January 1996


Editors Note:

Of the many places where Islamic fundamentalism is colliding with its "enemies" -- the Middle East and certain Gulf states, Afghanistan and even to an extent, Bosnia -- one of the most volatile is Algeria.

Here the situation takes on more than a religious dimension, given the December 1991 electoral victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (subsequently annulled by the ruling military), the number of Algerians who currently reside in France (800,000), and conversely, the large French community in Algeria (750,000).

Professor Peter St. John, from the University of Manitoba, approaches the topic from two directions: first, by providing a brief overview of the previous, and current, phases of civil unrest; and then by a closer examination of the efforts to "internationalize" the struggle (and thereby to invite the international community to participate in its resolution).

Disclaimer: Publication of an article in the COMMENTARY series does not imply CSIS authentication of the information nor CSIS endorsement of the author's views.

Religious fundamentalists are at war with secularists in a struggle which is decimating Algerian society. Both sides have their supporters outside Algeria, long-standing economic relationships with Algeria are at stake and already the conflict's baneful influence has spread to nearby Western Europe. In the years of fratricidal civil war since 1993, nearly 50,000 Algerians have died, more than 50 journalists have been murdered, and almost 100 foreigners have been mutilated and killed.

The prospect of global intervention now looms as France, the United States, Western Europe and the Arab-Muslim world are being lured like moths by the progressive internationalization of the conflict.

The first Algerian War (1954-1962) took place in the midst of the Cold War, triggered at least in part by two significant international influences: international communism, which carried with it the potential for Soviet, Chinese and Yugoslav intervention; and a vast movement of decolonization, favouring indigenous insurgents, which was rapidly liberating the former colonial holdings of the Western European powers.

By contrast, the present insurgency in Algeria has until now been a civil war between military, secularist "governing" forces on one hand, and Islamic fundamentalist insurgents on the other. Although the current insurgency has threatened to become internationalized (as did its predecessor) since Islamic militants hijacked Air France Flight 8969 in Algiers in December 1994, this current conflict is radically different from the first one internally and internationally. International communism has given way to Islamic fundamentalism, and the former colonial struggle has been replaced by ethno-political contention for power throughout the Second and Third Worlds.

The internationalization of the present Algerian insurgency could easily become the harbinger of future Islamic insurgencies in Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Saudi-Arabia or even Iraq. Certainly the radical "Governments of God" in Iran, Afghanistan and Sudan are actively encouraging religious and political "revolution" in Algeria, knowing full well that a victory there might bring fundamental change to the rest of the Arab Islamic world. One can well imagine that a billion Muslims, from Mauritania to the Philippines, are watching the outcome of this contest with considerable interest. But the Western nations are also watching Algeria; their interests lie in stifling the fundamentalist upsurge and protecting important commercial and trade interests in the region. Should the pressures for intervention prove overwhelming, Algeria might well become the lightning rod between the Islamic and Western worlds.

Legitimacy and identity

Over the years Algeria had developed a political culture unused to accommodating opposing points of view. With no mechanisms for peaceful evolution, Algeria developed a long tradition of the use of violence to effect change.

It is quite striking that most Algerians seem opposed to both the military dictatorship of the government and its replacement with an Islamic dictatorship. The failure to develop a middle road between these two extremes is, as Claire Spencer points out, due to "the lack of an inclusive, yet politically tolerant definition of what it means to be Algerian". The very question of identity has now been politicized in Algerian society, and the formulation of future societal goals will have to be based on a recognition of cultural, ethnic and regional differences requiring a whole new balance of political forces.

The crisis in Algerian identity can be traced to the politicization of the issue of language. Under French rule, Arabic was suppressed, and by 1962 all the Algerian élites were French-speaking. Between 1965 and 1978, President Boumedienne attempted to Arabize education, and partially succeeded. In 1979 there were demonstrations over the lack of jobs for Arab speakers, and French speakers were characterized as Hizbal Franca (the Party of France). The Berber population, comprising 15%-20% of Algerians, clung to the French language as a means to resist Arabization.

Since 1988, the language dispute has become enmeshed in the controversy between secularists and Islamists, and the Islamist linkage of Arabic with the values of Islam has denied the Berbers a role in Algeria's future. The Front of Socialist Forces (FFS) has also been daubed with the brush of Hizbal Franca and, like the Berbers, is threatened with marginalization in an Islamic state. An Islamic Arabic Algerian nation appeals to large numbers of Algerians in much the same way that the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), with its secular nationalism, appealed to a significant proportion of the populace at an earlier stage. The obvious problem is that both exclude large and important sectors of society.

Unfortunately, successive governments in Algeria have consistently failed to address these fundamental social and cultural issues. The resulting irony is that a move toward liberalization has had the tragic effect of dividing Algerians down the middle between secularists and Islamists. The result has been civil war, a domestic insurgency which has witnessed the death of nearly 50,000 Algerians since 1992, and a rapidly internationalizing conflict which has prompted the flight of nearly 40,000 productive, middle-class Algerians to France.

The October riots and their aftermath

The second Algerian insurrection began in Algiers with the October 1988 riots. This spontaneous violence was savagely repressed by the government, resulting in the death of 500 people at the hands of the security forces. The riots were a reaction to three factors: hesitant economic reforms initiated by President Chadli Benjedid (hereafter Chadli), rising youth unemployment and shattered social and political expectations. At least 75% of the Algerian population is under 25 years old, many of whom are unemployed. The heavy dependence on a petrochemical-based economy led to serious national revenue declines in the 1980s in Algeria, as the world price of oil plummetted. Chadli, who assumed the presidency in 1979, attempted to work on the economy's structural problems between 1980 and 1987, and in July of that year launched a second series of reforms which included the creation of a human rights league. In December 1988 (just after the October riots), Chadli was elected to a third term and in early 1989, he initiated a third wave of reform in which he announced his government's intention to make Algeria "a nation of laws".

These constitutional reforms included separating the FLN from the state, moving the military out of interference in politics and heading toward democratization. On 23 February 1989, a new Algerian constitution was passed with a 92% majority and included the right to form political parties. Soon, dozens emerged.

Islamic Salvation Front

Meanwhile, in February 1989 an Islamist movement which came to be known as the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) had been created. Anticipating, or perhaps reacting to the deteriorating economic and social conditions, the FIS created a network of small, informal groups (endemic mosques, in fact) which grew rapidly, somehow escaping government control from the Ministry of Religious Affairs. In September 1989, the FIS filed for legal recognition and was certified as a political party. Such status had been previously denied confessional political parties in both Morocco and Tunisia.

The attempt at democratic elections

Early in 1990, the army announced it would formally withdraw from politics, and Algeria under President Chadli seemed poised to be the first Arab country to achieve a formal multi-party democratic system. In the spring, there were marches and political rallies everywhere, and even former president Ben Bella returned from exile in France to campaign on behalf of democracy. Municipal elections took place in June 1990, resulting in a massive victory for the FIS, which won control of 850 of 1,500 municipalities in the country, with 54% of the popular vote to 28% for the incumbent FLN. Although 35% of the electorate boycotted the elections, this completely unexpected showing by the FIS indicated that people were tired of the old order, desperately sought change and were therefore partial to the Islamist message. (There had been small indicators of this popular inclination toward the FIS. Following an earthquake in November 1989, the FIS had supplied food and help to the victims long before the government did.)

President Chadli gave no indication of dismay at these results, though he and the government were undoubtedly taken by surprise. In July 1990, he duly authorized major elections for the national parliament, to be held in the first three months of 1991. In March 1991, through a major exercise in gerrymandering, the government expanded Algeria's parliament from 295 seats to 542, potentially favouring the FLN. Outraged by this blatant manipulation of the electoral process, the FIS called for a general strike. As violence escalated, Chadli called in the army and imposed martial law for the second time in three years, and postponed the elections.

In response, the leader of the FIS threatened jihad against the army, a response which could be seen as a declaration of war against the state. On 30 June the army arrested Abassi al Madani and his second-in-command, Ahmed Belhadj, on charges of conspiracy against the state. Almost 700 Islamists were taken into custody, raising the number of FIS members imprisoned to 3,000 by 1 July.

Despite the apparent chaos within the country, Algerians went to the polls on 26 December 1991 to vote in their first multi-party democratic election. The results were a considerable shock to the ruling élites, who were expecting a divided vote in favour of the FLN. Instead, in the first run-off, the FIS won 231 of 430 seats; the FLN won a mere 15 seats and the FFS (Socialist Front), came second with 25 seats. The second round of the elections was to be held on 16 January 1992, when the remaining seats would be filled.

The FIS was ecstatic at what seemed to be a clear-cut victory, and Chadli, it seems in retrospect, assumed he could preside over an Islamist government. The military, thoroughly alarmed, thought differently, and on 9 January 1992, the army resumed its historic role as the main determinant of Algerian politics. The generals forced Chadli to resign and replaced the presidency with a five-member High Council of State. Acting illegally in this way, the army was as culpable as the FIS was with its provocations of violence. The generals also cancelled the remaining elections due in a few days time and imposed a nation-wide state of emergency.

Throughout this period of extraordinary conflict, the FIS and its radical affiliates worked steadily to internationalize Algeria's domestic situation. Their plan was to provoke intervention in Algeria against what they considered to be an illegitimate government. They were counting on the intervention of established Islamist governments in Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. But intervention was also sought from France, the European Community, the United States and anyone else ready to aid the Government of God in its legitimate electoral victory.

As both sides in the civil war soon discovered, the use of naked force by one sector of society against another was not going to win the war. As a result, the government and the Islamists both began to orchestrate whatever international support they could muster. Little did they suspect that this strategy, previously successfully used by the FLN, might this time boomerang.

Five strategies for internationalization

The Islamists used five strategies to internationalize the war. The first occurred in August 1992, when a bomb exploded in Algiers international airport, causing immense damage and killing nine people. The message was that international travellers were not welcome in Algeria. The FIS was immediately blamed, and Algerians began seriously to examine its proposed political program. That program included introduction of the sharia, or religious law -- cutting off the right hand for stealing, stoning for adultery, a complete ban on alcohol and the enforced wearing of the hijab or veil -- as the law of the land. The FIS also made its theology perfectly clear: God cannot be subordinated to democracy, nor can His laws be nullified through parliamentary debate and legislation. For the worldly inhabitants of Algiers, this was akin to stepping back into the Dark Ages, and resistance to the Islamist message began to emerge.

The second strategy used to internationalize the war began in May 1993 when the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) began targeting journalists, both foreign and local, for execution. The GIA spokesperson announced that "those who fight by the pen shall die by the sword". By the end of 1995, almost 50 journalists had been brutally slain, proving this was no idle threat, and shutting down all national and international discussion of the Algerian situation.

The third strategy emerged in August 1993 with the kidnapping of three French consular officials. The last of these, released after a week, brought with him a scrawled message which stated, "Foreigners, leave the country. We give you one month." By mid-December, 23 foreigners were dead. Clearly this new tactic was both a provocation and a warning to Algeria's aid and trade partners, and a reaction from France was not long in coming. Charles Pasqua, French Minister of the Interior, cracked down hard in France in late November, arresting 88 people with known connections to the FIS. With four million Muslims in France, 800,000 of them Algerians, and a French community of 75,000 in Algeria, both countries could bring considerable pressure to bear on each other. By December 1995, 100 foreigners had died in Algeria, many of them French; none American.

The fourth tactic was the GIA hijack on 26 December 1994, the second anniversary of the invalidated national election. As the incident progressed, 3 passengers were murdered, 63 were freed, and finally in Marseilles the French Special Forces ended the incident by killing all 4 Algerian hijackers. Although 170 passengers were rescued, the hijacking greatly internationalized the war. There was also international revulsion at the strong evidence that the hijackers had intended to explode the plane over Paris, and at clear indications of Iran's involvement.

The fifth strategy, aimed at bringing home the reality of the Algerian war to ordinary French citizens, began in the Paris Metro on 25 July 1995. A bomb exploded killing 7 and wounding 17, the first of a series of disruptive bombings which by October had wounded 150 people. Ultimately, the bombings appeared to be aimed at separating the French government from its support for its Algerian counterpart.

Writing for Time magazine, Lara Marlowe interviewed a young Islamist in Algeria, who stated that if Western governments ended their support for the Algerian régime, it would collapse in two weeks. Perhaps this comment struck at the heart of the matter, since French pilots, advisers and money were pouring steadily into Algeria.

Internationalization had also divided the French Cabinet, since Interior Minister Pasqua was hardline but Foreign Minister Alain Juppe was conciliatory. Finally, as a result of these developments, there was also growing concern in Europe that the Islamists might radicalize the other states of the Maghreb, Morocco and Tunisia.

Intervention and negotiation

The purpose of internationalization is to force international intervention in a civil war. However, internationalization may not necessarily favour the initiating party -- the insurgents; it can also favour the incumbents. The important point is that intervention almost inevitably leads to negotiation, because the international community demands it. This is the position in which the Algerian imbroglio now finds itself.

When Prime Minister Zeroual became president in early 1994, he announced he was prepared for political dialogue with all factions, including Islamists, if they would renounce the use of violence. He had in fact already held secret talks with the imprisoned leaders Belhadj and al Madani. Now, in the late summer, he placed them under house arrest, enabling contact with political associates and creating a moment of hope for political compromise. Unfortunately, the extremists on both sides closed down this first attempt at negotiation, as the eradicators faced off against the GIA in a flurry of destructive violence.

In the following months, the régime launched a harsh offensive against the Islamists, who in turn retaliated with car bombs and more assassinations of intellectuals, women and policemen. Neither side seemed capable of winning the bloody stalemate.

The National Contract

Therefore, in mid-January a second step was taken in the direction of negotiation and compromise. Responding to a call by Algerian politicians for an end to the killing, a Roman Catholic group in Rome, called Sant 'Egidio, convened a meeting of Algerian opposition leaders. For the first time, the GIA expressed an interest in negotiating, and the FIS sent two leaders in exile to Rome to join members of the FLN and the FFS. After a week of talks, an agreement emerged in a remarkably far-sighted document called the National Contract. The agreement set seven conditions for the opening of talks, including the release of jailed Islamic leaders, the creation of a transitional administration and the lifting of a three-year state of emergency. It condemned violence, called for respect for the 1989 constitution and supported the idea of multi-party democracy. It also appealed for respect for legality, human rights and minority rights. The alternation of political power would hold out the vision of a pluralistic civil society to secularists and Islamists, Arabs and Berbers, and those on the left and the right.

Unfortunately, the Algerian government quickly denounced the Sant 'Egidio agreement as interference in its internal affairs, and to counter its appeal, announced a presidential election for November 1995.

Intense violence resumed in Algeria, initiated in late January by the explosion of a huge car bomb near the police headquarters, which killed 38 and wounded 256. It was apparent that the threshold of a "hurting stalemate" had not yet been reached.

With four million of Europe's ten million Muslims, and a 165-year relationship with Algeria, France was the nation most directly engaged in the Algerian insurgency. Yet even after three generations of Algerians had lived in France, Islam was not well understood. In addition, the daily flood of refugees from Algeria was heightening fears of terrorism in France. Throughout 1994, there was a profound lack of sympathy for the Islamic fundamentalists, but by the fall of 1995, the French body politic had grown increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of supporting a corrupt, repressive military junta in Algiers, out of touch with people and interested only in hanging on to power. Also by the fall, France's conservative government had shifted from strong support for the generals to a more even-handed approach, with emphasis on the need for negotiation. This strategy is frequently the precursor of a mediatory role, and France was positioning itself for a negotiated settlement.

In the United States, President Clinton announced in May 1994, "Islam is not the issue; our foe is oppression and extremism". In other words, the USA was contemplating reaching out to Muslim régimes which emerged through peaceful means. By 1995, both Washington and Paris had arrived at fairly similar assessments of the situation in Algeria. Both supported the Sant 'Egidio process, as did Germany, but this promising avenue was closed when the presidential elections were announced for November.

It was therefore not surprising that the third, fourth and fifth attempts at initiating negotiations were regional and European in origin. The Sant 'Egidio declaration appealed to the international community as a whole, and a summer of bombings in France accelerated that country's acceptance of allied involvement. In June 1994, with the situation in Algeria much in mind, the European Council agreed to augment its efforts toward peace, stability and the socio-economic development of the 12 nations of the Mediterranean region. This led, in December 1994, to the European Union increasing its economic assistance to the region to 5.5 billion (ECU) over five years, which compared favourably with 7.5 billion for Eastern Europe.

Later, at the Naples meeting of the G7 countries, a communiqué affirmed the Mediterranean region as an area of common concern. This announcement clearly also had Algeria in mind. Finally, in October 1995 in Barcelona, NATO began a Mediterranean initiative designed to promote dialogue between nations to the north and south of the sea. Algeria's small nuclear program, developed with Chinese assistance, was within easy missile range of Western Europe, thus making it a NATO security concern.


Democratization as a solution

Of all the countries of Arab Islam, Algeria seemed to have the most assets for a successful transition into the modern, politically pluralistic world. But the polyglot, tolerant, cosmopolitan Algeria loved by the poets and intellectuals simply did not take root at independence. The vision of the leaders of modern Algeria was not the creation of a national identity, which would integrate the interests of Arabs, Berbers, French, Jews, Spaniards, Turks and Italians. Rather it was a continuum of confrontation among clans and factions, a dreary brew of ideologists, socialists, Third Worldists and pan-Arab nationalists. The bankruptcy of this formula became apparent after the October riots in 1988.

It is ironic and really quite surprising that a severe economic downturn in an authoritarian régime of dubious legitimacy should result in a leadership response of liberalization, pointing in the direction of democratization. Yet this is exactly what happened after the October riots. The door to democratization swung open. That the country was not equal to the challenge may say more about Algeria's past than its future.

So what is democratization and does it stand a chance in Algeria? Professor J.P. Entelis of Fordham University believes that Algeria, alone among the Arab states, has made a serious commitment to political pluralism. It consisted of the lessening of authoritarian control and the enlarging of political space by making room for social movements and civic groups to organize and advance their interests. But if democratization is to work, the political culture of democracy must be present. According to Entelis, this culture entails a belief in the legitimacy of democracy; tolerance for opposing beliefs and preferences; a willingness to compromise with political opponents; some minimum level of trust among political competitors; civility of political discourse and a willingness to participate in politics.

It is apparent that under the present conditions of civil war, any possibility of democratization is in complete abeyance. But that does not mean that the elements of a democratic political culture are absent from Algeria either. The long-term effect of French politics has had a deep impact on the Algerian psyche, and the democratic experiment very nearly succeeded in 1991-92. Chadli was arguably correct in moving toward democratization, but the panicky reaction of the army and its brutal intervention led to the present violence.

Democratization is not the same as democracy, but it does establish the precedents for a self-administering, self-perpetuating and orderly government. With international support and encouragement, Algeria could still develop a credible democratic system.


There are four possible scenarios for Algeria: Islamic government; a return to authoritarianism; democratization; or protracted civil war. During the last three years, the Islamists have become so vicious, destructive, splintered and out of control that it is unlikely Algerians or the international community would allow them to govern. It is one thing to be unfairly robbed of an electoral victory; it is quite another to participate eagerly in the death of 50,000 countrymen for the sake of religious principle. Islamic fundamentalism has been badly, perhaps irretrievably, discredited in Algeria.

But by the same token, government authoritarianism has run its course and is no longer a viable option for a majority of Algerians. The régime is tolerated only because the Islamists are perceived as an even worse alternative. A 60% vote in favour of President Zeroual in the election on 16 November 1995 was a vote not to continue army rule, but to support a move toward democracy. Since 75% of the electorate voted in the face of Islamic fundamentalist threats that the ballot boxes would become their coffins, it appears a democratic culture may well be alive and thriving. More than 90 observers from the Arab League, the Organization of African Unity and the UN were satisfied with the voting process, in Algiers at least.

So if a Lebanon-style disintegration is to be avoided, Algerians must be prepared to swallow their legendary pride and accept long-term international, reconstructive intervention, which may come from one or more institutions of Europe, NATO and the United Nations. Compromise will come in Algeria when both sides believe they have more to lose than to gain from fighting. It is at this moment that intervention must make the peace, rather than just preside over it. As Richard K. Betts has pointed out: "To make peace is to decide who rules. Making peace means determining how the war ends."

The views expressed herein are those of the author, who may be contacted by writing to :

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ISSN 1192-277X
Catalogue JS73-1/65

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