International Spectator

The International Spectator

Volume XXXIII No. 3 (July-September 1998)


The Community of Saint Egidio and its Peace-Making Activities *
By Mario Giro


In the last ten years, the Rome-based Community of St. Egidio has made a name for itself by contributing to several peace-making efforts around the world. This article briefly describes the Community, its objectives and experiences and concludes with some considerations on the role of non-governmental organisations in resolving conflicts.


From Social to Political Action

In 1992, after the signing of the Mozambique peace agreements, a journalist from The New York Times asked since when St. Egidio had given up its former social activities and turned to diplomacy. This is a common misunderstanding in the international community that has to be cleared up. St. Egidio remains what it was at the time of its inception almost thirty years ago—an ecclesiastical community committed to serving the poor and the dispossessed.

Established in Rome in 1968 by a group of young high school students, the Comunità di Sant’Egidio first established its presence in the poorest neighbourhoods of Rome. It is officially an “international lay public association” of the Catholic Church, recognised under Italian law as a non-governmental organisation (NGO). Today, it has centres in various Italian cities (Genoa, Novara, Naples, Bari, Florence, Milan, Catania, Trieste, Padua, etc.) in several European countries (Germany, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Ireland, Hungary, Ukraine) and other parts of the world (Central and Latin America, Africa). It is generally present in the form of communities and groups of people of different ages, working in a coordinated manner to provide solidarity to other human beings. It has some 17,000 members, all volunteers.

Since its founding, the Community’s field of solidarity has spread from the poor to children, the elderly, the physically and mentally handicapped, the Rom, immigrants and the homeless. And it is in light of this solidarity that the St. Egidio Community opened up to international problems and to forms of diplomacy, in a manner often called “free lance”, that is, as an expression of civil society. St. Egidio has no political affiliation and puts the accent on its evangelic and ecclesiastical approach to situations and problems. Yet, it has always pursued its own policy, that of acting as a spokesman for those on the fringes of society. In recent years, it has been vocal in the debate on foreigners in Italy.

Starting from this commitment, St. Egidio has contributed to efforts to resolve wars and local conflicts in areas ravaged by hunger, natural calamity or other kinds of crisis. This work has mainly involved development assistance and emergency aid. The Community has, at different times, provided humanitarian aid to countries such as Ethiopia, Eritrea, Romania, Albania, San Salvador, Vietnam, Lebanon, Armenia and Mozambique, but also to the Kurds in Iran, and to the Namibians before independence.

The Community’s approach to peace-making is based on this fundamental social commitment to the poor and the dispossessed. The conviction that no one is more needy of peace than the poor matured in the Community in the very early stages of its work in aid of needy populations in the south of the world. There is a difference between the poverty that exists on the margins of the rich north and that found in Africa or Latin America. Although marginalisation causes suffering everywhere, in the countries in the south of the world it is combined with greater insecurity, which is aggravated and made intolerable by war in any of its many manifestations: tribal, ethnic, state, civil. War itself generates poverty, hunger and social destruction. In the case of Mozambique, after years of contacts, aid and cooperation, St. Egidio verified how difficult it was to aid materially the people of Mozambique (at the end of the eighties the country also suffered a famine) unless the question of peace was solved first. Without peace, all was lost; with peace, all became possible.

St. Egidio’s international engagement is also a product of the city in which the Community is located—Rome. In addition to being the Italian capital and typically Italian, Rome is a crossroads for international relations linked to the foreign policies and the development activities of both the Italian government and the Vatican. St. Egidio has grown and thrived in this urban context open to international relations and has been favoured by the potentialities offered by the city.

In addition to being the capital city of a medium-sized power with very old international relations, Rome is also the centre of world Catholicism, and as such, the venue of ecumenical encounters and inter-religious dialogue. As a result of the new relations established in the Christian world in the last thirty years, particularly after the II Vatican Council, Rome has become an important city for both Orthodox and Protestant leaders. At the same time, the great world religions consider the Holy See a centre of dialogue, albeit to varying degrees. Finally, it is an important city in the Mediterranean and is part of a network of states and cities spanning the southern and northern shores of the Basin and embracing different cultural and religious worlds—the Christian, the Islamic and the Jewish.

But St. Egidio’s Roman character is independent of Roman institutions, whether the Vatican or the Italian government; in its international activity, St. Egidio is conditioned by neither. In the political sense, it chooses its initiatives independently and bears full responsibility for them. Nevertheless, the Community fully feels the universal, ecumenical spirit of the Catholic Church and develops its potential in the fertile ground that the capital offers those with international interests.

St. Egidio feels that religions can be a force for peace. In that context, it organises an annual international meeting for the heads of different religions involving conferences and debate. These meetings have taken place since 1987 in cities such as Rome, Warsaw, Malta, Brussels, Assisi, Jerusalem, Bucharest, to mention just a few. In addition to bringing together representatives of many confessions (Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Shintos), they are also attended by various political leaders (Jaruzelski, Boutros-Ghali, Mugabe, Chissano, Gorbachev, Scalfaro and Soares), and it is not unusual, therefore, that discussion sometimes turns to topics not strictly of a theological nature, focussing on situations of conflict, development problems, violations of human rights or matters of justice.

Dialogue among the various religions of the world is one of the main dimensions of St. Egidio’s work. Particular attention is dedicated to the Mediterranean and its three great religions. Relations with the Islamic world are considered an important frontier. St. Egidio has promoted an intense exchange with the world of Islam. 1 In the Mediterranean, St. Egidio also has relations with the small and not so small Christian communities in the Arab world, 2 which have been undergoing an intense migratory process towards the West in recent decades. The Community feels that Christianity in the Arab and Islamic worlds is a precious presence, not only because of the ancient roots of the Church in these countries, but also for the “lay” significance of a non-Muslim presence in Dar-el Islam. Here, concern for refugees combines with relations with these communities, whether Catholic or not. Coexistence among different peoples is considered a value and a reality to be preserved in the Mediterranean world.

The problem of religious wars (or at least conflicts in which the religious element constitutes an ideological cover) is one of the fields which prompts action from the Community. This is also true of multi-ethnic tensions. The ideal of coexistence has led to involvement in various geographic areas such as the Balkans, the Middle East and the Maghreb. In this era of exasperated nationalism, in which the ethnic conception of nation often determines that of the state, peace is frequently threatened by multi-ethnic or multi-religious cohabitations in which the relations between the majority and the minority risk becoming conflictual. The St. Egidio Community feels that the coexistence of many different peoples, faiths and cultures offers states an exceptional chance to come into contact with diverse civilisations and to appreciate different human values.

Attention to religious minorities leads to another aspect of St. Egidio’s international efforts carried out by means of diplomatic relations, the sending of aid or other favourable connections. For example, in the former Soviet Union, thanks to St. Egidio’s friendship with the Orthodox metropolites and the Uniate bishops, still semi-clandestine, and to its good relations with some high-ranking Soviet exponents, the Community was able to favour a process of religious détente between Moscow and Leopoli.

In Lebanon, with its many religious faiths, St. Egidio was able, in 1982, to host an encounter between the Greek Catholic patriarch Maximos V. Hakim and the Druse leader Walid Jumblatt to discuss, in the heat of the war, the fate of some Christian villages in the Chouf, the last vestige of a multi-religious presence in that area.

St. Egidio has also been active for many years in Africa, especially southern Africa. 3 Resolution of some of the many conflicts that plague the continent has slowly become one of the dimensions of the Community’s work, in addition to that of humanitarian aid. St. Egidio is known in those scenarios as an operator of peace and reconciliation, 4 which is generally performed through collaboration with and support for local churches. However, this activity is being carried out in situations that are ever more frequently threatened by the insurgence of radical ethnic phenomena and favoured by the intrinsic weakness of many states.


The New Role of Non-Governmental Organisations in Conflict Resolution

The widespread and generalised possibility of waging war and the proliferation of crisis is matched, although not precisely, by new capacities for working for peace. Non-institutional actors and informal bodies can now play a role in settling conflicts. During the Cold War, it was more difficult to imagine a “private” actor; today this is possible. The problem is to understand how best to use this opportunity offered by the diplomacy of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), organisations not linked to governments and therefore more flexible and less tied to the immediate interests of international interstate relations. The vitality of civil society can be seen as a resource to be used for the preservation of peace.

The experience of the Community of St. Egidio is an example of the way in which subjects from civil society can affect conflict resolution. The Community’s non-official diplomacy can create the conditions for taking up contacts and picking up threads within national communities in crisis, but above all for reconstructing links to isolated realities that have slipped out of the control of the state system and international institutions. The isolation into which countries fall as a result of internal crisis or of their inability to move towards democracy and the temptation on the part of the international community to consider them hopeless cases are sometimes the premise for a deterioration of the situation, involving implosion or even civil war. Recreating a link between these situations and the international community can be a guarantee of stability and peace.

The diplomacy of civil society is no substitute for national diplomacy. The state and its official institutions have a role to play and it is important that they play it. The ideal solution involves synergy between the “institutional” and the “informal”, in which the greater flexibility of the informal is complemented by the necessary “officialness” of the institutional. Commenting the success of St. Egidio’s mediation in Mozambique, the press often referred to the “St. Egidio formula”. Even the former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, expressed his admiration for this model, that is, “for this unique mixture of governmental and non-governmental peace-making activity”, 5 made up of flexibility and informality, the use of contacts and the involvement of all subjects that can help to achieve a solution. The real factor behind the success of this formula is the fact that St. Egidio is interested solely in putting an end to the conflict; it has no other interests to defend and considers any contribution that can work to this end useful and welcome.


The Case of Mozambique

At the end of the eighties, the world stood by impotently as conflict raged in Mozambique: the roots were too deep, the information too scarce, the interests at stake too consolidated, the game between a mysterious guerrilla movement and a government only relatively capable of dealing with them too intricate. It was both too much and too little for intervention. The Mozambique conflict was the last of Cold War conflicts, that is, with two ideologically opposed contenders. At the same time, it was the first non-traditional “post-1989” conflict, with its ambiguities, nuances and obscurities.

For St. Egidio, mediating peace meant leaving the field of simple solidarity and development work and entering the conflictual world of politics and war. This was the challenge that had to be taken up by civil society and its organised expressions: the responsibility of walking this strife-ridden terrain in order to build the conditions for peace.

After a decades-long and victorious liberation struggle, the Frelimo regime adopted the economic and social model of socialist countries, calling for heavy restructuring and restrictions on freedoms. In opposition to this approach, a guerrilla movement called Rename formed (around 1975). With a weak political platform and almost no external relations, the latter was generally considered an instrument of South African apartheid. In fact, South Africa was seen as the real key to the situation and it was generally thought in Western circles that nothing could be done unless the political situation in South Africa changed. Important factors of international politics totally conditioned all evaluations of the Mozambique conflict.

Nevertheless, these evaluations did not take account of certain fundamental elements such as the absence of the US in the theatre of crisis. In other words, the interpretative model of a “war by proxy” was no longer applicable in Mozambique (as it had been, for example, in Angola). Furthermore, South Africa had also progressively disengaged itself following the signing of the Nkomati agreements (March 1984). The result was a certain independence and some degree of military and political self-sufficiency on the part of Renamo, which did not make it strong enough to win, but not weak enough to lose either.

Analysis of the conflict mechanisms shows that Renamo progressively managed to become the voice of opposition to social change, to the anti-religious mobilisation, 6 and to youth unemployment and, of the malcontent of the north with the south and of the traditional ethnic authorities. Renamo’s strength came from inside the country and was related to the contradictory policies pursued by Frelimo.

The St. Egidio Community was convinced that the war could continue for a long time without either side winning or losing. Therefore, it was important to overcome the idea that a peace process could be undertaken only in the broader international context and that it depended solely on external factors. That is, St. Egidio felt that the process did not depend only on the neighbouring countries or the great powers, but that there were internal causes to be understood so that a solution unique to Mozambique could be found.

The first step in this direction taken by the Community of St. Egidio was to establish contact with Renamo, the mysterious guerrilla group. For years, efforts had been made to understand what Renamo really was, above and beyond the clichés (they were sometimes called khmers noires ) and the representations in the propaganda of the Maputo government, which generally defined them as bandidos armados. St. Egidio facilitated the visit of a Mozambique bishop to the Renamo base in Gorongosa. The president of the group, Alphonso Marceta Dhlakama, was subsequently invited to Rome.

A crucial problem: mutual recognition

When Renamo decided to play its political card in 1989-90, it was itself unaware of where it could lead. But Frelimo had in the meantime realised that it could never achieve military victory. The problem was how to bring the two parties together. The Frelimo government had no intention of acknowledging any kind of status for Renamo, if not that of a dissident armed group. But Renamo considered itself a government in exile and had control over vast parts of the national territory.

Thus the problem was one of political recognition. Political recognition is sometimes considered a legitimation of subversive violence and, therefore, a dangerous or even harmful option. Can a state or official diplomacy allow itself to give this legitimacy? Yet, at some point during peace negotiations, the normal confidentiality of contacts must give way to a measure of visibility as a means of committing the parties to dialogue. In the case of Mozambique, the transition from armed conflict to a political logic took two years and three months. This meant a change in mentality—from guerrillas to politicians. And this transformation had to be acknowledged in some way and the acknowledgement could only be political.

Basically, the main problem is to create a common framework in order to achieve peace negotiations to which the parties are committed without reserve. In the case of Mozambique, the first encounters between Renamo and Frelimo held in Rome in June-July 1990 were particularly important because they laid the foundations for this framework of a vision shared by both. In that case, it was important for them to recognise each other as parts of the same nation ( “children of the same land”), with common interests, so that they would really negotiate and not transform the encounter into a court in which to put each other on trial. This task was just as challenging with Frelimo, locked into its logic of a single-party system, as it was with Renamo, lacking all political and national categories as a result of its long isolation. The first document to be signed (June 1990) was therefore one recognising that they belonged to the same Mozambique family: this was a step in the right direction.

This preamble marked the end of the slow and difficult, but important recognition process. Renamo agreed to recognise Frelimo as the party governing the country (and no longer a party occupying power), while in turn Frelimo recognised Renamo as an opposition party. The government, which had tried to anticipate some of Renamo’s requests by carrying out reforms that would void the negotiations of meaning, agreed not to take any other unilateral actions of the kind. Thus the negotiating table at St. Egidio, became the most urgent national requirement in view of making peace. The guerrillas, on their part, embraced a new logic: there was a government in Maputo and Mozambique had a legal and political system which could be changed but which already existed. The common Mozambique family already had its state.

The objective of the negotiations in Mozambique was to isolate the military option and exclude it as a global solution of the crisis. Without going into the details of the negotiations, suffice it to say that the 27-month process (another year and some months after reciprocal recognition of the parties) was slow—gradual and difficult. Talks were going on in Rome while fighting was still raging in Mozambique: Frelimo wanted an immediate cease-fire, but arms were the only form of pressure that Renamo had and it understandably did not want to give it up.

Frelimo’s democratic evolution manifested itself in its acceptance of democratic pluralism. This was more difficult for Renamo because of the low level of education of its cadres. Moreover, the world view of a guerrilla fighter who lives from his military activity alone is very peculiar—as is his sense of proportion and his interpretation of political facts. Therefore, the problem was to change the mind set of an armed group towards a political and international logic.


The Case of Algeria

The question of political recognition was also vital in connection with the Algerian Platform, signed at the St. Egidio Community on 13 January 1995 after one week of closed-door talks between some parties of the opposition—including the Algerian fundamentalist party, the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS). Some observers wondered whether it was right to give this kind of legitimacy to a movement that had been disbanded by the Algerian government. Actually, with all due caution and aware of the risk of being instrumentalised, this was a way to bring the side that was refusing to follow the rules back into the game. This called for recognition encompassing the so-called illegitimate part in a common framework. In the case of Algeria, it was essential.

In the wake of the 1988 youth demonstrations, the government had decided to authorise political parties and hold elections. Legally recognised in 1989, the Algerian FIS felt that it had electoral legitimacy in that it had won the first round of the general elections of December 1991, even though it was outlawed thereafter. When the army cancelled the second round of elections, annulling the results of the first round, the extremist faction and the logic of armed struggle took the upper hand in the Islamic party. 7 The political crisis turned into a domestic war between the army and the armed fundamentalists, with tens of thousands of victims (today this figure is estimated at 80,000), almost all civilians.

In January 1995, when invited to Rome, on a par with other democratic and lay parties that had eschewed armed struggle, 8 the FIS became a part of this group of lay and democratic parties. This was one way of readmitting it into the political game, but also of keeping it on this ground and cutting ties with the armed faction. “The result was an impeccably democratic document” wrote The Economist, 9 that has been accepted by the leaders of the FIS, who have chosen the road of political confrontation rather than that of armed struggle. In fact, in spite of the refusal of Algerian authorities to accept the proposal put forward by the Platform, the FIS continued along this line and indeed declared a unilateral cease-fire in 1997 for the armed wing directly linked to the party, the Armée Islamique du Salut (AIS). 10

The main effort of the drafters of the Platform was aimed at recognition. The Platform is basically an “offer of peace” to the military in power, considered an essential part of Algerian history and politics. 11 The point was not to exclude anyone; that was the only way to put a stop to the exhausting and futile dispute in which the authorities insisted that the fundamentalists were “foreigners”, piloted by Iran or other similar states, and the FIS claimed that the authorities were hizb França, the party of France, sold to Western interests. Such disputes are a constant in Algerian politics: whenever there are differences of opinion, accusations of treason immediately arise. Going beyond this psychological and political impasse has to be one of the cardinal interests of any peace action. Recognising each other in fact means recognising their differences; both are legitimately Algerian and merely express one point of view. The common framework must be one of democracy and human rights; both sides have to make concessions in order to stay within it.

In Algeria, the process of recognition is still going on. The regime claims that it draws its legitimacy from the independence struggle against French colonial occupation. According to its leaders, the army which fought it represents all real Algerian values, the so-called national constants. But if one considers that 70 percent of the Algerian population is under thirty years of age, that is, made up of young people who did not take part in the fight for independence and have only read about it in history books, it is easy to see how estranged they may feel from a regime they consider old.

In fact, in order to maintain legitimacy, as state has to take historical developments into account. In the eighties, the people in Algeria were no longer intimately interested in the alleged national values, which had become obsolete; they were interested in democracy. The ruling class itself (established in the sixties and seventies on Soviet models) was tired and embroiled in endless intestine conflicts among lobbies and clans. Corruption was widespread. Despite repeated statements of its leaders to the contrary, Algeria cannot (and has never been able to) do without Western economic aid; the survival of the state— in poor condition as the result of erroneous economic choices (the same as those made in Eastern Europe)—depends on it. Foreign debt is high: just over US$ 30 billion. 12

When the young people took to the streets in October 1988, these contradictions came to a head: the anger of the generations that had not fought the war of independence turned against the aging regime which expresses only hogra, an untranslatable word meaning contemporaneously “pride, corruption, arrogance”. The authorities reacted violently: the soldiers sent in to calm the demonstrations fired and killed hundreds of young people (some say more than a thousand). From that moment on, the army, the holder of Algerian power, lost all residual legitimacy in the eyes of the Algerians.

In this absence of communication between generations, it was this gap between the population and the country’s leaders that the Algerian Islamists filled with surprising rapidity. Although not well organised and without a comprehensive political programme, they had one fundamental advantage: direct contact with the people whose sentiments they knew well. This was their main card. In a few months they managed to grasp and adopt as their own all the demands that had been made during the demonstrations (democracy, an end to corruption and to the military regime). They also had another advantage over the regime: they knew how to talk to the people, how to make themselves understood.

The greatest consequence of the appearance of the Islamists on the Algerian political scene was the birth of an opposition that is openly critical of the regime’s unilateral choices—something that was unthinkable until that time—and which is based on a new legitimacy, religion. With the timid democratic opening followed by the upheaval of 1988, the new Islamist party, the FIS, quickly occupied almost the entire political stage. 13 The democratic parties, disorganised after years of repression and with their leaders in exile, 14 found it hard to follow suit. While the Islamists had found refuge in the country’s mosques and Koranic schools during the years of the single-party regime, the lay opposition had been harshly repressed, physically eliminated or exiled. 15 The few young, inexperienced intellectuals in the country and those who militated in the two human rights leagues (LADDH and Ligue Algérienne des Droits de l’Homme—LADH) were slow to form new political forces. Finally, there was an independent press but it only came to express its potential in 1989.

The only non-Islamic opposition that existed in 1988 were the feminist and women’s movements that had been fighting since the early eighties for women’s rights. 16 They were, however, a limited phenomenon in Algerian society, which is on the whole very traditional. Indeed, this is another reason why the Islamists were able to occupy so quickly the political scene which opened up after the demonstrations of 1988. By the time the lay and democratic opposition started to organise, the FIS was already well established. 17

In Algeria, the political clash between the regime and the Islamist opposition was extremely severe: for the first time, the very bases of the legitimacy of the power that had led the country since 1962 and especially since 1965 after the military coup were being questioned. The lay democratic opposition was weak and unable to find the consensus needed to emerge as a third force between the two major contenders. The Islamists were sure of themselves and their radical project. Indeed, they won the regional elections in 1990. At the same time, the regime fanned the fear spawned by the FIS, especially with a press campaign intended for Western consumption.

It was in this atmosphere of tension and harsh political controversy that the general elections took place in December 1991. In June 1991, FIS leaders had been imprisoned on charges of sedition. Nevertheless, the Islamist party ran in the election and won, almost achieving a majority in the first round. At this point, the army carried out the coup, taking control of the country once again. The election results were cancelled, President Chadli was dismissed and martial law introduced. 18 The protests of a part of the democratic opposition, which claimed that the Constitution had sufficient safeguards to keep an FIS government in check, went unheard. In March 1992, the FIS was disbanded and its leaders imprisoned. Militants and cadres, who had been against running in the election from the start, now subjected to the propaganda of the extremist factions, were sucked into the armed struggle. Algeria precipitated into civil war.

The Rome Platform

The Rome Platform of January 1995, organised by the Community of St. Egidio, represents the first and only political attempt to end this bloody war. The aim was to get all parties to sit down and recognise each other as part of the same nation. In the Rome Platform, the FIS condemned violence and started its return to a terrain of political confrontation. The “peace offer” called on the military to accept the presence of political alternatives, of a new pole with which to negotiate. The democratic and lay opposition forces that signed the Platform were to act as buffers between the two contenders.

The formula used in Rome was to bring the FIS back into the political framework, moderating it and forcing it to take on commitments toward the public. The document that resulted from those negotiations is still the only document indicating a political and peaceful solution to the Algerian crisis. This was a “peace offer” made to the regime, in which the FIS renounced the privilege of being the only interlocutor on the opposition and became a part of a common framework in which the lay parties increased their political weight and obliged the FIS to make concessions: accept democratic principles, political pluralism, fundamental freedoms and, lastly, religious pluralism. 19 This was no small thing for an integralist movement. In return for recognition, the FIS had not only to condemn, but also to take responsibility for the armed groups, stripping them of all support and religious legitimacy (very important for armed groups of that kind). Only the FIS could do this. In fact, why should the armed groups trust anyone outside of their ideological world?

The Rome Platform was meant to isolate the terrorists, using the political wing of the Islamist movement. But the FIS was not left alone to represent the opposition: it was set in a group of parties which would condition it positively. At the same time, the regime saved face since it did not have to talk to the FIS, which it had disbanded, but with a group of parties presented together as the opposition. The alternative was endless war, exactly what rejection of the Platform has caused.

After a certain period of reflection, the regime rejected the Platform, ostensibly because it was signed abroad. In the internal debate among the various clans in power, those who came out on top condemned and continue to condemn any kind of outside interference and prefer eradication, that is, a military solution.

Throughout 1996, in Western countries in general and the European Union in particular, political leaders were divided among positions in favour of a solution and more prudent stances or no stance at all. But in January 1997, the debate over the Algerian crisis came to the fore after months of silence. In France, former president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing proposed legalising the FIS again, while the then secretary of the Socialist Party, Lionel Jospin, advocated dialogue. In Italy, the Undersecretary of Defence Piero Fassino suggested that a table of negotiation between the government and the opposition be prepared immediately to outline the steps required to return to democratic normality. But the Algerian authorities reacted to these declarations with the usual invective, accusing the European countries of interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign country.

Interference has become the Leitmotiv of reactions against all those who claim that some kind of intervention is required in Algeria. It was directed against UN Secretary General Kofi Annan when he came out in favour of international action to put an end to the massacres in October 1997. It was repeated against former Irish president Mary Robinson, now UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who had in autumn 1997 asked the Algerian government for information on the dynamics of the massacres. Accusations of interference have been meted out to the French, the Germans, the British, the Italians and to Bill Clinton when he supported the idea of an international enquiry into the massacres, proposed by the world’s major humanitarian organisations. 20 Even the latter were not spared a fierce attack in November 1997: the Algerian government denounced Amnesty International for having become the spokesman of the terrorists, thereby legitimating armed opposition in Algeria. 21

For the Algerian regime, only one proposition from abroad is acceptable; condemnation of Islamic terrorism. Everything else falls into the category of interference and must therefore be forcefully rejected. Algiers considers everything else direct (or presumed) support for the GIA. The military want a free hand to be able to carry out their work of eradicating terrorism.

Among the objectives most frequently targeted by the Algerian regime is the Community of St. Egidio. The authorities have constantly been attacking the community for the past three years, that is, since the Rome Platform was signed. Indeed, in his speech closing the campaign for the 5 June 1997 elections, Prime Minister Ouyahia ended with the slogan “yes to peace, no to St. Egidio”.

In early January 1998, a new series of heinous massacres of the Algerian civilian population provoked a slightly more determined international reaction. The governments of the European Union decided jointly to take a step with respect to the Algerian crisis. For months, public opinion in the EU had demanded action and international humanitarian organisations were pressing for external intervention to help the country out of the crisis that had been suffocating it for six long years. Particularly disconcerting were the repeated assertions by Algerian leaders in the face of the obviously deteriorating situation that the country was not at war, but that these were simply acts of terrorism, a phenomenon even defined as “residual”. 22

Even though the Algerian regime did not accept the Rome Platform as the basis for general negotiations leading to the end of the conflict under way, the fact that the opposition (which represented 80 percent of the voters in the first round of the 1991 elections) managed to work out this joint document attested to the validity of the effort. What drove the Algerian parties to meet at St. Egidio was the awareness expressed by the Community that there is no military solution to the conflict. 23

The road indicated by the Platform, despite its rejection, is still valid because there is no military solution. Indeed, an agreement between the two contenders alone (army and fundamentalists) excluding the other parties—and with them, civil society—from the country’s future political scenario is not to be hoped for. Although it was not implemented, the Platform remains a very important acquisition for any future solution.


The Case of Guatemala

The peace-making action of the Community of St. Egidio in Guatemala was quite different but can be equally instructive. In this case, it was not a matter of bringing together two parties at war, but of rekindling a peace process that had already begun but had been interrupted, frozen for more than a year.

The war in Guatemala had old origins: 35 years of conflict, more than 150,000 victims. This must not be forgotten. The peace process had been going on for a long time and had suffered periods of stagnation of up to six years. As of January 1994, the United Nations undertook an official mediating role in the peace process between the government and the guerrilla movement, the Union Rivolucionaria Nacional de Guatemala (URNG), one of the oldest in Central America. Nevertheless, dialogue had come to a halt because of a lack of trust between the parties which had no direct contacts at the highest level: exponents of the government and the comandancia had never met.

The initiative of the Community of St. Egidio was dictated by the need to overcome this impasse, creating an informal and direct contact between the two interlocutors. According to St. Egidio, what was needed were direct encounters and conversations, even if at first totally reserved and discreet. To this end, the Community could represent an informal and neutral mediator. After a series of preliminary contacts, a first meeting was held in San Salvador in December 1995, between the then candidate for the presidential elections, Alvaro Arzù, and the four leaders of the comandancia. Arzù, a right-wing candidate supported by a part of the military in the elections that were to be held in Guatemala the next month, had expressed interest in a negotiated solution. The first meeting was followed by others, first in San Salvador, then in Mexico City and finally in Rome, at the seat of the Community. Subsequent to the last meeting in Rome, held in February 1996, the two parties decided to inform public opinion of their previous contacts and the continuation of official negotiations. In the meantime, Arzù had been elected president on 14 January 1996.

In this case, the reserved meetings served to verify the existence of a common desire to make peace and create that atmosphere of trust which had come to lack during indirect negotiations. As long as there were no direct encounters with the guerrillas, the same difficulties in changing the mind set of an armed group and having it evolve contemporaneously towards a political and international logic were encountered in Guatemala. During the meetings, they had to tackle and learn the skills of politics and diplomacy.

The official negotiations with the UN as mediator were thus able to start again on a more solid basis and ended with the signing of a peace agreement in Mexico City in December 1996. In the Guatemalan case, the Community intervened to unblock a stalled situation and re-establish trust. In Rome, while announcing that official negotiations would continue, the two parties explained to the international press gathered at St. Egidio, that the secret direct meetings had been decisive in reaching the decision to return to official negotiations. Naturally, the Community had worked in permanent contact with the United Nations and the governments involved.

The elements that this case has in common with those of Mozambique and Algeria are evident: initial secret contacts followed by public moments to commit the parties; the choice of direct meetings between the parties to the conflict and direct negotiations; no overlapping with projects external to the crisis; creating an atmosphere of mutual trust; achieving reciprocal recognition among the parties as interlocutors; creating synergy between official and informal diplomacy.



It may be interesting at this point to attempt to summarise some points to understand what the role of an organisation in civil society may be in resolving conflicts. On the basis of the experience of St. Egidio, it is important to have

While peace has finally been restored in Mozambique and Guatemala, it will still take some time in Algeria. But undoubtedly the agreement in Rome brought a new turn to events, introducing a political element into a purely military situation. Algeria is still the centre of an intricate tangle of economic interests that tie it to the West and above all Europe. From whatever perspective you look at it, the Algerian war seems to be an inextricable knot, entangling politics, religion, terrorism, an authoritarian military regime, numerous contrasting political subjects, and a lack of reliable information. St. Egidio’s action was an attempt to respond to the desire for peace expressed on every possible occasion by the Algerian people, hostage to this complex and dramatic situation.


Mario Giro is a member of the St. Egidio Community, in charge of the West African desk.



*: Translation is by Gabriele Tonne.  Back.

Note 1: Suffice it mention the visits to Rome of authoritative Islamic representatives such as the Secretary of RABITA, Omar Nasseef, now president of the Consultative Chamber of Saudi Arabia, as well as the Grand Muftis of Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen.  Back.

Note 2: From the Maronites and Melchites in Syria and Lebanon, to the Copts in Egypt and the Chaldeans in Algeria.  Back.

Note 3: It provided medical and humanitarian assistance to the SWAPO in Namibia in difficult times, to Ethiopia and Eritrea during the famine and war, to the population in Southern Sudan; it maintained relations with Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Catholic Bishop Denis Hurley of South Africa.  Back.

Note 4: To this end, the Community is an observer at the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summits.  Back.

Note 5: “Message from the Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to the Seventh International Meeting for Peace of St. Egidio Community”, Milan, 19-22 December 1993.  Back.

Note 6: In line with the policy of the Soviet bloc, the Frelimo government had taken a number of actions against the Church, such as closing churches, seminaries and keeping members of the clergy and bishops under house arrest.  Back.

Note 7: The extremists who were behind the birth of the armed groups, of which the most famous is the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA), criticised the decisions of the legal party, FIS, from its founding. In particular, they were against participating in the elections. But until the closure of the legislature on 26 December 1991 (after the first round) the political party had been dominant.  Back.

Note 8: The Front de Libération National—FNL (former single party), the Front des Forces Socialistes—FFS (founded by Ait Ahmed), the Mouvement pour le Démocratie en Algérie—MDA (founded by Ben Bella), the moderate Islamic parties (Ennahada and Jezair Musulmanne Contemporaine—JMC), and the Parti des Travailleurs (extreme left), as well as the president of the Ligue Algérienne de Défense des Droits de l’Homme—LADDH, Ali Yahia, who acted as guarantor.  Back.

Note 9: 18 February 1995, p. 13.  Back.

Note 10: Unlike the GIA, which has never been linked to the FIS.  Back.

Note 11: The military hold the reins of power since the 1965 coup d’état by Colonel Boumedienne. Since then, all presidents with the brief exception of Boudiaf (January-June 1992) have been members of the military. The army has control of the public administration, the economy and the police. Until the short democratic opening in 1989-91, the single party, the FLN, acted as a “screen” and provided the military with the necessary technical cadres.  Back.

Note 12: S. Goumeziane, “Le mal algérien. Economie politique d’une transition inachevée 1962-1994” (Paris: Guillimard, 1994).  Back.

Note 13: President Chadli was forced to renounce the single-party system and had to reform the constitution and open up to political pluralism. More than sixty parties were given authorisation, including the FIS.  Back.

Note 14: In particular the FFS of Ait Ahmed and the Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Démocratie—RCD of Said Saadi.  Back.

Note 15: When the 1988 demonstrations began, Hocine Ait Ahmed, one of the five historic leaders of the 1954 revolt and historic opponent of the single party, was in exile in Switzerland, and found it difficult to communicate. His party, the FFS, on the opposition since 1963 and in favour of pluralism, was in poor shape, surviving only thanks to the solidarity of the Berbers in the Cabilia region, where it was first established. Ben Bella, the first Algerian president, removed in 1965 by the military coup, did not have a real party and was also in exile. Boudiaf, another member of the historical opposition was in Morocco and was no longer active in politics since his party, the Rassemblement Patriotique National—RPN had been disbanded. Other members of the opposition had reportedly been killed by the Algerian secret services in Arab or European capitals.  Back.

Note 16: In particular, against the Family Law, which was approved in 1984 and meant a step backwards for women’s rights.  Back.

Note 17: In addition to those already mentioned, the most important political parties in Algeria are: the moderate Islamists Hamas and Ennahada, the Ettahadi, former communists; Alliance Nationalrépublicaine—ANR, and the most recent to appear, the Rassemblement National Démocratique—RND, the party of President Zeroual.  Back.

Note 18: Chadli was accused of not having been able to manage the transition and of having given the FIS too much room for manoeuvre. His place was taken by a High Committee made up of five men loyal to the military and headed by Boudiaf, recalled from Morocco. In June 1992, Boudiaf was killed in a mysterious assassination carried out by one of his body guards. The murder remains unexplained. Boudiaf had tried to undertake a fight against corruption in the state apparatus.  Back.

Note 19: This last element reflects the concern of the Community of St. Egidio for the few followers of the Catholic Church in Algeria, subjected to serious tensions and which had already paid a bloody tribute to the war with the tragic deaths of seven monks of Notre Dame de l’Atlas, kidnapped from their monastery on the night of 26 March and found dead on 30 May 1996.  Back.

Note 20: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Fédération Internationale des Droits de l’Homme, Reporters Sans Frontières.  Back.

Note 21: See the declaration of the Algerian Foreign Minister Ahmed Attaf before the Foreign Affairs Commission of the European Parliament, to which he was summoned for a special hearing on the Algerian crisis on 27 November 1997. Le Monde, 28 November 1997.  Back.

Note 22: Declaration of Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, “Algérie: le droit chemin”, Politique Internationale, no. 73, 1996, p. 233.  Back.

Note 23: This awareness emerged in particular during the colloquium on Algerian crisis organised by St. Egidio on 21-22 November 1994, to which all parties, including government, were invited.  Back.