Misunderstanding Algeria

Politics: At the beginning of the 21st century, the Algerian catastrophe is on a scale comparable to the genocides in Rwanda…

Politics: At the beginning of the 21st century, the Algerian catastrophe is on a scale comparable to the genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia and Chechnya. Unfortunately, Hugh Roberts's book does little to advance our understanding of the country's history or the current state of affairs there, writes Lara Marlowe.

When Algeria won independence from France in 1962, this proud North African country enjoyed immense sympathy worldwide. Endowed with natural gas and oil reserves, fertile plains that had provided grain and citrus for all of France, snow-capped mountains and Mediterranean beaches, Roman ruins and desert oases, Algeria was a country of wealth and beauty which promised to be a model post-colonial state.

Yet the power struggle within the National Liberation Front (FLN) continued after independence, leading to a coup by Col Houari Boumediène in 1965. While asserting Algeria's leadership in the Non-Aligned Movement and the Arab world, Boumediène laid the foundations for economic ruin, decimating Algeria's agricultural base in the frenzied acquisition of turn-key industries from the former Soviet bloc. He precipitated the housing and unemployment crises by exhorting Algerians to have as many children as possible. And he imported Muslim fundamentalist teachers from Syria and Egypt to "Arabise" the French- speaking country. The omnipresent Sécurité Militaire turned Algeria into a police state where no one breathed a word against the authorities.

This sorry state of affairs deteriorated further under President Chadli Benjedid. High-ranking army officers bought property in Europe and diverted oil revenues to their Swiss bank accounts while the country sank into poverty. Not surprisingly, Islamic fundamentalist groups began agitating. In the bread riots of October 1988, young men brandished the Koran.


The riots forced Chadli to make a botched attempt at "democratisation"; free speech, newspapers and political parties seemed to thrive. "But since all these new freedoms were being voluntarily bestowed by the authorities on a bemused public, not wrested from them by a developed civil society," Hugh Roberts writes in a rare moment of lucidity, "there was every reason to regard them as insubstantial, if not suspect, and those who took that view could not but feel vindicated when the generals at last made their moves."

In December, 1991, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won the first round of Algeria's first free elections. The generals cut the experiment short by forcing Chadli to resign the following month and then cancelling the elections. A decade of unspeakable barbarity has followed, during which between 150,000 and 200,000 Algerians have been slaughtered. Intellectuals were stabbed to death or shot at close range in their homes and offices or on city streets. Severed heads were left on gate-posts as warnings. In police commissariats across the country, countless "suspects" were forced to swallow litres of foul liquid, tortured with electricity and sexually brutalised. Wild men with knives entered villages like Rais, Bentalha, Beni Messous and Relizane, slashing throats and disembowelling thousands of civilians.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the Algerian catastrophe is on a scale comparable to the genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia and Chechnya. But, as Roberts notes, the international community has played the role "of the chorus in a terrible tragedy, vainly commenting on the action without understanding it or influencing it in any constructive manner whatsoever".

Unfortunately, Roberts's book does little to advance our understanding. Though his academic credentials are impressive, much of The Battlefield Algeria is downright silly, when it is not incomprehensible gibberish. The handsome cover, a 19th-century painting of Arabs dying in the desert, ought to carry a mental health warning.

One struggles to translate Roberts's prose into plain English. For example: "The decadence of the Party is rather an index of the difficulty which a secondary apparatus of state, conceived for the particular purposes of a dictatorial regime, has had in transforming itself into an organisation capable of performing the - completely different - representative functions of an independent political party in a pluralist democracy."

Roberts compares the Algerian elite to the Aryans, an early Christian heresy that resurfaced in 18th-century England. He boasts of having pointed out "the unmistakably Nietzschean aspect of the Algerian revolution" and writes that "it is tempting to look at the Algerian constitution in terms of the British model". Yet he berates journalists and fellow academics for drawing what he considers inappropriate parallels between the former Soviet Union, Iran and Algeria!

One of Roberts's more outrageous claims is that what Algeria really needs is a good civil war. He dismisses the idea that civil war started in 1992 as "a French thesis" and concludes: "The notion that civil wars, notwithstanding their human cost, are generally moments in the progressive development of states has much to be said for it".

Algeria's problem, he writes, "arises out of the fact that the Algerians have not had the luck of the Irish". Because the Irish Civil War focused on a clear issue - the terms of the 1921 Treaty - it gave Ireland distinct parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Algeria, he argues, absurdly, needs a similar debate.

This nonsense might be less offensive if Roberts did not criticise everyone else. Western reactions to the army's cancellation of elections in 1992 were "based on the most superficial analysis imaginable . . . Western assessments of recent events in Algeria have been profoundly mistaken . . . An informed historical perspective has been conspicuous by its absence . . ."

Roberts complains that when the BBC interviewed him after the January 1992 military coup, his explanation of why Algeria was not a second Iran was cut "and an alarmist prognosis . . . that better fitted clichés . . . was substituted for informed analysis".

Roberts has caught the Algerian virus of blaming France for everything wrong with the country. "The true nature of the Algerian crisis . . . cannot be grasped unless the mystificatory character of the French theses is appreciated," he writes. He refers - unjustifiably - to "the French thesis that there is no third way between a totalitarian Islamic state and a discredited military dictatorship".

Roberts's anti-French conspiracy theory culminates in the Afterword, where he asserts that "the decisions which sowed a fatal confusion and ultimately lethal dissension in the politics of Algerian nationalism and disabled it as a political force were largely inspired by French influence". Referring to the endemic violence in Algeria, he writes: "In so far as it has been connected to a recovery of French influence on the Algerian body politic and has entailed a regression to French methods of misgoverning the Algerians, it is tempting to speak of a restoration of French power and thus of a counter- revolution."

If Algeria is to save itself, Roberts concludes, it must recover its lost nationalism and return to the glory days of Boumediène. It is difficult to fathom how such rubbish gets published, much less how a 400-page book purporting to enlighten the reader about Algeria's recent history can take rigged elections seriously, yet avoid in-depth discussion of corruption, the intelligence services and the violence that continues to plague the country.

"The crucial way in which this conflict has been mediated by the violence itself has been left to one side, since it would be impossible to do justice to it here," Roberts writes.

One day soon, someone will publish the definitive analysis of Algeria's recent history. This is not it.

Lara Marlowe is the France and Maghreb correspondent of The Irish Times. She has been covering Algeria since 1988

The Battlefield Algeria 1988-2002: Studies in a Broken Polity. By Hugh Roberts, Verso, 402pp, £17