The Islamist Challenge in Algeria: A Political History
The Agony of Algeria
Unbowed: An Algerian Woman Confronts Islamic Fundamentalism
Ironically, the world has awakened to the horror of events in Algeria at a time when it may be too late to offer any constructive advice or to exert any political pressure on the current regime. A few years ago, the violence, which by now has killed many thousands of civilians, could be seen as having clear political origins. There were still some possible courses of action outsiders could recommend to the Algerian government. And, at the time, the regime was so divided over what policy to adopt toward dissident Islamic political groups that it is at least possible that some of Algeria’s leaders could have been persuaded to listen. But nothing was even attempted. Outsiders, frightened by visions of an amorphous, vengeful Islamic movement and anxious to keep on the right side of the Algerian government, limply gave the regime the support it asked for.
Now the carnage has become so widespread and its methods so vile and so incomprehensible that it has forced itself on the world’s attention. Again and again we hear of terrorists descending on a village to spend a long night hacking people to death, cutting their throats, tossing their children into burning houses. But the new men of violence are probably beyond any possibility of political bargaining. Most of the people with more understandable aims and motives, with whom a political bargain might perhaps have been struck, have by now been forced to the margins of political life. Talk of a political solution is becoming almost irrelevant.
So visiting outsiders, such as the recent delegations from the European Union, anxious to do something, are reduced to pleading for information, for a little light to dispel the murk of rumor, suspicion, and censorship. At best, they would like some kind of international investigation. A great many questions demand answers. Who, for a start, is to blame for these seemingly senseless murders—murders for which Muslim groups seldom claim responsibility? Why is nobody brought to trial for them? Why hasn’t the army, sometimes within earshot of the victims’ screams, intervened to stop the slaughter?
There are, for now, no clear answers. According to the Algerian authorities, the murders are all the work of Islamists (an ugly expression, but one that has become the accepted way of describing radical, militant, or fundamentalist Muslims). In particular, they are carried out by the GIA (the French acronym for the Armed Islamic Group), which is trying to overturn the regime by terrorizing the population and is on the point—always, we are told, on the point—of being wiped out by the security forces.
Much of this is true: Islamist terrorists are almost certainly to blame for most if not all of the recent ghastly killings. But many mysteries remain. There is little hard evidence for the GIA’s responsibility. Most of the murders take place in Islamic strongholds, even GIA strongholds, in a triangle of villages south of Algiers. The army’s role and its inability to protect civilians have so far not been explained. And the GIA, despite the killing of its leaders and many of its fighters by government forces, continues to defy the authorities.
However urgently answers are looked for, they cannot be expected from Martin Stone and Michael Willis, both of whom finished their books well before the latest and cruelest manifestation of Algerian violence. Mr. Stone just manages to mention the June 1997 parliamentary election; Mr. Willis, whose work is based on his Ph.D. thesis, barely gets as far as 1996. This means that the latest mysterious developments, let alone their solution, are outside the range of both writers. But what they do, and do extremely well, is explain how it all came about.
Their approaches are different. Mr. Willis’s is chronological. Based on books, news clippings, and interviews, his book still reads a bit like a dissertation as he carefully traces the rise of Algerian Islamism from its early days during the 132 years of French colonial rule, its short moment of glory when it seemed about to take power in the late 1980s, and its subsequent crash. Mr. Stone’s approach is more thematic, a little brisker, and more opinionated: it also provides a more accessible account of the Algerian crisis for the general reader. But both books are well-written and their material is skillfully presented. Their conclusions are illuminating, and similar.
Both authors argue that the re-emergence of Islamism in 1988, after its long sleep in the shadow of Algeria’s first quarter-century of independence, was the result of a political rather than a religious movement. The distinction is crucial: the Algerian Islamic movement was not, at least at its beginning, part of a region-wide, awe-inspiring fundamentalist manifestation, but a fairly straightforward political phenomenon that could probably have been dealt with or contained by political means.
Mr. Stone writes that it is important to grasp that the FIS, the Islamic Salvation Front, the main Islamist party, is
a radical nationalist party that articulated its policies in the context of Islamism rather than as a purely fundamentalist organisation, such as the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt.
In other words, a party espousing Islamic principles arose in modern Algeria not because people were seeking Paradise in the next world but because, disgusted with a corrupt and profligate regime, they sought better conditions in the world they lived in.
Islam became more powerful at a time when Algeria’s secular authorities were in disgrace. As Mr. Stone says, “The three pillars of Algeria—the army, the party [i.e., the FLN] and the state—had become so tarnished by corruption and mismanagement that in the minds of most Algerians they had forfeited their ‘right’ to rule.” The nationalist fervor of the eight-year war of liberation against France, which ended with independence in 1962, had long since dissipated. The legitimacy of the FLN, the National Liberation Front, the state’s one and only party, derived from that war. But over the years, the FLN became demoralized, turning into a mere façade behind which the quarrelsome factions of the military and civilian elite ran the country’s affairs, for the most part inefficiently.
Corruption was pervasive, rumored to be on an epic scale, with payoffs allegedly going to officials at every level of the bureaucracy. Mismanagement was everywhere evident. Algeria had staggered through a phase of cumbersome state planning and heavy industrialization. It was saved from disaster by its oil and gas revenues, which make up about 95 percent of its exports. But then, in the mid-1980s, oil prices crashed. At the same time, the government was moving toward economic reform and privatization. This led to a loss of a great many jobs in state-owned industries, and new, much more obvious, inequalities of income. About three quarters of young Algerians—and most Algerians are very young—were unemployed. Without money or homes or even rooms of their own, the young urban jobless—known as hittistes—became increasingly desperate.
In 1988 frustration exploded into riots. These were put down by the army, brutally. Perhaps 500 unarmed civilians were killed. The official figure was 150 but, then as now, the regime shrinks from acknowledging embarrassing statistics. The country’s current prime minister, Omar Ahmed Ouyahia, disclosed in January that 26,563 people (soldiers, guerrillas, and civilians) have been killed in the six years of violence that have plagued Algeria since 1992. Most observers believe 65,000 to be closer to the mark—and Mr. Stone himself quotes an even higher estimate of 120,000 killed. Nobody knows the true figure.
Be that as it may, ten years ago the government, then headed by President Chadli Benjedid, responded courageously to the violent protests of 1988. When we look at the riots with the benefit of hindsight, we may suspect that Chadli’s courage may have been too bold and precipitate. He dramatically tried to reform the old authoritarian system. The army was sent back to its barracks. A new constitution allowed for free elections, a liberated press, and the organization of opposition political parties to compete with the long-dominant FLN. A multitude of parties sprang up. One of them was the FIS, a new party which, as Mr. Willis explains, was more an offshoot of the old Islamist movement than an organic part of it.
Although the Islamists have been accused of whipping up the 1988 riots, Mr. Willis says this was not so. In fact, he shows that Islamist politicians were taken by surprise by the riots. In their aftermath they had hastily to set up organizations in a new Algeria which suddenly was promising political freedoms unheard of in any other Arab country.
Above all, the FIS, under its relatively moderate leader, Abassi Madani, and his fiery sidekick, Ali Belhadj, sought to inherit the revolutionary nationalist tradition that the FLN had allowed to become so disreputable. In conscious imitation of the FLN, the new party organized itself with extraordinary speed into a mass movement, collecting votes not only from the jobless young but from a broad section of the middle classes and among the middle-aged.
Yet the party’s aims remained, and remain, ambiguous. Amid the excitement, it never got around to formulating a clear program. Its emphasis, as always with Islamist movements, was on women. It was prepared to dictate what they should wear (hedjab, or a headscarf), how they should be educated (single-sex schools), and, indeed, what they should do with their lives (with exceptions, stay at home and look after their families). But most matters were left vague. Did the FIS believe in pluralist democracy? How far would it go in pushing for its theoretical goal, an Islamic republic based on Islamic law? Nobody really knew. In economic affairs, the party leaders stressed their strong belief in private enterprise. But their attitude toward foreign investment was a good deal less certain.
The FIS’s first success was in the 1990 local elections, when it won several municipalities. This was a crucial development. It meant that, for the first time, an Arab Islamist party could be judged on its record. Would the new mayors and councilors turn Algerian towns into mini-Irans? If they did, it would be clear to all that they should be kept out of national political life. As it turned out, the results were inconclusive. The new FIS bosses did not do anything monstrous. The press, watching vulture-like, reported that, in one town, they banned shorts and swimsuits in the street. In another, they banned wine shops, in another, rai, a form of popular music. But, Mr. Willis writes, some of these measures had been passed earlier by the FLN-controlled authorities and were merely enforced by the FIS. His conclusion is that the FIS’s short time in municipal power, though undistinguished, did not introduce any “dramatically draconian social measures.”
Yet the regime, and Algeria’s French-speaking, secular elite, were thoroughly frightened, and not without reason. The FIS (by this time without its two leaders, who had been arrested after fresh riots) went on to win a convincing victory in the first round of the delayed general election in December 1991. Though the party got no more than 47 percent of the vote, it won 188 of the 231 parliamentary seats that were decided in the first ballot. The second round, for the remaining 199 seats, was due in January 1992. President Chadli Benjedid was ready to go ahead with the elections, believing that with constitutional constraints (and with the army in readiness behind the scenes) a FIS-led government would be manageable.