Thinking Aloud: “Robert Fisk on Algeria, 1992-2013”

Mar. 17, 2015 by Darius

I recently finished Robert Fisk on Algeria, 1992-2013: Two Decades of Reportage on a Tragic Conflict That the West Can No Longer Afford to Ignore.  As the title suggests, the book is actually a compilation of British journalist Robert Fisk’s dispatches from Algeria covering the Algerian civil war between the government and Islamists.

Since Algeria won its independence from France in 1962, after a war that left millions dead, it has been ruled by a series of sclerotic kleptocrats who loot the country’s coffers while constructing a massive, bureaucratic welfare state.  Periodically, the country’s rulers from the Deep State have decided to put a veneer of democracy on the whole thing.  In 1992 there was one such democratic opening.  However, an Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front, or FIS, didn’t play by the Algerian government’s rules.  Instead, the FIS dared to actually win a crushing victory in the first round of parliamentary elections.  The government promptly canceled the second round of voting and arrested the FIS leadership, ostensibly to protect the future of Algerian democracy from Islamists.

FIS supporters were understandably furious that their legitimate victory was being snatched away.  Mass protests were called for and, when the protests were violently dispersed, armed cells of the FIS began carrying out attacks against the government and its supporters, working from prepared hit lists in organized attacks.  For the next ten years, Fisk gives us a guided tour of Algeria’s descent into Hell.  The Islamists’ killing method of choice was throat-slitting or beheading, partly for the shock value and partly because ammunition was scarce.  The government, in return, arrested, tortured, and disappeared thousands of suspected Islamists.

It rapidly became clear that neither side could win a quick victory.  The FIS came to control most of rural Algeria and many neighborhoods of old Algiers, in a pattern eerily similar to the Algerian fighters in the Algerian war for independence.  The government, for its part, maintained strong popular support among those horrified by the bloodshed.

Instead of coming to terms, the two sides began to compete to outdo each other in committing atrocities.  When token negotiations began, the imprisoned FIS leaders were given typewriters to write demands.  Instead, they produced new lists for FIS cadres to assassinate.  Soon, the FIS was supplanted by an even more radical Islamist group, the GIA.  The Islamists laid a priority on killing Algerian writers, journalists, and intellectuals, often leaving their severed heads or gashed bodies on doorsteps in Algiers.  The government expanded its own campaign of “disappearances” to journalists investigating prior abuses.  GIA terrorists attacked villages suspected of wavering in their support for the Islamist cause, beheading small children and hanging their heads from trees.  Government torturers took electric drills to the legs and stomachs of suspects, then buried them by the hundreds in unmarked graves.  Elite government units donned false beards and massacred entire villages themselves to pin blame on the GIA, then ambushed and slaughtered whole units of their own soldiers to prevent the truth from getting out.  Truly ugly, ugly stuff, lasting an entire decade.

Eventually, the fighting wound down, and a general amnesty served to both pardon FIS/GIA fighters and ensure that the government would never need to answer for its own crimes.  By the end, more than 150,000 Algerians were dead.  According to Fisk, although the fighting stopped, nothing was resolved.  The Algerian government remains sclerotic and authoritarian, just as it was in 1992.  In fact, the man who became president midway through the civil war, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, remains president of Algeria today.  The GIA eventually morphed into al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.  The war continues, though on different terms.

Fisk’s book is the only one I can think of that I actually had to take a break from reading so my brain could recover from the horrors of each page.  As unpleasant as it is to read, though, the world needs to know what happened in Algeria in the 1990s: it explains a great deal about subsequent events in the region and around the world.  There is no more accessible source than Robert Fisk on Algeria, 1992-2013.

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