Role of the FIS

Algeria Table of Contents

The Benjedid government in the early 1980s relaxed the restrictions on Islam and its political expression, hoping to preclude the development of a more politically active Islamist movement. Islamist political opposition to the regime was tolerated, more mosques were constructed, religious education in the schools was encouraged, and in 1984 a new family code closely following Islamic tenets was enacted. A number of prominent Islamic leaders were released from prison, including Abbassi Madani, a university professor who would be one of the founders of Algeria's first Islamic political party.

The FIS emerged as a political party on September 16, 1989. One of the first parties to apply for legal recognition in Algeria's new multiparty system, the FIS had begun to take shape in the months before the constitutional revision that legalized political parties. Islamist leaders met between February and August 1989 while the APN was debating the new legislation that would enact the constitutional provision allowing for the creation of "associations of a political character." The FIS named Shaykh Abbassi Madani, a moderate Western-educated professor of comparative literature at the University of Algiers, as its leader. His second in command was Ali Benhadj, a high school teacher known for his fiery and militant rhetoric and radical notions of the role of political Islam. This dual leadership and the lack of a clear doctrine allowed for the variable interpretation and pluralistic nature of the FIS as a political party. The more moderate Madani represented a conservative faction within the party intent on using the democratic system to implement its Islamist code. Belhadj, with wider grass-roots supports, drew the younger population intent on the immediate imposition of Islamic law.

In line with the nationalist appeal of the Islamic movement, FIS as a political party has transcended religious affiliation. In the economic sphere, the FIS advocates a free-market approach with lower taxes and incentives for developing the private sector. The party also calls for cuts in military spending. Its program is largely driven by domestic interests and is not linked to an international Islamist movement. In fact, the party platform in late 1992 called for international cooperation with the West to explore and expand Algeria's natural resources and export potential.

Many people have minimized the strength of the FIS by maintaining that its greatest appeal has been in the impoverished urban centers filled with unemployed and discontented youth. To this view one must add a few qualifiers. First, in the early 1990s more than 70 percent of Algeria's total population was under the age of thirty (more than 50 percent was under the age of nineteen). To the extent that the party appeals to disgruntled youth, it appeals to a huge percentage of the population. Second, whereas large numbers of unemployed fill the ranks of the FIS, they are without work primarily as a result of poor economic policy and limited opportunity. These factors constitute an inevitable and legitimate precipitate for a backlash vote against the incumbent regime. Finally, the June 1990 local elections demonstrated that the appeal of the FIS was not limited to the poorer districts. FIS candidates won in many affluent districts in the capital and in such provinces as El Tarf, home of Benjedid.

At the time of the June 1990 elections, the FIS was a pluralist and generally moderate party. Under the leadership of Abbassi Madani, in contrast to Ali Benhadj, the FIS resembled a moderate social democratic party more than a radical Islamist party. The radicalization of the Islamists and the violent uprisings that dominated political life in 1992 and 1993 resulted from the revived political authoritarianism led by the army and were not necessarily an attribute of the party itself. In fact, the party, untested in a national capacity, can be measured only by its actions. In those local districts controlled by the FIS since the 1990 elections, few of the radical changes feared by many outsiders and the old guard in the ruling elite have transpired. In part the retention of the status quo has been caused by substantial cuts in municipal budgets and in part by the lack of time and flexibility to alter drastically existing legislation. However, disagreements within the leadership itself, especially over the timetable for implementation of Islamic principles, have been perhaps the strongest factor in the lack of change.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress