The NI Interview
Richard Swift talks with a leading feminist who faces the daily danger of
assassination in the midst of Algeria’s brutal civil war.
‘Ce n’est pas entre, c’est contre.’ (‘It’s not between, it’s against.’) My rusty French has failed me and Khalida Messaoudi leans forward to make sure I don’t miss a crucial distinction. Khalida, 36, is a former mathematics teacher and she is accustomed to being both precise and logical.
The social conflict currently raging in Algeria is a war, she stresses, but not in the way that most people think. ‘This is not a fight between the military-backed Front de Libération National (FLN) Government and Islamic fundamentalists. It is more like a war against an unarmed civilian population by a group intent on imposing its narrow vision on all Algerians.’
More than 80 people a day are being killed by Islamic fundamentalists,’ Khalida continues. They concentrate on journalists, she says, because writers symbolize freedom of expression, which the fundamentalists find intolerable. ‘Intellectuals, teachers, writers, thinkers – these are the people killed because it is they who defend traditional notions of liberty. But sometimes simple citizens are killed too, randomly, just for the purpose of terror. One day ordinary people may decide to say “No” to the fundamentalists’ ambitions and they want to avoid that happening. They kill women who oppose their views of how we should behave. They cannot allow difference. That is why they insist on veils to cover the difference. They are fascists who claim Allah is on their side and that they are marching under the banner of righteousness.’
As a founding member of the ‘Independent Association for the Triumph of Women’s Rights’, Ms Messaoudi is one of Algeria’s most outspoken and best-known feminists. She has also been an unstinting critic of the fundamentalist Front for Islamic Salvation (FIS) and was a key organizer in a series of 1992 demonstrations against the establishment of an Islamic state. She got her start as an activist in 1981 when she helped spearhead oppos-ition to Algeria’s restrictive Family Code. Her passionate, determined intensity and a razor-sharp mind make her a formidable foe. And as a feminist she is critical of both the Government, whom she refers to simply as ‘the power’, and the Islamic fundamentalists, whom she calls the ‘integrationists’.
According to Messaoudi they are simply two sides of the same coin. ‘People in the West do not understand,’ she says with barely-hidden frustration. ‘The Islamic movement is not an opposition to the Government; it is in fact the best way for the one-party state to reconstitute itself. This is not to say that the fundamentalists don’t have a popular base. After years of one-party rule people are desperate and many feel the FIS will make a difference. But when you examine their programme, there is nothing new. They just want to be the new dictatorship. If necessary they will compromise and absorb members of the FLN Government into their ranks. But it will simply be the old one-party state with a new face.
For Messaoudi the proof of this is obvious in the pattern of daily assassinations in the streets of Algiers and Oran. ‘The FIS know very well where the leaders of the current regime live; they know their houses; they know everything about them but they will never kill any of them. They kill only democrats, intellectuals and liberals who have no direct political power. In some ways the FIS are doing more to save the regime than to destroy it.’
But if the Government were willing to cut a deal with the fundamentalists, why had it overturned the election which the FIS won in 1992 and seized power? To those outside Algeria, she explains, the reason may not be obvious, but insiders know that there is a power struggle within the Algerian Army itself. A republican faction which is absolutely opposed to the FIS is challenging an old guard who are willing to make a deal in order to save themselves from the inevitable. The old guard is now in control. This faction engineered the murder of President Boudiaf, the leader installed by the republicans after the coup.
The upshot? The risk of war between these two factions of the Army is now a real possibility, she says – propelling Algeria even closer to the abyss.
Khalida Messaoudi’s outspokenness has not come without a price. She now spends each day in her homeland trying to avoid the assassin’s bullet.
‘How do I live?’ She smiles impatiently at the question. ‘It’s not a question of how I live but of how I survive. When you are condemned to death your first objective is to stay alive… not only physically but as a symbol. You must be constantly on the move with no fixed points – no house, no regular work. I have developed the habit of not having any habits.’
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995