18 June 2005

Algeria: Split by the Gulf War

Initially, the Gulf crisis, set off by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, drew increasingly marked lines of separation within the Algerian political class. Although all the parties condemned the Western reaction--the massing of troops and weapons in Saudi Arabia--whose aim, according to some, was only to "preserve their interests," or even "seize control of hundreds of billions of Arab dollars and threaten the Islamic and Arab nation in its security," the position toward Saddam Hussein's regime was far from unanimous.

The ISF [Islamic Salvation Front] Islamists proved to be increasingly embarrassed. How ought one to "protect" Saudi Arabia's appeal for Western troops? Response: "Let us brandish the torch of Islam. Let us brandish the jihad. Down with the servants of colonialism! No to Iraqi intervention in Kuwait, no to the intervention of unbelievers in Saudi Arabia, no to the governments that have compromised with the West. Yes to the peace dialogue. My dear brothers, we reject all intervention in our affairs." The ISF preacher who gave this speech in Constantine ended it with the search for the inevitable scapegoat, "the Jews, who occupy all the holy places of Islam" (Sigau 1991).

The rejection of "the American war," which increased after the air offensive by the coalition against Iraq on January 17, 1991, did not signify adherence to the doctrine of Iraq's sole party, the Baas [= Baath]. From one end of the Maghreb to the other, the violence of the conflict provoked the return in force of the tradition of revolutionary populism, of a movement of unanimity without any possible differences in points of view. And yet, in the many pro-Iraqi demonstrations that occurred in Rabat, in Algiers, and in Tunis, a rift appeared.

On the one hand, there were those who demanded peace, an immediate cease-fire. They spoke of safeguarding the unity of the "Arab nation." They adopted the tone of the Third World movement of the 1960s, supported in the past by the Moroccan Mehdi Ben Barka and the West Indian writer Frantz Fanon: they denounced the oppression of the peoples of the "Arab nation" by a regime resolved to establish its hegemony over it. The rejection of US intervention against Iraq was accompanied by a denunciation of the petroleum monarchies in the Gulf. They were accused of placing their capital in Western financial institutions when, in the overwhelming majority of Arab countries, social progress remained very slow. But that effort at social clarification collided with the power of consensus based on identity, the sense of belonging to the same "Arab camp." And the "Palestinian cause" further united people. Some, however, particularly the heads of the human rights leagues, attempted to explain the necessary distinction between Saddam Hussein's totalitarian regime and the suffering of the Iraqi people.

On the other hand, in Morocco and Algeria the Islamist movement championed the jihad. The Western view of the Arab world, simplified to the point of caricature, encouraged this movement. Feeding the worship of a fixed past, the Islamist movement assimilated democracy (seen simply as a product of European history) to irreligion, that is, to one of the weapons in the vast conspiracy fomented by the enemies of the Prophet.

The West, out of habit or laziness, has relegated all the Arab countries to a global otherness--a homogeneous whole, sometimes invaded by abrupt fits of fever--without understanding that these peoples, in mobilizing against the war, aspired not to a return to military nationalism, but only to a greater degree of justice.

Public opinion brandished the democratic argument with the slogan "two weights, two measures." The Algerians emphasized the glaring inequality in the application of UN resolutions. But the majority of them did not embrace Saddam Hussein's regime. In Rabat and Tunis as well, there was a demand for more rights and not for the withdrawal of the international community.

The tragedy lay in the refusal by the "North" to take these considerations into account. It has then been easy for the Islamists to demonize the idea of democracy, understood as a product of the West and not as a universal principle.
SOURCE: Algeria, 1830-2000: A Short History, by Benjamin Stora (Cornell U. Press, 2001), pp. 208-209

No comments: