The Battle of Algiers
by James Ciment
In These Times magazine, December 1997
The Algiers suburb of Bentalha is a bleak place in the best
of times. A maze of dusty streets wind their way around crumbling
brick buildings and heaps of burning refuse. Tens of thousands
of people live piled on top of each other; extended families share
a single apartment with the latrine out back.
The young women escape to the rooftops; the young men, mostly
unemployed high school graduates, hang out in the streets and
squares, earning the Algerian epithet, hittiste, which translates
as "those who keep the walls standing" (by leaning against
This tedium was shattered on the night of September 22, when
the Armed Islamic Group (GIA, its French acronym) descended on
the suburb. In four hours of mayhem and blood shed, the guerrillas
massacred more than 85 people.
The scene that greeted rescue workers the next morning was
horrific but all too familiar-disemboweled, mutilated and burned
bodies on street corners and in living rooms. Bentalha is just
one in a series of massacres (three in September alone) that have
terrorized the suburbs and towns south of the capital-a region
Algerians call "the triangle of death." - An estimated
60,000 to 100,000 people have lost their lives since the conflict
between militant Islamists and government security forces began
in early 1992, after the military canceled elections that the
fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was poised to win.
Yet the Algerian conflict makes barely a ripple on the global
stage because few foreign journalists have visited the country
since a 1993 fatwa was issued by Islamist guerrillas calling for
the death of "foreign infidels."
Algeria is unique among the nations of the Arab world. The
country was colonized by the Europeans longer than any other Arab
nation (from 1830 to 1962) and has under gone the only real anti-colonial
struggle in the Arab world (aside, perhaps, from the Palestinians).
This history has bestowed on Algerians a complicated mix of revolutionary
pride, war-induced secretiveness, deep Muslim faith and Western
The National Liberation Front (FLN), which led the country
to independence from France in a bitter eight-year conflict, ruled
Algeria for the nation's first 30 years. Combining a strident
anti-imperialist foreign policy with state-led economic development,
the FLN lifted Algeria from the colonial morass in which the French
had left it to the higher rungs of the Third World ladder. The
literacy rate doubled to over 75 percent among men (women still
languished below 50 percent), and infant mortality fell by two-thirds.
Blessed with massive fossil fuel reserves discovered shortly
before independence, FLN leaders spent lavishly on social welfare
programs, industrial infrastructure and themselves. Over time,
the party grew corrupt, nepotistic, inefficient and incompetent.
With the collapse of oil prices in the '80s, the country nearly
went broke, amassing a foreign debt of more than $26 billion by
the early '90s. Austerity measures imposed by international lenders
and privatization schemes concocted by a new generation of Western-educated
elites resulted in slashed payrolls at state-run factories and
a ravaged social welfare system.
The suffering populace had few outlets for its outrage since
the FLN had foreclosed all legal avenues of dissent. It banned
opposition parties, muzzled the press, and smothered independent
trade unions, youth organizations and agriculture collectives.
The inevitable result was rioting. After the Algerian trade
union federation called a general strike on October 5, 1988, violence
erupted across the country. The government imposed a state of
siege and sent the armed forces to quell the disturbances. In
an episode that Algerians refer to as "Black October,"
troops shot and killed more than 200 demonstrators (the opposition
says the toll was closer to 1,500). For many Algerians, the massacre
marked the end of the Algerian "revolution" and undermined
what little legitimacy the FLN had left.
Genuinely shocked by the violence, the FLN embarked on a democratization
program. It lifted restrictions on the press and legalized opposition
parties. Despite constitutional prohibitions against religious
parties, the government even legalized the FIS. "The FLN
thought that the FIS would behave like European parties with the
word Christian in them-you know, Islam and Christian as a handle,
not a political creed," says Ramtane Lamamra, Algeria's ambassador
to the United States.
In retrospect, they probably should have known better. Islamist
politics have a long and illustrious history in Algeria. The first
sustained rebellion against French invaders in the mid-19th century
was premised on the jihad, or Islamic holy war. And while the
FLN professed a leftist agenda in the mid 20th century, it always
couched its appeals to the Algerian people in Islamic terms.
After independence, the FLN tried to harness Islam for its
own ends. It took control of the Islamic academic community and
appointed local imams (the Muslim equivalent of ministers). In
the '70s, the FLN encouraged Islamists in the universities to
organize politically, in the hope that they would provide a counterweight
to rising leftist activities.
But the Islamists had their own agenda. Through the net work of
"free mosques" that they established in villages and
slums, Islamists provided much-needed social welfare services.
The network of mosques also provided a separate space in which
Islamists could formulate their distinctive social model and preach
a political doctrine of free-market capitalism, revitalized patriarchy
and rigid social conformity.
Unlike the Shi'ite forces gathering political momentum in
Iran at the same time-with their critique of U.S. imperialism
and their calls for an activist Islamist state-Algerian Islamists
were a fundamentally conservative lot with few bones to pick with
the West-with the exception of France, the villain of virtually
every Algerian political creed.
Beginning with municipal elections in 1989, the FIS made its
power felt, winning control of over two-thirds of all local village,
town and city councils, including the capital of Algiers. The
government then tried to undermine the FIS by choking off funds
to the councils and changing the rules for the parliamentary elections,
scheduled for June 1991.
Mass demonstrations by Islamists and secular opponents-' the
latter composed mostly of intellectuals, trade unions and women's
organizations-caused the government to postpone the elections
until December. But the protests also forced the FLN to back down
and repeal the new election laws. The result was an overwhelming
FIS victory in the first round.
This victory can be interpreted in two ways. The FLN, the
military and the secular opposition believe that the massive turnout
for the FlS was a protest vote against the ruling party. While
the Islamists acknowledge that anger at the FLN contributed to
their triumph, they argue that the vast majority of Algerians
support their agenda for the Islamicization of society, politics
and the economy.
Not willing to take any chances, the military canceled the
second round of elections, temporarily banned all political parties
and permanently outlawed the FIS. Claiming to be defending democracy,
military officials repeated like a mantra the warning that a FIS
victory meant "one man, one vote, one time."
Within weeks of the military coup, armed conflict broke V
out between security forces and Islamist militants, with each
side blaming the other for initiating the violence.
At first, the government claimed the upper hand by jailing
thousands of Islamists and their sympathizers regardless of their
involvement in guerrilla or terrorist activities. But the strategy
backfired. With self-proclaimed non-violent Islamist leaders like
Ali Belhadj and Abbasi Madani in jail-and their organizations
forced underground-more militant elements came to the forefront.
By 1993, the shadowy GIA, formed in 1991, had taken command of
the armed struggle. Secretive and lacking in visible spokesmen,
the GIA's political agenda is unclear, though it probably resembles
that of the FIS. The main difference between the two seems to
be their tactics. When the FIS began to talk of negotiating with
the government in 1994, the GIA turned on its former ally and
began to assassinate its leaders.
In its six-year history, the GIA has earned a nasty reputation
in Algeria and abroad. While some Islamists blame the government
for much of the killing, the vast majority of Algerians believe
that the GIA is responsible for the murder of foreigners, journalists
and villagers, and the rape and murder of more than 500 women
for violations of Islamic propriety like going out in public without
a veil. French authorities blame GIA terrorists for a spate of
bombings in France last year and the hijacking of an Air France
jetliner in December 1994.
Government troops-most of whom are poorly-trained con scripts-are
no match for the GIA guerrillas, who are well financed tacticians
with a long history of killing behind them. Known popularly in
Algeria as "Afghanis," many were trained by and fought
for the CIA-financed resistance to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan
during the '80s.
"The GIA has a reputation for ferocity, and the conscripts
are scared to death of them," says Hamid Kherief, former
head of the Algerian-American Association, who recently spent
two months traveling around Algeria. The GIA's typical strategy
is to send hundreds of guerrillas against areas guarded by handfuls
The GIA is attacking villagers because most government targets-police
stations, public officials and state offices- are now heavily
protected. Moreover, it wants to send a message. "The GIA's
mission," says Kherief, "is to show the people that
the army can't protect them."
The source of the GIA's financing is murky. But most believe
that the group gets its money and weapons from private interests
in Saudi Arabia. Security forces caught FIS leader, Abbasi Madani,
with a hefty check from Saudi Prince Oussama bin Ladden in his
pocket in 1991.
Rumors abound in Algeria about secret connections between
the United States and the Islamists. A 1996 Rand study commissioned
by the U.S. Army, which was recently made public, added fuel to
the fire. The report downplayed GIA atrocities and advised Washington
to work with the Islamists, arguing that they were inevitably
going to play a major role in Algerian affairs. It also noted
that the Islamists were not necessarily enemies of the United
States, since they have openly called for U.S. investment to replace
that of the hated French.
In the hothouse atmosphere of Algerian politics, that sort
of analysis constitutes tacit, if not direct, support. This, naturally,
has raised hackles in both Algiers and Paris. Both governments
have made insinuations about the conspicuous absence of Americans
among the lists of foreigners killed by Islamists in Algeria.
The prospects for peace in Algeria remain bleak, at least
in the immediate future. The security forces are unlikely to curb
Islamist attacks. Making their job especially difficult is the
fact that there appears to be no centralized GIA leadership. Instead,
the group has cells across the country and abroad acting on their
Given the austerity measures imposed by international lenders,
the government will be hard-pressed to expand housing, job and
educational opportunities, even with new gas and oil fields scheduled
to come on line by 2000. Moreover, the government has failed to
crack down on corruption; management positions at the huge state-run
firms largely remain sinecures for members of the political and
military elite and their relatives.
Ultimately, the real tragedy of Algeria is the lack of alter
natives, and the frustration and despair that breeds. Few enthusiastically
support the government and even fewer are optimistic about its
capacity to end the fighting or improve the economy soon. Non-violent
Islamists say they have been unfairly tarred with charges of terrorism,
painted out of the political picture and targeted by security
forces. Meanwhile, secular opposition forces are fractured along
political, ethnic and class lines.
As one unemployed worker in Algiers asked in exasperation,
"Why do we Algerians always have to fight a revolution just
to get an apartment?"
James Ciment is the author of Algeria: The Fundamentalist
Challenge, published this year by Facts on File.
Human Rights, Justice, Reform