The Magazine

Democracy in Algeria

Singer-activist Ferhat Mehenni's campaign for liberal self-government.

Jun 16, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 39 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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FRIENDS as well as critics of the present regime in Algeria recognize that the government has faced a major distraction--the terrorist emergency. During the 1980s, as the Boumédiene government demonstrated its inability to manage Algeria's growing economic and political problems, the Islamic fundamentalists presented themselves as a force for reform and renewal. Federating their various currents under the banner of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the fundamentalists fought and won municipal elections in 1990, held under a new constitution hastily drafted in response to rising unrest. The FIS appeared set to win national parliamentary elections in January 1992, when the army stepped in and halted the process. Many Algerians, including leaders of the newly formed secular parties, conceded the FIS would have won, but noted that its spokesmen were openly announcing that democracy was useless and even wrong once a theocratic regime was in place.

The showdown between the Islamists and the military-backed regime spiraled into a nightmare, as Islamist hit-squads targeted representatives of the "Westernized" society they were determined to replace with a fundamentalist state, while the army battled well-trained and equipped units of the Islamic Salvation Army. By 1996, the threat of a military victory by the Islamists had receded, but terrorism continued throughout the decade and persists today. With over 100,000 killed in the civil strife, Algeria surely has earned the bitter distinction of being in the forefront of the "clash of civilizations," a clash that occurs within the Islamic world no less than between it and the West. "Kabylie," Ferhat points out, "was always in the forefront of the aspiration for democracy and modernity in the Maghreb, and it is no accident that it received special attention from the Islamic extremists."

Indeed, Ferhat himself was targeted for assassination in December 1994 when his Air France flight to Paris was hijacked by an Islamist commando, but luckily he was not recognized. He lived mostly in France in the late 1990s, making discreet visits home as the security forces battled the Armed Islamic Groups.

Throughout this ordeal, Ferhat regarded the strategy of the Algerian government with deep misgivings. Successive governments fought the armed Islamist movement while giving "moderate" Islamists ministerial positions. Defenders of this political line, both inside and outside of Algeria, point out that it is simply unrealistic to pretend that religious-based parties do not enjoy substantial support, and that it is right to distinguish between those who accept the rules of the democratic game and those who want to take over the country by force. It is probably in Kabylie that opposition to any concessions to religious politics is strongest. Using rhetoric that many Algerians consider excessive, Ferhat complained that "the government would rather make deals with people who are affiliated with bin Laden-type terrorists than with the democratic movement in Kabylie."

Ferhat Mehenni and his friends formed their Movement for Kabyle Autonomy in June 2001. In less than three months came the September 11 attacks. From the beginning, Ferhat Mehenni was in sympathy with the new direction in American policy. Regime change, after all, the decentralization of power, was something he had been working toward for over twenty years. He understood Bush's grand strategy: "The idea is to democratize all the states of the Middle East in order to eradicate the sources of terrorism and preempt a future 'clash of civilizations,' which, in time, should really converge toward mutual respect on the basis of democracy and liberty," he wrote in March 2003. "It may be naive, but the Americans at least can be thanked for laying out their goal forthrightly, and surely it's worth a shot."

This argument has not yet converted anyone in power in his country. The reflexive pan-Arabism of the Algerian leadership was demonstrated by the rather ostentatious visit the foreign minister paid to Iraq's embassy early in the war, and President Bouteflika's comment that the war--and especially its stated aims--represented "a dangerous precedent." (Bouteflika was relatively muted in his criticism of the United States, and embraced Bush at the recent G-8 meeting, perhaps because of enhanced cooperation against terrorism.) While few in Kabylie shed tears over the French-American split on Iraq, both the government and the public warmly welcomed French president Jacques Chirac when he visited Algiers in April--more, evidently, because of Chirac's position on Iraq than because of any supposed French-Algerian reconciliation.

In the long run, however, it is quite possible that Ferhat Mehenni's ideas will turn out to be more realistic than those of his extremist detractors, who call him an Anglo-American-Zionist agent and demand his assassination. Like many public figures in Algeria, he travels with bodyguards. It is dangerous to break ranks in the Arab world. On the other hand, in Algeria as in France, where Chirac's popularity fell sharply in the wake of the coalition victory in Iraq, the public exposure of the Baath regime's savagery has dealt a serious blow to the idea--once conventional wisdom in the Arab world--that ethnic and religious solidarity justifies the status quo.

Ferhat Mehenni believes the real hope for peace in the vast regions of the Middle East resides in facing the reality that, if there is such a thing as a specifically Arab Islam, it cannot be imposed a long way from its heartland in the Arabian peninsula, in territories that are culturally fragmented and marked by the presence of non-Arab peoples like Kabyles and Kurds--indeed, that it would be better for all concerned to junk this concept once and for all. It is precisely such a "revolution in international relations" that he hopes the United States will support in the years ahead. That is one reason for his occasional trips to the United States--to keep abreast of politics and ideas here--the other being to sing a few songs "of love and steel," as he says, at concerts organized by Kabyle émigrés.

As he put it to me recently in an e-mail, "The role of the United States in this noble endeavor is key to the future of humanity. Better a world inspired and led by one great power than a multipolar world where nuclear risks and destructive wars will proliferate. GOD BLESS AMERICA."

In 1942, a huge American army arrived in Algeria, preparing to crush the German forces in Tunisia and move on to Italy and France. A delegation of Algerian democrats approached General Eisenhower and asked him not to leave until the French had reformed their system, granting equal rights to everyone in the country. The Algerians have preserved the suite at the Aldjazair Hotel where the great commander stayed. It would be gratifying to think that the memory of the American army in North Africa--the only one since Antiquity that came not to plunder or conquer--might encourage the incipient federalist movement to stand its ground and help bring peace to Algeria and to the Arab world beyond.

Roger Kaplan is the author of "Conservative Socialism," about the political culture of contemporary France.