The June 12 municipal and provincial elections, the first multi-party election held in Algeria since independence in 1962, delivered a stunning defeat to the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN). The victorious Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) has now emerged as the leading opposition party and principal threat to the regime of President Chadli Benjedid.

The scale of the FLN defeat and FIS victory cannot be overstated. The FIS won 54 percent of the popular vote nationally and took control of 854 (55 percent) of the 1,541 communal (municipal) assemblies. This is all the more impressive given that the FIS did not even run candidates in 276 communes. The FLN, which ran almost everywhere, came in a distant second place, with only 28 percent of the popular vote and 487 communes (32 percent). Independent lists took 12 percent of the vote and 106 communes; the Kabyle Berber-dominated progressive Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) took 87 communes but only 2 percent of the vote.

The FIS also won 32 of the 48 wilaya (provincial) assemblies, with the FLN taking only 14. The FIS made a clean sweep of all the major cities, including Algiers, Oran, Constantine and Annaba. In Algiers, the FIS scored decisive victories in even the more well-to-do districts such as Hydra and El Biar, where many FLN leaders reside. The distribution of communal assembly seats indicates that the FIS scored landslide victories in 90 percent of the 33 communes in Algiers, and won in many districts by as much as 70 to 80 percent. In Oran, according to an unofficial report, the FIS obtained 62 percent of the vote to 18 percent for the FLN. The distribution of seats in Constantine suggests that the spread was even greater there.

The only wilayas where the FLN did well were in the sparsely populated Sahara and in parts of the east, particularly the Batna-Tebessa-Souk Ahras triangle where much of the political and military elite originate. The FIS won some of the principal towns even in this area, though, as well as in Chadli’s native wilaya of El Tarf. The only populous areas where the FIS did poorly were in the predominantly Kabyle Berber wilayas of Tizi Ouzou and Bejaia, where the RCD predominated.

How is one to interpret the surprising, overwhelming victory of the FIS? One factor involves a relatively high abstention rate of 35 percent, due in part to the boycott of the elections by the Socialist Forces Front (FFS) of Hocine Ait Ahmed. The majority of Kabyles unswervingly support the FFS and in the wilayas of Tizi Ouzou and Bejaia the abstention rates were 77 and 73 percent respectively. Communes in the Algiers region with large Kabyle populations also witnessed high abstention rates, which benefited the FIS. Many young FFS supporters from the popular classes in Algiers say that instead of boycotting the poll, they voted for the FIS.

Proxy Votes

The official participation rate of 65 percent is misleading when the practice of proxy voting is taken into account. The electoral code permits an individual to cast a vote for his or her spouse, and the majority of husbands used this clause to vote for their wives as well. The code also allows each voter to cast up to three proxy votes for other individuals, and many men voted in place of their daughters or sisters. In addition, the procedures for proxy voting were widely ignored by officials in many voting stations and the old practice of a single individual voting for all the adults in the family upon presentation of the livret de famille — disallowed under the current code — was reportedly widespread, particularly in the interior of the country.

Statistics are not kept on the incidence of proxy voting, but the dearth of women observed in voting stations attests to its importance. Voters from all tendencies engaged in the practice, but the FIS was clearly the main beneficiary. FIS militants were observed liberally handing out proxy voting forms to their supporters in the days leading up to the election. The incidence of proxy voting thus drops the real rate of participation to well under 50 percent.

The rate of voter participation only partially explains the spectacular success of the FIS, however. The underlying factor was the total repudiation of the FLN and its 28 uninterrupted years of authoritarian rule and economic mismanagement. Many used the word “vengeance” to explain why they voted FIS. Countless individuals who have no particular wish to see the enactment of shari‘a law, who are not opposed to women wearing Western attire and participating fully in public life, and who in many cases disagree with the FIS agenda, nevertheless voted for it as the most unambiguous way to express their total rejection of the FLN and the current regime.

The reasons for this hostility are rooted in an economic, social and cultural malaise that has acquired serious proportions in recent years. The brutal decline of oil and gas prices since 1986 (accounting for 98 percent of export receipts), growing unemployment (officially 22 percent but in reality higher, especially for youth), low salaries for those who do work, high inflation, a critical housing crisis, water cutoffs lasting for most of the day, a collapse in public transport and endemic shortages of a range of goods in almost every category — all these have rendered conditions of life increasingly difficult for the mass of Algerians from all social categories.

Economic privation has been a constant feature in Algeria since independence. During the period of President Houari Boumediene (1965-1978), however, there was a certain egalitarianism in the austerity as well as an optimism for the future, issuing from the developmentalist ideology of the period and the fact that the conditions of life were improving for the mass of the population. The FLN at the time was merely an adjunct to the regime and had no independent existence of its own.

This situation changed after Chadli Benjedid came to power in 1979. His reforms reorienting the economy toward market-based principles coincided with an effort to institutionalize the FLN’s monopoly of power. The populist ideology of the 1960s and 1970s remained unchanged, but the economic reforms led many to discard the outward asceticism of that period as an arriviste class comprising state functionaries and their clients in the private sector emerged from the shadows and ostentatiously displayed its wealth. The apparatus of the FLN took full part in the growing corruption that characterized the 1980s while continuing to rule in the same authoritarian manner, relentlessly repressing the left and new Berberist and Islamist social movements.

The decisive repudiation of the FLN showed that it utterly failed to develop a political constituency, either through patron-client networks at the base of society or in the state administration itself. It is thus not surprising that the FIS emerged in the past year as the principal beneficiary of the FLN’s failure. Its solid implantation in the mosques gave it immediate advantage over the other newly formed parties in a demobilized society with a low level of associational life. In its call for the enactment of shari‘a law and emphasis on Islamic values, the FIS strikes a chord in a society with a declining standard of living and outraged by the corruption of the political class. [1]

Same Cloth

It is essential to underscore that the ideology and world view of the FIS is, in many respects, not fundamentally different than that of the FLN itself. The two parties are essentially cut from the same cloth. Both parties articulate the social justice-oriented Islamic-populist ideology permeating Algerian society; the FIS simply places more emphasis on the Islamic component, while the FLN traditionally engages in a more nationalist discourse. [2] In their economic programs, the FLN continues to preach socialism and the FIS advocates free-market liberalism, though it only infrequently raises economic issues at all. Even here, though, the FIS articulates a petit bourgeois world view dominant in the wartime FLN and easily reconciled with its populist discourse given the egalitarian character of Algerian society and the absence of social distance between rich and poor.

It is difficult to evaluate the FIS’ true strength in relation to other existing and potential parties. The FIS has not yet held a congress, and its internal workings are not easily perceived by outsiders. Since its creation in March 1989, it has spread rapidly throughout the country but is still weakly implanted in the many areas, particularly the west and south, where maraboutist (Sufi) traditions still predominate.

The size of its real base is also not yet evident. In the cities, where the FIS did best, its base is primarily made up of ideologically committed barbs (bearded fundamentalists) from across the class spectrum, a minority of businessmen and traders, and, above all, the mass of idle youth and frustrated young men who dominate street life. This latter element, though, does not constitute a structurally stable base for the FIS (nor any other party).

This being said, the FIS is the only party which is, along with the FLN, both implanted in all regions of the country (with the notable exception of the Kabylie) and, unlike the FLN, has active, committed cadre. The dynamism of the FIS’ electoral campaign attests to its high level of organization and discipline.

Two leaders, Abassi Madani and Ali Ben Hadj, thoroughly dominate the FIS. Abassi, a 59-year old professor at the University of Algiers’ Institute of Education, was one of the early members of the FLN and spent the duration of the war of independence in prison. In the early 1980s, he began open participation in Islamist groups opposing the regime, for which he spent more time in prison. He is currently the recognized leader of the FIS and is considered the representative of its “moderate” tendency — assuring the public that, among other things, the FIS is committed to multi-party democracy and cooperation with France and the West, will implement shari‘a only gradually and not employ some of its more draconian measures such as amputation of the limbs of thieves, and will not eject women from the work force. His often vague and contradictory discourse, however, shifts with the audience being addressed.

More consistent is Ben Hadj, a 33-year old preacher and leader of the FIS’ “extremist” wing. Little is known of his background except that he was trained as a schoolteacher, spent several years in prison in the 1970s and was reportedly subjected to torture. The most charismatic and fiery of the FIS orators, Ben Hadj is uncompromising in his denunciations of the regime and the post-independence FLN. His discourse leaves no doubt as to his views, stating inter alia that democracy is kufr (unbelief) and that women, whose principal function in life is the reproduction of men, have no role outside the home. [3]

FLN Finished

The June 12 election has effectively finished off the FLN as a political force. The FLN has never been a mass party and, since its inception, has been rent by endless factional infighting. In the 1980s, the dominant hardline faction in the party apparatus opposed the reform-oriented tendency represented by Chadli and his entourage in the presidency.

Since the 1960s, the party has been characterized by a total divorce between summit and base, with the former dominated by figures from the FLN’s wartime standing army and the latter by ex-guerrilla fighters and large numbers of semi-literates who joined for purely opportunistic reasons. The kasmas (local party sections), which were denied any institutional mechanism to influence the summit, evolved into closed circles cut off from the population and used their foothold in the communal assemblies for personal profit.

Since independence, the FLN has been incapable of attracting the young and educated. The dynamic elements that it did not have in the 1970s, mostly leftists in the trade union and youth federations, were purged in the early 1980s. The mediocrity of the FLN’s base was demonstrated in the month leading up to June 12 by its abject inability to conduct a competitive electoral campaign and rally popular support. In the week after the election, large numbers of FLN militants throughout the country reportedly defected to the FIS.

As a bureaucratic apparatus of power rather than a political party, the FLN cannot survive in an opposition role. With the efforts of the past year and a half to reform it now in shambles, it is only a matter of time before the FLN dissolves or breaks up into smaller parties. It cannot be certain when this will occur, as the party leadership has been in a state of paralysis since the June 12 debacle. The death knell for the FLN will likely sound if the party suffers a similar defeat in the National Assembly election, which is currently set to take place in early 1991. What forces will emerge from a dissolution of the FLN? The reform tendency in the presidency is dominated by colorless bureaucrats, but its leading figure, Prime Minister Mouloud Hamrouche, has been developing political skills since his nomination in September 1989. Other FLN leaders who appear capable of building new political movements are a handful of generally respected figures from the Boumediene period, such as Mohamed Salah Yahiaoui, Belaid Abdesselam and Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, who have never been tainted by corruption in the public mind nor identified with the ruling circles of the 1980s. Such individuals all articulate the Islamic-populist ideology essential to build a mass base, particularly in the populous east of the country. They offer as well the possibility of alliances with the non-political Jam‘iyya al-Irshad wa al-Islah of Sheikh Mahfoud Nahnah, and the newly created Oumma Movement of wartime FLN leader Benyoucef Benkhedda.

Other Forces

Several non-FLN forces which can rally mass support to confront the FIS do exist, though their potential is uncertain. Independent candidate lists — many composed of young, disaffected FLN members — ran in almost 90 percent of the communes, but lacking cadres and finances they did poorly. The case was similar for two parties advocating economic liberalism and a modernist interpretation of Islam, the National Party for Solidarity and Development of Rabah Bencharif and the Algerian Renewal Party of Noureddine Boukrouh.

Two parties that boycotted the election do remain as important forces. One is the Movement for Democracy in Algeria (MDA), led by former president Ahmed Ben Bella (1962-1965). Ben Bella has lived in exile in Switzerland since 1982 and is set to return to Algeria in early September. When he does return, the MDA will likely become an important force in the west, Ben Bella’s native region and one that has been politically marginalized in the past decade. Ben Bella’s political discourse centers on an amalgam of socialism, pan-Arabism and Islam — essentially the same Islamic-populist ideology of the FLN.

Of currently greater importance, especially so for progressive and democratic forces, is the FFS of Hocine Ait Ahmed. A founding member of the FLN and its principal opponent since 1962, Ait Ahmed enjoys historical legitimacy throughout the society as well as unshakable support among the mass of Kabyles (some 15-20 percent of the population), which was demonstrated in an enormous FFS march in Algiers on May 31, 1990. Unlike the other parties, he does not articulate the dominant Islamic-populist ideology. The program of the FFS is social democratic in its principles, emphasizing cultural pluralism, official recognition of the Tamazight (Kabyle) language, secularism (without employing the term), women’s rights, abolition of the secret police, and the autonomy of civil society vis-a-vis the state.

The FFS suffers from two handicaps. The first is its regionalist character and Ait Ahmed’s up-to-now unsuccessful efforts to attract significant non-Kabyle support. He has been hampered by his own base in this regard, for whom Kabyle language rights are the overriding concern, and by the divergence of his discourse from Islamic-populism. The second are the divisions within the progressive, democratic camp itself. The majority of leaders and militants of the almost exclusively Kabyle RCD were formerly in the FFS and many reject what they consider to be Ait Ahmed’s personally authoritarian style. The programs of the two parties are essentially identical (though the RCD explicitly emphasizes the concept of secularism), but their rivalry for dominance in the Kabyle, as well as a bitter personal animosity between Ait Ahmed and RCD leader Said Saadi, renders improbable any formal alliance between them.

Other democratic formations do exist, but their weakness was borne out in the elections. The Social Democratic Party ran in 14 percent of the communes, but it plunged into internal crisis during the winter and its progressive wing, led by Ahmed Hamidi-Khodja, barely registered in the election. The case was likewise with the communist, erstwhile Moscow-line Socialist Vanguard Party (PAGS), which had a dynamic, semi-clandestine existence in the 1970s but suffered serious repression in the 1980s. The PAGS still has several thousand committed militants and an important presence in the intelligentsia and media, but its popular support is insignificant.

Women’s Stake

Outside of the parties are a growing number of progressive, democratic associations, including human rights groups, intellectual circles and feminist organizations. The latter have become increasingly vocal, and now constitute the most dynamic feminist movement in the Arab world. These progressive, democratic elements constitute only a small minority in what is otherwise a deeply conservative society, but their potential political weight should not be underestimated. They are present in large numbers in the intelligentsia, liberal professions, media and, most importantly, in the middle and upper ranks of the state administration, and they demonstrated by the tens of thousands in a pro-democracy, anti-FIS march held in Algiers on May 10, 1990. They also benefit from the tacit support of the Chadli government, as well as the passive support of large numbers of politically uncommitted individuals issuing from the expansion of the higher education system in the past 28 years.

Those with the most at stake in the present political conjuncture are women. The position of Algerian women has been among the most difficult in the Arab world. Their level of employment is still comparatively low, but great strides have been made in the past 20 years. In education, women have gone from an over 95 percent illiteracy rate in the early 1960s to the point now where 45 percent of secondary school students taking the baccalaureate exam are girls. The discourse of the FIS on women, which is particularly misogynist on its extremist wing, threatens the progress they have made in society. A central issue on the FIS agenda is that of mixite — co-education and the mixing of men and women at work and in public places.

The FIS has not spoken of amending the 1984 Family Code, which is already one of the most regressive in the Arab world and reflects the particular value system dominant at the base of Algerian society. The juridical status of women under a hypothetical FIS regime would thus probably not change significantly in such matters as marriage and divorce. Nevertheless, the mobilization of women will likely increase now that the FIS is acquiring political power. The general sentiment expressed by educated, politically uncommitted women has been that, having already fought and won battles within their own families, they are not about to lose their albeit limited freedoms to anonymous bearded fundamentalists.

Given the FIS victory on June 12, the disarray of the FLN, and disunity among the progressive, democratic forces, the possibility of an FIS assumption of power — first in the APN and eventually the presidency, which is up for grabs in late 1993 — cannot be excluded. Even if large numbers of FIS protest voters were to abandon it for other parties, the FIS could still emerge as the leading party. It is now favored by the election code, with its provisions for proxy voting and the proportional list system that automatically awards a minimum of 51 percent of the seats in election districts to the party coming in first place, even if only with a plurality of votes.

At the same time, it is not certain that an APN controlled by the FIS would inconvenience President Chadli or other centers of power in the regime, including the army. If the FIS were to issue an amnesty in advance to all those suspected of corruption, much of the hostility to it at the summit of the FLN would dissipate. In a press conference on March 13, 1990, Chadli, who is distancing himself from the FLN party apparatus, did admit his willingness to cohabitate with an opposition-controlled APN. Significantly, Abassi Madani and Ali Ben Hadj have, since the early spring, ended all critical references to Chadli.

Equally significantly, one of the first acts carried out by the FIS militants in the days following the election was to remove garbage piling up in the streets of Algiers resulting from a sanitation workers’ strike. Since 1988, Algeria has been plagued by an increasing number of paralyzing strikes in every sector of the economy, further lowering output and productivity and seriously complicating the government’s reform program. In the absence of a cohesive trade union movement to negotiate social pacts, the regime issues calls for restraint and discipline, and discipline is what the FIS represents.

A victory of the FIS in legislative and, eventually, presidential elections would likely produce serious social strife, including a possibly violent reaction in the Kabylie, where the FIS has no chance of obtaining popular support. At the same time, Algeria’s experience with catastrophic internecine violence in modern times will produce strong pressures on all forces to compromise. An FIS-led government would likely initiate this. It lacks a coherent economic agenda and has little foothold in the state administration or public sector. The necessity of both working with an otherwise hostile bureaucracy and maintaining the confidence of foreign banks and potential investors, critical to the survival of the economy, would in itself be an inducement toward moderation.

In addition, the FIS (or any other party) would be confronted with the reality of modern Algerian society, where Islam is deeply felt as an identity but not necessarily expressed through actual practice. Mosque attendance in Algeria is, in fact, relatively low compared to other Muslim countries, and the society is moderate in its essence. The number of bars on the principal arteries of central Algiers and Oran, where beer and anisette are consumed in full view of the street, is evidence of a certain tolerance for those who do not abide by all the precepts of Islam. It is also a society more linked to Europe psychologically than to the rest of the Arab world. Over 1.5 million Algerians live in France, the traffic between the two countries is heavy, and millions of Algerian households (with the number exponentially increasing) are linked to French television through parabolic antennas.

Whatever happens, Algeria has crossed a threshold with the June 12 elections. In the freest election in the Arab world in modern times, the ruling party has submitted itself to the electorate and accepted defeat. Algeria is now on the road toward a market economy, the success of which will necessitate the negotiation of a new social contract between the state and society and the free interplay of political actors. A legitimately elected government will be critical in this transition process, rendering almost inconceivable a return to an authoritarian, one-party or military regime. Competitive, multi-party politics in Algeria is here to stay, and perhaps it will serve as a model for the rest of the Arab world as well.


[1] This resentment was fueled by the statement in March of former Prime Minister Abdelhamid Brahimi (1984-1988) that the Algerian economy may have lost $26 billion in kickbacks during the 1980s. Despite the government’s methodical refutation, the statement is universally believed by the population.
[2] See Lahouari Addi, “Ruptures et continuite du populisme algerien,” Le Nouvel Hebdo, June 28-July 4, 1990.
[3] See interview in Horizons, February 23, 1989.

How to cite this article:

Arun Kapil "Algeria’s Elections Show Islamist Strength," Middle East Report 166 (September/October 1990).

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