Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Written evidence submitted by Dr Hugh Roberts



  I am a specialist writer on North African and especially Algerian politics and history, having first visited Algeria in 1972. I carried out fieldwork there in the 1970s for my doctoral thesis on politics in the Berber-speaking region of Kabylia (D.Phil Oxon, 1980). I have visited the country repeatedly since then, including nine visits since 1992, most recently during the presidential election in April 2004. I have published many articles on various aspects of the country's politics and history, and a book, The Battlefield: Algeria 1988-2002. Studies in a broken polity (2003). I have worked both in academia—Universities of East Anglia, Sussex, California (Berkeley), London (SOAS and LSE)—and as a free-lance writer and consultant. From 1997 to 2002 I was Senior Research Fellow of the Development Studies Institute at the London School of Economics. Since October 2002, I have worked full time for the International Crisis Group as Director of the North Africa Project, based in Cairo.


  Algerian Islamism can trace its internal roots back to the Islamic reform movement which developed in the 1920s and was led from 1931 by the Association of Algerian Muslim `ulama[1] (Association des Oulémas Musulmans Alge«riens, AOMA) founded by Sheikh Abdelhamid Ben Badis (1889-1940). The AOMA rallied to the FLN during the national liberation war (1954-1962) and its brand of austere, scripturalist Islam dominated the "official Islam" of the Algerian state until the 1980s. It then began to be outflanked by a new movement of Islamist preaching and agitation inspired by Middle Eastern fashions—the Wahhabi-dominated Salafiyya movement, the Egyptian Muslim Brothers and the radical Egyptian thinker Sayyid Qutb.

Islamist Political Parties

  These currents fed into the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS), the first Islamist party legalized in Algeria in September 1989. The FIS was thus doctrinally a hybrid; it was also and above all a mix of Islamism, populism and Algerian nationalism. This mixture gave it initial political and electoral dynamism, and underlay its impressive election victories in June 1990 and December 1991, but also made it fairly easy to disrupt and pull apart when the Algerian authorities decided to clamp down on the party in 1991 and suppress it completely in 1992.

  Since the banning of the FIS in February-March 1992 and the onset of the violence, several other Islamist parties have remained legal. The main ones were initially two but became three:

    —  the Movement for an Islamic Society (Harakat li-Mujtama` Islami, known by its Arabic acronym as HAMAS), renamed in 1996 the Movement of Society for Peace ( Harakat Mujtama` al-Silm, HMS; Mouvement de la Socie«te« pour la Paix, MSP), founded by Sheikh Mahfoud Nahnah (1942-2003), now led by Bouguerra Soltani; and

    —  the Movement of the Islamic Renaissance (Harakat al-Nahda al-Islamiyya, Mouvement de la Nahda Islamique, MNI)), renamed in 1996 the Nahda [Renaissance] Movement (MN), founded by Sheikh Abdallah Djaballah (b 1956).

  In 1999 the MN split; Djaballah lost control of the party to its secretary general, Lahbib Adami, and broke away to found:

    —  the Movement for National Reform (Harakat al-Islah al-Watani, Mouvement de Reforme Nationale, MRN).

  There are thus three legal Islamist parties, MSP, MN and MRN. All three are offshoots of the tradition of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, and the MSP is recognised by the Egyptian MB as its Algerian affiliate. All three are non-violent, accept the constitution of the state as the legal framework of their activity and claim to accept modern democratic norms. The main political difference between them is that both the MSP and the MN since 1998 (under Lahbib Adami) have consistently accepted regime cooptation, supporting the government's position in the National Assembly and holding a small number of portfolios in the government itself, while the MRN has held to a consistent opposition stance. In the 1997 legislative elections, the MSP emerged as the largest Islamist party, with 69 seats to the MN's 34. In the legislative elections of 2002, the MRN won 43 seats, the MSP 38 and the MN was reduced to one seat. In the 1999 and 2004 presidential elections, the MSP and MN fielded no candidates of their own and supported the candidacy of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, whereas the MRN's leader Djaballah was a candidate on both occasions. Overall, the Islamist parties' share of the vote has declined fairly steadily in successive elections since 1990, and now represents under 20%.

Islamist armed movements

  The armed rebellion which began in 1992 was initially a very complex affair with numerous groups and ideological currents—Islamo-nationalist, Salafist and Qutbist—involved. In 1993-94 a polarity was established between the group initially known as the "Armed Islamic Movement" (Mouvement Islamique Arme«, MIA) fighting to pressure the state to reverse its ban on the FIS and the rival and very extreme "Armed Islamic Group" (Groupe Islamique Arme«, GIA) which denounced the FIS and all idea of negotiations with the regime and practiced a wholly indiscriminate form of terrorism. In 1994 the MIA was reconstituted as the Islamic Salvation Army (Arme«e Islamique du Salut, AIS), explicitly announced its allegiance to the banned FIS and its imprisoned leaders. In 1997 it abandoned its objective of persuading the regime to rehabilitate the FIS as unrealisable, announced a nation-wide cease-fire and effectively ended its campaign. Following a kind of amnesty in 2000 it dissolved itself, as did a number of smaller groups which had broken away from the GIA.

  The GIA developed around a core of veterans of the Afghanistan war with extremist views. An attempt by elements of the FIS underground to infiltrate the GIA leadership in order to rein it in and bring it under FIS political control failed and hundreds of pro-FIS elements died in internal purges in 1994-96. Thereafter the GIA was controlled by the most extremist elements and oriented by the doctrine of takfir al-mujtama` (the condemnation of the entire society as infidel), which was the ideological basis of the indiscriminate massacre of civilians in which the GIA engaged.

  This behaviour provoked splits, with less extreme factions dissociating themselves from the GIA in 1997 and 1998. Most of these negotiated cease-fires with the Algerian army and dissolved themselves in 2000. Two, however, kept fighting under new names and are still active. These are:

    —  The Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (Al-Jama`a al-Salafiyya li 'l-Da`wa wa 'l-Qital; Groupe Salafiste pour la Pre«dication et le Combat, GSPC), founded by Hassan Hattab in September 1998 and based primarily in the western districts of Kabylia in east-central Algeria but also in the Tebessa district of south-eastern Algeria; in 2003 a section of the Tebessa-based GSPC expanded into the Saharan region and was involved in kidnapping 32 European tourists.

    —  The Guardians of the Salafi Call (Houmat al-Da'wa al-Salafiyya, HDS), also founded in 1998 by Kada Ben Chiha (killed 1999) and based in western Algeria, especially the Ouarsenis mountains in the wilayat (governorates) of Relizane and Tissemsilt.

  These movements regard the state as infidel and therefore a licit object of jihad, but do not regard the society as apostate and do not target civilians as a rule. Thus the armed rebellion has been reduced to the jihadi wing of the Salafiyya current in contemporary Sunni Islamism. On the ground it has become very linked to and parasitic on illicit commercial activities, namely long-distance smuggling.


  The Algerian government has followed a complex strategy in regard to the Islamist movement. There is no doubt it initially sought to exploit and manipulate the FIS as a proxy in a factional struggle within the state power-structure in 1988-90. Since 1992, the policy followed had several features:

    —  a constant determination not to relegalise the FIS;

    —  tolerance but also a degree of manipulation of the legal Islamist parties, using them to co-opt elements of the ex-FIS's electoral constituency while also playing them off against one another: ie using Islamists to neutralise Islamists;

    —  a very brutal military counter-insurgency campaign against the armed movements, combined with

    —  a willingness to negotiate with the less extreme wing of the rebellion on condition that the civilian wing of Algerian Islamism was not involved in these negotiations and drew no benefit from them.

  Between 1993 and 1999, government policy was unable to furnish a proper resolution of the problem in large part because of factional disagreements within the regime expressed in the dichotomy between two policy tendencies, dubbed "the eradicators" and "the conciliators". Successive presidents (Mohammed Boudiaf, Ali Kafi and especially Liamine Zeroual) were inclined to a conciliatory stance in that they sought political rather than military solutions to the rebellion, but were blocked by the army general staff, whose Chief, Lt. General Mohammed Lamari, was the leader of the "eradicator" tendency.

  Since the election of Abdelaziz Bouteflika to the presidency in 1999, government policy has evolved considerably, if slowly at first. Bouteflika committed himself publicly to end the violence by promoting a "Civil Concord Law" in July 1999 which offered terms intended to encourage elements of the rebellion to surrender, and then followed this in January 2000 with a decree offering a strange combination of pardon and amnesty—une grace amnestiante—to the AIS and associated groups which had been observing a ceasefire since 1997; these then dissolved themselves. Thereafter he appeared interested in extending these arrangements to cover the remaining armed movements still active (GIA, GSPC, HDS), but this was very controversial and he was unable to make progress. His re-election with a convincing majority in April 2004 seems to have unblocked the situation. Not only has Lt General Lamari been pushed into retirement, but Bouteflika has been able to mobilise popular support for the idea of a broader amnesty in the name of "national reconciliation". Moves to translate this into reality are now under way, although there may well still be pitfalls to negotiate.


  One pitfall is definitely the question of the remaining active groups' links to Al-Qaeda. This has repeatedly been invoked by Algerian newspapers known for their hostility to the Islamists in general—and their closeness to the military "eradicator" tendency in particular—as grounds for refusing and denouncing any negotiation with the rest of the rebellion, given in particular Algeria's participation in "the war against terrorism" and its resulting close ties with the US government. There is no doubt that all three of the groups still active have had some links with Al-Qaeda, since the GSPC and HDS come out of the GIA whose core consisted of veterans of the Afghan war and have therefore had longstanding personal connections with the network run by Bin Laden and his lieutenant, Ayman Al-Zawahiri. Ideologically, the GSPC and HDS share the doctrine of Al-Zawahiri concerning the issue of takfir (denouncing only the state, not the society, as impious). But these groups are primarily rooted in the Algerian national context, and their jihad has been and remains the internal jihad against the Algerian state, not the global jihad proclaimed by Al-Qaeda. The position appeared to change when the GSPC's founder, Hassan Hattab, was replaced by Nabil Sahraoui in September 2003, since Sahraoui very emphatically proclaimed his allegiance to Bin Laden. This did not subsequently translate into any significant change in the nature of the GSPC's activities, however, although it certainly tended to block all possibility of a negotiated end to its campaign. The killing of Sahraoui and three of his lieutenants in an ambush in June 2004 may, however, have unblocked the position once more.


  This is a longstanding and deep-rooted problem. Human rights violations have occurred on a large scale in the course of the rebellion and the army's response to it. But underlying this state of affairs is the much older problem that arises out of the fact that the Algerian state is not a state bound by law (un e«tat de droit), but characterised rather by a high degree of arbitrariness at every level of authority.

  This fact is partly a legacy of the revolutionary manner in which the state was constituted by the historic FLN in 1962, but it is above all a consequence of the excessive weight of the executive branch of the state and the correspondingly stunted powers of the legislature and the dependent nature of the judiciary. The advent of formal party-political pluralism in 1989 did not seriously modify this state of affairs, since it did not lead to any significant empowerment of the legislative branch at either national or local (region and municipality) levels. Algeria's own political parties share some of the blame for this, since they have not so far made a serious issue of this question, with the partial exception of the Islamist MRN. But the principal reason for the lack of progress on this issue has undoubtedly been the commanding influence which the Algerian army has exercised over the executive branch and thus over the state as a whole since 1992 if not before (arguably since 1980). It has been entirely unrealistic to expect any substantive democratisation of the Algerian state for as long as the army's political role continued. In short, the demilitarization of the political sphere has been a necessary condition of its eventual democratisation.

  This has now at last begun to happen. There is no doubt that the army's political primacy entailed the weakness of the presidency of the Republic and that the army commanders knew this and were inclined to keep the presidency weak by destabilising successive presidents at frequent intervals. Senior generals who wanted to maintain this position were accordingly very hostile to Bouteflika's ambition to secure a second term. His success in outmanoeuvring this element of the army command (headed by Lt. General Lamari) and getting himself re-elected has entailed a dramatic strengthening of the presidency and has accelerated the army's retreat from the political stage.

  In the short run, however, the reinforcement of the presidency has exhibited an emphatic authoritarian aspect, since it has also involved the marginalisation of the political parties. The prospect in the medium term is thus one of strong presidential rule, quite possibly displaying a new-found capacity to address and resolve some of Algeria's most pressing problems, but without any immediate progress towards a substantive democratisation of Algerian political life. However, should this formula succeed in completely ending the violence and thus the premise of the state of emergency (enacted in February 1992 and renewed every year since then), it could well establish some of the conditions of a subsequent resurgence a few years from now of party politics of the kind that is indispensable to effective democratic government.

Dr Hugh Roberts

26 January 2005

1   `ulama (singular: `alim) means the scholars or doctors of law who are the religious authorities in Islam.

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