Algeria. Tortured, bleeding, nightmare Algeria. This week, brought yet more brutal murders, decapitations, slit throats and car bombs. In the last five years, 60,000 to 100,000 of its 28 million people have died in this forgotten civil war. The world ignores Algeria's agonies. But I cannot.
I was present at Algeria's birth. After eight years of savage struggle against French colonial rule, Algeria won independence - at the cost of nearly one million lives. Filled with youthful passion against injustice, I ran messages between Geneva and Paris for the Algerian resistance, the FLN, organized student demonstrations, and wrote articles demanding free Algeria. `La Main Rouge,' a group of shadowy killers that was a front for French intelligence - hunted me and threatened my life.
No matter, The fight for free Algeria seemed a noble cause. But, as was observed of Danton, `The Revolution... devours its own young.' Once the French were ousted, Algeria's leaders turned on each other. The heros of the jihad, like Ben Bella and Belkasim Krim, ended up poisoned, jailed, shot, strangled or exiled - by their brothers in arms. For me, it was a bitter lesson in the ways of the world.
Algeria has been misruled, since independence in 1962, by juntas of army officers, under a ruinous system of state socialism. Algeria's oil and gas wealth could not keep up with soaring population and it slide into poverty. Faced with chronic high unemployment, no prospects of jobs, massive government corruption, and brutal political repression, Algerians embraced newly formed moderate Islamic parties, notably the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) that called for social justice, public morality, and an end to pervasive French influence.
Algeria's demoralized military rulers allowed the nation's first free vote in 1992. The FIS and other Islamic groups won a landslide victory. Urged on by France, which gives the military junta US $1 billion annually, the generals annulled the elections and declared marshall law. The United States and Europe, who loudly demand free elections in places like China or Burma, backed the regime's crushing of free elections. The west didn't want an Islamic government in Algeria.
This caused a savage civil war to erupt between Islamic resistance groups - some moderate, some fanatics- and the government. It has been a filthy, 5-year war, marked by widescale torture, mass killings, reprisals, informers, assassinations and gangsterism. Islamic groups battle among themselves. So has the junta, which even assassinated its own figurehead president.
Behind this chaotic slaughter is a struggle that grips much of the Mideast. France seized Algeria in 1830, imposing French language and culture on an ancient Islamic society. Algeria was considered an integral part of France, like Brittany.
When colonial rule finally ended in 1962, a generation of Algerians came to power who had been brought up, educated and trained as Frenchmen. The looked like Arabs and were Muslims, but they thought, spoke and acted French, a westernized elite utterly alienated from the sullen Islamic masses. These `brown Frenchmen' acted as surrogates, or overseers, for their former colonial rulers. In return, they were allowed to sucked up the nation's wealth - a phenomena found throughout post-colonial Africa and the Mideast.
Traditional Islamic values and culture were discredited and supplanted. Westernization - marxism, consumerism, socialism and American media culture - flooded North Africa. leaving its deracinated people with deep feelings of cultural confusion, inferiority, and worthlessness.
Today, Algeria's split personalities are at war, as those who want to return and find rebirth - or just solid ground - in the nation's traditional Islamic roots battle to the death against the Europeanized elite.
France plays a central role in this struggle by providing money, arms, intelligence and diplomatic support to the military junta, led by President Liamine Zeroual. Paris is determined to maintain its hold over Algeria's oil and gas, and to block any popular Islamic government that might inflame the millions of downtrodden Muslims in France's industrial slums. Maintaining control of Algeria through proxy rulers is an essential part of France's strategy to retain its discreet, neo-colonial empire in West Africa and the Sahara.
Free elections and human rights may be fine for some nations, but not Arabic-speaking ones. France keeps authoritarian regimes in power in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Chad. The US enforces autocracy from Egypt to the Gulf. President Clinton wrings his hands about lack of democracy in China or Haiti, but says nothing about free elections in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. Democracy is for those without natural resources.
Meanwhile, Algeria bleeds to death as atrocity follows atrocity. A conflict between Arabs and Berbers, promoted in part by French intelligence, seems set to explode. The military promises elections but keeps tightening the screws.
The only solution for Algeria is free, internationally- supervised elections. These will almost certainly be won by Islamic parties. The west must accept this. Better moderate Islamists committed to social justice and public morality than wildmen from extremist, xenophobic factions - or more murderous, thieving, generals.
France bears a heavy responsibility for the continuation of the barbarity and slaughter in Algeria, as Lionel Jospin, leader of France's Socialist Party, so rightly said this week.
It's time for France, the Mother of Liberty, to set Algeria free.
[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada.]