Islamic Opposition

Islamic Opposition

By the early 1980s, the Islamist movement provided a greater rallying point for opposition elements than did secular leftists. Although Islam was identified with the nationalist struggle against the French, the Algerian government had controlled its practice since independence through the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Superior Islamic Council. The council maintained "official" mosques and paid the salaries of imams (religious leaders). Beginning in 1979, however, concurrent with the religious revolution that toppled the government of Iran, large numbers of young people began to congregate at mosques that operated beyond the control of the authorities. At prayer meetings, imams not paid by the government preached in favor of a more egalitarian society, against the arrogance of the rich, and for an end to corrupt practices in government, business, and religion.

In a pattern of escalating violence during the early 1980s, religious extremists became increasingly active, assaulting women in Western-style dress, questioning the legitimacy of the "Marxist" Algerian government, and calling for an Islamic republic that would use the Quran as its constitution. After a brutal confrontation between Marxist and Islamist demonstrators at the University of Algiers in November 1982, the authorities rounded up and prosecuted for subversion students, imams, and intellectuals linked with the Algerian Islamic Movement headed by Mustapha Bouyali. Bouyali himself remained at large, forming a guerrilla band that was involved in a number of clashes with security forces. He was killed in early 1987, and his group was disbanded.

Serious demonstrations to protest commodity shortages and high prices broke out in Algiers, Oran, and other cities in October 1988. When the police proved unable to curb the outbreak, troops supported by armored vehicles assumed responsibility for security. Large demonstrations were staged by Islamist groups inspired by the intifada, the uprising of Palestinians against Israeli rule on the West Bank of the Jordan River and in the Gaza Strip. It was estimated that more than 500 people were killed after ill-trained soldiers used automatic weapons against the demonstrators. More than 3,500 demonstrators were arrested, but most were released without charges before year's end. Allegations of arbitrary arrest, unfair trials, mistreatment, and torture compounded public anger against the government.

When Benjedid's reforms opened political life to wider public participation, the FIS emerged in 1989 as the primary instrument of the Islamic movement. The FIS achieved rapid success in local elections, especially in the working-class districts of Algiers and other cities. The FIS leaders, determined to remain a legitimate political party, did not acknowledge links with Islamist groups dedicated to violence. The party was banned in March 1992, however, and thousands of its officials and supporters were arrested under the state of emergency. After that time, the FIS appeared to have shifted to a policy of armed response, declaring that the "state violence" of the authorities justified recourse to "means other than dialogue." (Yared; NYT8- 20-92; EIU 3/92))

Extremist branches of the Islamist movement engaged openly in violence against government targets after the cancellation of the elections. One of the most radical branches, Al Takfir wal Hijra (Repentance and Holy Flight), originally consisted of about 500 Algerian veterans of service in mujahidin (literally "holy warriors" or freedom fighters) forces in Afghanistan. Their acts of urban terrorism often were aimed against police and military posts in order to gather weapons and to demonstrate the government's inability to maintain control.

After the government's crackdown against the FIS in 1992, various other activist Islamist organizations sprang up, with units operating in groups of two to five, without apparent unified command. These groups, difficult to distinguish from each other, targeted police posts, courthouses and other public buildings, and selected public figures. In some cases, assassination targets were announced in advance.

Officials did not ascribe the June 1992 assassination of the chairman of the High Council of State, Mohamed Boudiaf, to terrorist groups, although Islamic activists welcomed the action. The assassin, a junior officer assigned to presidential security, was described as "motivated by religious convictions."

The government interned at least 9,000 persons, many of them elected FIS members of assemblies at the province (wilaya; pl., wilayat) and commune levels, at camps in the Sahara during the spring of 1992. Many of the urban terrorists waged guerrilla warfare from refuges in the mountainous areas adjacent to large cities. Large-scale gendarmerie actions hunted them down. Although the government claimed it had neutralized most terrorist groups, more rigorous measures were imposed in December 1992. These measures included a major sweep by 30,000 army and police personnel directed at every entity connected with the FIS, together with a strict curfew in Algiers and other localities.

After the banning of the FIS in Algeria, many FIS leaders escaped to France, where they reportedly continued to recruit new fighters and collect funds and supplies to pursue the armed struggle in Algeria. The FIS, as a foreign political party, was prohibited from operating on French soil; however, it was represented by the Algerian Brotherhood in France set up by Algerian students. Previously, the Movement for Democracy in Algeria of former President Ben Bella had used intimidation and violence in seeking the support of Algerians resident in France, but such intimidation was no longer considered necessary.


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