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'L'algerie en 1995 - La Guerre, l'histoire, la politique.'

Reviewed by Yahia H. Zoubir

The period 1994-1995 in Algeria was marked by an extraordinary level of violence that led to the deaths of thousands of Algerians, mostly civilians. Far from being a journalistic account of the events that occurred in that period, the Algerian-born French historian, Benjamin Stora, provides an analysis that seeks to explicate current developments from a historical perspective. From the onset, he rejects the commonly accepted view that Algeria's history begins with the FLN (p. 14), an interpretation which made the war of liberation the focal point of history. The result, he writes, is that both the opposition and the regime seek to legitimize their existence in relation to the wartime Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), 1954-62. In Stora's view, the fixation with this epoch has been such that all other major events that preceded 1954 have been deleted from Algerians' collective memory. He argues that all transmitted history was focused almost exclusively on nationalism, legitimized essentially by the war against France (p. 16).

In this study, Stora offers a thorough analytical survey of the situation that prevailed in Algeria until mid-1995. But although he might be faulted for having tried to cover too many aspects of this crisis, thus leaving many questions unanswered, Stora provides an interesting explanation for the violence which dominated the country.

Again, he sought the origin of the recent violence in the history of the nationalist movement. From his perspective, today's recourse to violence in Algeria finds its roots primarily in the regime's glorification of the war against France, for "the memory of the war of independence is transmitted in an exaggerated, legendary, heroic fashion, according to a central theme: France was defeated militarily, beaten with weapons" (p. 24), thus concealing the fact that other political means were at play. Stora concedes, however, that Algeria's history of violence began with the country's encounter with France in the 1830s (pp. 24-5). Algerian victims of France's violence turned this very same violence against the French to free the country. Unfortunately, the nationalist movement itself was characterized by violence which was used among "brothers" to eliminate ideological opponents and groups (p. 56). Stora argues that the recourse to such violence in this case was due to the "depersonalization" caused by the colonial system. The violence used by the colonial system was absorbed and compressed by the authoritarian state which was erected in the post-colonial period (p. 57). The Algerian state's resort to violence (assassination of political opponents, depriving citizens of their liberties), led to counter-violence against the state. The most catastrophic example was the massive social explosion in October 1988. Stora argues that this is a classical phenomenon in one-party authoritarian regimes: "If a society does not have intermediary bodies and systems of representation-mediation (parties, unions, associations...) to express themselves, violence will erupt" (p. 57). Stora makes the point that today's Islamists, the major organized opposition force to the regime, have wrongly interpreted the Algerian war of independence in religious terms, i.e., as a Jihad (religious war). But, again, he blames the FLN for this state of affairs, for the wartime movement used religious symbols to mobilize the population against the French (e.g., banning of alcohol and tobacco in the name of Islam). In his view, in the areas they control today, the Islamists have reproduced the same model and added the mandatory wearing of the veil for women (p. 54). Undoubtedly, Stora provides a credible explanation for the origins of violence in Algeria, although he fails to mention that the violence used by the Algerian state is different in nature and with no common measure with that used by the colonial system against Algerians.

Hegel once said that great, world-historical events and individuals occur twice. In The 18th Brumarie of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx remarked that Hegel forgot to add: "The first time as tragedy, the second as farce." One is surprised that a historian of Stora's caliber, who, incidentally, cited a passage from Marx's same text, would succumb to the prevalent simplistic analogy between the Algerian war of independence and the current situation in Algeria. Stora insists that, although tempting, comparisons between two periods can be misleading (p. 37); yet, he devotes twenty-eight pages, in addition to many references throughout the book, drawing (mostly) the similarities, and differences, between the period 1954-1962 and the period since the interruption of the electoral process in January 1992. One cannot doubt that similarities exist between the two eras, but the utility for such an exercise in highlighting them is rather minimal, for it tends to overshadow, and justify in the eyes of some, the brutality of the colonial period. Stora himself denounces the nostalgic French who secretly rejoice to see a second Algerian war (p. 42). But, again, why this obsession of French intellectuals to drawing parallels between the two periods? It is not until the last part of the book that Stora provides a short, but sound, autopsy to explain the multifaceted reasons which have led to the current crisis: socio-economic difficulties; the decomposition of the welfare state; political illegitimacy; the absence of genuine democratic forces; etc. Toward the end of his essay, Stora explains that a military solution in Algeria is impossible and that a political process is inevitable, especially one that includes the three main forces in the country: the FLN, representative of Arab nationalism; the FIS which represents Islam [an absurd affirmation]; and the FFS, representative of Berberity [another preposterous assertion]. Each of these three, according to Stora, represents in its own way heavy, historical trends of the Nation and of society (p.105). And, because the democratic pole for historical reasons continues to be weak, it is within these three forces that the solution to Algeria's crisis ought to be sought. There is no doubt that Stora saw the Sant'Edigio meeting between various opposition parties, including the FIS, as a potential solution to the crisis. However, following the presidential elections on 16 November 1995, which took place after this book was published, and the victory of the state's candidate, former General Liamine Zeroual, the situation in Algeria has taken on yet another momentum.

This is a very readable essay; but, various points made throughout the book could mislead readers who do not possess a sound knowledge of Algeria's past and current history. Whereas Stora had a good grasp of the former, his interpretations of the latter is in many respects quite questionable.

Yahia H. Zoubir is an associate professor of international studies at Thunderbird, The American Graduate School of International Studies, Glendale, Arizona.
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Author:Zoubir, Yahia H.
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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