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Algeria: Bloody Past and Fractious Factions

By David B. Ottaway

Riding the regional political wave, Algeria’s leading Islamic party proclaimed on New Year’s Day 2012 that it intended to become the primary political force in the Arab world’s second most populous country. But unlike Egypt and Tunisia, the declaration in Algeria did not mark the first attempt by Islamist politicians to take power. Algeria has had the longest—and darkest—experience with Islamist politics, dating back a generation. As a result, the North African country is far more anxious about what might happen if Islamist parties try again.

Algeria’s Islamists arrived at the cusp of power in 1992, when the Islamic Salvation Front was on the verge of winning a parliamentary election in a field of more than fifty parties. On the eve of a runoff vote, however, the Algerian military led a coup against the long-standing president, aborted the election, and arrested Islamist political leaders. With nonviolent Islamist leaders imprisoned, the coup soon spawned an extremist insurgency and a tough military counterinsurgency that plunged the country into civil war for the rest of the decade. More than 100,000 people died in the process.

So, still scarred by the so-called Black Decade, Algeria did not witness a popular pro-democracy uprising in 2011, as happened in Tunisia and Egypt. Yet in some ways, Algeria is way ahead of other Arab countries, where Islamic parties only recently won political office for the first time.

To co-opt Islamist sentiment, Algeria’s military appointed members of the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP), a moderate offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, to cabinet jobs in 1995. The movement has held as many as seven ministries ever since. In 2004, it even became part of an alliance with two secular parties that has kept the military-backed president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in power since 1999.

Although Algeria’s more moderate Islamists have now had a share in the country’s governance for seventeen years, their failure to affect the military government’s policies has reduced the Islamists’ popularity considerably. Algerian Islamists have thus already experienced both the temptations and the pitfalls of serving in governments they do not control. The movement has been criticized for a meager record of accomplishments. In 2009, an MSP faction broke away after charging that the party had nothing to show for fourteen years in government.

Political Islam in Algeria has its own special history. Unlike Islamists elsewhere in North Africa, Algeria’s Islamists have been deeply fragmented. Some belong to mystical indigenous Sufi orders. Others cleave either to Saudi Arabia’s strict Wahhabism, which is one brand of Salafism, or to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Several hundred Algerian Islamists have followed al Qaeda’s call to violent jihad. But the various branches lack dynamic leadership. No towering Islamic figure, such as Tunisia’s Sheikh Rachid al Ghannouchi, has emerged to unite Algerian Islamists in their quest for power.

The Algerian military, which has dominated power since 1965, has also masterfully manipulated the myriad Islamic parties and politicians. And even moderate Islamists have been tainted by the blood-drenched insurgency of their extremist brethren. In 2012, a generation later, diehard Islamist remnants remained in several remote outposts.

The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, which brought Islamist parties into powerful positions in Tunisia and Egypt and even in Morocco’s monarchy, led Algeria’s Islamists to think they, too, might finally achieve a political breakthrough. But it didn’t happen.  Algeria’s Islamists were trounced by secular pro-government parties in the 2012 parliamentary elections. In 2014, ailing President Bouteflika won a landslide victory—and a fourth term in office. Algeria seemed stuck in a time warp with no sign of political change in sight.  

The Beginning

Algerian Islamists have struggled to revive their cause since French colonial rule systematically suppressed Islam, education in Arabic, and the mere notion of an Algerian identity. Algeria was declared part of France and French culture forever. French arrogance so infuriated a small core of Algerian intellectuals that in 1931 they formed the Association of Algerian Muslim Scholars led by Sheikh Abelhamid Ben Badis. He had received religious instruction in Tunis and Cairo, where in 1928 Hassan al Banna had launched the Muslim Brotherhood to promote Islamic reforms in Egypt.

Ben Badis framed the new movement in a few succinct words. “Islam is my religion, Arabic my language, and Algeria my country,” he pronounced. With other Muslim scholars, he began preaching that Algeria could never be part of France because of its different culture, religion, and language.

Ben Badis died in 1940, fourteen years before secular Algerian nationalists launched their war for independence from France. But he is credited with spearheading the revival of Muslim and Arab identity that is a central tenet of Islamists to this day. Among his associates in the Association of Muslim Scholars were Sheikh Abdellatif Soltani (1904–1983) and Sheikh Ahmed Sahnoun (1907–2003), who began planting the seeds for the Algerian Muslim Brotherhood in 1953.

Islamic groups did not play a leadership role in Algeria’s eight-year war for independence. None of the National Liberation Front’s nine major leaders was an Islamist. And the war’s main goals were to restore the sovereign, democratic, and social Algerian state with only a secondary reference to Islamic principles. Yet Islam was widely used to rally supporters in the rural areas. Guerrillas were called mujahideen, or holy warriors. And those who died for independence were dubbed choudaha, or religious martyrs.

After independence in July 1962, the first Algerian government under Ahmed Ben Bella lurched radically to the left, largely under the influence of Algerian and French communists and Trotskyites, who flocked to Algiers to guide its burgeoning socialist revolution. Leftist labor union activists and Algerian communists still play an active role in politics through their own Workers’ Party.

The first sign of Islamic protest surfaced in 1964 with the creation of the religious association al Qiyam, which means “Islamic values.” It was led by three Islamists: Soltani, Sahnoun, and Abbasi Madani. The latter would play a major role in the Islamists’ first quest for power between 1988 and 1992.

After only three years of independence, the Algerian military, led by Colonel Houari Boumediene toppled Ben Bella, threw out foreign communists, and promised a “return to the sources.” Educated only in Arab countries, Boumediene promoted Islamic values, Arabic education, and Arabic culture with the help of thousands of imported Egyptian teachers, many of them Muslim Brotherhood members. But he insisted on tight state control over the process of Islamization. And he replaced communist-inspired socialism with military-backed state socialism.

Al Qiyam leaders soon had a falling out with Boumediene, particularly over their opposition to his land reform program. He banned their activities in 1966 and their organization four years later.

Boumediene’s death in 1978 sparked a new phase of Islamic activism. His successor, Chadli Bendjedid, tolerated the Islamists’ campaign against foreign ways, whether communism, the French language, alcohol, or Western dress for women. But the strategy soon backfired, especially on university campuses. Young Arabic-speaking Islamists found it difficult to obtain jobs because they did not speak French. Algiers even witnessed violent student clashes pitting Arabic speakers against French speakers.

The trouble came to a head in November 1982, when Islamists at the University of Algiers beheaded a leftist opponent with a sword. Bendjedid ordered the police to round up hundreds of students. In reaction, 100,000 Islamists turned out for the biggest rally ever held on the downtown Algiers campus to hear Sheikhs Soltani, Sahnoun, and Madani present a proposal to set up an Islamic state.

Madani was thrown into jail, and the other two sheikhs were placed under house arrest. The event marked a turning point in the open confrontation between Islamists and the military.

The first Islamist figure to take to the mountains to pursue an Islamic state by armed force was Mustapha Bouyali, a national liberation war veteran and visionary imam preaching at an Algiers mosque against the Western-inspired iniquities of Algerians. Bouyali launched his own holy war in early 1982 and convinced several hundred others to join his Armed Islamic Movement (MIA). Bouyali’s insurrection lasted until 1987, when he was found and killed while hiding in the Algiers casbah. But the MIA lived on as an inspiration to other hardline Islamists.

Islamist influence continued to grow significantly throughout the 1980s as the military government sought to expand its popular base. Thousands of new mosques sprang up across the country, and cities and towns were given Arabic names.

In 1984, the National Assembly passed a family code based mostly on Sharia, or Islamic law. The code deprived Algerian women of many of the rights they had previous enjoyed; it also legalized polygamy. A new National Charter adopted in 1986 stressed Islam’s central role in the life of the nation.

The Algiers Spring

The Islamist challenge to the military government started coming to a head during riots in Algiers in October 1988. The riots led to the collapse of Algeria’s single-party system, which had been dominated by the National Liberation Front ever since independence. Islamists did not cause the riots. They were actually touched off by jobless youth and other malcontents, who attacked government buildings and offices.

Unrest then spread from the capital to other major cities. But Islamists quickly seized the turmoil to rally supporters, organize mass demonstrations, and directly challenge the military government. Shocked by the breadth and size of the burgeoning popular uprising, Bendjedid ordered the army into the cities to restore order. Estimates of the death toll from the military crackdown varied from 170 to 500.

After restoring order, Bendjedid launched a series of reforms, starting with a new constitution in early 1989 that allowed a free press and multiple political parties. In a fateful gamble, the military authorized the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) as one of the more than fifty new parties.

The FIS’s leaders were Madani, head of the defunct al Qiyam association, and Ali Belhadj, a rabble-rousing cleric from Kouba, a working-class district in downtown Algiers. Both were puritanical Salafis, but Belhadj was outspoken in his regard of manmade democracy as anathema to divine rule.

From the start, the FIS encompassed a hodgepodge of militant Islamists. They included veterans of the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, known as Algerian Afghans; Saudi-influenced Salafis; and adherents to a homegrown school of Islamic thinking called the Djaz’ara.

Other more moderate Islamic parties also had their debut during this “Algiers Spring.” The local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood registered as Hamas, totally unrelated to the radical Palestinian group by the same name. Algeria’s Hamas was led by Sheikh Mahfoud Nahnah, who had taken over the movement after its founder, Sheikh Soltani, died in 1984.

A third Islamic party, Ennahda, was established by a highly respected scholar, Sheikh Abdallah Djaballah. He was also a Muslim Brother, although he wanted to remain independent of the Brotherhood’s headquarters in Cairo.

Of the three legal Islamic parties, the radical but then nonviolent Front scored the biggest gains. In mid-1990, local elections polarized the country between Islamists and secularists when the Islamic Salvation Front won a stunning 54 percent of the vote. The ruling National Liberation Front garnered only 28 percent.

The Front captured 70 percent of the vote in the three largest cities of Algiers, Constantine, and Oran. It also swept 856 out of all 1,541 municipalities. And it gained a majority in thirty-one of the forty-eight assemblies at the wilaya, or provincial, level. By contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Ennahda Party gained only 5 percent of the popular vote.

The results put the military in a quandary about whether to go ahead with parliamentary elections. Communists, leftist labor unions, and secular parties also showed little enthusiasm as they watched the Front-dominated municipal councils demand rule under Islamic law. Front leaders Madani and Belhadj took turns threatening a holy war if elections were canceled, and they held massive rallies calling for an Islamic state. Both were arrested for promoting a nationwide strike in June 1990.

Still, the military government did hold a first round of two-part parliamentary elections on December 26, 1991. The elections confirmed the likelihood of a full Islamic Salvation Front takeover. The Front won 188 out of 231 seats compared with only 15 seats for the ruling National Liberation Front.

Secularist parties, labor unions, and women reacted by forming a National Committee for the Safeguard of Algeria. They urged the military to call off the final round of elections scheduled for January 16, 1992. So did France and the United States, which feared that, once in power, the FIS would never hold another election.

The second round was never held. Under military pressure, Bendjedid resigned on January 11, 1992. Three days later, a military-appointed State High Council took power. The opening shots of civil war rang out on February 8 during clashes between the military and Front supporters at mosques across the country. On March 4, the State High Council outlawed the Front and kept Madani and Belhadj in jail.

The Black Decade

The following eight years witnessed an ever more ruthless struggle between the military and jihadi Islamists from a plethora of armed groups. The moribund Armed Islamic Movement was revived. FIS radicals split off to form the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). The Front’s more moderate members set up their own Islamic Salvation Army (AIS).

Toward the end of the 1990s, diehard Islamists opposed to all peace efforts formed the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), the forerunner of the local al Qaeda branch. Tens of thousands of Afghan war veterans, jobless youth, disaffected Arabic-educated students, and plain criminals joined one of the extremist groups.

All sides participated in the bloodshed. Hallmarks of the brutal insurrection included throat-slitting and decapitation of moderate Islamists and secular intellectuals, journalists, and politicians. The disparate Islamist factions massacred each other’s supporters and carried out attacks on the military. In turn, secret security force units perpetrated extrajudicial killings of even innocent villagers in a bid to discredit one Islamic group or another.

Each year, the holy month of Ramadan became a pretext for the worst slaughters. The GIA ordered all foreigners to leave the country and assassinated more than fifty who dared to stay.

The most horrific example of GIA attacks on foreigners involved the killing in May 1996 of seven Cistercian Trappist monks at the Tibhirine Monastery outside the town of Medea, which lies south of Algiers. (The 2010 film Of Gods and Men dramatized the event.)

The GIA even took its war to Paris, where bombs went off at subway stations and on train lines. In December 1994, four GIA terrorists hijacked an Air France civilian airliner with the intent of crashing it into the Eiffel Tower, foreshadowing tactics used in the 9/11 attacks in the United States. (The Air France hijackers were killed by French commandos while the aircraft refueled in Marseille.)

Against this backdrop of unending violence, some moderate Islamists joined secularist parties to seek a peaceful resolution of the civil war. In January 1995, two FIS leaders and Ennahda’s Sheikh Djaballah joined three secular parties, including the ruling National Liberation Front, in signing a peace pact negotiated by the Rome-based Catholic Sant’Egidio Order. The Rome Accords called for a national conference to negotiate a transition back to civilian rule, the return of the army to its barracks, and an end to the ban on FIS political activities.

The military immediately rejected the accords. It instead held a presidential election to replace the military’s five-member State High Council in November 1995. Islamists involved in the insurrection vehemently opposed the plan.

But the Muslim Brotherhood’s Hamas opted to participate and selected its leader, Nahnah, to run against the military’s General Liamine Zeroual. Nahnah captured 25 percent of the vote against Zeroual’s 60 percent. As a reward for participating, the military gave Hamas two cabinet posts in the new government, which was formed on the last day of 1995.

For the first time in the history of Algeria—and the rest of North Africa—the Muslim Brotherhood had gained a foothold in government.

Islamists in Government

Even in the face of escalating violence, the military next organized parliamentary elections in June 1997. This time, two Muslim Brotherhood–inspired parties agreed to participate: Hamas, now renamed the Movement of Society for Peace, and Ennahda.

The movement won 1.6 million votes, or 14.8 percent, catapulting it into the National Assembly for the first time with sixty-nine deputies. It came in second behind the National Rally for Democracy, the new government party taking over from the National Liberation Front, which captured 3.5 million votes, or 34 percent, and thus 156 seats, well short of a majority in the 380-seat assembly. Ennahda came in fourth with 915,000 votes, or 8.7 percent, giving it thirty-four seats. Together, the two moderate Islamic parties took 23.5 percent of the vote compared to only 14.3 percent for the long-ruling National Liberation Front.

Forced to form a coalition government, the military chose to include the Movement of Society for Peace in an alliance with two secular parties. This time, the MSP was put in charge of seven ministries or agencies: industry, small and medium-sized enterprises, transportation, tourism, environment, fisheries, and artisanal production. Conspicuously absent from the list was any ministry dealing with security.

The MSP has remained the principal Islamic faction supporting the military government ever since. When General Zeroual retired in 1999, the Islamist party immediately backed Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the military’s choice to replace Zeroual. Since 2004, the movement has been part of a three-party alliance that repeatedly endorsed his reelection.

A national liberation war veteran and former foreign minister, Bouteflika is credited with finally ending Algeria’s civil war. He first struck a peace deal with the smallest armed Islamist group, the AIS, and then offered an amnesty from prosecution to all the others. The so-called civil accord was approved in a referendum held in September 2000 by 98.6 percent of the vote, on a turnout of 85 percent.

In 2005, the civil accord was followed by the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, which provided compensation to the families of 25,000 victims of the civil war, including the 5,800 “disappeared,” who were widely believed to be military victims. Altogether, between 100,000 and 200,000 Algerians died during the Black Decade, compared with some 1 million victims during the war for independence.

The Price for Participation

The MSP strategy of participation has come at considerable cost to its popularity and credibility. In the 2002 parliamentary elections, it won only a little more than 500,000 votes, or 7 percent of the total cast. Its number of deputies dropped from sixty-nine to thirty-eight. But its main Islamic rival, Ennahda, did well. Ennahda garnered 705,000 votes, or 9.5 percent, and jumped from zero to forty-three seats in the National Assembly.

In the next parliamentary elections, held in 2007, both Islamists and the military government lost legitimacy. Only 35 percent of Algeria’s 18.7 million voters bothered to go to the polls. The movement won slightly more votes (552,000) than in 2002, an increase that parlayed into fifty-two seats. But Ennahda plummeted in popularity, winning fewer than 200,000 votes. The number of its deputies dropped from forty-three to just five. The Islamists combined won a mere 13 percent of the turnout.

Presidential elections in April 2009 starkly illustrated the declining popularity of both the regime and the MSP. Before the poll, Bouteflika manipulated the National Assembly to revise the constitution and allow him to run for a third term. He also engineered a successful revolt to oust Djaballah from leadership of al Islah, the party Djaballah had founded in 1999 after leaving Ennahda. This move neutralized the one Islamic opposition figure sufficiently popular to threaten Bouteflika. The MSP, however, continued to support the president.

The main question hanging over the 2009 presidential election was the turnout. Public cynicism about government manipulation of elections, parties, and poll figures reached new heights. Bouteflika was declared the winner with 90 percent of the vote, on a 75 percent turnout. The opposition, however, claimed that only 16 percent of the electorate voted.

As later disclosed in a WikiLeaks cable, the U.S. embassy in Algiers described the election as “carefully choreographed and heavily controlled” and estimated the turnout at “25 to 30 percent at most.” Making the election even less representative of the political landscape, the Workers’ Party’s Trotskyite leader, Louisa Hanoune, came in second. The one Islamist candidate to participate received just 1 percent of the vote.

The election fallout for the Movement of Society for Peace was immediate. Within two months, a faction within the MSP led by Abdelmajid Menasra broke away to form the Movement for Preaching and Change, which criticized MSP leader Soltani for serving as a minister while also remaining party leader. Another faction that remained within the MSP felt the movement should withdraw from the government and go into open opposition. In response, Soltani resigned, but four other MSP ministers remained in the government. The military rewarded the MSP by refusing to allow the breakaway party to operate.

The Arab Spring

The uprisings of early 2011 caught both the military and Algeria’s Islamists by surprise. Bouteflika, at age 74, had by then become an absentee president because of serious health problems. He rarely spoke in public—just three times during all of 2011. Since the president had no sons, vice president, or other obvious successor, public unease was already growing about who would lead the country next.

The political vacuum became visible when street protests over rising food prices, housing shortages, and unemployment broke out in Algiers in January 2011, sparking violent confrontations with the police. At least three protesters died, more than 800 others were injured, and more than 1,000 were arrested. Imitating the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation sparked the Arab Spring, an unemployed youth set himself on fire on January 13 after the mayor refused to provide either a job or housing.

A secular opposition party tried repeatedly to mobilize demonstrations in Algiers, but security forces quickly quashed them. Islamists, traumatized by events during the Black Decade, were nowhere to be seen.

The government responded quickly to head off a repeat of the October 1988 riots. It was financially well placed to pacify discontent because of the country’s oil wealth and high oil prices. Algeria’s foreign reserves stood at $155 billion at the start of 2011; they increased to $186 billion by September—sufficient to cover four years of imports. Food subsidies and civil servants’ salaries were increased, the latter by 34 percent.

In early February, Bouteflika lifted the nineteen-year state of emergency. On April 15, he announced constitutional reforms to “strengthen democracy.” They included a new media law permitting private television and radio stations, as well as a revision in the election law to allow parties to register more easily. The government also set new parliamentary elections for May 2012.

After the yearlong unrest, the MSP made its dramatic move. On New Year’s Day 2012, party chief Sheikh Soltani announced the movement was quitting the three-party alliance supporting President Bouteflika. Sheikh Soltani declared that 2012 would be “the year of political competition … and not that of alliance.”

Soltani then denounced the coalition for “political mediocrity” that served neither the country nor its people. He also said that the MSP would keep its four ministers in the cabinet. The moves were an attempt to face the public over the movement’s long record of support for the highly unpopular military but without breaking completely with the government.

The 2011 uprisings across North Africa radically changed the MSP’s political calculations and strategy. It formed the Algerian Green Alliance with two other Islamic parties to run in the May 2012 parliamentary elections. Together, they expected to win at least a plurality of votes--and seats. But secular Algerians were in no mood to see Islamists come to power. The two main pro-government secular parties--the National Liberation Front and the National Rally for Democracy--won 288 seats, or 62 percent of the total 462 seats. The Green alliance captured only 48 seats--four less than the MSP alone had held in the previous assembly. Two other small Islamic parties won an additional 11 seats.

MSP Vice President Abderrazak Makri warned that the government had missed its “historic chance” to begin a peaceful transformation toward true democracy. But neither the government nor the Algerian public appeared to be swayed.

In the 2014 presidential election, President Bouteflika won 82 percent of the vote, even though he was so ill that he never campaigned and made only one brief speech. He won 4.5 million fewer votes than in the 2009 election, however.  The MSP and other Islamic parties boycotted the election, leaving a former prime minister, Ali Benflis, as the main challenger. He came in a distant second with only 12 percent of the vote.

In mid-2014, Algeria’s opposition parties responded to their defeat by creating a broad coalition, including both secularists and Islamists, called the Coordination for Liberties and Democratic Transition. The coalition’s goal was to hold a national conference, with a government delegation, to generate movement toward greater democracy. But the government showed no interest. It instead launched a counter-proposal to discuss unspecified changes to the constitution.

Key Positions

By early 2015, Algeria had seven Islamist parties or informal factions. Three parties—Ennahda, al Islah, and the MSP—had already participated in a presidential or parliamentary election. All three were rooted in Muslim Brotherhood thinking and differed mainly over whether to seek changes in the political system from within or outside the military government.

But two of the potentially strongest Islamic contenders did not run in the 2012 elections. The military continued to ban the Islamic Salvation Front from politics, while the large but quiescent Salafi community showed no interest in politics. So Algeria’s active Islamist spectrum was defined by seven groups with diverse positions.

The Movement of Society for Peace

The MSP is the Islamic group that has consistently supported military rule, participation in government, and cooperation with secular parties since 1995. Its strategy has been to win more power by showing the military that it is responsible and trustworthy while gaining practical experience in governance.

Its political program carefully straddles all the hot-button issues. It avoids mention of an Islamic state or the Muslim Sharia as the law of the land. Its stated goal is a “modern Algerian state in conformity with the spirit of Islamic principles,” but which also endorses democracy and “a republican regime.” It recognizes the special Amazigh (Berber) origins of Algeria but also stresses that the country belongs to the Islamic and Arab worlds.

The MSP policy toward women also treads carefully. It endorses women’s right to education and work, even suggesting reduced hours to allow time for raising families. But the policy does not mention revising the Islamic-inspired Family Code of 1984, and the movement has shown no support for special quotas for women in the National Assembly.

Its economic policy straddles the capitalist-socialist divide. The MSP endorses state control of “strategic public sectors” and a social welfare state including cash payments even to unemployed university graduates. But it also supports promotion of small and medium-sized private enterprises and private investment to reduce Algeria’s dependence on the state-run oil sector. At the same time, it demands the creation of an Islamic banking system that forbids interest on loans.

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the MSP’s foreign policy is the prominence given to the Palestinian issue, which the movement describes as “the central cause of the nation.” The MSP calls for the reconquest of “all Palestinian territory” from Israel and for an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. The program makes no mention of the 2002 Arab Peace Plan, which offered Israel normalization of relations in return for a resolution of the Palestinian issue.

The National Front for Change

The National Front for Change is led by Abdelmajid Menasra, who broke away from the MSP in 2009 after rejecting continued participation in government. Along with MSP leader Soltani, Menasra had been one of the first two Islamists to hold cabinet posts beginning in the mid-1990s. He subsequently became disenchanted over the lack of “real democracy” and the “empty reforms” by successive military governments. Menasra claims to have recruited away 50 percent of MSP members. His party has also called for an amnesty for former FIS members and has appealed to them to join the National Front for Change.

Menasra has said that the kind of popular uprising that occurred in Egypt and Tunisia is not the right strategy for Algerian Islamists. He has launched a petition campaign dubbed “One Million for Popular Reform” to pressure the Bouteflika regime to hold transparent elections, write a new constitution, increase freedoms, and launch new economic projects to reduce unemployment.


Founded by Sheikh Abdallah Djaballah in 1990, Ennahda has its roots in the Muslim Brotherhood movement. It has supported participation in the political process but not in the military government. It is not related to Tunisia’s Ennahda Party and has maintained its independence from the Brotherhood’s headquarters in Cairo.

In 2012, Ennahda leader Fateh Rebiai described his Islamism as “anchored in Algerian society.” The party saw a sharp decline in its popularity after ousting Djaballah in 1997, who then created the rival al Islah Party. In the last parliamentary elections in 2007, Ennahda won just 3 percent of the vote and five seats. Rebiai did not compete in the 2009 presidential race.

Al Islah

Known also as the Movement for National Reform, al Islah is the successor to the nearly defunct Ennahda and was created by Abdallah Djaballah in 1999. After a dissident faction expelled Djaballah in 2006, al Islah struggled to define itself or attract support. Its leader, Mohamed Djahid Younsi, won only 177,000 votes, barely 1 percent, in the 2009 presidential election. Al Islah has since gone through several other leaders. Bouteflika adopted many of al Islah’s proposed political reforms after the Arab Spring broke out in Tunisia and Egypt.

The Justice and Development Front

Launched in August 2011, the Justice and Development Front is the third party founded by Sheikh Djaballah after his ouster from both Ennahda and al Islah. A respected Islamic scholar, Djaballah is extremely conservative on social issues. His dislike of the former colonial power is such that he refuses to speak French.

Djaballah was a signatory of the 1995 Rome Accords, which rejected violence, called for national reconciliation, and recognized Islam, Arabism, and Amazigh (Berber) as central characteristics of the Algerian identity. Djaballah has prided himself on refusing to cooperate with the military regime. A highly effective orator, he probably will present the greatest challenge to both the MSP and the military regime.

The Movement for Liberty and Social Justice

Founded in 2007, this movement is led by former FIS leaders, most of whom now live in exile. They have been seeking, without success, to convince the military that their members have forsworn violence and truly embraced multiparty democracy. They claim inspiration from the Association of Algerian Muslim Scholars, which was popular in the 1930s. One of the movement’s cofounders is Anwar Haddam, who was elected in 1991 to the National Assembly before the military canceled the elections. He currently lives in exile near Washington, D.C.

The movement’s political platform is extremely vague. It calls simply for more freedoms, the rule of law, an end to corruption, and respect for minority and women’s rights without specifics. It proclaims the need for a “realistic foreign policy” centered on cooperation with other countries of the Maghreb (Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia) and a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian problem based on a two-state solution with both entities having mixed populations of Arabs and Jews.

Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat

Founded in 1998, toward the end of the Black Decade, the GSPC broke away from the GIA with between 2,000 and 3,000 fighters. The GSPC goal is to establish an Islamic state through force of arms. Throughout the 2000s, the GSPC carried out an array of violent activities, including guerrilla warfare against the army, attacks on foreigners, suicide bombings, and the abduction of tourists in the Sahara Desert.

Its leader is Abdelmalek Droukdal, also known as Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud. In 2006, he pledged allegiance to al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. Droukdal then became head of the Algerian branch of al Qaeda in the Maghreb. Only a few hundred Algerians answered his call to jihad, which is aimed mainly against Algeria’s military-backed government. His followers operated from bases both in the Sahara Desert and in the mountains less than 60 miles east of Algiers.

The Future

The military regime has regularly rigged the election process. Despite President Bouteflika’s ailing health, military hardliners, known as the “eradicators” for their role in the Islamic insurgency of the 1990s, still control Algerian political life. General Mohammed “Toufik” Mediène, the regime’s éminence grise and chief of the all-powerful Security and Intelligence Service since 1990—was still at his post in late 2014, although reportedly exercising less influence.

The Movement of Society for Peace boasted that it could win the 2012 parliamentary election. But even in an alliance with two other Islamist parties, it won just six percent of the vote. All of Algeria’s Islamic parties together could claim less than 15 percent of the total. The Arab Spring produced no upsurge in support for the Islamists. Nor did secular opposition parties gain traction. So the military faced no pressure to consider a larger role for either the Islamists or the secular opposition.

By early 2015, the military, largely through its Security and Intelligence Department, seemed poised to dominate Algeria’s political life well into the future, even after Bouteflika. 

David B. Ottaway, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, lived in Algiers from 1962 to 1966. A former Middle East correspondent for The New York Times and The Washington Post, he coauthored, “Algeria: The Politics of a Socialist Revolution” with his wife Marina Ottaway. He visited Algeria again in 2009 and 2010.


Photo credit: FIS logo via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons license 3.0), Abdelaziz Makri via office MSPFacebook page, and Abdallah Djaballah by Magharebia via Flickr (Creative Commons license 2.0)

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