Chris Harman


The prophet and the proletariat


The contradictions of Islamism: Algeria

The story of the rise and radicalisation of Islamism in Algeria is similar in many ways to that in Egypt. The Algerian dictator of the late 1960s and 1970, Boumediénne, encouraged moderate Islamism as a counterbalance to the left and to his historic opponents within the liberation movement that had ended French colonialism.

In 1970 the state initiated an Islamisation campaign under Mouloud Kassim, minister of education and religion, which denounced the “degradation of morals” and “Western influences” behind “cosmopolitanism, alcoholism, the snobbism that consists in always following the West and dressing half naked”. [70] The Islamicists were able to climb on this bandwagon to increase their own influence, getting money from landowners worried about the agrarian reform to propagate a message which could appeal to the most impoverished layers in society:

The theme of the integrists’ propaganda was that Islam was menaced by atheistic and communist intrusion of which the agrarian reform was the bearer ... The integrists ... spread their own ideas in the most unfavoured neighbourhoods, after building improvised mosques which were later made into solid constructions. Untouched by the agrarian revolution, workers and unemployed, discontented by their conditions, listened to the integrists. [71]

Then in the mid-1970s they got support from sections of the regime to undermine the left in the colleges: “Between 1976 and 1980 the integrists succeeded, with the connivance of the regime, in reducing to nothing the influence of the Marxists”. [72]

In the early 1980s a section of the regime continued to look towards the more “moderate” versions of Islamism to bolster itself. The minister of religious affairs until 1986, Chibane, hoped to build such an Islamist tendency, and to this end helped the Islamists to get money for building mosques from industrialists and commercial interests. [73] But this could not stop the development of radical interpretations of Islam which rejected the regime. Thus in the city of Constantine, one study tells:

Integrism replaces among large sections of Constantine opinion the traditional conceptions by the popularity of a new Islamic vision standing for a resurgence of the Community of the Prophet. This integrism gets its strength from the social frustrations which afflict a large part of the youth, those left out of account by the social and economic system. [74]

The strength of this interpretation of Islam was such as to be able to force the ministry of religious instruction to employ its people as imams (preachers) in the mosques rather than those who accepted “moderate” views.

The regime was losing control of the very mechanism it had encouraged to deal with the left. Instead of controlling the masses for the regime, Islamism was providing a focus for all their bitterness and hatred against those leaders who harked back to the liberation struggle of the 1960s but who had grown into a comfortable ruling class. The economic crisis which hit Algerian society in the mid-1980s deepened the bitterness – just as the ruling class turned back to the Western capitalists it had once denounced in an effort to come to terms with the crisis. And the Islamist agitation against those who spoke French and were “corrupted by Western morals” could easily become an attack on the interests of “the small but influential stratum of highly educated technocrats who constitute the core of a new salaried and bureaucratised class”. [75]

The regime began to turn against the Islamists imprisoning certain of their leaders in the mid-1980s, with the regime’s head, Chadli, accusing the imams of “political demagogy”. [76] The effect, however, was not to destroy the Islamists, but to increase their standing as the opposition to the regime.

This became clear in October 1988. All the bitterness against the ruling class and the regime exploded in upheaval very similar to that which was to take place in Eastern Europe a year later. The movement, beginning as a series of spontaneous strikes in the Algiers area, soon turned into massive street clashes between young people and the police: “The people, like a freed prisoner, rediscovered their own voices and their sense of liberty. Even the power of the police no longer frightened them.” [77] “The insurrection of October 1988 was above all a revolt of young people against their conditions of life after a quarter of a century of military dictatorship.” [78]

The revolt shook the regime to its core. As in Eastern Europe all sorts of political forces that had been repressed now came out into the open. Journalists wrote freely for the first time, intellectuals began to speak openly about the real condition of Algerian society, exiled politicians of both left and right returned from abroad, a women’s movement emerged to challenge the regime’s Islamic family law, which gave women fewer rights than men. But it soon became clear that outside the Berber speaking areas the Islamists were the hegemonic force among the opposition. Their influence was in many ways like that of the “democrats” in Eastern Europe and the USSR in the following year. The tolerance shown to them by sections of the regime in the past, and the support they continued to get from some powerful foreign states (for instance, finance from Saudi Arabia) combined with their ability to articulate a message that focused the bitterness of the mass of the population:

By their number, their network of mosques, and their tendency to act spontaneously as a single man, as if obeying the orders of a secret central committee, the Islamists appeared as the only movement capable of mobilising the masses and influencing the course of events. It was they who would come forward as the spokesmen of the insurgents, able to impose themselves as future leaders of the movement ... Not knowing who to talk to, after quietening its machine guns, the regime was looking for “leaders”, representatives capable of formulating demands and controlling a crowd as violent as they were uncontrollable. So Chadli received Madani, Belhadj, and Nahnah [the best known Islamist figures]. [79]

So influential did the Islamist movement, now organised as the FIS, become in the months that followed that it was able to win control of the most important municipalities in the June 1990 local elections and then the biggest share of the votes in the general elections of December 1991, despite being subject to severe repression. The Algerian military annulled the elections in order to stop the Islamists forming a government. But this did not stop the massive support for the Islamists creating near civil war conditions in the country, with whole areas falling under effective control of Islamist armed groups.

Yet the rise of Islamist influence was accompanied by growing confusion as to what the FIS stood for. While it was in control of the country’s major municipalities between June 1990 and May 1991,

the changes it brought about were modest: the closing of bars, the cancellation of musical spectacles, campaigns, at times violent, for “feminine decency” and against the ubiquitous satellite dishes that “permitted reception of Western pornography” ... Neither Madani [the FIS’s best known leader] nor its consultative assembly drew up a true politico-social programme or convened a congress to discuss it. Madani limited himself to saying that this would meet after they had formed a government. [80]

What the FIS did do was show opposition to the demands of workers for improved wages. In these months it opposed a dust workers’ strike in Algiers, a civil servants strike and a one day general strike called by the former “official” union federation. Madani justified breaking the dust workers’ strike in a newspaper interview, complaining that it was forcing respectable people like doctors and professional engineers to sweep up:

The dustmen have the right to strike, but not the right to invade our capital and turn our country into a dustbin. There are strikes of trade unions that have become terrains for action by the corrupters, the enemies of Allah and the fatherland, communists and others, who are spreading everywhere because the cadre of the FLN have retreated ... We are reliving the days of the OAS. [81]

Such a respectable stance fitted neatly with the interests of the classes who had financed the Islamists from the time of the land reform onwards. It also suited those successful members of the petty bourgeoisie who were part of the FIS – the professors, the established imams and the grammar school teachers. And it appealed to those in the countryside whose adhesion to the former ruling party, the FLN, had enabled them to prosper, becoming successful capitalist farmers or small businessmen. But it was not enough either to satisfy the impoverished urban masses who looked to the FIS for their salvation or to force the ruling class and the military to sit back and accept an FIS government.

At the end of May 1991, faced with threats by the military to sabotage the electoral process rather than risk a FIS victory, the FIS leaders turned round and “launched an authentic insurrection which recalled October 1988: molotov cocktails, tear gas, barricades. Ali Belhadj, the charismatic Imam, launched tens of thousands of demonstrators on to the streets. [82] For a time the FIS took control of the centre of Algiers, supported by vast numbers of young people to whom Islam and the jihad seemed the only alternative to the misery of the society the military were defending.

In reality, the more powerful the FIS became, the more it was caught between respectability and insurrectionism, telling the masses they could not strike in March 1991 and then calling on them to overthrow the state two months later in May.

The same contradictions have emerged within the Islamist movement in the three years since, as guerrilla warfare has grown in intensity in both the cities and the countryside. “The condemnation of Abasi Madani and Ali Belhadj to 12 years in prison ... provoked a major radicalisation of the FIS and a fragmentation of its rank and file. The detention of thousands of members and sympathisers in camps in the Sahara spread urban terrorism and rural guerrilla warfare”. [83] Two armed organisations emerged, the Armed Islamic Movement (MIA, recently renamed AIS) and the Armed Islamic Groups (GIA), which were soon getting the support of armed bands right across the country. But the underground movements were characterised by “internal dissension”: [84]

As against the presumed “moderation” of the MIA, which “only” executes the representatives of the “impious regime”, the GIA opposes an extreme jihad, whose chosen victims are journalists, writers, poets, feminists and intellectuals ... since November 1993 killing 32 moderate Islamic imams and unveiled women ...

Fratricidal fights between the MIA and the GIA have led to dozens of casualties ... the deaths of seven terrorists are imputed to these quarrels by some people, but to the death squads of the police by others ... [85] The GIA accuses the historical leaders of the FIS of opportunism, treachery and abandoning their programme of the complete application of the Sharia. [86]




70. A. Rouadia, op. cit., p.20.

71. Ibid., pp.33-4.

72. Ibid., p.36.

73. Ibid., p.144.

74. Ibid., p.145-146.

75. J.P. Entelis, op. cit., p.74.

76. A. Rouadia, op. cit., p.191.

77. Ibid., p.209.

78. M. Al-Ahnaf, B. Botivewau and F. Fregosi, op. cit., p.30.

79. Ibid.

80. J. Goytisolo, Argelia en el Vendava, in El Pais, 30 March, 1994.

81. El Salaam, 21 June 1990, translated in M. AI-Ahnaf, B. Botivewau and F. Fregosi, op. cit., pp.200-202.

82. See the account of these events in J. Goytisolo, op. cit., 29 March 1994. This is now the course recommended by the British big business daily, the Financial Times (see the issue of 19 July 1994) and apparently by the US government.

83. J. Goytisolo, op. cit., 30 March 1994.

84. Ibid.

85. Ibid.

86. Ibid., 3 April 1994.


Last updated on 17.6.2002