Algeria: Recycling Terms from the Last War

Beginning in Algeria in July 1993 there were forests burning once again in the Aurès, Algiers was still living under a curfew, terrorist attacks attributed to Islamists were striking police officers and intellectuals, and hundreds of “suspects” remained in detention, sometimes without trial. The Algerian press had begun to mention the “sweep operations,” and the French press added reports from “the underground.” “Terrorism” and “torture” made their reappearance in the vocabulary of all the triumphant communiques, announcing, on the one hand, the “eradication” of the “last armed groups,” and, on the other, “the imminent victory of the Muslim people.” A strange sensation has developed that this is a remake of the war of independence [1954-62]: an impression of déjà vu or “déja entendu.”

Forty years later, the vocabulary is unifying, consolidating the two eras, making them look alike. Has the country, then, entered a second–and identical–Algerian war?

Nothing is less certain. In the first place, in history, formal analogies have but little pertinence if they confine themselves to highlighting the similarity between certain forms, in this case the resurgence of terrible forms of violence. And, in the second place, the Algeria of the 1990s has only a very distant relation to that of 1962.

The country today is highly urbanized; the rural areas no longer play the same role; more than 60 percent of the population is under thirty; and the rate of schooling is very high. The differences could be multiplied, with, at the center, the end of the colonial system, the massive departure of pieds noirs [French colonists], and the political operation of an independent state. It may therefore seem absurd to assert that the same scenario is being repeated. Yet the protagonists in the confrontation–the followers of the ISF [Islamic Salvation Front], the “democrats,” the army–have intentionally adopted the terms inherited from the past of the Algerian War. And that is what is truly of interest–Islamists speaking of “the valorous mujahideen,” wanting to hunt down “the new pieds noirs” who have appropriated the revolution; “democrats” calling the ISF militants harkis [Muslim colonial auxiliaries] who want to crush the Algerian nation. Some circles within the regime have launched campaigns against the “secular assimilationists,” as during the time of the colonial system, when a lost identity had to be reestablished. And all the camps mention a shadowy “party of France(Hizb França) supposedly destabilizing Algeria.

This mimicry is striking. The memory of the war of independence operates as a factor in the assignment of the roles to be played. The contemporary actors dress in theoretical garments borrowed from the past. But, if they do not realize the novelty of the present, and if they subjectively replay the old situation, it is because they remain under the automatist influence of a memory fabricated forty years ago.

SOURCE: Algeria, 1830-2000: A Short History, by Benjamin Stora (Cornell U. Press, 2001), pp. 232-233

For a more hopeful follow-up, see this OxDem Report from April 2004.

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Filed under Mediterranean, Micronesia, religion, war

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