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History, Unrest and Civil War

Ali Benhadj, Ali Kafi, Zeroual, uncontested election, Organization of African Unity

Declining oil prices in the mid-1980s had severe economic consequences. In October 1988 frustrated youthful protestors clashed with government troops throughout the country. After a severe suppression of the rioters, Benjedid initiated reforms and was reelected in December to a third five-year term. A revised constitution in February 1989 and legislation in July allowed for a multiparty democratic system. Political parties were legalized; one of the new parties to be formed was an Islamist one—the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS).

In the 1990 provincial and municipal elections, the FIS defeated the FLN by an overwhelming margin. Following violent FIS demonstrations, the parliamentary elections of June 1991 were suspended and rescheduled, and the FIS’s chief leaders—Abassi Madani and Ali Benhadj—were arrested. In January 1992, after a first round of balloting made it likely that the Islamists would win control of parliament, military and civilian officials forced Benjedid to resign. They canceled the election, suspended parliament, and established an executive High Council of State (HCS) with Mohammed Boudiaff, an exiled FLN hero of the war of independence, as president. Violence erupted again and the FIS was officially outlawed. Boudiaff was assassinated in June 1992 and the HCS appointed one of its members, Ali Kafi, to succeed him. Fighting escalated between government forces and Islamist militants. Although the FIS had lost its legal status, it quickly mobilized its military wing, the Armed Islamic Movement (Mouvement Islamique Arme), later called the Islamic Salvation Army (Armee Islamique du Salut, AIS). In 1993 the more extremist Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Arme, GIA) emerged and began conducting assassinations and bombings.

In January 1994 the HCS named Defense Minister Liamine Zeroual as Algeria’s president for a three-year interim term and dissolved itself. A former diplomat and career soldier who fought for Algeria’s independence from France, Zeroual was given wide latitude to negotiate with the imprisoned FIS leaders and other political parties.

Zeroual decided to hold presidential elections at the end of 1995 rather than waiting until the end of the three-year interim term. Despite protests from some of the remaining political parties, Zeroual was elected in November 1995 in Algeria’s first successful multiparty presidential elections since independence. To counteract widespread suspicion that Zeroual would rig his own victory, the president invited monitors from the UN, the Arab League, and the Organization of African Unity to oversee the elections. About 75 percent of eligible voters participated, despite threats from radical Islamists to kill anyone who voted. The elections, which Zeroual won with 61 percent of the vote, were judged to be a fair popular endorsement of his administration. In a significant show of international confidence in the Zeroual government, three multinational oil and gas corporations signed lucrative development agreements with the Algerian state-owned oil and gas company in the following months. In 1995 and 1996 international lenders rescheduled Algeria’s foreign debt, which also helped the beleaguered Algerian government.

Another revised constitution came into effect in 1996. Most notably, this constitution banned political parties based exclusively on religion, language, race, gender, or region. In addition, the constitution created a new, bicameral legislature, composed of the National People’s Assembly and the Council of the Nation. The widespread victory of the National Democratic Rally (Rassemblement National Democratique, RND), a newly formed, pro-government party, in parliamentary elections in 1997 prompted allegations of election fraud among opposition parties and sparked protests in Algiers. In late 1998 Zeroual announced that he would step down and call for early presidential elections. Just before the elections were held in April 1999, six of the seven candidates withdrew. They cited election fraud that made the victory of the remaining candidate, whom they claimed had the backing of the military establishment, a foregone conclusion. The remaining candidate, former foreign minister Abdelaziz Bouteflika, won the uncontested election and assumed the presidency. In September 1999 Bouteflika presented a “Civil Concord” calling for national reconciliation. It was enthusiastically endorsed in a referendum. Bouteflika offered amnesty to militant Muslims, and thousands of them laid down their arms. The AIS dissolved itself, but the GIA did not. The Salafist Group for Call and Combat, a branch of the GIA, arose in the late 1990s; this group was reportedly supported by al-Qaeda, the international terrorist network of Osama bin Laden.

Algeria has suffered greatly from its civil war. The widespread violence since the suppression of the 1992 elections has claimed approximately 100,000 lives, and assaults by Islamist groups in this war-weary country still occur. In their efforts to undermine the government, Islamist militants and extremists have attacked members of the military and government, as well as individuals expressing secular or non-Muslim views, such as journalists, teachers, writers, intellectuals, foreigners, and both Muslim and Christian clerics. Extremists also resorted to indiscriminate car bombings. In the second half of the 1990s, Algeria reeled from savage atrocities, particularly from mid-1997 to early 1998. Retaliation by government security forces and civilian militias trained and armed by the government was brutal in kind.

Although the Algerian government routinely blamed violence on Islamist guerrillas, human rights organizations began to question whether the government was doing enough to protect civilians and if government forces were involved in atrocities themselves. A UN panel was allowed to conduct a limited investigation into the violence in late 1998. The panel blamed the Islamist groups for most of the violence but also urged the Algerian government to make improvements in the areas of human rights and democracy. There were fewer killings in 2001 at the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan (typically the period of the most intense violence) than at the end of any Ramadan since 1992.

Article key phrases:

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