Statement by Leslie Campbell
Senior Associate and Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa
National Democratic Institute

Before the Committee on International Relations
Subcommittee on International Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Human Rights
U.S. House of Representatives

March 3, 2005

On behalf of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), I would like to thank the Committee for this opportunity to discuss the relationship between Algeria's struggle against terrorism and the country's political development.


Algeria today is emerging from over a decade of deadly civil strife. Fueled by years of political and economic mismanagement under the one-party system, the conflict escalated when the Algerian military assumed control of the country's government after the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won a landslide victory in the December 1991 legislative elections. Following the loss of over 150,000 lives, billions of dollars of infrastructure and years of progress on the human development front, Algeria may finally be on the verge of turning the corner to a more peaceful and prosperous future.

It is important to recognize that, even during the years of greatest violence and upheaval, the Algerian government made the decision to embark upon a series of political reforms that included regular elections and an attempt to build democratic institutions. Until recently, Algeria was one of the few Arab countries to have undertaken such reforms. This attempt to build democratic institutions, while not as far reaching as many observers might have hoped, has clearly had a positive effect on the country's development and, particularly, in its attempts to combat terrorism within its borders. The development of representative institutions of government can be seen as an attempt to address one of the root causes of terrorism in Algeria, and while these institutions are still far from being genuinely democratic today, without them, the possibility of Algeria's emerging from its long civil conflict would be greatly diminished. If Algeria chooses to move forward with the development of democratic institutions and continued expansion of press freedom it could gain the twin distinctions of overcoming terrorist violence and joining the ranks of Arab and African countries that are truly willing to democratize.

NDI Work in Algeria

NDI has followed political and electoral developments in Algeria since 1997. At the request of the United States government, NDI organized a 13-member delegation to the June 5, 1997 parliamentary elections as part of a larger United Nations international observer delegation that monitored the conduct of these, the first multiparty parliamentary elections to be held after the outbreak of terrorist violence in Algeria in 1992. Deployed throughout the country on the eve of these elections, the NDI delegation was able to observe first-hand the civilian and military voting processes in several different provinces. Based on the findings of the observers and extensive interviews with political party, civil society and media actors, as well as with the Algerian authorities, a 60-page report detailed its findings and made recommendations to the Algerian authorities.

Following the 1997 elections, NDI received a grant from the US State Department, enabling the Institute to work with the newly elected members of parliament, many of whom were first time office holders, as well as with the leadership of Algeria's six main political parties, on topics such as party organizing, communications and constituency outreach.

In January 2002, with continued US government support, NDI was the first, and, to date, only, American NGO to open a field office in Algeria, enabling the Institute to provide political parties, NGOs and journalists with ongoing technical assistance on election planning, voter contact and pollwatching prior to the legislative and local elections held that year. Resident staff were likewise able to informally observe the entire electoral process for both the 2002 and subsequent 2004 polls.

With the overall goal of encouraging more representative and accountable governance, NDI is today working to assist political parties and civil society organizations to become the engines driving political, economic, and social reform in Algeria. Specifically, NDI's current programs in Algeria are designed to: 1) improve the organizational and communications capacity of political parties; 2) assist civil society organizations to become stronger advocates for political reform; and 3) increase the participation of women and youth in political life.

To provide but one concrete example of this work, permit me to mention NDI's ongoing support to emerging Algerian women politicians, which includes an initiative to help women activists achieve greater representation in party leadership posts and elected office via training and advocacy. In 2004, NDI organized a leadership skills training retreat for 38 women political leaders. The Institute also helped to create a multiparty women's working group that recently developed a list of recommendations for increasing women's political participation, which includes legislative and voluntary political party quotas, and transmitted these proposals to the Algerian government and party leaders along with a request for action.

A key aspect of all of this work has been NDI's effort to create opportunities for activists from across the political spectrum, as well as from the civil society and media sectors, to come together and debate the reforms needed to put their country on the road to a genuine democratic transition. NDI is supporting these courageous activists as they seek to energize the democratization process and install the institutions and practices of peaceful political expression.

Algeria's struggle with terrorism

In a speech before the General Union of Algerian Workers last week, President Bouteflika cited for the first time dismal new figures that help to capture just how difficult the 1990s were for Algerians. In the struggle against terrorism, some 150,000 people lost their lives, and the country sustained some $30 billion in material and infrastructural damage. Add to this the 7,200 cases of forced disappearances acknowledged by the Algerian government (one local organization with which NDI works puts this figure as high as 18,000), as many as 10,000 cases of abductions by terrorist groups, and the over 100,000 people displaced or forced to leave their homes during this period, and you begin to get a sense of the human scale of this national tragedy.

The security situation in Algeria has dramatically improved in the last few years, thanks in large part to the efforts of the security forces and simple citizens, as well as to negotiations and political settlements with some of the terrorist groups that have encouraged the latter to put down their arms. Much remains to be done to completely defeat terror in Algeria, but there has been a tremendous improvement in the quality of life of for the vast majority of the population. People are beginning to live and dream again, and as such would like to turn the page on this dark chapter in their country's history.

But, as the saying goes, "before one can turn the page, one must read it." And so for Algerian citizens and the international community alike, it is critically important that we take a hard look at what happened in Algeria in the 1990s, and extract the often painful truths and lessons. For, as the figures above attest, the lives of millions were touched by this tragedy, and will continue to be so for several generations. Simply sweeping the difficult memories under the rug will not make them go away. Instructing the population to forgive and offering subsidies to the thousands of victims and their families might help some people to move on, but it will not get at the roots of the deadly combination of political, economic and social problems that helped give rise to the terrorist phenomenon in Algeria, and thus will, at best, remain a partial and superficial remedy.

The rise in terrorist violence in Algeria in the early 1990s was sparked in large part by a series of political decisions that brought an abrupt end to the democratic transition begun in 1988 and pushed the most radical segment of the regime's political opposition into armed rebellion, first against the state, and later against any segment of the population, domestic or foreign, that did not aid and abet them. This explicit link between reduced political space and increased terrorist activity is an important lesson from the Algerian experience, both for Algeria's current and future governments and the international community.

The Beginning of Political Liberalization

A confluence of political, economic and social factors put increasing pressure on the Algerian state system during the 1980s, culminating in October 1988 in riots in working class neighborhoods of Algiers that quickly spread to the country's other major cities. In an effort to put down these riots, the security forces fired on the crowds, resulting in several hundred deaths, and the arrest of many hundreds more. While the political unrest was put down in a few days, the crisis of October 1988 led to the liberalization of Algerian political system.

In an effort to manage the crisis, President Chadli Bendjedid's regime drafted a new constitution that separated the ruling FLN party from the state, and also allowed for the creation of a multi-party system, NGOs and an independent press. The succeeding months saw the rapid creation of over 40 political parties, human rights leagues, women's associations, cultural movements and new daily and weekly newspapers. Among the parties created and legalized in 1989 were those that had a fundamentally different conception of the Algerian state, from those that openly sought the Islamicization of the system, such as the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), to others that explicitly advocated for a secular republic and greater recognition of the Berber ethnic identity, such as the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD). Thus, the beginnings of political pluralism began to take root.

It should be noted, however, that military-backed regime's decision to liberalize the political system was not done for altruistic reasons, but rather to enable it to preserve its own hold on power. One important political decision was the sequencing of elections, or the decision to have the President serve out his term while holding municipal and legislative elections in 1990 and 1991, respectively. While this guaranteed that the executive-dominated political system remained in the hands of the regime, it also meant that the President had little popular legitimacy, and thus was relatively weak vis � vis his military backers. A second decision to engineer a "first past the post," as opposed to proportional representation system for the 1991 legislative elections, while in theory intended to privilege rural districts where the FLN was strongest rather than urban constituencies where the FIS had swept to victory in the 1990 municipal elections, escalated the tensions between the regime and the FIS leadership. Third, and as a result of an outbreak of unrest related to the design of the electoral system and timing of the legislative elections in June 1991, the regime arrested the more authoritative and constructive of the FIS leaders, and the more moderate voices within the Algerian regime resigned or were sidelined.

Banning the FIS

Contrary to what the electoral engineers had sought, the FIS scored a massive victory in the first round of legislative elections, finally held in December 1991, and was well placed to further consolidate these gains in the second round, to be held in early January. The army subsequently decided to force the resignation of President Chadli Bendjedid, and over the protests of the FLN, FFS and FIS, the three parties that had won the largest number of seats in the first round, cancelled the elections. The regime then went on in February to outlaw the FIS and instituted a state of emergency, which, incidentally, is still in force today. The regime therefore effectively closed off what remained of the legal and peaceful means by which the country's largest opposition party, the FIS, could contest political power; tragically, the more radical elements of the FIS, which had now gained the upper hand, turned to terrorist acts against state institutions and employees.

As has been noted by the International Crisis Group in their 2004 report on Islamism, Violence and Reform in Algeria, the authorities' decision to transform ordinary members of what had been a legal party into outlaws had the effect of driving them into the arms of the most extremists elements within and close to the FIS—groups that might otherwise have remained marginal. And so Algeria's experience with terrorism began. This is not a justification of the decision of those FIS members still at large to take up arms but shows that an important root of the terrorist phenomenon in Algeria was the decision of the authorities to close off all avenues of peaceful expression to their main political opponents.

State violence on a vast scale

From 1992 onwards, a series of nominally civilian governments put in place by the army were unsuccessful in ending the terrorist violence perpetrated by the armed groups close to the FIS. In fact, the violence increased dramatically from 1992-1994, and increasingly began to claim the lives of those who had nothing to do with the state or its security apparatus: journalists, opposition politicians, artists, teachers, foreigners, etc. And this despite the fact that the Algerian regime used all the tools at its disposal, legal or not, in its fight against terrorism, including torture, detention without trial in camps in the south of the country, special courts that pronounced death sentences, sweep operations and summary executions in a wave of repression that extended far beyond the ranks of the Islamists.

Aborted attempts at dialogue with the FIS

When by 1994 it became abundantly clear that fighting violence exclusively with violence would not suffice to win the war, some within the army leadership became convinced that it was necessary in parallel to engage in dialogue with the opposition, including the banned FIS. This option of dialogue was not universally embraced within the army brass or civilian political circles, however, and thus began the polarizing era of internal battles between the "eradicationists" and the "dialoguists." The eradicationist current within the regime would win this round, and the efforts of those who had sought to reach out to the FIS would come to naught.

The "dialoguists" within the political class were somewhat more successful, however, and were able to bring together representatives of the FLN, FFS, legal Islamist parties, the Trotskyite Worker's Party, the FIS and the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights in Rome, where they negotiated and signed a peace plan in early 1995. Despite the fact that the Rome agreement secured major concessions from the FIS, including the rejection of violence as a means of acceding to or maintaining power; the respect for political pluralism and the alternation of power through universal suffrage; and the guaranteeing fundamental liberties; it was pronounced dead on arrival by the authorities in Algiers. With the FIS and the armed groups still excluded from the political process, the violence thus raged on.
Political "normalization"

Instead, the Algerian regime launched its own "normalization" process in 1995. In a nutshell, this process sought to restore the trappings of civilian government to the country, while pursuing an all-out war against the terrorists, in cooperation with "patriot militias," or local self-defense groups that had been armed by the regime. The army, however, would still remain the king maker behind the scenes. This process began with a presidential election in 1995, which saw General Liamine Zeroual, until then the leader of the army-appointed executive, elected President from a field of four candidates. A constitutional consultation process (boycotted by the opposition) and referendum followed in 1996, which, among other things, instituted a part indirectly elected, part appointed upper House, which would have to approve any legislation passed by the parliament by a � majority. The first cycle of this process was completed in 1997, with the election of a 380 member multiparty parliament in June, and 48 provincial level councils and over 1500 municipal councils in October.

The 1995 and 1997 elections were held amid a climate of extreme violence, with armed groups having announced publicly that they would target voters. Nevertheless, candidates from across the political spectrum (excluding the still banned FIS) actively campaigned for these elections on the ground and through the print and audiovisual media, and a majority of the population turned out for the vote. These elections can thus be credited with helping to bring about a formal return to civilian rule (although the army continued to play a dominant behind the scenes role), and enabled the establishment of institutions that, if not totally legitimate, at least provided some opportunity for political debate and consensus building. As has noted historian Hugh Roberts, "this restoration of the civilian political sphere has undoubtedly been a necessary, though not a sufficient, condition of a resolution of Algeria's crisis. It has long been clear that only by providing institutional channels for the peaceful expression of competing outlooks and interests could the Algerian state hope to end the violence which had been ravaging the country."

That being said, there is an important distinction to be made between "political normalization" and "democratization." The 1995 and 1997 elections, and the resulting elected assemblies, were far from democratic. Credible allegations of massive electoral fraud during these elections, from voter intimidation to ballot box stuffing to the rigging of vote tallies, abound and are more or less acknowledged, even by the governing parties in Algeria today. Likewise, after some initial optimism about the legislative and executive oversight roles that might be played by the new parliament, it quickly became clear that this was not part of the authorities' game plan. While MPs did launch a commission of inquiry into electoral fraud in 1998, for example, the findings were never debated by parliament or made public. MPs were able to question government ministers, including on sensitive security issues such as the atrocious massacres of 1997-98, but there was no mechanism to exercise real oversight of the ministers, given that they are not responsible before the parliament, but rather owe their appointments to the president and the decision makers behind the scenes. All efforts by both government and opposition MPs to initiate legislation were also obstructed, with the draft bills never making it any further than the speaker of parliament's desk.

The combination of the flawed electoral processes in 1995-97, the relative powerless of the resulting elected institutions, and some spectacular cases of corruption and cronyism by both MPs and local elected officials have unfortunately succeeded in convincing much of the Algerian population that the act of voting in itself is futile and that political change is not brought about through the ballot box in this country. The 1999 presidential elections, which saw the withdrawal of six of the seven candidates on the eve of the election, and the victory of the remaining, army-backed candidate, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, further confirmed this idea.

However problematic the 1999 presidential elections may have been, however, President Bouteflika's first mandate did provide the opportunity for the political ratification of a ceasefire agreement previously negotiated between the army and the armed wing of the FIS, and thus moved the country a step further in its struggle to end the terrorist violence. Bouteflika's "Civil Concord Law" received the unanimous support of the Algerian parliament and his demarche went on to be ratified by Algerian citizens in a massive "yes" vote in a September 1999 referendum. All members of armed terrorist groups that agreed to lay down their arms by mid-January 2000 would be amnestied, and those that had not been convicted of "blood crimes" would be pardoned. The civil concord law, as well as the army's continued pursuit of the remaining armed groups helped to dramatically reduce violence against civilians during President Bouteflika's first mandate.

Also important during Bouteflika's first mandate was his public recognition that the cancellation of the 1991 elections was "an act of violence," an idea which is increasingly accepted by a broader segment of the Algerian political class today. Bouteflika likewise took the politically sensitive first step of acknowledging the problem of forced disappearances during the fight against terrorism, and of putting in place a governmental human rights body, the Ad-Hoc Mechanism for the Disappeared, in 2003, with the stated aim of elucidating the circumstances of those disappearances and devising practical solutions to assist the victims' families.

Moving forward

In large part due to his efforts to return peace and stability to the country, President Bouteflika was overwhelmingly re-elected on April 8, 2004 for a second, five-year mandate. The 2004 elections were praised by the international community, both for some important changes to the electoral law that helped to increase their transparency, and for the military leadership's repeated public declarations of its neutrality in the months leading up to the poll. While these elections did represent a big step forward from the 1999 polls, it should be noted, however, that the President's extensive distribution of state resources and monopolization of state media in the months prior to the elections gave him a tremendous advantage over his opponents, and credible allegations of manipulation of the justice system and administrative interference by the president's campaign were reported by several rival candidates both before and after the April 8 poll.

Since his re-election, President Bouteflika has made some important changes in the army command. He has also recently consolidated his power as the head of the "Presidential Alliance," a coalition of the three ruling parties, the FLN, RND, and MSP, which together control over 280 of the 389 seats in parliament and have pledged to support Bouteflika's program. Possessing a degree of political legitimacy not shared by any Algerian president since the late Houari Boumediene, Bouteflika has thereby strengthened his hand vis � vis the military hierarchy and positioned himself as the main arbiter between competing interest groups and political visions.

Bouteflika's program for this second mandate is one of "national reconciliation," which is loosely defined as putting an end to the remaining terrorist activity and "reconciling Algerians with themselves and with their state."

Stamping out the remaining violence is not simply a question of taking the remaining Islamist terrorists out of commission, however. For this to be real and enduring, it must also mean: 1) transferring genuine authority to the civilian institutions of government—and by this I mean not only the executive, but also the legislative and judicial branches, 2) providing effective political representation for the population via vibrant political parties and civil society organizations and transparent elections, and 3) enacting and enforcing the battery of reforms necessary to establish the rule of law in Algeria.

In order to advance along the path of democratic transition, there are some important barriers to political freedoms in Algeria that must be lifted. In particular, NDI recommends:
  1. Apply guarantees of freedom of assembly and association guaranteed by the 1996 Constitution—Today, the main provisions of the Emergency law imposed in 1992 that authorize special measures in the fight against terrorism, including nighttime curfews, are no longer being utilized. However, thus far the Bouteflika administration has insisted upon maintaining it in place, and this despite the fact that senior army officials have said that this is no longer necessary. The Emergency Law constitutes an important barrier to the freedoms of association and assembly by requiring political parties and NGOs (including NDI, by the way), to get permission from Interior Ministry officials to hold public gatherings—permission which is not automatically granted, especially to opposition groups. Linked to the state of emergency is a 2001 law banning all marches and outdoor rallies in Algiers. NDI is working with a civic organization that is advocating for the repeal of the Emergency law through press conferences and a petition campaign, as well as with a political party that introduced legislation in parliament in this sense in 2003. These activists need international support.

  2. Improve the transparency of the Electoral System through further reform—While 2004 saw some important changes to the electoral law, including provisions that the army no longer votes in its barracks and that political party representatives receive official copies of the vote protocols at every stage of the vote counting and tabulation process, there are still some important reforms to be undertaken to bring Algeria's electoral system into harmony with international standards. NDI supported the MPs that introduced and built support for amendments to the electoral system in 2003, and also trained party pollwatchers for the 2004 elections. To improve the transparency of future elections, NDI recommends that: 1) the Algerian government establish a permanent, independent electoral commission to take electoral administration out of the hands of the executive branch; 2) the Algerian government request that this electoral commission undertake a comprehensive revision of the current electoral roster and create a new, centralized list, which should be made available to all political parties on request; and 3) the Algerian government provide a provision for, and encourage the development of, independent, non-partisan election monitoring organizations that can assist political parties and the media to monitor the entire electoral process, and not just election day. It would be worthwhile for the US Government to take these recommendations up with the Algerian authorities well in advance of the 2007 legislative and local elections.

  3. Ensure the separation of powers by building further checks and balances into the system—For Algeria to make the transition to a state where the rule of law prevails, there are some important reforms to be undertaken. These include: 1) encouraging and assisting the parliament to assume more active legislative and executive oversight roles; 2) reinforcing the independence of the judicial system through legislative reform and the training of magistrates; and 3) improving the transparency of the executive branch through adopting an Algerian version of the Freedom of Information Act.

  4. Protect press freedoms already achieved and enhance freedom of expression by opening up the country's audiovisual media—Algeria's private print media are among the most critical and best established in the region. The same cannot be said, however, for the state-run audiovisual media. Opposition parties and independent candidates currently have access to the national television and radio stations during the three week electoral campaign period, but are then rarely seen or heard from again on the airwaves until the next election. The Algerian Radio, while state-run, has made some important progress in opening up to non-regime voices via talk shows on taboo social issues featuring both governmental and civic actors, daily interviews with national officials, and local radio call-in programs that permit citizens to speak directly with their municipal councilors. The Algerian TV too should make more of an effort to move in this direction. In preparation for this day, NDI is working to assist advocacy groups and women political leaders in communications skills, including interviewing techniques for audiovisual media.

Algeria has undoubtedly come a long way since the 1990s. Yet the country still has a long way to go before becoming a democratic state where rule of law, rather than an arbitrary informal system, prevails. The international community should praise Algeria where praise is due, while at the same time insisting on further reform and opening in the areas described above. A combination of diplomatic encouragement and pressure, together with increased support of the work of both international and local NGOs working to assist Algerian political activists, civic actors and journalists will be a critical element of this reform process. If Algeria chooses to move forward with the development of democratic institutions it could gain the twin distinctions of overcoming terrorist violence and joining the ranks of Arab and African countries that are truly willing to democratize.