A Prolonged State of Agony in Algeria

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Anna Mahjar-Barducci

Algeria is one of the countries of North Africa where popular protests in the major cities last year neither brought down the regime nor led to any serious reform. Thus on May 10, when Algerians voted in legislative elections, it was business as usual, with the ruling National Liberation Front party (FLN ), which has been in power since Algeria's independence from France in 1962, winning 208 of 462 seats. The international community hailed the elections as "fair" and "transparent," but can they really be considered legitimate?

In fact, the vote was characterized by fraud, on the one hand, and by widespread abstention, on the other, with even the interior ministry acknowledging an overall voting rate of 42.9 percent nationally. During the election campaign, secular, civil-society organizations and activists, who are mainly based in the northern Berber region of Kabylie, had called for a boycott, in hope of delegitimizing the vote and the regime.

The regime responded with violence and brutality. In one case, a young blogger, Tarek Mameri, was arrested simply for posting a clip on YouTube urging Algerians not to vote; in another, an April 14 peaceful rally of "Independent Youth for a Genuine Change," with a similar message, was violently put down by police. Kamel Daoud, a columnist for the Algerian newspaper Quotidien d'Oran, described Algiers during the election campaign as a closed capital: police patrolling railway stations, searching the hotels, arresting people based on their appearance, and general violence.

The low turnout symbolizes a rupture with a regime that at the moment doesn't represent anyone but itself. Although, in February last year, the emergency rule that had been in place since 1992 was lifted, this did not translate into a better guarantee of rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of association and of demonstration. Human Rights Watch has commented several times on its website on the need for Algeria to restore civil liberties.

Instead, the military-dominated government used the opportunity to strengthen its grip on society. Despite promises of political reform, a series of new laws adopted early this year actually increased executive and military control over the judicial system, for example, and granted the interior ministry new authority to oversee the functioning of the political parties, civil-society associations and media.

The FLN of today is not the same party that fought courageously against the French colonizer five decades ago. What remains is a group of apparatchiks constantly fighting each other when they're not tending to the businesses - companies, land, farms - with which they have rewarded themselves from their positions of power. Real power, in fact, is held by the military's Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS ). In this regard, Algeria is similar to Pakistan and Syria, where the secret police seem to call the shots.

This bureaucratic-military political elite has managed to lead the country into a prolonged state of agony. The international community seems blind to the despotism of the regime, which it would like to see as an ally in the war on terror and against Islamism. The fear in Europe is that if the FLN is overthrown, the country will once again endure something like the decade of terror that hit Algeria in 1992, after the landslide victory of the Islamic Salvation Front in the first round of legislative elections. At that point, the army pressed the regime to cancel the second round, and the president dissolved the National People's Assembly, a move followed a short time later by declaration of a state of emergency. The Islamists viewed these measures as a declaration of war, which gave the Algerian regime an excuse to start fighting them. The result was a civil war.

A former colonel in the Algerian army who defected and now lives as a political refugee in Germany, Mohammed Samraoui, described that period in his 2003 book "Chronique des annees de sang" ("Chronicles of the Bloody Years" ). In the spring of 1992, the heads of the army decided that the "Islamist threat" threatened their own power, and should be eliminated. The fight against the Islamists was also an opportunity to get rid of other "enemies" of the regime, such as human rights activists and Kabylie's Amazigh (Berber ) leaders, who were also accused of being on the "payroll of France."

To give an idea of the hysteria that prevailed among the army during those years, Samraoui reports the words of Gen. Smail Lamari, the head of the counter-intelligence division of the DRS, who said: "I'm ready to kill three million Algerians, if this is what it takes to maintain the order that the Islamists are threatening." Indeed, the number of casualties in the civil war is estimated between 60,000 and 200,000.

In this context, the heads of the DRS became directly responsible for the creation of the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria, which committed the most atrocious crimes in the country. Other human rights activists and defectors have similarly reported in books and in interviews on the role of the DRS in the Islamist groups, a role that has continued to this very day. Several analysts indeed see ties between DRS and Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, showing that the 10 years of terror and manipulation that began in 1992 have not ended yet.

Algerians want a change and that's why many of them decided to boycott the vote as a means of nonviolent protest. Elections in Algeria should not be hailed as a sign of democracy, as they served only to give a facade of legitimacy to a regime that plays with the lives of its citizens to stay in power.

Anna Mahjar-Barducci, a Moroccan-Italian journalist and writer, is president of the Rome-based Liberal and Democratic Arabs Association, which promotes civil liberties and immigrants' integration in Europe.