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Algeria: A new Model of a "Democratic" Torture State
by Lahouari Addi *and François Gèze **, Algeria-Watch, 20 July 2004
On 13 and 17 July, the French Minister for Foreign Affairs and the French Minister for Defence both paid consecutive official visits to Algiers. The aim of the visits was discreetly announced: it concerned a defence agreement between the two countries, in order to undermine the recent American economic and military breakthroughs in the ex-French colony. Beyond the historical, quasi-inexorable, rivalry between France and the United States for gaining control over oil in Algeria, competition is rising between these two great democratic states, both seeking to win the favours of an utterly anti-democratic regime, at once the symbol and model of the Arabic world hoped for by the West.
In order to understand this curious fact, it is essential to mention torture, which is generally not stated in most geopolitical analyses. Since May 2004, the international debate on torture was revived by revelations on the methods used by the American army in Iraq and Afghanistan. While supposedly defending the democratic values of their founding fathers, American soldiers in Iraq had no respect for human dignity. Since the idea of “unavoidable torture” became trivial to a large extent in the United States after 9/11, it is unsurprising that neo-conservative editor Tucker Carlson’s stated: “Torture is bad. Keep in mind, some things are worse. And in some circumstances, it may be the lesser of two evils.” (CNN, 25 October 2001). Similarly, in August 2003 the strategists of the Pentagon watched The Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo in order to study the methods, thanks to which the French ‘paras’ uncovered the FLN networks in Algiers in 1957.
However, it is largely “military Algeria” which has now become one of the sources of inspiration for the war against terror in the world, led by the United States. George W. Bush confirmed this in a message to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on the third of July, during the anniversary for Algerian Independence: “America continues to rely on Algeria as its partner in its fight against terrorism as well as in the crucial role of spreading democracy and promoting prosperity in the world.” Five months before the start of the war in Iraq, on 9 December 2002, William Burns, the American Deputy Secretary of State for the Affairs of North Africa and the Near-East, on a visit to Algiers, had already declared: “Washington has much to learn from Algeria on ways of fighting terrorism.” Since then, the French have looked on with increasing distress as the officials from the Department of State have paid frequent visits to Algiers, during which they have commended the Algerian regime, the very same regime whose perceptiveness was apparently underestimated before the attacks on 11 September 2001.
These officials however wholly realize that the efficiency with which the war against terrorists has been led since January 1992 by the Algerian generals and their political police, the DRS, is based on the implementation of a terrible and largely secret “death machine” which has been accurately described by Algeria-Watch, the human rights’ watch organization, in its striking report “Algeria: the Death Machine”.
According to Algeria-Watch, “the so-called “January” generals, with the aim of maintaining their corrupt power and wealth, […] have inflicted a brutal repression on their people using “secret war” methods devised by French officers during the Algeria Independence War (1954-1962) on a scale unprecedented in any other 20th Century civil war: death squadrons, systematic torture, kidnappings and “disappearances”, manipulation of the enemies’ strategies of war, disinformation and “psychological action”, etc.”
Algeria-Watch explains that the “generalized use of torture, rendered banal by the security forces since 1962, is in some ways at the root of the massacres which took place thirty years later, characterized by the total contempt for human life and for the bodies of the supposed enemies, considered “sub-human” whether they were Muslim or not. This absurd brutality would take on many different forms, causing tens of thousands of deaths: extrajudicial mass murders, “disappearances” which became commonplace, manipulation of Islamist violence to justify mass killings, etc.
However, what no doubt interests the Americans (and the French) most in the “Algerian model” is that its promoters have nearly succeeded in hiding the deployment of this “death machine”, still effective to this day, behind a presentable “democratic” façade. Bush, in his endeavor to solidify the “Greater Middle-East Initiative” (GME), quotes Algeria as an example of one of the “most democratic” regimes of the Arab world.
In light of the stable relations between Washington and Algiers, the GME project clearly has a double agenda: eliminate the governments from the region which are hostile to the United States and Israel and encourage sham democracies, in order to repress the people more effectively so that their protest is not heard in the West. The Neo-conservative American logic operating behind this aim is clearly the same as the one that promised to liberate the Iraqi people from their dictatorial regime. This is also the official French logic, interpreted according to its own interests, and although opposed to the American war in Iraq, still sharing its inclination for the torture/sham democracy combination desired for the Arab world.
This vision in the United States (France, due to its history, finds this more difficult to recognize) has its own theorists. University Professor Michael Levin for instance claimed that “the right of the innocents not to be killed outweighs the right of the terrorists not to be tortured” (Playboy, 1 March 2002). In the name of this ancient theory of the “lesser of two evils” – invoked during the Algerian War - the United States allow themselves to torture in Iraq while contemporaneously courting the Algerian generals, who are experts in the matter.
The regular participation of General-Major Mohammed Lamari’s, Chief of Defence staff of the Algerian army since July 1993, at the international meetings of NATO, such as the “Defense against Terrorism Summit” in Stuttgart in March 2004, is proof of this double agenda. General Lamari, head of the “fight against terror”, declared in 1994 to his men, who were fighting for the brutal annihilation of the enemy: “You won’t spend all day taking these bodies back to the Police headquarters. Just bring back their heads.” (Quoted by ex-lieutenant Habib Souaïdia in his book La Sale Guerre (The Dirty War), ed. La Découverte, 2001). The barbarity of the “Algerian model” is thus insidiously accepted as standard procedure within NATO and the US Army. The logical conclusion is therefore: torture is legitimate, even though it is not legal.
It is true however that the media and many American intellectuals have denounced the use of torture in Iraq. In France in the fifties, only very few followed in Vidal-Naquet and Sartre’s steps condemning torture in Algeria. French intellectuals are scarcely more numerous today, accusing Washington and Paris for supporting the military in Algeria, the new model of the “Democratic” state that tortures. When will this all end?
*Professor at the IEP Lyon, France.