Algerian Spotlight 3 While reforms sweep across the region, Algeria is trying to manage the fallout from its brutal recent history, which has left various factions grappling for the government's attention.
No Arab Spring for Algeria, only scars of the past
BLIDA // Mohammed Zermane remembers one night in 1997 when he and his squad of militia volunteers "hunted terrorists" among the now blossoming orange groves between the village of Soumaa and the town of Blida, about 45 kilometres south of Algeria's capital.
"We were called in from Soumaa because the terrorists had taken a family hostage in a house nearby," recalled Mr Zermane. "We killed three terrorists, two right away and one the next day after we tracked the blood through the grove. That is what we did, the Patriots."
The violence of Algeria's recent past, which is continuing at a lower level today, is offered up most often as the explanation for why the country has remained relatively calm at a time when unrest is rocking the Arab world. From 1991 to 2001 a vicious fight between the state and several militant fundamentalist groups tore apart society.
Often called a civil war but, in reality, more like a series of tit-for-tat massacres, assassinations and bombings, the violence cost the lives of up to 200,000 people and left deep scars in the memories of Mr Zermane and other Algerians. It has bequeathed to the country a stark warning of where renewed unrest could lead but it also left a lingering resentment.
"We are glad that the fighting is over but we want peace with justice," said Mr Zermane. The loosely organised militia that he served in, the Patriots, claims to have played an important role in the eventual defeat of the fundamentalists, providing local knowledge and support to the army and police.
Recently the Patriots as well as another militia, the Communal Guards, have been demanding benefits and pensions that they consider due them from the state. In March and early April they were among the most vocal and numerous of the many social groups that were out in the street clamouring for handouts.
In Algeria, the Arab spring has translated itself mostly into a push for economic and social demands. Those waiting for government housing are demonstrating at the ministry of housing, teaching assistants demanding contracts are herded together on a corner opposite the president's office and the Patriots used to mass in downtown's Martyr's Square, until it was fenced off mid-April, ostensibly for renovations.
"Many social groups think the state is weak and will give in easily," acknowledges Seddik Chihheb, vice-president of the lower house of parliament and a senior official in the prime minister's RND party. "Thank God that we can afford to meet the demands at the moment, thanks to our comfortable economic position and the high petrol prices. We say social peace knows no price."
The Communal Guards, who mainly protested against their sacking by the ministry of interior, suspended their demonstrations mid-April after a secret deal with the government. But the Patriots, who were a much less regulated militia and who only received intermittent compensation, are keeping up their protests.
The government is caught in a somewhat awkward bind in dealing with the former militias.
It still uses the memories of the violence and the fear of another fundamentalist attempt at power to justify its rule. But it can hardly claim that the militias, which it presents as heroes of that fight, want to undermine the position of the state.
Mr Chihheb is circumspect in discussing their case, saying that he supports the militias' demands. "Algeria will never forget them and has already given a lot." But he cannot completely hide his irritation. "Among us it's normal always to feel hard done by, like we are the damned of the earth. But that's crazy in this case," he said.
Someone else who may feel slightly hard done by is Aboudjerra Soltani, the leader of the Islamic HMP party in parliament and a loyal coalition partner of Mr Chihheb's RND and the large independence party, the FLN.
The HMP, popularly referred to as Hamas, is aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood and was opposed to the violent campaign by the much more radical Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which won the 1991 elections that were then annulled by the state, sparking the civil war.
The HMP, despite its deeply Islamic roots, remained a legal political party throughout and even ended up as part of the governing coalition since 1997. Yet, it recognises that the deck is stacked against it because of the association by voters, pushed by the authorities, between Islam and violence.
Rather than forever being a small coalition partner, the HMP, possibly joined by other Islamic parties, might do better in totally free elections, Mr Soltani said. "If they don't scare the people with Islamism and terrorism, et cetera, we may have quite a good outcome, maybe not the majority but it will be interesting," he said.
Such talk is still anathema to the large swath of Algerian society that fought to keep out the fundamentalists, including the militias and the many victims of the conflict. Many see themselves as having lost out when the state and the fundamentalists effectively came to an understanding.
"A lot of people would like to promote amnesia," said Cherifa Kheddar, chairwoman of the victims' association in Blida. She lost a brother and a sister when what she says was a band of fundamentalists attacked their home in 1996.
Blida and the surrounding countryside are dotted with the reminders of loss, often entire farmsteads such as the shell of Mohammed Ferhah's ancestral home in Bouinan forest. Its fire-streaked remains testify to that one night in September 1997 when 15 members of his family were killed. Because property and insurance papers also went up in flames, he has never received compensation.
The victims and their families are now mostly regarded as "an inconvenience" by all concerned, she said. Mrs Kheddar does not doubt that the militias such as the Patriots deserve some benefits but she has limited sympathy for their demands.
"They did it mostly for themselves. They defended their homes," she insisted. At the very least, the victims too deserve compensation and especially government support for their physical and psychological problems, she said. "But we are not as organised. Nobody even knows how many victims there are. We are much easier to ignore."