Algerian peace efforts turn to the economy




Addressing the causes of social discontent is seen as increasingly important, reports Mark Huband

By Mark Huband in Algiers

Financial Times, 15 June 2000

In the tangle of alleys off the Rue Gheddis Amar, a wedding party bubbles with the laughter and hope that some Algerians have cautiously allowed themselves in recent months.

Nearby, a grocery shop is selling daily newspapers. A headline details the murder of a family of five whose throats were cut and bodies burned in a village near the eastern town of Medea. The second slaughter in two days, the killings brought the month’s death toll to 36.

So far the eight-year war between Islamist groups and the security forces has left 100,000 dead. A year ago President Abdelaziz Bouteflika sought peace by offering an amnesty and pardon to those militants not accused of rape or murder, provided they surrendered their weapons. Six months after the amnesty officially ended, Mr Bouteflika has continued to apply it to the estimated 1,500-3,000 militants still active. Meanwhile, the significant degree of success for this strategy of “civil concord” has led to pressure for change shifting from the brittle political arena to the stagnating economic sphere.

“If there’s no investment to create jobs that will give hope to the young, then the situation risks feeding more discontent, which could be the source of violence,” says Abdelaziz Belkhadem, head of the Committee for Peace and Reconciliation.

Unemployment is officially put at a staggering 44 per cent, implying that 4.5m are out of work. While many work unofficially, the National Economic and Social Council blames soaring unemployment on the inability of the economy to generate enough growth to create jobs.

According to a diplomat, there is confusion in the cabinet about who does what with regard to the economy. “There have been laws on privatisation, laws on investment, and now moves to realign the telecommunications industry. But nothing has come out of it, even though improving the level of employment is crucial in preventing another upsurge in violence.”

This year Algeria is expected to see income from oil rise by 13 per cent to $11.9bn. However, the channelling of oil and gas revenues directly into the financing of the government apparatus is seen by critics of the ruling elite as having insulated those in power from the social impact of the domestic economic crisis.

Mouloud Hamrouche, a reformist prime minister in the early 1990s, says: “In the past, the sharing of the petroleum wealth of the country was prevented by those in power. Now, they are not only keeping that for themselves, but preventing all other investment and thereby preventing the people from helping to create new wealth. This is why the society is in danger of exploding.”

Government critics link the slow pace of economic reform to the determination of the most influential members of the military-political establishment, called the ‘pouvoir’, to retain control of key economic sectors even at the price of delaying reconciliation.

“There’s no reconciliation. Who has the pouvoir reconciled itself with?” says Ahmed Taleb-Ibrahimi, leader of the Wafa party, a moderate Islamist-nationalist party that the authorities have refused to legalise.  “Is the politics of 2000 different from 1989, when the crisis started? We are in the same situation. It’s the same politics of eradication. If the people aren’t allowed to choose their leaders, then we won’t get out of the crisis,” he says.

The assassination last November of Abdelkader Hachani, a relatively moderate leader of the FIS, is widely blamed on hardliners within the regime. Many remain convinced the killing was intended to stifle one of the most influential voices calling for political reform.

“That operation confirmed that it is politics rather than the armed element which is considered a ‘danger’ in Algeria,” said Saad Djebbar, founder of the London Institute of North African Studies, in a recent interview with the publication Libre Algerie. “Meanwhile, Bouteflika has adopted the discourse of the opposition, notably with regard to peace and reconciliation, in order to empty these themes of real substance,” Mr Djebbar said.

However, members of the seven-party coalition government assert that the inclusion of moderate Islamists, avowed secularists and nationalists in one government is a sign that the horrors of the past decade have produced a degree of political maturity.

“The conflict has introduced a new element to politics, which is the search for consensus,” says Said Sadi, leader of the secular Cultural and Democratic Rally, which holds two ministerial posts. “I think that now is the first time that we have ever really been in a transition phase. The length of this phase is uncertain, and there will always be those who are not in favour of national reconciliation. But people are tired of what we are going through, and most are disposed to finding solutions to get us out of this.”

© Financial Times