The Magazine

The New Battle of Algiers

Bouteflika has the upper hand, for now.

Oct 29, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 07 • By ROGER KAPLAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Overshadowed by Iraq and Afghanistan in the global war on terror, less scrutinized than Turkey as a laboratory of Islam's compatibility with liberal democracy, Algeria remains a crucial testing ground for the ability of postcolonial Islamic societies to develop modern institutions. Algeria is also, since emerging from its own war on Islamist terror in the 1990s, a de facto partner of the United States, as soldiers of both nations patrol the Mediterranean to its north and the Sahara to its south. But like so much in this long war of shadows and mirages, bombs and machine guns, reversals and betrayals, the Algerian scene is opaque. The attempted assassination of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika last month reminds us how ephemeral a success on any front in this war can be, how fragile a truce, how premature a shout of victory.

Who would want to kill Abdelaziz Bouteflika? On the face of it, the question seems absurd. The Algerian president, elected in 1999 and reelected in 2004, is widely perceived as having brought peace and prosperity and even a measure of national reconciliation to a country ravaged by civil war. The war took 150,000 lives in a country of 30 million, according to the government, which rejects the term "civil war" inasmuch as the conflict pitted Islamists--rather than a region or a sect--against an Arab-African society trying to break with its postcolonial system of one-party, socialist, police-state authoritarianism.

Bouteflika is the man who turned the page. Now 70, he was foreign minister during the presidency of Colonel Houari Boumédienne (1965-78), then lived mostly abroad, in the Gulf states and Europe. Returning to Algeria in 1989, Bouteflika stayed in the background, eventually positioning himself on the side of a liberal, multiparty third way between the authoritarian National Liberation Front (FLN) regime of his early years and the theocracy the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) sought to impose. He led cautiously, preferring to let General Liamine Zéroual take the first plunge into a competitive presidential election, in 1994. When Zéroual stepped down in 1999 before the completion of his term, Bouteflika ran with the support of the army leadership. The other major candidates withdrew, claiming a fair election was impossible.

The new president proclaimed an end to fratricide and international isolation (for several years, no non-Algerian airline flew into Algiers, so great was the fear of terrorism). He told people to stop hating one another and get back to work. He sent Algerian diplomats out to reassert a claim to regional leadership. He traveled abroad, reopened the country for business.

Following in Zéroual's footsteps, Bouteflika pursued a strategy of fight, then vote, then reform, then reconcile. It worked, in part because the country was exhausted and the Islamists' original constituency was repelled by their violence. Gradually, as the cycle of terror and counterterror wound down and the fight was reduced to mopping up and policing operations, Bouteflika could play the magnanimity card. He easily won a national referendum in 2005 approving his offer of forgiveness for repentant Islamist fighters.

On the reform side, Bouteflika loosened the fundamentalist-inspired family legislation adopted under Boumédienne, which secularists vehemently opposed and Islamists wanted to strengthen. As a result, women can now sue for divorce, for example, and do not need a male family member's permission to get a passport. Despite his ill-disguised contempt for the Berber-majority region of Kabylie, and his refusal to apologize for the brutal repression of a grassroots movement urging faster democratization there in 2001, Bouteflika continued to insist that Algeria could and would change.

Bouteflika raised the status of Berber languages, doing away with the Arabic monopoly in schools and official business; the military, meanwhile, made English obligatory for career officers. At the same time, he allowed nonviolent Islamist parties to compete in local and parliamentary elections and take portfolios in his governments. Zéroual had already moved in these directions, provoking the same kinds of questions: Did the Islamic parties really accept the democratic ground rules, or were they only fronting for the gunmen? In their heyday, in the early 1990s, the Islamists of the FIS had openly proclaimed that one election sufficed, so long as they won it: "One man, one vote, one time," as the saying goes. Would the amnestied Islamists return to the hills and safe-houses, as some observers, pointing to a recent spike in violence, even now believe?

Today, Bouteflika presides over a cabinet made up of men and women who are not otherwise on speaking terms. Hardliners in the army, called "eradicators," have not publicly challenged the amnesty. No one knows how they will react if the security situation deteriorates.