Algeria’s Peace Process: Spoilers, Failures and Successes

Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, Resident Scholar, Carnegie Middle East Center

This memo was drafted for POMEPS Studies 30,The Politics of Post-Conflict Resolution.” 

From 1991 to 2001, Algeria witnessed a brutal civil war which came to be known as the “black decade.” The demands of reconstruction were daunting in the wake of an estimated 150,000 victims, 7000 disappeared, one million internally displaced and $20 billion of material damages. One key dimension of post-conflict reconstruction was political dialogue, involving reconciliation and to rebuild a functional political system.

The dialogue between the regime and the Islamist insurgents started as early as 1994, but no meaningful agreement was reached. The failure of these efforts was in part due to the presence of two constant spoilers, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the regime’s hardliners called the “eradicators”.  However, from 1997 onward, the peacebuilding process took a successful turn, as a part of the Islamist insurgency unilaterally declared a ceasefire and the government engaged in de-engagement and rehabilitation policies. This allowed for an end to the bloodshed and the rehabilitation of 15,000 former fighters into society[i].

This essay analyses President Liamine Zeroual’s two peacebuilding attempts between 1994 and 1995 and the spoilers responsible for its failure. It then discusses the continuation of peacebuilding process under President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. It argues that in the Algerian case there was a clear issue of spoiling coming from within the regime and from part of the Islamists. These spoiling strategies had a direct and permanent impact on the actor’s behavior on the ground as well as on the peacebuilding process.

Algeria’s Black Decade

Algeria lived under a single-party system for almost three decades. The development plans put in place in the 1970s had been a failure. Declining oil prices had eroded financial capacities of the Algerian state and its ability to provide price support, jobs, food, medicine and housing distribution.[ii] Blatant social inequalities were increasingly intolerable, especially for youth. As a result, on October 5th, 1988 hundreds of thousands of youth took over the streets in Algiers and in other major cities, attacking the State’s symbols and offices. To restore order, the army intervened and shot on sight. The official death toll stood at 176 while unofficial estimates stood at 500. The violence broke the social contract between the people and the leadership, as the regime lost what remained of its credibility[iii].

To rehabilitate the regime in the eyes of its citizens, then-President Chadli Benjdid decided to engage in dramatic political reforms[iv]. The February 23, 1989 new constitution introduced fundamental changes: references to socialism were abolished, private property was guaranteed, the state’s monopoly on foreign trade was ended, and more importantly a law on associations and the multiparty system was promulgated on February 25, 1989. Between July 5th and July 31, 1989, the Ministry of Interior approved fifty political parties.[v]

The most popular party was the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), with its leader Abassi Madani, his number 2, Ali Belhadj and its main publications El-Munkid [the Savior], and El Furkan [the Revelation]. The FIS was a heterogeneous grouping composed of radical Islamists, some Algerian-Afghan veterans, the urban classes that were traditionally conservative and a sizeable number of disenfranchised youth. With the support of this diverse constituency, the FIS won the local elections in June 1990 as well as the first round of the legislative elections of December 1991[vi]. The second round, scheduled for January 1992, never took place. The military interrupted the electoral process and took effective control of the country. They ousted then-President Chadli Bendjedid, banned the FIS and jailed thousands of its sympathizers[vii]. In the meantime, the extremist faction of the FIS issued a call to jihadism, and a plethora of jihadist groups emerged throughout the country to fight what they called dawlet El Tagut [the impious state].

Peace Initiatives: Between the “Eradicator” and the GIA’s Spoiling

After almost three years of conflict, the Algerian regime started considering the possibility of dialogue with the Islamists as defeating them on the ground proved more difficult than expected in part due to the role of spoilers. According to Stedman, spoilers are defined as “leaders and parties who believe that peace emerging from negotiations threatens their power, worldview, and interest and use violence to undermine attempts to achieve it.”[viii] In Algeria, two main spoilers were present to undermine or marginalize each conciliatory measure. The first spoiler was the “eradicator” wing within the regime’s hardliners who opposed any rapprochement or negotiation with the Islamists. The second spoiler was the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the most prominent and dangerous jihadist group in the Algerian landscape.

At first, the Algerian regime did not want to negotiate, believing that the FIS would capitulate. After almost three years of violence, the authorities tried to engage in dialogue with the creation in late 1993 of the National Dialogue Commission and National Reconciliation Conference. The attempt proved to be a non-starter, as the FIS was excluded from the National Dialogue. A second attempt came with the appointment in January 1994 of General Liamine Zeroual as President – by the High Council of State (HCE) which had been set up on January 14, 1992, to run the country. This new leadership was more realistic about the strength of the Islamist insurgency on the ground, and the newly elected President showed his intention to negotiate with all political forces including the Islamists.

At the same time as the Algerian regime began these tentative moves towards dialogue, the GIA succeeded in uniting several jihadist groups from all over the territory under the leadership of his national emir [chief] Sherif Gousmi and had some 10,000 men fighting under its banner. The GIA was proclaimed in May 1994 the only legal framework for Jihad in Algeria and decided on the “three No”: “No dialogue, No truce, and No reconciliation.” The jihadist group was able to “free” several provinces around the coastal strip of the Mitidja as well as in the interior of the country.

It is in those circumstances that the regime opened lines of communication with the FIS, even as its leader Abassi Madani was finalizing the establishment of the FIS military wing the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS). Madani agreed on opening a dialogue with the regime and in October 1994, Zeroual ordered the release of hundreds of Islamist prisoners – including Madani and Belhadj who were put under house arrest.

The first spoiler to Zeroual’s attempt came from within, by a group of regime hardliners that would be known as the “Eradicators.”[ix] The constituency of the Eradicators was small, yet politically and economically powerful, with support at the top of the state. They had the political, economic and military resources to spoil any peace initiative[x]. They were against any rapprochement, dialogue or negotiation with any Islamist. They were partisans of the “tout sécuritaire” [all-out security] and hence the use of repression was their way to deal with political Islam and the Islamist insurgency. For them, eradication of the Islamist was the solution. The Eradicators spoiled Zeroual’s peace initiative by mobilizing opposition against it (marches, demonstrations, media attacks…etc.). They also spoke publicly against the initiative. When for instance, Zeroual decided to free FIS leaders, both General Lamari and Reda Malek criticized the move, the latter calling it “a major unilateral concession” that “was placing the Republic to a death sentence.”[xi]

Another reconciliation initiative was launched by major political parties, including the banned FIS, between January 8 to 13, 1995 in Rome. For the participants of Sant’ Egidio, peace was only possible through a genuine national dialogue that would involve every party including the FIS. The parties jointly called for their total rejection of violence, the cessation of attacks against civilians and public assets, the withdrawal of the military from the political arena and their ending of indiscriminate violence and extrajudicial killings.

The Eradicators wing of the regime would substantially contribute to destroying the Sant’ Egidio platform initiative. While the Sant’ Egidio platform represented a high proportion of the Algerian electorate, it did not represent the regime at all that rejected the platform in its totality. In fact, Zeroual with its two failed peace initiatives had no other choice but to reject the platform even if the platform was in line with his reconciliatory approach. With its consecutive failures, Zeroual lost his political capital. He wanted to hold presidential elections and increase the regime’s legitimacy in the eyes of Algerians. To do so, he needed to give in to the Eradicators’ demand for more latitude in military interventions to engage with rebels. Consequently, the peace process drive was destroyed.

The second broad spectrum of spoilers were the Islamists. The FIS also played a double game which undermined reconciliation efforts. The authorities interrupted the negotiation when the security forces discovered a letter written by Ali Belhadj with the GIA emir, Sherif Gousmi during his capture. Belhadj’s letter was calling the GIA to “strike the enemy in his strong points and terrorize him by resorting to the laws of Sharia.”[xii] As a result, in November 1994, the government announced the failure of the peace initiative and charged the FIS for its “bad faith.” In his speech to announce the failure of negotiations, President Zeroual declared “Instead of working to stop the violence as they [the FIS] pledged to do, they tried to consolidate extremism and encourage violence. They only have a dictatorial view about democracy”.[xiii]

The GIA was a complete spoiler in the sense that it refused any negotiations throughout the entire conflict and continued its extreme violence even when the group had nothing to benefit from. For the GIA, there was “no truce, no negotiation, and no dialogue.” Throughout the conflict, the GIA proved to be a tenacious total spoiler to any reconciliatory measure as its objective was to overthrow the “apostate regime” and to establish an Islamic State. While for the FIS/AIS negotiations with some elements of the regime (except the Eradicators) were possible, for the GIA it was unimaginable. The GIA’s radical stance was defined from the beginning of its inception. In a fatwa launched as early as December 2, 1992, the GIA emir [leader], Abdelhak Layada, declared: “The Algerian leaders are without exception, infidels. Their ministers, their soldiers, and their supporters and all those working with them, under their orders, or helping them, and all those who accept their authority or who remain silent to their actions are also infidels apart from the faith.”[xiv]

Unsurprisingly, then, in 1995 the GIA rejected Zeroual’s peace attempts as well as the Sant’ Egidio platform. GIA’s then-emir, Djamel Zitouni published a letter explaining that the GIA “denies all these talks […] and unholy meetings”[xv]. The group conducted a violent campaign against the Saint’ Egidio platform accusing both the FIS and its military wing, the AIS of being “jihad traders” and announced in El Hayat newspaper: “As they have not put an end to their unholy spirit and their corruption on earth, it is our duty to fight them […], and hence, we tell our brothers that our fight against the AIS is a duty.”[xvi] The GIA gave a month notice to the FIS/AIS members “to repent” and return to the “way of God” before starting its purge. Assassinations started in April 1995, killing some 140 FIS figures including Muhammed Said and Abdul Razzaq Radjam.

The GIA engaged in a terrible campaign of killing against civilians as well, spoiling the peace process and undermining at the same time the FIS/AIS and their supposed capacity to rally the numerous fronts of jihad in the country. In a highly competitive environment, the GIA wanted to show its domination for the monopoly of jihadism and discredit at the same time the FIS/AIS by showing that it had no hold of any kind on the armed struggle in the country. As such it was less valuable for the authorities to negotiate with it.

From the Clemency Law to the National Reconciliation

Why did these spoilers lose their ability to block national reconciliation and political reconstruction?  Bolstered by the presidential victory in 1995, the political and military establishment decided to pursue its all-out repression and intensify its military operations. However, as part of the regime itself (the Eradicators) opposed the Sant’ Egidio initiative, it decided to return to the constitutional approach and came up with a new reconciliation policy. That would be the Rahma [Clemency] law in which the “misguided of the Nation” were called to lay down their weapons and reintegrate society under certain conditions.

While offering a way out to many Islamist insurgents as some 2000 were disarmed between 1995-96, the regime continued its military operations and hence kept pressuring the rest of the jihadist groups on the ground.[xvii] At the same time, the Army opened secret lines of communication with the AIS leader Madani Mezrag who wanted to distance itself from the GIA’s extreme violence. Merzag was also realistic about the FIS capabilities in finding a resolution to the crisis and about the status of his organization. The AIS was weakened on the ground as it was fighting on two fronts, against the security forces, and against the GIA.

It is under these circumstances that General Lamari (himself an Eradicators) and Mezrag started negotiations for a ceasefire. Mezrag declared that “Jihad was about to be buried by its sons” and it was a priority for him to stop the bloodshed even if that meant laying down weapons. Mezrag was charismatic enough to convince some 7 000 fighters among them 800 from the GIA to lay down their weapons[xviii]. The charismatic leadership of Mezrag and the policies of the regime with more conciliatory measures beginning with the Rahma law were two important variables that weighed heavily in ending the violence.

The 1997 unilateral ceasefire represented a turning point in the history of the Algerian conflict. It was the beginning of a long disengagement and rehabilitation process.

Demobilization and Disarmament

With the election of President Bouteflika in 1999, a Civil Concord Law was introduced. It was an extension of Zeroual’s Clemency law. The Civil Law was approved on September 16, 1999, by a margin of 98.6 percent. The law had a limited time frame and lasted until January 13, 2000. In theory, the law granted conditional amnesty to former fighters who laid down their weapons. Former jihadists were eligible for amnesty only under certain conditions such as not having been involved in massacre, rape or in setting off bombs in public spaces. For jihadists who committed the cited crimes, they were eligible for reduced prison sentences. However, in practice, because of the lack of evidence and the high number of involved fighters, the law pardoned all armed fighters who voluntarily surrendered and who simply denied having participated in the prohibited acts. No investigation was conducted to authenticate their claims.

To continue this effort, in 2005, the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation was adopted to “transcend the national tragedy once and for all” and put an end to “the great fitna [civil strife] that struck Algeria.” The Law contained the same measures as the Civil Harmony law in addition to the exemption from prosecution of members of the security forces and the pro-government militias. Central to the charter was the idea that all Algerians were all victims of the war. There was no winner and no loser, and it is for this reason that trials for both sides (security forces and repentant) were avoided. Also, the law aimed to encourage and sustain the demobilization of those who were still to be convinced of laying down their weapons. The law provided financial compensation for the victims of the war including the families of missing persons and parents of former jihadists. Similarly, members of the security forces involved in human rights violations were given immunity. Also, those “responsible for the instrumentalization of religion that led to the national tragedy” such as the FIS members were forbidden from engaging in any political activities[xix].

Fundamental to the success of the Disengagement policy, has been the work with former jihadists that gave legitimacy to the process. Indeed, former fighters were given a voice, and they were given a chance to speak on national television about their experience in armed groups, the reasons for their engagement and their defection. Their involvement and their calls for the cessation of violence and reconciliation helped in giving the peace process an additional layer of legitimacy. It also helped in raising awareness about violent radicalization and its consequences, in preventing potential at-risk individuals from joining the fight, inspiring some for leaving it and convincing other to renounce it for good.

Also, many leading Islamist figures such as former FIS leaders Rabah Kébir and Anouar Haddam or former AIS emir like Mustapha Kertali endorsed the reconciliation policy and aided in its success by making regular calls to jihadists still in the hideouts to surrender and return to their communities and society. The presence of such figures cannot be underestimated as they were seen as legitimate and had enough credibility to convince people. In addition, former fighters were offered protection because of their fear of retaliation from families of victims or other jihadist groups. In some cases, the state provided them with arms to protect themselves and their relatives. This was not enough to prevent retaliation. Repentant were also offered medical and psychological support to cope with their trauma as many of them had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD).

The socio-economic reintegration of former armed members was a critical issue that the regime had to tackle. Financial compensation was given to a broad category called “victims of the national tragedy” that included both families of the victims and the missing and families of the perpetrators of crimes. Members of armed groups who were victims of state violence were compensated (up to $15000 according to a 2008 fieldwork research). Repentant were also rehabilitated in society through entrepreneurial activities. Social enterprises, industries, and public companies helped in that regard, and former fighters were offered new professional opportunities for those who were unemployed before their engagement in jihadist groups, and other were reintegrated in their previous positions.

Vocational rehabilitation was crucial to their reintegration into society. According to several interviews made by the author of these lines with former jihadists in Algiers in 2008 in the framework of a Ph.D. thesis, vocational rehabilitation provided “repentant” with a sense of belonging and purpose, a meaning in life and a sense of pride and dignity as well as a sense of citizenship[xx]. Moreover, their professional rehabilitation provided them with material as well as psychological incentives. Financial compensation and job opportunities were intended to deter economic hardships and recidivism. This also helped in asphyxiating the Jihadi networks as the governmental initiatives deprived the jihadists of their potential recruitment pool by offering them not only a way out of jihadism but also an alternative.

These financial compensations were possible due to the increase in oil revenues. The latter not only allowed President Bouteflika to have leverage in convincing Islamists and other political figures but also in investing heavily in development after understanding that the military solution alone is not enough.  The financial manna was used to calm social tensions by meeting the needs of the population regarding housing, jobs, health, infrastructures, etc. Also, the state established a youth recruitment policy to offer youth better professional opportunities. Wali (prefects) all over the national territory had the task of setting up an “a private status multiservice cooperative,” required to gather unemployed youth and integrate them into economic activity (security guards, caretakers, plumbers, etc.). Localities were also ordered to take care of the integration of young graduates. In addition to the military, which absorbed the workforce, agreements with public companies such as SOTROUJ (road works), or DHW (hydraulic) were put to the benefit of young graduates (nearly 150,000 jobs were created between 1994 and 1996) [xxi]. By doing so, the State not only regained the trust of its populations, but it also helped in depriving local jihadist groups’ form their local manpower.


The Algerian experience is not an ideal template or program, and the reconciliation policy is imperfect as it failed in addressing the roots of the country’s violence and in providing justice to the families of the victims of terrorism[xxii]. However, it is safe to say that this peacebuilding approach contributed greatly in ending the conflict, in returning to peace and stability after a bloody “black decade.” We can draw several lessons from the Algerian experience:

First, it is essential for governments to open lines of communications with their opponents when the latter are willing to discuss and negotiate (here, the AIS). However, when dealing with total spoilers (here the GIA), the use of violence might be the only possibility. The GIA could not be accommodated into the peace process, and hence coercion was the only way to defeat it and reduce its capabilities to undermine the peace process. Security measure and the continued repression of the security forces were a key factor in ending the GIA’s violence and fostering peacebuilding.

Second, the offering of peaceful political participation to the Islamists by the Algerian government since 1995 offered an alternative for them to abandon violence. In addition, the participation of Islamist in the political system led to a greater professionalization of their parties (i.e., with the Movement for Society and Peace MSP). Not only that many Islamists became members of parties, but they also learned about the management of State affairs. The party’s cadres started to socialize with members of other parties and reached for new political partnerships. Opening avenues for peaceful political expression are crucial. People from the whole religious spectrum should have a non-violent space in the political arena and be socialized into the rules of Democratic competition.

Finally, financial inducement was also crucial to rehabilitating former fighters into society and the socio-economic measures that the Algerian government took to target poverty, unemployment, and housing issues were crucial in assisting the peace process and reducing the conflict. The economic measures were coupled with political ones and the coming back to the constitutional process in 1995 helped in giving legitimacy to the regime and in resolving the conflict.

[i] RFI news desk, Algérie : dix ans après la charte, où en est la réconciliation? [Algeria : Ten years after the Charter, Where the Reconciliation Stands] RFI, September 29, 2015,

[ii] This was also the time of the impoverishment of the popular classes and the atomization of the middle class. The population growth – with the birth rate at 3 percent, an increase from 8.5 million inhabitants in 1962 to 26.6 million inhabitants in 1993 – and a rapid urbanization (almost 50 percent in 1988), hampered the social development strategy at all levels. Unemployment was close to 30 percent, living conditions were deteriorating and a real process of “ghettofication” commenced. In Stora Benjamin, Histoire de l’Algérie depuis l’indépendance, Paris: La Découverte, 2006, 64.

[iii] Yahia Zoubir, “The Painful Transition from Authoritarianism in Algeria”, Arab Studies Quarterly, Vol. 15, n° 3, 1993, 82-115.

[iv] For these reforms, Chadli surrounded himself by reformists composed of lawyers, academics, civil servants, representatives of the army and newspaper editors, led by Mouloud Hamrouche.

[v] Mortimer Robert, Islam and Multiparty Politics in Algeria, Middle East Journal, Vol. 45, n° 4, 1991, 575-593.

[vi] During these elections, the FIS proved its strong social capital and secured 188 out of 232 seats in Parliament.

[vii] The violence and repression of the security apparatuses – from the elections’ cancellation in January 1992 onwards – contributed greatly to the radicalization of thousands of people especially youth. The state opened El Muhtashadat (prisons) in the South of the country where some 40, 000 FIS supporters, sympathizers and many others who were not even involved with the Islamist movement were detained. Extrajudicial killings, arrests and disappearances were also practiced. Some 7,000 people are believed to have disappeared and the fight against terror was atrocious as showed by the 16,930 jihadists that are believed to have been eliminated by the security forces throughout the conflict. Civilians would be caught hostage of this war and violence against them reached its pic with the massacres of the summer 1997.

[viii] Stephen Stedman, “Spoiler Problems in Peace Processes,” International Security, Vol. 22, No. 2, 5.

[ix] The “Eradicators” were individuals who used to be former officers in the French Army and who held after the independence of Algeria in 1962 top positions in the Algerian military. Among the most famous Eradicators were the Chief of staff of the army, General Mohammed Lamari and Prime minister Redha Malek.

[x] In addition to their political, economic and military power, the eradicators had the support of France that did not want to see Algeria turned into an Islamic Republic, Iran style in the South of its shores. Brian Riedy, “Spoiling in Algeria and the Collapse of the FIS: An Analysis of Algeria’s Spoiler Problem”, 1994-1995, E-PARCC, Syracus University.

[xi] Christian Hoche, Les Premiers Pas [The First steps], L’express, September 22, 1994.

[xii] Zerrouky Hassan, La nébuleuse islamiste en France et en Algérie, France : Éditions 1, 2002, 171.

[xiii] Françoise Germain-Robin, Le président Zéroual annonce des élections en 1995 [President Zeroual Announces Elections in 1995], L’Humanité, November 1, 1994.

[xiv] El Wasat (London), n° 138, 19 September 1994.

[xv] Tawil Kamil, el haraka el islamiya el moussallaha fi el djazair. Mina el inkad ila el djama’a [Le mouvement islamiste armé en Algérie. Du FIS au GIA], Beyrouth: Dar Enahar, 1998, 608.

[xvi] Tawil, 1998, 608.

[xvii] Martinez. Les enjeux des négociations entre l’AIS et l’armée, Politique étrangère, n°4 – 1997. 499-510.

[xviii] It should be noted that throughout the conflict, the AIS fighters took their orders from Mezrag and not from the FIS political leaders. Omar Ashour, The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements, Routledge, 2009, 59.

[xix] It should be said that Significant criticism within civil society raised against the charter. For instance, the families of victims and missing parents disagreed on being associated with the families of perpetrators under the category “victims of the national tragedy,” they created associations, called for the refusal of what they called the “law of impunity” and for the establishment of truth. The lack of dialogue led to a greater suspicion towards the authorities that were perceived as in need of “burying the files” and starting with a clean slate. To put an end to these critics, the government invoked the referendum as the ultimate proof of people’s will in favor of the solution.

[xx] Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, A life after Jihadism. November 17, 2017, Carnegie Middle East Center. Available on:

[xxi] In Martinez Luis, La guerre civile en Algérie, Paris : Karthala, 1998, 275.

[xxii] Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, Algeria on the Verge: What Seventeen Years of Bouteflika Have Achieved, April 28, 2016, Carnegie Middle East Center. Available on