Assassination of Islamist opposition leader destabilises Algeria

The recent assassination in Algiers of Abdelkader Hachani, number three leader in the Islamist Salvation Front (FIS), threatens to destabilise political relations within Algeria. In a country torn apart by an undeclared civil war ever since the military's repudiation of the 1991-92 elections, it heralds a renewed round of repression and violence.

Hachani, aged 40, was shot by one or more assassins (there are conflicting press reports about this) as he sat in his dentist's waiting room. The son of a senior member of the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) that had won the war of independence against France, Hachani became disenchanted with the nepotism and corruption of the FLN government and joined the FIS. When he led his party to victory in the first stage of the legislative elections in December 1991, the army seized power and annulled the elections. Hachani and other FIS members were immediately arrested and the FIS was banned. He was imprisoned for five years, without ever being brought to trial, despite repeatedly going on hunger strike.

Released in July 1997, he was kept under constant police surveillance. He continued to oppose the regime, calling for a dialogue between the military and all political parties, including the FIS, an end to all restrictions on the FIS, which had been outlawed, and the political recognition of the AIS, the FIS's armed wing.

In 1998, the AIS agreed a truce with the army, leaving only the smaller Islamist groups such as the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) still fighting. The war has resulted in barbaric atrocities on both sides, with well documented human rights abuses by the Algerian military forces, the deaths of more than 100,000 men, women and children, a new wave of mass emigration—mainly to France—and severe disruption to everyday life.

Under enormous external pressure to bring the civil war to an end, introduce a semblance of democracy and open up the economy to the transnational corporations, the military nominated Abdelaziz Bouteflika as their man in presidential elections last April. Bouteflika, a former member of the FLN government until 1979, long ago renounced any socialist pretensions. He became president when all the other candidates pulled out in protest at the blatantly rigged elections.

In July, Bouteflika granted a limited amnesty to those oppositionists who agreed to lay down their arms before January 13, 2000 and had not been involved in collective massacres, rape, murder or bomb attacks. Those accused of murder, rape and the placing of bombs would be prosecuted, but there would be no death penalty and no prison sentence would be longer than 20 years. It seemed as though the civil war was coming to an end.

In September, despite the fact that his plan for the concorde civile had already gone ahead, Bouteflika held—and won—a referendum on the amnesty in an attempt to gain some political credibility with voters after the fraudulent election. Hundreds of Islamists serving prison sentences were released, although many more remain behind bars.

A vital part in Bouteflika's calculations was to use the huge display of popular support for peace and an end to violence against the hard-liners in the military—the eradicateurs, who oppose the conciliateurs, and seek to end the civil war by eliminating all political opposition. Constrained by his military opponents, even today, more than six months after the elections, Bouteflika has not been able to form a cabinet of his own choosing. This follows nearly eight years of tensions between successive presidents installed by the army. Not one of the previous four presidents has served out his full term.

While the GIA rejected the amnesty, many in the FIS supported it. With Abassi Madani and Ali Benhadj, the leaders of the FIS, still under house arrest, Hachani was the most senior member of the party. Despite his criticisms that the amnesty did not go far enough—he had wanted an international summit to end the conflict—he was widely seen as the best hope for establishing the FIS as a credible and peaceful opposition party.

President Bouteflika has condemned the killing, blaming the attack on the “enemies of civil and national concord and reconciliation”. He has pledged to do everything possible to find the people who planned the shooting.

While it was immediately assumed that the GIA, which opposes the amnesty, was behind the killing, no group has come forward to claim responsibility. The Algerian paper El Alam Essiassy said it was another phase in the escalation of the terrorist violence that has swept the country since the July referendum. All the Algerian press agreed that the murder was aimed at torpedoing the amnesty and peace moves.

An FIS spokesperson in London blamed elements in Algeria's ruling military elite. "We believe that eradicateurs are responsible for this crime, benefiting from the current state of the political impasse in the country as a result of the attempt to forcibly exclude the FIS from present and future legitimate political action. They seek the political liquidation of the FIS." Given that Hachani was under constant surveillance and the well-documented actions of elements within the Securité Militaire, such an assessment provides a plausible explanation for Hachani's death.

The assassination undermines the Algerian president's “national programme of reconciliation” and his attempts to end the civil war. According to the French daily Le Monde his strategy has misfired. The armed groups have not rushed to surrender their arms. August saw one of the worst months on record in terms of the number of incidents, and the violence has not abated. In the three weeks before Hachani was gunned down, more than 100 deaths were reported—21 on one day, November 20. Since mid-September, about 500 people have lost their lives.

Bouteflika's attempts to end the civil war leave unresolved the economic and social problems that gave rise to political strife. Life for the overwhelming majority of Algerians has been nothing short of wretched since the devastating fall in the price of oil in the 1980s. About half the population lives below the poverty line. More than 30 percent are officially recorded as without work, while in reality a staggering 50 percent are believed to be unemployed. This figure includes 70 percent of young people in a country with 70 percent of its population under the age of 30. More than 2 million new homes are needed for a population of about 28 million.

Just last month, Bouteflika introduced a budget that slashes public expenditure by a massive 40 percent. The programme of privatisation and deregulation has already led to 400,000 job losses, and more are set to follow. The president, in an attempt to shed the country's pariah status in the wake of its gross human rights abuses, has travelled to Europe and the US to seek investment in Algeria.

The state-owned oil and gas industry has been opened up to private investment. The US now has more than $2 billion invested in Algeria. The oil corporations Halliburton, Arco and Anadaneo have more than 500 American staff working in the Sahara. Pfizer, the giant pharmaceutical corporation, has started a joint venture; Citibank and European banks have opened up in Algiers.

The international banks and corporations have demanded that Algeria restructure its economy and open it up to the capital markets. They want an end to the civil war and the establishment of a government with some semblance of political legitimacy and the “rule of law”.

Earlier in the year, Stuart Eizenstat, US under-secretary of state for economic, business and agricultural affairs, explained in a Worldnet dialogue with North African journalists regarding the US-North Africa Partnership what the rule of law meant: "clear rules, transparent rules, open rules of investment".

Integral to this is the establishment of a larger North Africa market that would make inward investment worthwhile. Both the US and European corporations are therefore keen to reinvigorate the Maghreb Union that encompasses Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. But the EU and the US have conflicting agendas. The Maghreb's economic links have traditionally been with its former colonial masters in Europe. Eizenstat, also a former US ambassador to the European Union, was quite forthright: "We don't think that the Maghreb region in North Africa is the private preserve of any country."

For the US, the Maghreb serves wider strategic objectives. The signing of the trade and investment agreement between the EU and the Maghreb means that the US can use its own influence in the Maghreb to penetrate the European market. US military ties with North Africa should also ensure that the Mediterranean does not become a “European lake” that could one day deny America access to its vital interests in the Caucasus and the Middle East.