Islamism in Algeria: A Struggle Between Hope and Agony

Ray Takeyh. Middle East Policy. Volume 10, Issue 2. Summer 2003.

With its vast oil deposits and a Francophone intellectual and ruling elite devoted to reshaping the state along modern (albeit socialist) lines, decolonized North Africa was seen as one region where secular modernization had the greatest chance of success. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Algeria—the principal state of the region—fulfilled these expectations, as its functioning socialist economy and leadership of Third World causes made it a celebrated state throughout the Middle East and left-wing Western circles. It was a leader in the “Group of 77” and one of the proponents of the New International Economic Order. It was casually ignored that Algerians had not discovered the magic formula for making socialism function, but rather relied on oil revenues to mask over the shortcomings of the command economy. In the meantime, the Algerian regime’s draconian practices at home were similarly neglected in favor of the great service that the small North African state was performing in the cause of world revolution. Algeria may have been a country of contradictions and precarious stability, but it was also the Third World model that had to be acclaimed as an alternative to the decadent capitalism exported by the United States.

In the late 1980s, the dream shattered. As oil revenues declined, the governing regime no longer had the funds to subsidize its ideological dogma and was compelled to launch liberalization measures that inevitably provoked political repercussions. As the imported Western models failed to fulfill their promises, an increasingly disillusioned middle class turned to the Islamists and their devastating critique of the prevailing order. However, for the Islamists to succeed, they had to appreciate that their mandate was not the restoration of the mythical seventh century, but reconciliation of demands for cultural authenticity with equally compelling calls for political empowerment. Algeria, the greatest laboratory for this experimentation, is, ironically, the state that appeared to be the foremost model of modernization.

Although Algeria had long been acclaimed by the Arab salon as the paradigm of secular modernization, the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) coalition that managed the extraordinary feat of besting the French empire greatly relied on religious forces and symbols to mobilize the population behind the cause of independence. Despite the clerical community’s contributions to this cause, the secular leaders of the FLN viewed religion from a utilitarian perspective, sufficient for mass mobilization but inadequate as a template for governance. For the architects of the revolution, Algeria was to spearhead the emerging Third World and usher in a new epoch among the newly independent Afro-Arab states.

In many ways, the story of Algeria unfolded in a manner all too familiar among developing Middle Eastern states. A series of military-led regimes managed for a long time to maintain power, initially through revolutionary legitimacy, later through allocation of resources. During the first two decades of the revolution, the petroleum market and its Western consumers perversely subsidized Algerian socialism. The poor planning that favored underproducing heavy industry, a neglected agricultural sector, and a bloated and corrupt bureaucracy went unnoticed as the petrodollars continued to mask the economy’s deep-seated structural flaws. By the 1980s, as the oil market experienced a steep decline, the regime suddenly found itself confronted with soaring foreign debt, diminished revenues and a hard-pressed populace increasingly disenchanted with the failed promises and pledges of state socialism.

Ironically, the revolution’s foremost achievement was to prove its primary source of implosion. The expansion of the university system and its peculiar division between fields taught in French and those taught in Arabic provided the Islamists with a rich source of recruits. The Arab language fields of law and literature took a decisive back seat to the French-taught scientific fields in terms of funding and job opportunities. The Arab-language students soon recognized that, despite their newly acquired diplomas, they were consigned to the margins of society by the French-speaking elite that dominated the economy. As the marginalized youth began to saturate the market, Algeria experienced the explosive problem of underemployment among recent graduates. In any developing society, by far the most difficult challenge for the state is not managing the poor but controlling an aggrieved intelligentsia whose aspirations remain unfulfilled. It is from this cohort that militants emerge and organize political opposition to the state. The children of the revolution were the first to question their patrimony and the foundation upon which the socialist regime rested.

The precipitous decline of the Algerian economy in the late 1980s, beginning with the decrease in oil revenues after 1984, not only politicized the restive youth but deepened Algeria’s many cultural, political and social cleavages. The destabilizing gap between the elite and the masses, the cultural tensions between Arabs and Berbers, and the resentment of the traditional sector of society now suddenly became exacerbated. Algeria was about to enter one of the most precarious stages of its modern history.

The regime attempted to shore up its position by co-opting the Islamist movement and solidifying its own Islamic credentials. Houari Boumediene, who replaced Ben Bella after deposing him in a coup in 1965, was especially interested in fusing the socialist principles of the regime with the precepts of Islamic law. The Boumediene regime espoused policies that helped the Islamists, including a quiet toleration by the Ministry of Religious Affairs of “radical” preachers in local mosques. Boumediene’s successor, Colonel Chadli Bendjedid (sworn in as president on February 9, 1979, following Boumediene’s death in December 1978), continued this approach. Under his leadership, a new “Family-status Code” was adopted that represented major concessions to the Islamists, especially with regard to the status of women. Chadli also invited a leading Egyptian scholar and preacher, al-Ghazali, to preside over a new Islamic educational institution, the Universite Emir Abdelkader des Sciences Islamiques, in 1982. Al-Ghazali helped to legitimize the positions taken by the “radical” imams by issuing a number of fatwas (judicial rulings) favorable to their positions.

The conventional breakdown of the authoritarian state took an innovative departure in the case of Algeria. The opposition came eventually to be dominated by the forces of tradition, as the Islamists not only proved adept at mass mobilization, but offered a vision that seemed compatible with pluralism and political representation. The reality remains that Islamic politics in Algeria differs from that of other Middle Eastern states and can only be properly understood within the context of Algeria’s evolution as a state and its inability to fully reconcile its multiplicity of identities.

The Evolution of Political Islam In Algeria

The spectacular rise of Islamism in Algeria may have stunned the Western media, but such activism has deep roots in Algerian society. The Islamic reform movement initially evolved under the shadow of French imperial rule and dedicated itself to harmonizing modernist concepts and Islamic precepts. The Islamic opposition under legendary figures such as Sheik Abd-al Hamid Ben Badis successfully responded to the intellectual challenge of colonialism by insisting that modern political institutions need not be imported but can indigenously evolve. Beyond their political contributions, Algerian Islamists devoted considerable effort to maintaining local identity and preventing the Algerian culture from being completely eclipsed by French norms and mores. This was a moderate expression of local values that made an important imprint on the emerging Algerian identity.

In the post-independence period, the heady policies of socialism and Third Worldism pursued by the FLN elicited Islamist resistance and at times organized opposition. The most significant group to emerge in the 1960s was Al Qiyam (values), which called for Algeria’s cultural rehabilitation to complement its national autonomy. Under the leadership of Hashemi Tidjani, Ben Badis’s successor, this group successfully lobbied Ahmed Ben Bella to mandate Islamic religious education in public schools. Through its social networks and journal, Maggallot al-tadhib al-Islamiyya, the association stood firm against a rising tide of secularism. The essential blueprint of Islamic politics emerged at this point, as insistence on cultural integrity often led to political expressions inconsistent with the demands of the state. This process culminated in the unveiling of “A Charter for an Islamic State” at Algiers University on November 12, 1982. Demonstrations on university campuses led to clashes with police and a number of arrests in the weeks that followed.

Qiyam’s activism was complemented by that of other groups, notably Al-Irshad wa al-Islah, under the leadership of Mahfoudh Nahnah. This group similarly deprecated the leftist proclivities of the regime and the inequities fostered under the banner of socialism. In a departure from the pattern of Islamic dissent, Nahnah focused closely on socioeconomic issues and adversities that the Arab-trained graduates experienced under a state whose leadership remained in the hands of a Francophone elite. Family law, human rights and economic equity accompanied the traditional focus on cultural values. The principal aspect of these organizations is that they pressed for evolutionary change, concentrating on incremental reform and continually propounding the notion that religion and modernity were indeed compatible.

Along with such moderate expression of Islamism, a radical strand was always present, acclaiming the virtues of violence as a means of fostering social change. The foremost figure of this cohort was Moustafa Bouyali, whose death in 1987 at the hands of the security services neither diminished the zeal of his followers nor the potency of his vision. Bouyali had led the Armed Islamic Movement (MIA), whose militant members always opposed the gradualism of the moderates and dismissed democratic rule as an alien device for Muslim submission. As one of the intellectual architects of this movement, Said Mekhloufi, insisted, “The majority cannot be taken into account when preparing the Islamic state.” A rigid theocracy was the best means of achieving God’s vision; public opinion was to be countermanded by divine revelation disclosed to a privileged few.

The interplay of religion and politics in Algeria reveals the complexity of a movement that defies easy characterization. Algerian Islamism has deep roots and a long pedigree of resistance, first to French imperialism and later to the authoritarianism fostered by the military regime. Algerian Islamists tried to emphasize the fundamentally religious nature of native resistance to the French, beginning with the call by the religious brotherhoods on July 5, 1830, for a jihad to liberate Algiers. This continued through the War of Independence, during which time the anticolonial forces used Islamic rhetoric (terming the struggle a jihad, describing those who fell as martyrs, and so on). Indeed, the Islamists sought to link their program with the true fulfillment of Algerian independence. Abbas Madani, who was to emerge as one of the leaders of the Islamist movement, declared:

The Algerian state of 1962 had nothing to do with what had been projected on the first of November 1954, for which we had taken up arms: an independent state founded on Islamic principles. The state that has risen before our eyes was founded on secular, socialist principles. This was a serious deviation.

In its long years of struggle, resistance and accommodation, different visions and diverse figures have emerged and competed for power and influence. From local clergy and laymen pressing for cultural and social activism to guerilla leaders calling for armed struggle, Algerian Islamism encompassed a multiplicity of voices. The notion that Islamic expression in Algeria is necessarily violent is belied by a rich history of peaceful activism. At the same time, a violent dimension of Islamism cannot be ignored and viewed as an unavoidable result of state repression. Whatever its modalities, by the late 1980s, Islamism was to escape its narrow confines and confront the Algerian regime with the most formidable of challenges.

The Rise and Fall of the FIS

The year 1988 proved to be a watershed in Algeria’s modern history. Declining oil prices and the emergence of a global surge toward free markets led the regime to launch a liberalization and deregulation program that entailed the elimination of many social-welfare services and subsidies. The removal of state controls at a time of financial shortfall disproportionately affected the urban working class and the poor. The socially disruptive ramifications of this policy were exacerbated by high inflation and the emergence of an underground economy. The gap between rich and poor continued to grow while official corruption, an endemic feature of Algerian bureaucracy, reached alarming rates. The much-eroded social compact between the revolutionary regime and the populace ruptured with the October 1988 riots throughout Algeria’s urban centers. The brutal suppression of the marches by the military further undermined the legitimacy of a regime that based its power on its historical role as a force for liberation. In the aftermath of the riots, that pillar finally began to crumble.

The Chadli regime’s response to the enveloping economic and political crisis was the introduction of sweeping political liberalization. Given the failure of its economic policies, the regime perceived that electoral triumphs would resurrect its sagging fortunes and once more buff up its tarnished image. The aging military men, still immured in their revolutionary vision where the army was the great liberator and therefore the legitimate repository of power, failed to note the arrival of a new generation focused on practical achievements. The political liberalization measures came at a time when mass discontent with the ruling elite reached a fever pitch and was awaiting an avenue for its expression.

Despite the looming problems, the liberalization policy initially appeared to yield considerable advantage. For the first time in its history, Algeria witnessed a relatively free political atmosphere with a flourishing press, competitive political parties and intense debate on the direction of the state. Hovering over this renaissance was the ominous shadow of persistent economic decline and a restive military hierarchy uneasy about departures from the status quo. Algeria’s liberal interregnum was bound to be short-lived, as the forces of radicalism would soon be plotting to reclaim the political landscape.

Into this explosive arena stepped the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), determined to compete for political power and even displace the existing ruling system. In order to challenge the nationalistic patrimony of the FLN, the FIS sought to include under its banner the totality of Islamist expression: militants and moderates, clergy and laymen, young and old. The contradictory character of the FIS was best illustrated by its choice of leaders, which included the moderate Abbas Madani and the radical firebrand Ali Belhaj. While Madani pressed for inclusive politics and constructive participation in a pluralistic society, Belhaj denounced democratic order as a sinister tool of the West. The reality remains that the FIS decision to participate in the elections in the first place and accept the limits and restrictions of the electoral process reflected the triumph of the moderate wing. The radicals were present, but so long as the democratic process moved forward, their leadership claims were marginal and largely ignored.

In line with most opposition parties, the FIS never published a detailed program and limited itself to bland assurances of prosperity and order. In part, this was due to the fact that the FIS had no real mechanism for adopting policies. In theory, the FIS was guided by a majlis al-shura (consultative council). Yet no statutes or regulations for its operation were ever published, and its meetings were held in private at irregular times. It essentially brought together the different factions and groups that comprised the FIS, but there was no way to streamline or institutionalize its operations.

Concerning the economy, the FIS program advocated a vibrant private sector coexisting with enhanced social-welfare provisions. Traditional Algerian themes of independence, self-sufficiency and autonomy from Western imperialism constituted the hallmark of FIS rhetoric. The FIS soon declared, “Whether we proceed with production or consumption, we must proceed with investment in order to alleviate poverty and in order to find objectives for the promotion of man.” The great macroeconomic challenges facing Algeria in a global economy remained largely unaddressed by the FIS. Although such opacity is the prerogative of opposition parties, in the case of the FIS it stemmed from internal contradictions and an inability to craft a consensus on a detailed economic blueprint.

While the FIS economic platform was discursive, its political proclamations seemed outright contradictory. Madani continued to assert his intention to accept the rules of democracy and deprecated the notion that FIS sought to superimpose a theocratic ideology on Algeria. As the principal FIS leader, Madani made his democratic commitments clear: “Pluralism is a guarantee of the cultural wealth and diversity needed for development. Democracy, as we understand it, means pluralism, choice and freedom.” A survey of Islamist publications such as El Forkane and El Mungidh reveals a surprising injection of democratic discourse, with power rotation and pluralism continually invoked as guiding principles.

At the same time that important elements of FIS appeared to accommodate democratic norms, another segment remained defiant in its denunciation of such heretical thoughts. Belhaj led the charge against pluralism or any governing framework that detracted from the religious mission of the state. “When we are in power there will be no more elections because God will be ruling,” professed Belhaj. Democracy was seen as an insidious foreign innovation that would subvert the divine order. Belhaj and his followers were vociferous in their condemnation of democratic rule as a contrived Western instrument for undermining the cohesion of the umma. It was blasphemy to suggest that God’s will (as revealed and interpreted) should submit to the popular will in the governance of the country. The most that the radicals would concede was that elections might prove to be the instrument by which Islamists could come to power in Algeria. The task at hand for the Algerian leaders, therefore, was to ensure the ascendance of the moderates and the continued marginalization of the radicals.

In a sense, the unity of the FIS was always precarious, as it rested on an alliance of disparate forces. The main constituents of the FIS were small merchants, civil servants and first-generation college graduates. All these groups struggled with diminishing economic fortunes, loss of cultural identity and rampant corruption. These elders of the FIS sought an accountable government and greater representation in the context of cultural continuity. However, this element of the FIS always had an uneasy relationship with the other wing of the party, which was primarily composed of desperate young men suffering from escalating unemployment. The claims of these disillusioned youth were more immediate and their patience was always more limited. The task of the authorities was to ensure that the leadership of the FIS rested with the moderates and that their tempering influence on the firebrands remained intact. This was the task that the regime utterly failed to perform.

The elections of the early 1990s would shift the bedrock of Algerian politics, revealing the fault-lines of its national identity. In the municipal elections of 1990, the FIS garnered 4.3 million votes out of a possible 12.8, granting it for the first time a formal power base in the municipal localities. In an even greater upset, in December 1991, the FIS captured 188 out of 430 parliamentary seats in the first round of the legislative elections.

The electoral triumphs of the FIS have often been dismissed as a strong reaction of the masses against the FLN’s troubled tenure and not so much as an endorsement of the FIS. It is certainly true that the frustrated Algerian populace was not about to extend the FLN’s hold on power; when granted an opportunity, it flocked to the most viable alternative. It would be wrong, however, to dismiss the electoral results as mere antagonism toward the FLN, as they do indicate an affirmation of the FIS message of moderate Islamism. The FIS not only proved capable of channeling the disenchantment with the FLN to its advantage; its moderate leaders such as Madani and his temperate message actually resonated with the populace. In a sense, the FIS appropriated the essence of the original revolution by claiming modernist solutions to contemporary problems in the context of cultural authenticity.

However, in one of the greatest miscalculations in modern Algerian history, on the eve of the second round of parliamentary elections, the military stepped in and nullified the election results. Chadli resigned, and a state council took power. This action of the generals ended Algeria’s liberal period and ushered in a civil war that would consume tens of thousands of lives (estimates range from 50,000 to over 100,000) and institutionalize violence as a means of resolving disputes.

The post-coup governments that have ruled Algeria since 1992 have attempted sporadically to retain power through controlled and contrived elections. A new party, the National Democratic Rally, was created, while several “safe” parties were allowed to contest elections, including the Movement of Society for Peace, an Islamist option “approved” by the generals, the Rally for Culture and Democracy, and the Party of Algerian Renewal. Nevertheless, many Algerians believed that these “opposition” parties were primarily for show. General Liamine Zeroual won the presidency in 1995 in elections boycotted by the Islamists, and Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the candidate of the generals, was elected in April 1999 unopposed after the other five candidates withdrew from the election campaign, claiming that the election results would be rigged. However, the larger problem remains that such measures cannot compensate for the resounding lack of legitimacy that the original abrogation of elections fostered. Not only did Algeria’s lingering economic problems remain; they were actually exacerbated by the ensuing civil war. There existed a widespread perception among the disenfranchised masses that the military clique and Francophone minority that had benefited disproportionately from the wealth of the nation had once more conspired to preserve its system of privilege. For many Algerians, elections represented an opportunity not to implant theocracy, but to finally infiltrate the corridors of power and share in their country’s great wealth. The abrogation of the elections made violence the ultimate arbiter of change in a polarized society.

It is in this context that the radical dimension of Algerian Islamism began to explode onto the scene. The military coup discredited the moderate wing of the FIS that had put such trust in electoral institutions as a way to bring about change. This, along with the fact that many of the key leaders of the FIS were in prison, allowed more radical elements to rise to the fore, especially those who formed the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). The GIA’s philosophy was as simple as it was self-defeating. The GIA not only condemned the FIS electoral strategy but ominously declared, “Power is within the range of our Kalashnikovs.” It professed that the failure of the Islamic movement to reclaim power was due to a lack of resolution in the pursuit of jihad. Since a number of the leaders of the GIA had fought as volunteers against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s, the argument resonated that armed force could bring down an “illegitimate” regime. The tactics of the GIA were equally questionable: using violence to challenge the notion of the regime’s invincibility and spark a mass uprising. The partisans of the GIA made it clear that their goal diverged from that of the FIS; they did not seek the resumption of the electoral process or the rehabilitation of the political order, but the creation of an Islamic Utopia through armed resistance. The human way—elections—had failed. Now the only option was to engage in jihad against an illegitimate regime that claimed to be Muslim but that was, in the eyes of the radicals, an infidel order. The challenge of the GIA was not just to the regime but to moderate Islamists who had participated in the political process and accepted its demands and limitations.

The methods and rationale of the GIA were not that dissimilar from those of the totalitarian parties of the West, which saw themselves as a vanguard seeking to lead a nation by first shocking its sensibilities. The inevitable failure of such parties follows a predictable pattern: state retribution followed by defection of the party’s remaining cadres. Somehow this lesson eluded the combatants of the GIA. In its initial spate of violence, the GIA focused on the regime’s officials, intellectuals and secular activists. As the violence evolved, the GIA spectacularly miscalculated by turning against the small merchants, entrepreneurs and petty bourgeoisie who had formed the backbone of the Islamic opposition. The GIA activists began to press these groups for funds and operated well-developed racketeering schemes. The movement that acclaimed piety and professed to create a virtuous order had turned into a violent street gang, provoking an orgy of violence. Moreover, the GIA adopted an apocalyptic view of the struggle. One of its leaders, Antar Zouabri, proclaimed that “in our war, there is no neutrality. Except for those who are with us, all others are renegades.”

Despite the abrogated elections and rampant violence, in 1995, the remnants of the FIS in conjunction with Algeria’s other leading parties—including the FLN offered the beleaguered nation an avenue out of its bloody impasse. The Rome Accords, signed by the FIS leadership, were a remarkable compact between the secular and religious forces. In a unique gesture of unity, they all renounced violence and accepted democratic procedures as the only means of acquiring and retaining power. The agreement dramatically rejected “dictatorship, whatever its nature and form” while guaranteeing “fundamental individual and collective liberties such as race, sex, religion and language.” The Rome Accords were an unprecedented acknowledgement of alternative ideologies by an Islamist organization long accused of undemocratic designs. In contrast to the GIA, the FIS also pledged to refrain from “the use of violence to gain or maintain power.” Significantly for an Islamist party, the Rome document also reaffirmed popular sovereignty as the only basis for legitimate authority. The angry rejection of the accord by the military, however, constituted an emasculation of all moderate forces and the transformation of Algerian politics into a contested terrain between military eradicators and militant Islamists. The conflict has essentially been a war of attrition, with each side hoping the other collapses first.

Algeria’s tragic impasse persists. Despite contrived presidential and parliamentary elections, a military clique continues to dominate power. President Bouteflika may be the statutory leader of the state, but thereal power continues to rest in the hands of the military custodians of the regime. Like civilian leaders in Turkey, Bouteflika must operate within “red lines” that have been defined by the military, which remains divided between a wing that urges conciliation with the Islamists and another that presses for full eradication of the Islamist presence. After the deaths of more than 100,000 people only one thing has been made clear: radical Islamists cannot displace the regime, and the generals cannot forceably eradicate their opponents. The cycle of violence can only end when all parties recognize that a stable Algeria will have to be a democratic, inclusive state providing for individual sovereignty while accepting moderate Islamism as part of the political landscape. Thus far, this revelation has eluded all parties.

Wither Algeria?

The role of Islam in post-independence Algeria cannot be minimized, as it has provided a foundation for an otherwise secular state. Despite the regime’s modernizing pretensions, the religious functionaries continued to inculcate the ways of tradition and provide the populace with a value system they could not find in the secular state. Under the august shadow of the modernizing regime, the forces of religion persisted in conditioning individual consciousness and political culture. As the first generation of Algerians passed from the scene, the notion of revolutionary elan as the basis for state legitimacy and mass mobilization declined. Increasingly, the power of the state rested on the efficiency of its security services and the availability of petrodollars. As the legitimacy of the regime became tenuous, it became subject to a challenge from traditional forces operating at a deeper and more substantial level.

The Islamic Salvation Front must be seen as part of a larger tradition of religious activism that had always featured competing factions of moderates and hardliners. In a departure from its predecessors, the FIS focused more closely on national problems and called for political participation as a means of addressing these issues. Obviously, as a religion-based party, it expressed both the problems and the solutions in a distinct religious idiom. As such, the FIS challenged the regime, not just for its moral decay but also for practical shortcomings, such as corruption, managerial incompetence and inefficiency. The abrogation of the elections ensured that those whose preferred method of protest was violence displaced the voices of moderation calling for social mobilization as a means of expressing dissent.

The stunning FIS electoral triumphs in 1990-91 cannot be ignored or dismissed. The Algerian military has demonstrated an ability to maintain order through the most repressive of methods. However, in the long run, the possibility of imposing authoritarian rule on a populace that poured into the streets demanding representation is improbable. The irony is that Algeria stands as one state in the Middle East that possesses the important preconditions for a transition to democracy. Its continuing cultural and educational links to France, the sophisticated nature of its elite politics and ethnic diversity—which has long mandated subtle compromises and concessions make Algeria different from the typical authoritarian Arab state. By building bridges to the moderate Islamists, the military can finally move towards not only a democratic polity, but also an end to the civil war that has brutalized an entire generation.

Steps in this direction have already been taken. In 1997, the armed organization of the FIS unilaterally declared a cease-fire; in 1999, after negotiations with Abdelqader Hachani, considered to be the “number three” man within the FIS, the groundwork was laid for Bouteflika’s “civil reconciliation” program, the centerpiece of which was a general amnesty for members of the FIS and its armed wing, the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS). Bouteflika hoped that this would enable the government to concentrate on combating the GIA and another radical militant organization, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). However, the more militant Islamists have refused to abandon the armed struggle, and Hachani himself was assassinated in November 1999. Bouteflika has vowed to exterminate armed radicals who did not surrender to the state under the terms of the amnesty the GIA and the GSPC are estimated to number between 5,000 and 7,000 militants. Nevertheless, while violence still continues in Algeria, the government has had greater success since 1999 in containing and localizing the bloodshed.

Another interesting development has been the revitalization of the FLN under the leadership of Prime Minister Ali Benflis. For the last several years, he has tried to situate the FLN as the political force best able to project healing and reconciliation in Algerian society. The FLN won 199 seats in the National Assembly in the May 2002 parliamentary elections and enjoyed convincing victories in local elections in October 2002. Benflis has tried to shift attention away from ideology toward economic progress, tapping into the desire of many Algerians for peace and reconstruction.

At the same time, the “official” Islamists have seen their popular support erode. Collectively, Mahfoud Nanah’s Movement of Society for Peace and Abdallah Djaballah’s Movement for National Reform, which polled 26 percent of the vote in 1997, saw their combined total shrink to 21 percent in 2002. This is significant because it is estimated that up to 25 percent of the candidates and activists in these movements are former members of the FIS. Some of the decline may be attributed to the ongoing boycott of the electoral process that the FIS still asks of its followers—”true believers” seeking to punish the “official” Islamists for collaborating with the government—but it may also reflect a growing dissatisfaction among Algerians with Islamist ideology. Some of the data indicate that Algerian voters trust the FLN, the former “party of state,” to do a more effective job than the Islamists in reconstructing the economy.

The tragedy of Algeria is that the FIS, having won elections, was unable to reach a modus vivendi with the ruling establishment, particularly the military. Of course, it is not entirely clear that even the moderate wing of the FIS would have been willing to function within a system of “managed pluralism” defined by the secular military. The failure of the moderates to successfully establish a government encouraged the radical forces to make a bid for power using violent, revolutionary means. What is clear, however, is that a majority of Algerians who were prepared to support a modest Islamist regime that promised to engage in political and economic reforms had no desire to bring to power Utopian radicals, especially once the violence and corruption escalated.

It is too early to speculate on the future of Islamism in Algeria. The legacy of the civil war has been to create a hard core, even if numerically small, of rejectionists who have embraced the use of violence against the regime and are unprepared to negotiate or accept any sort of cease-fire. Whether moderate Islamism will remain a political force remains to be seen. It is entirely possible that a revitalized FLN will be able to co-opt some of the ideas (and personnel) of the moderate Islamist movement, perhaps under the rubric of national unity and reconstruction. Moderate Islamists may also end up having a defined niche within the military-directed system of limited political pluralism. What is apparent, however, is that no caliphate is likely to arise in Algeria at any point in the near future. The basic rules of the Algerian political system will continue to be the Western norms agreed to at Rome, not a new order that hearkens to the Muslim golden age of the seventh century.