Algerian Voices, European Reactions: Examining Conflicts in Discourse, Information and AnalysisSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
This work is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Permission must be received for subsequent distribution in print or electronically. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. :
For more information, read Michigan Publishing's access and usage policy.
After riots in October 1988, Algeria underwent a brief period of political opening and pluralism. But when the Front Islamique du Salut, or FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) appeared on the verge of electoral victory, the ruling military elite of the Front de Libération Nationale, or FLN (National Liberation Front) intervened with a coup d'état in early 1992. The country then plunged into bloody, confusing warfare. It seemed unlikely that the ruling elite would hang on, with its resources depleted and its international image badly tarnished. Then, in 1994, Algeria renegotiated its foreign debt with the IMF and other agencies. It opened to foreign investors, especially in the crucial oil and gas sector. It promised to move its relatively centralized command economy toward a liberalized market model. After that point, Algeria's macroeconomic position began to improve. At the same time, the military situation gradually turned in favor of the government and the army.
Some observers, however, point to high unemployment (75 percent among youth) and other indicators of severe hardship in Algerian society. The case has been made, most visibly by Luis Martinez, that resources coming into Algeria, primarily from hydrocarbons (controlled by the regime) but also from the "liberalized" economy more generally, are funneled into a diversified war economy which benefits warlords, including "mafia" elements, on all sides of the conflict. Another bitter dispute of long standing concerns responsibility for the horrible massacres of recent years. Are these all the work of violent Islamist groups? How much involvement have the government and army had? And therefore, who, if anyone, has been orchestrating the conflict? With whom is it advisable or even possible to deal, once peace begins to come? During the past year the Algerian crisis has been a central concern for the U-M's Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMENAS), which has held a seminar on it, invited guest lecturers, and regularly produced an online newsletter "Focus on Algeria." The culminating event in this series took place May 14-15 in Bologna, Italy, where CMENAS and the Center for European Studies (CES) jointly produced, with generous support from the II and OVPR, a conference on "Algeria and Europe: Algerian/Maghrebi Voices Abroad and European Reactions," in partnership with the Bologna Center of The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and its Center for Constitutional Studies and Democratic Development.
Algeria's crisis of the 1990s stirs high passions among Algerians and many others throughout North Africa and Europe. At the confererence, "Algeria and Europe: Algerian/Maghrebi Voices Abroad and European Reactions," held May 14-15 in Bologna, Italy, four U-M faculty and one staff member joined participants from Algeria, France, Italy and Spain in confronting the separate discourses that address the Algerian crisis. These discourses are remarkable both for their internal coherence and for their frequent isolation from one another, a problem aggravated by the lack of reliable, detailed information on the current Algerian crisis.
The participants, who included economists, sociologists, anthropologists, politologues and historians, agreed that "Islamic fundamentalism" on its own does not explain these complex discourses, movements and events. Most also agreed on the importance of exploring the interregional dynamics within which these discourses and events take form and place. Europe, beginning with (though not limited to) France, is inextricably involved in many aspects of the Algerian experience, while Algeria has gained high importance in European cultural politics, policy-making, and other areas.
Nonetheless, disagreements —- open and implicit —- remained a hallmark of the conference. Some of these disagreements have their sources in the political, social and economic realities of Algeria in the 90s.
Politics, Conflict and War
The conference began with a session entitled "Algerian Politics and International Reactions." Here the prevailing themes were conflict, war, and the opacity of Algerian politics. As an organizer of the conference, I volunteered to speak on Algeria's continuities and discontinuities within Islamic history, including the peculiar nature of the country's pre-colonial elites and their relation to warfare on land and by sea. Matt Connelly (U-M history and public policy) then showed how names and symbols from the "First Algerian War" (1954-62) have colored the present "Second Algerian War." In Connelly's view, these form a single, extended crisis. Struggles over political and economic domination within Algeria have taken place within this framework of continuity with the colonial and revolutionary past. Thus, in the late 1980s the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) presented itself as the true heir to its discredited opponent, the FLN (National Liberation Front), regardless of religious doctrines or ideology.
Gema Martín-Muñoz (University of Madrid) described the current conflict as a civil war in which the ruling cliques have blocked the entrance into politics of new groups, including the FIS. This internal conflict is aggravated by another antagonism, one generated by the West, situating Islam and the West oppositionally, "in Manichaean fashion." European media view the Algerian conflict as theologically motivated, and therefore beyond the reach of political and social analysis. In this way, Martín-Muñoz argued, the rulers of Algeria manipulate Western media and public opinion to their own advantage.
Rémy Leveau (Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Internationales (CERI), University of Paris) then spoke about the Algerian presidential elections which, at the time of the conference, had just taken place. Leveau built on the dictum of the Algerian political scientist Slemane Chikh, "The function of an election is to confirm a choice already made by a hidden decision center" ( L'élection a pour fonction de confirmer le choix fait par un centre de décision occulte). The Algerian high army officers still have no intention of relinquishing their place to share power with opposition parties. Their position resembles that of the army in present-day Turkey or the monarchy in Morocco: while allowing space for democratic participation and "civil society," they consider themselves as the polity's ultimate guardians, uniquely entitled to intervene at moments of crisis. And as elsewhere, this position comes at a price, as radical opposition turns violent, and political conflict becomes civil war.
Integration and Choice
The conference continued the following morning with a panel entitled "Economic Discourse and European Union Policy." Here attention focused on Algeria's integration into world, North African, and above all European markets, and on the choices available to Algerian and European decision-makers. The emphasis remained on choice despite the inequality of the situation, with the North African economies dwarfed by the colossus of the European Union (EU).
Giacomo Luciani (ENI, Rome, and the Hopkins Bologna Center) gave a picture, backed by detailed statistics, of hydrocarbons and the Algerian economy. This is largely a story of miscalculations. Though a pioneer in the export of liquefied natural gas in 1964, Algeria did not pay sufficient attention to the international market, and its capacity in oil and gas production remained underutilized. Then, as world prices plummeted in the mid-80s, the country's decision-makers changed strategy, inviting in foreign companies, many of them from the English-speaking world. Two major pipelines now cross the Mediterranean. Thanks to hydrocarbon exports, much of the country's debt has been paid and government finances have improved. But security expenditures are sky-high and, stated Luciani, "The rentier state spends its money to keep people quiet." The question becomes, for how long? Whereas in 1960 Algeria had the most advanced economy among the three Maghreb countries, its focus on oil and gas has now led to a situation where Tunisia and Morocco have opportunities for integration into the EU, while Algeria risks being reduced to the role of purveyor of gas and oil.
Jean-Pierre Cassarino (European University Institute, Florence) spoke about "the new regionalism in the Maghreb." In the past decade, new networks of "civil society" have emerged in Tunisia and Morocco, creating trade and new economies of scale. The governments of those countries have instituted reforms and embarked on free trade agreements with the EU. Cassarino stressed the "need to reconfigure the relation of state and society," with emphasis on the private sector and export diversification. Algeria is clearly essential to the success of any such program for the Maghreb. But Algeria's domestic economy has seen little benefit from the liberalization of the economic regime. Firms have not become less dependent upon the state, while speculative, rather than productive activities have proliferated. Cassarino called for "non-state actors" to come to the fore. Algeria should follow the example of its neighbors by organizing its entrepreneurs and shifting from a top-down to a bottom-up or grass-roots process of regional integration.
Alan Deardorff (U-M, economics) discussed "economic implications of Europe-Maghreb trade agreements." Algeria, like Morocco and Tunisia, could form a free trade agreement (FTA) with the European Union. Additional steps could include deeper integration through adapting domestic policies along EU lines and reducing tariffs from the entire world. Establishing an FTA would cause a fall in the value of the currency, which, however, might be offset by an improvement in balance of trade and at least by the hope for increased foreign investment. The main drawbacks to a country from an FTA are the added costs from substituting imports (in this case from the EU) which cost more than the imports from other trading partners. There is also the loss of tariff revenues to state coffers. These disadvantages, called "trade diversion," must be offset by "trade creation" in order for an FTA to make sense. Some studies have tried to quantify the advantages and disadvantages of FTAs in North Africa; there appears to be some benefit, but only in the long run. Moreover, Algeria's case is special, since it relies so heavily on exports of oil and gas, the prices for which are set by world markets. And while an FTA ought to cover all goods traded, EU agreements exclude agriculture. At present the EU already takes zero tariffs from Algeria. Nonetheless, Algeria must lower its tariffs if it is to have any room for trade creation. Panel mediator Jean-Claude Chesnais (Institut National d'Etudes Démographiques, Paris, and Hopkins Bologna Center) noted the non-economic element in any eventual FTA, as European policy makers may seek to create a North African buffer between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.
Fatiha Talahite (economy, University of Lille) gave a different analysis. She decried what she called the "myth of regained [economic] good health." Echoing Luis Martinez, she said that funds gained through rescheduling of debt and liberalization of the economy are diverted toward financing the war and "feeding mafia networks." The current political crisis blocks the emergence of any "regulatory principle." Looking back, Talahite saw the economic reforms of the late 1980s as imposed politically. The events of 1992 brought a veering away from legality (une transition désinstituée) more closely resembling that of contemporary Russia than, say, Hungary. The market reforms of 1994 were not backed by internal political consensus, as outside forces called the shots. For Talahite, projects of association with the EU are similarly cloaked in "opacity." She also commented on both Algeria's and the International Monetary Fund's manipulation of numbers, which raises the larger question of numbers and their use by the state and other agencies. She noted that while only hydrocarbons are controlled by the world economy, much of the rest of the Algerian economy remains "informal" and closed to the outside.
Talahite stood apart from the other three speakers in the economic session, with her insistence that as long as the rule of law is not applied, economic logic cannot prevail. Lahouari Addi (University of Lyon) took up this point in arguing against Cassarino's vision of "bottom-up" reform. Each of the three Maghreb countries has its own internal political obstacles, he argued; regimes strive to overcome economic difficulties, and the political is thus prior. Toward the end of this panel, Ann Stoler (U-M, anthropology and history) commented on the absence in all this discussion of social issues underlying the creation of FTAs and the like. What populations gain access to employment and under what conditions? Factories in Mexico producing for the U.S. market along the border are sites of exploitation, especially of women; so to whose benefit does NAFTA work? Similarly, EU rules governing immigration, use of foreign labor and so on are guided by "racist policies." Stoler's comment received little response, a situation echoed at other sessions later on.
Rights of Citizenship
The final panel was on "Rights of Citizenship in Algeria and in Europe." Speaking on "North African Immigration to Italy," Ottavia Schmidt di Friedberg (University of Trieste) commented on the disparity between the low numbers of North African immigrants in Italy and the alarm often expressed at their presence. She looked at the evolving of Italian national identity and the relation of Italians to their own colonial past and their history and self-perception as a nation of emigrants. To its own surprise, Italy has now become a country of immigration, arguably of necessity, as it has the lowest birth rate in the world. This came home to us with particular force when we learned that Bologna has the lowest birth rate of any city anywhere in the world.
Next to speak was Malika Remaoun of the University of Oran, Algeria, and of AFEPEC (Association des femmes pour l'émanicipation de la personne et l'exercice de la citoyenneté), on women's rights in Algeria. While the Algerian constitution declares women the equals of men, and while legislation in many areas, including labor law, formally prohibits discrimination, Algerian women are "citizens when it comes to duties and obligations, but sub-citizens when it comes to their rights." The shariCa is now applied only in the domain of family law, especially since the promulgation of the Family Code of 1984, which turned women into permanent minors and subjected them to discriminatory practices.
But there is "regression" in other areas as well. Despite formal protection of the right to work, Algeria now has the world's lowest rate (or one of the lowest-the point was disputed afterwards) of compensated work among women (8.75 percent as opposed to 74.18 percent in 1992). The enrollment of girls in school, once relatively high, has declined markedly. All in all, violence against women is prevalent, taking the form both of physical and of symbolic violence. Remaoun assigned main responsibility for all this to "Islamism, a fascist and totalitarian ideology." The question of women's rights, she said, is squarely at the center of the entire crisis. Remaoun then discussed the women's organizations which have been demanding equal status, "for the construction of a movement of and for women, powerful, autonomous and pluralist, having full and complete citizenship for women as its central objective." These groups seek allies in civil society, as well as in secularist political parties. They also seek to integrate the question of women's rights with that of human rights overall, and to bring into debate the questions of the universality or relativity of these rights.
Shifting the focus from Algeria to southern France, Ann Stoler gave an unsettling view of "the cultural politics of the French radical right" (see article, this issue).
By now we had a full sample of the variety of views on Algeria in its interregional context. It seemed that the underlying discourses were set on quite different tracks. In the final discussion the divergences became even more palpable.
Ann Bozzo (University of Rome) emphasized the "deficit of democracy" featured in several of the papers. It is urgently important, she said, that Islamists be allowed to speak and that they be accepted within a legal framework whenever they renounce violence, even if they do so only for tactical reasons. There should be no "double discourse" regarding human rights, because there is only one: il n'y a qu'un seul discours. Algerians are "thirsty" for a state of law and an end to injustice; the way to this is through modernity and against patriarchalism. Others in the conference expressed different views, such as Fatiha Talahite, who suggested that Algerians have clung to Islamic law governing personal status as a way of preserving identity, and that the introduction of "universal law" in this area might be only another form of westernization and colonization.
Malika Remaoun insisted that women have the right to militant action "within the framework of women's rights." For her the primary opponent remains Islamism and its discourse of violence against women. Remaoun met opposition from several of the participants (to which, unfortunately, she did not have ample time to respond). Lahouari Addi was of the view that Algerian men, no less than women, are "sub-citizens." Addi chided Remaoun for speaking only of Islamist terrorism, when in fact, he said, the victims of state terrorism have also been numerous. This disagreement over the current crisis, found in many forms, is also reflected in the debate over responsibility over the massacres, mentioned at the beginning of this article, and also flared up in dinnertime discussion among some of the participants. Remaoun's views also conflicted with those of Gema Martín-Muñoz, who earlier on had refused to identify Algerian women as the primary victims of the conflict. The vast majority of casualties in the civil war have been young men, Martín-Muñoz argued; and the Western media's concentration on the abduction and killing of women ostensibly by Islamists has conveniently left out instances of killing of Islamist men.
Alan Deardorff then remarked that for some time the conversation had been devoted to the documentation of various problems, with no attention paid to what could be done about them. We have a policy issue before us, he said, one with consequences for problems of immigration, racism, women's rights and so on, namely the possible creation of a free trading area. "What does this group say?" But the group said nothing. The moment had an uncanny resemblance to Ann Stoler's earlier intervention toward the end of the economics panel, in quite a different direction.
Gema Martín-Muñoz noted that the point is generally missed that Muslim immigrants to Europe now want to be both Muslim and European. Schools and government ministries, as well as the media, lag far behind this reality. She also pointed out that the Algerian Family Code of 1984 was written and promulgated by those in power, and not by an Islamist opposition. There is, she said, no single "Islamist discourse of women," but that patriarchy does exist, with the Algerian government and other actors only too willing to serve and use it.
At the end of the conference, I was called upon to consider some of its main themes. These include continuity with the colonial and pre-colonial past, brought out by the focus on patriarchy toward the end; the Manichaean view of the Muslim world still prevailing in the West; the related question of "one Islam or several Islams," for a country which clearly had, at least until recently, a great variety of religious expression; the question of the universality of rights; the powerful, if unequal factors linking Algeria and Europe in so many areas, including media and religion; the vexing difficulties in obtaining information about present-day Algeria and the opacity of its politics; and the underlying theme, eloquently expressed by Ann Stoler at one point, that "discourses do matter."
The Algerian conflict remains largely unexplained, even as it shows signs of winding down, and the country's future remains obscure. In retrospect, the differences among the conference participants remain striking. The activities of cultural studies, of political analysis, of using numbers in "hard" social science, of policy-making, must not be allowed to become mutually exclusive, and one of this conference's goals was to help prevent that from happening Yet, to paraphrase an important book on modern Algeria, some of the most eloquent moments were those of silence, even though the participants were anything but deaf to one another. Still, all had more to say than time in which to say it. We hope to bring the next stage of this discussion to Ann Arbor, within the context of the "Crossing Borders" project.
Michael Bonner, a specialist in medieval Islamic history, is director of the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies and a faculty member in the Department of Near Eastern Studies. Bonner received his doctorate from Princeton in 1987 and is the author of Aristocratic Violence and Holy War: Studies in the Jihad and the Arab-Byzantine Frontier (1996).