By Martin Evans
On 11 January 1992 the Algerian President, the white-haired sixty-one year old Chadli Bendjedid, announced live on television that he was standing down as head of state with immediate effect. Nervous and ill at ease, the president read out a brief prepared statement. In it he explained his decision as a necessary one. Why? Because the democratic process which he had put in place two years earlier could no longer guarantee law and order on the streets.
Most ordinary Algerians were stunned. The country was in the middle of two round multi-party elections, the first of their kind since independence from the French in July 1962. Within this process the first round on 26 December 1991 had delivered a massive victory to the Islamist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) which had gained 188 of the 231 seats outright as against 15 for the National Liberation Front (FLN) and 25 for Socialist Forces Front (FFS). With the second round elections planned for 16 January 1992, the FIS leadership leader, Abdelkader Hachani, was ecstatic. With only 199 seats to be decided in the second round, few doubted that the FIS was poised for power, especially since President Chadli was seemingly ready to arrive at some sort of pact.
This long march to power had begun in the wake of the fall-out from the riots of 1988: the most significant single event in post-independence Algeria. Then, on 5 October, thousands of young people, fed up by economic hardship and widespread corruption, had ransacked central Algiers. Chanting ‘Rise up, Youth’ the rioters targeted symbols of authority and wealth in a relentless fashion. Monuments were pulled down. Cars set alight. In one run down neighbourhood local policemen were forced to parade along the streets shouting ‘I am a braggart, I am a betrayer’. The violence lasted several days and quickly spread to the rest of the country. In response the army declared a state of siege and used tear gas and tanks to restore law and order. By 10 October some 500 people, mostly young men, had been killed.
In the months after ‘Black October’ President Chadli, in power since 1979, ushered in a multi-party system which, in theory, limited the army to a purely military role. He hoped that this experiment would give fresh impetus to the ruling FLN, but in practice the main beneficiary was the FIS, formed in March 1989. Led by Abbasi Madani, a veteran of the 1954-62 war against the French, and the firebrand cleric, Ali Belhadj, the FIS offered an alternative interpretation of the long struggle against colonial rule which began after the French invasion of 1830. They argued that the original Islamic principles of anti-colonialism had been betrayed at independence, when pro-French Algerians, such as French-trained officers like Khaled Nezzar who led the repression of ‘Black October’, had infiltrated the FLN and imposed a Francophone system on the Arab-speaking masses. What was needed, the FIS leaders claimed, was a new jihad that would finally cleanse the country of this poisonous legacy, whether it is secular ideologies, the French language or Western-style fashions and music.
The FIS’s emergence as the main opposition party was emphatically confirmed by the local elections in June 1990. Open air mass meetings saw the FIS use lasers to project religious slogans in the sky, while in the election itself the FIS took overall control of over half of the country’s local councils. Frightened by these events, the government tried to block the FIS’s rise by postponing national elections set for 27 June 1991, arresting Madani and Belhadj and changing the system into single member constituencies whereby only the two parties with the most votes in the first round would go through to the second ballot. Through this strategy the government wished to confront the country with a stark choice – either the FLN or the FIS – in the hope that enough Algerians would vote against the spectre of an Islamist regime.
After the first round it was clear that this scare strategy had failed, although talk of a FIS landslide needed to be qualified. In reality only 59 per cent of the electorate voted meaning that imminent FIS victory was based upon 24.5 per cent of those eligible to vote. By this token the largest vote was an abstention, even if it was difficult to gauge whether this non-participation was out of indifference or an explicit rejection of the political choices on offer.
The question now was whether the government would let the second round go ahead. Everywhere ordinary Algerians debated the arguments for and against. On 3 January 1992 the FFS brought three hundred thousand supporters on to the streets of Algiers with the chant ‘neither police state, nor Islamic state, but a democratic state’. Addressing the crowd, the FFS leader, Hocine Aït Ahmed was absolutely clear that the electoral process must continue and called for opposition to any military coup.
Given this feverish atmosphere, this is why so many Algerians could not understand Chadli’s action. As the head of state he was seen by many as the one figure of authority who bring about some sort of compromise. Yet, in the days that followed it became clear that this had been a ‘televised coup d’état’. With Chadli jettisoned the Supreme Court now stepped in, arguing that, since this was an unprecedented situation, power had to be handed over to the High Security Council, a hastily convened body whose core was made up of three senior military officers: Khaled Nezzar, Larbi Belkheir and Abdelmalek Guenaizia. Unsurprisingly the High Security Council immediately used Chadli’s resignation as the pretext for the cancellation of the second round of elections.
On 14 January presidential power was transferred to a newly created institution, the State High Committee. This was to act a provisional government until new presidential and parliamentary elections could be held at a later, unspecified date. At its head was Mohammed Boudiaf, one of the historic leaders of the anti-colonial struggle who returned from exile in Morocco, determined, he claimed, to save the country from implosion.
Amongst FIS supporters there was immediate anger. They felt cheated of victory and on 8 February there were violent clashes with the army around mosques in the major towns and cities across the county. On the following day the State High Committee deployed tanks on the streets and declared a ‘state of emergency’ across the country. Eight thousand FIS members or suspected members were imprisoned in detention centres in the Sahara desert. The on 4 March the FIS was officially banned as a political party. By this point clashes between Islamists and the army had left 103 dead and several hundred wounded.
In neighbouring Arab countries President Ben Ali in Tunisia, President Mubarak in Egypt and Colonel Qaddafi in Libya immediately expressed support for the new regime. Fearful of an Islamist victory in Algeria which could have become a beacon for similar movements throughout North Africa and the Middle East, they welcomed the anti-FIS crackdown. While in Britain, France and the USA the response was muted. There governments talked of being ‘concerned’ but hung back from any condemnation of the coup, a line which led Time magazine to ask whether the West was tacitly condoning an anti-democratic act for its own selfish interests.
Throughout the first six months of 1992 a violent atmosphere was all pervasive in Algeria; a mood which deepened when Boudiaf was assassinated on 29 June, almost certainly on orders from someone within the military who felt threatened by his promise to root out high-level corruption. The country was on the edge of a precipice and finally tipped over into it in spring 1993, when armed Islamist groups unleashed a wave of violence which met with full-scale repression by the army. Over the next decade some 200,000 people would die in this horrific undeclared civil war.