Hearing those gunshots brought back my childhood memories of the Algerian war of independence, when I witnessed acts of terror that led to the deaths of many Algerians, adults as well as children. Once again, Algeria had descended into violence, though this time against an internal enemy; once again, ordinary citizens had become immune to horror.
Most Algerians find themselves caught between a battle for power taking place between a highly militant Islamist (or fundamentalist Muslim) movement and well-entrenched regime. The crisis has worsened as Islamist groups fight the military and police on the streets of Algiers and elsewhere. These events worry not only Algerians but also their North African neighbors, Arab governments, Europeans, and Americans.
Algeria's current turmoil began in October 1988, as thousands of youths rioted across the country in a scream of protest against difficult living conditions, scarcity of many primary food items, permanent austerity policies, lack of educational and employment opportunities, and absence of recreational facilities. According to the official toll, the swift military reaction to the riots left 150 dead and hundreds injured. It also stimulated a fast-paced series of radical political and economic reforms, which included an end to the political monopoly enjoyed by the National Liberation Front (FLN) for nearly three decades and an opening of the system to new forces.
A powerful mass party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), came into existence in February 1989, and quickly became the regime's biggest challenger. Like other fundamentalist Muslim organizations, it radically rejected the existing order and planned instead to establish an Islamic republic governed by the Shari'a (Islam's sacred law).
In June 1990, the country's first multiparty municipal elections exposed the FLN to an almost total rejection; in its place, the FIS captured most seats of the municipal and provincial councils. This vote signalled how thoroughly the FLN's inability to manage Algeria's economic difficulties and social tensions had lost it popular support. Based on their strong showing, the Islamists adopted a confrontational attitude, demanding early presidential elections to replace President Chadli Bendjedid and institute new electoral redistricting. They organized civil disobedience, called for a general strike, and even appealed to army officers to rebel against the regime.1
As the first multiparty parliamentary elections approached in June 1991, Western television screens filled with great masses of bearded men in white dress and women in veil, praying on the streets of Algiers and demonstrating for an Islamic republic. Algeria looked like it would become a second Iran. But just days before the elections were to take place, the army intervened, disbanded the Islamist gatherings, and imposed a martial law regime. The military arrested thousands of Islamists, including two top leaders of the FIS, Abassi Madani and Ali Belhadj, and postponed the legislative elections until December 26, 1991. It also replaced the government of Prime Minister Mouloud Hamrouche with one led by Sid Ahmed Ghozali, a technocrat held over from the Boumediene era. Since that time, armed clashes between security forces and various Islamists groups have increased, their victims amounting to some four thousand Algerians and at least fifty foreigners.
The first round of parliamentary elections did take place, as planned, on December 26, 1991. The FIS won a landslide victory, capturing 188 of the 430 seats. In contrast, the Front of Socialist Forces (FFS), a Berber-based party headed by a historic leader of the independence struggle, Hocine Ait Ahmed, won 25 seats, and the FLN a mere 15. Islamists were almost certain to capture two-thirds of the seats in the second balloting, a number that would permit them to rewrite the constitution. As FIS leaders attacked what they called "the democratic poison,"2 many Algerians, especially in the military, feared for the future of their country.
But five days before the second round of elections were to take place, the army intervened a second time. On January 11, 1992, it pushed President Bendjedid--who seemed willing to cohabit with the Islamists--to resign, created a temporary five-man ruling committee called the High State Committee (Haut Comité d'Etât--HCE), and invited Mohamed Boudiaf, a self-exiled historic figure, to return to Algeria and head the HCE.
As the Islamists escalated their armed attacks, the HCE declared a state of emergency, canceled the results of the December elections, banned the FIS, and arrested the remainder of its leaders. Boudiaf led a large-scale crackdown against the Islamists and began a serious campaign against corruption in the higher echelons of the state and army hierarchies, only to be assassinated on June 29 by one of his security men. Algerians widely believe that members of the power elite killed him because they saw in him a threat to themselves (he had started inquiring about the sources of their wealth and questioned their legitimacy as high state officers). Ali Kafi, the head of the national organization of war veterans, replaced him as HCE president, and in turn appointed sixty-four-year-old Belaid Abdesselam to replace Sid Ahmed Ghozali as prime minister.
Prime Ministers Ghozali and Abdesselam shared a reluctance to move away from an administered economy and into a market one. They both faced major resistance from all sides, the private sector as well as the powerful state enterprises.
Economic and security conditions continued to worsen in 1992 and 1993, leading to thousands of deaths. As Islamist violence widened, new armed organizations appeared, most prominently the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the Armed Islamic Movement (MIA), both created in 1992. Members of these groups killed not only military and police personnel but also civilians, including journalists, professors, poets, doctors, union officials, opposition party leaders, and simple citizens suspected of cooperating with the state or women refusing to wear the veil. They targeted foreigners in an effort to shut down foreign aid and investment. In addition, they attacked infrastructure (telephone centers, food stocks, public utility vehicles, and schools) to prevent the leadership from running the country normally. Countermeasures by the state left scores of people dead and thousands in jail.
As Abdesselam failed to win support and hence to control the situation, Kafi replaced him as prime minister with Redha Malek, the foreign minister and a member of the five-man HCE. Malek promised an economic policy that would radically depart from previous ones by moving with a stronger determination toward a market economy, and a security policy that would respond more vigorously to the Islamist challenge; at the same time, he promised to accommodate all other political forces. He engaged in serious negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
In spite of his efforts, Malek too could not generate consensus around a plan of transition back to democracy and economic revival. Accordingly, he created a Commission for National Dialogue to choose the next president and elaborate a blueprint for a political and economic transition period of three years, starting January 1, 1994. Trouble was, no candidate for the presidency came forward, and most political parties boycotted the conference. In the end, on January 31, 1994, the High Security Council appointed one of its members, Liamine Zeroual, as president of Algeria for a period of up to three years.
President Zeroual's Efforts
Zeroual, a career military man and devout Muslim, was called from retirement in July 1993 to serve as defense minister. Born in 1941, in Batna, he began his military career at age sixteen by joining the National Liberation Army in its fight against French colonialism, and went on to hold several important positions in the Algerian army, including commander of the land forces and deputy chief of staff. Just before retirement, he held the post of ambassador to Romania.
Delivering on his promises of a clean break from past practices, Zeroual on April 11 appointed Mokdad Sifi as prime minister. A fifty-four-year-old technocrat, Sifi declared his government's commitment to "the consolidation of state institutions; re-starting of the economy and the promotion of national solidarity; and the achievement of concord and understanding among all Algerians."3 Put in less diplomatic terms, this list sums up the task before Zeroual and Sifi, who must immediately achieve three things: quell Islamist violence; engender support in the government and the army in favor of a compromise with the Islamists; and enact an effective program of economic stabilization.
Quell Islamist violence. Islamists constitute the principal challenge to Zeroual's regime, and they can be expected to continue their violent pressure on the state. In turn, the latter will respond with a policy of firm repression against the violent elements and an invitation to dialogue to those Islamists seeking a political solution to the crisis.
One potential obstacle to a fruitful dialogue, however, is that Islamists in Algeria do not present a united front. When created, the Islamic Front of Salvation included numerous Islamic groups and parties. When the parliamentary elections were canceled in January 1992, however, two new groups formed: the MIA, a military wing of the banned FIS (but not necessarily under its control), and the GIA, a totally independent group created by former fighters in the Afghanistan war. The latter is the most radical of all and does not in any way answer to the FIS. On the contrary, several killings of FIS militants were attributed to the GIA in the context of a struggle for leadership of the rebellion and also over strategy; the GIA is adamantly opposed to any negotiations and wants to fight until the regime falls, while the political wing of the FIS has expressed an interest in negotiations. Two further Islamist groups are worth noting, both of which are at odds with those already mentioned: Hamas (not to be confused with the similarly named Palestinian group, with which it has no relationship nor tactical resemblance), the largest moderate religious party in Algeria, and Ennahda. Besides these established groups, many other violent elements exist of lesser importance but similar deadliness.
There are questions in Algeria as to what, if any, meaning an agreement between the government and the FIS would hold, since the independent armed groups are likely neither to honor any such deal nor to stop their violence.
Implement a compromise. Immediately upon his appointment as president of Algeria, Zeroual acknowledged that the solution to Algeria's crisis would necessarily involve a political dialogue among all contending forces; security measures alone would not bring about a solution to Algeria's crisis. He called for a political dialogue among all social forces (including the FIS but not the GIA or MIA). One week after ascending to the presidency, he addressed the country: "We are convinced that the political crisis can be solved only through dialogue and with the participation of all the political forces of the nation without exception."4
To find a political solution to the crisis, Zeroual has to secure strong support for his approach in the army and the government, and also among the most important elements of civil society, such as labor unions, political parties and personalities, professional organizations, and business groups. As of now, most associations, organizations, and unions have responded to his invitation to dialogue, but political parties have responded with less favor. Only a few small parties have shown interest in dialogue, while the major parties, such as the FLN and FIS, have rejected the framework of consultation and are asking for radical policies that would eliminate many elements and practices of the old regime. They want to be consulted directly in most decisions on transition rather than simply being asked to acquiesce to a fait accompli by the current power elite. Until a compromise is reached whereby these major parties can be brought into the dialogue, then, Zeroual's chances of reaching an agreement with the opposition forces success are not very great.
In the meantime, however, Zeroual has made other important steps, such as bringing fresh blood to the military by nominating new and younger officers in early May to major leadership posts. Along similar lines, he appointed a National Council of Transition (NCT) to serve as a temporary legislative body, which is made up of two hundred representatives of parties, trade unions, managers' associations, professional organizations, and other civil associations. (Again, however, most political parties have refused to send representatives to the NCT, and have called for genuine parliamentary representation.) Zeroual also set up a long-promised Social and Economic Council to make recommendations about social and economic policies.
At this time, it is difficult to assess whether these efforts at compromise will have a positive outcome, notably because there are many players involved, some visible and others not; the stakes are numerous; interactions are extremely complex; and information is scarce. Even if negotiations between the government and the FIS lead to some agreement, it is not certain that various armed independent groups will stop their violent activities. Zeroual also has to contend with the moderate opposition he will need to balance the Islamists, either in an electoral race or in an interim power-sharing arrangement. As things stand now, there seems to be little visible progress in the area of compromise.
Political violence will likely continue in Algeria even after a brokered political solution is reached, but it may be greatly curtailed by a pragmatic arrangement of power sharing between secular forces and moderate religious leaders. If such an arrangement succeeds in Algeria, it would send a strong signal not only to other violent groups in the region but also to the regimes they are challenging.
Stabilize the economy. Like their predecessors, Zeroual and Sifi seem committed to reviving the economy and addressing the most urgent social grievances while asserting the authority of a state of law and order. Zeroual continued negotiations with the IMF for a debt-restructuring agreement that would ease Algeria's heavy debt payments. The agreement signed with the IMF on May 27, 1994, and later with European lenders, would lighten the debt-servicing burden and bring in more foreign capital to help Algeria meet its immediate consumption needs as well as its long-term economic growth requirements. After Algiers committed the country to a stabilization program and debt-rescheduling plan, the IMF responded with optimism and promised a $1.04 billion aid package. Algiers further showed its commitment to a serious economic adjustment by devaluating its currency by 40 percent and drastically cutting the remaining subsidies on primary consumption items weeks before the agreement was signed.
Scenarios for the Future
Three main scenarios for the future of Algeria exist:
The collapse of the current regime and establishment of an Islamic republic. This may happen mainly if there is a split within the army between, on the one hand, those favoring a continued repression of the rebellion without giving in on what they perceive the most important demands, and on the other, those willing to negotiate and make important concessions to not only the Islamist radicals but also to the moderate opposition. If that split occurs, then the worst can be expected; since the army is the only institution that could hold the country together and preserve the state, two possible conflicts may ensue:
* An Islamist coalition with a faction of the army will fight another military faction and civilian groups opposed to the Islamist takeover. The outcome may be similar to that of Sudan, where a faction of the army coalesced with the Islamists in a drive against the regime.
* The same scenario as above, except that an ethnic ingredient will be added, as Berber-speaking militants take up arms not only against the Islamists but also against the faction of the army that seeks to continue imposing "Arabism" while denying the cultural expression of the Berber-speaking population. In this scenario, when the Islamist tendency wins over, a violent opposition (from both secular groups and Berberist militants) to the Islamic republic may be expected for some time.
Successful negotiations lead to power sharing between the Islamists and Zeroual's regime. This can happen if sincere and direct bargaining takes place between the contending sides, mainly the FIS, the GIA, the government (i.e., the military leaders), and four main parties: the FFS, the RCD [Rally for Culture and Democracy] (both the latter represent the Berber-speaking population), the FLN (still entrenched in state institutions and powerful), and Hamas. If an agreement is reached at least with the FIS for either a temporary power sharing or new elections, then the most important hurdle remaining will be that of controlling the radical Islamists of the GIA or of bringing them into the process. It could be expected that an FIS-government compromise will greatly help in undermining this group and will open the way for a similar understanding with the nonviolent opposition.
Eradication of the Islamist rebellion. This alternative is the least likely scenario because the Islamist movement in Algeria is not an isolated phenomenon, but rather a large grassroots movement that will keep growing as long as the living conditions of the population worsen while the state response remains limited to military and police action. The Islamist movement is in Algeria (as well as the entire North Africa) to stay, and its rebellious expression will wane only when it is integrated in a serious and all-encompassing process of building a new societal consensus, or social contract.
The task before Zeroual is huge, complex, and laden with risk. He has precious little time to alleviate his people's problems, eliminate the social and economic conditions that have contributed to the rise of the Islamist challenge, and quell political violence. If he does not succeed quickly and restart both the economy and the democratic process, the challenge might grow ever bigger and lead to an uncontrollable situation that would further aggravate the vicious cycle of civil violence and military repression. In the meantime, social, economic, and security conditions have worsened, and people seem to lose more hope every day that there will ever be a recovery.
Implications for the Outside World
The situation in Algeria arouses grave concerns among neighbors in North Africa, Middle Easterners, and the West.
North Africa. No matter what the outcome of the Algerian crisis, Morocco and Tunisia are likely to feel the direct consequences. A victory by the Islamists is likely to encourage a bolder Islamist challenge to the regimes of both Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and King Hassan II in Morocco. Under the Islamists, Algeria may also offer sanctuary to rebellious groups from neighboring countries. (Before it was banned, the FIS hosted in Algeria Rachid Ghannoushi, the exiled leader of the Tunisian Islamist group Ennahda, currently in England). This hospitality merely carries on an Algerian tradition of hosting and supporting popular self-determination movements. On the opposition side, Algerian Berberists will certainly link up with Moroccan Berber groups for support (it is important to note that the Berber-speaking population in Morocco is the largest in North Africa--some 40 percent).
Should the second scenario come to pass--a power-sharing arrangement--the opposition of all stripes (Islamist, leftist, liberal) will demand similar concessions from the Moroccan, Tunisian, and possibly Libyan regimes.
An eradication of the Islamist rebellion will strengthen the hands of positions of the currents regimes in the Maghreb at the expense of a democratic opening.
Middle East. The potential consequences outlined above may well also apply to Egypt, except that geographical distance may make the impact less direct and powerful. But in the long run, and especially if pressures on at least Tunisia bear fruit, Husni Mubarek of Egypt may be further pressed to accommodate the Jama`a Islamiya.
The West. Western worries are centered on the impact of the Algerian crisis on pro-Western Arab regimes and the European countries as a result of an expected influx of people running away from North Africa, mainly Algeria.
The French government, after a long hesitation, finally in May 1993 decided to support the current regime and oppose an Islamist takeover. Toward this end, French interior minister Charles Pasqua orchestrated a wide-scale crackdown against Islamist activists in France. The government also encouraged other Western powers to help Algeria's economy recover through an agreement on debt rescheduling. Rejecting the thesis of the inevitability of an FIS takeover in Algeria, French foreign minister Alain Juppe expressed his government's attitude:
In its very essence and taken globally, this is an extremist movement, a terrorist movement, anti-European, anti-West. . . . If it comes to power in Algiers, the consequences would be incalculable. Tunisia and Morocco would be rendered fragile, and I note that Egypt is not in a situation of complete stability. That is why French diplomacy is not one of those that considers laissez-faire policies as the thing to do.France's plan for Algeria includes helping that country to recover from it economic crisis, notably through debt rescheduling and bilateral aid; and encouraging the Algerian government to, as Juppe put it, continue its "dialogue with those who are prepared to do so."5
In contrast to French views, American policy encourages political reforms that include Islamists in the government. Mark R. Perris, acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, enunciated the American position in these terms:
The goals of U.S. policy concerning Algeria are clear. We favor the development of a more democratic system which allows broad, popular participation in government; an eventual resumption of the suspended electoral process; economic reforms which satisfy the long-term needs of the Algerian people; and respect for basic human rights.6In effect, this policy calls for Algiers to deal with moderate Islamists. More recently, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Robert Pelletreau called for the inclusion of nonradical Islamists in a political solution to Algeria's crisis.7 A few days later, President Clinton, in a joint interview with French president François Mitterrand, expressed the hope that "the present Algerian government will be able to broaden its base. We have also encouraged this government to reach out to dissident groups who are not involved in terrorism, who disavow terrorism."8
The official U.S. outlook reflects the reality that, since the Iranian revolution of 1979, the White House has always carefully avoided antagonizing Islamist movements out of a belief that they may inherit the rule in a friendly country.
Unofficially, there's much debate among American officials. Some in the National Security Council and the State Department argue that America and its allies should prevent an Islamist takeover at all costs. This position is based on a belief that (1) the Islamist militants are driven by a hatred for the West, Christianity, and Judaism; (2) the Islamists are likely to institute totalitarian theocracies that will kill all hopes for democracy in Algeria; and (3) an Islamist takeover in Algeria will actively threaten the stability of friendly and secular Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia.
Sensing this behind-the-scenes rift in the U.S. position, the Algerian government, through its ambassador in Washington, Nourredine Zerhouni, indicated that the crisis in Algeria "is very serious, but not a lost cause, as some in the administration seem to think."9 What the Algerian authorities would like to hear is a clear American statement, like that of the French, that declares an Islamist takeover unacceptable.
The Algerian case presents certain difficulties, as well as opportunities, for American foreign policy. Americans still consider Algeria, in fact the entire Maghreb, as French preserve, and have usually deferred to France in formulating the outlines of policy there. As a result of this and also because of a generally weak economic and military presence in the Maghreb, American leverage is very limited and can at best be done in coordination with France and other European allies. Even at the level of international institutions such as the United Nations, World Bank, and IMF, the United States has little room for unilateral maneuvers with regard to Algeria, Morocco, or Tunisia.
However, the statements made by Clinton and Pelletreau show a new American resolve to act alone using its leverage in North Africa. Even though the United States has no substantial direct stakes in Algeria, some overall objectives and far away interests may be affected by not only developments in Algeria but also by America's response to them.
Azzedine Layachi is assistant professor at Saint John's University in New York and author of The United States and North Africa: A Cognitive Approach to Foreign Policy (Praeger, 1990).1 The New York Times, June 7, 1991, and July 2, 1991.
2 FIS leader Ali Belhad, speech given during campaign for municipal elections, May 1990.
3 Mokdad Sifi, speech given in Algiers, Apr. 11, 1994, posted on ALGNEWS, an electronic bulletin board of the Algerian Embassy, in Washington, D.C.
4 President Liamine Zeroual, "Address to the Nation," Feb. 7, 1994, posted on ALGNEWS, Washington, D.C. By "political forces" Zeroual means specifically to exclude the violent groups.
5 Alain Juppe, press conference in Washington, D.C., May 12, 1994.
6 Mark R. Perris, acting assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, Statement before the Subcommittee on Africa of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Washington, D.C., Mar. 22, 1994, in State Department Dispatch, Apr. 4, 1994.
7 The Washington Post, May 27, 1994.
8 Reuters, June 7, 1994.
9 The Boston Globe, Apr. 11, 1994.