Today is the 20th anniversary of the first round of the first multiparty parliamentary election in Algeria’s history. It was indeed the first entirely free-and-fair national election in the history of the Arab world, with all political forces in the country present—i.e. with no significant political party banned or not participating in the vote—and where the result was not rigged by the regime. The result: the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) received 47% and the ruling FLN 23%. If one includes the votes of smaller regime-collaborating Islamist parties, the Islamist total was 55%. Parties calling themselves “democrats”—i.e. westernized and secular (which should be in quotes, as both are misnomers in the Algerian context, as is the term “democrat,” which a certain number of Algerians claiming the label were in fact not)—collectively received on the order of 10%. And the leading “democrat” party, Hocine Aït Ahmed’s FFS (which did in fact merit the democrat label), had an almost entirely regional Kabyle Berber electorate, most of which was culturally traditional.
The result was a shock for the government—led by a minority faction of the FLN—and its allies in the “democrat” camp, and all the more so because of the consequences it would have in view of the electoral system. The Algerians had reflexively adopted the French system of single-member constituencies elected in two rounds. Adopting the right electoral system is crucial for a polity in transition from authoritarianism to a multiparty democracy. There is no right formula for all countries; each has to adopt the system best adapted to its particular conditions and history. But there should always be some variant of proportional representation and with a relatively low threshold, so as to insure representation for smaller parties, which are often comprised of ethnic or confessional minorities lacking a strong regional base, and to foster coalition governments. Single-member constituency systems are fine for mature democracies and that have a long tradition of them but not in polities in transition and with weak to non-existent party systems, where the exclusion of significant sociological forces can undermine the legitimacy of the whole electoral enterprise. And the two-round French system has a particular perverse effect, which is the artificial inflation in the number of seats of the leading party in the first round. What happened in Algeria was a perfect demonstration of this, as the FIS, with its 47% of the vote, won 44% of the seats outright in the first round; had the FIS won every second round runoff in which its candidate was favorably placed (ballotage favorable)—which was a distinct possibility—it would have ended up with 77% of the seats in Algeria’s first multiparty national assembly. Needless to say, the French electoral system was not only inappropriate for Algeria, it was insane. But almost no one in Algiers at the time understood electoral systems—the culture politique of the country’s political actors was pretty low—and the ruling circles in the government and their “democrat” allies—who were convinced that doing the elections à la française would benefit them, not the FIS—showed that they fundamentally did not understand their own society. (Contrast this with Tunisia today, which has gotten things pretty much right so far.)
The rest was history. On January 11th, five days before the scheduled second round, the army intervened, removed President Chadli Benjedid from office, and had the electoral process cancelled. The FIS was banned two months later, part of the party went underground and launched an armed struggle against the regime and its supporters, employing selective terrorism such as had been used by the FLN during the war of independence against the French. In the ensuing repression new Islamist groups formed, notably the notorious GIA, which embarked on a campaign of mass terrorism. The army fought fire with fire and Algeria descended into a nasty internecine war in which tens of thousands were killed (the 200,000 figure cited in the media—and by academic specialists who should know better—is a huge exaggeration; it’s nowhere near that, not even by a third). Twenty years after the aborted election, Algeria is a soft authoritarian regime kept afloat by rentier income from hydrocarbons, with a façade of multiparty politics but where election results are fixed in advance. And with no perspective of any significant change on the horizon.
I would not have remembered today’s anniversary had it not been for a fine article marking the event by the very fine Algerian journalist Akram Belkaïd in Slate.fr. Belkaïd writes that he opposed the cancellation of the electoral process in January ’92 and has not changed his mind about it two decades later. Among Algeria’s democrats (and “democrats”) back then, Belkaïd’s position was not a majority one. Secular, westernized Algerians—the kind of people Europeans and North Americans who visit or live in that country meet and befriend—were terrified by the prospect of the FIS coming to power—the FIS was not a “moderate” Islamist party as is today’s Tunisian Ennahda—and largely supported the cancellation of the second round of the elections (even Mohammed Harbi—who is a true democrat—initially supported interrupting the electoral process, before modifying his position). Through the rest of the ’90s—as Algeria descended into violence and terror—secular, westernized Algerians were split into two bitter, feuding camps: the éradicateurs, who supported the regime’s uncompromising repression of the now banned FIS—who wanted to expunge Algeria of Islamism, even if it involved massive human rights violations, not to mention violating some fundamental principles of democracy—, and the dialoguistes (or réconciliateurs), who had mostly opposed the cancellation of the elections and advocated a negotiated solution to the country’s political crisis and with willing elements of the FIS (and willing elements of it there were). The éradicateur/dialoguiste cleavage was played out in France in a guéguerre on the left, with intellectuals choosing their camp: BHL, André Glucksmann, Pascal Bruckner & Co supporting the éradicateurs; Le Monde Diplomatique and academics with personal ties to Algeria (e.g. Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida, Benjamin Stora), among others, siding with the dialoguistes. Each camp had its Algerian champions, the leading ones well-known feminist activists: for the éradicateurs, the current Algerian Minister of Culture (who went by her married name back then); the dialoguistes, a leading journalist and a leader of a leftist political party. The polemic was quite bitter. As an uncompromising supporter of the dialoguistes I was subjected to all sorts of accusations by éradicateurs, the best one during a live radio debate in 1995—in Paris of course—with the brother of the head of one of the “democrat” éradicateur parties, who informed the listening audience that I was “un islamiste parfaitement identifié”—not a dupe of the Islamists or an Islamist fellow traveler but an outright Islamist, period… I asked him how I could be an Islamist when I wasn’t even a Muslim… That was the general ambiance of the (non-)debate.
Back to Belkaïd’s article, I entirely agree with him. Twenty years later I do not revise my view one iota. The cancellation of the elections was a disaster for Algeria, brought about the violent death of thousands, pushed many Algerians—particularly those with a university education—into exile or simply leaving the country, and firmly entrenched the ruling power apparatus. The political system in Algeria is frozen and is not likely to be unfrozen for the foreseeable future. The question to be posed is what would have happened had the electoral process continued and the FIS come to power. The éradicateurs and their friends are quite certain that Algeria would have entered into the dark Islamist night, that the country would have turned into an Iran or Afghanistan. Engaging in counterfactual historical speculation is worth what it’s worth but I argued in the ’90s—and will argue today—that it was unlikely that the FIS would have sought to impose an Islamist dictatorship, or succeeded in doing so had it tried. First, the leaders of the FIS—led at the time by Abdelkader Hachani—made it very clear between the first and aborted second rounds that they did not want to govern Algeria on their own. They sought a coalition, notably with the FLN. The FIS leadership was not entirely made up of extremist hotheads. The proof: two leading FIS personalities were co-opted into governments in the early ’90s and by the middle of the decade, fully half of the members of the FIS majlis al-shura were at liberty in Algiers. They had been co-opted into the system. Secondly—and this is crucial—, the leadership of the FLN, which was led at the time by the well-respected Abdelhamid Mehri—and who was in conflict with the government of Sid Ahmed Ghozali—, was opposed to the cancellation of the electoral process. The FLN party apparatus was willing to collaborate with the FIS in a coalition government (such as we’re seeing in Tunisia today). The FFS of Hocine Aït Ahmed, by far the largest democrat party, was likewise opposed to cancelling the elections, as Aït Ahmed saw himself as the future leader of the opposition in the national assembly. Parties whose vote totals exceeded 80% wanted to see the process continue. Algeria was not split down the middle in 1991-92; the overwhelming majority of the population was “dialoguiste.” Thirdly, President Chadli had another two years left on his term and given Algeria’s strong presidential system, no significant reform could have been enacted without his approval. And this included modifications to the constitution, which could only emanate from the president. Fourthly, had the FIS overreached, tried to impose Shari’a law, or fostered instability and violence, the army could have then intervened à la turque and with greater legitimacy.
This is all counterfactual speculation, of course, but the debate is legitimate. We know the consequences of the army’s action of January ’92, from which Algeria has yet to recover. Allowing the FIS to form a government in ’92 would have entailed risks but the risks were worth taking.