Islamism, Violence and Reform in Algeria-Turning the Page (Islamism in North Africa III)

30 Jul 2004

35pages PDF

This is the third of a series of briefings and reports on Islamism in North Africa.[1] The first provided general background on the range and diversity of Islamic activism in the region, and subsequent papers examine with respect to particular states, the outlook and strategies of the main Islamist movements[2] and organisations, their relations with the state and each other and how they have evolved. The analysis focuses on the relationship between Islamic activism and violence, especially but not only terrorism and the problem of political reform in general and democratisation in particular. Algeria has been a case study in how not to deal with Islamist activism. Its experience dwarfs that of its neighbours in both scale of violence -- over 100,000 deaths since 1991 -- and number of Islamic organisations disputing the religious, political and military fields. This proliferation owes much to the authorities who, in contrast to their regional counterparts, displayed a consistently precipitate and reckless attitude toward major policy decisions in the critical 1989-1992 period and have failed to eliminate all the armed movements that have emerged since. But there is now an opportunity to turn this tragic page. Seizing it requires a skilful blend of political, security, legal and diplomatic measures to eliminate remaining armed groups. But Algeria's political class also must recast debate around a new agenda of practical reform. Europe needs to help more, and the U.S. to be more sophisticated in its handling of an over-played al-Qaeda factor. The development of Islamic activism in Algeria in the 1980s initially resembled that elsewhere in North Africa and, as in 1970s Egypt, the authorities both actively helped to bring it into existence and sought to use it for their own purposes. But its phenomenal political expansion in the early 1990s had no regional equal and surprised most observers. An important reason why it acquired a mass base was the alienation of many young Algerians from a state which seemed no longer to offer them prospects. But the main political factor was the way in which Algerian Islamism, through an initially legal party, the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS), mobilised and monopolised Algeria's populist tradition in 1989-1991, in part by posturing as heir to the historic National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale, FLN) that fought the independence war. Similarly, the scale of the insurgency that developed after the interruption of the electoral process in 1992 owed much to the tradition of guerrilla war in the revolution, which gave birth to the state. Other crucial factors were the authorities' decisions to ban the FIS and arrest thousands of its activists, thus placing ordinary members of what had been a legal party outside the law and driving them into the arms of jihadi groups that might otherwise have remained marginal. Since 1992, the regime has sought to curb FIS influence by allowing Islamist organisations to proliferate. Legal parties reflecting more cautious tendencies in Algerian Islamism have drawn some ex-FIS support into constitutional channels, enabling the regime to re-establish control over the political sphere. Encouraging proliferation of movements so as to divide and rule has had a far more deleterious side, however. A central feature of army counter-insurgency strategy has been to sow dissension within the rebellion. This has scotched the threat to the state but the resulting fragmentation of the rebellion into a plethora of armed movements has made it very difficult to eradicate militarily and equally difficult to end by political means. Although violence has been much reduced, continued activity of several armed movements is not only a security problem and a constraint on political life, but also a factor facilitating expansion of al-Qaeda's jihad. This has two distinct but connected aspects. The armed movements offer al-Qaeda points of en