to speak at the ISG on the theme "Why Algeria needs an autonomous central bank" in front of an audience of glum Securité Militaire officers who did not utter a single word. He was worried and not shy in expressing his concern, indeed his contempt, at Ghozali’s behaviour.

In the midst of all this turmoil I thought of Albert Camus, a noted journalist, who commented on his trade to his former philosophy teacher: "Vous savez mieux que moi combien ce metier est décevant. Mais j’y trouve cependant quelquechose: une impression de liberté - je ne suis pas contraint et tout ce que je fais me semble vivant".

Simon Kuper, who joined the Financial Times just before I left, has another way of describing the trade: "Soon after starting work at the FT’s office at grey Southwark Bridge in London, I realised that journalism did not feel like a job for adults. Partly, that’s because it is fun. Putting out the newspaper every day felt suspiciously like making the school magazine. My colleagues called their articles 'stories', as if we were still teenagers at play. Indeed journalism is so enjoyable that half the planet now seems to do it for free on their blogs. Presumably accountants and bankers feel their jobs are more grownup."

Simon is probably right when he says that journalists are probably happiest on the sidelines. During that summer in Algiers I did not feel I was on the sidelines as pressures mounted on me from all sides, but never did I succumb to the delusion that my articles changed history. It was nevertheless very thrilling indeed and the run-up to the election and the months which followed were, professionally speaking, the most intense I was ever to live through.

An echo of history

I also found time to attend to more personal matters. In April 1990, senior Algerian officers invited my parents to Algiers and I took my father to the village where his father was born, in the Kabylia mountains close to Algiers. Upon arriving in Tizi Hibel, our driver, a Kabyle Berber officer of the Sécurité Militaire inquired who was the hadj of the village. A old man arrived who recognised my father immediately: they were cousins who had briefly met in Tunisia before the second world war. It was the only time in my life that I saw my father, with whom I never had easy relations, cry.

We then paid our respects to Mouloud Feraoun, Tizi Hibel’s most famous son who was murdered by the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS) on 15 March 1962. The OAS was a French terrorist group based on French settlers and ultra-right rebels within the French army; its leader General Raoul Salan described its aims as including "to destroy the best Muslim elements in the liberal professions" - in other words to turn Algerian society into a vegetable by destroying its brains. Four days after Feraoun's killing, a ceasefire was signed between France and the FLN.

No better symbol of dual culture could be found that this close friend of Camus. His death was part of a two-year campaign of murder and bombing which helped to destroy the best elements in the new nation’s intellectual and technical class, and tear the links which, despite the war, still existed between many Muslims, Christians and Jews in Algeria. It culminated, symbolically, on 6 June 1962, on the eve of the country’s accession to independence, in the torching of the university library of Algiers and the destruction of 60,000 books.

The OAS campaign, with help from hardline elements in the FLN, made the flight of one million French settlers inevitable. It also completed the tragic destruction of a generation of Algeria’s proudest sons - nationalist militants in the working-class suburbs of French towns and in Algeria, 10,000 of whom fell victim to the bitter infighting between Algerian nationalist groups; early leaders of the revolution such as Larbi Ben M'Hidi, who was tortured to death by the French, and Abane Ramdane, the FLN’s chief ideologue, who was lured out of Algeria to Morocco, where he was murdered by his peers.

When Algeria became independent in July 1962, the absence of such people allowed the more fanatical members of the Armée de Liberation Nationale (ALN) to seize power: officers such as Abdelhamid Boussouf, the head of the FLN’s secret service, and Houari Boumediene, the chief of the ALN general staff, people who convinced Mouloud Feraoun that native Algerians "yesterday humiliated, now tortured and hunted, will end up in slavery, the worst slavery they have ever known."

A tragic prophecy

A generation later, Islamic fundamentalist groups visited on Algeria much the same fate as the OAS. Many social and economic reasons have been advanced to explain the violence which was unleashed in the 1990s. Two factors, however, stand out.

First, after independence, Algerian rulers gagged their people. The trades-union movement was muzzled, torture reinstated, foreign newspapers censored, the teaching of social sciences discouraged, the school curriculum "Arabised", and thousands of Arabic teachers imported from Egypt (people whom, it transpired later, were sympathisers of the Muslim Brotherhood).

Archaeologists from Cambridge who were digging in Algeria were told that they had to find "Arab" remains, never Berber ones. Yet eleven of the thirteen men who led the uprising against the French on 1 November 1954 had Berber names. Boumediene made a generation of young Algerians inordinately proud of Algeria’s achievements and it is true that he gave solid support to the PLO and the ANC. But this generation was forced to live a lie - and a powerful Sécurité Militaire, the "Boussouf Boys", the toughest of whom were trained in Iraq after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958, kept a harsh lid on dissent.

Second, from 1962 up to the bloody riots of 1988, Algerian leaders, basing themselves on the revolutionary theories of the time, were convinced that the political mobilisation accompanying their guerrilla war to oust the French would be directly carried over into a process of social modernisation and economic development. This belief was illusory in every respect.

By the time of Boumediene’s coup d’état in 1965, they were showing contempt for their intellectuals and silencing all independent forces in society, notably the trades unions. They got obedience in exchange for free bread, free education and free heath. But this unwritten pact broke down when Algeria’s foreign oil-and-gas income was halved after the collapse in the price of oil in 1985. Here, as elsewhere in more recent years, the ignorance of classical Arabic, of age-old Berber poetry and a lack of knowledge and understanding of their country’s past have increased the reliance on clerics for interpretation of religious texts and history. All this was coming to the boil in 1991, and though I could not imagine how bloody later events were to be, I had a deep sense of foreboding.

As we stood in the bright sunshine that May morning gazing at the peaks of the Djurdjura range, still snow-capped despite a profusion of flowers in the valleys, my mother thanked me for reconciling my father with his past. When we left Tizi Hibel, where the land my ancestors' house stood on remains empty, I simply reminded myself of Mouloud Feraoun’s tragic prophecy for the land he loved so much. Algeria is not an easy country to love, but its children, to this day, have a raw energy, a lust for life, which never made me regret having devoted so much time to trying to understand them.

A canvas of failure

The summer of 1991 was a decente aux enfers. Sid Ahmed Ghozali was busy playing electoral games, convincing himself he was the saviour of Algeria. The prime minister was characteristic of a ruling class which, as often happens in authoritarian regimes, lives in an imaginary world of its own making and ends up deceiving itself that it knows the people it rules. In truth it despises the people it rules: one Algerian ambassador had told me a few years earlier, as I was enquiring why his government did not promote family planning, c’est le seul plaisir qu’ils ont.

The delusion of the Algerian ruling class resembled that of the European left, which flocked to Algeria after 1962 and convinced itself that Algeria, then an important player in the non-aligned movement and a firm supporter of the PLO, was creating a brave new world. Members of this group in France and beyond looked at this vast, complex (and complexed) country through an imaginary Alger Rive Gauche prism which inspired countless articles and books, usually from the publisher Maspero in Paris. Their vocabulary mixed half-baked Marxist phraseology, a form of utopian Saint-Simonism and a virulent strand of anti-Americanism. It all felt a bit like Boys' Own magazine.

Anyone with a modicum of common sense and knowledge of the towns and countryside outside Algiers could not fail to notice the utter disregard the elite showed for the Muslim roots of the country and the true feelings of its inhabitants. On the anniversary of the start of the revolution (1 November 1954), the leaders they would say the fatiha at the Riad el Feth (monument for the martyrs) which dominated Algiers, the Riad el Feth, in front of the flame of the unknown soldier - oblivious to the fact that in Islam you do not pray in front of a fire.

Such people enthused about the revolution agraire which between 1962 and 1978 ruined agriculture and turned a self-sufficient country into one of the largest importers of food in the Arab world (and the largest importer of eggs in the whole world). Many of the French cheerleaders of revolutionary Algeria came from families which had supported, at considerable risk, militants of the FLN during the bitter fight against French colonial rule; they were sorely disappointed when the FIS won the municipal elections in May 1990 and aghast when the party won the first round of elections on 26 December 1991. A few years earlier they had been equally dismayed when they realised that Fidel Castro’s democratic credentials were tainted and China’s cultural revolution had cost 30 million dead. A generation earlier they had misjudged Stalin.

In the aftermath of a struggle for independence which had cost 500,000 Algerian dead, forced a million European settlers to flee the country and elevated torture into an art form (quite apart from bringing down the French fourth republic), looking to the communist states seemed reasonable and promising. In hindsight it turned out to be disastrous. The elite of Algeria failed to achieve development, democracy or social modernity; all it offered its exhausted people was a local nationalistic brand of communism which lacked the attributes that had given the Soviet regime its global influence - its international rhetoric, its contribution to the defeat of Nazism, and its ability to build a military power of the first order.

The Algerian elite did however copy the Soviet Union's worst mistakes: its police brutality, notoriously ineffective economic planning as well as the confiscation of power by the party and various army and security clans. From the late 1960s, the French and Americans battled for influence: the French encouraged the creeping nationalisation of foreign trade (the hallmark of a policy led until the late 1970s by the all-powerful minister for heavy industry, Belaid Abdessalam) while the Americans backed free trade through Mohammed Zeghar, a powerbroker whose influence in Algiers up to Boumediene’s death was great.

The attempts to liberalise the management of Algeria’s foreign trade after 1989 came up against the same coalition of French-Algerian interests which were set on preventing any other group or country - especially the United States or Italy - from sharing the "honey-pot" (as Boumediene called it) offered by a rentier oil-and-gas state.

An economic power-play

The need to reform Algeria’s tightly state-controlled economic system had become apparent when the collapse in the price of oil in 1985 broke the tacit agreement with the Algerian people: cheap bread, education and health in exchange for no freedom to speak. The country’s leaders could no longer hold to their side of the bargain. The grandiose ambitions of the Boumediene period - to turn Algeria into the "Japan of Africa" as formulated by his minister of heavy industry, Belaid Abdessalam - had failed (when Abdessalam was sacked in 1976 by his master and offered the ministry of light industry in exchange, Algerians nicknamed him le minister de la gazouz [the minister of fizzy lemonade]).

The government’s decision to speed up the nationalisation of foreign trade in 1972 was, arguably, the single most disastrous decision taken by Abdesselam, for it opened the door to rampant corruption. President Chadli’s attempts to renovate the administration of state enterprises in the early 1980s was entrusted to an equally pompous and incompetent man, Abdelhamid Brahimi, known in government circles as Brahimi la Science. By the mid-1980s a few people (among them Ghazi Hidouci and Abderrahmane Hadj Nacer) set about producing a serious blueprint to change Algeria's method of economic management: the result was Les Cahiers de la Réforme, which served as the programme of reforms Mouloud Hamrouche was to implement after being appointed prime minister in September 1989.

The reforms were difficult to enact because many powerful people in Algeria were lukewarm. They included Larbi Belkheir; a number of senior security and military officers who feared losing their privileges; Francois Mitterrand, France's president, less than happy at the idea of a more modern and less corrupt Algeria as France’s influence might then wane (though leading French private companies such as Peugeot were more supportive).

Many other factors contributed to a sense of growing crisis. They included constant infighting among the nomenklatura in Algiers; the official recognition of the Islamic Salvation Front by Mouloud Hamrouche’s predecessor Kasdi Merbah; the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein in July 1990; the parlous state of government finances (the country’s foreign-debt servicing amounted to just over 100% of all exports of goods and services if Algeria’s military debt was taken into account); France’s refusal to support the government’s policy of refinancing rather than rescheduling the foreign debt; the growing social unrest fuelled by some FIS leaders after the victory in the local elections of May 1990.

When Algeria had approached the IMF for a loan in 1990, France had refused to support the move; when the IMF board then approved the loan in April 1991, the French representative refused to say even a word in its favour, and it was left to the representative to the fund of the Benelux countries, Jacques de Groote, to speak up (he told me that he had never witnessed such animosity). Ghozali, after he took office as prime minister, was openly backed by his French counterpart Pierre Beregovoy and France's foreign minister Roland Dumas. Both however made clear when they met Ghozali that the loans they were offering Algeria - worth one billion and 700,000 francs respectively - were to be used exclusively to pay for contracts with the French companies Bouygues and Chantiers Modernes ("de vrais marchands de tapis", mused one disgusted French diplomat in Algiers to me).

A transparent central bank run by an honest and competent governor was anathema to such French and Algerian politicians, and indeed to the IMF's director-general Michel Camdessus (who was to heap praise on Sid Ahmed Ghozali and his successors, such as Ahmed Benbitour and Redha Malek). Indeed Ghozali, as he sought to undermine Abderrahmane Hadj Nacer, found a close ally in Camdessus (whom I discovered later had very close links to the Vatican and Opus Dei). The prime minister's attacks on the governor of the central bank did little to enhance Algeria's reputation at a time when the country was engaged in the difficult exercise of trying to renegotiate (rather than reschedule) its crushing foreign debt. The contrast between the behaviour of leading Algerian and French figures and that of the then European Union commissioner for relations with Mediterranean states, Abel Matutes, was remarkable.

The European Union ambassador to Algiers, Jean-Paul Jessé - one of the architects of the EU’s new Mediterranean policy - joined Algeria's central-bank governor in proposing that the EU back Algerian reforms with a large loan (as Germany's chancellor Helmut Kohl had just won for Hungary). France refused to endorse this; President Mitterrand thrice refused Kohl's suggestion that both should travel to Algeria to tell north Africa the region had not been forgotten after the fall of the Berlin wall. "Je n’ai pas d’interlocuteur valuble a Alger", the French head of state told his German counterpart.

It must be said that this hostility was not shared by all in Paris: at the highest level of Peugeot and other forward-looking big French private groups, there was real hope of doing business with a reformed Algeria. Indeed, Peugeot was the first company to obtain an agreement to set up a privately-owned dealership in Algeria when a new law was introduced in April 1991 making joint ventures between Algerian state and private companies easier: within eighteen months, 100 foreign groups across the world had signed up to 100 joint ventures - a sure vote of confidence in Mouloud Hamrouche’s policy if ever there was one.

In the same year as the French refused to back Algeria’s request for an IMF loan, 1990, they agreed (at the request of the United States) to cancel the debt Iraq owed them. In Paris, senior officials did little to hide their hostility: when in a Financial Times article I quoted a comment by Raymond Barre (the former French premier and European commissioner) expressing support for the Algerian government’s policy of seeking refinancing, I was asked by an advisor to Roland Dumas if my behaviour had anything to do with my having Kabyle forebears. The treasury in Paris refused to receive me and had meanwhile arranged for one of its senior officials, Ariane Obolensky, to follow Hadj Nacer wherever he travelled across the globe to explain to senior officials that he was incompetent and corrupt ("il faut le marquer a la culotte"). I later discovered that a French diplomat belonging to the Centre d'Analyse et de Prévision du Quai d'Orsay was convinced that I was a agent of MI6 - which or course was not true.

The reasons to oppose a rescheduling were twofold: to loosen the noose of debt repayments, and to provoke a flood of fresh money into an unreformed system. Furthermore Japan, whose banks were the largest private creditors to Algeria, was strongly against a rescheduling. Japan’s ambassador to Algiers, Tomohiko Kobayashi, understood this perfectly and his good understanding with Hadj Nacer did much to smooth relations between the Japanese banks and the Algerian government. The French ambassador simply did not box in the same category as the supremely confident envoy of Tokyo.

When the IMF board finally agreed the loan for Algeria in the spring of 1991, Michel Camdessus for his part was acting as a representative of French interests, hardly as the director of an international organisation: I had an interesting if tense conversation with him on the issue, at his own request, at the IMF offices in Paris in June 1994. When Belaid Abdessalam became prime minister following President Mohammed Boudiaf’s assassination in July 1992, Abdessalam managed to get Hadj Nacer sacked without ever meeting him. Thus were reforms thwarted which might have allowed Algeria to modernise and play a useful role in the Maghreb. France’s neo-colonial policy has been repeated across north Africa. What happened in Algeria twenty years ago goes a long way to explaining France’s behaviour towards Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the run-up to his fall in 2011.

An end and a beginning

"You are walking on your head", I told General Belkheir as we left the president’s office after that June 1991 interview. "If you gather ten Algerians for a discussion, knives come out faster than arguments". He smiled in his avuncular fashion, but my remarks did nothing to dent his conviction. The smile had vanished when, six months later and after an interminable delay of three days following the vote, a wan Belkheir spoke to hundreds of journalists waiting to hear the result of the poll in a deadly silence I will never forget.

The atmosphere in Algiers quickly turned poisonous over that summer of 1991. Many ministers in the new government sought to smear the name of Mouloud Hamrouche. The signs of an economic counter-revolution grew - except in the key hydrocarbons sector (exports of oil and gas provided 98% of Algeria’s foreign income). A new law aimed at liberalising exploration by foreign companies had been drafted by the competent minister of hydrocarbons, Sadek Boussena, put to the national assembly by his able successor, Nordine Ait Laoussine, and adopted on the eve of the first round of the elections. But the prime minister intervened even here, saying that he was prepared to sell the major oilfield of Hassi Messaoud to foreign oil companies rather than accept the debt-refinancing policy backed by the governor. This attempt to sell Algerian oil-and-gas interests short failed, as did those of the recently sacked energy minister, Chakib Khelil.

In mid-1991, the prime minister was sorely tempted to get me expelled from Algeria, but was persuaded otherwise. As election-day approached, a sense of tragedy engulfed the country. The electoral-roll was a disaster, with tens of thousands of names missing. The infighting between partisans of Ghozali and Hamrouche got worse. The FIS (which had no economic policy worthy of the challenges Algeria faced) made clear that, if its candidates were to win a majority of seats, that would be the will of Allah and there would be no need for another election. It called European Union loans haram (unclean) but did not explicitly say it would repudiate them. A major electoral meeting was held in the 5th July stadium in Algiers during which the name of Allah was beamed into the sky by lasers as those attending fell to their knees to pray.

The press, which had been freed from its shackles by Mouloud Hamrouche, produced both excellent articles and disinformation of the most lurid kind. My own editor in London, Richard Lambert, remained totally indifferent to events in Algiers and neither he nor the middle-ast editor, Andrew Gowers who became foreign editor in February 1992, gave me any encouragement. Other colleagues were wonderfully supportive, notably the Africa editor with whom I shared an office, Michael Holman, Edward Mortimer (my mentor since I had left St Antony’s College, Oxford after writing a thesis on French colonial rule in Algeria), and the international economics editor Martin Wolf.

A few weeks before the first round of the elections I had a very bitter confrontation with Ghozali and spoke words to him my editor would never have accepted: "You are driving this country into a brick wall" (...droit dans le mur) . He was not best pleased but I never regretted doing so. As I prepared to leave for the Christmas break, I told my foreign editor, Jurek Martin, who trusted my judgment, that I would have to fly to Algiers on the day of polling. Why not wait until the second round, which was expected two weeks after 26 December, he inquired? "Because I have a funny feeling the whole process will be derailed", I told him.

I duly flew to Algiers on 26 December, getting there in time to visit a few polling stations before they closed. Algeria’s destiny was sealed that day: the victory of the FIS was followed by the forced resignation of Chadli Bendjedid and the cancellation of the second round of the elections. That decision cost the country ten years of violence, 150,000 dead, a dirty war of horrendous proportions, tens of billions of dollars of material damage, and the flight of 600,000 of Algeria’s most talented sons and daughters. It put back reforms for twenty years. Yet, to this very day, western "experts" of the Arab world are fixated on "free elections" as if these are the most important yardstick of democracy. The Arab revolts of 2010-11 will bring as many nasty surprises to the cheerleaders of the "Arab spring" in the western media as Algeria did twenty years ago. But whoever took the lessons of history seriously?


This text is dedicated to the memory of Mohammed Yazid (1923-2003) spokesman for the Algerian National Liberation Front at the United Nations during Algeria’s war of liberation. A wise elder statesman, he guided me through the minefield of Algerian politics from 1975-95 

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