The Algerian civil war, commonly referred to as “the dirty war” (la sale guerre), was a conflict that stemmed from the abrupt halt of a democratic election, which resulted in bloody strife claiming between 150,000 and 200,000 lives according to different sources. Beginning in 1992, the conflict persisted until 2002. This comment is particularly interested in the tipping points that transformed post-colonial Algeria into a bloody battle for control of the state.
Civil wars, although defined as domestic conflicts, almost always have international dimensions, both because foreign actors often intervene in the process of political violence and because potential spillover effects heavily impact the international community. Although it is difficult to determine causal mechanisms for the eruption of civil wars, this comment will attempt to examine arguments that explain why exactly the 1992 Algerian Civil War erupted and how it did.
Some argue that the protests and displays of contention in 1988 were the main cause of the civil war. They point to the uprisings started by students and other civilians, during which they protested on the streets against the National Liberation Front’s (FLN) authoritarian rule, as having the strongest impact on inciting further violence. Others look to the military coup, more specifically, the interruption of the electoral process by the FLN and the reinstitution of a military government, as the main cause for the civil war. Another cause commonly cited is the radicalization of Islamist insurgencies, pointing to the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA) as a fringe insurgency that later emerged as the most violent actor of all. Ultimately, these differing views on the cause of the Algerian Civil War demonstrate powerfully the complexity of the conflict, as numerous scholars look to the layers of polarization present and come up with divergent conclusions.
When scholars argue that the cause of the 1992 Algerian Civil War is the 1988 October Riots, they call to attention the tensions between the authoritarian FLN and the disenfranchised urban youth of Alger. They claim that the 1988 riots, when thousands of youths took to the streets to set fire to symbols of state and wealth, eventually led to democratic social reform in the country, which then triggered the spiral of instability and political conflict in 1992. It is also important to note, not in the spirit of regressive analysis, but in attempting to comprehensively explain the root causes of the conflict, that the protests were spurred on by discontent and anger over rising youth unemployment, austerity measures, and dropping oil prices. Eventually, although they were violently repressed, the protests set in motion a process of internal power struggle under President Chadli Bendjedid, which led to the emergence of multi-party elections.1 It can be said then that these protests caused the civil war directly, as perhaps President Bendjedid was planning a gambit to appease the public, with intentions to ensure FLN victory. In fact, some argue that the FLN staged the multi-party elections as a democratic experiment they were sure would end in the FLN’s favour.2 Therefore, the protests caused the FLN to hold elections, which forced the incumbents to launch a military coup as soon as the tides shifted in the FIS’s favor. While this theory merits some attention, we are unclear on President Bendjedid’s involvement in the later military coup. More importantly, it is difficult to assume that his intentions were impure at the time of the constitutional amendment. Another drawback of this theory is that it is slightly far removed from the violence in 1992. In fact, there can be several counterfactuals posed that effectively end the cycle of violence right after October 1988. The biggest drawback, however, is the fact that this explanation does not include the all-too-important rise of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a party that is arguably one of the most crucial actors in the conflict that followed.
The most popular theory to explain the start of the 1992 Civil War is the military coup enacted to suppress a potential FIS election victory, demonstrating history’s proclivity to group military action with emergence of war. Immediately after the Algerian Constitution was amended to permit multi-party elections, two teachers, an ex-fighter and a preacher, formed the FIS, with the aim to “Islamize the regime without altering society’s basic fabric.”3 They gained popularity rapidly, and was poised to win the elections when the FLN-backed military cancelled the elections, launched a coup, and imprisoned FIS leaders.
The theory that the 1992 civil war was caused by the FIS and the military coup that followed has several interesting components. First of all, the FIS’s rise to popularity and prominence was unexpected. Some attribute their strong influence over the Algerian voter base due to their diversity of backgrounds, as one founder was an ex-independence fighter spreading a relatively moderate religious conservatism, while the other was a charismatic high school teacher who appealed to the younger and less educated social class in Algeria.4 Alternatively, some attribute the FIS’s success to the nationalism of the population, as the majority of voters may have yearned for the imposition of Sharia law against Western (i.e., French-based) modernization. In this way, the FIS’s rise to popularity contributed heavily to the conflict that followed.
Another crucial component of this cause of the war is the nature of the military coup, which polarized the country, radicalized youths, and led directly to the conflict itself. The fact that the coup followed the cancellation of elections definitely worsened the situation, especially since supporters of the FIS were waiting with anticipation for a free and fair democratic election that never came. Furthermore, during the coup, the military took and imprisoned some of the most prominent FIS leaders. As a direct result of the unjust arrests, the FIS built their insurgency around the desire to avenge their fellow members, foreshadowing the crucial moment during which they took to the rural areas of Algeria and started building a true guerrilla insurgency. The theory that the civil war was caused by the military coup deserves the most merit, because it identifies two of the strongest actors in the conflict (the military and the Islamic insurgencies) and demonstrates the growing polarization that exploded soon afterward. One downside of this theory is the failure to tie in the radicalization of other Islamist insurgencies, like the GIA, an actor that drastically affected the death toll and media coverage of the conflict.
The GIA and their strategy of “total war” completely transformed the conflict, and some argue that their involvement caused the civil war. The components of this theory revolve around the assumption that the GIA and the FIS were completely disparate entities, with the GIA much more focused on dividing all Algerians into “supporters of jihad” and “enemies of Islam.” They then had no qualms about massacring those who were enemies of Islam. Some of their victims include civilians, journalists, politicians, artists, and a multitude of foreigners. Their tactics also forced civilians to choose between two very different sides: one that supported the GIA’s mission of Islamic fundamentalist rule, and one that did not. Therefore, the GIA and their mission exacerbated the brewing conflict between the FIS and the government, forcing civilians to choose between life and death, massacring those who did not conform to their conceptions of Islam, and internationalizing the conflict. Although this theory holds some water, it is more accurate to describe the involvement of the GIA as having changed the face of the war instead of having started the war. The GIA transformed the conflict into one in which religion became the primary cleavage, and one in which the killing of innocent civilians became routine, thereby giving the conflict its moniker – la sale guerre (“The Dirty War”).
1 “Algeria: Civil War.” World Peace Foundation. Accessed October 14, 2017. https://sites.tufts.edu/atrocityendings/2015/08/07/72/
3 Kepel, Gilles, and Anthony F. Roberts. Jihad: the trail of political Islam. London, Tauris, 2014.
4 Schulhofer-Wohl, Jonah. 2007. “Civil War in Algiera, 1992-Present.” In Karl DeRouen and Uk Heo, eds., Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.