ALGERIA: The military sees an opportunity

Issue 

BY HEBA SALEH

CAIRO — As the United States raises the battle cry against terrorism, Algeria's military rulers — struggling with their own Islamist opposition — can clearly see an opportunity coming their way. Often criticised for their human rights record, and for their control of political power, they are now in a position which allows them to tell the world that they were right all along when they decided to scotch their own Islamists.

It is too early to tell whether the West will now crack down on Algerian opponents living in Europe and the US, but it is almost certain there will be closer cooperation in investigating those named as "terrorists" by the Algerian authorities.

A British junior minister, Ben Bradshaw, has already held security talks in Algiers, where he said he discussed "practical measures that will allow us to improve our common fight; together we can eradicate this problem". The Algerian authorities have long criticised Britain for giving refuge to Islamist opponents branded terrorists by Algiers.

Unconfirmed reports from Algeria mention a list of 350 Islamist militants active in the West which the country is said to have submitted to the Americans. Algeria is also reported to have reiterated a request to Washington to sell it military equipment hitherto denied on human rights grounds.

Two Algerian groups, the Armed Islamic Group) and the Islamic Group for Predication and Combat, figure on the list published by the American authorities of organisations whose assets are to be frozen. It is highly unlikely that either has assets or bank accounts, but their inclusion on the list is another moral boost for the Algerian authorities.

Algeria's military rulers are also likely to find greater understanding for their stand against the outlawed Islamic Salvation Front — the political party that was about to win the elections in 1992 when the army stepped in and scrapped the poll.

Over the last decade there have been intermittent and somewhat halfhearted calls from the West for dialogue with Islamists who renounce violence and show respect for human rights. Algiers has always managed to withstand the pressure. Now it seems likely that there will be even less appetite in Western capitals to listen to those in the Algerian opposition, Islamist and secular, who argue for democratic change and the end of the army's control of political power.

In its fight against the Islamists, the Algerian establishment has also sought to forge alliances with secular and modernist currents at home to demonstrate that they stand for enlightenment against the barbarous forces of darkness. The authorities can now portray themselves as standing in the same trench as the West to defend civilized values against terrorism.

In the aftermath of September 11, General Khaled Nezzar, the former defence minister who played a key role in the army's move against the Islamists in 1992, said it was "in the interest of modern societies, and those who wish to become modern societies, to join together to combat this evil". Never mind that the general himself had to be spirited back from France at the end of April because torture charges were filed against him in Paris by two Algerians and the family of a third who died after torture.

The general had travelled to Paris to attempt to counteract the negative publicity produced by The Dirty War, a book written by a former Algerian army officer in which he details alleged summary executions and torture practised by the army.

Human rights groups have documented extensive violations by the Algerian army, including thousands of disappearances and widespread extrajudicial executions. Questions have also been raised by human rights groups about those behind many political assassinations and massacres of civilians in the countryside, where blame was laid at the door of Islamist insurgents with no investigation. In the current atmosphere, it seems even less likely that any pressure will be brought to bear to shed light on this.

[From Middle East International. For subscription information write to MEI, 21 Collingham Road, London SW5 ONU, England.]

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