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The St. Egidio Platform for a Peaceful Solution of the Algerian Crisis
by Marco Impagliazzo
Since the 1991 military coup in Algeria, violence has taken the lives of 70,000 people there. Independent observers variously explain it as due to repression by the military and security forces against the Islamist movement and its supporters; to actions by the Islamist insurgency; to intergroup violence among the different armed factions; and to banditry and communal intolerance exacerbated by competition for land and the governments distribution of arms to the civilian-organized militias. According to many, a military solution of the Algerian crisis is impossible. The army, even with the help of the militias, does not have the power to put a stop to the widespread violence that reigns in the country. A political solution to the crisis is indispensable and urgent.
<font color="#153565" face="helvetica" ,="," arial="arial" geneva="geneva" sans="sans" serif="serif">The Initiative of St. EgidioThe first colloquium on Algeria was held in Rome in the headquarters of the Community of St. Egidio, a Catholic lay organization increasingly involved in international peacemaking, on November 2122, 1994.5 On this occasion the most influential Algerian political leaders met again after not having seen each other for long periods. In addition, more than 250 journalists from many countries attended. The colloquium provided a unique opportunity for the protagonists to speak to one another. The Communitys initiative originally intended to create a table for negotiations, to offer the various Algerian leaders, representing the most important political parties, a space in which they could present their ideas on the direction the country should take and contribute to a solution. The invitation stated, We (the Community of St. Egidio) do not intend to create a dialogue, which should in any case be held among Algerians in Algeria, but rather a free and genuine debate in which each participant can express his or her political viewpoint. The invitation was extended to the most important social and political leaders in Algeria and to the parties that had received significant numbers of votes in the first round of the 1991 legislative elections.
After two general meetings and many bilateral talks, the idea emerged that a common statement should be prepared. On January 13, 1995 the text of the Platform was approved and signed by Abdenour Ali Yahia of the political party LADDH, Abdelhamid Mehri (FLN), Hocine Ait Ahmed and Ahmed Djeddai (FFS), Rabah Kebire and Anwar Haddam (FIS), Ahmed Ben-Bella and Kaled Bensmain (MDA), Louisa Hanoun (PT), Abdallah Jaballah (Ennahda), and Ahmed Ben Mohammed (JMC). These leaders combined represented the parties that received more than 80 percent of the votes in the 1991 elections.
<font color="#153565" face="helvetica" ,="," arial="arial" geneva="geneva" sans="sans" serif="serif">The Platform of RomeThe Platform resulted from intense negotiations among the various Algerian leaders, including official representatives of FIS, FFS, and FLN. It was conceived as an offer of peace and as a framework for further negotiations with all parties to the Algerian conflict. Despite the political impasse that has prevailed since 1995, it is still the most significant offer of a peaceful settlement of the crisis.
The Platform is a declaration of principles by which the Algerian parties and leaders from all points on the political spectrum (secular, socialist, Trotskyite, democratic, and Islamist) commit themselves to a peaceful solution of the crisis. It rejects violence and embraces division of government powers, political pluralism, and freedom of religion and thought. It also affirms the need to respect international human rights norms. It provides a valuable and innovative framework for the development of understanding and accommodation between Muslim and democratic schools of political thought.
<font color="#153565" face="helvetica" ,="," arial="arial" geneva="geneva" sans="sans" serif="serif">Algeria and St. EgidioHow did it happen that the Christian community of St. Egidio became involved with Muslim Algeria, especially when Islam is central to the Algerian crisis? In September 1994, during the eighth International Meeting of Prayer for Peacewhich included leaders from most world religions, recalls Andrea Riccardi, the founder of St. Egidiosome Algerian Muslim friends asked why Christians, who often create movements for the defense of human rights, remain immobile when a Muslim country is involved. Riccardi continues, It sounded like a challenge which needed to be immediately accepted.
That year St. Egidio had been devastated by the assassinations of Father Henri Vergès and Sister Paule-Hélène Saint-Raymond, who had both worked in the diocesan library in the Casbah of Algiers and were well-known to some of the Community members. The Community had maintained strong relations with Algeria for a long time, particularly with the Algerian church. Groups from St. Egidio had visited Algeria every year since the early 1980s within the framework of interreligious encounters and exchanges among young people on both shores of the Mediterranean.
The Algerian war of liberation in the late 1950s had left its mark on the Algerian church, but thanks to the leadership of its archbishop, Cardinal Léon Etienne Duval, it was able to encourage the development of Muslim-Christian-Jewish coexistence. St. Egidio has long considered Algeria a key country in terms of Christian-Muslim relations. Close personal relationships were developed over the years between the Community and Cardinal Duval and his successor Henri Teissier, the present Archbishop of Algiers, as well as with various priests and religious from the Trappist community in the Notre Dame de lAtlas monastery, where tragic murders occurred in May 1996.
<font color="#153565" face="helvetica" ,="," arial="arial" geneva="geneva" sans="sans" serif="serif">Appeal for Peace and the Future of the PlatformWhile St. Egidio has continued to foster the same kind of dialogue that characterized the colloquium that produced the Platform, more recent initiatives have been launched inside Algeria. In October 1996 Algerian political forces supportive of dialogue wrote an Appeal for Peace reflecting the principles of the Platform, signed by more than 20,000 Algerian political activists from across the political spectrum. The Platform still represents the only instance in which political leaders have come together to negotiate a comprehensive yet flexible peace proposal. The Platform was intended as a starting point for negotiation; it can still serve as a basis for the kind of political dialogue that is essential for peace.
<font color="#153565" face="helvetica" ,="," arial="arial" geneva="geneva" sans="sans" serif="serif">Post-Conference ProblemsThe Algerian government rejected the Platform document from the outset as an interference in Algerias internal affairs; as a plot of international forces, including the Vatican; and as an attempt to manipulate the Algerian political debate. This remains its position, despite the fact that the Platform was negotiated and signed only by Algerians and was never under any direct or indirect influence of the Vatican (whose support for the initiative has always been lukewarm). The increasing tension inside Algeria has implications for St. Egidio, whose leadership remains under death threat from Algerian sources and receives police protection from the Italian government.
Although efforts to influence the Algerian government have failed, the network of leaders created in Rome has been maintained, and the St. Egidio team that organized the two Algerian conferences facilitates an ongoing support group for Algerians.
St. Egidio recognizes that it can only have an impact on a situation if the key players are interested in its services. The Community has no coercive power, nor can it challenge the Algerian power structure. However, the simple offer of a safe space where free speech is guaranteed sometimes produces unexpected results. The Community of St. Egidio is well aware of its weakness and its inability to solve the Algerian conflict, but it tries to mobilize other forces in order to pressure the parties involved to stop the killing and violence.
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