Algerians vote in futile poll on 'day of shame'

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The Independent Online

How well they would go together. How much the Algerians, victors of a slaughter-filled eight-year war of independence against France – estimated dead: one and a half million – deserve democracy.

How well they would go together. How much the Algerians, victors of a slaughter-filled eight-year war of independence against France – estimated dead: one and a half million – deserve democracy.

But today they will head off to the polls again, far too few of them, to elect a parliament with as little credibility as the last one and with a government as immune from human rights prosecution as all of them have been since the 1992 cancellation of elections, which Islamists were sure to have won.

Poor old Algerians, we always say. They inherited the worst characteristics of their ancient nation – tribalism and division – and the worst characteristics of their former French colonial masters – corruption, deception and torture. And today's elections are being held with a boycott by the Kabylie Berber people, some of the toughest fighters against the French, who call this a "day of shame".

Indeed, the Berber revolt, not to mention their refusal to vote, is arguably more damaging to Algeria than the 10-year war against the Islamists that has cost the lives of perhaps 200,000 people.

The Berbers comprise five million of Algeria's 31 million population. Their steady diminution in the body politic, their cultural isolation, the previous government's refusal to acknowledge the Berber tongue, Tamazight, as an Algerian language helped to fuel a revolution that was provoked by the death of a Berber teenager in police custody at Tizi Ouzou and led to the killing of 100 others in civil unrest.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the latest of Algeria's "last hopes", has, of course, told the electorate that today's vote will help to install democracy. In the words of his foreign minister, Abdelaziz Belkhadem, it will "allow the emergence of a democratic system respectful of human rights, freedom of speech and political pluralism".

Why the last election in 1997, widely regarded as fraudulent, did not promise the same thing, was unexplained. Nor why the government, under the shadow of the all-powerful military elite, did not end human rights abuses years ago.

Last month, for example, Amnesty International issued a damning report on the failure of the European Union to demand an end to extra-judicial killings and ensure human rights following the Algerian-EU accord.

It reminded the world that torture is a routine practice of the Algerian security forces, especially the chiffon, in which chemicals and urine are dripped into a prisoner's mouth through a cloth. Numerous former members of the Algerian security forces have testified that the police and army have been involved in the massacres, which have also been attributed to "Islamist" murderers. Lies, says the military. Of course.

In theory – indeed, in practice – Algeria should be one of the wealthiest countries of north Africa; billionaires in oil and gas exports, the breadbasket of France, and the producer of some of the finest wines in the Maghreb.

But corruption has produced an army of millions of unemployed, internal violence, and orange juice imported from Italy.

Furthermore, Algeria has, like a large number of other dubious and violent countries, signed up to the American "war on terror" and the United States is now silent about the appalling events that have taken place, and continue to take place, in Algeria.

Throat-cutting is one of the principal characteristics of the government's "Islamist" opponents; but who can anymore differentiate between an "Islamist" killer and a "government" killer?

The main opposition parties, the Rally for Culture and Democracy, and the Socialist Forces Front – which some would say have little to do with either culture or socialism – are largely Berber and intend to boycott today's election for 389 seats in the National Popular Assembly, the lower house of parliament.

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