Algerian Civil War: A Retrospective (Part II)

Note: The first part of this two-part series can be found here.


The Spring of 1999 marked the beginning of the end of the Algerian Civil War, though it was not until 2002 that the killing dropped below one thousand deaths a year. On April 17th, 1999, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a former revolutionary and ally of the military, won the presidential election to replace Zéroual. From this point, a number of Islamist groups realized that the fracturing and infighting between them had become insurmountable, and began to lay down arms. In June, the AIS negotiated for amnesty with the Government, and formally dissolved in January 2000. The security forces ground down the remaining hardline Islamist groups, at this point limited to the GIA and a spinoff group, the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC). On February 8th, 2002, almost exactly ten years after the Government declared the state of emergency at the beginning of the Civil War, Algerian security forces killed Antar Zouabri, then head of the GIA. Decimated by years of conflict with security forces and other Islamist groups, the GIA never truly recovered from this loss, and dissolved shortly afterward.

With all but a handful of extremists laying down their arms, the Algerian Civil War came to a hazy end. Reliable estimates put the total death toll at 44,000, though the Algerian Government has issued estimates of up to 200,000 killed during the war. The war moreover displaced millions, and caused incalculable suffering over its ten-year span. On September 29th, 2005, Algerians overwhelmingly approved the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, which granted amnesty for combatants and exempted the Government’s security forces from prosecution for actions during the war. While the Charter has since been criticized for keeping the Government from being accountable for the atrocities it committed, the widespread approval for the Charter demonstrated the Algerian citizenry’s desire to quickly and finally put the Civil War behind them.

The violence subsided, and amnesty reached those who had killed on both sides of the war, but the offshoots- Islamist terror groups reaching across the Sahel and an authoritarian that weathered the Arab Spring- linger on.

Terror/GSPC turning to AQIM Mali

When most of the Islamists moved back into society, the GSPC, a faction that condemned the GIA’s bloody tactics, nevertheless continued to fight, “unreconciled to pardons and demobilization.” The GSPC had been receiving funding from al-Qaeda for a number of years, and in 2006 the group declared its loyalty to al-Qaeda and renamed itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Operating out of the southern reaches of Algeria, where there is little government control, AQIM has spread into Niger and Mauritania, and launched the Islamist offensive that took control of northern Mali in 2012. The well-funded AQIM has expanded its network, training fighters from Boko Haram, and has strong ideological sympathies with al-Shabab. Though AQIM now faces competition from the Islamic State and fracturing ties among smaller jihadist groups, it remains a dangerous and destabilizing force throughout North Africa and the Sahel, having launched attacks on hotels as far away as Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire.

Political Quietism

In a reversal of the growing reach of extremist organizations, the citizens of Algeria have adopted a general political quietism. Undoubtedly, a large number of protests occur annually, but the protesters are largely unorganized youth, protesting unemployment, lack of housing, and food prices. The protests lack any central demands or organized agenda, and the occasional organized protest, such as 2014’s police protest in Algiers, have a limited list of demands and target specific grievances, rather than the political system in its entirety. The Algerian state generally allows protests of up to a couple hundred, so long as they remain unorganized, and specifically target members of political parties for arrest to keep the protests from coalescing into a more potent force. And when pro-Democracy advocates mobilize en masse, as was the case with 2011’s “National Coordination for Change and Democracy” demonstration, the Government deploys massive numbers of security forces, in this instance 30,000 police to contain the two or three thousands protesters.

For the most part, the citizens of Algeria have been grateful for the peace. The memory of the Civil War, and the horrific levels of violence, has given Algerians a deep fear of instability. As the rest of the Arab world saw often Islamist-tinged uprisings, Algerians remembered the protests of 1988 that precipitated ten years of conflict. And, as commentators have been quick to point out, the Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt, mirrored the path of the Algerian conflict. From a popular uprising and Islamist victory at the polls to what Kamel Daoud terms “the concept of therapeutic coup d’état, of coup as cure for Islamism,” swaths of the coverage of and retrospectives for the Arab Spring could have been lifted directly from the early 1990’s coverage of Algeria.

Having ridden out their Arab Spring, Algeria’s incumbent cohort of leaders are thoroughly content with the quietism that defines Algeria’s political landscape. Having maintained essentially the same rentier state that predated the Civil War, distributing hydrocarbon revenues and leveraging fears of instability to eliminate any potentially revolutionary threats, they govern within a limited cartel that has more in common with the machinations of political fiction than an accountable state.


Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the military-backed President elected in 1999, still holds the office nearly 18 years later. After having a stroke and disappearing from public in 2013, he was reelected in 2014 for another term with over 80% of the vote. Of course, the election only had 50% voter turnout, and the list of candidates was highly circumscribed, but Bouteflika’s reelection without campaigning shows both his durability and the durability of the order he helped engineer. In effect, Bouteflika is an increasingly invisible face for a cartel of interests that would get by just as well with or without him.

The military, the main power throughout the 1990’s and essential to Bouteflika’s rise, still remains a central force in Algerian politics, but broad societal shifts and the President’s own maneuvers have removed their previously unlimited decision-making power. After his election in 1999, Bouteflika declared that he would not be “a three-quarter president,” hobbled by generals. He proceeded to use the military’s successful strategy for combatting the Islamists against the military itself, playing different factions against one another. In 2013, after patiently waiting and an attempted power-grab by Algeria’s intelligence agency headed by an opponent, Bouteflika simply eliminated the agency and subsumed its mission into the authority of a loyal “Special Commission on Security.” But the decreasing power of the military also results from the growing power of business interests. Following economic liberalization, the growing private sector has become an opposite pole to balance the influence of the military. This balancing act of government is completed by the incorporation of Islamists into the system. De-toothed and restricted to moderate positions, a small number of Islamists are included in the Government to keep them in the fold, with the implicit warning to all that “too much democracy means theocracy.”

This delicate network of interests, held together by a tactical distribution of resources and power, would initially seem to be threatened by the lack of any clear successor to the aging and infirm Bouteflika, yet the uncertainty actually keeps the web taught enough to hold together, and the fear of another upheaval keeps opposition at a minimum.

This fear of another conflict, fed by memories of the horror of the Civil War, serves as a crucial element to bind  Algeria’s political system together again and again, whether in the midst of region-wide revolution or in a succession crisis. In this way, the Algerian Civil War proves that it not only forged the current political order, but continues to shape Algeria to this day. This internal formation mirrors the regional fomentation that spiraled out of the Civil War, driven by AQIM and its allies.

Yet, with the growth of extremist violence also comes the treatment. Algeria, well before the current wave of terrorist groups came to threaten the world stage, managed to defeat a militant Islamist rebellion without outside intervention. As Syria and Iraq remain gripped by chaos, many have turned to the lesson of Algeria for potential solutions to the seemingly intractable conflicts.

Algeria undoubtedly has many challenges to face in the coming years, not least the instability of a hydrocarbon-based economy and the challenges of liberalization, it can give the world a solution to one of its most challenging, transnational problems.

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