Reviewed by Michael Mewshaw
Sunday, March 30, 2008
Anger of the Dispossessed
By Martin Evans and John Phillips
Yale Univ. 352 pp. $35
As the occupation of Iraq began to unravel in 2003, the State Department and the Pentagon reportedly screened "The Battle of Algiers" for their employees. While this fictionalized, 40-year-old docudrama about Algeria's struggle for independence might offer some insights into Islamic insurgencies, true understanding of the currents that have convulsed the Islamic world requires the kind of analysis that distinguishes Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed. The product of extensive research and courageous reporting, this book combines the best efforts of an academic, Martin Evans, and a journalist, John Phillips, both of whom have many years of experience in North Africa.
Like Iraq, Algeria was largely the creation of colonizing Europeans. On the flimsiest pretext, France invaded in 1830 and imposed its language, laws and tax system. Any resistance to this "civilizing mission" was viewed as an excuse for merciless punishment and military expansion deeper into the mineral-rich Sahara. By the end of the 19th century, the indigenous people were utterly disenfranchised, Algeria had become a d¿partement of France, and the largest cities and best land were flooded with European settlers. With all the obligations and none of the privileges of citizenship, Algerians served loyally in both world wars. But after 1945, when the French refused to grant them greater autonomy, insurrection spread and turned into open warfare in 1954.
Viewing Algeria's National Liberation Front (NLF) as a terrorist organization, France resorted to systematic torture -- waterboarding was a frequent method -- as the most effective way of dealing with people it considered fanatics. Even Nobel laureate Albert Camus couldn't countenance handing the country over to the Algerians. More than matching France's cruelty, the NLF inflicted unspeakable atrocities on the French as well as on Algerians who sided with the colonizers. To the NLF, violence was not so much a military tactic as a cathartic assertion of identity.
After France capitulated in 1962, newly independent Algeria became the darling of the non-aligned world, theoretically egalitarian and socialist. In fact, as Evans and Phillips show in meticulous detail, it was riven by coups, counter-coups, assassinations and bloody reprisals against collaborators. Algerians who had remained loyal to the French were slaughtered by the thousands. The NLF claimed an inherent, ongoing right to rule, but the authoritarian and anti-democratic regime was also spectacularly inefficient and kleptocratic. Soon dependent on France for financial aid, Algeria became another economic basket-case bailed out by the International Monetary Fund. This didn't, however, prevent an entrenched oligarchy from amassing fortunes through kickbacks from oil and gas deals.
By the 1980s, former NLF combatants questioned whether the war had been a ruse to allow a few generals to seize power. With unemployment rising and essential services in short supply, people took to the streets. As Evans and Phillips describe it, the situation replicated the conditions that preceded the rebellion against France -- only now the Algerian government was in the role of oppressor, while a miscellany of disaffected women, disenfranchised Berbers and Islamic fundamentalists demanded recognition. In desperation, the government called elections. When it became clear that the fundamentalists would win, there was a military putsch. The nation spiraled into chaos as terrorists, state provocateurs and government death squads reduced the countryside to a killing zone. An estimated 200,000 people were killed from 1992 to 2002, and, as recent bombings in Algiers demonstrate, the savagery continues.
In chronicling this violence and the racial, religious and tribal frictions that still plague Algeria, the authors provide an implicit warning about what may happen in Iraq. Indeed, the question that hovers over much of this book is: What kind of audacity or arrogance leads another state to try to impose its will, much less its political system, on such chaos?
The darkest irony, Evans and Phillips conclude, is that only 9/11 prevented Algeria from falling into a worse cataclysm. Spotting an opportunity, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika flew to Washington and convinced the Bush administration that he stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the war on terror. That his regime had sponsored terrorism and tortured its own citizens -- using the French technique of waterboarding and adding blowtorches for good measure -- slipped down the memory hole. Money, military advisers and political support floated in from Washington on bilious clouds of self-delusion, and U.S. officials blessed Algeria as "the most democratic" Arab nation.
In its 50-year quest for a national identity, Algeria, like Iraq and Afghanistan, has passed from colonialism to revolution to socialism to Islamic insurgency. Now it is said to be our partner in combating terrorism. But, as this chilling and important book makes clear, it remains a country controlled by unelected men who have left most of the population disinherited and at continuing risk of political violence. *
Michael Mewshaw, author of 10 novels and seven works of nonfiction, is writing a book about North Africa.