The Draft Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation

On 29 September Algerians voted on a general amnesty for all formerly militant Islamists. With the referendum President Bouteflika wants to forcefully demonstrate Algeria's regained stability to international observers. By Bernard Schmid

Algerian President Bouteflika (photo: AP)
Bouteflika is likely to celebrate a resounding victory on the evening of September 29th

​​"The citizens have not read the document," is the top headline in the September 14th issue of the Algerian daily paper El Watan, published two weeks before the referendum on the "Draft Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation."

The civic-minded newspaper printed excerpts from interviews conducted by its correspondents in hospitals, schools and businesses, at weekly markets and in the streets of Algiers. The reactions quoted primarily fluctuate between indifference – as an expression of the priority given by many residents in the Algerian capital to first dealing with urgent social problems – and skepticism.

Bouteflika's first referendum

This is already the second time since President Abdelaziz Bouteflika took office in 1999 that he is calling the Algerian voting public to the polls to indicate their support "for peace" and for an amnesty project. The proposal voted on in his first referendum, on September 16, 1999, bore the name "civil concord."

Back then, it was hoped that voters – who make up about 18 million of the 30 million Algerians – would give the Amnesty Act, which had in fact been in efficiency since July of that year, their blessing. The government offered amnesty to all members of the militant Islamist groups who agreed to lay down their weapons within a cut-off period of six months (which ended on January 13, 2000).

They would be guaranteed exemption from prosecution, with the exception of those who could be accused of personally committing murder or rape, participating in collective massacres, or undertaking bombing attacks in public places. The candidates for amnesty would go before a three-member review commission made up of judges and government officials. All those found eligible for amnesty were promised an apartment and material integration assistance.

A nation exhausted from civil war

At that time, in 1999, hardly anyone openly objected to the Amnesty Act, probably because Algeria had just gone through the most "heated phase" of its civil war, which had begun in 1993. And a large proportion of the public was wishing for only one thing, as quickly as possible: that the bloodshed would stop.

The political conditions under which the regime offered the hope of peace seemed to be of secondary importance. Nevertheless, the material privileges enjoyed in subsequent years by many of those granted amnesty served to create their share of bad blood.

With Algeria notching up peak unemployment levels directly after the war, at times officially over 30 percent, many citizens found the state guarantee of support for former Islamist terrorists downright obscene.

"Do not wear indecent clothing"

On top of this, people were shocked when President Bouteflika found it appropriate to request in early 2000 that the public should "not provoke" those recently granted amnesty, for example by wearing "indecent clothing."

President Bouteflika had been thinking about a project for "national reconciliation" for years, at the core of which would be an extended amnesty project. In his speech marking the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the national war of independence against the French colonial power, made on the eve of November 1, 2004, Bouteflika voiced his plans for the first time.

The families of the disappeared

He announced a "general amnesty" for all formerly militant Islamists, this time without a deadline. And he also stated that the government would take charge of the material needs of all "victims of the national tragedy." This could easily be construed to represent a – partial – fulfillment of the demands of the "Families of the Disappeared."

The latter represent the interests of relatives of "vanished" persons. Many of these were allegedly abducted and murdered by regime henchmen in the 1990s – for example, because they were thought, rightly or wrongly, to be Islamist activists. Others had actually joined underground groups.

Last year, the government recognized around 6,200 cases of "disappearance." From the point of view of the government, these can be attributed to personal initiatives on the part of members of the security forces, for which the regime does not want to be held directly politically responsible. But it has nevertheless agreed to make compensation payments to the relatives.

What was most debated among the political parties and in the media was Bouteflika's plan for a general amnesty. The aim of this project is evidently to once again forcefully demonstrate Algeria's regained stability to international observers.

Trying to curb the influence of the military

But a second goal for Bouteflika is evidently to prove that the political influence of the Algerian army – where little enthusiasm can be found for the prospects of a general amnesty – has been curtailed. Within the country's oligarchy there are deep rifts between the neoliberal technocrats now sitting in many ministries and the more protectionist-oriented elitist wings.

Parts of the army sympathize more with the latter, who were represented last year by the failed presidential candidate Ali Benflis. Third, Bouteflika wanted – and wants – to treat himself to a personal plebiscite in the form of a successful referendum, as he did in1999.

Within the political class, Bouteflika's project remains controversial. The text voters have been given to read keeps the exact contours of the undertaking more or less open. What's known for certain is that all militant Islamists are once again to be offered amnesty. This time there is neither a cut-off period nor a review commission.

Murders partially exempt from punishment

However, the text does again exclude the perpetrators of rape, collective massacres and bombing attacks – although this time there is no reference to murder as a criterion for disqualification. Thus, even those who have, for instance, committed deliberate murders of intellectuals would be exempt from punishment under law.

What is to happen, then, to the members of underground groups who refuse to voluntarily lay down their arms? This is a question that seems even trickier this time since there is no cut-off period after which the offer of amnesty expires. The text leaves the deadline open: candidates are given the prospect of a reduction in their sentence, but the details are not specified.

Furthermore, the text of the "Draft Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation" contains an offer to provide material compensation payments to families of the "disappeared."

Rising skepticism toward the president

The criticism of and skepticism toward Bouteflika's proposal are much more audible now than in 1999. The press often seems quite miffed – presumably not least because state control and censorship of the private newspapers have been reinforced considerably since Bouteflika came into office, and especially during the last twelve months. The reactions of the people are more reserved.

Nonetheless, a majority rejection of the proposal at the polls is not to be expected. Bouteflika can rely here not only on the consolidated propaganda power of the state media and local authorities, but also on economic arguments.

The current high price of oil on the world markets has enabled the head of state to distribute special budgets to needy regions, subsidies to patronage networks, and provide other convincing "voting arguments." Bouteflika is likely to celebrate a resounding victory on the evening of September 29th.

Bernhard Schmid

© 2005

Translated from German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

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