Le Monde: Interview with Algeria's Grand Inquisitor

Jean-Pierre Tuquoi, Le Monde's Maghreb correspondent, has the first interview in years with Ali Benhadj, the co-founder of the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS, Islamic Salvation Front). Nicknamed "The Grand Inquisitor" by his detractors, he is officially forbidden from any contact with the media since he was released from prison in mid-2003. This interview could send him back to jail. Here are a few choice quotes:

  • The regime has been illegitimate since the 1992 coup. Political pluralism does not exist and has never existed in Algeria. How can one pretend otherwise when senior army officers decide who will be head of state?... The military runs this country, and the presidency is only an annex to the ministry of defense.
  • How dare we speak of a national reconciliation when we've been living under emergency rule for 14 years? A real reconciliation must be negotiated between all concerned parties: the army, parties, civil society. In Algeria, [national reconciliation] is imposed by those who carried out the 1992 coup and only they. The torturers are presenting themselves as victims -- it's the world turned upside down. We have brothers who were tortured in prison. They the names of their torturers. But the charter forbids them from filing a complaint. It also forbids us from entering politics. But being in politics is a right guaranteed by the constitution. No one -- not the president, not military decisionmakers -- can prevent me from being involved in politics!
  • I am fighting for an Algerian Islamic state, governed by the Book -- the Quran -- and the teachings of the Prophet --the Sunna -- and his compagnons, according to the principles of 1 November 1954, the foundation of our struggle for independence. We are a Muslim people, there cannot be a contradiction as in the West. The Quran is the ultimate reference, but the people can decide.
  • In 1991, the people voted for the FIS. Why didn't the military respect their choice? ... If the army had respected the popular will, believe me, Algeria would not have known a national tragedy.
One of the most striking thing about the interview is that one gets the impression that same tensions that raged during the 1990s are there just beneath the surface. Algeria cannot go on forever being a corrupt and inefficient military dictatorship -- no matter how much oil money it has. Reading this, one gets the feeling that as soon as the generals weaken, the FIS, GIA or other groups will be waiting to restart their struggle. Hopefully it'll be in politics rather than by the sword.

Update: Judging from the emotional comments to this post and the reaction in the Algerian press, a lot of people are pissed off with Le Monde for giving a platform to Benhadj. L'Expression fumes that he hasn't changed his line one bit and reminds its readers that he approved the kidnapping of Algerian diplomats in Iraq. Liberté notes that

"with the media ban on the question "who killed who?", the law for reconciliation took the precaution of preventing reminders of the facts by Algerian media and historians. What was not taken into account is the availability of foreign media when it comes to displaying the hideous scarecrow and target a regime that is much more forbidding with local journalists. Today -- oh the irony -- Benhadj violates this legal omerta and brandishes the principle of justice... That the extremist-in-chief allows himself to use themes such as the need for memory and justice shows the extent of the moral desert contained within the notion of reconciliation."
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.