Mujahideen on mopeds

Issue: 108

Anne Alexander

A review of Hugh Roberts, The Battlefield: Algeria 1988-2002 (Verso, 2003), £17, and Luis Martinez, The Algerian Civil War (Hurst, 2000), £16.50

In December 1991 the Islamic Salvation Front, FIS, appeared to be on the verge of a remarkable victory after winning more seats than any other party in the first round of Algeria’s parliamentary elections. Only two years after its formation, the FIS had become a conduit for decades of accumulated anger with the ruling FLN, which had led the struggle against French colonialism during the 1950s. It took 188 seats, as against only 15 for the FLN. Yet Algeria did not gain an Islamist government through the ballot box, as the army cancelled the second round of the 1991 elections and banned the FIS.

At first the army seemed to have quietly disposed of the FIS, whose leaders went to jail without calling for an uprising. Although generals who overturn the results of elections do not make convincing democrats, many supposed defenders of democracy concluded that all tactics were justified against the FIS. ‘The coup raised a classic philosophic dilemma about the democratic process: should an openly anti-democratic party be permitted to gain control of the government?’ mused neo-con analyst Daniel Pipes in a submission to the US Congress in May 1992. ‘I now see that the fundamentalists had just one chance to take power, and it was important that they be prevented from doing so. Admittedly, foul means were used, but Algeria may have been spared years of trauma in the process’.1 Yet within a few months, Islamist guerrillas and the army were fighting deadly battles. Over the next eight years at least 100,000 Algerians would die in the conflict.

For many commentators, the subsequent violence between the state and the armed Islamist groups was part of a wider struggle: a primeval contest between the forces of ‘modernity’ and ‘Muslim fundamentalism’. Hugh Roberts and Luis Martinez challenge this view in two contrasting perspectives on the conflict. Where Roberts’ focus lies on conflicts among the political elite as the motor of the crisis—he scorns ‘economic determinism’ as a tool for analysis (p163)—Martinez takes the opposite approach, examining the political economy of the war from the viewpoint of those living in the Islamist-supporting suburbs of Algiers.

Despite their differences, both authors reject the idea that the conflict is a ‘clash of civilisations’. Roberts argues that the struggle was not between a secular state led by modernisers bent on economic reform and reactionary Islamists hoping to create a medieval theocracy. As he explains, ‘It was only after the FIS was banned and thus denied a democratic path to power, having won impressive victories in the elections held in 1990 and 1991, that Algeria’s Islamists resorted to the rebellion that inaugurated the violence which…ravaged the country’ (p306). The key to the rupture in the democratic process lay in the power struggle between different factions within the Algerian state, with the intervention of the military marking the defeat of those who, like President Chadli Benjedid, tacitly encouraged the Islamist movement as a counterweight to their rivals within the ruling party, the FLN.

Martinez, too, rejects the view that the roots of the violence can be found in the nature of ‘Islam’, or even simply laid at the door of the Islamist movement. Unlike those who see ‘jihad’ as a constant feature of Muslim society,2 Martinez argues that Algeria’s recent conflict has more in common with the country’s wars and rebellions of the 19th and 20th centuries, which projected a heroic image of the warrior as a model for new generations. ‘Denounced as outlaws, bandits or “mercenaries” in their own time, the corsair under the Ottoman Empire, the Caïd (native official) under colonial rule and the “Colonel” (officer of the FLN) during the liberation war followed paths that led to political leadership positions (p10).’ For Martinez, the key to the continuation of the conflict lies in the creation of a self-sustaining war economy, from which both the main Islamist armed group and the army profit (p252).

As Roberts explains, the relationship between the Islamists and the state was complex. In the late 1970s President Chadli Benjedid set about courting the Islamists as a bulwark against the left and against his rivals within the regime. Moreover, the FIS’s support for a key plank of government policy, the introduction of neo-liberalism, suggests that the Islamists and factions within the state had more in common than many Western commentators believe.

For their part, the leaders of the FIS were pulled in two directions. Their rhetoric of change appealed to millions of Algerians disillusioned by the FLN, and in order to maintain their mass base, the FIS leaders were pushed towards greater radicalism. So popular enthusiasm for Iraq and anger at both the US and the Arab governments pushed the FIS leadership to take an active stand opposing the 1991 Gulf War. Yet at the same time, Roberts argues, it was moving towards ‘a compromise with the Algerian state…in short, a compromise with precisely those forces it claimed to be committed to overthrowing’ (p95).

The FIS’s ambivalent relationship to the state was reflected in the movement’s attitude to the FLN. Despite its rhetoric against the ‘thieves’ of the ruling party, the FIS’s appeal claimed to be the heir of the FLN. One of the FIS’s leaders, Abassi Madani, was a veteran of the national liberation struggle, having gone into action on the night of 31 October/1 November 1954 as the FLN’s war against the French occupation was launched (p23). Even the party’s name was seen as a pun on its claim to be the son—fils in French—of the FLN (p95).

While Roberts sees ‘self-defeating opportunism’ as a key factor in the FIS’s failure to take power during the crisis of 1991-92 (p98), Martinez discerns other reasons: contradictions within the party’s social base. Petty traders voted FIS ‘because they favoured a “minimum state” guaranteeing freedom of trade’ (p21) but unemployed youth—known as hittistes, those who prop up the wall—‘saw the success of the FIS as an act of revenge against the “FLN-state” responsible for the bloodstained repression of the riots of October 1988 in Algiers.’

Another key constituency for the FIS, Martinez argues, was the ‘military entrepreneurs’, former officers in the FLN armed wing, the ALN, who had become successful businessmen. Only a minority of FIS voters believed that the electoral victories were the first step on the road to an Islamic state. Even for these ‘devout activists’, material considerations played a role: many were Arabic-speaking graduates who were excluded from a job market which favoured French speakers. The pragmatism and self-interest underlying the FIS mass support were important reasons why an Islamist uprising failed to materialise after the party was banned, according to Martinez.

As he reminds us, Algerian Islamism is overwhelmingly an urban movement. This jihad was waged by teenagers riding mopeds, whose heroes were Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. He paints a vivid picture of the collapse of the Islamist utopia which was meant to materialise after the FIS took control of municipalities in local election victories in June 1990. Beards and the long ‘Islamic-style’ kamis shirt could be seen everywhere in the movement’s suburban heartland. But the FIS’s protest voters and devout activists alike were to be bitterly disappointed: the experiment in ‘Islamic local government’ foundered as central government cut off funding to the FIS-controlled areas. Then the general elections which could have solved the problem by bringing in a FIS government were brought to a halt by the army in January 1992.

While sections of the Islamist movement took to the maquis, hoping to emerge at the head of a victorious guerrilla army, others preached civil disobedience. This half-made revolution quickly unravelled into localised conflicts between suburban ‘Emirs’, the name given to leaders of local underground groups of fighters, and the Algerian army and security services. Repression then radicalised whole new layers of young men, who were arbitrarily detained and often tortured by the security forces (p59).

The nature of the conflict between the Islamists and the army also made the development of a generalised uprising leading to the overthrow of the regime less likely. The Islamist Emirs’ primary aim was local military hegemony, the creation of ‘liberated areas’ in the FIS-supporting municipalities, but as Martinez points out this ‘did not at all weaken the regime’s ability to act—because, of course, the regime’s economic and political resources were not located’ in the impoverished suburbs. ‘The places where the symbolic seats of power were located—Hydra, El Biar, the Algiers city centre—were, by contrast, spared guerrilla violence, at least until June 1995, when the bomb attacks began’ (p95). By that time many of the FIS’s voters and supporters had been alienated by the Emirs’ tactics and were more open to the government’s political offensive which accompanied economic restructuring. Some of the FIS’s wealthier supporters were drawn to the Movement for an Islamic Society (MSI, also known as Hamas), led by Mafoudh Nahnah—nicknamed Sheikh El Paga for his alpaca three-piece suits (p182). Nahnah profited from the disarray in the FIS, winning 25 percent of the votes in the presidential elections held in 1995. His party was rewarded with a seat in the cabinet in 1996, taking control of the Ministry of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises.

Both Roberts and Martinez see the conflict shaped by external as well as internal forces. Martinez examines the impact of the IMF rescheduling of Algeria’s debt on the civil war, concluding the resources released by the 1994 agreement were a ‘trump card in the government’s war strategy’ (p93). Roberts argues that the French government has played a destructive role, conniving with the suppression of the Algerian opposition in the 1980s—including encouraging the development of the FIS as a counterweight to the existing opposition—then supporting the repression which launched the conflict of the 1990s when the FIS became too powerful (p313).

Despite providing a useful counterweight to the superficial explanations of the Algerian conflict offered by much of the Western media, there are problems with Martinez’s and Roberts’ accounts. While Martinez’s fieldwork is fascinating, there is a serious problem with his analysis, in particular his explanation of what he calls a ‘war imaginaire’, a mindset which sees violence as the main way to achieve social status and wealth, as not only behind the recent cycle of conflict, but the driving force in Algerian history (pp5-6). As Roberts rightly notes, there is a danger that this type of argument ‘boils down to a reformulation, within the trappings of academic sophistication, of that very old, and unmistakeably cultural-essentialist idea… that les Arabes are cut-throats’ (p256).

While Roberts is right to highlight the ‘self-defeating opportunism’ of the FIS’s attitude towards both the state and its own mass base, his rejection of ‘economic determinism’ means that he can only look to the FIS’s ideology for explanation. He argues, for example, that Algerian Islamism has a superficial quality because it has simply imported Islamist ideas from outside, failing to produce an Algerian Islamist thinker of the stature of the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb.3 There is more to the opportunism of the FIS than this, however.

Even in those countries which did produce more influential Islamist thinkers, Islamists have often behaved in similar fashion to the Algerian movement. In Egypt, for example, the Islamist movement also vacillates between ‘compromise from below’ and ‘compromise from on high’ (Roberts, p94). The leadership of the largest Islamist organisation in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, currently under pressure from its own rank and file to channel the growing anger over the lack of democracy and government corruption, led protests across Egypt in May 2005 against President Hosni Mubarak.4 Yet the Brotherhood has also in the past come to an accommodation with the state, preferring to influence policy from within.5

The key to this vacillation is not just some deficiency in Islamist ideology, although the idea of a revolutionary road to state power is under-theorised in mainstream Islamic thought,6 but a reflection of the social composition of Islamist movements. Chris Harman identifies the social underpinnings of Islamist groups, ranging from the old privileged class of landowners and merchants to their modern capitalist replacements, to the urban poor and the new middle class.7 At moments of crisis these coalitions often unravel, with the ‘Islamist bourgeoisie’ prepared to reach a compromise with the state, but leaving the movement’s mass following unsatisfied.

Even when Islamist groups do take up arms against the state, they look to the actions of a small armed minority to achieve victory, rather than a mass movement. ‘The impoverished new petty bourgeoisie can move much further [than the Islamist bourgeoisie] towards a perspective of armed action. But its own marginal social position cuts it off from seeing this as developing out of mass struggles like strikes. Instead it looks to conspiracies based on small armed groups… It can cause immense disruption to existing society but it cannot revolutionise it’.8 The physical isolation of the FIS-supporting suburbs from the core of the Algerian state mirrored the FIS’s distance from the one class which could bring about genuine revolutionary change: the working class.

The fate of the rebellion underlines the consequences for would-be Islamist revolutionaries. The armed groups have disintegrated or been crushed, with only the small Salafist9 organisations remaining, while the mainstream Islamists have largely come to an accommodation with the status quo. In the words of a recent report, ‘Islamic political activism has abandoned its brief but intense flirtation with revolution and reverted to essentially reformist strategies. The Islamist parties now accept the nation-state and have either tacitly abandoned the ideal of an Islamic state or reconciled it with democratic principles’.10 The tragedy is that, while Algerians’ hopes for change were real, the road offered by the Islamist movement proved to be a dead end.


1: D Pipes, ‘Islamic Fundamentalism in Africa and Implications for US Policy’, Committee on Foreign Affairs, United States House of Rep-resentatives, 102nd Congress, 2nd sess (20 May 1992)

2: See for example, B Lewis, The Political Language of Islam (University of Chicago Press, 1991).

3: Sayyid Qutb was an Egyptian Islamist thinker who argued that contemporary Muslim societies had reverted to the ‘jahilliya’, the pre-Islamic ‘age of ignorance’, thus justifying rebellion against contemporary rulers, even those claiming to be Muslim.

4: See for example the report here: D Williams, ‘Banned Group Leads Dissent’, Washington Post, 23 May 2005

5: See C Harman, ‘The Prophet and the Proletariat’, International Socialism 64 (Autumn 1994), pp25-30, for more on the Egyptian Islamist movement.

6: Sami Zubaida notes that, contrary to the picture presented by many Western commentators, Islamist theories justifying rebellion against the state, such as Qutb’s writings, are a profound departure from mainstream Islamic thought—S Zubaida, Islam, The People and State (Zed, 1993), p2.

7: C Harman, as above, pp9-13.

8: As above, p36.

9: Salafis call for a return to the practice of the first Muslims, basing their moral code on the behaviour of the ‘righteous ancestors’ known as ‘al-Salaf al-Salih’ in Arabic. In an Algerian context Salafist groups, such as the GSPC (Groupe salafiste pour le prédication et le combat—Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) have tended to be closer to international radical Islamist currents such as Al Qaida and further from the FIS’s attempts to position itself as heir to the traditions of the Algerian national liberation struggle.

10: ‘Islamism, Violence and Reform in Algeria: Turning the Page’, International Crisis Group, 30 July 2004,