Algerians have no illusions about referendum




Potential for healing a brutalised country’s wounds rests with the army, rather than shallow democracy, reports Mark Huband

By Mark Huband in Algiers

Financial Times, 18 September 1999

Images of paradise are painted in bright colours on the sun-drenched walls of the Sheikh Bashir el-Ibrahimi school. Tranquil scenes of rural life depict children running through lush green fields and cattle being led to pasture on the hillsides of northern Algeria.

Sheikh Bashir was a heroic moujahid, a fighter in the war that cost 1m lives and won Algeria its independence from France in 1962. His portrait was among the wall paintings of the land fit for heroes that the independence struggle was supposed to have created. Now, seven years after Islamist militants took to the same hills and launched a second war that has left 100,000 people dead, there are no illusions of seeing paradise or finding heroes.

On Thursday Algeria’s president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, strode past the paintings as he crossed the school playground to a polling booth to cast his ballot in a referendum in which 98 per cent of those who voted approved his plan to promote concorde civile. The pact accords Islamic militants a limited amnesty if they surrender by January.

The result was predictable. Less so was the result of Mr Bouteflika’s three-week campaign intended to encourage a high turnout. This reached its climax at a big public meeting in Algiers this week. There, even the promise of peace exposed the gulf between the leaders and led.

“I have come to tell you that we are in favour of civil concord, but September 16 must be a day of celebration, upon which we will again see the faces of our children,” Kouidri Djillali told the president, saying she represented 4,500 families whose members have disappeared at the hands of the police and army since 1992.

Mr Bouteflika cannot afford to upset the security forces. The potential for peace rests on the army’s continued acceptance of the amnesty and curtailment of its strategy of eradicating the Islamists militarily.

The potential for healing the wounds of the brutalised Algerian population depends on whether the army, which wields real power behind a thin veneer of civilian-led democracy, is prepared to allow the opening of the political field so as to promote governments that are responsive to popular sentiment rather than seeking merely to exploit it.

“There are many things that are different from the other situations in which promises have been made,” said Abdelaziz Belkhadem, former president of the national assembly and now a leading member of the Committee for Peace and National Reconciliation.

“In the past there was simply the politics of security. But this is receding, because the price is too high. Now there is an urgent need to stop the haemorrhage. Later we can apply the medicine. . . The question is whether the political class can plant sufficiently deep roots.”

Algerians’ hopes have been dashed repeatedly by fear, mistrust and unfulfilled promises. The political class has not been able to respond to aspirations because it was never allowed a share of the real power.

Abdelkrim Ghezali, editor of La Tribune, a French-language daily, says the administration, instead of serving Algerians, has become “like a wall between the citizen and what he thought was his state, between the citizen and what he thought were his rights”.

Mr Bouteflika, who says he wants to break down this wall, has promised he will address dire social and economic problems as urgently as the security situation. He has also promised to restore credibility to the state.

Seventy per cent of Algeria’s population is under 30, unemployment is about 30 per cent, a housing shortage has reached critical proportions. The corruption of those in power has yet to be stemmed despite Mr Bouteflika’s recent sacking of 22 of the country’s 47 governors.

Such conditions are remarkably similar to those which fostered the growth of militant Islam a decade ago. It was after the 1992 cancellation of elections, which Islamists were about to win, that Algeria plunged into crisis.

“The Islamist current hasn’t lost its voice. But what it has done is achieve some political maturity,” said a retired engineer, sipping coffee at a cafe off Martyrs’ Square, as he pondered what seven years of horror had achieved.

“Whatever happens with the politicians, we don’t expect much from them. For the rest of us the calm now is just like living in a new country. People are beginning to breathe again,” he said, drawing heavily on a strong cigarette.

© Financial Times