Islamic rescue front

Algerian Contemporary History Part II

Civil War

The prospect of an Algeria ruled as a theocracy by fundamentalist Muslims, and their plan to introduce Islamic legislation, caused the army and the FLN’s hard core to intervene in front of other elections.

In January 1992, after pressure from the defense leadership, President Chadli announced that he was retiring. Then the government resigned; the constitution was set aside. The National Assembly had already been dissolved. After an interplay with Defense Minister Khaled Nezzar as leader of a steering group, Mohammad Boudiaf was appointed to lead a Security Council as the state’s supreme body. This then canceled the second round of elections.

After six months in power, in January 1992, Boudiaf was assassinated, and Ali Kafi became the new head of the council. In January 1994, General Lamine Zeroual was appointed new president. In the same year, the military council set up a national transitional council, which was to act as a national assembly; this was boycotted by the largest parties, including FIS and FLN.

Militant Islamist groups

The FIS was initially a nonviolent party, but it was supported by a number of groups, including militant Islamic organizations. Several of these were in the 1990s for acts of violence that may have claimed as many as 100,000 lives. The acts of violence by Islamist groups were particularly widespread in the mid-1990s, before waning towards the end of the decade and after the turn of the century. Several armed groups were behind the campaign of violence, which was first targeted at foreign nationals, Algerian intellectuals and public officials, and gradually to other citizens as well. The state’s apparatus of power – especially the security forces – was also accused of violence; among other things, they must have been responsible for a significant number of people disappearing.

The rise of the armed Islamist resistance to the secular regime in Algeria traces back to the military tradition of the liberation war in the 1950s. Early Islamist groups that emerged in the 1970s, among them Harakat al-Mujtama al-Islami (Hamas) and al-Nahda, were influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. As a result of the revolution in Iran in 1979, a more radical Islamic direction developed. A similar influence had the resistance struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Islamic rescue front

During the Algerian election campaign in 1991, the Islamic rescue front mobilized and won the first round of elections. Fears of a fundamentalist Islamic society led to the cancellation of the elections, and in 1992 a state of emergency was introduced in the country. The picture is from the 1991 election campaign. 

The first small militant groups saw the light of day in the early 1980s, but it was only after the Islamist election victory in 1990 and the cancellation of the parliamentary election the year after the armed opposition emerged. Initially, opposition to the government was demonstrated through extensive demonstrations in the big cities. The government’s assault on the FIS and other Islamic groups began in earnest with arrests in January-March 1991 by a number of key FIS leaders. The party was banned in March 1991. The authorities pursued a policy that also restricted civil rights in other areas, including restricted freedom of the press and organization.

General Zeroual sought a somewhat more conciliatory policy when he took over after Kafi in 1994. As the Minister of Defense, he retained control of the armed forces, and power was gathered with a small group of military leaders. Zeroual’s political line – with military escalation of the conflict combined with attempts at dialogue – led to escalation of acts of violence, including from the government. The terror of the Islamist militia gradually became as much directed at civilians as at the public apparatus of power; the perpetrators became notorious for their brutality.

Several armed Islamist groups emerged from the early 1990s; the two most important were the Groupe islamique army (GIA) – consisting of several smaller groups – and the armed branch of the FIS, the Armée islamique du salut (AIS). A breakout group from the GIA, Groupe salafiste pour la predication et le combat (GSPC), was established in 1998.

Free parliamentary elections and reconciliation

At Algeria’s first free presidential election in November 1995, President Zeroual was re-elected, against two opposing candidates. In 1996, a new constitution was passed in a referendum. Islam was made a state religion, but the constitution prevented parties from being built on a religious platform.

The first free parliamentary elections were held in 1997; candidates from 39 parties as well as independent candidates, but the ban on FIS stood by team. Zeroual’s new party, the Rassemblement national pour la democratie (RND), was the largest with 38.1 percent of the vote, forming the government with the Islamist Movement for the Social (MSP) and the FLN.

After Zeroual resigned in 1998 and the other candidates boycotted the 1999 presidential election, former Foreign Minister Abdelaziz Bouteflika was elected new head of state after 26 years in exile. He prioritized restoring security and stability in the country, and endorsed his peace plan, with offers of amnesty for rebels, through a referendum in 2000. With that, the violence subsided.

A charter for peace and reconciliation was passed in a referendum in 2005, and the civil war gradually ended, although there were still acts of violence, especially from the GSPC. This group took the name Al-Qaeda in Maghreb (AQIM) in 2006, and was driven south into the Sahara, and then spread to neighboring countries Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

The civil war in Algeria required at least 100,000 lives; some estimates amount to 150,000.


In the wake of the civil war, emphasis has been placed on creating stability in Algeria. The country experienced equally full demonstrations in January 2011, coinciding with the Arab Spring. The protests targeted rising food prices and high unemployment, as well as political repression – and demanding that President Bouteflika resign.

The resistance did not reach the same extent as in neighboring Tunisia, and did not lead to significant changes. However, the state of emergency, which had been in force since 1992, was abolished, and financial measures were taken to curb the unrest, including increased subsidies on food and higher salaries for public employees. Prior to the 2012 parliamentary elections, several reforms were introduced, including reduced media restrictions and legalization of several political parties.

During the parliamentary elections in 2002, the FLN gained a pure majority, and has retained the government since. In the May 2017 election, the FLN declined, but gained a majority in parliament with 462 seats, along with the coalition partner Rassemblement national démocratique (RND); with a total of 261 representatives. 796 parties and 128 political alliances made list; 35 lots were represented.

Bouteflika was re-elected as president in 2004, 2009 and 2014. After being inaugurated for his fourth term after the 2014 election, he commissioned former Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal to form a new government.

Parallel to the political-religious conflict, in Algeria there is also an ethnic conflict between the Berber population and the Arab majority, especially related to the Berber core region, Kabylia. In 2002, the Berbers made a breakthrough for their foremost claim when their language tamazight was declared official, similar to Arabic.

Also in this part of the country there have been militant groups in business, and in 2001 there were extensive riots in several parts of the region. The social tensions in Algeria are further exacerbated by the economic situation, with high unemployment, especially among the youth.

The terrorist attack in In Amenas

Outbreaks from Al Qaeda in Maghreb, led by Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar, were in 2013 behind the terrorist attack against a gas plant in In Amenas, partly owned and operated by Norwegian Statoil.

650 hostages were taken before Algerian military forces were deployed to fight the attackers. Norwegian special forces were ready to be deployed, but this was not wanted by Algeria. 39 foreign nationals, including five Norwegian, were killed during the terrorist attack, which is believed to have been launched from Libya. The Krechba gas plant, associated with a main facility in In Salah, with Statoil as co-owner, was attacked by rockets in March 2016.

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