Ultimately, the idea here is to set the stage for the civil war of the 1990s and explain the long-term conditions which led to its eruption. The period between Algeria’s attainment of independence and the growing crisis of the late 1980s must be examined in order to explain why Algeria became such a powderkeg. When Algeria won independence in 1962, the world stopped paying attention. That other dirty secret of French colonialism, Vietnam, had by now taken over the headlines in any case, as the Americans went from cautious advocates of Third World liberation, to energetic opponents of it. But the end of French rule was far from the end of Algeria’s woes, although it may have seemed so at the time. The 1960s and 1970s were in many ways an optimistic period, in which the country took the lead as a standard-bearer of the rights of Third World nations to assert themselves, and give substance to their newly-won independence in the face of attempts by the old colonial powers to extend a kind of neocolonial economic domination over them. Countries like Algeria, therefore, drifted towards socialism and the Soviet sphere of influence while also playing a leading role in the Non-Aligned Movement of ‘Third World’ nations who sought to remain aloof from the Cold War rivalry of the two superpowers.
The socialist direction was evident from the first year of Algeria’s independence, as a struggle for leadership within the FLN resulted in the predominance of the more left-leaning revolutionary faction. This leftward direction emerged from meetings held in the Libyan capital, Tripoli in May, at which the FLN leadership criticised the Evian accords as making too many concessions to the colonial interest while not being sufficiently revolutionary in, for example, not securing the seizure of the settlers’ land, which the FLN regarded as stolen from the Algerian people. Agreement about these issues was far from uniform, however. While the movement for independence had maintained its unity while it had to concentrate on fighting the French, once this goal was achieved and the question of who would run the new state came up, cohesion quickly broke down and factions developed, vying for power and over competing visions of what kind of country Algeria would be. This was especially true after the release of the leaders arrested in 1956. This took place in July, at the same time independence became a reality, and everything was up for grabs in the turmoil of that summer.
In the previous post, we have already looked at the chaos surrounding the flight of the Pieds-Noirs and the massacre of some of them, any many Algerians who had collaborated with the French. Simultaneously with this was the struggle between Algerian factions in Algiers in July and August, to seize power. At Tripoli, while there was agreement on the broad strokes of a plan for Algeria’s future, the practicalities were another matter. One of the main points of contention was how and who the idealistic aspirations were to be put into execution by. The choice of the country’s first president was a particular bone of contention. The most popular figure among the people for this position was Ahmed Ben Bella (below), among those kidnapped in 1956 and just released by the French. Ben Bella was a bit like Algeria’s version of John F. Kennedy: charming, glamorous and popular, but less fabulous when you look beyond the surface gloss. Unlike many others in this story, he lived for ages, only dying in 2012 at the age of 95. He will reemerge in Algerian politics in the 1990s but he was not destined to remain around long after the winning of independence.
Perhaps even more important than charisma at this stage, Ben Bella had the support of the head of the ‘frontier army’, Houari Boumediène, who remained outside the country until September. These troops, organised more like a regular professional army than the forces that had been fighting a guerrilla war inside Algeria, were to become a vital factor in the showdown for power in 1962. Boumediène (below) was the king-maker, and had chosen to back Ben Bella, having sent his henchman, Abdelaziz Bouteflika (of whom we will hear more later), to sound out the jailed leaders earlier in the year. The choice of Ben Bella as leader was opposed, however, by the head of the Provisional Government, Benyoucef Benkhedda (who had replaced Ferhat Abbas), theoretically in charge of the country when the French left. He walked out of the Tripoli meetings, and returned to Algiers. I say he was theoretically in charge because really, it was unclear who actually wielded power in the new capital. Different armed groups affiliated with different commanders fought it out in the streets while the politicians bickered. Some of these armed factions supported the part of the army led by Boumediène, others were jealous and fearful of the power they would wield when they entered the country.
Ben Bella and his allies claimed legitimacy for their ‘political bureau’ in Tlemcen in late July. Benkhedda declared this illegitimate and his GPRA the legal authority. Two of the formerly-jailed leaders, Mohamed Boudiaf and Hocine Aït Ahmed (below left and right), were also opposed to Ben Bella’s installation as leader, but did not have sufficient muscle to stop him. As internecine fighting threatened to devour the country, most people simply wanted an end to war and for someone to come and impose order. Boumediène’s frontier army, along with its allies already inside the country, obliged marching into Algiers and establishing order in September. Constituent elections were held for the first National Assembly that month, but all candidates came from a single list of FLN members, purged of many of Ben Bella and Boumediène’s enemies. Ben Bella was duly elected Prime Minister and, when the new constitution was adopted the following year, President. Opposition figures (to the extent that opposition was allowed) like Boudiaf and Aït Ahmed attempted to use the National Assembly as a forum for their opposition, but it quickly became clear it was just a toothless talking shop. Real decisions were made within the higher echelons of the FLN and even the constitution was not thrashed out in the assembly, but written elsewhere and presented to them for the rubber stamp.
Boudiaf formed an underground party to resist the regime but was arrested, and then escaped to Morocco after being released. He would spend the next twenty-nine years abroad, in obscure exile, taking no part in Algerian politics even from afar, but he will dramatically re-enter the story again in the early 1990s. The Berber Aït Ahmed likewise formed his own party, the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), and led a brief revolt in the Kabylie region in October. It was put down with brutal violence by the national army, and Ahmed would be arrested, receiving a commuted death sentence in 1965. He escaped the following year, however, and spent the next twenty-four years of his life in Switzerland. He too would return to Algeria during the crisis of the late 1980s, but ultimately thought better of it and returned to Switzerland, where he died in 2015, aged eighty-nine.
What these, and other figures (really the situation was more complex than I am presenting it here, and Boudiaf and Aït Ahmed are just representative examples) objected to was, among other things, the lack of pluralism in this new Algeria that Ben Bella and Boumediène were cooking up. Having said that, many of them would likely have done likewise, and it should not be imagined that the establishment of a one-party state was simply the result of a fiendish plot by the triumphant faction to keep its hands on power. There was a deep-rooted mistrust of multi-party politics within the FLN and the nationalist movement in general. Under the French system, when some limited participation had been allowed for a brief period in the 1940s and 1950s, separatists had found themselves frustrated and demoralised by their efforts to get anywhere within the rigged electoral system, which seemed to dissipate their energies and encourage factional infighting. The FLN had swept all this away when they emerged in 1956, demanding that all other separatist groups disband and join their struggle, or risk being branded traitors to the cause. While to us this seems extreme and intolerant, at the time it was widely viewed as providing a refreshing focus and single-mindedness to the campaign.
As James McDougall has written in his History of Algeria:
By 1956, many would see ‘politics’ itself in this vein — electoralist, legal, parliamentary, plural — as thoroughly discredited, ineffective at best, the deliberately time-wasting and obstructionist business of ‘traitors’ at worst. The FLN, in an important respect, would in this sense be an anti-political movement of militarised direct action. In the longer term, the consequences of this would be dramatic.
Indeed they would.
The habit of solving problems by direct action, often violent, would also leave a lasting legacy. As the post-independence summer was marred by the deaths of thousands in internecine fighting within the FLN itself, Ferhat Abbas wrote despairingly:
If armed militants today turn their guns on other militants, we may as well say that tomorrow they will turn them on the people and on their freedom. And in that case, what nation and what homeland shall we have, if those with arms can impose their will on the people?
Nor should we overestimate the yearning for democracy in the form of regular elections among the people as a whole. The FLN possessed huge popular legitimacy as a result of its leading role in winning the war, Ben Bella was himself tremendously popular, and most people were more concerned with putting bread on the table. If someone had to be made dictator for life to guarantee these basics, there doesn’t appear to have been a huge amount of opposition to it. This was particularly urgent because the country was in ruins at independence. While Ben Bella had great plans to emulate Tito’s Yugoslavia or Castro’s Cuba, there was a severe shortage of technical skills given that these had been heavily dominated by the French settlers, most of whom had now left. There were reportedly only two architects in the country and less than a hundred doctors. This state of ruin was the legacy of French rule, it should be noted, and those that blame the ruined state of the country on the war (and thus on the Algerians for rising up) miss the point spectacularly.
Ben Bella does appear to have sincerely tried to tackle these problems. Far from projecting a distant, authoritarian image, he was a hands-on leader, traveling the country and meeting the people to assess their needs and problems. Realising the scale of the effort facing him, he devised grand plans and brandished lofty rhetoric about Third World liberation and Algeria’s natural resources saving the country. A huge bureaucracy would be necessary to manage this project, and he intended to exert direct control over as many of its aspects as possible. Ben Bella began to concentrate more and more power in his own hands, and he made the mistake of getting cocky and forgetting who had put him in power in the first place. During 1963-65, he took over the ministries of information and finance, folding these departments into his own office, and even brought the important post of Secretary General of the FLN into his own hands. There was talk of him taking over foreign affairs, depriving Boumediène’s pal, Abdelaziz Bouteflika (below right, next to Boumediène at the United Nations), of the post to which he had been appointed in 1963. In the event, Bouteflika, would remain in the post until 1978. Why? Because they got rid of Ben Bella.
In centralising power around him, Ben Bella made little effort to conciliate or try to bring back on board those rivals in the FLN he had pushed aside in his ascent to power. His biggest mistake was that he failed to keep the army under Boumediène sweet, and even gave them cause to fear he was planning to challenge their power when he declared the army’s subordination to the FLN in the Algiers Charter of 1964, then spoke of creating popular militias as a counterweight to their power. His popularity among the people may, have conversely, told against him in the corridors of power, and there were mutterings of him cultivating a ‘cult of personality’. Acting before it was too late, Boumediène had his soldiers arrest Ben Bella on the 19 June 1965, and put the country under the control of a Revolutionary Council, of which he was chairman. Ben Bella was put in jail for several months, but later allowed to live under house arrest. He would eventually be released and flee, like Aït Ahmed before him, to Switzerland. The parliament and constitution (which had not enjoyed the substance of power in any case) were suspended and, once again, there appears to have been little appetite for resistance among the people as a whole, despite Ben Bella’s popularity. There was an attempt by left-wing factions within the FLN to organise political opposition against the coup in the hope that the people would rally to their cause, but this didn’t amount to very much.
Boumediène’s style was very different to Ben Bella’s. He kept a low profile in the early years of his rule (he wasn’t officially president until 1976) and you get the impression from reading his biography that he fell into the position almost by accident, that he didn’t really see himself as destined for political power, and was by nature reluctant to step into the spotlight. In many pictures of him meeting other world leaders, he has a bemused ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ look on his face.
At the end of the 1960s, his regime consolidated its power by either eliminating the opposition or placating and assimilating it. He also faced opposition from some within the army jealous of his and his cliques’ power, but easily crushed a coup-attempt. Relations with the Soviet Union grew stronger and the economic programme more explicitly socialist. There was an optimism which Boumediène managed to keep going from the Ben Bella era, of a brighter future for formerly-colonised nations who were now taking control over their own destiny (and natural resources). Algeria was seen as a leader of this movement and Boumediène explicitly reorientated his country away from Europe and the colonialism of the past and towards Africa and (what they hoped was) the potential of the future. This hope was never more clearly manifested than in Algiers’ hosting of the Pan African Cultural Festival of 1969, a huge event in which thousands of artists from all over Africa descended on the city and filled it with music, dancing and colour for a week. There is some cool footage here:
All of this was helped in the 1970s by a huge rise in oil prices (Algeria nationalised their oil in 1971), which gave the appearance of success to the Algerian economy. Boumediène’s regime must be given credit for not hoarding all this for themselves in Swiss bank accounts (unlike many other newly-independent countries rich in resources) but instead invested heavily in education, healthcare and social projects….as well as the army and secret police. Basic foodstuffs and goods were subsidised and available at affordable prices. In the modern west, where economic success tends to be measured in how often people can buy a new iphone or how many millionaires live in a country, there is a tendency to scoff at such achievements. This is deeply stupid. These were tremendous achievements in a country where people had been allowed to literally starve to death under French rule a generation earlier.
There is also often a tendency to play down the efficacy of such conditions in shoring up the legitimacy of even an authoritarian regime. Boumediène did not try and make the Algerian people like him. He sought their co-operation through actions and results, and if he couldn’t get it that way, he resorted to violence. Although many people would look back fondly on the Boumediène years as relatively prosperous and peaceful compared to what followed, there were warning signs even then for those who were prepared to look for them. The state violence and crushing of dissent was one, of course, but even economically, the flaws were in retrospect obvious; the economy suffered from the same shortage of consumer goods that would stymie most Eastern-Bloc countries in their final decade, not to mention the fact that much of its success was due to inflated oil prices, a phenomenon which wasn’t going to last forever. The ‘oil glut’ of the 1980s saw the price of a barrel of oil fall between 1980 and 1986 from $35 to under $10, over half of this decline occurring in 1986 alone.
By this stage, Algeria was deep in crisis and Boumediène was long gone, having died of a rare blood disease in 1978, after being in a coma for over a month. Algeria’s problems were much deeper than a crisis of leadership, but the unpreparedness and farcical way in which he was eventually replaced didn’t help. The main candidates to succeed as president were Bouteflicka (generally seen as favourite and a pro-western liberal) and the left-wing candidate, Mohammad Salah Yahiaoui, whose support came from the trade unions and youth movements. Decisions were made, largely by the army and security services, behind closed doors and from their point of view, both men represented a threat in that they had their respective power bases beyond the army. What they ideally wanted was a fairly weak character they could manipulate, a front to facilitate the exploitation of the fruits of power which already existed but would go into overdrive in the following decade. They decided to appoint the virtually-unknown Chadli Bendjedid (below), an army colonel and commander of the Oran region, who would become a figurehead for all the venality and negligence of Algeria in the 1980s.
Although certainly not an inspirational figure or very competent president, in some ways it is unfair to place too much emphasis on Bendjedid’s role in the mess that was unfolding. This is largely because it lets so many others off the hook: corrupt army officers and business associates, those paying bribes and those receiving them, denying the Algerian people the basic securities they had once been able to rely on, just as the price of oil was crashing and undermining the fragile foundations of the economy, just as the population-boom of twenty years earlier was throwing millions of young people onto a labour market that had no jobs for them, just as an impoverished rural population was flooding into the shantytowns surrounding the big cities that hadn’t the infrastructure to house them or even provide for their basic needs. Algeria was a society in freefall, and everyone knew it. A small elite attached to the army and the FLN were the only ones doing well and increasingly (it was the 1980s after all) flaunted their wealth and luxury, while growing more detached from the general population, living in gated communities and sending their kids to French-language schools and universities.
The cabal of army generals who were the real power behind the government were largely trained in the French army and in many cases had only joined the independence struggle in the final period, after it was already won. All of these facts confirmed a general impression held by the population that saw the the corrupt oligarchy that now ran Algeria, popularly known as le pouvoir (‘those in power’) as somehow affiliated with, or supporting the interests of, the old French colonial power. Another disparaging name for this elite has been the hizb fransa or ‘party of France’, and there was a growing feeling in the years before October 1988 that the FLN that now ran the country was not the same FLN that had won the war, but had been transformed into the very oppressive clique the Algerian people had sought to get rid of when they scared off the Pieds-Noirs. Bendjedid was a perfect figurehead for the pouvoir: widely perceived as a gangster who had used his position to enrich him and his family (his son was a particular object of scorn), an extra dimension was added to the public’s disdain by the widespread perception that he was also weak and somewhat unintelligent. Playing on a trope deep within Algerian society, of the weak henpecked husband who can’t even ‘rule’ his own house, never mind a country, he was portrayed as being the puppet of a domineering wife, Halima, who was believed to be the real brains behind the operation.
Whatever the truth of these allegations (Bendjedid does not appear to have been so hapless as often portrayed) the reality is that the country was really run by the army, and this would become more and more obvious in the years that lay ahead. Being army men, they knew no other response than force when faced with the eruption of street violence in October 1988, as thousands of rioters went on the rampage, protesting against the stagnancy and hopelessness of their plight. The sight of young men, idle and resentful, hanging around the streets with nothing to do was by this stage a fixture of Algerian society. Essentially, a generation (and a particularly large one demographically) was left to rot by the ruling class. Disenfranchised, unemployed, their reality was rarely articulated or acknowledged in the sterile, state-sponsored media. It found a manifestation in football and Raï music, a synthesis of Algerian folk music, influenced by western forms and instrumentation. Disapproved of by the establishment, Raï addressed taboo social issues like sex, alcohol and infidelity, giving a voice to an otherwise voiceless and disregarded youth culture. Oddly, just as Algeria was imploding in on itself in a maelstrom of senseless violence, Raï would explode onto the world stage in this period, producing international stars like Cheb Khaled (below). It would also find itself in conflict with religious conservatives, whose vision of Algeria was very different from the liberal, cosmopolitan and outward-looking ethos behind Raï.
The riots of October 1988 (often known as ‘Black October’) were a watershed in the history of modern Algeria. The authorities almost lost control of the situation, and it marked the beginning of the slide to civil war. Crowds of young men went on the rampage, attacking the affluent commercial district of central Algiers: the shops they could never afford to buy anything in, the nightclubs they could never afford to party in. Within days, the army under General Khaled Nezzar declared a state of martial law and the army killed around 500 protesters in the following days, showing little or no regard for civil rights. Political leadership was curiously lacking in the first days, as Bendjedid took a week to appear on television and appeal for calm, making vague promises of reform. Where leadership did come it was from the Islamists who, heavily influenced by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, had been organising among the poorest sections of Algerian society for years and, for many, were the only credible political force in the country that were untainted by the corruption of le pouvoir. Attempting to give the riots some kind of positive direction, a march of 20,000 was led on the 10 October by a young preacher named Ali Belhadj (below) and fired on indiscriminately by the army. It could be argued that, notwithstanding Bendjedid’s promises for reform, it was at this point that the battle lines began to be drawn between the Islamists and the army.
Among the reforms that followed the events of October 1988 were the holding of elections and the opening-up of the political system to parties other than the FLN. A new constitution was approved in February 1989. Opposition parties flourished, there was a liberalisation of the press. Political debate was suddenly permitted in the public sphere. The collapse of the ‘communist’ bloc in eastern Europe later that year should also be recalled, and there was a great deal of optimism that Algeria was following a liberalising trend at the time. Ben Bella and Aït Ahmed returned from exile, although it would become painfully clear they were no longer relevant to most young Algerians, many of whom hardly remembered them. Instead it was the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS: Front Islamique du Salut) who would emerge as the main opposition, so it is time to look at the forces of political Islam which, in the following years, looked poised to take power.
We have already noted one of the FIS leaders in Ali Belhadj, who was a talisman for the young and angry who formed a large part of their constituency. The appeal of the FIS was not limited to the dispossessed poor, however, and a part of their following also consisted of the pious middle-classes and small-time businessmen who sought social stability and moral certainty through religion. Their interests were represented in the co-leadership of Abbassi Madani (below), a university teacher and preacher who had fought for the FLN during the war of independence and been jailed by the French, who later turned to Islam, arguing that the Islamic content of the FLN’s original charter had been betrayed.
It’s worth looking briefly at the place of religion in Algeria since independence and the Islamists’ activities. Islam had been acknowledged by leaders such as Ben Bella as central to the identity of the country, and cultivated a kind of state-sponsored Islam which was sold to the people as going hand in glove with socialism. This can be compared with the efforts discussed in part ten, of the Karmal regime in Afghanistan to turn Islamic scholars into employees of the communist regime. Over time, and with the coming of Boumediène, however, the socialism tended to predominate and the government’s stance towards Islam came to be seen more and more by the clerics and fundamentalists as mere lip service. While some preachers and scholars continued to work within the confines dictated by the government’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, others argued that political independence from France represented a revolution only half finished. While French may have been expelled, their culture remained, and from the Islamists’ perspective, the task of cleansing Algeria of French and Christian influence had not been completed.
In this sense, the FLN, and their various charters since the winning of independence were seen as a betrayal of the principles inherent in the original declaration of November 1954 which began the war. The Islamists thus saw themselves as picking up the baton where the FLN had abandoned it. They represented the closest thing to an opposition in the 1960s and 1970s, when they were financed by big landowners and wealthy people threatened by Boumediène’s reforms, especially the redistribution of land. The al-Qiyam (Islamic values) movement was, until its banning in 1970, the standard bearer of this dissenting Islamism, led by Abdelatif Soltani (below), an Imam who had supported the FLN and independence as a means of Islamicising Algerian society, but grown disillusioned when things didn’t pan out that way. He protested vigorously against socialism, and the continuation of practices deemed western after independence, such as the sale of cigarettes and alcohol and the participation of women in public life.
Indeed, the role of women would become a battleground between the Islamists and statists (for want of a better word) in Algerian society. While women played a central role in the fight for independence, some (and not only religious conservatices) then expected them to retreat to the private sphere and play no further part in politics. Some, such as Djamila Bouhired (below) did no such thing, and took the rhetoric of liberation and equality as effecting everybody, not just men. She continued to be active in several political organisations after independence, coming into conflict with both Ben Bella and conservatives for not wearing a hijab in public and campaigning for equal rights for women. This had to be done, because despite independence, the status of women turned out to be not a high priority for the government, and something of an obsession for the Islamists, who saw women wearing western clothes, working, going to school, etc. as all symptoms of an insidious neo-colonialism and moral corruption.
That it wasn’t massively important to the government can be seen in the fact that they were prepared to roll back whatever progress had been made in this respect in their efforts to appease the Islamists in the early 1980s. Having long been under pressure to legislate on these issues, Bendjedid’s government produced the family law in 1984, which basically threw out the idea of a socialist, progressive Islam that embraced equality for all, and sought to instate a code of laws in which women were treated as legal minors, dependents of their closest male relative, whether it be father, brother or husband. Under these laws, women would need the permission of their ‘guardian’ to travel, get married, work. It provoked a fierce reaction from women and progressive members of society, many of whom were FLN activists and many of whom were veterans of the war against the French. While initially backing down, the government implemented the laws and instead worked to undermine this opposition by undercover police operations and dirty tricks.
It might be asked why the Islamists were already so influential at this stage that the government felt the need to make concessions to them. The support they enjoyed among the population, even while operating largely underground, was evident. In the Friday moque, Islamists had a ready-made recruiting centre and platform for the propagation of their ideas. When Soltani died in April 1984 his funeral, despite going unannounced in state media, attracted 25,000 people. The government sought to mobilise this movement as a means of weakening its other opponents, primarily on the left. As we have seen with Sadat’s attempts to do this in Egypt in the 1970s, this would ultimately prove to be a huge mistake, and one that they would only realise was a mistake when it was too late and the Islamists had already been emboldened and established themselves as a potent force. A part of the reason the Bendjedid’s regime saw the Islamists as a useful cat’s paw was the economic crisis. With its debts out of control, the state had been forced to borrow from the IMF and was as a result was compelled to implement a raft of austerity measures, opening up the economy to foreign investment on more liberal terms, while cutting public spending and removing many of the safeguards that had hitherto made the peoples’ lives tolerable. Some of these measures were popular with the anti-communist Islamists,and in other ways they benefited because the resulting immiseration of the population drove many people into their arms.
The activities of the Islamist movement among the poor must be taken into account when explaining their growing popularity in the late 1980s. While the social conservatism should not be forgotten, it should also be remembered that for many poor Algerians, the Islamists were the only political grouping who seemed to be prepared to come into their neighbourhoods and share their poverty, who really seemed to care about them. The left was completely discredited by this stage, and seemed to offer no solutions. For one thing, the rhetoric of socialism and equality had been hijacked by the ruling FLN. Other left-wing groups were distant, academic theoreticians led by people who had been exiled for decades and displayed little understanding of their lives. The Islamists, on the other hand, spoke in an idiom they understood and seemed to promise a complete overthrow of the existing order and its replacement by the moral certainties of the Quran.
Another factor that increased the influence of Muslim Brotherhood ideas in the country was the fact that the government had been attempting since the 1960s to promote Standard Arabic (very different to the Maghrebi Arabic spoken colloquially in Algeria) as the language of administration and public life in place of the still-overwhelming French in these contexts. Finding few Algerian teachers able to teach it, they had brought in many teachers from other Arab countries, many of whom happened to be Muslim Brotherhood activists. Taking all these factors into account, it is not surprising that, when opposition politics became possible after 1988, the masses chose neither traditional left- or right-wing parties, turning instead to political Islam.
The FIS was created in March 1989 and made legal in September. This was not as straightforward as it might appear, because the new constitution forbade political parties which operated on a confessional, linguistic or regional basis, which frustrated the activities of Berbers campaigning for their rights. While in theory it also forbade religiously-based parties, the government either didn’t dare deny permission for the FIS to operate, or more likely Bendjedid was still trying to use the Islamists as a force in his own power struggles, not so much with left-wing opponents, but with other factions within the FLN and, perhaps even more so, with the army itself. He had been making attempts for some time both to tackle corruption and to rein in the power of the security services and the military. Feeling threatened, elements within these groups suspected that the president was using the FIS to strengthen his grip on power and might even make an electoral deal with them to do so. In the period immediately after October 1988, Bendjedid certainly displayed more political cunning than he is often credited with, and used the fear created by the events to shore up his own support within the political establishment, winning re-election as president by the end of the year and pushing through some modest reforms that weakened the hold of the military on the state.
This is important to remember: that this was not a simple struggle of government versus Islamists, there was far-from a united front on the government’s side, and this fact partly explains why the FIS were allowed to permitted to grow and develop as a force. The big mistake Bendjedid and others like him made was that they thought they could contain the Islamist challenge, and harness it to their own ends. Instead, it quickly grew beyond their control, and asserted its own ideology and objectives, that would clearly have little use for the machinations of le pouvoir once they had obtained power. The success of the FIS was spectacular. In local elections held in June 1990, scarcely a year after its foundation, the Islamists won 54.2% of the vote, almost double that of the FLN, their nearest rival. In the big cities: Algiers, Oran and Constantine, they won a 70% share. They took power in hundreds of local councils which an alarmed government moved to divest of many of their powers and starve of funding. Le pouvoir had no intention of handing over power without a fight, and this kind of underhand dealing did not go unnoticed by the Islamists, and was only the first of many measures, increasingly extreme, that the state would go to to prevent them from taking power.
It should be noted, however, that while the FIS would complain of election fraud and irregularities, its leaders openly admitted that once they took power there would be no more elections, and that there was only one form of just government, one based on Islam and the Quran, that needed no elections or mandate to legitimise itself. It might be asked why the FIS were prepared to use elections as a means to gain power in that case, and its enemies accused it of hypocrisy on that score. There were also those within the ranks of Islamism who likewise were impatient with this strategy, and they would come to the fore when the army closed off the avenue of electoral victory to them. But it had not come to that yet. 1991 saw a transformed Algeria. The rise of the Islamists had not just changed things on paper. The FIS were only the political manifestation of a social revolution, comparable in some ways with what occurred in Iran in 1979. Far more women were now veiled in the streets, some willingly, some unwillingly. Islamist youth, emboldened by their successes, were given license to harass those women that held out against these diktats, and pressurised shopkeepers to cease selling alcohol and cigarettes. Entertainments like concerts and cinemas were frequently canceled and those who had satellite dishes receiving French television signals intimidated into removing them.
The nationalist-religious fervour was only heightened by the start of the First Gulf War in early 1991 which, despite Saddam Hussein’s aggressive secularism and hostility towards political Islam, the Islamists took his side as an anti-imperialist cause, further boosting their popularity among the people, to whom the Iraqi leader (and indeed, pretty much anyone taking on the might of the United States) was a hero. The initial wave of optimism and enthusiasm for multi-party politics hardened into something else as the year progressed. A polarising took place into two camps: those who wanted an Islamic state and those who feared it, feared it so much they were prepared to abjure democratic principles to avoid it. Those who could afford it, the wealthy, Francophone middle classes, began to leave the country before the FIS took power. The army was already making contingency plans to prevent an Islamist takeover.
The FIS and its supporters understood this, and saw the desperate government’s changing of electoral boundaries and rules as a transparent attempt to thwart them of victory in National Assembly elections that were promised for July 1991. In protest against this, and also against continuing and painful economic reforms that were seen (rightly) as a neo-colonial foreign imposition, the FIS called a series of street protests and strikes in late May and early June. The rhetoric of its leaders became more strident and militant, talking of jihad and the establishment of an Islamic state by force if they could not obtain it by electoral means. Belhadj in particular was both an electrifying (to his fans) and terrifying (to his enemies) figure, whose charisma and skills as a impassioned speaker were legendary, capable as he was of whipping a crowd into a frenzy of anger or reducing them to laughter with his withering put-downs. He had a keen sense of the theater of politics and its symbolism (check out the clip below, where he produces an old photograph of his father holding a Kalashnikov, and vows to do the same if necessary), and seemed to have no fear of the consequences of his increasingly reckless statements. The prospect of him holding an office such as Prime Minister was deeply worrying to many, for whom he was almost the personification of unhinged fanatic:
But he was enormously popular and, compared to the career politicians and corrupt technocrats they were accustomed to, he came across as refreshingly blunt. A hundred thousand people came out onto the streets and once again the police could barely contain the violence. Given the pretext it needed to intervene, the army once again came onto the street and shot at protesters. All hope that the FLN might be able to mount a comeback in elections was more or less lost at this point and Bendjedid moved to distance himself from it, resigning as its president. In late June, Madani and Belhadj were arrested on charges of planning an armed uprising. Soon afterwards, the Salafist wing of the movement began gaining traction and younger, more militant members headed to the mountains to take up arms against the state. More moderate elements in the movement managed to retain control, for the moment at least, and a new leader from this wing of the party, Abdelkader Hachani (below), was chosen. This so-called Algerianist faction of the FIS was prepared to take part in elections and co-operate with other groups, and represented an alternative to the unbending ideological clarity of others such as Belhadj.
Hachani was well aware of the militants within his party and their preparations for a war, and indeed he made his own clandestine military arrangements so as not to be outflanked by them. But, when the government announced that the two rounds of national elections would take place after all, in December 1991 and January 1992, the FIS announced they would take part. The government had more or less given up on any hope of the FLN mounting a serious opposition at this stage, and throughout the campaign it was clear that the FIS was heading for a overwhelming victory, not merely because of their undoubted popularity, but also their aggressive taking-over of public space and physical intimidation of political rivals on the ground. A memorable campaign rally held in the Olympic Stadium, Algiers attracted hundreds of thousands of supporters. While Belhadj had invoked the memory of his own father in the earlier press conference, now that he was in jail, his young son was presented to the massive crowd:
The first round of elections were held a few days later, and even though a FIS victory had looked likely, the scale of it was still shocking to the establishment and foreign observers. Winning 188 of the 231 seats contested in that round, it now seemed inevitable the FIS would attain the two-thirds majority of parliamentary seats to be able to make fundamental changes to the constitution, paving the way for their Islamic state. The following fortnight was filled with trepidation and rallies, both by the triumphant FIS and by political groups (especially socialists and feminists) calling for steps to be taken to prevent an Islamist takeover. Much of what took place in the corridors of power during this time remains obscure, but the broad outlines are clear. While at first it seemed as if the regime was prepared to accommodate and work with the FIS, behind the scenes, the army decided they had sailed close enough to the democratic winds and determined to pull back.
Bendjedid was compelled to announce his resignation as president on television on the 11 January 1992, creating a constitutional crisis in which the continuation of the elections was declared to be impossible. Troops were put on the streets to impose ‘order’ on the situation and it was announced that, until a new president could be chosen (whenever that would be) the country would be run by a council composed of military figures and their allies within the regime. The second round was, therefore, canceled and the FIS were livid that they had been cheated of victory. Within weeks, the party’s leaders were rounded up and imprisoned and over eight thousand members put in camps out in the Sahara desert. With more moderate leaders like Hachani now in jail, the anger of the rank and file was channeled into more militant avenues, and those who could, took to the mountains or went underground, prepared to take up arms against the state.
This was the end of the road for the FIS as a viable political project. From now on it would be war: a war (spoiler alert) that they were destined to lose, but it is worth while dwelling for a moment on the reasons why the movement failed to establish an Islamic state. In retrospect, the FIS, buoyed by its early successes, probably overplayed its hand, and played it too early. They allowed themselves to believe that their victory was inevitable, and that they were in a more powerful position than they actually were. It’s leaders scared away powerful sectors of society (Belhadj making threats towards the army and Madani talking about not having any more elections after the FIS took power), alienating large groups like the middle classes and the military, who had the financial and military resources to thwart their project, notwithstanding its obvious popular appeal.
It’s an interesting conundrum: is it permissible to cancel democracy in order to prevent anti-democratic forces from gaining power? Do you become one of those anti-democratic forces when you do so? While people were justifiably worried about the kind of regime the FIS would establish, at the same time, its followers could not be blamed for thinking the commitment of the state to democracy (and the west’s espousal of it) was all a sham if they refused to recognise the results of any election that brought Islamists to power. In many respects, Algeria would be an early precursor to the double-standards witnessed in our own time, as the west has refused to recognise the democratic mandate obtained by Islamist parties (for example Hamas in Palestine or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) and instead gave their support to authoritarian forces seeking their overthrow. But those are stories for another post, as is the continuation of this story.
Charles Robert Ageron, Modern Algeria: A History from 1830 to the Present (London, 1991; first published in French 1964)
Martin Evans and John Phillips, Algeria : Anger of the Dispossessed (Yale University Press, 2007)
James McDougall, A history of Algeria (Cambridge University Press, 2017)
Featured image above: Police keep an eye on Friday prayers in the week after the second round of elections were canceled, January 1992.