Algiers – On October 12, the Algerian authorities shut down private channel El Watan TV and confiscated its technical equipment, following Islamist leader Madani Mezrag’s appearance on the station.
The channel “has stepped over the line of tolerance”, Algeria’s Ministry of Communications explained in a statement.
During an interview on the programme El Hiwar (Arabic for “The Discussion”), Mezrag, founder of the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), the armed wing of the now-banned Islamic Salvation Front Party (FIS), warned ailing Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika about the creation of a new Islamist movement.
“If he doesn’t rethink his position, he will hear from me things he has never heard before,” Mezrag threatened.
Last August, speaking to dozens of former FIS supporters in his stronghold of Jijel, the 56-year-old firebrand made his intentions clear. Mezrag, who spent the 1990s in the mountains fighting against the army until his surrender in 1997, wanted to create a political force.
Though his party would be based on the tenets of the FIS, it would nevertheless be in compliance with Algeria’s political system, Mezrag vowed.
“We are not going back to the past. The 1990s are left in history. We want to turn the page, but not tear the page out,” said Mezrag in September during a press conference at his home in Algiers.
His nascent Islamist movement has not yet been officially registered.
“We don’t permit any person implicated in the national tragedy to create a political party,” declared Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal on the opening day of the parliament’s autumn session.
The only consensus was between the government and the terrorists. The basis of national reconciliation is both investigation and fair trials. We want the truth. That's all that we want.
Mezrag’s political ambition raises the question of whether former FIS leaders should once again be permitted to play a role in Algerian politics.
In 1991, the FIS was on the verge of winning Algeria’s parliamentary elections and defeating the country’s ruling National Liberation Front (FLN).
But after the first round of polls, the government cancelled the elections and banned the FIS. Shortly thereafter, a civil war broke out pitting the government against Islamist rebel groups. About 200,000 Algerians lost their lives in what became known as the “Black Decade”.
In 2005, the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation was approved in a referendum
, offering immunity to Islamist rebels provided they lay down their arms within six months of the agreement. In exchange, Islamist rebels, including FIS leaders, were banned from participating in politics.
The only exceptions were for those involved in massacres, rapes, or bombings of public places.
As a result, thousands of Islamist fighters surrendered and embraced Algeria’s peace process. “The Civil Concord and the Charter for Reconciliation saved the country from sinking deeper into chaos,” Kamal Rezzag-Bara, a senior adviser to Bouteflika, told Algeria’s public radio station on September 29, which marked the 10th anniversary of the charter’s signing.
Riccardo Fabiani, a senior North Africa analyst at Eurasia Group, told Al Jazeera that the charter “is routinely challenged by some FIS figures, such as Mezrag, who try to change the status quo to test whether the regime is ready to allow them back into politics or not. They are allowed to organise or attend some public meetings, but not to challenge the regime. It [the regime] tolerates a degree of activity, as long as this doesn’t threaten its stability. But the question of what to do with the Islamists remains.”
Meanwhile, Algerians who lost loved ones during the war rejected the charter, saying it denies them truth and justice. According to SOS Disparus, an Algerian association for forcibly disappeared people, about 8,000 Algerians disappeared between 1992 and 1998.
Most were men, as young as 14 and as old as 80. But no one can say for sure how many people disappeared, as the government has considered the issue closed and refused to meet with their families since the adoption of the charter.
The Algerian authorities still don’t recognise them as missing people.
Once a week, families of the disappeared demonstrate outside the parliament, demanding the return of their loved ones or an inquiry into the disappearances.
“The government wants us to forget. We won’t! I’ll look for my son until my last breath,” said Coco Hamachi, sitting in SOS Disparus’ office in central Algiers. Her son, Mohamed, 24, was playing football near the Mosque of Casbah in Algiers’ old city when he was taken away in a white jeep.
His family looked for him at police stations, prisons, morgues and cemeteries. Mohamed, like thousands of others, was arrested by plain-clothes policemen and taken in for questioning – then vanished without a trace.
The Algerian government claims that the disappearances were committed by agents of the state acting on their own volition, not under orders. But Yekhlef Khalif, the spokesperson for SOS Disparus, said that “they are lying. Forced disappearances by security forces were massive and systematic”.
Since 2005, the government has distributed compensation to families of the disappeared in amounts of up to 98,000 dinars ($926) each month.
“Instead of truth, the government offered amnesia. It tries to buy the silence of the families,” said Nacera Dutour, the head of SOS Disparus, whose son, Amine, 21, was kidnapped in 1997.
Some still refuse any payment without an explanation for the disappearances. Fatima Marzouk has not heard from her husband, Youcef, since December 12, 1993. He left home for work and never returned.
“I refuse to receive any money because I won’t declare him dead as long as I don’t know what happened to him. I want an inquiry,” Marzouk told Al Jazeera.
Relatives of the disappeared say that Algeria has given “total impunity” to “terrorists”, instead of implementing a transitional justice programme like that adopted by South Africa following the apartheid era.
“The government turns criminals, who were wanted during the 1990s, into honourable public figures. I can’t describe how devastated the victims of the Black Decade were when they saw Madani Mezrag received at El Mouradia presidential palace and consulted on the constitutional reform last year. That was simply galling, scandalous and insulting,” said Cherifa Kheddar, head of Djazairouna (Our Algeria), an association for victims of terrorism.
Ultimately, victims say there was never any reconciliation in Algeria. “The only consensus was between the government and the terrorists. The basis of national reconciliation is both investigation and fair trials. We want the truth. That’s all that we want,” said Louisa Ghoumili, whose son Kamel was kidnapped in 1997.
“The charter has not resolved the underlying issues that led to the civil war,” argued Fabiani. “The issues will remain there until the two sides will be able to debate publicly and solve peacefully their disagreements, like secularists and Islamists did in Tunisia. However, the conditions for this are not present yet.”
Similarly, Khalif, the SOS Disparus spokesman, said: “Algeria won’t establish a democratic state without telling the truth.”