Since becoming president on January 30, 1994, Lamine Zeroual has taken significant steps that point toward “reconciliation” between the state and its Islamist opponents. Zeroual has moved to establish his authority, notably by appointing a new government and reshuffling the military command in the spring. His advent to the head of state represents the best prospect of a resolution of Algeria’s political crisis since it burst open in October 1988.

The crisis in Algeria is profound and multi-faceted, but it is the political dimension which is fundamental. No strategy of economic reform can be successfully undertaken, let alone bear fruit, while the political framework — the state itself — is in flux. Only internal political forces can achieve a durable resolution of the political crisis. A definitive victory for one side or another is not a prospect. The army has failed to crush the rebellion of the Islamist opposition, and the rebellion has failed to mount a challenge on a scale which might overthrow the state.

The brutal test of strength which has been taking place, however, has done immense damage to the state. It has lost the allegiance of the bulk of the population as well as the ability to maintain order, let alone implement policies. Either stability will be restored through functional compromise, or the state will continue to disintegrate. Zeroual’s accession to the top post makes a functional compromise between the Algerian state and the armed rebellion a possibility for practical politics.

The guerrilla war that the most determined elements of the Islamist opposition have waged since 1992 is a response to the behavior of the state. The regime adopted a pluralist constitution in February 1989, then allowed Islamist parties to form (in violation of the spirit of the law on political associations of July 1989). It then allowed the most dynamic of these parties, the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS), to win local and regional elections in June 1990 and the first round of the national legislative elections in December 1991. But a month later, in January 1992, it suspended the electoral process, and in March it banned the FIS altogether.

Suspending the electoral process, while questionable, was legally defensible: Resigning as president when he did, Chadli Benjedid made a mockery of the two-ballot procedure. But the subsequent banning of the FIS had no local warrant, given the lack of constitutional legitimacy and hence the questionable legal authority of the men who made the decision. It made political sense only as the preliminary in a strategy to coopt the FIS’ mass constituency into a viable alternative politics.

Mohammed Boudiaf, the first president of the High State Committee which took power in January 1992, had such a strategy and the personal credibility to make it succeed. But his plan for a new catch-all National Patriotic Rally (Rassemblement Patriotique Nationale) capable of winning over the urban poor and youth died with him six months later. His assassination ensured that the rebellion against a discredited and apparently unreformable state would grow relentlessly unless and until the state moved to readmit Algerian Islamism into a legal and open process.

Since the FIS was banned, a guerrilla movement known as the Armed Islamic Movement (Mouvement Islamique Arme, MIA), led by Abdelkader Chebouti, has been at the forefront of armed resistance to the state. The MIA is a revival of an earlier movement of the same name, led by Mustapha Bouyali between 1982 and 1987. When the FIS was founded in 1989, many former members of Bouyali’s movement joined and went along with Abassi Madani’s strategy of operating within the framework of the 1989 constitution. When the FIS was banned, many FIS militants, as well as the former Bouyalists, turned to guerrilla activity as the only remaining strategic option.

It is not clear that the MIA has ever seriously envisaged a revolutionary seizure of power. It has never attempted to mobilize popular support on a large scale, or to provoke a collapse of the state by targeting senior power holders. The MIA instead has been content to attack security forces and low-level functionaries, especially local government officials appointed by the central government in place of elected FIS members. Its behavior has been consistent with a strategy of applying pressure to make the regime regret its decision to ban the FIS, and to induce the government to readmit the substance of radical Islamism to the political process.

If the MIA had been able to maintain a monopoly of the guerrilla resistance to the regime, then a political resolution along the line Zeroual favors might be well advanced by now. But there has been a joker in the deck. The MIA’s position is seriously contested by a rival organization, the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Arme, GIA), which began to make its distinctive presence felt last summer.

The GIA subsumes various elements which were never part of the FIS and always opposed the FIS’s consitutional strategy, including the “Afghans” — Algerian veterans of the Afghanistan war — and comprises at least four distinct groups operating in different areas: Sidi Bel Abbes in the west, the Medea district south of Algiers, the eastern suburbs of the capital, and the Jijel district in the northeast. These groups appear to be more or less autonomous but share and a penchant for ferocious and savage attacks. The GIA has claimed responsibility for all 36 foreigners killed since last September, and is likely responsible for the killing of intellectuals and unveiled women, and for the assassination of a former prime minister, Kasdi Merbah, last August.

The GIA has been a massive embarrassment for the FIS and the MIA. The Algerian media regularly cites its appalling acts of violence as evidence of general Islamist barbarism, and thus as grounds for refusing any dialogue with the FIS. The MIA apparently fears sanctioning a negotiated settlement lest it be outflanked by this radical rival. The competition between the two movements has forced them repeatedly to up the ante as they strive to expand from their initial bases into new territory. This situation has made it impossible for the FIS to respond unequivocally to Zeroual’s gestures, which in turn strengthens the faction within the regime opposing negotiation with the FIS.

Since the June 1992 assassination of Mohammed Boudiaf, two tendencies have been confronting one another within the Algerian power structure — broadly speaking, those who favor a strategy of brutal suppression of the Islamist movement (les eradicateurs), and those who argue that a compromise must be negotiated if the state is to be preserved (les conciliateurs).

In so far as the “eradicators” have had a political vision, it has been that of a modern state à la française. Implying a radical rupture with the populist tradition of the FLN state and a secularist separation between politics and religion. The main adherents of this project have been those officers who served in the French army and who have held commanding positions in the Algerian military hierarchy since 1988 (notably, chief of staff Maj. Gen. Mohamed Lamari, gendarmerie chief Maj. Gen. Benabbas Ghezaiel, military security chief Maj. Gen. Mohamed Mediene and former Interior Minister Selim Saadi) and the French-educated wing of the political class.

This tendency has enjoyed the sympathy of Paris and the bulk of the French-language press in Algeria, but has only minority support within the Algerian people. Organized civil support has been largely confined to the national trade union (the Union Generales des Travailleurs Algeriens, UGTA), the small Berberist party known as the Rally for Culture and Democracy (Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Democratique, RCD) and the former communists of the Tahaddi Party.

Because of its small following, the “eradicator” position has been consistently oriented towards the most authoritarian concept of the state and the most repressive strategy for dealing with the rebellion. The democratic aspirations of many who belonged to the UGTA, the RCD and Tahaddi have increasingly gone by the board, and the implication of these elements in the policy of the hardliners has tended to discredit the entire “democratic” discourse in Algeria. Moreover, when the “dialogue” process was taken out of the High State Committee’s hands and entrusted to a newly constituted National Dialogue Commission last November, all talk of a project de société (social project — code for the modernist vision) was dropped. It is no longer clear what the positive content of the eradicators’ vision is now, beyond defense of their own Western lifestyles.

The “conciliators” have operated on the premise that the state’s loss of popular legitimacy over the last five years makes impossible the implementation of a radical program of Jacobin modernization à la française. The state, they argue, must strike a compromise with the substance of the Islamist movement. Only if the FIS has a stake in the political process and a share of power can the state hope to harness its formidable capacity for channeling public opinion on the streets. This is absolutely essential, in their view, to ensure public acceptance of the difficult terms of a structural adjustment deal with the IMF.

Zeroual clearly shares the view of the “conciliators,” and he is ideally equipped to translate it into an effective policy. He never served in the French army, and has never been a part of the coterie that has dominated Algeria’s defense establishment these last five years. He joined the National Liberation Army in 1957 at the age of 16, and fought in the guerrilla struggle inside Algeria until independence. This gives him a measure of personal legitimacy which none of his peers in the military hierarchy can match. The Islamists’ propaganda against the state as being the tool of hizb Faransa (the party of France) has been without much of a target since Zeroual became president.

Zeroual, moreover, resigned his post as commander of land forces in 1989, when President Chadli overruled his pragmatic views on army modernization in favor of Khaled Nezzar’s alternative proposal to refashion Algeria’s army along French lines. He thus acquired a solid reputation as a man of integrity, and avoided being implicated in the army’s subsequent decisions to smash the FIS demonstrations and arrest Abassi Madani on trumped-up charges, or to ban the FIS. Nor is he implicated in the assassination of President Boudiaf or in Gen. Lamari’s policy of all-out repression.

Zeroual’s policy is clearly in the long-term interest of the army, which needs to conduct an orderly retreat from its dangerously exposed role in the controversial business of government. Only this will repair its frayed unity, which is needed to safeguard the foundations of its power. Zeroual’s problem is that this policy nonetheless threatens powerful interests, especially within the officer corps. Over and above its proselytizing mission, the Islamist movement is the vector of a number of social demands, notably those of the frustrated Arabic-speaking majority resentful of the disproportionate status and privileges of the French-educated elite and, more generally, of a demand that those guilty of corruption be brought to justice.

The FIS almost certainly considers that it had tacit understandings with Algeria’s rulers — between Madani and Prime Minister Mouloud Hamrouche from September 1989 to June 1991, and then between Abdelkader Hachani and Prime Minister Sid Ahmed Ghozali from July 1991 to January 1992. The FIS holds the army responsible for the breakdown on both occasions, and is therefore disinclined to agree to any third bargain without cast-iron guarantees of good faith. As long as the generals responsible for the repression in June and July 1991 and since September 1992 are still at their posts, why should the FIS make a deal? It would have little to gain and much to lose, and could hardly expect to deliver a ceasefire on the part of the MIA, and thus the restoration of order on which its own ability to resume open political activity depends.

Over and above the hostility of the modernist and secularist elements of the Algerian middle class, then, Zeroual has had to reckon with opposition from many of his military colleagues fearful for their own futures. While he is almost certainly unwilling to agree to FIS demands to make a public example of any military commanders, he has needed to marginalize those associated with the repressive strategy of the “eradicators” and bring on — or bring back — officers with whom the Islamists have no score to settle and who are loyal to him personally.

It was never realistic to suppose that Zeroual would be able to do this all at once. And it is a measure of how thoroughly Western media misrepresents what happens in Algeria that Zeroual, universally depicted in late March as the helpless prisoner of his hardline opponents, should now have proved strong enough to sack Malek and Saadi, appoint a new government of his own choice, and then purge and reorganize the army leadership mainly to his own liking. This he did on May 5, replacing the “French school” officers commanding the police and the Constantine military region, while also ensuring that men loyal to him took over the Oran and Blida regions as well as the command of the army and air force.

The difficulty he has encountered in making these moves is illustrated by the angry demonstrations which his opponents in the Malek government allowed to take place, and by articles in the French-language press accusing him of splitting the army in the process. While such a split, and a consequent descent into all-out civil war, cannot be ruled out, it remains, on balance, unlikely. Zeroual’s policy enjoys powerful support with much of the political class. He can count on the FLN and the main Kabyle-based party, Hocine Aït Ahmed’s Socialist Forces Front, which swept the Kabylia region in 1991. It is more likely that the imperative of maintaining army unity will work for Zeroual and his supporters rather than against them, and that the balance of forces within Algeria will eventually enable them to restore order through a compromise with the Islamist rebellion.

What is at issue now is whether such a compromise will be at the expense of political pluralism, or whether it will be consistent with the principles embodied in the 1989 constitution. This is a point which the most experienced of Algerian pluralists, Hocine Aït Ahmed, appears to have appreciated all along, while it seems never to have occurred to the secularist diehards of the RCD. One question worth asking, therefore, is why the French media have given such prominence to the inflammatory declarations of Zeroual’s opponents (notably RCD leader Said Sadi’s full-page interview in Le Figaro on March 30) and have passed over in silence the numerous counsels of moderation emanating from more representative political leaders.

It is also worth asking why the French media were so dismissive of the significance of the change in government in April, and played down the military changes in May, while making a massive fuss about the alleged failure of the pro-dialogue demonstrations on May 8. These demonstrations mobilized at least as many people as the anti-dialogue demonstrations two months earlier. And they did so despite the fact that, alone of the major parties, only the FLN was actively supporting them. The FIS clearly refused to mobilize its supporters on behalf of Zeroual’s policy until its own demand for legal status had been conceded.

If a full descent into open civil war is avoided in Algeria, it will be through a bargain of some kind between the Islamist movement and the state. This bargain can either be at the expense of democracy, or it can be to the advantage of democracy by permitting a return to the electoral process and a constitutional government on the basis of pluralism. If the FIS is legalized again, a return to political pluralism will be in sight. If it is not, a very different kind of deal, perhaps between the state and armed rebels of the MIA directly, will be in the cards, and Algerians can forget about democracy for a generation. Every statement on the situation made by official spokespersons for the French government since January 30 has had the effect, if not the purpose, of making it harder for Zeroual to re-legalize the FIS.

But then, the idea that France really wants to see an authentic Algerian nationalist such as Zeroual succeed in restoring order to Algerian politics, when its own favorites have repeatedly and spectacularly failed, is far from self-evident.

How to cite this article:

Hugh Roberts "Algeria Between Eradicators and Conciliators," Middle East Report 189 ( ).
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