A documentary about Algeria’s brutal civil war on state-owned television station Entreprise Nationale de la Television (ENTV) has sparked public outcry and an intense debate in the country’s media and on social networks.
The film shows graphic images of burned and horrifically mutilated bodies, dead children and hospitalized victims of some of the war’s worst atrocities before it moves on to the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, a presidential initiative put forward to settle the conflict and endorsed by a referendum in 2005.
The film, which aired on 29 September 2017, the 12th anniversary of the referendum, ends with harmonious shots of families eating in a park and a new tramway, seemingly underscoring the government’s achievements in bringing peace and prosperity to the country since the end of the conflict.
The channel’s decision to air the film was met with broad condemnation by Algerian opposition parties and media outlets. Soufiane Djilali, head of the opposition party Jil Jadid, described it as an attempt to “scare the people and ensure stability. Through these pictures, the power [a term frequently used in Algeria to refer to the regime or ruling class] is sending a clear message to the Algerian people that they can choose between the current regime or a return to unfettered terrorism.”
Nasser Hamadouche, head of the Islamist Movement for the Society of Peace (MSP), claimed that Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is exploiting a “national tragedy to present himself as the country’s saviour” and is asking the people to “abdicate their rights for the sake of Algeria’s stability”.
However, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, a close ally of the president and a promising candidate to succeed him, welcomed the documentary, claiming it dignifies the war’s victims.
In an editorial two days after the film aired, Al-Watan, one of the country’s leading francophone newspapers, called it ‘terrifying, indefensible and traumatizing’. It added that the ‘reportage’ was ‘propaganda in the service of a single man … Bouteflika’.
Bouteflika played a crucial role in the national reconciliation campaign, which he launched after taking office in 1999 and which paved the way for political stability after almost a decade of civil war by offering amnesty to members of terrorist groups who were not involved in the massacres. However, the charter remains controversial because it fails to address the military’s well-documented involvement in wartime atrocities.
The war itself was unprecedented in terms of civilian casualties. Up to 150,000 people were killed in the conflict between several radical Islamist groups and the state. After the 1991 victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in the first round of parliamentary elections, the army intervened, staged a military coup and banned the FIS.
Shortly after, the radical wing of the FIS, the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), started a guerrilla war against the state while the military’s intelligence unit, the Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS) led by Mohamed ‘Tewfik’ Mediène initiated a highly dubious counter-insurgency strategy. The DRS infiltrated radical Islamist groups such as the GIA on a large scale and was directly involved in mass killings of civilians in an attempt to discredit the Islamists and control the conflict. However, ‘the regime managed to turn the national trauma into a tool to bolster its legitimacy and tighten its dominance over public discourses. Ever since, the ruling elite has presented itself as the nation’s saviour from an Islamist takeover and the only alternative to the chaos and bloodshed of the ’90s’, according to the Egyptian online newspaper Mada Masr.
Meanwhile, the charter is blamed for being designed to allow state agents who had infiltrated those groups to return to civil life without being prosecuted for their crimes. Therefore, NGOs representing the families of civilians who disappeared during the war such as the Paris-based Collective of the Families of the Disappeared in Algeria (CFDA) and its Algerian branch SOS Disparus as well as the Djzaïrouna association and several human rights groups like the Algerian League for Defending Human Rights (LADDH) oppose and criticize the deal. For Cherifa Kheddar, a member of Djzaïrouna, the charter primarily “protects the aggressors and totally neglects the victims”.
Each year, on the anniversary of the referendum, the CFDA and SOS Disparus call for protests and sit-ins in Algiers. Although these actions are usually small – but none-theless violently dispersed by security forces – the families of thousands of civilians who disappeared during the war continue to excoriate the charter.
On 30 September 2017, a small protest was unsurprisingly dispersed by the police. Another protest against ENTV in front of the state’s Regulatory Authority for Audi-ovisuals (ARAV) on 7 October 2017 was likewise dispersed by security forces and plain-clothed police officers. Nevertheless, although the authorities systematically sabotage their protests and other public appearances such as conferences, they stop at closing down or searching the offices belonging to these NGOs.
Although the civil war is officially over, its legacy and the impact of the charter is still the subject of an ongoing and highly emotional public debate. Although incidents like the recent ENTV scandal continue to spark controversy, the government continues to highlight its achievements in settling the conflict. In September 2017, Prime Minister Ouyahia emphasized that his government is committed to the national reconciliation campaign and renewed the call for terrorists to ‘come back home in an attempt to regain control over a public discourse that is increasingly diverging from the government’s narrative of the war.