This is the introductory section of the monograph.




The Algerian Crisis:  

Policy Options for the West

By Andrew J. Pierre and William B. Quandt

November 26,1995



For the past four years, Algeria has been torn by political violence that has cost tens of thousands of lives. In much of Europe and the Middle East, the Algerian tragedy is watched with apprehension for fear that the violence might spread beyond Algeria's borders, or that a radical Islamist regime might come to power and then pursue policies that would destabilize the surrounding region.

The United States, because of geography and history, has shown less interest in developments in North Africa generally than in the broader Middle East. The official stance of the Clinton Administration might be best described as concerned watchfulness. At the origin of this posture is a belief that the United States can do little to stop the bloodshed and to help Algeria return to a path of peaceful, democratic development. Without traditional instruments of diplomatic leverage such as military or economic aid to offer or withhold, American diplomats seem to have concluded that their views count for little in Algiers. As a result, something of a policy paradox exists. On the one hand, American officials generally express anxiety about what is happening in Algeria. On the other hand, they do little about it.

We differ with the conventional view in Washington on three basic points:

--First, what happens in Algeria is likely to affect American interests to a noticeable degree. At stake is stability in North Africa, a special preoccupation of our NATO allies, as well as the chances for the development of democracy throughout the Middle East. If Algeria remains locked in a prolonged internal conflict; if the military continues to lead a brutal campaign of "eradication"; or if the radical Islamists come to power, the chances for pragmatic democratic politics to take hold elsewhere in the Arab world in coming years will be set back.

Algeria, in short, is something of a beacon for whether democracy, Islamic populism, or military dictatorship will be the wave of the future in the Arab world. Countries such as Egypt and Jordan, and the emerging Palestinian state, will all watch developments in Algeria with interest and will draw lessons for their own political future. Immediate neighbors such as Tunisia and Morocco, now launched on relatively successful economic reform programs, will be even more affected by developments next door. It is not too much to argue that even the prospects for Arab-Israeli peace are likely to be influenced by what happens in Algeria.

--Second, the United States is not without influence, even though in dealing with Algeria it does not possess the big policy levers of economic or military aid. The United States is still viewed in much of the Middle East as a major power in world affairs, and therefore what Washington says and does is not taken lightly. In addition, the United States can use its influence in international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to make economic life more or less comfortable for those who govern Algeria. American companies also trade and invest in Algeria, and American polices such as Export-Import Bank credits can either facilitate or impede those economic links. And finally, the United States can work with its European allies to develop joint positions toward Algeria, thus maximizing its leverage. In the end, outsiders can only expect to influence Algerian economic and political development at the margin, but even that modest contribution may help to make the difference between better and worse outcomes in Algeria.

--Third, the situation in Algeria is not hopeless. If it were, then no policy initiatives by the United States or Europe would be justified. But Algeria, despite the recent cycles of killing, is a country with a future. It has vast hydrocarbon resources; a relatively well-trained and educated work force; a surprisingly free press, even though journalists are being targeted for assassination by radical groups; several established political parties; and an emerging middle class with an interest in stability and democracy. There are also signs that important figures in the military and within the Islamist movement understand that some form of political reconciliation is necessary if the country is to avoid a full-scale civil war. The political discourse on both sides of the conflict, with the exception of the far extremes, calls for political pluralism, respect for the Constitution, the rule of law, an end to violence, and the principle of "alternating" power among the various parties by means of contested elections. Many are skeptical of the degree of commitment to these lofty ideas, but the fact that nearly all political actors subscribe to them tells something about what they think ordinary Algerians want to hear. When Algerian voters went to the polls in November 1995 to cast votes in a flawed, but nonetheless significant, contested presidential election, their massive turnout alone showed a strong desire to find a political solution to the conflict that has been destroying their country.

Despite the current polarization of Algerian political life, we believe it is possible that some middle ground could be found between elements of the military and the Islamist opposition. If so, the violence would almost certainly be reduced, and a chance for rebuilding civil society would be opened. With his new electoral mandate, President Liamine Zeroual is well placed to move forward with a plan of political reconciliation with the main opposition blocs and of economic reconstruction. This process will need support from abroad, especially from Europe and the United States. It is time for leaders in the West to concert their efforts to help the Algerians out of the impasse that has paralyzed their country since 1992.




Algeria's modern political history has been one of excess. The country paid an inordinately high price for its independence; its first governments after independence followed a particularly rigid form of state socialism; in pursuit of its industrial policy, it became heavily indebted in the late 1980s, making it particularly vulnerable to the drop in oil prices mid-way through the decade; when it finally took a turn toward liberalization, it did so at such a speed and recklessness that near chaos resulted.

None of this suggests that Algeria is fated to swing from one extreme to another; in fact, for most of its life as an independent country it enjoyed stability, with very little political violence, although the price of this stability was a sharp curtailment of political freedom. Recent political violence does indicate, however, that Algerians have little in their immediate past that prepares them for political compromise and democratic bargains. If the current crisis is to be overcome, new patterns will have to be forged.

It is important to understand that Algeria did not get into its current difficulties simply because the economy took a turn for the worse in the mid-1980s. If economics were at the heart of the problem, then the solution would seem also to reside in the realm of economics. But the economic malaise of the country coincided with two other crises, one political and the other socio-cultural.


The Political Impasse.


Algeria's political crisis is rooted in choices made in the early days of independence. Like many other newly emerging countries, Algeria opted for a one-party state with a centrally planned economy. After seven years of a bloody war for independence (1954-1962), Algeria's new leaders were afraid of adopting a pluralistic system that might leave the state weak and vulnerable to external manipulation. A strong state seemed to require unity around the ideology of nationalism. The idea of multiple parties was seen as a formula for weakness and internal conflict. The regime anchored its claim to rule on its historical role in achieving independence and its social contract with the masses, i.e., the promise of free education, health care, and subsidized prices for basic commodities and housing. Anyone who seriously challenged the regime was likely to be labeled a traitor.

As long as oil and gas revenues flowed in and the regime was able to live up to a portion of its commitment under the implicit social contract, Algerian political life was relatively orderly. Power resided in the hands of the military and the bureaucracy, while the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) provided the symbolic link to the heroic struggle for independence. While very much an authoritarian state, Algeria more closely resembled a Latin model of dictatorial regime than the grim totalitarianism of Stalin or Ceaucescu. Still, with the passage of time, many Algerians were unwilling to grant automatic legitimacy to those who had participated in the revolution. Complaints about corruption, about the breakdown of the social contract, and about the blocked avenues to political participation could be heard during the 1980s. Not surprisingly, the new generation that came of age after independence was unwilling to entrust political life indefinitely to its elders.

Already in the early 1980s, small groups of armed insurgents were challenging the regime in the name of Islam. There is no evidence that these groups had significant popular following or external support, but they began to develop the critique of the system that later became the rallying cry for a broad-based protest movement. The regime, it was said, had confiscated the revolution; it had become corrupt; it discriminated in favor of those who spoke French and had served in the French army; it was cut off from the people; and it was insufficiently committed to Islamic values. The emphasis on Islam was somewhat surprising, since most previous challenges to the regime had come from the left, and Algeria was not known as a hotbed of religious activism. In any case, the nationalist cause had always paid deference to Islam and the regime itself was pushing Arabization quite rapidly, a favorite Islamist demand.

The first major challenge to the regime came in October 1988, in response to the removal of subsidies on basic commodities that became necessary after the decline in oil revenues in the mid-1980s. What began as protests over economic grievances quickly took on the aura of a full-scale challenge to the regime. Young men dressed in jeans and T-shirts were joined by middle-aged, bearded Islamic militants wearing the newly fashionable Afghan garb, the kamis. Women, wearing a new style of veil, the hijab, quite unlike the traditional Algerian model, the haik, also joined in the protests. The regime faced its first large-scale challenge and it failed miserably. To restore order, it called on the security forces to intervene. Hundreds were killed, in the first significant domestic violence in twenty years.

The regime's initial response was in certain ways admirable. Instead of retreating to old ways, it engaged in something of a fuite en avant, deciding on Constitutional reform, the authorizing of new political parties, freeing the press to publish almost anything, and pushing forward with economic reform. Between mid-1989 and mid-1991, Algeria was probably the freest country in the Arab world, a startling change from the drab uniformity of its political life just a few years earlier. Political parties formed with abandon, the most successful of which was known as the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), or the al-Jabhat al-Islamiyyah lil-Inqadh. In a play on words, Algerians were quick to say that the FIS was the "fils du FLN", and like the FLN it was populist, claimed to be the sole representative of the people, and was prone to favor activism over programmatic development.

The first real test of the FIS's popular appeal came in elections for local and provincial assemblies in mid-1990. The FIS did remarkably well, winning 4.3 million votes out of an electorate of 12.8 million (33.7 %, with 34.8% of the eligible voters abstaining). Almost all of the major towns came under FIS control, although the central government still held the purse strings. In some localities, "Islamic communes" were announced; coeducation was ended; and women were discouraged from going out without the veil.

In principle, elections for the National Assembly were to be held in mid-1991. The new election law aroused some controversy, since it over-represented rural areas, where the FIS was relatively weak. The FIS also began to demand immediate presidential elections, but protested the alleged gerrymandering. To disrupt the impending elections, the FIS called a nationwide strike. Some believe that leaders of the military who were unhappy with the reformist government of the day were pleased to see the FIS take to the streets. And indeed, the reformist Hamrouche government was the first victim of the strike, as were plans for immediate elections. In addition, two of the most prominent FIS leaders were arrested, although the party was allowed to continue functioning.

The new government of Sid Ahmed Ghozali adopted a stance of distancing itself from the FLN and undertook to organize new "free and fair" elections. But by weakening the FLN, Ghozali opened the way for a clear-cut FIS victory when Algerians finally went to the polls in December 1991. Although the FIS received one million fewer votes than the previous year, and only 24.5% of registered voters actually voted for the FIS (the abstention rate was 41%), the electoral system that was chosen produced a landslide number of seats going to the FIS on the first round of balloting. Those with a suspicious turn of mind thought that this was precisely the result that Ghozali had hoped for, knowing that the military would never let the FIS come to power. And indeed, the military did step in to prevent the second round of balloting, leaving the FLN in disarray, the FIS on the defensive, and deposing the president, Chadli Benjedid, who was replaced by a transitional Higher Executive Committee, initially led by veteran nationalist Mohamed Boudiaf who had spent most of the past thirty years in exile.

Many Algerians probably breathed a sigh of relief when the military stepped in to prevent the FIS from coming to power with such a large majority that they could easily have amended the Constitution. But many other Algerians felt cheated. They had played by the rules -- however imperfect -- of electoral politics, and had then been denied the fruits of victory by the same political/military clique that had controlled power ever since independence. So what was all the talk of reform and the need for change, for multipartism, for "alternance", worth? Before long, some of the most militant of the FIS supporters were taking up arms against a regime that they labeled both unjust and illegitimate. Much like the FLN a generation earlier, they seemed to hope that by launching armed actions they could polarize Algerian society, eroding support for the military and forcing the bystanders to join their struggle. Violence was justified by the ends sought -- the downfall of a dictatorial regime.

But the regime was not about to cede power and the "silent majority" of Algerians did not rally to the side of either the armed opposition or the repressive regime. Out of fear or out of distaste for the choices available, most Algerians seemed intent on staying on the sidelines of an increasingly bloody struggle.

One of the early victims was President Boudiaf himself. In circumstances still not clear, he was assassinated by a member of his presidential guard who allegedly had pro-Islamist sentiments. Many Algerians, however, suspected that others in the military hierarchy had been angered by Boudiaf's independence and were not unhappy to see him removed.

With Boudiaf's death, the regime ended any attempt to develop a popular facade. Henceforth, the faceless military men would rule, along with bureaucrats of various degrees of competence. Prime Ministers were appointed and removed with remarkable speed as the regime tried to energize the economy and deal with the mounting challenge of the armed Islamist groups. The self-proclaimed mandate of the Higher Executive Committee was to expire in December 1994, but no end to the violence was in sight and the conditions for a return to parliamentary political life were far from being filled. So, early in 1995, the army named one of its own, Liamine Zeroual, to take over as president for a "transitional" period of indefinite length.

Zeroual was an intriguing choice, because he had earlier broken with the regime over the use of force against civilians in October 1988 and had played no part in the cancellation of the parliamentary elections in early 1992. Furthermore, it was soon revealed that as Defense Minister (his position just before becoming President) he had secretly engaged in talks with the FIS leaders in prison and that he was inclined to pursue a course of political dialogue rather than "eradication". For months one watched for signs of a breakthrough. The FIS leaders were moved from prison to "house arrest"; some were released from prison altogether; but the FIS seemed unwilling to meet the basic demand of the regime, namely that it condemn the use of violence by the armed groups who were regularly attacking policemen, journalists, intellectuals, and women, often in the most brutal ways imaginable. The FIS, perhaps concerned with its credibility with its base of support, was unwilling to make a unilateral condemnation of such acts of violence unless it could also condemn the violence that the regime used against its adversaries. After months of futile discussion, the talks were broken off in fall 1994 and a major military campaign was launched by the regime to try to eliminate the armed groups, especially the Groupe Islamique Armée (GIA), which was carrying out spectacular terrorist actions, although its popular following seemed quite limited.

From November 1994 through mid-1995, the number of Algerians killed in the battle between the regime and its armed adversaries would sometimes average over several hundred per week. The total killed since the onset of the crisis was normally referred to as about 40,000, or an average of nearly 1000 per month. This monthly average seemed to be on the high side by late-1995, but there was no way to be sure and in any event the human costs of the internecine violence were appallingly high. And, without a political settlement, it seemed as if there was no likely end in sight, since the supply of young, alienated youths who might be prepared to join the armed rebels was presumably quite large.

Insofar as the regime seemed to have a political strategy after the collapse of its negotiations with the FIS in the fall of 1994, it consisted of calling for presidential elections by the end of 1995. In principle, this provided a possible political opening, but the regime was unable to persuade any of the major opposition parties -- the FLN, the FIS, or the Berber-based Front des Forces Socialistes (FFS) -- to participate in the elections. Instead, only four candidates presented themselves for election, including Zeroual. Given the stature of the other candidates, Zeroual's election was a foregone conclusion, but no one could be certain how many Algerians would actually vote. The opposition called for a boycott and the armed extremists even threatened to kill anyone found voting.

When the election was actually held on November 16, 1995, turnout seemed exceptionally high. Of some 16 million voters, over 70% reportedly cast their ballots, of whom about 60% voted for Zeroual. If these figures are even approximately accurate, they show a very large expression of support for a political settlement in which Zeroual and the regime will play a central part. But one should not forget that the crisis of legitimacy in Algeria began with the cancellation of parliamentary elections, and the newly elected president will now have to try to use his mandate to try to rebuild the nation's other political institutions and to reform the economy. Only through such steps will the political impasse be broken.


The Socio-Cultural Crisis


Just as Algeria's economic and political crises were coming to a head in the late 1980s, so also was a profound socio-economic challenge. In part, this crisis was the result of past policies, in part the result of underlying demographic pressures. The manifestation of the problem was the existence of vast numbers of young, unemployed, semi-educated men lining the streets of all the major towns and cities. They were known as hittistes, the "wall people", named for their habit of leaning against the walls with nothing much to do.

Like many newly independent countries, Algeria in the 1960s had launched a campaign to provide a measure of health care and education on a massive scale. The results were impressive in many ways. Infant mortality dropped sharply, and the percentage of children attending school soared. Algeria soon was experiencing one of the highest rates of population growth in the world, without much apparent concern for the social consequences.

Unfortunately, the economic option chosen by the regime was a capital-intensive form of development that produced few jobs. So, as the post-independence generation of Algerians entered the labor market in the early 1980s, there were few decent employment opportunities for them. Some emigrated to Europe, primarily France. Others waited, or entered the black market, or engaged in smuggling or drug trafficking, where quick money could be made. A few went off to Afghanistan to be trained to fight the godless Soviets.

With good jobs in short supply, an underlying cultural divide within the society gained prominence. The Algerian elite had typically been educated in French, and even after independence much of public life was conducted in the language of the former colonizer. Many workers who had spent years in France were also fluent in French, especially those of Kabyle origin, a Berber-speaking minority that was particularly well represented among the migrants. For them, a French education was worth having, especially since the alternative was to learn literary Arabic, which very few Algerians knew at the time of independence.

During the Boumediene presidency (1965-1978), the decision was made to push Arabic as the primary language of instruction at all levels. Berber was discouraged, and eventually French was merely taught as a foreign language. Many of those with access to wealth and power, however, made sure that their children continued to learn French, and when the economy began to open up in the 1980s, it was their children, not those who had learned Arabic, who got the best jobs. In addition, the effort at mass Arabization had been compromised by the lack of high quality instructors, so many young Algerians were left with a poor command of both Arabic and French. The Islamist opposition was well placed to articulate the grievances of those who had been semi-educated in Arabic and then had found that there were no jobs for them, while the French-educated sons and daughters of the establishment were doing quite well.

This cultural dimension of Algeria's malaise coincided with the beginnings of economic liberalization in the early 1980s. Up until then, Algerian public life had been governed by a severely egalitarian ethic. No one was supposed to be very wealthy, and if they were they should not flaunt their wealth. But one of the inevitable consequences of economic liberalization is that some people do begin to make large amounts of money, often because of their connections, and the gap between rich and poor begins to grow. Those left behind suspect, often correctly, that corruption is at the heart of the matter.

And as constraints on political discourse began to fade in the early 1980s, opposition leaders were quick to use the charge of corruption against their foes, thus giving credence to what many ordinary Algerians already believed. On one famous occasion, a former prime minister accused his predecessors of having stolen $26 billion, which just happened to be the amount of Algeria's foreign indebtedness. The number was almost certainly derived from a simple calculus of what a ten percent commission on all of Algeria's imports since independence would have amounted to, but, regardless of methodology or truth value, the belief took hold that Algeria would have been spared most of its economic hardship if only corrupt politicians had not robbed the country over the years. It did not help much when the incumbent prime minister denied the accusation, saying that the true figure was closer to $1 billion. Again, the FIS was well positioned to profit from the resulting sense of alienation, and the governing FLN, correspondingly, was blamed.

The typical FIS activists were not from the most disadvantaged sectors of society. In fact, they were often educated, sometimes teachers or doctors, but often their chances for advancement had been blocked somewhere along the way. They were skillful at appealing to the discontents -- economic, social, political -- of many Algerians, and were not particularly concerned about elaborating a detailed program outlining how they would solve the problems of the country. Their most powerful slogan was "Islam is the solution". The strength of their appeal came from their moral stance, not the realism of their plans for the future.

In pursuit of power, they were prepared to cooperate with a wide variety of political tendencies, from moderate reformists to radical extremists. At times the discourse of the FIS sounded reasonable, especially when Abbasi Madani or Abdelkader Hachani spoke, but on other occasions it seemed obscurantist, anti-women, incendiary, especially when the firebrand preacher Ali Belhadj addressed the crowds at the mosque on Friday.