News | History - International / Transnational - Africa - North Africa The Cost of Amnesty

Algeria’s civil war ended two decades ago, but the scars are still everywhere to be seen


Families of the disappeared demand clarification and justice. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0, Photo: Le Collectif des Familles de Disparus en Algérie (CFDA)

North Africa was the epicentre of the so-called “Arab Spring”, a wave of popular uprisings that challenged the authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen in 2011. Yet, in one Mediterranean country, society’s growing resentment toward kleptocratic elites largely failed to materialize in public mobilization. It was only in 2019 when this resentment, combined with an economic crisis, triggered yet another popular revolt in Algeria, known ever since as the Hirak (Arabic for “movement”).

Sofian Philip Naceur is a project manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s North Africa Office and works as a freelance journalist.

This article first appeared on the Egyptian online platform Mada Masr in 2017, before the Hirak uprising toppled Algeria’s then-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The story has been slightly updated and edited to reflect these changes.

However, where 2011’s uprisings paved the way for the temporary collapse of autocratic rule in several countries, Algeria’s regime remained in power, as the anti-government protests that did occur were marked by reluctance. The biggest rally in Algiers in 2011 only attracted a few thousand people, while the regime turned the city into a fortress.

Led by the army and the former ruling party Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), the Algerian government did make limited concessions and promised reforms, but also warned people that joining marches and fomenting popular revolt might once again lead to uncertainty and bloodshed. Leading politicians repeatedly framed the civil war of the 1990s as an immediate repercussion of the 1988 political uprising.

The brutality against civilians in that war was indeed unprecedented: 150,000 people were killed in the conflict between the state and armed Islamist groups. However, despite the military’s documented involvement in wartime atrocities, the regime managed to turn the national trauma into a tool to bolster its legitimacy and tighten its dominance over public discourses. Ever since, the ruling elite presents itself as the nation’s saviour from an Islamist takeover and the only alternative to the chaos and bloodshed of the 1990s — a narrative Algerian leaders recited over and over again both in 2011 as well as after the violent dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in in Cairo in 2013.

The regime still feeds on that fear and continues to instrumentalize the war of the 1990s to defend its grip on power. However, the narrative of its success in maintaining stability strongly conflicts with the stories of those who were murdered or forcibly disappeared during the military’s ruthless counter-insurgency campaign — a troubled history that Algeria’s turn to political amnesty to settle the dispute has left unresolved.

Today, Algeria’s security forces routinely suspend investigations into forced disappearances. Nevertheless, the families of thousands of civilians whose fates remain unknown continue to seek justice and persistently counter the official narrative. But their struggle is challenging, as the state consistently refuses to acknowledge the magnitude of the injustice and ignores the demands of the families of the disappeared, who instead turn to the country’s civil society.

Forced Disappearances and Algeria’s Civil War

“They came at night, searched my grandmother’s house and took my father. It was the last time someone from our family saw him alive.” Torkia Bourechak was 14 years old when Algeria’s notorious military police arrested Adda Bourechak in Sidi Bashir, an informal settlement on the outskirts of the Mediterranean city of Oran.

Their house was searched several times, but Adda and his younger brother Houcine were careful enough to hide elsewhere each time, until one day in 1994 when they were taken. Today, Torkia has no hope of finding them alive. Her family searched for them for years — in prisons, hospitals and morgues — but ultimately gave up in 2001. Torkia, however, still seeks the truth.

“They were no Islamists, not at all. But they voted for the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) in the 1991 parliamentary elections”, she says. FIS, a radical Islamist party that gained gained a massive following among wide swathes of Algerian society, including non-Islamist opponents of the old elites after the 1988 uprising, stood on the precipice of a landslide victory in the first democratic elections since Algeria’s independence from France in 1962. But the second round of the vote never happened. In January 1992, the army intervened, cancelled the electoral process, declared a state of emergency, and installed a military government.

The FIS was banned and dissolved. Many of its members and supporters went underground, hiding from the crackdown against the party, while its radical fraction chose the path of armed resistance and evolved into several violent groups, most notably the Armeé Islamique du Salut (AIS), who later launched a bombing campaign against the state. The state of emergency gave authorities almost unlimited powers, a move that kicked off a long-lasting arrest campaign against FIS officials, party supporters, and others who joined protests opposing the army’s rise to power. Arbitrary detentions became routine in Algeria’s “black decade”.

“The only thing my relatives did was joining marches and voting for the wrong party. They were no terrorists, but police were still after them”, Torkia says.

While many families have no indication of what happened to their relatives, others have clear evidence of who was behind their relatives’ abduction or murder. One example is Ahmed Khaddour, whose brother Selman was summoned to the gendarmerie in Ain Benian in Greater Algiers. “Two days after he went there for questioning, the hospital called and asked us to pick up his body”, Khaddour recounts. “They said it was suicide, but his body showed signs of torture. He was choked to death.”

Selman’s family was a typical target of Algeria’s security forces, as many of them supported the FIS, and some were even party members, according to Khaddour. And they paid a heavy price for their cheering on of Islamists: Six of Khaddour’s relatives disappeared during the war, and none of them are believed to be alive today.

The Rise of the DRS

After the coup, the army and the country’s infamous military intelligence Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS) started a witch-hunt against everyone associated with the FIS, successfully side-lined the FLN, and subsequently turned towards violence. During this period, they planted the seeds for widespread bloodshed, the scars of which can still be seen today.

The conflict peaked in 1997, when tensions within the Islamist insurgency and the regime spiralled out of control. Three years after its rise, the AIS had massively lost ground to its major rival, the ultra-radical Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA). The GIA did not predominantly target state facilities like the AIS, but systematically executed journalists, artists, and foreigners, and even committed massacres of civilians, while several Islamist cells likewise turned to forced disappearances as a tool to spread fear. After Liamine Zeroual took over Algeria’s presidency, the AIS started negotiations with the state – a strategy that was severely opposed by the GIA and military hardliners.

Whenever these talks made progress, the GIA intensified its attacks against civilians and the AIS. The agent responsible for these blows remains unclear, but the DRS, led by the country’s secretive intelligence leader, Mohamed “Tewfik” Mediène, had its share in the violence, as it is reported to have infiltrated the GIA on a large scale.

In his book The Dirty War, former officer Habib Souaïdia describes how DRS units committed extrajudicial executions and massacres among civilians sometimes dressed like Islamists. The narrative of a “legitimate war” against terror unravelled, as reports indicated that the DRS had much more blood on its hands than its leadership was willing to admit.

However, the DRS tightened its grip on power, continued to enforce the strategy of escalation and used the GIS and forced disappearances as a scare tactic. The goals of the military’s hard-line approach were to discredit the Islamists and to renew the regime’s legitimacy in order to secure privileges and access to the state’s oil and gas revenues — objectives that were shared by the FLN and Zeroual’s newly established party Rassemblement Nationale Démocratique (RND). The only disagreements were over how to achieve them.

Algeria’s Charter for National Peace and Reconciliation

While the conflict was peaking in 1997, the regime initiated what it called a “reconciliation process”. The government and the AIS agreed on a ceasefire. The DRS ceased its crackdown. The army paved the way for restoring political stability by supporting the presidential bid of the country’s exiled former Foreign Minister Abdelaziz Bouteflika (FLN), who won the 1999 elections by a landslide.

The army withdrew from immediate governing and – formally – stepped aside to make way for Bouteflika, the regime’s “consensus candidate” who did not have blood on his hands. He quickly launched the Charter for National Peace and Reconciliation, an initiative designated to settle the conflict that was adopted in a public referendum on 29 September 2005. Going into effect in February 2006, the charter granted amnesty for “terrorists” (except those guilty of mass murder, planting bombs in public facilities, and rape), compensation for the families of those who died or were disappeared, and implicit exoneration for crimes committed by the state.

Nevertheless, the charter remains controversial. The government announced in 2012 that it compensated 7,020 families whose relatives were disappeared during the war, but details about the ceasefire with the AIS and accurate figures about the extent of the amnesty were not made public. Moreover, it is believed the charter was designed to allow state agents who had infiltrated armed groups to return to civilian life without being held responsible for their crimes.

Meanwhile, the regime’s internal power struggle calmed down and led to the rebirth of a bipolar autocracy, divided between a civil and a military branch. While Bouteflika’s clan gradually re-established the FLN as the dominant face of the regime – a status it continues to maintain, even after the 2019 uprising toppled Bouteflika and his clan – the DRS became the state’s most powerful branch. The unit was portrayed as the country’s sole counterbalance to Bouteflika’s FLN and was believed to even run the country.

Managing the Civil War’s Legacy

To this day, the Algerian authorities ignore the demands of the families of the disappeared, refuse to acknowledge the magnitude of the crimes committed by the state, and instead praise their approach to end the conflict. Unsurprisingly, many of those families oppose the amnesty measures that relegate their quest for justice to the shadows, calling for rallies every year on 29 September – the anniversary of the charter’s referendum in 2005.

And those families are numerous. Up to 20,000 civilians were forcibly disappeared during the war, says Nassera Dutour, the founder of the Paris-based Collectif des Familles de Disparu(e)s en Algérie (CFDA) and its Algerian branch, SOS Disparus, referring to estimated figures provided by human rights activists. The NGO collects data on disappearances, raises awareness about the unknown fate of those unlawfully arrested and disappeared, assists their families, and organizes rallies. CFDA is the only representative body of those families that is still operating in public, and it represents thousands of families of those who were abducted during the regime’s anti-terror campaign.

“We have more than 5,400 cases in our archives, but many are still unknown as people are afraid to speak,” says Dutour.

The state maintains an ambivalent approach toward the families of the disappeared. Their protests are rapidly dispersed and activities monitored, although authorities refrain from searching or closing down offices and pressing official charges after arrests.

“In 2016, we could not conduct a workshop in the planned location because someone intercepted our emails, forwarded it to the hotel director, accused us of being a terrorist organization and threatened us with arrest if the event went ahead”, Dutour says, adding that the families of the disappeared were framed as terrorists for a long time. “Even the media referred to us as ‘families of terrorists’. But times are changing – slowly.”

Ever since, the civil war’s legacy indeed has imbued public debates with a level of fear and suspicion. Those accusations were quite common, Torkia confirms. “Neighbours avoided us and accused us of hiding weapons, but, in recent years, people became more reasonable and asked us what happened. We could speak openly”, she says.

The security establishment and pro-regime forces continue to tackle the conflict in a biased way, but as the regime’s legitimacy declines, its narratives of the “black decade“ lose credibility. Although it remains questionable if the families of the disappeared are able to crack to silence, they continue to speak up and challenge the regime’s suppression of history. “This is everything I have left of my son”, Dutour says, pointing to a CFDA poster bearing a photo of her son, Amine, who disappeared in 1997.

Meanwhile, CFDA has established close relations with other civil society actors like human rights organizations and parties, notably the Front des Forces Socialistes and the Parti des Travailleurs. Pro-regime forces and opposition parties with a radical anti-Islamist agenda maintain their distance from CFDA. But today, the families of the disappeared are not campaigning alone.

Perfunctory Politics and the Decay of Legitimacy

The regime’s pursuit of securing its grip on power faces substantial obstacles today, but an alternative to the bipolar elite composed of the FLN-RND coalition and the military is not in sight, creating a political quagmire that has been only partially affected by the 2019 Hirak uprising.

After the 2017 parliamentary elections, the FLN made clear that it considers itself the regime’s leading branch. “We are not allying with others. Others are allying with us”, FLN Secretary General Djamel Ould Abbas stated after polls closed.

Since 2015, Bouteflika’s affiliates considerably curtailed the authority of the DRS, as Tewfik was surprisingly dismissed, and the DRS was replaced by the Direction des Services de Sécurité (DSS). But it remained unclear how powerful the DRS had become under its new leader, Athmane Tartag, a key figure of the counter-insurgency program in the 1990s.

The confusion and decentralized perception about who is running the country and the co-optation of moderate Islamist parties like the Mouvement de la Société pour la Paix and, more recently, the Tajamou Amal el-Jazaïr became key tools for the regime to maintain its standing. But Tewfik’s departure from power might have in fact turned into a pyrrhic victory for Bouteflika, as popular resentment in Algeria was almost exclusively directed toward his coalition in the following years.

This resentment, however, effectively paved the way for the 2019 Hirak uprising that eventually toppled Bouteflika and his clan within the ruling elite. Yet although the Hirak created momentum for radical change in Algeria, the counter-revolutionary dynamic of the past two years has undermined this pressure and allowed for the return of a slightly purged bipolar elite, led today by President Abdelmajid Tebboune and Army Chief Saïd Chengriha.

While some of Bouteflika’s largely discredited allies have been side-lined within the regime, others managed to realign themselves with the powerful military after purging its own ranks, including the FLN. The party has even won the 2021 parliamentary elections, believed to be subjected to election fraud, and today controls the government once again.

Meanwhile, the FLN’s self-portrayal as Algeria’s sole legitimate leading political force, based on its role in the independence war, has lost significant support among the country’s predominantly young society. Heroic stories about the French Army’s defeat are not appealing anymore, while severe youth unemployment and the housing crisis are dominating local news. Due to the continued spread of corruption, the failure of the rentier state, and the country’s social welfare system, the FLN is again in dire need of renewed legitimacy. The Hirak may have failed to genuinely challenge the regime’s grip on power, but the FLN has not yet been able to recover any kind of popular legitimacy and substantiate its claim to power.