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A response to David Porter

Marieme Helie Lucas critiques appearing in Issue 557 of Pambazuka News. She praises the author’s analysis but also points out that some important happenings are missing and some erroneous statements and assumptions were made.

I read with great pleasure David Porter’s article, ‘The long shadow of Algeria on the Arab Autumn’, on the web site of Pambazuka News. For so many years, most articles on Algeria in English speaking media described FIS and the fundamentalist Muslim Right in general as victims of the state (which they may be at points; so were the communists and the Berberists), thus denying their direct responsibility in many targeted assassinations and massacres of citizens; dated the beginning of armed violence to the 1990s; and ignored both the political agenda of FIS and the fate of terrorised ordinary people of Algeria.

The article by Porter rightly dates the beginning of Islamist violence to the 1960s when Nahnah, then head of the Algerian Hamas, was sentenced to prison after organising and participating in guerrilla actions. It was also when Islamist groups prepared for their armed uprising: they attacked quarries to rob explosives and army barracks to rob arms. Everybody in Algeria still remembers the assassination of a dozen of just drafted (military service is compulsory in Algeria) young soldiers aged 18 in an army barracks in Guelma. It would have been worth indicating that this type of action just started in Tunisia, where a group attacked a police station and walked away with the weapons.

The article is also right in pointing at all the bending and bowing to fundamentalist demands by the successive Algerian governments, including passing the infamous family code that reduces women to the status of forever minors.

The piece does not charge the government with crimes committed by the armed fundamentalist groups, as most English language literature does.

I could continue listing other good points this article makes, unlike the vast majority of books and articles on Algeria produced in English for the past 20 years. However – nobody’s perfect – some important aspects of what was and is happening are missing and some erroneous statements and assumptions are made.

The Algerian government is repeatedly labelled ‘ the military government’. Please note that the army has never been directly in power – not even now, nor during the ‘dark decade’ of the 1990s – but indeed it is true that no government could stay in power without the army’s approval and support. Hence, all our successive governments since independence in 1962 have been backed by the army, from Ben Bella, to Boumedienne (both of them brought to power through direct military coups), to Chadli, to even the most honest of them all Boudiaf, etc…

Then how come only the present one is branded ‘military’? Why not all of them? Why such an obviously one-sided and partisan stand? Whose political interests does this exclusive label serve? Could it be, by any chance, because this is the one government which repressed fundamentalists, while the previous ones ‘only’ repressed the left? (Shame on me for even suggesting such a thing …!)

The article also hints several times at the possibility that GIA and other armed Islamist groups were manipulated by the government, as if they were used to fit into a plot for keeping in power.

That armed groups and/or their leadership and their affiliated front parties may have been infiltrated is a truism: which opposition is not? That, at points, there may have been attempts to manipulate them is equally obvious: which government does not do that? But are we saying that Algerian Islamists, and Islamists the world over, are created out of the blue, tailor-made to suit governments’ political needs and are puppets in the hands of their governments? (or of ‘imperialism’, for that matter – not denying that both undemocratic governments and imperialism attempt to use them?). Let's be serious: aren't we entitled to produce our own Far Right movements? That this worldwide ‘internationale’, the only one in existence today, with a clear Far Right political agenda, is only a product of manipulation? That seems quite a far-fetched bow to the ‘conspiracy’ theory.

Besides, I would not think that any attempt by the Algerian government to infiltrate and manipulate the FIS/GIA/AIS etc… affected in any way either their stated political agenda of theocracy or their means of achieving their goals by terror: one can see them at work everywhere in the Muslim world today.

This accusation, in fact, sends us back to the usual ‘who kills in Algeria?’ – a question that ran throughout the 1990s in the international media that aimed at making the government, its police and army responsible for the crimes fundamentalist armed groups announced in advance in their communiqués, committed and then claimed in their publications and via their leaders’ press conferences...

I am sorry that the author of this article who initially seems to clearly draw the respective responsibilities of the government (fierce repression) and the armed groups (assassinations and massacres of civilians) does not see that hinting at manipulation manages again to put into question the responsibility of Islamist armed groups and to charge the government of crimes committed by these groups.

Regarding the elections and their cancellation in Algeria it would be important to note that, like in Tunisia, many citizens just did not bother going to vote. As a consequence, both the FIS and EnNahda won the elections with the actual approval of less than 25 percent of registered voters. (In the case of Tunisia, one wonders whether it was deliberate that people could not take leave of absence from their jobs on that day).

It is worth analyzing the various reasons for this widespread abstention, since we see it being repeated from Algeria to Tunisia, and may be to Egypt too. On the one hand, just like in France in 2002 (when socialist Jospin was ousted in the first round of the presidential elections, leaving Chirac – right – face to face with far right Le Pen of the National Front), in the first round of the legislative elections in Algeria, people showed their despise of politicians and parties by not going to the booth; in the same line, several opposition parties (including the FFS, which, the author fails to mention, later supported FIS – using the short sighted logic ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’) had called for a boycott of the elections.

But what I think is really at stake is our own capacity to deny the fundamentalist danger, till it is far too late. It was true of Algeria in 1991, as well as of Tunisians in 2011. It may be true of Egyptians too.

I remember talking to friends in Algiers on the eve of the elections and predicting the worse: they laughed at me. From the late 1970s onwards, Iranian women alerted the Algerian women’s groups of what they saw as warning signs of the growing influence of fundamentalists; Algerian women were nearly offended: ‘How could we, the daughters of the glorious liberation struggle, be compared to Iran? No, not in our revolutionary country!’

I was among those who alerted Tunisian women’s groups of the rise of fundamentalism during the 1990s: many Algerian intellectuals took refuge in Tunisia and were threatened there by the Muslim right. Tunisian women had a very similar reaction: ‘Not in our country, they are marginal, we have the most progressive laws for women, etc…’

No later than three weeks ago, the same happened with Egyptian friends in Cairo: ‘No, ‘the people’ are in control!’ Which people? What don’t they see, beyond this implicitly liberal definition of people as a ‘mass of atomized individuals’, the far right fundamentalist parties in hiding?

Stubborn, I still try to warn my Senegalese friends of the progress that fundamentalists make in their country; but so far they say: ‘Our culture is different, Senegalese women are far more freer than women in the Maghreb, etc…’

Was Cassandra feeling as desperate as I do? Were the anti-Nazi Germans feeling the same? In all these countries, our denial of the actual balance of forces stems from an incredible political arrogance, which Iranian women lefties who fought against the Shah and promoted the Ayatollah describe very well – today !…

What is really missing with regard to the cancellation of the legislative elections in Algeria is that, after the first round which clearly indicated that fundamentalists were likely to win, even if that was thanks to massive abstention and to the manipulation by FIS MPs of the recasting of electoral constituencies to the benefit of FIS, people who had already lived under their boot for one year (after FIS won the local elections and took over in numerous villages and towns) were really scared. They suddenly wanted to avoid further disaster: progressive people took to the streets, calling on the government to stop the electoral process: there is a wealth of written and filmed documentation on women’s organisations, unions, secular parties demonstrating and being interviewed before the cancellation of the second round of the elections – and many of these actors are still alive to be interviewed.

However, this is hardly ever mentioned in the international media. Why? Does it make us automatically supporters of the regime? No, indeed not. I regret that the author calls it so lightly a ‘lesser evil’ that our undemocratic governments scared people with, to induce them into accepting their rule: concerned people have the right to consider that however right-wing and repressive Margaret Thatcher’s government was, they would, given a choice, rather live under her boots than under Hitler’s. That was the real risk and people just measured it at the last minute: they took to the street and demanded the cancellation of the elections.

Does it make us opponents of democracy? No. But it raises embarrassing questions: a tough one is the limits of ‘democracy’. If it is understood in the restrictive sense of parliamentary democracy, as it often is, it is a better system than a monarchy or an oligarchy: ‘one ‘man’(!) one vote’. But if it is understood as a system that is supposed to bring about broad social justice, then we have to consider the historical fact that sometimes people vote for Hitlers, and that this can by no means be as a step towards democracy, even if elections were free and fair. The six million victims of Hitler’s reign will no doubt approve my stand.

If Tunisia, Libya and Egypt fall into the hands of the Muslim right and far right, if women’s rights and citizens’ rights are curtailed in the name of religion, if non-voted divine laws take precedence over voted ones, this will not be democracy. The number two of FIS, Ali Belhadj, announced in 1990 that, should FIS win the elections there would be no more elections because ‘ if you have the law of God, why would you need the law of the people? One must kill all these unbelievers’. Opposing these views, be it through the cancellation of an electoral process, could hardly be equated to standing against democracy.

What are the alternatives to such a dilemma? At the very least, democrats should discuss the issue without being simplistic or politically blind. Last but not least, the women are not there at all in this article. Isn’t it a big lapse, when one knows they have been the primary targets of fundamentalist parties and of the government bending to fundamentalists’ diktats when their legal rights were curtailed with the 1984 family code? And that they have also been specifically targeted by armed fundamentalist groups, when they were publicly named in a ‘communique’ as a category for targeted assassinations? Thousands of them were killed, not for anything they were specifically doing (unlike men who were assassinated because they belonged to another of the targeted categories, namely journalists, intellectuals, artists, women and foreigners), but just because they were women. One can give up journalism or painting to save one’s life, but how does one stop being a woman?


* Marieme Helie Lucas is an Algerian sociologist, founder and former international coordinator of the Women Living Under Muslim Laws network. Marieme is also the founder of Secularism Is A Women’s Issue.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.