Extension of Deadline Not Ruled Out

The end of August marked the expiration of the period during which radical Islamists in Algeria could lay down their weapons and take advantage of the offer of amnesty. Few fighters have responded to the offer to date. Bernhard Schmid reports on why

Algiers - the white city (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Political debate in Algeria has increasingly been stifled by the more and more powerful ruling elite, writes Bernhard Schmid

​​There is one question that is currently preoccupying Algeria's politically active class: What is going to become of the offer of amnesty to radical Islamists still hiding in the underground who are willing to surrender their weapons?

A law that went into effect this year on February 28 provided for amnesty – but limited the offer to a six-month period. Islamists still armed and fighting would have had to lay down their arms before August 31 to fall under the amnesty provision.

Thereafter, the government planned to send the police and army into the mountain hideouts east of Algiers to drive out the "recalcitrants."

The same thing happened following the "great" amnesty act of July 1999, as a consequence of which – at the end of the "hot" phase of the Algerian Civil War - over 6,000 armed Islamists agreed to a ceasefire. Starting in 2000, the carrot-and-stick principle allowed the Algerian government to regain control over large stretches of the country.

Sobering results

The outcome of this year's amnesty initiative seem to be much more modest. To be sure, there are far fewer armed Islamists in Algeria today than at the beginning of the decade.

Their number was estimated a year ago at around 1,000. Nevertheless, many Algerian politicians and observers view the outcome of the recent amnesty act as disappointing.

Taking (preliminary) stock of the situation at the end of August, after the six months had elapsed, the Algerians counted 250 radical Islamists who had laid down their weapons. 800 armed Islamists remain underground, however. Most of them belong to the "Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat," or GSPC.

Algeria's Minister of the Interior Yazid Zerhouni (photo: AP)
The clemency of the Interior Minister - Yazid Zerhouni signaled former Islamist fighters who committed murders might walk free

​​For the record, Minister of the Interior Yazid Zerhouni told the Algerian press on September 3 that the security forces had "killed or captured 500 terrorists" in a single year.

These figures don't only mean, though, that the majority of the Islamists still fighting underground have no desire to quit. They are above all a sign that these groups are still able to recruit new combatants among their countrymen.

After all, the total of those who have surrendered, are still fighting or have been killed is higher than the number of Islamists underground cited a year ago.

Armed attacks

Meanwhile, the hard core of remaining underground Islamists has carried out a series of armed attacks in recent days to make it perfectly clear that they have no intention of giving up.

On the evening of August 29, shortly before the official expiration of the amnesty deadline, two policemen and a shop-owner were killed in a shootout with the GSPC in downtown El-Kseur (near Béjaïa).

On September 6, a bombing attack targeting the head of the security forces in Beni Douala, a town near the district capital of Tizi-Ouzou, was foiled. That very same day, in the Tizi-Ouzou city center, two alleged armed Islamists were shot and killed.

Ideological vacuum

One of the reasons behind the relatively modest success of the amnesty initiative is presumably the ideological vacuum that prevails outside the Islamist groups.

With the improvement of the economic situation in Algeria brought by rising crude oil prices, many people are simply concentrating on taking care of business. Political debates are rare, having largely been silenced by increasing pressure from the strong presidential regime.

Apart from Islamism, there seem to be few political alternatives capable of attracting an enthusiastic following, and Islamism itself has been discredited as well in the eyes of many Algerians due to the bloody crimes perpetrated in the 1990s. At the moment, there is no other utopia ready to take its place.

This is joined by the fact that social prospects are hardly very promising for those who have disavowed their Islamist past – even though, thanks to generous state support, some of the former chiefs can look forward to enjoying a good social standing or even a business career.

For example, the head of the "Islamic Salvation Front" (AIS), Madani Mezrag, launched a new brand of mineral water called Texanna. Texanna is the name of the town in northeast Algeria, inland from the coast city of Jijel, where the East Algerian headquarters of the AIS was located until 1999.

But many of the rank and file of the former armed groups now find themselves among society's losers. Their occupational (re)integration is difficult.

Extension of the deadline for Islamists?

In order to help the latest amnesty initiative out of its apparent dead-end, major portions of Algeria's political class have begun to demand an extension (either limited or unlimited) of the deadline for taking advantage of the offer.

The head of the "National Liberation Front" (FLN), Abdelaziz Belkhadem, who was nominated as Prime Minister in early summer and is categorized as a conservative Islamic nationalist, was responsible for launching this debate, in August. Many Algerian establishment forces then joined in.

Algeria's president Abdalaziz Bouteflika (photo: AP)
So far, Algeria's president Abdalaziz Bouteflika has not explicitly commented on whether the amnesty will be prolonged

​​The national organization of veterans of the war of independence and their relatives, a powerful lobbying group, was one of the associations advocating the idea. A similar opinion was voiced by the legal Islamist parties, which are regarded as relatively moderate, such as the "National Reform Movement," MRN.

Whether the deadline will actually be extended or not remains to be seen. On September 4, in his first appearance after a mysterious absence from the public spotlight of several weeks – possibly due to illness - President Abdelaziz Bouteflika reserved comment.

But his Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni had given a public indication the day before that there was still a chance for amnesty. "If someone wants to turn himself in, should we tell him: 'No, go back underground?'"

This comment didn't represent a direct confirmation, but clearly signaled that former Islamist fighters will continue to fall under the amnesty act.

Bernhard Schmid

© Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida


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