Hardly one week passes without scores of Algerians being killed. The ongoing Algerian civil war, pitting nationalist and secular government forces against Islamists, has claimed 80,000 lives since it began in 1992. "Not only do we know the identity of the dead but we know who the killers are as well," said the Algerian novelist Wassini al-Araj recently, referring to the Islamist groups that have claimed responsibility for the massacres of civilians.
It is true that most of the killings are the work of the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Arme or GIA), which sprang from the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut or FIS). But an increasing body of evidence is pointing to another hidden hand on the gun--that of the government's security forces and some of its backed militias, which use the violence of the Islamists to mask another agenda. The nationalists, led by the National Liberation Front (NLF), came to power in 1962 after winning the war for independence against France. But their rule was authoritarian, benefiting a narrow state bureaucracy. Deteriorating social and economic conditions, coupled with repression, paved the way for a popular uprising against the NLF in 1988, during which 150 to 300 youths died.
For a moment, the uprising appeared to shine a new dawn over Algeria, producing a new constitution--popularly approved in 1989--giving the people the right to form political parties and enjoy individual freedoms, like the right to strike. But the constitution's true test did not come until the June 1990 local elections, the freest in Algeria's modern history. The FIS was the major winner, garnering 65 percent of the popular vote. When a repeat showing appeared imminent as the 1992 legislative election neared, the government moved to cancel the election, triggering the current relentless cycle of bloodshed.
The FIS had put its faith in the electoral process, only to be robbed of victory. This seemed to leave the gun as the only means to effect change. The resulting civil war continued unabated through the rise to power of Algeria's current president, retired general Liamine Zeroual, who in 1996 pushed through a repressive new constitution banning any parties based on religion. Unexpectedly, Zeroual has called for early presidential elections in April 1999, thus cutting his term of office some twenty-one months short. The official line is that the election is a step toward democracy. However, at this writing, few find...