Algeria: War, terror and a haunted past

FEW countries in the world are as haunted by the horrors of their own past as Algeria. Colonised in 1830, Algeria was the jewel in France's colonial empire, a land transformed from a vassal Ottoman province ruled by Barbary pirates and Sufi brotherhoods into a full department of France, populated by more than a million white settlers, the fabled pied-noirs.

By Matein Khalid (At Home)

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Published: Fri 14 Dec 2007, 9:44 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:08 AM

The Algerian revolt against France mesmerised the newly independent colonies of the Third World in the 1950s. Even though the French state was decimated by the Nazis in 1940, evicted from Vietnam at the epic battle of Diem Bien Phu in 1954, checkmated by Nasser and Eisenhower in its ill fated invasion of the Suez Canal Zone, forced to grant independence to Morocco and Tunisia (albeit as political vassals of the Quai d'Orsay), France decided to surpress the Algerian nationalist revolt in a ghastly choreography of horror that cost the lives of millions of Arabs and 30,000 French. The English historian Alistair Horne's book on the Algerian war of independence, " A savage war of peace", which mesmerised me in my college dorm two decades ago, was cited by President Bush on CNN as his guide to understanding the pathology of guerilla warfare and counter terrorism in Iraq.

Wrong analogy, Mr Bush. The US is not fighting insurgents in Diyala and Anbar province to annex the Iraqi state or impose its "mission civilisatrice" (civilising mission) on the Arabs, as the French sought. Nor was access to oil reserves a factor in France's obsession to control Algeria. Above all, Bush does not have to worry about a million American settlers determined to resist any political rapprochement or troop withdrawals with a wave of bombings, assassinations, coup attempts and mass murder, the modus operandi of the French settlers. In fact, the movie, 'Day of the Jackal' depicts the hiring of a professional assassin by the renegade Organisation Army Secrete (OAS) to murder President Charles De Gaulle as his motorcade left the Elysee Palace.

Yet in a deeper sense, the Algerian past has an eerie resonance in contemporary Iraq with its lethal cocktail of revolutionary terror, counterinsurgency, Islamist militancy, the economics of oppression and state sanctioned violence, including torture. President Bush would do well to watch the movie "Battle of Algiers", banned in France for decades, that depicted how terror becomes a coldly rational instrument of war for human beings Frantz Fanon called "the wretched of earth". The French conscience is still haunted by the odious atrocities committed by its troops in Algerie Francaise. On a recent visit to Algeria, President Sarkozy did not apologise but suggested it was the time to "come to terms with history, with its light side and dark side".

The Algerian war of independence demonstrated the revival of political Islam as a potent ideology of revolt, tested the relevance of the UN as a midwife of the embryonic past- colonial order, enabled Nasser and the FLN rebel leadership to refine the ideology of militant pan- Arab nationalism and was an early proxy Cold War battlefield, as the Kremlin embraced the rebel cause to advance Soviet interests in the Arab world. Algeria literally earned its independence from France in a maelstrom of blood and slaughter in 1962.

Yet fate held no fairy tale ending for independent Algeria. The FLN created a totalitarian, Leninist one party state with a Politburo, a Central Committee, vicious factions and a fatal dependence on the regime's military and secret police. President Ahmed Ben Bella was overthrown in a military coup by army commander Houari Boumédiène. The FLN's Algeria became a virtual vassal of the Soviet Union, its revolutionary passions engaged in issues like North Vietnam, Palestine and apartheid South Africa rather than addressing its own colossal economic failure, human rights abuses and governance deficit. Boumedienne was succeeded as President by Chadli Benjadid, whose tepid political reforms were undermined by a collapse in crude oil prices in the mid- 1980's.

The violence and brutality of the Algerian civil war exceeded even the nightmare in Iraq. The Pouvoir, the shadowy cabal of ruthless generals and Securite Militaire spy chiefs who dominated the regime, engineered the most successful counter- terrorism campaign against jihadist violence in the Middle East. The GIS rebels shot foreign journalists and Trappist monks, beheaded unveiled school teachers in front of their child pupils, slit the throats (engorgement) of government conscripts captured in ambushes, random bombings of coffee houses and schools in the Casbahs of Algiers and Oran. But the regime infiltrated the GIA, as the memoirs of a former military intelligence colonel asserts, instigated some of the massacres of civilians that so revolted the West. Yet the Algerian civil war was fought and won by the regime without the full glare of the international media. Algeria's tortured past holds existential lessons for the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Joseph Stiglitz's "oil curse" leads to a fatal concentration of power. State capitalism does not work. Islamist rhetoric is used to dignify violence by power crazed rebels and incumbent regimes. Slitting the throats of teachers and government troops only creates revulsion among the local populace and foreign media. Sadly, counter-terror alone can vanquish terror, a lesson proved in both the Algerian scrubland and the slums of Asyut, Upper Egypt.

The Algerian military high command and FLN nomenklatura won the civil war but at a terrible cost. More than 200,000 lives were lost, Algeria became an international economic pariah and GIA terrorists even hijacked an Air France plane and planned to crash it into the Eiffel Tower, an eerie premonition of 9/11. Algeria remains haunted by its own past.

Matein Khalid is a Dubai-based investment banker and economic analyst

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