JOANNE MYERS: Good afternoon. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to welcome our members and guests. Thank you all for joining us.
Today, if you find the history of the Arab world as compelling as I do, then Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed is a book that you are going to want to read. Martin Evans is our speaker. He will be telling us about Algeria.
During World War II, when American and Allied troops were pushing German forces eastward along the North African coast, the strategic importance of Algeria was readily apparent. Since then, there have been only a few times that this North African country has captured the media spotlight. Even so, the plain fact is that Algeria, however distant it has grown to Americans since it made headlines during World War II, remains of enormous strategic importance. Not only is it the second-largest country on the African continent in terms of area, it also has vast oil and gas reserves and is of compelling military and political significance.
From 1954-1962, during its bitter liberation struggle against French rule, Algeria was seen as a country with great potential. In the immediate aftermath of the bitter war for independence, there were high hopes that this country would politically and economically succeed. However, it was soon revealed to be an authoritarian state dominated by the military and unable to achieve a base of support from its citizens.
It wasn't long thereafter that young Algerians, who were growing increasingly alienated and frustrated by the corrupt military regime and in need of new heroes, found themselves drawn toward the emerging Islamic movement. In 1992 this rising Islamic campaign, which took the name of Islamic Salvation Front, also known as FIS, was on the threshold of achieving an electoral victory, only to have the military intervene and cancel the elections. The ensuing conflict degenerated into a savage cycle of violence between the military and Islamist guerrillas that grew ever more violent, eventually resulting in the death of some 200,000 people.
Today Algeria is once again thrusting itself onto America's consciousness. With a North African branch of al-Qaeda taking responsibility for the December suicide bombings in Algeria at UN headquarters and of Algerian government buildings, many believe that these acts may presage an extension of terrorist attacks farther across the Maghreb. This, in turn, could have a profound impact on many of America's allies in Western Europe.
In Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed, our guest this afternoon, Martin Evans, and his co-author, John Phillips, who couldn't be with us today, have written a very important book. In it they seek to provide a thorough understanding of how Algeria liberated itself from French colonial rule yet almost 50 years later remains disturbingly unstable, impoverished, and a breeding ground for insurrection and Islamic terrorism.
In explaining this complicated and bitter relationship with the Western powers and why it is important, Professor Evans writes: "Algeria is not elsewhere, a distant French enclave of new world interests. What happens in Algeria has deep-run implications. The history of Algeria reminds us of a basic but fundamental truth, namely, that in the contemporary world no country is an island."
Please join me in welcoming our speaker today, Martin Evans. Thank you for joining us.
MARTIN EVANS: Thank you for that nice introduction.
What I want to do is to focus initially on the problem of writing contemporary history; that is, how you try to make sense of events that you are very close to and, by definition, are unfinished.
Now, many traditional historians would claim that there is a central problem with this, which is a lack of perspective. It's not like medieval history, something like the medieval Crusades. There's a consensus when these began, when they ended. It's possible to periodize them, to dissect them, as discrete objects. There is a suspicion that contemporary history—and this book is a work of contemporary history—is something which is more akin to politics or, even worse, journalism. It's the idea that history only becomes history which we can analyze 50 years afterwards, when we have access to documents, and this is when politics become history.
Now, what I would reply to that—and, certainly, in writing this book that was the perspective we adopted—is that all history is contemporary. In the minds of many people, for example, the Crusades are unfinished. In that sense, I think it is very, very important in terms of looking at contemporary events—it's necessary to bring the historical methodology to them, trying to explain why they are happening.
Now, in terms of the book, I first became really interested in Algeria in 1982, when I was lucky enough to visit the country for three months. I was there actually the day after one of the greatest events in Algerian history, when Algeria in the 1982 World Cup beat West Germany 2-1. I remember crossing the Mediterranean and seeing the film of the games in a continuing loop. There was a real sense of collective euphoria when I arrived in Algeria. I was subsequently told by an Algerian veteran of the War of Liberation this was the closest atmosphere, in terms of euphoria, to what it was like when the Algerians defeated the French in 1962.
Now, at this point I knew very, very little about Algeria. I was there for three months, I crossed over into the Sahara—but, certainly, what struck me was that this was the 20th anniversary of independence. Algeria at this point still felt very much like a young country that had just come out of 132 years of colonialism and one of the bloodiest wars of liberation. It was still very much presented on its 20th anniversary that this was the War of One Million Martyrs, all of whom had been liquidated, killed by the French.
In October 1988, I went to do Ph.D research in Paris, and that was on the role of French people that sided or worked with the liberation movement between 1954 and 1962. This was just at the moment when there were huge riots that took place across Algeria. In the book we emphasize that these are undoubtedly the most significant events since independence. Anything up to 500 Algerians were killed in widespread rioting in Algiers. So at this moment there was intense debate amongst the left in France, amongst the pro-Algerian Liberian struggle circles,: What had gone wrong? Why had the promise of national liberation been disappointed?
There was, if you like, the final shattering of an heroic national liberation image. In a sense, what it made me begin to think very, very hard about was the complexities of post-independence, politics. What was the relationship between the national War of Liberation, always described as a revolution and the struggle to free Algerians from colonialism? What was the connection between the politics of the War of Liberation and the riots of October 1988?
Now, I visited Algeria one year later, in October 1989. 1989 was a huge year for Algeria. We saw the establishment of a multi-polity democracy. We also saw the emergence of a free press, arguably the freest in the Arab world. So this was an incredibly exciting time to be in Algeria for two months. There was a real sense of change and transformation. But there were also huge question marks about where Algeria was going. In a sense, it was very much uncharted territory.
Now, what did I see? Well, above all—and I think this comes through in the title of the book—what I saw above all was anger. There were huge numbers of unemployed youngsters—no hope, no jobs. On the street it was very, very difficult to avoid a feeling of latent male aggression, the general sense amongst the younger generation that the system had failed them, it had broken down. As one young Algerian said to me, "What we need above Algiers is a huge sign that says 'Algeria is broken down.'"
I remember talking at length with one of the Algerian leaders from the World Liberation, Ali Haroun, who helped organize the Algerians in France during the War of Liberation. He was a lawyer. He was very, very candid that Algeria—this was very prophetic—was just about to enter its most difficult period since independence, because, as he saw it, the contradiction, or the problem, was that the multi-polity system was giving people hope but there was no economic hope which matched this. So the question was: Where was that disaffection going to go to?
One also sensed a new relationship to history. Younger Algerians told me again and again that they were sick to death of having the mythology of the War of Liberation, this War of a Million Martyrs, literally shoved down their throats. They had become increasingly cynical about the War of Liberation, the idea that the best Algerians had died during the war. There was the idea that history had been manipulated to perpetuate a minority who would rob the country, bleed the country dry. In a sense, what this younger generation continually said was: "How do we know what the truth is, when this truth has been so manipulated?"
I also saw a sense of polarization. During the War of Liberation, there had been a very, very strong sense of social solidarity. What became clear to me was the sense of the way in which this had broken down during the 1980s. During the 1980s, we saw a movement towards a free-market system within Algeria, but, in particular, this benefited a small minority. They were described with an Algerian word derived from French—chi chi. These were the sons and daughters of the political elite. And remember, there was extreme anger in 1989 because a beach in Algiers had actually been privatized for the chi chi, and this was seen to be an affront to a basic sense of egalitarianism amongst many Algerians.
I also saw in Algeria in 1989 the way in which in the press, taboo subjects were really being confronted for the first time. Before I went I was told that there was a whole series of subjects that I really mustn't bring up, above all about the more contentious aspects of the War of Liberation. People like Ahmed Ben Bella and Messali Hadj, these were people who had been airbrushed out of history. So, rather like Trotsky during the Russian Revolution, I was told not to bring them up, it would be embarrassing. But what I found when I got to Algeria in 1989 was in fact large numbers of people wanted to talk about them. There was really an openness about history, which was seen to be a yardstick of this transition process.
What I also found was there was a lot of discussion about October 1988. This was one year onwards. This was the first anniversary. I remember going to public meetings, which were very, very explicit about human rights abuses, about the torture that had been used by the police and the army. People were shocked, genuinely shocked, by the fact that the army fired on the people. But at the same time, what I also found was that amongst this younger generation was the idea that at last we had done something of historic proportions which was, in a way, equivalent to the War of Liberation. Before, this younger generation was expected to be silent, they were expected to be reverential of, in a sense, what the generation of the War of Liberation had done for them. But now it was the idea that they had their own martyrs. So in this sense October 1988 was very much, I think, a cathartic event.
What I also saw in 1989, which is very, very obvious, was the rise of political Islam. You had the foundation of the Islamist political party, the FIS, the Islamic Salvation Front. Very, very controversial, because the new Algerian constitution in theory made parties that had a religious basis illegal. The question was why has this been allowed.
But what was obvious to me was the way in which the FIS were the main beneficiaries of the multi-polity system. In a sense, they had the power on the ground. They were very, very strident. You saw the emergence of street mosques.
In particular, one of the younger speakers, Ali Belhadj, who I actually saw speaking—he was an incredible public speaker, spoke the language of the street, and he articulated the fears and resentment of this younger generation.
Now, I went to Algeria again one year later, in October 1989. This was for a conference on Kateb Yacine. Kateb Yacine was generally recognized as Algeria's most gifted writer. But he was an atheist and he also had very, very clear communist leanings. On top of this, the conference was organized by four female academics.
It took place in an extremely tense atmosphere. The FIS had won local elections in June 1990, and that was a real electoral bombshell. It was something that was not really expected.
We also had the first Gulf War. Amongst ordinary Algerians there was huge support for Iraq and Saddam Hussein. I remember seeing stickers on cars of Arnold Schwarzenegger, "The Terminator," but with Saddam Hussein's face on top, as the "Arab Terminator" who was facing up to imperialism.
So there was a very, very clear sense of polarization.
Now, seeing that for myself really underpinned the way in which we approached the book. My co-author, John Phillips, is a journalist. He covered a lot of the violence and the massacres that took place in the 1990s. When we came together, what we wanted to do was to write a contemporary history, a history which explained the violence of the 1980s and the 1990s. In particular, we were interested by the role of history, the relationship between politics and violence.
What became very, very clear to us was the way in which different groupings within Algeria have presented different versions of the past. As I said, in the 1980s and early 1990s, the official commemoration, the official memory—that was really beginning to fall apart. It was no longer sustainable. But what you saw was the emergence of dissident memories, dissident groups, that were challenging these dominant narratives.
One of these, very important, was from a Berberist perspective. The Berbers argued that the official definition which is put forward by the Algerian state, of Algerians as being an Arabo-Islamic people, is far too narrow; it doesn't recognize the contribution of the pre-Islamic period; there's an imposition. This Arab definition of Algerian identity is far too narrow. So there is much calling for a pluralism of Algerian identity, and the very explicit implication of this is the need for pluralism and democracy.
As I have already said, what became the dominant memory which challenged the official memory, was amongst the FIS. They presented the idea that the War of Liberation movement had begun in 1954 with very noble ideas—the idea of creating a genuine Muslim society—but this had become perverted, because what happened was that a pro-French Francophone minority infiltrated the War of Liberation, and that at the end of the War of Liberation in 1962 they imposed French ideas, secular foreign ideologies, upon Algeria. So there was very much the obsession that Algeria won militarily but lost culturally, the idea that France, if you like, left the agents of neocolonialism.
Now, I think it is also important to underline that the official memory in Algeria was breaking down. This heroic narrative was under attack from a whole series of different positions.
This is also mirrored by events in France. In France, the Algerian war has been a focus of amnesia. Amongst French historians in the late 1980s and early 1990s there was a concerted attempt to break down this amnesia. So you see in the late 1980s and early 1990s an attempt to revisit or rethink the Algerian war within French history. I'll just give you, just very briefly, two examples of this.
First, we see a new sympathy or a new understanding for French veterans that fought in the Algerian war. Calculations say that as many as 3 million men fought in Algeria between 1954 and 1962.
Also, there was an attempt at a new understanding of those Muslims in Algeria who had taken a pro-French position. During the Algerian War of Liberation, the French attempted to find allies amongst the Muslim population. These were referred to as Harkis, from the Arabic word Haraka, "the movement."
Now, it was a scandal that in 1962 large numbers of these were left in Algeria. DeGaulle knew that they would be massacred. Some historians claim that as many as 70,000 to 150,000 were massacred by the FLN.
So in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, particularly with the 30th anniversary of the end of the Algerian war in 1992, in France too there was an attempt to overcome amnesia. So what you see is a kind of dovetailing of both of these sorts of memories producing a special moment which led to a rethinking and a revisiting of Algerian history.
I remember very vividly in Algeria in 1990 a very, very long conversation with a taxi driver, who said to me, "If you really want to understand Algerian history, you've got to go back hundreds, even thousands, of years."
I think this is what we have tried to do in this book. In terms of understanding the violence of the 1990s, there are a number of contexts which you have to have. I just want to briefly list these.
Firstly, there is the long pre-colonial context. Algerian history did not begin with the French invasion in 1830. There was a long, complex history before 1830. This history is very, very important in terms of helping us understand who the Algerians are in terms of language, ethnicity, culture, religion, and identity.
Secondly, there is the colonial period from 1830 to 1962. Algeria was annexed by France—this is vitally important—not as a colony but as an integral part of France. It was one of the most extreme forms of colonization. I think this is very, very important in terms of understanding the particular counter-violence of the War of Liberation. Also what set colonial Algeria apart was the presence of 1 million French settlers out of a population of 10 million.
The third context that you have to have is the experience of independence. Algeria achieves independence in 1962. The initial leader is Ahmed Ben Bella, who is overthrown by Houari Boumédienne in 1965. One of the things that is very, very clear for Algerians is the tremendous importance of Boumédienne. Boumédienne is in power from 1965 to 1978. He is undoubtedly one of the great Third World leaders. In 1974 he addresses the United Nations, talking about the need to redistribute wealth from the First World to the Third World. For Algerians, the Boumédienne period is now seen as a moment with enormous nostalgia. This is when Algeria stood for something in the world.
The fourth context is really the post-Boumédienne period, from 1979-1992, which is really characterized by a retreat from socialism, the idea that the Algerian Boumédienne experience has failed, and under President Chadli Bendjedid we see the emergence of a system which is orientated towards the free market and is much more pro-Western. But it was during the 1980s—in a sense, this is what I saw when I was in Algeria in 1989 and 1990—that we see the breakdown of the legitimacy of the system.
I want to conclude by listing what those factors were:
- I think, firstly, it's demography. This is one of the fastest-growing populations in the world. By the early 1990s, you've got a population where as many as 70 percent are under 30. What that leads to is a different relationship with the colonial past. They have no personal experience of colonialism.
- Secondly, in the 1980s we see a huge economic and social crisis in Algeria. The collapse of gas and oil revenues means that there is huge unemployment, and a housing crisis.
- There is also a personal legitimacy problem. Boumédienne had enormous legitimacy. Chadli is not able to rival that.
- It is also during the 1980s that we see corruption really takes off, the belief amongst many people that what we are seeing is a system which is bleeding the people dry.
Now, the main beneficiaries of this anger are the Islamic Salvation Front. They are poised to win elections. It's two rounds at the beginning of 1992. What happens is that the army regime moves in and it cancels the elections.
What we then see is a small minority of angry young men, but a significant minority, that then become involved in deploying violence. Really, the violence is unfinished in Algeria. But, in particular, Algerians have begun to talk about the "red decade" between 1993 and 2003. As many as 200,000 Algerians died in a violence which is extremely complex and extremely murky. What we have tried to do within the book is to explain that violence.
Many people saw it in terms simply of a secularist regime in Algeria versus Islamist terrorists. What we say in the book is that is very simplistic. Of course, Islamist terrorists were involved in huge and horrendous atrocities. But at the same time, the regime was involved in manipulating this violence to maintain the status quo.
The way I want to conclude is with some brief remarks about Algeria now, certainly Algeria since 1999.
In April 1999, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is elected in, frankly, very, very dubious circumstances. But he is elected. He then tries to initiate a process of reconciliation. The major issue for him is how to stop the violence, the cycle of revenge and counter-revenge.
The model that he adopts, we argue in the book, is very much a model that was pioneered, I think, in Spain after the death of Franco. After his death in 1975, both sides agreed not to talk about the Spanish Civil War, that this was really too divisive. What we find within Algeria is that, in a sense, the reconciliation process has been very much a pact of silence. In a sense, there has been an attempt or an acceptance that Islamists can put down their arms, but the money that many of them quite clearly made during the 1990s, they have been allowed to keep that.
Now, what is very, very clear, I think, is the way in which this pact of silence will be ultimately unsustainable. There are huge question marks over the disappeared within Algeria—how did they disappear, where are the bodies buried, et cetera? It seems to me difficult to imagine how that will not come back to haunt Algeria.
Where I want to conclude is that the regime has survived. It has sustained itself. That was probably very, very clear in retrospect by 2001, that the anger of the Islamist groups was not a politically sophisticated anger.
These people, young men, were able to wreak huge havoc within Algerian society, but they didn't actually have a long-term political idea which was feasible. And anyway, huge numbers of ordinary Algerians turned away from them. So the regime was going to survive.
But also what is very, very clear has been actually the impact of 9/11 on Algerian politics. What we find after 9/11 is that the American secret services are obviously desperate for intelligence. The question is: who has been confronting these people on a day-to-day basis? Who has inside information culturally, linguistically, et cetera? So what we find is that there is a newfound legitimacy for the Algerian regime. Arguably, in 2004 Bouteflika is reelected in, some people would argue, dubious circumstances, but this time this is by and large passed over by the West because Bouteflika is seen as a very, very important ally in terms of the war on terror.
Now, where I want to conclude is to say that I think that this is creating potentially huge problems within Algeria. Within Algeria there is increasingly a kind of disaffection or hostility toward what is seen as this American link. What we have seen is a kind of resurgence in terrorism over the last year.
What I think it is very, very important—I'm sure many of you understand this—is that this is very, very clear in the kind of research by The Observer British journalist Jason Burke: Al-Qaeda is not a tightly controlled organization. Nevertheless, what we saw a year ago was amongst those remaining groups within Algeria a rebranding. They have called themselves "al-Qaeda in the Maghreb." That doesn't mean that they are tightly controlled by Bin Laden, but it's a realization that al-Qaeda is a brand name within the Arab and Muslim world that they feel will potentially pull more and more recruits into their organization.
So in that sense I think the future of Algeria in the next 10 to 20 years is riven with huge problems, because the main issue is that the economic and social issue is still there. Algeria actually now has become a rich country because of the oil and gas prices. It has paid off its debt. It has huge revenues. But the idea is that in the eyes of many, many Algerians they still feel politically and socially excluded. This is something that will just benefit a small minority.
That's what I wanted to say. Thank you.
JOANNE MYERS: Thank you very much for summarizing such a complex issue.
Questions and Answers
QUESTION: Very interesting. Just a factual question revealing my ignorance. You referred several times to the War of the Million Martyrs. Tell me where that comes from and what you are talking about.
MARTIN EVANS: That's really the way in which within the official memory—Algeria is invaded in 1830 and it is annexed as an integral part of France. They then have a War of Liberation from 1954-1962, which is one of the longest and bloodiest of the wars of decolonization. I don't know how many people have seen the film by Gillo Pontecorvo, The Battle of Algiers. It is a film that looks at one of the key events in the War of Liberation, which is the Battle of Algiers between 1956 and 1957.
After the war, the memory of the War of Liberation becomes the keystone of the Algerian state. It's the way in which it legitimizes itself. It says, "Our legitimacy, our right to rule, comes from the fact that we fought against the French." The way in which at an official level the war is presented is as the War of One Million Martyrs—and even at one point it was inflated to 1.5 million martyrs—all of whom were killed by the French.
I think the thing is that by the 1980s historians were looking at this. They're saying, "In terms of how many people died and who killed whom, what about the Muslims that were killed by the FLN, by the Algerian liberation struggle? What about the pro-French Muslims that were massacred at the end of the war in 1962? Where do these come into a scenario which talks about "one million martyrs"?
QUESTION: As I understand it, you're saying there is very high unemployment now among the youth, and certainly they are having a lot of children, and they also feel dispossessed. But just trying to look at it more fully, is it the economics, is it the lack of jobs, that is really instigating a turn to violence? And if it is, what's stopping the economy? Is it the religion, are women not being educated? What's stopping it from joining the twenty-first century? I'm assuming it isn't, since it's not providing jobs.
MARTIN EVANS: That's obviously a very complicated question. I suppose what I'd say is that first of all, Algeria has to be understood as a rent state. It makes money out of oil and gas revenues. Now, the oil and gas industry does not have to employ huge amounts of people.
There have been a number of studies that have been made on rent states, those countries that have huge natural resources. This is not very good for democracy. Why? Because there are other companies and other countries that want to get their hands on those resources. They are willing to do deals or to turn a blind eye to corruption to do that.
Now, this is the thing in the 1980s. This is the moment where many people believe that corruption took off in a really big way in Algeria, in the sense that for foreign companies that wanted to invest in Algeria it was accepted that there had to be—and I don't know if this is the right word in the United States—in England it's called kickbacks, the idea that you give money to somebody and that makes sure that your particular company is the company that is given privileged access. It is certainly during the 1980s that huge corruption within Algeria really, really takes off. So there are huge numbers of Algerians that feel dispossessed by the system, and many of them also link this to an international system as well.
I think the issue of dispossession is not just economic. The Islamist perspective is that the dispossession is economic but it is also cultural and religious. It's the idea that the West, in particular the French—what did the French do when they left? They left their agents of neocolonialism to promote Western values within Algeria. These are the things that we need to cleanse and purge Algeria of.
I don't know if that answers your question. I mean it's very, very complicated about what is it that attracts young people into these issues.
QUESTIONER: Is it another Vietnam instead of a stagnant system?
MARTIN EVANS: Obviously it's the economy, isn't it? In a sense, I think that is a challenge for, for example, the European Union. You have these countries in North Africa—not just Algeria, although Algeria is a particular case because of the oil and gas, but also Morocco and Tunisia—which are unstable. What are you going to do about them? Is it just security, or do you also have to think about long-term economic issues as well?
JOANNE MYERS: I want to recognize the Ambassador of Algeria to the UN, who had his hand up. Ambassador Youcef.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. It is a little bit difficult for me to comment. But anyway I have to say a few things. I am to speak as ambassador maybe, but forget that I am the ambassador. I am talking as a citizen of Algeria.
The history of our country is very complicated, extremely complicated. Just one figure: in 1962 when we got our independence, 92 percent of the population was illiterate. We cannot forget this.
Second, you are right concerning the period of the 1960s and the 1970s. Concerning the 1980s, there are some clichés about corruption and the regime and so on. It's true that there is certainly corruption, but the effect on the economy and the society is very small. I was there. I was living there. I don't think this is a huge problem.
Now, on 1988, just a few comments. Otherwise we need maybe many hours to discuss about the history, the economy, and so on. In 1988, the Islamic party existed already—not as a party, but as a movement. They took the lead in 1988. They wanted at that time to make a revolution and to take power through violence. They were helped in 1989. It was an opening, as you said, a political and economic opening. The [inaudible] party and so on in 1989, and they took the advantage for creating the FIS. You are right.
The big mistake the government made at that time was to allow the vote in the municipalities in 1990, when the FIS won the election. When they took the municipalities, they did everything possible to win the election, to try to win the election in 1991. As I told you, I was a candidate in 1991. I was called in order to fight them. I was threatened with death because I was against them.
And they won the [first round of the] election. They wanted at that time to have a regime like the Taliban. Definitely it is like the Taliban. As a population, we could not accept this. We could not accept to have in Algeria a regime like the regime of the Taliban and to go backwards maybe centuries.
In the 1990s, you are right, it is very complicated. But I do not agree with the fact saying that the regime manipulated the violence in order to maintain in power. I don't think so. I was there. I don't think it is right.
But one thing is that these terrorists—I am sure that you know that most of them were in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. After the Soviets left, the Taliban went back to different countries, including Algeria. In the 1990s, we have to say that these people were helped by Sudan, by Iran, and by international terrorism. They were helped in arms, in people, in ideology. And also I have to say that many Western countries accepted to have them and to have propaganda from Muslim countries against Algeria at that time.
Concerning the economy, yes, the problem is very complicated. We lost a decade of development, you are right. In the 1990s we didn't make any investments and we tried to survive the violence and this regime that the terrorists wanted to impose on the population. But a lot of progress was made between 2000 and today. The violence has decreased. The economy is doing well today. The rate of unemployment was 30 percent in 2000, maybe 60 percent of the young people. Today it is 12-13 percent . But the economy today is doing a little bit better than a decade ago.
Thank you very much. I will stop there with my comments.
MARTIN EVANS: I think what I would say is that the sense of alienation, or dispossession, or hostility that many Algerians feel towards the regime—I think that you've just given us statistical information which is very, very interesting. I suppose the blunt thing I would say to that is if you look at the general elections last May and you look at the participation rate, it's very, very small.
QUESTIONER: In the United States the participation rate—[laughter]
MARTIN EVANS: I'm talking about the participation in Algeria. That takes place in a context where there had just been bombs in Algiers, which the regime exploited to the full in terms of saying, "Look, here you have a choice." Now, if large numbers of people still didn't go to vote, I think that says an enormous amount about the gulf between rulers and ruled within Algeria.
QUESTION: In light of the thousands that were killed as a result of the military stepping in and stopping the elections when they thought it would go to an Islamic party and the decade that the minister has mentioned that was lost, what would have happened if the military hadn't stepped in? Would it have been better?
MARTIN EVANS: I think that that is now the huge, if you like, counter-factual scenario. During the 1990s, as many as 200,000 people were killed. The question is: Would it have been worse if the FIS had come to power?
I think you are absolutely right. I saw somebody like Belhadj speaking. The violence of the language that was being used was remarkable. It was really the sense in which he was saying these people in Algeria that as he saw it were pro-French—he used the language "these people have to be eradicated." That type of violent language did underpin the violence of the 1990s.
I think what we wanted to show in the book was the violence of that language. Certainly, what I found in a lot of the general histories of the Muslim world. There's one by Ahmed Akhbar. He has a very, very small paragraph on Algeria. He is far too simplistic, but it's the idea that the FIS was a fairly moderate political phenomenon, it was a bit like Christian democracy, and if they had come to power it wouldn't have been that bad.
I think you're absolutely right. If you were there at the time, the type of language that was being used was extremely violent. I mean on the street you had groups of youths who were intimidating the people, intimidating women who were seen to be dressing immodestly, taunting men who they believed to be homosexual and attacking them. I think that is very, very important.
I'm not offering a solution. I'm saying these problems are extremely complicated. As one Algerian said to me, he said, "The FIS is like the Nazis in 1933." I remember him saying this to me explicitly in 1990: "If they take power, they will use the state in exactly the same way that the Nazis used it in 1933, and they will use it against us." That was certainly the big fear at the time amongst Western powers, that you would have a boat people effect, that you'd have huge numbers of Algerians that would be forced to flee.
QUESTION: I found your presentation very fascinating, and I thank you for it.
You did make a statement there that I found quite startling and which the Ambassador has repudiated. I'd like to hear your response to the Ambassador. I wrote it down as you said it: "They were manipulating the violence to maintain the status quo." How indeed are they achieving manipulating violence? I don't quite understand how you think that they are doing that.
And then, if you could address how is the oil money being used? You said that there is resentment because it seems to be benefiting the few. Are they investing it in education or in infrastructure or in health care? Where is the income going that's derived from the oil?
So, first, how are they manipulating the violence?
MARTIN EVANS: The issue of the manipulation of violence is an extremely complicated issue. At the time, in the mid-1990s, there were some people that were arguing that the violence was being carried out by the regime, it was being manipulated in a whole series of ways. I think that what we try to show in the book is that this is extremely complicated and we must really try to avoid simplistic types of analysis.
However, I'd like to give you one example. That is, if you like, you could make parallels with Italy in the 1960s and 1970s. That is the "strategy of tension" argument.
In January 1995, there was a platform which had been elaborated by a series of political parties, including the FIS, under the support of a Roman Catholic organization committed to reconciling conflicts in the world. It brought it together under the Rome Platform [talks hosted by the Catholic Sant' Egidio community in Rome which produced the "Platform for a Peaceful Solution to Algeria's Crisis"].
The Algerian regime was opposed to that. Now, at that point the Algerian regime was extremely isolated. In the summer of 1995—and I remember this because I was actually walking to the Metro where the bombs took place—there were a series of bombing campaigns that took place in France. What happens after that is if you look at French opinion polls, there is certainly a huge surge of support that there should be repression or opposition to Islamist terrorism. In a sense, that terrorism benefited the regime because it presents other countries with a very stark alternative: "It's either support us or this is what will happen." So that is one example.
On the issue of the violence, on one level—and I think huge numbers of Algerians would say this, even those that would reject the idea that the regime somehow manipulated and perpetuated the violence themselves—but that is the failure of the regime to protect its citizens, who are massacred. We're talking about 10, 20, 30 miles from Algiers. How is that happening?
As for oil revenues, well, I suppose that is one of the major questions in terms of understanding the nature of the Algerian economy.
There are numbers of people who have been benefiting from the Algerian economy, in terms of imports and exports. There is now a situation, because of the transformation of oil and gas prices, that the Algerian economy potentially looks like it could significantly improve. But the question is: Will that money be used in a way which will benefit the rest of the population?
Let me give you an example. In 1992, we have the return after the cancellation of elections of Mohammed Boudiaf, who is one of the historic leaders of Algeria. Through him there are negotiations which allow the Algerian economy to be kept afloat through international economic organizations. Now, it becomes clear to Boudiaf that this money which is coming into the Algerian economy is siphoned off into a shadowy kind of like Mafia.
Now, one of the things that is argued is that Boudiaf was actually on the point of a serious anti-corruption drive within Algeria and that in June 1992 that was why he was assassinated in dubious circumstances. Certainly, ordinary Algerians would claim, all those that I spoke to, that Boudiaf was killed by the system because he was about to lead a genuine and concerted anti-corruption drive.
QUESTION: I have a short comment and a question.
The short comment is that we are publishing an article by Omar Encarnación of Bard College in our next issue on how the Spanish Civil War is now being reopened as a new generation comes in. With the 25th anniversary of Franco's death, there is a whole new controversy about who did what to whom that he details in the article we are going to be publishing.
The question I have is: What do young Algerians today make of their French historic background? Is French spoken? Are people like Albert Camus considered part of Algeria's history? Are they remembered at all?
MARTIN EVANS: The relationship with France is extremely complicated. One of the things that we say in the book is that it is shot through with a whole series of ambivalent feelings and ideas.
Just to give you one example, in 2003 President Chirac visits Algeria, and he is acclaimed in Algeria, for two reasons. Firstly, because of his opposition to the Gulf War, in a sense, a classic Gaullist perspective, and huge numbers of Algerians think this is very, very popular. But also, if you look at the crowds, younger Algerians were waving bits of paper and waving what they saw as visas, saying "We want visas to go to France." So that's just one example. It's a very, very complicated and ambivalent relationship.
QUESTIONER: And what about Camus? Is he remembered at all?
MARTIN EVANS: I think that's difficult to say, whether Camus could be integrated. Albert Camus is the great 20th-century writer who was born in Algiers. Whether his history could be integrated into Algeria is I think very, very problematic.
But I think that is something, in a sense, which goes to the core of the problem of Algerian identity. Are Algierians an accumulation of hundreds and thousands of years of history or are they seen as a uniquely or solely Arab Islamic people? Certainly, that is part of the problem.
Certainly, amongst many ordinary Algerians, they hear the language about Algeria being a democracy and a republic, and some of them are very, very skeptical about that. That means that they do feel positively towards the language of human rights.
On the other hand, there is, particularly in the generation of the War of Liberation—they have a particular perception of France, which is extremely complicated.
To give you another example, in 2005 the French initiate this law on the teaching of colonialism in French schools and universities. They say it should be taught in a positive fashion, which caused a huge furor in Algeria, partly because Algeria at the moment is looking for an official apology from France in the context of a treaty.
In May 2005, it was the 60th anniversary of the huge massacre that took place in Algeria at the end of the war in Setif. And Bouteflika actually says that a parallel can be made between colonialism and genocide. France tried to rub out its identity; it tried to dispossess Algeria in a whole series of ways.
Now, many people argue—again, it is this way in which in all Algerian history or politics there's always a manipulation thesis—some people say that it was in Bouteflika's interest to deflect hostility back to the old colonial power, partly because Bouteflika is becoming increasingly uncomfortable about his relationship with America, which is unpopular, or perceived to be unpopular, by a lot of ordinary Algerians.
QUESTION: First of all, I want to thank you. It was a really great talk, very comprehensive, and I really like the way you folded in the questions of politics and history and how that went into your process.
I want to ask you a little bit more about your pessimistic projection over the next 20 years or so as to the direction that these dispossessed young people in Algeria will take, especially in light of what seems to be a failure on al-Qaeda's part to tap into what seems like on paper to be an ultimate situation of them, of a country with large numbers of dispossessed, unemployed young people, a history of violence, perceived, into the whole international jihadi movement.
Over the course of the year and a half since the name change [from GSPC to al-Qaeda in the Maghreb], there have been a lot of high-profile defections of former GSPC people; there have been a lot of reports about dissension within rank and file, young Algerians who felt like they were duped into what they were doing; the speculation that the bombing in March had to be carried out with remote detonators because they couldn't trust the young people whom they had recruited to do it.
Certainly, the idea that violence in the 1990s was perpetuated largely by people who were veterans of the Afghan war also plays into it. But it seems to suggest a sliver of hope that there is at least some resistance to the idea of their situation being somewhat taken advantage of by this international network whose ultimate aims don't really have their best interests in mind. So it seems as if there is, at least partly in action, a recognition of that.
MARTIN EVANS: I think it is important to remember as well the extent of the violence in the 1990s. It was huge. It was huge. It was genuinely shocking. Huge numbers of ordinary Algerians did not expect the level of violence or the form that it took. I think that in Algeria today people do not want to return to that violence.
On the other hand, there is, it seems to me, if you look at—there has been some research that has been done on issues of sort of petty crime, kind of like riots, taking place in Algeria on the day-to-day level. That kind of disaffection is still there. The question is what direction it will go in.
There are some demonstrations that are taking place where, in a sense, what Algerians are talking about is, "We want the state to treat us as citizens. It must no longer humiliate us." It's about political demands. They are very, very careful, in a sense, to make sure that any demonstrations that they carry out are not manipulated either by groups inside them or by the regime.
But in terms of my pessimistic conclusion, I think the thing is that, in a sense, in the 1960s and 1970s the regime in Algeria had an enormous amount of legitimacy, because large numbers of Algerians did identify with or did feel an enormous amount of sympathy with the kind of Boumédienne Third Worldism, the idea that Algeria was a pace-setter of the Third World and, like Yugoslavia, was one of the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement.
The question I think now for the Algerian government is this gulf between the rulers and the ruled. What kind of project is it offering to young people 10 or 20 years from now, beyond the fact that we can make the regime survive and that within that regime, the backbone of which is the security/military apparatus—what kind of project is being offered to young people?
JOANNE MYERS: I think we heard the word "complicated" used quite a bit tonight. I thank you for making a complicated situation a little bit more accessible. I thank you.
MARTIN EVANS: Thanks a lot.