Return to Authoritarianism, January 11, 1992

Algeria Table of Contents

The coup, led by the minister of defense Major General Khaled Nezzar, soon returned Algeria to an extremely tense state. Military troops were put on alert throughout the country, tanks and armored cars were deployed throughout Algiers, and military checkpoints were set up. President Benjedid resigned on January 11, citing "widespread election irregularities" and a risk of "grave civil instability." The military then reappointed Sid Ahmed Ghozali as prime minister. Ghozali was also named to head the new High Security Council (Haut Conseil de Sécurité--HCS), a six-member advisory body dominated by such senior military officials as Major General Nezzar and Major General Larbi Belkheir. This new collective executive body immediately assumed full political authority, suspending all other political institutions, voiding the December 1991 election results, and postponing future elections.

The HCS was soon replaced by the High Council of State (Haut Conseil d'État--HCE), designed as a transitional government that would have more political legitimacy than the HCS. In fact, the HCE differed little from the HCS. The new HCE was a five-member collective presidency dominated by military officials who had almost unlimited political powers. Former independence leader Mohamed Boudiaf was recalled from self-imposed exile in Morocco to lead the new HCE and serve as head of state.

The coup initially went virtually unchallenged because even the FIS leadership discouraged its followers from provoking clashes with the military. Relative tranquility prevailed, and the military withdrew its tanks and troops in the following days. Some Algerians even expressed support for the coup, citing fears of an Islamist government. Some 200,000 demonstrators marched in Algiers protesting the Islamists, and the main workers' union, the General Union of Algerian Workers (Union Générale des Travailleurs Algériens--UGTA), in early January threatened to resist any Islamist government.

The period of relative calm, however, was as deceptive as it was brief. Within a month, near civil war occurred as Islamists struck back against the military crackdown. The new government reimposed a state of emergency, banned the FIS in March, and dissolved the communal and municipal assemblies, most of which had been controlled by FIS members since the June 1990 elections. The government also banned all political activity in and around mosques and arrested Islamist activists on charges ranging from possession of firearms to promoting terrorism and conspiracy against the state. Military courts tried and sentenced the activists to lengthy imprisonment or death, without right of appeal and/or full awareness of the charges brought against them. Thousands of demonstrators were taken to makeshift prison camps in the Sahara while hundreds of others were detained for questioning and often tortured. Most of the remaining top FIS leadership was arrested, and thousands of rank-and-file party members were forced underground. Other reversals of the democratization process quickly followed. The press, which had slowly gained freedom, was quickly reined in, the National People's Assembly was indefinitely suspended, and the omnipresent and ubiquitous mukhabarat (state security apparatus) resurfaced.

Despite the military's obvious targeting of the Islamists, the latter's political suppression drew heavy criticism even from FIS rivals. The FLN and the FFS soon proposed a tactical alliance with the FIS to counter the military government in an effort to preclude the complete abandonment of the democratic process.

The repressive military actions of the government against the Islamists were reminiscent of the military force used by the French colonial authorities against the nationalists during the War of Independence. Thousands of troops were mobilized and assigned to cities and all major urban centers. Curfews were imposed, removed, and reimposed. Entire neighborhoods were sealed off because of police sweeps and other searches for accused "terrorists." Islamists retaliated by killing military personnel, government officials, and police officers by the hundreds. Some 600 members of the security forces, and hundreds more civilians and Islamist demonstrators, were killed in the first twelve months following the coup. The majority of Algerians, meanwhile, were caught in the middle, distrusting the army as much as the Islamists.

The government, citing a need to "focus its full attention" on Algeria's economic problems, warned that it would not tolerate opposition. In reply, FIS leaders warned that the popular anger aroused by the political suppression was beyond their control. Hard-liners in FIS split from the more moderate pragmatists, criticizing the FIS leadership for cooperating with the government. As a result, radical factions replaced the relatively moderate FIS leadership, now long imprisoned. Meanwhile, other independent and radical armed Islamist groups arose, impatient not only with the government but with the FIS itself. The new radicals, FIS officials acknowledged, were beyond FIS control.

On June 29, 1992, head of state Mohamed Boudiaf was assassinated during a public speech at the opening of a cultural center in Annaba. The death of Boudiaf at the hands of a military officer illustrated the extent to which Algeria's political crisis transcended a simple contest for power between Islamists and military leaders or between religious and secular forces.

Twenty months after the coup, the country was still being torn apart by constant fighting between Islamists and the military. Following Boudiaf's assassination, HCE member Ali Kafi was appointed head of state. On July 8, only a week later, Prime Minister Ghozali resigned, and Belaid Abdessalam was named to replace him. Both Boudiaf and Ghozali had begun to move toward a rapprochement with the Islamists, no doubt recognizing their desperate need for popular support in the absence of any sort of constitutional legitimacy.

The months following Boudiaf's assassination and Ghozali's resignation were marked by intensified efforts to suppress "terrorism." Emergency tribunals, headed by unidentified judges who levied "exemplary" sentences with no means of appeal, were established to try Islamist "terrorists." An antiterrorism squad was headed in 1993 by General Mohamed Lamari, a former government official under Ghozali who was removed from office to facilitate talks with the opposition. Islamist activity intensified as Islamists also targeted civilians--teachers, doctors, professors, and other professionals--whose sympathies might lie with the military.

Cooperation in 1993 among various opposition groups and the predominance of professionals, including doctors and teachers, in such radical groups as the Armed Islamic Movement, was considered by a well-informed observer to imply a "considerable level of antiregime collaboration among apparently respectable middle-class Algerians." Moreover, it appeared that the radicalization of the opposition, far from receding, has spread into traditionally more moderate sectors of society.

Since independence the government has relied on veterans of the revolutionary period as leaders, although they represent little more than vague historical figures to most Algerians. The government has also ignored numerous opportunities for dialogue with the opposition, opting for rule by decree without any constitutional mandate. Moreover, divisions within the government have greatly hindered the development of an effective economic policy, undoubtedly the key to Algeria's political turmoil in the mid-1990s.

Prime Minister Abdessalam was greatly hampered in his economic efforts by his connection with Boumediene's failed heavy industrialization program from 1965 to 1977. On August 23, 1993, Abdessalem was dismissed and replaced by Redha Malek, formerly a distinguished diplomat but also a traditional nationalist vehemently opposed to the FIS and an advocate of a hard-line approach to combating "terrorism."

The legacy of the past has played heavily into the current political situation. For years the government had ruled without any accountability. Until the mid-1980s, corruption and inefficiency were often masked by high oil revenues that sustained an acceptable standard of living for most Algerians. Unfortunately, this legacy has greatly undermined the country's ability to rise to the current political challenge by inhibiting the development of an effective economic sector and by provoking widespread dissatisfaction among the majority of Algerians.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress