CIVIL WAR IN ALGERIA

 

The start of the Muslim fast of Ramadan has been utterly disfigured in Algeria by some of the most pitiless and ferocious incidents of terrorism and state retaliation to have been seen in the five years since the conflict started there. Alas, the fifth anniversary of the Algerian army's cancellation of elections which it expected the Islamic opposition to win holds out no prospects of an internal reconciliation between the Algerian state and its assailants. But the intensification of the conflict has raised once again the desirability of international involvement in bringing it to a negotiated settlement.

If Algeria is not to become another Bosnia, Lebanon or Somalia on Europe's doorstep and if the neighbouring Maghreb and Arab states are not to be engulfed in a conflict that could easily spread beyond its borders it will be necessary to intensify the search for a basis on which such a settlement could be reached. There is no sign that President Lamine Zeroual is willing or able to make such a move towards the several opposition groups who would be ready for such an initiative. In his speech on Friday evening he promised intransigent continuation of the eradicationist policy towards the Islamic terrorist groups which led his government to boast in a lamentably premature and over confident fashion at the end of last year that they had wiped out "all but remnants" of them. At the same time he has announced that a further round of elections will be held later this year. He has also said that Arabic will become Algeria's official language by July 1998, in an effort to distance himself from the country's French speaking governing class.

Few close observers of Algeria believe there is any prospect of settling the civil war by such a confrontationalist approach. At best it would guarantee another period of political impasse, with atrocities continuing and a death toll running at some 10,000 per annum. There is no guarantee that the conflict would not at some stage spill over to neighbouring states and societies. In fact there is a significant and hopeful reactivation of opposition forces which could provide elements of a new dialogue. Although the opposition groupings are dominated by Islamic parties, they are not by any means an undifferentiated bloc. As in other states with such movements, they are stimulated by a variety of motives, including disgust at corruption and unbalanced, unequal development. They include moderates as well as extreme rejectionists. There are also important secular opponents of military rule. A number of such groups have come together once again to call for dialogue and international mediation, after their important initiative in Rome in November 1994 was spurned by the regime.

Their call deserves sympathetic and urgent response. There have been sporadic demands for European involvement in mediation over the last few years. They have now been joined by a call from an opposition leader for the United States to become involved. It is a sensitive matter for other European Union states, given France's close sponsorship and aid for the Algerian government, which has been reinforced under President Chirac. But these terrible recent events have dramatised the Algerian conflict once again and drawn attention to the regional dangers it poses. All the more reason to reactivate mediation efforts to bring it to an end.