After World War II, Algeria endured a long, costly and violent war of independence from France between 1954-1962 in which over one million people died. After gaining independence, Algeria strengthened its economy by developing its vast hydrocarbon resources. It is now the world’s number two natural gas exporter, with 99% of exports, and 57% of government revenues derived from oil and gas production. Today, the country is again embroiled in savage conflict, a secret war, largely hidden from the world by government-imposed censorship and threats to media.
During the first round of free and open elections in 1991, it became apparent that the Islamic fundamentalist FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) party would win a majority of contested seats and threaten the FLN (National Liberation Front) and establish control over the country. Substantial FIS support came from the under-classes. The elections were quickly nullified and a military council took control of government. The FIS party was banned and its leaders arrested or driven into hiding. Not surprisingly, armed insurgency and conflict erupted.
The GIA (Armed Islamic Group) emerged as the main armed insurgency group. Their attacks on the police and military prompted reprisals and the violence spiraled out of control. Both the GIA and forces of the military junta have since been guilty of severe human rights abuses, burning villages and schools, while slaughtering tens of thousands of civilians. To date, this has remained an internal war, with little impact outside Algeria, however the GIA is believed responsible for a number of terrorist incidents in France. Over 70 journalists have been killed and several decapitated. The government has banned journalists and has imposed strict censorship of news, particularly related to government losses.
The FIS and GIA receive support from Iran, Sudan and other Islamic states, while the illegitimate Algerian government has continued to receive support form the International Monetary Fund, the US and other states. The US declared the GIA a terrorist organization and maintains relations with the military regime. European states, namely France, which relies on Algerian gas, have continued support of the regime. However, if free and open elections were held again, it is believed that the Islamic fundamentalists would win a plurality, or slight majority, resulting in a new Islamic state in North Africa.
In the 16th century Algeria and Tunisia became part of the Ottoman Empire, Spanish intruders were expelled and the sovereignty of the region was recognized by western nations. However, France invaded North Africa in 1840, overcame fierce resistance and established a French colony. In the 1870’s the French expropriated land, turning ownership over to French settlers. By the end of WWII more than one million French “pied-noirs” controlled the land, economy and government of Algeria. The French imposed their religion and culture on the Algerian people, converting mosques to churches and even bars.
In 1945, a Nationalist rebellion broke out, fighting ensued and tens of thousands of Algerians were killed and French control survived. After World War II, France was faced with anti-colonial, independence movements in Viet Nam and Algeria. In 1954, the National Liberation Front (FLN) launched a new, armed rebellion. One-half million French troops were aided by the Secret Army Organization (OAS), a right-wing paramilitary group, seeking to maintain French power. In the protracted conflict, over a million people died, before De Gaulle granted independence in 1962 to a nation with 90% illiteracy.
Ahmed Ben Bella was elected the first Prime Minister and nationalized most foreign companies, following a Cuban inspired brand of socialism. As many as 500,000 French nationals fled, while an equal number of Algerian refugees returned to their homeland. Ben Bella was overthrown in a coup in 1965 and Houari Boumedienne assumed power. The new government accelerated development of Algeria’s oil and gas reserves as its economic foundation, while agricultural production suffered. Under Boumedienne, Algeria continued its socialist programs, while pledging to create the conditions needed for the establishment of democracy. This was a period of austerity, investment, job expansion and welcome tranquility, during which he deftly blunted the potential rise of Islamic fundamentalism.
In a peaceful transition Chadli Ben Jedid became President in 1979 and initiated some privatization and focused on improving the quality of life by increasing imports, while offsetting the trade deficit by external borrowing. However, the prosperity was not shared equally, the debt burden became enormous and when oil prices plummeted in 1986, it became a recipe for dissent. Muslim fundamentalists began a series of protests that threatened the inept, corrupt and nepotistic FLN government. A new constitution was adopted in 1989, allowing multiple political parties and in Algeria’s first, open and competitive local elections in 1990, Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) candidates won surprising victories and threatened the FLN monopoly of power.
In an effort to thwart the rise of the FIS, the government increased the number of National Assembly districts, a form of gerrymandering to strengthen their vote. In protest the FIS called a general strike, which resulted in widespread rioting. In defense of the “democratic process”, the army responded by repressing the dissidents, arresting FIS leaders and leaving hundreds dead. The moderate Prime Minister was forced to resign in mid 1991, allegedly a result of massive protests. New elections were scheduled for December 1991. In the first round, the FIS won 188 of 430 seats and was poised to attain the 75% majority needed to amend the constitution and form an Islamic state.
Amid fears that the FIS would declare Algeria an Islamic state, intellectuals, professionals, women and business people launched mass protests against the fundamentalists. Their objective was to protect the establishment’s hold on government and economic power. President Ben Jedid resigned and a military-dominated State Security Panel assumed power and subsequently appointed a Council of State (military junta) to rule. Ironically, the purported goal of the military takeover was to protect democracy. The Council declared a 12-month state of emergency and arrested FIS leaders, while others fled. The state of emergency was extended indefinitely, local governments were disbanded, the FIS was banned, the military was established as the ultimate authority and opposition insurrection escalated into a brutal and savage civil war.
The military junta attempted to create their own version of the Pinochet regime in Chile, pursuing economic development while brutally repressing insurgents. In 1995, the FIS signed the Rome Peace Platform, denouncing violence and agreeing to power sharing with the military until elections could be held. However, the military rejected the Rome accords and attempts at a negotiated settlement, spurring continuing and escalating violence from all sides.
Dissident Islamic fundamentalists formed the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and Armed Islamic Movement and a brutal civil war has developed, with neither side having a definitive advantage. Despite voiding-out democratic elections and banning the FIS party, the government has secured financial support form the IMF, the US and Europe, influenced in no small part by the importance of Algerian oil and gas and a general opposition to the rise of Islamic states.
The horrific death toll from the conflict has been masked by antagonism to the media by both warring factions. As many as 80 journalists have been killed and beheaded, while the government has imposed total censorship of news from the secret war, with a death toll approaching 80,000.
In 1997, the government of President Liamine Zeroual, the National Democratic Rally (RND) was re-elected, although the FIS and other opposition parties remained banned from participating. Although separate and often at odds, the political FIS and armed GIA both receive support from Iran, Sudan and other Islamic sympathizers. The FIS has a substantial following and its expected they would win a plurality, or slight majority in an election. As is often the case with insurgent groups, it’s unlikely the military can win a clear victory over the GIA, which could sustain an insurgency or terrorist campaign indefinitely. The government counter-insurgency campaign, guilty of major human rights abuses and repression, ensures continuing support for the Islamic fundamentalists. The GIA is also guilty of major human rights abuses and attacks against innocent citizens designed to discourage cooperation with government forces through coercion.
Given that the military regime lacks legitimacy, while the FIS has widespread public support, and the GIA has sufficient personnel, resources and support to wage a low level conflict against the military, it seems likely that the regime will ultimately be deposed either through elections or violence. Although western states prefer a non-Islamic state, the FIS would not appear to pose an external threat to regional stability. However, the military regime is far from willing to step down and until it does the savage killing is expected to continue, with the potential to evolve into full-scale civil war. The Berbers, who make-up 17% of the population are growing increasingly discontent and threaten to mount a separatist movement, that would inevitably entail further violence, while unforeseen events and more dramatic terrorist actions could impact further on Europe.
Algeria is 98% Muslim, so the conflict is obviously not about religion. At issue is the nature of the state and whether power, money and privilege will be held by the elite who inherited their positions from colonial France, or whether the country will attempt to distribute the wealth and develop wider opportunities. While the western nations enshrine and promote the concept of democracy, Algeria remains an example of hypocrisy, distorted by ulterior motives, passing by largely unnoticed.
Algerian Insurgent Groups:
GIA - The Armed Islamic Front. The GIA surfaced in 1992 and though its origins are in dispute, it was formed by Algerian “afghanis”, veterans of the Afghanistan war. It is the largest armed group and designated as a terrorist group by the US. The GIA has received support from Sudan and Iran, as well as Algerian expatriates. Its most notable action was the hijacking of an Air France flight in 1994 and bombings in France in 1995. GIA leader, Antar Zouabri, has stated that, “in our war, there is no neutrality, except for those who are with us, all others are renegade”. As a result, GIA has attacked government forces, civilians, foreigners, journalists and virtually anyone thought to be unsupportive of their campaign. Poorly armed, GIA actions are usually limited to knife, gun and bomb attacks, often nighttime attacks on villages. Government censorship and bans on journalists leave considerable doubt as to the perpetrators of the frequent massacres.
AIS - Islamic Salvation Army. The AIS emerged in 1994 as the armed wing of the FIS party after the GIA began operating independently of FIS control. The AIS targets Algerian government forces and claims that unlike the GIA, it doesn’t target innocent civilians. The FIS apparently does not have control of the AIS, which sometimes collaborates with the GIA. AIS is the second largest rebel force.
Other smaller groups are also active, including one representing Berber nationalism, provoked by the 1998, Arabic-only law, presenting the potential for additional conflict and perpetuating the cycle of Algerian violence.