by Rene Wadlow

On Sept. 29, 97% of those voting in the Algerian referendum on Peace and Reconciliation voted yes for peace and reconciliation. Was this a necessary act of popular catharsis after some 13 years of violence? Or was it a government-staged show to reinforce its power? Both are real possibilities. It is important to analyze the results carefully as violence-torn countries need to find techniques to write “The End” to cycles of violence and counter-violence and to begin life again with a clean slate. But does such renewal mean that those who have killed and tortured should be free from possible trials? Much of the killing in Algeria—estimates are of over 200,000—took place in rural towns and villages where people knew or thought they knew who was doing the killing. Is it possible to live an ordinary life now side by side with murderers?

Widespread violence in a society generally has deep roots. A good deal of the violence during the years of the government-Islamist conflict was also the result of family feuds, struggles for local power, conflicts over land, criminal killings for control of trade or the drug traffic, lightly disguised as ideological conflict. It would be useful to try to analyze the deep cultural and generational tensions within Algerian society so as to understand better the ferocity of the killings and the pattern of revenge.

As a framework, we can look at recent Algerian history as an unfinished drama divided into three acts. The first act begins in 1962 with independence from France, after a six-year struggle, and the flight of over a million French settlers from Algeria. This first act was dominated by the army formed during the war for independence. The army ruled through a single party—the National Liberation Front (FLN). Houari Boumedienne was in power from 1965 to 1978; Chadli Bendjedid from 1979 to 1992.

The credibility of the army as ruler was slowly eroded by its economic mismanagement, its open corruption, its favoritism for a small circle of officers who divided the economic benefits among themselves. The military controlled the press and other media, and there was no possibility for a structured opposition. It was only in 1988 that country-wide riots broke out over the rise in the price of bread—leaving some 500 dead. The degree of popular discontent was made obvious even to the least observant of the generals. Thus, at the end of Act I, the army decided to hold multi-party elections, even helping to create parties so as to split any opposition into such small groups that none could rule. The two most popular parties would face off in a second round—a strategy thought to preserve the ruling party in power.

Act II begins in 1991 with the first round of elections. Suddenly, the ruling strata became aware of unknown local leaders who had been working in the shadows of local mosques, stores and schools. They came suddenly to the fore chanting “God is Great” and calling themselves the “Islamic Salvation Front” (FIS.) They had long beards, were uneducated in a modern sense and had no standing in the army, nor in the government-run economic firms. The “invisible” had arrived on the scene. After a moment of surprise—as no one in the military had foreseen such a result—the military recognized that elections were a bad idea. If there were a second round, the FIS would most likely have the majority of the parliament, and God only knew what they would do. Therefore the military annulled the elections. There was no second round, and those elected because they had more than 50% in the first round could not hold office. In fact, there would be no parliament. It was not until 1995 that there began a slow introduction of voting for president, parliament and local assemblies—but under close government supervision and without the participation of the FIS.

Following the military’s blocking of the election process, the Islamist groups began a campaign of terror, especially in the countryside where they had sympathizers and where guerrillas could hide in sparsely populated mountainous areas. The government responded to terror with terror, widespread arrests and “disappearances.” Moderates, liberals and the indifferent were caught between the two fires. The national economy, except for oil and gas exports, ground to a halt. In a country where 75% of the population is under 30 years and many have difficulties finding work or adequate housing, the number of discontented grew.

Both the military and the Islamic groups were divided within themselves; the diverse factions in the military had difficulty articulating a coherent policy, and the leadership never had a broad base. Likewise, the Islamic groups were divided among themselves into small, fairly autonomous groups loyal to local commanders. There were some 50 to 60 Islamic extremist groups. Although the Islamist groups drew their strength from socio-economic discontent, they had no coherent socio-economic policy to present except a vague call for Islamic justice and equality. The Islamic guerrillas were reinforced by a floating population of Islamic fighters coming from Afghanistan, Sudan and elsewhere who had no stake in finding a broadly acceptable compromise to tensions in Algeria.

Act III began with the reigning military unable to mobilize public opinion in its favor and trying to bring in as leaders “old-new” men who were not associated with the current policies. The first was Mohamed Boudiaf, a hero of the 1954-1962 war of independence who had been living in exile since 1964. Shortly after his return as president of a governing council, he was assassinated in a public meeting. Who ordered his death has never been clear. But the star of Act III and current president is Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had been waiting in the wings for nearly two decades. In the mid-1970s, he had been the minister of foreign affairs and a leader in the United Nations for the creation of a New International Economic Order (NIEO).

He was often the spokesperson for the “Group of 77,” as the developing countries were called in UN economic debates. He was a master at the “creative compromise,” or in papering over differences with a good slogan. His first major action as president was the “concorde civile”—the civil pact—which allowed the Islamists who had taken up arms and were living in mountainous areas in the north of the country to reintegrate their villages and cities. Some 5,500 men came down from the hills in exchange for the ability to exercise a growing civil power for Islamist themes, basing themselves on the old slogan “Algeria is my country; Arabic is my language; Islam is my religion.” It is estimated that about 1,000 men refused the civil pact and have made their way to the sparsely populated south of Algeria—the desert frontiers with Niger and Mali, where they are waiting and preaching. The overall level of violence has dropped dramatically, but political violence has not disappeared. There are still revenge killings as well as murders attributed to Islamists.

The Peace and Reconciliation referendum may be the sign of a new departure, of new economic and social policies that benefit the young and the poor. All societies need rituals which bind them together in a common understanding. The political, economic and social trends in Algeria merit close watching.


Rene Wadlow is editor of the online journal of world politics Transnational Perspectives ( and an NGO representative to the UN at Geneva. Formerly, he was professor and director of research of the Graduate Institute of Development Studies, University of Geneva

This story originally appeared Oct. 4 in Toward Freedom


Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Nov. 1, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution