The Algerian regime claimed an overwhelming (and totally unbelievable) 97% ’yes’ vote and 80% turnout in its referendum on a ’peace and reconciliation charter’, held on 29 September. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika said this would draw a line under the brutal civil war which erupted in 1992.
The violence between Islamist fighters, state forces and vigilantes has claimed over 150,000 lives – mainly working class and peasants, men, women and children.
The whole population has been brutalised and traumatised by the mass bloodletting, the atrocities by both sides. Although fighting has largely abated, conflict still flares – a further 50 people were killed in September.
The charter offers an amnesty to fighters who give up their arms, except those involved in mass slaughter, rape and planting bombs in public places. It does not explain how anyone involved in those acts could be brought to account. The charter absolves the regime of any responsibility for deaths and disappearances. It continues the ban on FIS (Front Islamique du Salut).
It was the banning of Islamist FIS and the cancellation of the second round of national elections, due in January 1992, which kick-started the civil war. FIS had emerged as the largest party in the first round, had 856 local councillors, and would have won the second round. The army stepped in, with the approval of the US and other Western powers. FIS members – and many others – were rounded up in their hundreds. FIS issued a call to arms.
Bouteflika’s charter is more a cynical ploy to increase his power than an exercise in genuine reconciliation. The charter has been denounced by families of the disappeared, who organise weekly demonstrations. They fear they will be marginalised or even banned. There was no independent monitoring of the vote and human rights groups say the turnout was half that claimed by the regime.
It was particularly low in the cities, including the capital, Algiers. In the eastern Kabilye region, the Berber population greeted the referendum with demonstrations. According to Le Monde (29 September), tribal leaders called a one-day general strike, and the two main opposition parties, the Front des Forces Socialistes (FFS) and the Rassemblement pour la Culture et la DŽmocratie (RCD) called for a boycott. In the Kabilye capital, Tizi Ouzou, even the official turnout was only 11.4%, with 11.6% in BŽja•a, Kabilye’s second city.
Making up just under a fifth of the population, the Berbers are the original inhabitants of North Africa. They fought shoulder to shoulder with Arabs in the bitter war for national independence against French imperialism, 1954-62.
With the one-party state which took power after 1962, then outright military rule, however, the Berbers were repressed – and continue to be. During the civil war, they were attacked by both sides. After decades of mass resistance, much of Kabilye is a no-go area for state security forces.
Nonetheless, with an easing of the civil war, and record oil prices giving some relief to the economy – although this has by-passed the vast majority of Algeria’s people, with youth unemployment around 50% – Bouteflika has consolidated his position.
Exhausted from years of violence, people crave peace, and hope against hope that, maybe, a period of relative stability could open up.
Bouteflika has attempted to broaden his support among sections of the Islamists. The registered (acceptable to the regime) Islamic parties, the Mouvement de la SociŽtŽ pour la Paix (MSP) and Al-Islah (Reform), both campaigned for a yes vote.
Bouteflika has used the civil war and Algeria’s oil and natural gas resources to align himself increasingly with the US regime, signing up to George W Bush’s ’war on terror’. He has allowed US special forces into Algeria to track down Islamist groups.
This convergence of interests ensured that there would be little if any criticism from the so-called ’international community’ of the referendum campaign, vote rigging and Bouteflika’s rule.
Of course, it is nothing new for a US administration to back thinly-disguised military regimes when they defend its economic and strategic interests.
The charter itself grants the president increased powers and has fuelled speculation that Bouteflika will attempt to stay on past the statutory maximum two terms in office.
The Algerian peoples, Berber and Arab, require more than presidential charters to secure a future of peace and prosperity. They will need to rely on their own independent organisation, rediscover their rich traditions of class unity and mass struggle, and build a democratic movement for socialist change.