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Algeria: How cancelling elections led to war

January 11, 2017 at 5:04 pm

Image of violent protests in Algeria on March 2011 [Magharebia/Wikipedia]

What: 1992 elections are cancelled by the military

Where: Algeria

When:  11 January 1992

What happened?

By October 1988, Algerians’ anger was made tangible for the country’s ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) party, and deadly protests in Algiers forced the FLN to accept the reality that they were no longer infallible against the masses.

As a result, new constitutional reforms introduced by President Chadli Bendjedid enabled multi-party participation for the first time since the inception of the autocratic FLN regime in 1962. The party which benefited the most from this new introduction was the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), formed on 18 February 1989, whose popularity exploded amongst marginalised Algerians tired of their exclusion from the socio-political environment.

The FIS were able to make considerable gains in their first year by building bridges with the young urban poor. Indeed, it was mainly due to meetings between Bendjedid and FIS’ Ali Benhadj, as well as members of the Muslim Brotherhood, that the October riots began to peter out.

By 12 June 1990, the first free local elections since independence took place, with Algerian voters choosing the FIS and winning 54% of votes; more than double what the FLN received or any other parties.

However, the Gulf War against Iraq in January 1991 provoked a change in the FLN’s tolerance of FIS. Benhadj, a charismatic preacher, delivered an impassioned speech for volunteers to fight alongside Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and this was seen as an affront to the military hierarchy. A strike called by the FIS against the realignment of electoral districts provoked a state of emergency in June 1991 in which parliamentary elections were postponed till December. Soon after, FIS leaders Abassi Madani and Ali Benhadj were arrested and later sentenced to twelve years in prison.

Despite all this, FIS participated in the first round of legislative elections on 26 December 1991 and won with a resounding majority in a voter turnout of 59%. The party was able to secure 231 seats with more predictable gains in the second round of ballots on 13 January 1992. The FLN came second with just 16 elected deputies and Hocine Ait Ahmed’s Socialist Forces Front in third place.

The inevitability of a victory, a first for an Islamist party, was beginning to make the Algerian elite uncomfortable, not to mention elites in Paris who were watching their former colony. For the US, the possibility of a party, despite being democratically elected, that could be hostile to the United States and indeed their interests in the region was enough to justify the FLN’s forthcoming action, which led to a bloody civil war that lasted until 2002.

On 11 January 1992, the military stepped in, cancelling the electoral process and banning FIS as a party which was later completely dissolved by March. According to the Algerian authorities, 5,000 FIS members were arrested. However, French researcher Gilles Kepel put the number at 40,000 members, including then-leader Abdelkader Hachani. President Bendjedid was forced to resign and his successor, a former exiled independence fighter, Mohamed Boudiaf, was sworn in as president. His reign was short-lived by his assassination four months later.

Offshoot organisations of FIS, mainly the Islamic Armed Movement (MIA) and Armed Islamic Group (GIA), saw the military’s actions as a cause for war and a justification to take up arms against the state.

This war would last ten brutal years, with depraved levels of violence recorded towards the latter part by both the military and secret services and militant groups guilty of senseless violence and massacres.

Around 200,000 Algerians would perish in the war, 18,000 would disappear and one million forced to leave the country. The state of emergency would only be lifted in 2011 by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has held office since 1999, as a response to protests during the onset of the Arab Spring.

Benhadj and Madani were later released in 2003, and in 2005 Bouteflika offered a general amnesty to end legal proceedings against former fighters which was supported by 97% of the country in a national referendum. The Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation was implemented on September 2006, formally reconciling the warring parties and leading to the Algeria we see today.