A Military Coup for the Wrong Reason
Looking at the history of human civilisation, one can understand that there were more wars then times of peace and diplomacy. Nations and people can be in various forms of confrontation with one another, but one of the most curious and specific is the civil war. When someone is asked about perception of civil war the answer would often be that it has something to do with national uprising against undemocratic government or military coup against the existing legitimate government, when civilian population is involved one of the sides or simply in-between. In most of the cases, this way or the other one of the sides of conflict struggles for democratic and independent development. No matter how gruesome any war is, it is usually possible to say which side can be called legitimate and which criminal, evaluated on basis of the means of fighting war and attitude to civilian or collateral damages.
These rules can be applied to various conflicts and examples of civil wars, but that was not the case of Algerian Civil war of 1991-2004. The conflict was so gruesome and merciless towards civilian population that it was impossible to believe that citizens of the same country did that to their compatriots. The aim of this research paper is to investigate the Algerian Civil War from the point of its reasons and governmental participation in massacres of civilian population during this conflict.
As various colonies that gained independence in 1960s, Algeria had to learn how to live on its own and develop independently. It became independent from France in 1962, and it first elected President was Ahmed Ben Bells in 1963. As many countries in transition, during the Cold War, they had two choices of development - pro-Western democracy or Soviet socialism (Silverstein 645). Since Western style was still associated with the colonial rule ad actual dependence from France, the alternative was chosen. So the country went through industrialisation and limitations on political activities (only one party was allowed to be in charge) and felt its hardships in the economic crisis of 1980s. The atmosphere in the country began to deteriorate already in 1986, with rising inflation and unemployment, due to the problems with oil and gas prices, resulting in some riots and increase of local violence (Silverstein 649).
In order to ease tension in the society, government decided to relax the atmosphere of pressure and totalitarianism, so the ban of parties was lifted in 1986. Since riots were because of economic reasons strikes continued through 1988. In 1989, new parties were allowed to participate in elections; this resulted in formation of 20 new parties including Islamist Salvation Front (FIS) (Ryan). This party was for traditional Islamist order of society, and it won majority in local elections in 1990. The victory of this party on the first round of general elections was the trigger for the militaries to start their military coup and announce the results of elections illegitimate (Silverstein 655). The journalist Yasmine Ryan says:
"The Algerian civil war began in 1992 after the Algerian military stage a coup d'etat
would have been the country's first democratic elections. The "dirty war" left 200,000
Algerians dead and approximately 15,000 forcibly disappeared." (Ryan).
One of the main militaries in charge was quoted to say that "I am ready and resolved to eliminate three million Algerians if it's necessary to maintain the order which the Islamists are threatening" (Ryan). So the main question of this war is what was so important for militaries that they decided to start slaughter of their compatriots? What kind of order they were protecting with the cost of so many lives?
The answer to these questions can be found in different reasoning, but the main one would be power and inconsistency of ideologies, behind each side. The beginning of the conflict took place when the Cold War ended and the new world was about to be born. Each country had to adapt to the new environment - spreading of democracy and globalisation. Algeria was not an exception. So, the side that could gain power under the new circumstances will secure his further prosperity (Mundy 33). The lift of party ban was an attempt to calm people down and to gain new ways of preserving the old system without massive changes. The militaries, who were well infiltrated into governmental structure, did not want to change their comfortable position and loose influence in the society (Ryan). Their behaviour fits into traditional pattern of totalitarian rule - fear of competition and loose of control. That is why when militaries realised that Islamists would gain majority on elections, they had to act fast and destroy any kind of opposition (Sandhu 106).
While it is often expected that if one side is bad, the opposite should be good, the reality was a bit different. Islamists were not going for democratisation of the country, but rather towards secularisation of life and return to Islam-driven structure of society with different party at rule (Silverstein 652). It was a choice between black and white, rather between different shades of grey. Although there were supporters of the pro-Western, democratic development of Algeria, they were not among either of the fighting sides. Jacob Mundy writes:
"On the one hand, there were those Algerians who purportedly shared a Western-style
democratic imaginary versus, on the other hand, the Islamists, whose political project
was allegedly anti-modernLooking in from the outside, observers and politicians
had created a no-win situation for themselves. To support the FIS was to support a
movement that was construed as undemocratic a priori, but to support the coup in
Algeria was to support a military regime that was demonstrably -a posterior-
undemocratic." (Mundy 32).
So, looking on the issue from the point of democracy and country's development, main reason for the civil war was a struggle for relocation of power in the new condition of transition. On the other hand, there are also minor reasons. Among such reasons would be economic and ideological considerations. Some authors write that the main reason for the war was ideological inconsistency of ruling regime with traditional Islamist approach to social life, and that deterioration of level of life proved the ruling government to be illegitimate in the eyes of "true believers" of FIS (Sandhu 107). Although this might seem quite just. The conflict was due to various aspects of governmental and military failures in running the country. This can be explained through the diversity of groups which supported FIS. Amandeep Sandhu writes:
"Contrary to the conventional explanations, Luis Martinez shows that four groups
were responsible for the rise of the FIS: petty traders; military entrepreneurs; the
'hittiste' (literally 'those who prop up the wall' - meaning the unemployed); and
devoted Muslim activists" (Sandhu 107).
The diversity of supporters shows that it was not simply about ideology or religion, it was about necessity for change, inspired by various reasons, but driven by one - economic instability and worsening of the general life in the country (Sandhu 107). The problem of this civil war as of any conflict was in actual escalation of violence, which, in the end, was about hitting the enemy as badly as possible irrespective of collateral damages or impact on civilians. The greatest tragedy of this civil war was that ordinary people became targets for both sides.
"After the massacre, survivors said the killers went to a coffee shop to eat and drink
and then killed the patrons and the workers and left. How much time does it take?..
The horrific operation of massacring have lasted more than five hours. Where was
the government during this time?" (Chalala 6).
The government was in the same place as during the Bentalha massacre on September 22-23, 1997, when 400 people were slaughtered over night. The government looked the opposite direction. The greatest horror of these massacres was that irrespective of the side which conducted them, government would not interfere (Silverstein 648). Of course officially, it would do some actions like arming of 100,000 volunteer as a part of self-defence force, but then they will be "criticised fro for waging war against people rather than terrorist" (Chalala 6). It was difficult to find out whether the government was giving order to clear certain territories form unwanted alleged supporters of opposing parties at the time when it was happening, not to mention now. But, such organisation as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International managed to collect evidences of governmental non-interference, which was particularly the case of the Bentalha massacre.
The survivals of the Bentalha massacre witnessed that governmental military units were dislocated outside the village and held those who tried to escape within the reach of killers, graves for the future corpses were dug in advance, mine fields cleared and trucks of the killers were untouched (Melah 25). The whole situation was described as well planned action with a very good intelligence and knowledge of exact houses and number of people which were going to be killed by unknown and number of coffins already prepared by the army (Melah 27). The main argument of governmental officials concerning non-interference into the massacre was potential hazards of minefields, which somehow did not bother attackers.
The main conclusion of analysts of various backgrounds is that "the special groups, death squads and other paramilitary entities as well as militias carried out secret operations to eliminate those thought to be in the armed opposition as well as their families and close contact, according to the principle of "taking the water from the fish"" (Melah 25). In such a way, it was considered that opposition could be eradicated by destruction of its followers. Although this might seem quite a simple principle, the waves of violence and massacres in Algeria had certain pattern and also political context.
In the research of massacre dynamics, Melah Salima found political connection between certain governmental activity and subsequent intensification of violence. From the first view it may seem that a certain political action can accuse subsequent terroristic attack or any other violent response, but in case of Algerian massacres, political context was within the ruling government (Melah 25). Beginning from 1992, within the ruling military government two general approaches to the whole treatment of Islamists an all other revolutionary groups were established. The first group argued for a total war against any revolutionary representatives, they became known as "Eradicators" (Melah 26). Their views were opposed to "Reconciliatory", who argued for "a more political approach while pursuing the same goal of maintaining power" (Melah 26).
The period of massive massacres in 1994-1998, with its peak in 1997-98 corresponds to the time when Liamine Zeroual was appointed a president of the state. Although he was appointed by the same people who actually did the coupe, and irrespective of his background of Minister of Defence and the rank of General, he was a proponent of a political approach (Silverstein 652). Paradoxically, as it may seem, each time he tried to arrange negotiations a dialogue with Islamists, new massacres took place, one worse than another (Mundy 38). The peak of 1997-98 was characterised by increased number of victims and involvement of foreign victims, in order to gain additional pressure on ruling president (Melah 28). Miraculously, the massacres began to decrease immediately after the resignation of Liamine Zeroual and further election of a new president Abdelaziz Bouteflika (Melah 28). So, it can be concluded that government as a unity was not present in Algeria and therefore, it was not its unanimous decision-making, but rather a political struggle for who would preserve power in more blood.
Overall, from all mention above, it can be concluded that Algerian Civil War was because of a totality of various situational, historical and immediate factors. First of all, the country did not have a strong state from the very beginning of its independence from France. Secondly, religious and socialist ideologies have never got along well, particularly when it referred to the questions of power. Thirdly, new environment of politics dictated a necessary of power redistribution, which each side wanted to posse unanimously. Desire of power preservation as the main motive for the military coupe and subsequent use of terror as means of goals achievement was further shown in governmental abstaining from massacres prevention and their further staging in order to achieve desired reorganization of existing regime.
The case of Algerian Civil War can be considered a precaution for any kind of inter-state turmoil which is driven by sound slogans, but in reality is about gaining power in blood of the innocent civilians. This historical case also teaches about the fact that it is impossible to build a democratic c society out of nothing or in the sea of blood of terror. Irrespective of seemingly just reasoning for a military coup, its methods and final targets were far from humanistic and democracy-driven.
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Melah, Salima. The Massacres in Algeria, 1992-2004. Extracts from the report presented by
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