Splintered Algeria's Climate of Fear

The second Algerian war continues unabated. Not a day goes by without slaughter and torture in all forms. Yet it passes almost without notice. Headlines record only unusual surges of violence, like the savage night in the village of Sidi Rais, south of Algiers, where masked men killed 300 or more. Last weekend another suburb suffered the same fate.

The war began in January 1992, when the military-political-economic complex that governs Algeria and is known, ominously, as le pouvoir, "the power," canceled an election that the Islamic opposition was sure to win. Since then, more than 60,000 to 100,000 people, mostly civilians, have been shot, stabbed, bombed, strangled, or poisoned. "The power" describes the conflict as society fighting for its democratic life against homicidal Islamic extremists.

The Islamic opposition in 1992 was the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), an amalgam of groups admitted to the political process during a brief period of liberalization. Its stated objective was to impose Islam's sharia law, conjuring up prospects of the mullah's regime in Iran, the brutal police state in Sudan, or, worst of all, Afghanistan's medieval Taliban.

Outlawed when the election was cancelled, FIS soon split. Moderates wanted to get back into politics. They still call for a dialogue, which the government refuses. Extremists, known now as the GIA, the Armed Islamic Groups, reached for the gun.

One of its leaders recently declared that the GIA would cut the throats of Islam's enemies "from the youngest child to the oldest graybeard," a thought repulsive to the most fervent believer in that great religion. Islam is not the mainspring of this tragedy but a cloak to give it the appearance of legitimacy.

Extremists in the Arab world of Islam have long used this device; and it should be remembered that Islam was the rallying cry against French colonialism in the long, bloody war of independence, the first Algerian war, 1954-62.

"Religious wars" today are not that, but rather struggles for power, territory, and identity (which subsumes the first two). In expelling France, the Algerians fought against everything the French had done to them in 124 years of occupation. Their customs and laws were brushed aside, their land confiscated, their religion reviled. The Algerian people, Arab and Berber, were made an underclass, exploited and blocked from opportunity except for those few who assimilated.

One need not strain to find the analogy with the war now being waged against the Algerian "power."

Forty years ago, the rebel National Liberation Front (FLN) and the French Army fought with almost indescribable brutality. The dead were put at 1 million. But when it won, the FLN retained the harsh, conspiratorial ways that had helped it to victory. Installing itself as a one-party government, it operated behind a curtain, as "the power" does today. Internal differences were settled by assassination. Reportedly, 30,000 were killed.

Algeria emerged on the international scene in the age of decolonization as the advocate of revolutionary war, riding on its own triumph. In the third-world fashion of the time, it imposed a pseudo-Marxist command economy that destroyed trade and enterprise. Money kept flowing in from oil and natural gas, but it went mostly to the Army, as well as to the FLN establishment with its hangers-on. It did not go to job-creating small business, nor to agriculture, so that Algeria must today buy food abroad to feed its people.

The high officials of the nomenklatura, corrupt and incompetent, have enjoyed privilege: special dwellings, exclusive stores, chauffeured cars, and access to illicit profits from the black market and currency speculation.

The average citizen has fallen into poverty. Two-thirds of Algeria's 28 million people are under 30; some 85 percent of men between the ages of 15 and 30 are unemployed. Young people can't marry - housing is desperately short.

Hopelessness hangs over the country. It is in this climate that the regime has been unable to isolate the GIA from the population. Its repressive measures send the GIA new recruits.

In this dark phantasmagoria it is impossible to tell who is doing what. GIA men operate in police and Army uniforms; security forces appear as bearded guerrillas. Both sides are split, with the splinters fighting each other and their families as well as the official enemy.

Cynics say both sides need terror by the other to justify their own.

The world follows this nightmare with horror - and in silence. "The power," as a sovereign state, brooks no outside intervention in its dealing with rebellion - as Russia did not in Chechnya.

How long will it last? Perhaps as long as Algeria's oil and gas move to the world's markets.

* Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

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