The Middle East / January 1998
By Larry Luxner
WASHINGTON -- Not many Americans know it, but the United States has maintained close ties with faraway Algeria for more than 200 years, as Algerian Ambassador Ramtane Lamamra is fond of pointing out.
Those relations date from 1795, when President Washington's special envoy, Joel Barlow, concluded a bilateral treaty to stop piracy on the high seas. In 1846, a group of Iowans changed the name of their little town from Hamlet to Elkader, in order to honor Amir Abd al-Qadir -- the leader of Algeria's resistance during the French invasion.
More than a century later, in July 1957, says Lamamra, "John F. Kennedy rose in the Senate and spoke out in favor of Algerian independence, despite the wishes of a NATO ally," France.
It wasn't the last time JFK and Algeria would cross paths. For 17 days after Kennedy's November 1963 assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson literally ran the country from his private mansion in northwest Washington. In 1964, long after Johnson had resettled into the White House, the sprawling house -- known as "The Elms" -- was purchased by the newly independent Algerian government and converted into the ambassador's official residence.
These tidbits of history are not lost on Lamamra, who has served as his country's envoy to the United States since July 1996.
"Our relations are gaining in depth and friendship," says the 45-year-old native of Bejaia, a Mediterranean coastal city east of Algiers. "I think there is a valuable understanding here of the situation in Algeria, and of us becoming a stronger democracy and defeating terrorism."
As should be expected, Lamamra's residence is lavishly decorated with exquisite brass artifacts and framed Islamic art. But what catches the eye as one enters the sitting room are two prominently displayed photos: one of Lamamra receiving his credentials from Algerian President Liamine Zeroual, and another of the diplomat presenting those same credentials to President Clinton.
"I have been aspiring to become a diplomat since I was a teenager," Lamamra said over a cup of coffee and sweet Arab pastries. "By chance, I read a book about an American lady who married a Japanese diplomat at the outset of World War II. I think I was inspired by that."
True to his wishes, Lamamra finally began his diplomatic career in 1975 and gradually climbed up the foreign-service ladder, representing his nation in Ethiopia, Austria and the former Soviet Union along the way. In 1993, he was named Algeria's ambassador to the United Nations and stayed there for three years before relocating to Washington.
"Although the nature of the assignment is totally different, serving in New York is good preparation for Washington," he says. "It's completely different, yet both experiences are extremely fulfilling. A diplomatic career wouldn't be complete without an assignment in Washington."
The casual civility oozing from Lamamra's sitting room is a frightening contrast to the butchery now underway in Algeria, where according to The Washington Post more than 120,000 civilians have been massacred in recent years by desperate Islamic fundamentalists seeking to overthrow the secular regime. Many of the victims are dying in successive waves of throat-slittings and decapitations that are almost too vile to imagine.
Lamamra says the estimates of dead quoted in U.S. and European newspapers are "too high," but he refuses to offer his own numbers. Instead, he insists that "for us, a single Algerian being killed is already too much. There is no explanation or justification for this. We have had enough victims from the liberation war."
During a 90-minute interview with The Middle East, the diplomat didn't hide his frustration at what he perceives as the Western media's unfair portrayal of the continuing violence back home.
"In Algeria, you have eight million girls and boys who go to school every day. We're producing and exporting oil. We have a vibrant society, moving from a single-party to a multi-party system, and in the midst of such a historic process, we have a group of fundamentalists who use violence as a means to force their vision on society.
"The fundamentalists do not represent Islam," he continued. "Islam is a tolerant religion, and an essential component of Algerian society. We played a crucial role in World War II. This interaction between Algeria and the western world has contributed to the mindset of our citizens. Therefore, the claim that the best way of life is to go back to the Middle Ages is not acceptable to most Algerians."
Lamamra blames the Islamic fundamentalist terrorist threat on disillusioned youths, many of whom volunteered to fight the pro-Soviet Communist regime in Afghanistan and came back convinced that Iranian-style fanaticism was the only legitimate form of Islam.
"They've lost hope, and because they have been brainwashed, they've joined fundamentalist groups," says Lamamra, pointing out that 75% of Algeria's 29 million inhabitants are under 30 years old. And despite a per-capita income of $1,700 -- relatively high for Africa -- the country's unemployment rate hovers around 28%. Nevertheless, the Algerian government recently rejected calls by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for a dialogue to end the bloodshed, saying the matter was an internal affair, and has also refused to allow outsiders to monitor the situation.
Asked where the fundamentalists get their weapons from, Lamamra suggests arms are flowing from neighboring Arab countries to Algeria via European channels. But when prodded to identify those countries, Lamamra -- ever the diplomat -- says "I hate name-calling."
Despite the violence, claims the diplomat, "not a single foreigner has been killed in the violence" so far this year; between 1992 and 1996, over 100 foreigners died. "There is a State Department travel advisory requesting Americans not go if it is not necessary," said Lamamra, though he added that "we should be careful not to play into the hands of terrorists, not to overestimate the threat."
The main reason for Algerians' widespread frustration is a perception that victory was stolen from the now-banned Islamic Salvation Front, which would have won national elections six years ago had the government not annulled the electoral process.
"Indeed, we did have parliamentary elections in December 1991. It was supposed to take place in two phases," Lamamra concedes. "But as soon as it appeared that fundamentalist organizations were leading, two phenomena took place: civil society began demonstrating in the streets, and then-President Banjadid took the decision to resign from office. The security situation made it impossible to resume the electoral process."
Now, however, Lamamra claims that "for the first time in Algerian history, all institutions have been democratically elected -- everyone from Trotskyist parties to moderate Muslim parties which reject violence as a means to seize power or remain in power."
But that portrayal of multi-party democracy is questioned by many observers, as is the government's grip on the media. In early November, UNESCO Director-General Federico Mayor expressed outrage at the sentencing of Omar Belhouchet, publisher of the Algerian daily El Watan, to one year in prison. Belhouchet had made declarations implicating Algerian authorities in the assassination of journalists in his country. "I am dismayed by this prison sentence which singles out a journalist known for his professional competence and his devotion to press freedom," Mayor said in a statement from Paris.
Nonsense, Lamamra retorts.
"It is the view of many observers, not only me, that freedom of the press in Algeria is unparalleled in the Arab world," says the diplomat. "Most of the time, Algerian media are free to criticize their own government, and they do it on a daily basis. But there are some security considerations that, if disclosed prematurely, would result in a loss of lives." Lamamra added that Belhouchet was jailed "because he said on TV that government forces were responsible for the killings. Under existing law, that is grounds for imprisonment."
He also labels as "extravagant and fanciful" a recent Washington Post article implying that officials of state companies are corrupt and on the take.
"The Algerian private sector does not make any distinction between Algerian and foreign businessmen who invest," he said. "If officials were to be involved in business, foreign partners would not feel comfortable with that. These allegations are part and parcel of an overall propaganda drive to darken whatever takes place in Algeria."
In the midst of the atrocities, U.S. investment in the North African nation hasn't abated. Algeria has the fourth-largest reserves of natural gas in the world, and currently exports 40 million tons of crude oil a year -- rising to 50 million tons by 2000. Hydrocarbons currently account for 97% of Algeria's export earnings, bringing in some $12 billion annually.
"Algeria is the second-largest supplier of imports to the United States in the Arab world, after Saudi Arabia," says Lamamra, adding that earlier this year, the embassy helped establish an Algerian-American Chamber of Commerce in New York. Large U.S. investors in Algeria include Arco, Mobil, Anadorko, Bechtel and Halliburton.
But Algeria's warm feelings don't extend to Israel
In mid-November, Algiers boycotted an economic conference in Qatar that was supposed to bring Arab and Israeli businessmen together. Like other Arab leaders, Algerian President Zeroual said the conference "did not serve the realization of a comprehensive, permanent and just peace in the region."
Nevertheless, Lamamra says the Middle East peace process is of "paramount importance" to Algeria.
"We don't underestimate the difficulties. This economic process has to be seen as something that contributes to the peace process. Whether we like it or not, the two processes are closely linked," he said. "We have to take into account the deep feelings of our own public opinion. During the 1980s, all the resolutions of the PLO National Congress were passed at meetings in Algiers. That is not mere coincidence. The prestige of the Algerian liberation struggle impacts tremendously on the Palestinian rank-and-file."
Lamamra added that "we don't blame any Arab country for the way it is dealing with Israel. We should refrain from unilateral contacts." But he also says "there are no restrictions on our activities as diplomats. Most Arab countries have overcome this situation where you don't acknowledge the very existence of someone with whom you disagree."
Asked what he'll do after finishing his term of office, Lamamra politely evades the question. "I've been extremely lucky," he says with a smile. "I don't ever have time to think about the future."