Madani Mezrag is the leader of the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), the armed wing of the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria. Although an agreement was said to have been concluded in 1999 between the Algerian authorities and the FIS, allowing members of the latter to exercise their political and civil rights if they relinquished their arms, the group continues to be outlawed. The Algerian government still holds the FIS accountable for the bloodshed of the 1991 civil war.
Asharq Al-Awsat met with Mezrag in Algiers to discuss the political situation in Algeria, and what steps must be taken to preserve the country’s unity. The Islamist leader also spoke about the recent unrest throughout North Africa, and whether this portends deeper security flaws.
The following is the text from the interview:
Asharq Al-Awsat: In your opinion, have the Algerian authorities succeeded in transforming the FIS, with both its political and military wings, into something of a bogeyman? In the process, has this undermined the credibility of the Islamic current in Algeria?
Madani Mezrag: The Isti’sali (exclusionary) current (a label given to the Francophile elite that is influential in the Algerian regime), which suffered a devastating defeat in the free and fair elections of 1991, is now exploiting all the state’s resources to strike, distort, and demonize everything related to Islam. This is happening in all fields of advocacy, politics, education, charitable work, and jihad. However, we say to them that we have still retained our mental strength. Like our predecessors said in the past: “It is not over yet; the near future will tell.”
Q: It is widely assumed that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika will run for a fourth term. Is this likely in your opinion, particularly in view of his deteriorating health?
I sincerely wished that the president would leave his post voluntarily in 2009, and I called for him to do so at the time. I believed that giving a chance to another nationalist figure would provide fresh impetus to the most important points of the president’s project, namely reconciliation first and development second. Both of these could raise Algeria’s status high among the world’s nations and peoples. Unfortunately, however, the president and his milieu insisted on staying for a third term. This term is about to end; it has one year left. Nevertheless, there has been no worthwhile constitutional or political reform.
I honestly believe that the president’s inclination to run for a fourth term is not a sound decision, and does not serve his interests. It is a decision that harms him more than it serves him. As an Algerian citizen that respects and sympathizes with his president, I advise Bouteflika, a loyal person who cares about his people, to carry out an in-depth, comprehensive dialogue during the remainder of his term. He should incorporate all political activists and influential figures in Algerian society without exception. This dialogue would lead to a national code of honor, on which all the Algerians would agree upon. This in turn would be solid ground for drafting a new constitution that would, God willing, ensure the continuation of a state that enjoys unity and cohesion, and an elected legislative power that protects the homeland and governs the people with justice, spreading security and promoting righteousness.
Q: What is your opinion of the recent uprisings in North Africa, and the current conflict in Mali?
During the early days of what has become known as the Arab Spring, I used to tell my brothers: What worries me is that these events will only prove that the odious practice of colonialism, with its various Zionist proponents, was an organized project to undermine and re-educate backwards societies and savage peoples. At the time, my words were like a call in the wilderness. In the eyes of some of my brothers, I was seen as a man living outside his time. Yet because I was raised to be clear and explicit, and to always say what I believed, I went even further and said: I am worried that Nicolas Sarkozy (the former French president) will succeed—using the wicked Zionist method of lacing cream with poison and bitterness with honey—in making these people praise him, publicize his kindness, and glorify colonialism. Indeed, it seemed as though the countries of the Arab Spring were begging the old colonialist forces to return and occupy them, albeit through NATO, and to rescue them from the tyrannical rulers who had been produced by the nationalist state.
I wholeheartedly believe in the use of all legitimate means to fight injustice and oppose tyranny. No doubt, some our rulers are guilty in this respect. That is why we stood against their ideological and moral corruption by praying to God. We confronted their deviation in governance, and in running the political affairs of the state. We stood against their oppression and murder. We did all this but we still categorically and unequivocally refuse to allow neo-colonialism to return and occupy our lands, violate our honor, and humiliate our people. I believe that the situation in neighboring Mali has now entered a tunnel, and the end is not in sight in the short term.
Q: A strategic gas plant in the Algerian desert was attacked by terrorists in January. Some consider this to be evidence of a huge flaw in Algeria’s security system. Do you agree?
Here it is only fair to point out that the Algerian desert is vast; it cannot monitored and guarded in its entirety. Regardless of the capabilities of the Algerian army, anyone who knows the desert and its secrets can infiltrate the country through many safe passages. I believe that people have been carrying arms in these areas for many years, and hence they gained the knowledge and experience to allow them to carry out what happened in In Amenas and elsewhere.
However, I hold the military authorities in general—and the political authorities in particular—responsible for everything that is happening and that will happen, because they abandoned the project of genuine national reconciliation, broke promises, and betrayed pledges. They are responsible, in the eyes of the people and before God, for every drop of blood that is shed, every property that is destroyed, and every honor that is violated.
Q: The Algerian government’s decision to open its airspace for French air forces to strike at the Islamists in northern Mali has led to a controversial debate. Do you think that the Algerian authorities were pressured to do so?
This is a very thorny issue that cannot be covered in a few lines. But I can say very succinctly that the ambiguous behavior of the Algerian authorities, the coy statements of Algerian officials, and the bravado and arrogance of the French have turned Algeria into a weak orphan state without sovereignty.
Q: Does the military intervention in Mali open the door to the ‘Afghanization’ of the Sahel?
The Afghanization of the Sahel began many years ago and now with the Malian crisis, this phenomenon is gathering pace in Mali and in all the states of the Sahel. A wise person would learn from past lessons and prepare earnestly to resolve this complex problem, and save what can be saved.