The military-led regime in Algiers has abruptly terminated its halting year-long effort to initiate a “dialogue” with its Islamist opponents, with no sign of when discussions might be resumed. It appeared for a time that the “reconciliators,” led by President Lamine Zeroual, had won out over hard-line “eradicators” opposed to any dealings with the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS in its French acronym). [1] This notion was given credence with the transfer from prison to a comfortable house arrest on September 13, 1994 of FIS leaders Abassi Madani and Ali Ben Hadj. But in one of the many coups de theatres that have punctuated Algerian political life in recent years, Zeroual announced on October 31 that “dialogue” had failed — not only with the FIS but also with the legal opposition parties — and that the army would henceforth spare no effort in wiping out the armed Islamist groups.

The resurgence of the eradicators was confirmed in the promotion of their leader, Chief of Staff Muhammad Lamari, to the newly created rank of general of the army corps, the highest ever in the Algerian military. The army has embarked on its largest campaign yet in the war against the Islamists, which has cost as many as 30,000 lives since February 1992 and around 60 a day by the early autumn of 1994. [2] One could compare this turn of events with de Gaulle and the French army in 1959, at the height of the Algerian war of independence. In that year, de Gaulle gave his generals — all hardline partisans of Algerie francaise — carte blanche to launch the most extensive military operations of the war, while he secretly sought to open negotiations with the National Liberation Front (FLN). Zeroual has notably not broken off contact with the FIS. [3] On the other hand, there is little evidence as yet that he has become Algeria’s de Gaulle, with the ability to rally the nation and bring his generals into line. The opposite seems to be the case. The eradicators in the army are feeling more self-confident than at any time since the beginning of the crisis. [4] This may seem odd, given the gains made over the past year by the well-armed and highly motivated Islamist fighters, who are at least 20,000 in number. [5] Nor has the regime ever been more isolated. Army repression has been harsh, particularly in the popular quarters on the periphery of Algiers and other large cities. Countless lower-class young men, almost all of whom could fit the profile of an Islamist terrorist, have suffered brutal and humiliating treatment at the hands of the security forces. [6] Torture is routine, suspects picked up in raids are summarily executed, and Latin American-style death squads have carried out revenge killings against victims selected at random. [7]

The conduct of the security forces, in the eyes of many Algerians, has resembled that of Gen. Jacques Massu’s French paratroopers during the Battle of Algiers in 1956-1957. There is one big difference, however. The French army was able to rally 200,000 harkis [8] during the seven-and-a-half-year war against the FLN. The present-day Algerian army has demonstrated no ability to engender any significant cooperation from the population at large. This is all the more striking given the outrages committed by the armed Islamist groups and the reign of terror they have installed in areas under their effective control.

The conduct of the Islamists in this respect is reminiscent of that of the FLN during the war of independence. As was the case with the FLN then, the armed Islamist groups have targeted for assassination low-level agents of the state administration (such as tax collectors and police constables), destroyed state-operated establishments serving the population (schools, post offices), and mutilated or murdered those violating diktats to boycott tobacco and other products of mass consumption. [9] But this has not driven the population into supporting the regime nor, apart from a few villages in Kabylia, prompted civilians into organizing armed self-defense groups.

To an even greater extent than the FLN of the 1980s, the power apparatus since the January 11, 1992 coup d’etat has been almost entirely devoid of popular support. [10] The only elements of what passes for “civil society” to have offered any backing have been a few minor parties (whose potential electoral strength is at best in the low single digits); the leadership of the semiofficial trade union federation (but by no means the rank and file); Francophone journalists; and associations of private-sector operators, public-sector managers, Western-style feminists and other elite categories (whose membership is small and which have little resonance in society). A few pro-eradicator demonstrations have been held (with the number of participants greatly inflated by the press) but they are often manipulated, if not entirely organized, by the authorities.

Maladroit Dialogue

One would think the power apparatus would be aware of the extent of its isolation from society, but this seems not to be the case. The ability of the ruling circles, as well as the self-designated “democrats,” to delude themselves on this score never ceases to amaze. The regime, security services and anti-Islamist intelligentsia all grossly underestimated support for the FIS during 1989-1991, when the latter’s popularity was obvious. The current authorities, like their authoritarian counterparts elsewhere in the world, past and present, believe their own rhetoric and view their stage-managed street processions as signs of popular support. The regime is convinced that the population now rejects the FIS due to the terrorist outrages of the extremists, and that Islamism can be eradicated through military force. It further believes that the presidential elections Zeroual has announced for 1995 can indeed be organized, despite the deteriorating security situation and disappearance of any effective state presence throughout much of the country. [11]

The regime’s stance toward the legal opposition has degenerated into open hostility, due in large part to the failure of its own maladroit and insincere efforts at “dialogue.” Of the eight parties invited to the last regime-sponsored roundtable in August 1994, only two, the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) of Said Sadi and the ex-communist Tahaddi movement, [12] could be situated in the eradicator camp. The others made it clear that regime efforts at “dialogue” were pointless unless the banned FIS was brought into the process. These included the only significant parties apart from the FIS: the apparatus of the FLN (under the stewardship of Abdelhamid Mehri for the past six years), the Socialist Forces Front (FFS) of Hocine Aït Ahmed, and the Islamic Society Movement of Sheikh Mahfoud Nahnah. The FLN and FFS strongly opposed the 1992 coup d’état and interruption of the electoral process, and have consistently refused to give their seal of approval to the military-backed governments installed since then.

Since the regime appears to have lost interest in “dialogue,” the non-eradicator parties have decided to pursue it on their own, but this time with the FIS. The first such meeting was held in Rome on November 21-22, 1994, under the aegis of the Catholic association Sant’ Egidio, which has close ties to the Vatican. Those present included Mehri, Aït Ahmed, Nahnah, former president Ahmed Ben Bella, human rights activist Abdennour Ali Yahia, and Algeria’s Trotskyist pasionaria Louisa Hanoune: The FIS was represented by its two principal figures in exile, Anouar Haddam and (via link-up) Rabah Kebir. The sight of all these personalities gathered together abroad, and under Catholic sponsorship no less, threw the Algerian authorities into a rage. This was reflected in the virulent reaction of the official media. One would think the regime might question its hard line in the face of such opposition, especially as it has come under increasing pressure from the US, Italy, Spain, Germany and Great Britain to deal with moderates in the FIS. The implementation of the IMF-negotiated structural adjustment program would also presumably encourage the authorities to negotiate an end to the crisis.

This all ignores the real reason for the regime’s new hard line and burst of self-confidence, the all-out support of France. The Algerian elite is still afflicted with a mentalité du colonisé and is highly sensitive to signals from Paris. The French, terror-stricken at the prospect of an Islamist victory in their ex-colony, have been discreetly increasing deliveries of sophisticated military equipment to the Algerian state. [13] The leading “eradicator” in the French government, the powerful Minister of Interior Charles Pasqua, has close ties to the Algerian generals. His visit to Riyadh in November, where he sought to solidify Arab world support for the Algerians, was followed by a letter from a Saudi-Algerian cleric, Abu Bakr al-Jaza’iri, to Madani and Ben Hadj, calling on the FIS to take a more conciliatory stance toward Zeroual. [14] With friends like Pasqua, the generals may feel, who needs “dialogue”? As for the IMF agreement, the injection of $1 billion in standby credit and a $5 billion reduction in the service of the $26 billion debt seem to have been just the shot in the arm the regime needed prior to intensifying the military campaign.

Islamist Calculations

Despite the upsurge of the eradicators, FIS leaders have stayed with the moderate line adopted during 1994. [15] Abassi Madani signaled the softening of the FIS’ heretofore intransigent stance in a letter to Zeroual in late August, which paved the way for the September prison release. Abassi agreed to Zeroual’s conditioning the dialogue on the respect of the 1989 constitution and the principle of the alternation of power. While not explicitly renouncing the use of violence, he spoke of a possible “truce.” The letter also made no mention of the long-standing Islamist demand that those responsible for the 1992 coup and subsequent repression be punished. [16]

Several factors brought about this FIS change of heart. One was the awareness that any Islamist pursuit of an outright military victory would involve a horrendous bloodbath and probably plunge the country into anarchy. Another has been counsel by FIS friends abroad, especially Sudanese Islamist leader Hasan al-Turabi, to seek a negotiated settlement with the regime. [17] The most important, however, has been the FIS’ fear of marginalization by the extremist Armed Islamic Group (GIA).

The violence of the GIA has become ever more appalling. In addition to the liquidation of intellectuals, journalists and foreigners — its stock in trade — the GIA has assassinated the popular rai singer Cheb Hasni and the president of a leading soccer team, and set off car bombs on busy streets in Algiers. Particularly shocking is its targeting of women through murder and rape. [18] This grave violation of the code of honor, which Algeria shares with other Mediterranean cultures, indicates the extent to which Algerian society is coming apart at the seams. Such treatment of women was never tolerated by the wartime FLN. The nihilistic violence of the GIA seems to have alarmed at least a few FIS leaders. One has said that a sudden collapse of the regime is now not in the interest of either the FIS or the Algerian people, lest the extremists gain the upper hand. [19]

It will not be easy for FIS civilians to prevail over the GIA. The formation during the summer of 1994 of the FIS fighting wing, the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), was the first step in establishing a counterweight to the GIA and eventually gaining control over it. The GIA, though, is considerably stronger than the AIS. And though the FIS leadership and the AIS are in close contact, the latter operates with great autonomy and does not necessarily take orders from civilians.

Furthermore, the line between the AIS and GIA is often blurry. The two enjoy good relations in the field and frequently cooperate with one another. The AIS has also burned down schools and committed its share of assassinations. [20]

An important element working against the FIS is that it is still illegal. The FIS has repeatedly insisted that it cannot call for a halt to the fighting or gain control over the guerrillas until it is restored to legality, convenes a meeting of its majlis al-shura (consultative council), and is allowed to rebuild its dismembered party organization. Once the latter occurs, the FIS believes, the armed groups will have no choice but to lay down their guns and obey orders from the civilians. [21] This conviction may be overly optimistic. Among other things, it presupposes that the FIS will speak with one voice, which has never been the case.

The internal life of the banned Islamist opposition, very much like that of the wartime FLN, is characterized by multiple centers of decision and frequent power struggles between shifting rival factions, frustrating efforts to track “moderates” and “hardliners” and who is allied with whom. During the war, FLN forces inside Algeria had enjoyed near total autonomy from the civilian leadership, which was concurrently underground in Algiers, in prison and headquartered abroad. The FLN was plagued by bouts of internecine bloodletting, not to mention the dirty war with the rival nationalist forces of Messali Hadj. At the advent of independence, a near-war broke out between the fighters of the interior and the FLN army of the exterior, with the former ultimately conceding defeat and suffering many casualties.

A situation similar to that of the early 1960s may be at hand in the current crisis. While the FIS lacks the means to challenge the GIA by force, the army does not. Just as the French defeated the FLN militarily, the present-day Algerian army, if it maintains control over the lower ranks and gets enough materiel from Paris, could conceivably gain the upper hand over the GIA and the AIS. But as de Gaulle realized by 1959, the only possible solution to the war was a negotiated one, where the military’s victory ultimately translated into a political defeat. Eradication can succeed only at enormous human cost, causing even more Algerians to rally to the FIS. Abassi Madani just may be content to let the army do the dirty work of bringing the GIA to heel while the FIS reaps an ever greater windfall of popular rage against the terrorism of the state.

What Sort of Deal?

In the unlikely event the army liquidates every last terrorist, it will still face a hostile society resolutely behind the Islamists. It will eventually have to find its “de Gaulle” and open serious negotiations — not just a vague “dialogue” — with the FIS. If Zeroual cannot rise to the occasion, there are other generals, active and retired, who will. While the army may be relatively unified as an institution, it is far from united in its hostility to dealing with the FIS. In November, a well-known retired general, Rachid Benyellis, openly condemned the strategy of eradication and the rupture of dialogue. [22] And, lest it be forgotten, three now retired generals advocated, in the mid-1980s, the establishment of an Islamic state. [23] Such sentiment inside the army becomes more widespread the lower one goes in the ranks.

This leads to the big questions: Namely, what are the likely contours of a deal between the army and the FIS, once it does come, and what role is there for political forces identifying with neither side? As to the first, a scenario often invoked is that of a “Sudanese solution,” where the military continues to rule but cedes the “administration” of society to the Islamists. But Sudan’s current system is the product of a coup d’état and Turabi’s party is a minority force in society, having never finished better than third in elections held over the years. The FIS, on the other hand, is by far the most popular party in Algeria; along with the smaller Islamist formations, it would hold a commanding majority in any elected parliament, whatever the electoral system or rate of voter participation. Add to this the important neo-Islamist current within the FLN, which is more than willing to make common cause with the FIS, and one gets a formidable bloc. In addition, a number of former high-level FLN officials who are neither neo-Islamists nor “Baathists” have expressed varying degrees of sympathy with the Islamists. Abdelhamid Brahimi, a former prime minister, has already served as an informal adviser to the FIS and has written at length on the nature of an Islamic economy. [24] Another ex-prime minister, Mouloud Hamrouche, the driving force behind the economic and political reforms of Chadli Bendjedid’s presidency and still a leading personality in the FLN apparatus, is a staunch advocate of “reconciliation” and has been speaking more about Islam of late. [25] And the epitome of the FLN technocrat of the 1960s and 1970s, Lamine Khene, has asserted that the only “societal project” possible in Algeria is a “Muslim” one and that the country must be governed by a “Muslim code” based on the Qur’an and sunna. [26] These are only a few examples. The number of those commonly labeled as “Francophone technocrats” who would not hesitate to offer their services to a FIS-led government should not be underestimated.

The Role of Democrats

All this means that the FIS will likely not agree to play second fiddle to the army. If the FIS wins the elections that will certainly follow any agreement –and there is no reason to expect that it will not — it will govern Algeria. The most the army will be able to get is autonomy from civilian control and recognition of its role as the ultimate protector of the constitution. One may expect revisions in the latter to include more references to the shari‘a, though it is hard to imagine that the clauses introduced in 1989 guaranteeing political pluralism and individual rights will be altered. The insistence of the legal parties that the FIS engage in “dialogue” to end the crisis may sufficiently impress the “sheikhs” into accepting the legitimacy of their demand for democracy. Among the principles agreed to by all the participants at the Rome meeting were respect for civil liberties and democracy.

It should be said, however, that democracy as a concept has suffered considerable discredit since the 1992 coup. Those who had designated themselves as the “democrats” in the 1989-1991 period — the RCD, the Tahaddi movement, feminist groups and most of the Francophone press — supported the cancellation of the elections and turned a blind eye to the subsequent repression. These pro-eradicators have continued to call themselves “democrats” while articulating an elitist discourse that is profoundly anti-democratic.

Examples abound. In a document outlining his vision of a “republican Algeria,” RCD leader Sald Sadi hardly mentioned democracy, speaking instead of the need for Algeria to be governed by a regime that is “credible” rather than one “legitimized by the ballot box.” [27] A prominent publicist and RCD candidate in the aborted legislative elections rhetorically asked how democracy could be expected to take root in a country with Algeria’s rate of illiteracy and standard of living. [28] A group of Tahaddi intellectuals argued that Algeria was divided into two societies — one “modern” and the other “archaic” — and that Western-style democracy was thus inappropriate. [29] Reflecting an attitude widespread among those who supported the 1992 coup, one major weekly simply asserted that “the illiterate cannot have the same right to vote as the literate, or the simple laborer as the high-level executive, or the non-taxpayer as the taxpayer.” [30]

The contempt of the self-proclaimed “democrats” toward their own people has not served the cause of democracy in Algeria. Real democrats do exist, however, who are anti-Islamist but who have condemned the 1992 coup, cancellation of the elections and repression by the security forces. These include the FFS of Hocine Aït Ahmed, human rights activists Abdennour Ali Yahia and Hocine Zahouane, and the courageous intellectuals and journalists grouped around the journal Naqd and the weekly La Nation. One may also include here the pillar of Algerian communism, Sadek Hadjeres, who has parted company with his comrades and taken a position in support of human rights and reconciliation. [31]

The FFS, as the third largest party and with overwhelming support among Kabyle Berbers, is the most significant here and the best hope that the interests of democrats will not be ignored by the army or the FIS. The key factor will be the prevailing climate in Kabylia, where agitation over Berberist cultural and language rights has intensified over the past year. The greatest potential threat to national unity comes from Kabylia and both the army and FIS know this. Secession is out of the question, but any settlement that does not adequately address Berber demands will produce continual instability. Though Islamist support is weak in Kabylia, it is stronger among lower-class Kabyles in Algiers, many of whom support the FFS and the FIS at the same time. Urbanized Kabyles are, in fact, well represented in all branches of the Islamist movement. This, plus the guarded respect the FFS and FIS have always displayed toward one another, may help steer the parties toward a settlement acceptable to all.

The future of Algeria is Islamist and most people now realize this. The question is what kind of Islamism: one which imposes its model on all of society or one that is obliged to cede some space to those who do not share its vision? Two of Algeria’s leading intellectuals, looking at the examples of Spain and some Latin American countries, have been arguing for the conclusion of a “civic pact” in which the different social actors agree upon a set of arrangements whereby all see their vital interests being protected, and where there will be unanimous consent over the procedures for the electoral process and for the principle of the alternation of power. [32] The Rome meeting may be the first step in the negotiation of such a pact. In the search for a pact, the FLN party apparatus, strange as it may seem, could play a positive and decisive role. The outcome of this process will determine whether Algeria’s Islamist experience will, in the words of sociologist Lahouari Addi, constitute a “fruitful regression” (regression feconde) that will ultimately facilitate Algeria’s transition to modernity and democracy, or whether it will be just a regression, pure and simple.


[1] See Hugh Roberts, “Algeria between Eradicators and Conciliators,” Middle East Report 189 (July-August 1994).
[2] Liberation, October 13, 1994.
[3] Noureddine Khelassi, “A la Lettre et it la Gachette!” La Nation (Algiers), November 15-21, 1994.
[4] Abed Charef, “Entre un Système qui Dure et un Islamisme Sanglant,” La Nation, November 15-21, 1994.
[5] This figure is advanced by Ahmida Ayachi, a specialist of Algerian Islamism. See Le Figaro, May 3, 1994.
[6] See, for example, Reporters Sans Frontieres, Le drame algérien: un peuple en otage (Paris: La Decouverte, 1994), pp. 57-66.
[7] See Amnesty International, Algeria: Repression and Violence Must End, October 25, 1994; Middle East Watch, Human Rights Abuses in Algeria: No One Is Spared (January 1994); New York Times, January 24, 1994; Le Monde, April 6 and September 16, 1994.
[8] Algerian auxiliaries under the supervision of the French army, many thousands of whom were massacred by the FLN after independence.
[9] On FLN violence against Algerian Muslim non-combatants during the war of independence, see Mohand Hamoumou, Et ils sont devenus harkis (Paris: Fayard, 1993).
[10] Contrary to the myth makers in Algiers, such was also the case during the five-and-a-half month interlude of Muhammad Boudiaf, a forgotten figure from the past (and completely unknown to the under-30 generation) who was lured back to Algeria after a 28-year absence by coup plotters desperate for legitimacy. Apart from his inner circle of long-time associates — most of whom were obscure university professors resident in France since the 1960s — Boudiaf had no political base whatsoever. Despite his role in the creation of the FLN in 1954 (passed over in silence in official post-1962 historiography), he enjoyed little popular credibility. His project for a National Patriotic Rally was ridiculed, even by those who were kindly disposed to him, as a made-over FLN, remote-controlled by the state, and voicing the usual vacuous FLN populism. Boudiaf’s popularity was entirely posthumous, arising from the fact that his assassination was almost certainly ordered by elements in the power apparatus who felt threatened, among other things, by his disinterested determination to uncover corruption at high levels. For a journalistic account, see Pierre Dévoluy and Mireille Duteil, La poudrière algérienne: histoire secrète d’une république sous influence (Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1994), pp. 175-215.
[11] Abed Charef, “Chronique d’un èchec annoncé,” La Nation, November 8-14, 1994.
[12] The renamed Socialist Vanguard Party (PAGS). “Tahaddi” means “challenge” in Arabic, with the consonants (not roots) supposedly signifying, in this case, Progress-Modernity-Democracy (taqaddum-hadatha-dimuqratiyya).
[13] See Le Monde, November 10, 11 and 16, 1994.
[14] Khaled Ziri, “Le coup de Rome,” La Nation, November 22-28, 1994.
[15] For conciliatory declarations of FIS leaders since Zeroual’s October 31 speech, see Liberation, November 5-6 and 10, 1994; Le Monde, November 15, 1994.
[16] Liberation, September 1, 1994.
[17] See interviews with Turabi in Le Figaro, January 25, 1994; Liberation, September 1, 1994; Jeune Afrique, November 17-23, 1994.
[18] See Le Monde, November 9, 1994.
[19] Liberation, September 20, 1994. The FIS, it should be said, has failed to distance itself sufficiently from GIA excesses or to condemn the assassination of non-combatants, simply asserting that most of these acts are in fact carried out by the security services. This allegation is believed true by many in Algeria — where conspiracy theories are rife — including by Westernized intellectuals not known for their Islamist sympathies. While it is true, as Hocine Aït Ahmed has said, that “one often does not know who is killing whom,” the notion that the security services are behind the assassination of intellectuals, foreigners and so on is simply not credible. Not only is there no evidence to back this up, but the armed Islamist groups almost never deny having committed the various outrages attributed to them. Responsibility for many acts is, in fact, assumed in communiques or tracts posted in the mosques. In 1993, FIS publications in France claimed that several Algerian intellectuals had been killed by “mujahidin” (i.e., Islamist fighters). See Gilles Kepel, A l’ouest d’Allah (Paris: Le Seuil, 1994), p. 296.
[20] See Zaki Chihab, “Avec les guerriers du FIS: au QG de I’AlS, Region ouest,” Courrier International, October 13-19, 1994. Originally appeared in al-Wasat (London). Cooperation between the AIS and GIA was also observed by a British television reporter who travelled in the maquis with the AIS. See the interview in Liberation, November 19-20, 1994.
[21] See Liberation, October 28, 1994.
[22] See Liberation, November 16, 1994.
[23] See Mohammed Harbi, “Sur les processus de relégitimation du pouvoir en Algérie,” in Michel Camau, ed., Changements politiques au Maghreb (Paris: Editions du CNRS, 1991), p. 137.
[24] See Abdelhamid Brahimi, Justice sociale et développement en économie islamique (Paris: La Pensee Universelle, 1993).
[25] See, for example, his interview in La Nation, September 27-October 3, 1994.
[26] See his interview in El Manar (Algiers), February 28-March 6 and March 7-13, 1994.
[27] Reinventer novembre: plate-forme pour l’Algérie républicaine, December 11, 1992.
[28] Abdelkrim Djaad, “Les deux peuples qui vont s’entretuer,” L’Hebdo Libéré (Algiers), January 7-13, 1992.
[29] See Hadj Bakhtaoui et al, “Quelle voie pour la paix civile?” L’Hebdo Libéré, January 14- 20,1992; Bakhtaoui et al, “Un seul front contre le FIS,” L’Hebdo Libéré, February 11-17, 1992.
[30] L’Hebdo Libéré, June 23, 1993, cited in Jacques Verges, Lettre ouverte è des amis algériens devenus tortionnaires (Paris: Albin Michel, 1993), p. 20.
[31] See Sadek Hadjeres, “Les droits de l’homme: question secondaire ou fondamentale?” El Watan, July 14, 1994.
[32] See Mohammed Harbi, “La crise algérienne,” Liber 17 (March 1994), p. 4; Lahouari Addi, L’Algérie et la democratie (Paris: La Decouverte, 1994), pp. 166-183.

How to cite this article:

Arun Kapil "Algeria’s Crisis Intensifies," Middle East Report 192 (January/February 1995).

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