Leading Article: Dialogue is the only hope in Algeria's darkest hour

Related Topics
The ghastliness in Algeria grows daily even ghastlier. The holy Islamic month of Ramadan is just 10 days old, but, according to the government- controlled local press, at least 700 - perhaps 1,000 - innocent civilians have already been slaughtered; burned, beheaded and disembowelled, as is the norm in this peculiarly sinister and horrible civil war between a military regime and an Islamic fundamentalist movement cheated of certain electoral victory in 1992. The revulsion and anguish are universal, but nowhere more deeply felt than in Europe, linked by history and geography to the lands of North Africa, which buys 90 per cent of Algeria's oil and depends on Algeria for one-fifth of its supplies of natural gas. Even France, which hitherto has bent over backwards not to offend the rulers of its former colony, has now criticised the government in Algiers and supports a German proposal for a European initiative to bring the bloodletting to an end. Something must be done, the world demands. The problem is, what?

The answer would be easier were Algeria in terminal collapse, and requiring international intervention to prevent mass starvation. That has not happened yet, and on balance is unlikely to happen. The country's rulers may be failing in the primary duty of a state, to ensure the physical safety of those within its borders. But unlike Bosnia or Somalia, where the UN intervened, Algeria remains a functioning state. Sixty-five thousand, 75,000, maybe 100,000 people (who knows?) may have died in the civil war. But it is solvent. Its economy is growing at 4 per cent, and the oil and gas fields that drive that growth are in the south and east, massively protected and far from the main killing fields in the hinterland of the capital, Algiers, and the west of the country. Indeed, in words almost obscene with paradox, the IMF just nine months ago was praising Algeria's "exemplary" efforts at (economic) reform. Clearly we are not dealing with a basket case, a "collapsed state" in the Somalian or Bosnian sense.

Intervention, moreover, presupposes a reasonably clearly defined target. Here again, Algeria fails the test. Yes, the population must be better protected - but from whom? This is a war of hideous complicities. Few can doubt the primary responsibility of the rebel fundamentalists; but the evidence is overwhelming that the security forces have connived at some massacres. Throw in ancient, rekindled tribal hatreds, and the picture is murkier still. People die by the hundred every week, but at precisely whose hand? Is the aim to eradicate the guerrilla movement, to strengthen the counter-insurgency capability of the military, or to endow Algeria with a government that can reunite the country? Ultim- ately, only the third will end the conflict.

Set against this background, none of the possible remedies measures up. Some urge an international boycott of exports of Algeria's gas and oil, to "punish" the government for its documented human rights abuses against its citizens. But even if such sanctions were workable, the economic pain would fall largely upon ordinary citizens who have already suffered greatly. Gentler outside intervention carries separate risks. Arab countries, especially the two other Maghreb nations, would seem to be natural candidates - except that few Arab governments want the slightest truck with Islamic fundamentalism. Europe, and indeed the United Nations, have already seen offers of their services rebuffed more than once. To this week's criticism from Paris, the Algerian foreign ministry responded that the French authorities had no right to sermonise and make suggestions while Algeria itself was "acting to end the crisis". And so, once more, to the heart of the dilemma: the international community may plead and wring its hands - or rather, be accused of washing its hands. But how is it to intervene against the express wishes of a viable country that time and again since independence in 1962 has proved the prickliest and most uncompromising component of what was once known as the Third World?

One faint glimmer of hope remains. No more than a doctor can prescribe a cure without knowing the nature of his patient's sickness, can the international community presume to recommend solutions for Algeria unless it possesses the facts. At the very least, therefore, outside observers, be they from the United Nations, the European Union or the Arab world, must be allowed into the country to gather information on the ground. And now, according to the spokesman of the US State Department, Algiers has signalled to Washington its willingness to discuss human rights abuses with UN emissaries. Perhaps nothing will come of it. But, just possibly, the gesture will provide an opening for the fact-gatherers; and upon their labours may be built a genuine third-party mediation. Every massacre makes a greater mockery of the claims of the Algiers government to be on the brink of winning a civil war that has cost almost as many lives as Bosnia. Only negotiation will provide a lasting settlement. We can but pray that that realisation will dawn upon the combatants, sooner rather than later.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Reception Teacher

£120 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: An excellent three form entry scho...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher

£120 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: A lovely primary school in the bor...

The Green Recruitment Company: Mechanical Maintenance Engineer

£11 - £18 Per Hour: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Mechanical Maint...

The Green Recruitment Company: Commercial Construction Manager

£65000 Per Annum bonus & benefits package: The Green Recruitment Company: The ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
BoJack is the walking embodiment of why-the-long-face  

BoJack Horseman - the most depressing cartoon on TV - is thankfully back for a third Netflix series

Edmund Cuthbert

The world's population has reached 'peak youth'. This should be a wake-up call to world leaders

Perry Maddox
Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Attwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
10 best waterproof mascaras

Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'