IRI President Testifies on Algeria’s Struggle Against Terrorism

“Algeria’s Struggle Against Terrorism”
Testimony before the House Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation

Lorne W. Craner
International Republican Institute

Mr. Chairman, members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today.  It is a great pleasure to appear before you in my first hearing since leaving the State Department last August.

Mr. Chairman, I want to give you special thanks for all you have done to advance human rights and democracy around the world, particularly on the African continent.  I look forward to continuing to work with you in the future.

I am not, as you know, an expert on Algeria.  What I can offer is a comparative perspective on the advances in Algeria’s democratization and human rights versus other nations in the region and elsewhere.  Given Algeria’s recent history, and its critical role as an ally in the war on terror, I also have some thoughts on weighing our interests in the relationship, an issue I spent much time on at the State Department in the years after 9/11.

A friend of mine who lives in North Africa recently noted that Algeria lies between Morocco and Tunisia, and he wasn’t talking only about geography.  Morocco has for some years, including before 9/11, been liberalizing its political system, and is today regarded as a leader in the Arab world in making progress on human rights and democracy.  By contrast, Tunisia, which has made great advances over the past few decades in economic reforms and the rights of women can fairly be said to fall in a category with other politically repressive states in the Middle East.  In between lies Algeria.

I visited Algeria in January 2004, when I was still with the State Department.  My trip followed that of Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region in December 2003 during which he emphasized issues of democratic reform in keeping with President Bush’s new policies towards the Middle East.  I spent time with a range of people, from government and opposition leaders to journalists and families of the disappeared from both sides in the country’s conflict.

Anyone who thinks of Algeria as it was in the 1990s should visit, for the country is a very different place.

Anyone who thinks of Algeria as it was in the 1990s should visit, for the country is a very different place.  The country’s bloody civil war, which the government recently stated cost 150,000 lives, is now all but over.  Political parties, some very critical of the government, are allowed to exist.  At the time I visited, elections that were expected to be among the more open in the Arab world were being planned.  Algeria’s military had vowed to stay out of the country’s elections, a major issue in past balloting.  The press was, at the time of my visit, perhaps the most free-ranging in the Middle East and North Africa.  My visit, and my comments during a press conference that lasted almost an hour at the end of my trip, were widely reported within Algeria in a manner ranging from sober to inaccurate – an encouraging sign for one used to press reporting in our own democracy.

During that press conference, I commended the Algerian government for ending terrorist violence in the country.  As recently as the beginning of this decade, thousands were still being killed in the conflict.  Although there is still violence (last week, for example, four Algerian soldiers were killed in an ambush by an Al Qaeda aligned group, the Salafist Group) Algerians talked during my trip about how much safer they felt, and how as a result their ability to travel in and between cities has greatly improved.  Looking forward, I talked during the press conference about our common interests and extensive cooperation in the war on terror.  I also noted some movement to liberalize the economy, and talked about the potential for increased U.S. – Algerian trade.

I said during my January 25, 2004 press conference that, with an international spotlight on Presidential elections in April 2004, Algeria had the opportunity to show the world that it had “moved beyond the 1990s and is well on the path to joining the growing number of democracies around the world.”  I then listed a number of shortcomings in the period before the elections that, given world standards, could call the legitimacy of the process into question.  I was particularly concerned about the very uneven coverage of the government and opposition candidates on state-controlled television.  Portions of the country’s State of Emergency law impeded legitimate political expression, such as demonstrations.  Given greatly reduced violence, I questioned the need for continuation of that law.  While noting how open the press was, I condemned the generally increased harassment of journalists through fines, mainly for reporting on the country’s politics.  I also answered a number of questions regarding controversies over efforts to resolve thousands of “disappearances” from the civil war.

In the weeks before the election, during the official campaign period, state controlled television offered greatly improved coverage of the political opposition.  The election itself was, according to Bruce George, the leader of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s observer delegation, “not a perfect election but by the region’s standards it was excellent.”

Algeria’s state of emergency remains in effect; its termination has become a factor in political discussions of a recent government-proposed amnesty.  Harassment of the press escalated after the elections, with journalists now being imprisoned for terms from two to 24 months, closure or suspension of two newspapers, and more self-censorship by the press.

A number of Arab governments have offered as an explanation for repression that they are all that stands between violent Islamic fundamentalists and the Presidential palace.  The government of Algeria has a more honest assessment of political opposition figures in its country, differentiating them from terrorists, but it also clearly has some way to go in allowing the loyal opposition to act freely.

The International Republican Institute (IRI) has been working in the Middle East and North Africa since the early 1990s, and our activities were greatly expanded by President Bush’s new policies toward the region.  In July 2004, IRI organized the second in a series of Partners in Participation (PiP) women’s campaign training programs designed to enhance the skills of emerging women political leaders through training in campaign planning, message development and outreach.  Held in Tunis, and supported by the Middle East Partnership Initiative, the school brought together 60 women from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.

The Algerian group consisted of 14 women selected based on their leadership roles as journalists, political party activists, business leaders and non-governmental activists.  In addition to skills training the forum provided an excellent networking opportunity for the participants.

IRI is currently launching an interactive website for the PiP program that will serve as an online resource for civic and political participation materials and will facilitate ongoing networking between women leaders in the region.  We are looking for opportunities to expand our work in Algeria.  I do want to take this opportunity to commend to you the program of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Algeria, headed by the extremely capable Julie Denham; I know my NDI colleague Les Campbell will be telling you more.

Cooperation on Terrorism

Algeria has been very cooperative with the United States in the Global War on Terror.  Given the nature of the country’s civil war, Algeria was a magnet for violent Islamic fundamentalists long before 9/11.  One need only read the background of a fair number of terrorists being captured today to understand that many were participants in that conflict.  The Algerian government naturally had much useful information to share with us after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

As America pursues Osama Bin Laden and his henchmen, I think two pertinent questions are raised in considering Algeria’s struggle against terrorism.  The first is the methodology used by the government in the conflict.  There can be no question that the terrorists in Algeria were by far the most brutal side during the conflict.  But I don’t think any of us would advocate copying wholesale the government’s methodology during their internal war against the terrorists.

While on its face militarily successful, the conduct of the war, replete with disappearances, leaves a great many issues like those that have been faced elsewhere after other “dirty wars.”  Algerian society will suffer for years from the yet unresolved effects of the disappearances. Algeria’s government should be commended for beginning to face up to this issue even before the conflict’s conclusion – countries in Latin America waited at least a decade before trying various instruments of truth and reconciliation.  The willingness to establish in 2003 a reconciliation mechanism, recent efforts to improve it, and a proposal by the government last month of amnesty should be praised.  The conflicts over the current reconciliation mechanism – which appears to be satisfying neither the families of disappeared civilians, government soldiers or terrorists – point to the need for further modifications to bind emotions stirred by the conduct of the war.

In terms of positive lessons to be learned from the Algerian experience, it is worth noting that, as in Central America, South Africa, and most recently Afghanistan (and I believe Iraq) support for violent opposition can be lessened by affording people an alternative opportunity to express their views, namely the opportunity to participate in democratic elections.

A second, broader question is the matter I referred to in the beginning of my testimony: how we should weigh the issues of security versus human rights in dealing with Algiers.  Given our common security interests, we would be better off continuing the longstanding pre-9/11 U.S. policy of hardly raising such issues in the Middle East[1], argue some.

Based on my experience at the State Department, including work with Ambassador to Algeria Dick Erdman, Assistant Secretary William Burns, Counterterrorism Coordinator Cofer Black and others, I believe we can advance both our security and human rights interests concurrently.  I would also argue that in the long run working to foster democracy and human rights in Algeria will advance our security goals.

First, cooperation on terrorism is in Algeria’s best interest, and will therefore be pursued whether or not other issues are raised in the relationship.  America’s reach is much longer than Algeria’s; many of the terrorists brought to justice in Afghanistan or Indonesia might otherwise one day have returned to Algeria.

Second, opening up the political system will give a peaceful outlet to those dissatisfied with the current status quo.  As I noted above, instead of being driven to more radical means to express their opinions, they should be offered the opportunity to express them in an increasingly democratic political system.  Democracies are certainly not immune from terrorism, and can even produce terrorists, but for every Timothy McVeigh there are hundreds of Khalid Shaikh Mohammeds and Mohammad Atefs raised in dictatorships.  (It is instructive that of the FBI’s 25 “most wanted” terrorists after 9/11, none was raised in a democracy.)

Third, in the long-run, it is clear that Algeria’s political system is beginning to open up.  If only for pragmatic reasons, it would be a mistake for us to fail to back democrats who will one day come to power in Algeria, just as we would have been mistaken to ignore democrats in Chile, South Korea, the Soviet Union, Georgia and Ukraine over the last two decades.

In sum, it is clear to me that Algeria has progressed much further than most other nations in the Arab world in democratic practices.  It still has a distance to cover in overcoming the legacy of its conflict, and in meeting what over the last two decades have become world standards of democracy and human rights.  With continued progress on these issues, the United States and Algeria should be good partners in the war on terror and be able to broaden other aspects of our relationship. That concludes my statement.  I would be happy to answer any questions you have.

[1] According to the Human Rights Watch 2001 World Report, for example, the then-Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, visiting Algeria less than a year before 9/11, made “public remarks about local conditions [that] were general and brief.”  The 1990 Human Rights Watch Report noted that, aside from the annual State Department Human Rights Reports, “the Bush administration made no public comment on human rights matters in Algeria, either to note commendable efforts at reform or to express concern over ongoing abuses.”
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