Caroline Abadeer, Minerva/Jennings Randolph Peace Scholar at the United States Institute of Peace and Yuree Noh, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Harvard University’s Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center
This memo was drafted for POMEPS Studies 30, “The Politics of Post-Conflict Resolution.”
In December 1991, Algeria held its first set of multi-party legislative elections since the country became independent in 1962. The Front Islamique du Salut (Islamic Salvation Front, FIS) garnered 47 percent of the vote share in the first round of the electoral contest, soundly defeating the ruling party, the Front de Libération Nationale (National Liberation Front, FLN). The military stepped in and cancelled the second round of the election due to fears that the Islamists would achieve an even larger majority and gain control of the national government. The ensuing confrontation developed into a decade-long war between the Algerian military regime, along with state-sponsored militias, and Islamist insurgency.
Figure 1: 1991 Voteshare of FLN and FIS
The contentious 1991 Algerian elections, the widespread violence that followed, and the broader implications of these events have been widely discussed by academics and policymakers. The “Black Decade” is often described as a watershed political moment for the region. In this memo, we explore the lasting effects of the war on the postwar Algerian society. We argue that the civil war and the subsequent government-controlled peace process severely limited prospects for democratization in two ways. First, the government succeeded in splitting the moderate Islamists from the radical jihadists. Subsequently, it effectively co-opted the moderates into creating a façade of democracy. Second, the nature of post-conflict political reconstruction produced grievances that persist to this day. While amnesties granted by the government towards the end of the war helped ending violence, the reconciliation measures were criticized by many Algerians as well as international actors. This is because they were deemed to have denied justice to victims. As a result, the peace process failed to generate true stability in the country. Perhaps our story provides a partial explanation to why the Algerian democratization attempts have followed a diverging path from its neighbors, Morocco and Tunisia.
The FLN has formed the core of the military and socialist regime since the Algerian state was established in 1962 following a prolonged struggle for independence from the French. Algeria experienced almost three decades of uninterrupted single-party rule before any serious threats to regime continuity emerged. A series of economic initiatives to promote fiscal liberalization were implemented in the 1980s, and not long after, a drop in oil prices in 1986 reduced government revenues substantially. These developments led to widespread economic crisis and high unemployment, and frustrated citizens took to the streets throughout the country in 1988 to rally against government corruption and economic mismanagement (Richards and Waterbury, 1990). In response, the regime implemented political reforms, beginning with a new constitution in February 1989. New elections were announced in which multiple parties would be allowed to compete, including political opposition groups.
The first set of free, local elections in Algeria took place in June 1990. The Islamist FIS, which had formed less than a year before and become a rallying point for disaffected middle-class and urban voters, defeated the FLN, with 54 percent of the votes cast. The FIS also gained control of 32 of the 48 wilayas (provinces) and 853 of the 1,551 communes (municipalities) in Algeria. In response, the military government engaged in political maneuverings, redrawing district lines with the goal of giving their preferred candidates an upper hand in the upcoming parliamentary vote. The FIS proved adept at handling local administrations in the interim between the local and national elections (Volpi 2003). In the first round of the parliamentary contest in December 1991, the FIS won again by a landslide, gaining almost half of the votes nationwide. The FIS also garnered twice as many votes as the FLN and won 188 of the 430 parliamentary seats outright.
The Algerian army, which could not tolerate the prospect of an Islamist party coming into power, forced the resignation of President Chadli Benjedid. The national parliament and communal and municipal assemblies were also dissolved, and the second round of the legislative elections, originally scheduled for January 1992, was cancelled. The FIS was outlawed in February 1992, and many FIS supporters and leaders were arrested and sent to internment camps in the Sahara. A state of emergency was imposed, and all legislative and executive powers were transferred to a junta of senior military officers.
This authoritarian reversion triggered widespread backlash, but protests were met with even more severe regime repression. The ensuing confrontation between several fractured Islamist insurgent groups and the military regime developed into a prolonged and bloody guerrilla war. The violence spread throughout Algeria and continued through 1999, persisting to a lesser extent until 2002. During this period of intense civil conflict, about 1.5 million Algerians had to flee their homes. Between 100,000-200,000 Algerians were killed, and tens of thousands disappeared.
Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the former foreign minister under Houari Boumedienne from 1963 to 1979, ran unopposed in the 1999 presidential elections. The center of his platform was to bring peace to the country: “I am prepared to die for [peace],” declared Bouteflika during his campaign. Upon his victory, Bouteflika promptly began the national reconciliation process and introduced the Civil Harmony Law, a peace initiative granting amnesty to individual rebels who voluntarily gave up their arms and renounced violence. Many militia groups, such as the AIS, also collectively gave up arms and received amnesty.
In September 2005, a national referendum endorsed the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation that expanded the essential components of the Civil Harmony Law. It gave partial compensations to victims and their families. The Charter further exonerated insurgents who made a full confession of their wrongdoings, including those who may be implicated in killings, massacres, rape, and bombing attacks. Moreover, it halted any legal actions against rebels who had fled the country and been convicted in absentia. However, the Charter excluded Islam from the political arena and banned anyone who had taken up arms from political life; this way, the Charter effectively banned former FIS members from participating in postwar politics. For instance, when a former FIS member attempted to form a new political party, the government refused to approve its registration.
Though not explicitly stated, the Charter reinforced the de facto exemption of state agents and restricted any criticism of military actions during the civil war. It was also made illegal to criticize the Charter itself. In particular, the government discouraged any public discussions or sit-ins regarding approximately 15,000 “disappeared” Algerians, as well as the role of security forces in the disappearance.
The reconciliation measures helped ending the decade-long bloody civil war, and Algerians today returned to somewhat normal lives without a state of emergency. The country’s international standing also improved, especially since Algeria took part in the war against terror after 9/11 as a Western ally. However, rather than generating long-term stability in the country, the reconciliation measures have produced lasting grievances as President Bouteflika and his government promoted amnesia and neglect of the war victims. We analyze two important consequences produced by the government-controlled peace process.
First, national reconciliation failed to yield true resolution because the government avoided establishing the truth and holding involved parties responsible for committing grave human rights violations. While commitment to ending violence was commendable, reconciliation required more than charters, referenda, and decrees, all generated unilaterally by state officials. No formal inquiries occurred to prosecute crimes committed against the citizens. Systematic reforms to change existing state institutions never took place, and multi-party negotiations to alleviate underlying grievances were absent. Blanket immunity given to all government armed forces further reinforced feelings of resentment among citizens who already held grudges against the regime.
To this day, the government never initiated investigations into war crimes, particularly regarding its own role in killings, tortures, and disappearances. The state refused to release any records about tens of thousands of disappeared Algerians, most of whom were taken by security forces and never seen again. More recently, in 2006, the government unilaterally passed a decree that would jail and fine anyone who speaks or write about the disappearances in relation to the state officials “who had honorably served Algeria.” Rather than informing the population of the truth, the regime was keen on forcing Algerians to move on.
Human rights activists also heavily criticized Algeria’s reconciliation policy, which was viewed as “impunity in the name of reconciliation” for human rights violations and other acts treated as crimes under international law. Together with growing socioeconomic grievances in Algeria as a result of falling oil prices and lacking state responsiveness, true reconciliation of the war damages appear ever more important today.
Second, the peace process has largely prevented the growth of independent, moderate Islamist movements, which have operated as main contenders against various secular dictatorships in the region. The current moderate Islamist parties are not only co-opted by the regime but also compete with each other for more state resources or personal ambitions (rather than due to true ideological differences). Their fragmentation has contributed to the decrease in their standing to the disenchanted Algerian public. The lack of coordination among the groups works to greatly benefit the ruling regime that strives to divide and rule without allowing the rise of a credible opposition.
Whereas the Islamist divisions date back to the pre-civil war era, the lines became more distinct during the black decade and postwar period. A few years into the civil strife, ideological differences had fragmented the Islamists, both Jihadists and moderates, into those that broadly aimed to (1) produce reforms under the status quo FLN-rule, (2) overthrow the existing regime, and (3) establish a Salafi Islamic state. Among the extremists, they operated in numerous armed groups, most notably the Mouvement pour un État Islamique (MEI), Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA), and Armée Islamique du Salut (AIS), the armed wing of the FIS. The groups did not work together with each other during the reconciliation process, either. In 1997, the AIS negotiated with the military to end its armed campaign. Other groups also held separate talks with the army rather than collectively. However, the GIA, which became more radicalized during the war, continued fighting; the group itself suffered from internal disputes that led to the creation of various splinter groups.
The nature of the reconciliation process thus helps to explain the persistence of extremist movements, such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Though they have shifted its focus away from Algeria toward the more vulnerable countries in West Africa over time, the Black Decade still weighs heavily in Algeria as the government forces and Jihadist militants still clash occasionally, especially in the South. For instance, during the 2014 presidential elections, AQIM ambushed and killed 15 Algeria soldiers returning from voting in Tizi Ouzou. The same year, a French tourist was kidnapped and killed by another militant group linked to Daesh. It is unlikely that militant groups will become extinct in Algeria anytime soon.
Algeria’s moderate Islamist parties and their leaders are more divided and ineffective than ever, with even the most prominent groups have suffered multiple internal disputes. For instance, the former leader of Ennahda, Abdallah Djaballah, left the party due to disagreements over the party support for Bouteflika; he went on to form another party, El-Islah. Moreover, at every election, different Islamist coalitions appear and disappear. In 2012, Ennahda, El-Islah, and Hamas formed an opposition coalition called the Green Alliance, only to fall apart shortly. A similar attempt took place before the 2017 legislative elections without much success. Such a lack of coordination across parties severely limits the potential for Islamist success in Algeria. Moreover, although parties like Hamas have left the pro-government alliance and declared itself as the “opposition” since 2012, the Algerian public has lost hopes in the moderate Islamist parties to rise up as true contenders against the regime.
The nature of the postwar reconstruction in Algeria thus helps to explain several important aspects of its political condition today. The ceasefire and end to violence has achieved a certain level of stability, but the enforced amnesia about the violence has prevented any deeper reckoning with societal or political problems. The co-optation and weakening of moderate Islamist parties has largely neutered them as potential challengers, while non-Islamist parties have struggled to gain any traction. Radical jihadist groups have taken advantage of the political stagnation, maintaining low level violent challenge.
Richards, Alan, and John Waterbury. 1996. A Political Economy of the Middle East. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996.
Martinez, Luis. 2004. “Why the Violence in Algeria.” Journal of North African Studies 9:2, 14-26.
Tlemcani, Rachid. 2008. “Algeria Under Bouteflika: Civil Strife and National Reconciliation,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Volpi, Frederic. 2003. Islam and Democracy: The Failure of Dialogue in Algeria. Pluto Press, 2003.
 Al-Ahram, August 1999.
 Rebels who had committed serious crimes, such as killing, rape, or bombing, were to be excluded. However, no substantial investigations took place, and even those who were proven to have committed these crimes were eligible for light sentences (Tlemcen 2008).
 Its 19-year-old state of emergency was lifted in 2011.
 Human Rights Watch, “State-sponsored disappearances in Algeria,” 1998.
 Human Rights Watch, “The Proposed Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation of August 15, 2005,” 2005.
 The military is also reported to have infiltrated the Islamist groups and caused their fracture.