In an interview given to Le Monde in 2010, Algerian historian Mohammed Harbi declared that “[s]ince [Algerian] independence, history is under surveillance.” Although he was speaking in the specific context of Franco-Algerian history, Harbi’s remarks have particular relevance to the decade-long civil war that claimed between 100,000 and 200,000 lives from 1992-2002, and to the history that remains silenced to this day. Algeria’s décennie noire, or dark decade as it is still called, was a theater of unfathomable violence in a nation that had been the leader of African revolutionary movements four decades earlier.
Algeria’s civil war officially began in 1992 when the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale), the ruling party of Algeria since its independence in 1962, cancelled the nation’s first multiparty elections that gave a landslide victory to the Front islamique du salut (Islamic Salvation Front) or FIS. The FIS quickly organized strikes and demonstrations that were violently repressed by the military, leading to an increasing militarization and polarization between the State and the various Islamic groups that had come to represent popular discontent. While most analysts saw an internal conflict between these two factions, no analytical framework could fully account for the atrocities that took place.
Jacob Mundy’s Imaginative Geographies of Algerian Violence offers an alternative to recent counterterrorism analyses that are born out of the Western Orientalist imagination. Placing his book in the lineage of Edward Said’s Imaginative Geography and Its Representations: Orientalizing the Oriental (1979), and within the body of critical studies that Said’s concepts gave rise to (which includes Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, among others), Mundy suggests that the counterterrorist managerialism of the post-9/11 era found some of its origins in the Algerian civil war of the 90s and is shaped by neoliberal models of conflict resolution. His thorough and eye-opening study of the Algerian civil war, one of the least understood post-Cold War conflicts of the 20th century, is not only a detailed account of the atrocities committed, but a fundamental debunking of the official counterterrorist discourse that framed the violence in the first place.
Before outlining the multitude of failures that plagued the international community’s response to the Algerian tragedy, Mundy describes in graphic detail accounts of massacres where “bodies were being dismembered and decapitated, as well as infants smashed against walls. […] Others spoke of people burned alive, pregnant women eviscerated, and a baby killed with a hatchet.” While such scenes of unimaginable violence were attributed to “Islamist factions” and to “rebels,” both by the Algerian state and by most Western media, it became increasingly clear that elements of the Algerian military had been involved.
As part of a global phenomenon of genocidal conflicts emerging in the post-Cold War era, including the genocides in Rwanda (1994), Bosnia (1992-1995), and Darfur (starting in 2003), Algeria stands apart as the crucible for the failed modes of military and humanitarian intervention that became prevalent in the post-9/11 war against terrorism. The war that ravaged Algerian society didn’t fit within any of the parameters that would have called for traditional modes of intervention, and thus acted as a testing ground for the types of strategies we now see in Libya and Syria. For Mundy, the failure to understand the roots of the violence witnessed in Algeria and across Africa and the Middle East is mainly a consequence of an apolitical, and ultimately neoliberal, approach to conflict management. This approach sees civil wars only as internal conflicts disconnected from the global context.
Mundy provides a thorough critique of how the Algerian “dark decade” has been misunderstood through traditional models of civil war analysis that stem from outdated Cold War dichotomies. He further suggests that these models constitute “imaginative geographies” that more often amplify the problems they are trying solve:
These imaginative geographies of Algerian violence have made significant contributions to the various regimes of international security that emerged after the Cold War, as well as to the insecurity that these regimes claim to address. (27)
Mundy’s fiercest critique is reserved for the prevailing managerial and development models that stem from global finance rather than diplomacy and politics. Within the current models of security and development that include the post-9/11 “War on Terrorism” and the UN’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P) policies calling for more immediate intervention of the international community in cases of mass genocides, Mundy explores a geopolitics of imagination that needs serious consideration in view of the recent intervention in Libya, the current humanitarian tragedy in Syria, and the global fight against ISIS. To this end, the various chapters of Mundy’s Imaginative Geographies take to task the language used to describe, but more often obscure, a political reality, starting with that of “civil war.”
The concept of “civil war” imposes its own set of assumptions and rules. The term was thoroughly avoided by an Algerian government in crisis that wanted to send a message of unity against those factions who were vying for influence. What differentiates a civil war from other forms of internal conflict is crudely based on statistical figures. Human Rights Watch’s casualty estimates were often well above those presented by the Algerian military and government, indicating not only divergent math but divergent interpretations of the conflict’s nature. The higher the count, the more the crisis took on genocidal proportions, calling for a whole different set of interventions from the international community. The chronic imprecision of numbers from the Algerian side was perhaps an attempt to manage the scale of international response to a conflict that was framed as internal. According to Mundy, the politics of numbers was indicative of “the anti-politics of contemporary conflict management and science” and an illustration of how definitions were operative on the very nature of the conflict.
Mundy pays particular attention to the various ways in which economic and resource-driven narratives sought to explain the crisis, from high birthrates and low employment, to rising and falling oil prices that spawned the first violent demonstrations in 1988. The economic readings of the Algerian civil war tended to operate on the basis that economic factors were instigators of power struggles, but these failed to take into account the very nature of the power being played. The same set of rules apply to the designation of “rebellion,” or “insurgency,” or “Islamic terrorists” when referring to the FIS and other armed factions that were fighting the military.
Identity politics of the 90s, largely a product of post-Cold War neoliberalism (and famously displayed in Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations), were in part responsible for framing the Algerian civil war as a conflict of identities, whether they be intertribal, state vs. Islam, internal divisions within the FLN, or the FIS and GIA (Groupe islamique armé or Armed Islamic Group) competing for power and control. While official discourse often attributed the most violent massacres to particular “rebel” or “Islamic” groups such as the GIA, it was factually impossible to prove on the ground. Most of the massacres occurred in close proximity to military facilities, suggesting involvement of the army. The GIA was considered by many informed analysts as a creation of the FLN to undermine the FIS and its popular support, a practice that the FLN had already used in its war against France. To the question Qui tue qui? (who is killing whom?) some answered: “Le terrorisme? C’est le pouvoir” (Terrorism? It’s the regime).
While the factual, cultural, historical interpretations of the Algerian dark decade fail to provide a clear picture, the events of 9/11 offered an opportunity to reframe it according to the US-led “War on Terrorism.” The Global Terrorism Database cites 2,000 terrorist events in Algeria from 1990 to 2005, “a quarter of all terrorism in the dataset for the Middle East and North Africa, and more than 5 percent of the worldwide total during that period." Yet, the perpetrators of nearly half the events listed in this dataset for Algeria were identified as “unknown.” This blatant contradiction leads Mundy to conclude that Algeria was made to represent an example of “jihadi violence” despite a lack of factual evidence, thus “unmaking what the violence actually was.”
According to Mundy, prevailing modes of humanitarian intervention—such as R2P, created by the UN after the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, post-conflict justice institutions like the ICC (International Criminal Court), and the Truth and Reconciliation committee that arbitrated the South African post-Apartheid era—are not only inadequate but represent apolitical modes of conflict resolution that serve the neoliberal world order. For example, only 10% of the victims in South Africa testified during the Truth and Reconciliation commissions, suggesting that most victims were silenced from the official narrative. The institutional failure to address and shed light on the deeper nature of post-Cold War conflicts simultaneously furthers a Western neocolonial and neoliberal hold on large parts of Africa and the world.
In 2005, the current President of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, announced the Charte pour la Paix et la Réconciliation Nationale (Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation), an agreement that pardoned those who had committed atrocities in a spirit of national amnesia. No official narrative has emerged ever since, suggesting again that Algeria’s history is “under surveillance” for geopolitical reasons that are as much internal as they are connected to the larger implication of state-sponsored terrorism. Mundy suggests that the terrible violence that we see unfolding ever since the early 90s is but a consequence of a larger “structural violence” within the current global system. As terrorism spreads, so does the reach of American drones, and of the intelligence armada that has prosecuted a war on the imagination itself after 9/11.
Kai Krienke is editor of Jean Sénac: The Sun Under the Weapons, Correspondence & Notes from Algeria (Part I & II) (Lost & Found, The CUNY Poetics Documents Initiative). He is a contributor for Warscapes, and is currently translating Sénac's correspondence with Albert Camus, to be published by Michigan State University Press. He is Assistant Professor in English at the Bard Early College program in Queens, New York.
Image via L'Express.