Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.
“The generals are up to their necks in the killing, and their motive is to hang onto power and the oil revenues and business commissions that go with it…The real problem in Algeria isn’t Islamic fundamentalism, it’s injustice.”
– Habib Souaidia, author of La sale guerre, as quoted in Time, April 16, 2001
His name might not ring a bell this side of the Atlantic Ocean, but there is hardly an Algerian who wouldn’t recognize the name of Khaled Nezzar. Once, one of Algeria’s most powerful men, if not the most powerful, in the country, Khaled Nezzar was Algeria’s Minister of Defense and one of five members of Algeria’s High Council of State that suspended the country’s second round of elections scheduled for 1992 and engineered what was in essence a military coup.
That act plunged the country into a horrific civil war in which Nezzar was not merely a participant, but one of the main architects. Nezzar served as Minister of Defense from 1992-1994. He resigned from the High Council of State in 1994 after he was the target of an assassination attempt.
During the war years different human rights organizations (Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International) cited Nezzar as “one of the main architects responsible for the bloody repression of political opponents, especially Islamicists, the massive campaign of torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in the first years of the dirty war which eventually cost about 200,000 deaths, 20,000 disappeared and the forced displacement of more than 1.5 million people” In his 2001 expose of the activities of the Algerian counter insurgency program, Habib Souaidia, author of La sale guerre (The Dirty War) accused the Algerian military of repeatedly perpetrating massacres of civilians while disguised as rebels, killing suspects in cold blood and torturing rebels to death during the Algerian civil war, Nezzar being one of those directing such operations.
On October 20, 2011, Khaled Nezzar was stopped by Swiss police in front of a Geneva bank and arrested. He is being charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the Algerian civil war of the 1990s. The indictment alleges that many of the terrorists acts allegedly committed by Islamic radical guerillas during “the dirty war,” among them many of the more heinous crimes, were actually committed by the army’s internal security counter-terrorism units (and members of the Interior Ministry’s internal security counter-insurgency units) which Nezzar directed. The Algerian government’s and Nezzar’s personal lawyers claims of immunity were rejected by the court as was his claim that the court was interfering into Algeria’s internal affairs.
Less than two weeks past, on July 31, 2012, the Swiss Federal Criminal Court released what is considered by human rights groups as a ‘landmark decision.’ Arguing the alleged crimes against Nezzar were too serious to drop, the court rejected Nezzar’s appeal to throw out the case. It ruled that international law as defined by the Geneva Convention of 1949 superseded national law. A number of Algerian political personalities have come out in Nezzar’s defense, but it would be overstating the case to argue that the nation is behind him. The original complaint against Nezzar was made by an organization, the English acronym of which is TRIAL, the Swiss Association Against Impunity. (Track Impunity Always.)
Nezzar was in Geneva to treat his smoking addiction at a medical clinic. After his arrest, he was kept in jail for two days, charged and then released. He was permitted to leave the country on condition that he returns to Switzerland to face charges. Although he promised to do so, it is unlikely that Nezzar will return to Switzerland to face the judicial music. Still, even in his absence, the trial will be politically charged for what it might reveal about the activities of Nezzar and the Algerian government in those dark days.
Others with whom the top Algerian leadership had close relations, such as French intelligence, can only be uncomfortable with the proceedings as well. The leadership of the High Council of State maintained close ties with its former colonial masters in French military intelligence throughout the dirty war. Any whiff of French complicity – until now suspected by unproven – could prove both embarrassing and damaging to French interests. French-Algerian relations run the gamit – including historic, economic and political ties. France is a major importer of Algerian oil and natural gas.
At the time that the Algerian elections were suspended in 1991, all the indications suggested that had the election proceeded, that an Islamicist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique de Salut or FIS as it was commonly known), would have swept the elections and come to power, breaking the stranglehold that the Algerian military and its powerful internal security force had enjoyed since 1965 when Houari Boumedienne, a colonel in the Algerian army, came to power in a coup d’etat ‘to restore order’.
It is unclear what a 1991 FIS victory would have meant for the country; that we will never know. But there is not much to suggest that it would have resulted in the implementation of shari’a law and that much of the hysteria an FIS win provoked was simple fear mongering. Clearer though is the fate of the ruling military-security elite. Their grip on power and control of oil profits would have been broken or at the very least seriously compromised. The glory days when they could use the country’s oil and gas profits for a cash cow to buy new weapons systems and send their children on weekend trips to Paris dentists would have evaporated as well.
‘Having it all’ and seeing it all slip through their fingers, the Algerian leadership at the time essentially panicked. From the time Boumedienne had come to power, democracy in the country was little more than a facade. Algeria was a military dictatorship with democratic trappings in which the voice of the people was stifled and then silenced early on. As long as the price of oil remained high, Algeria’s military junta was able to hide the mess that had become the Algerian economy. But as oil prices collapsed in the early 1980s, the facade collapsed. Its left rhetoric and talk of socialism aside, the Algerian Revolution’s failure to deliver on either prosperity or democracy was exposed. Unemployment, especially youth unemployment, was soaring, corruption and misuse of oil profits among the elite was rampant, and repression, long a factor, had intensified. Put another way, the social chemistry that led to the explosion known as the Arab Spring in late 2010 were already percolating in Algeria nearly a quarter of a century earlier. Angry demonstrations – calls for the government to live up their promises, to end the nepotism, corruption and repression became louder.
Somewhat similar to the Polish communists who in 1988 bet that the experience of their party would be able to outflank the new dissident voices in an electoral contest, two years later, the Algerian generals gambled that they would win an electoral contest against an expanding political opposition. The government still tried to hide behind the Algerian Revolution of 1962, claiming they were the generation of the national liberation movement and had provided many of the revolution’s martyrs. In both the cases of Poland and Algeria, the powers that be discovered just how far afield they were from the pulse of the people. It was striking just how out of touch both ruling elites turned out to be with their electorate, as if the governments lived on one planet and the population of the countries inhabited another world.
The Polish Communists lost the 1988 elections by a margin, if I recall correctly, of 99–1, opening up a new dawn for Polish politics that spelled the end of communist power there. The Algerian military did not fare as poorly as the Polish Communists, but still they got trounced and the writing of history was, as the saying goes, ‘on the wall.’ The FIS (mentioned above) swept to victory with 54% of the votes cast. As with the victories of Islamicists in Palestine in 2006 and in 2011 in Tunisia and Egypt, polls showed that it wasn’t so much that the population had turned to religion as much as it was a turn away from those in power. In Algeria, a second round was scheduled for 1992. It never took place. In short, the Algerian leadership panicked. The military junta that ruled behind the curtains came out in the open and assumed the full powers that they had held behind the scenes. The president was removed; the military dictatorship came out in the open. It is essentially still in place today despite new sugar-coated democratic trappings.
Then all hell broke loose.
The election suspension triggered a civil war which lasted nearly a decade in which the number of dead might have exceeded 200,000, although we’ll never know the precise count. An armed uprising erupted, the sources of which remain murky. It lasted until 1999 – and in fact – never entirely ended. In response to the uprising, in the name of countering Islamic fundamentalism, the High Council of State unleashed a reign of terror on the country. Jihad versus anti-Jihad? That is how the media spun it, in Algeria, France and the U.S.A. This wasn’t a case of an old fashion Latin America-like military coup of an essentially greedy and pervasively corrupted leadership. No – the Algerian generals were the last line of defense against a Salafist (Islamic fundamentalist uprising) whose goal was to destroy Algerian democracy and modernism and thrust the country, Taliban-like, to some version of 7th century Islam.
Among those leading the charge against ‘the forces of evil’ – or so it was said was General Khaled Nezzar.
But it wouldn’t take long before gaping holes appeared in this version of events and even already in the 1990s, rather stinging questions as to what the Algerian leadership, its military and security force were actually up to began to emerge.
To be continued …
Rob Prince is a Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.