The FIS Ex-militants in Algeria : from combat to re-integration

Although recent commentaries suggest that the doctrinal seeds of extremist Islam were planted in Egypt through the writings of Hassan Al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb1, Algeria, in fact, is the first Arab country that had experienced this brand of extremism. During the seventies, Houari Boumediene, the second president of Algeria, contained the Islamic movements through social and economic development strategy that based on boosting the agricultural sector, heavy industrialization, and expanding opportunities for education2. He succeeded in maintaining a single-party state, and relative security, by shifting the government focus from political to the economic development. Even though there was growing dissent, regarding his economic and education policy decisions, these cleavages did not prevent him and his friends from becoming the driving force of policy-making.3

 Nevertheless, with the serious economic decline following the fall in oil prices in the 1980’s, efforts at promoting development failed and the debt increased. Under Boumediene’s successor, Chadli Bendjedid, the government proved unable to implement efficient strategies to stop the debt spiral and failed to control the process of economic readjustment. Wages were frozen, prices soared, food commodity’s speculation raised, and soon, basic foodstuffs such sugar and milk were becoming increasingly rare. As a result, the rentier peace and the authoritarian modernization model that was established since the independence, had been challenged by the political opposition, both liberal-secular and Islamic, that began to reclaim the political participation. In such dire circumstances, the government had no choice other than to amend the constitution and accept a multiparty system.

The state-society rupture : toward the radicalization of social grievance:

Unfortunately, although both opposition movements were opposed to the autocracy, they stood as rivals in their efforts to mobilize support. They made no attempt to coordinate their efforts. While the liberal militant party failed to obtain large social support, The Islamic Front of Salvation (“FIS”) under the leadership of Ali Belhaj and Abbas Almadani4 scored a major electoral victory. The Islamic movement deliberately exploited the traditional-conservative nature of the social periphery, and the economic deterioration, to successfully gain unconditional support from both rural and urban segments of the country. The accumulated support was not limited to the poor population, rather the Islamic movement attracted people from wide array of socio-economic backgrounds. Nevertheless, the wage earners selling only their labor, constituted a considerable portion of that support. Despite Boumediene’s efforts to transform those wage earners into an important social actor in the society, they could not adopt the class conscious needed to offset the military hegemony, nor could they develop a collective sense of solidarity. Thus, a large part of them preferred to engage with the FIS. However, it is important to acknowledge the remarkable efforts of the trade union leaders in their attempts to face the FIS as well as the oppressive policies of military during the war5.

  The FIS protests burst onto the scene in 1990, cementing Islamic presence and its political manifestations. In cities and countryside alike, the Algerian people participated vigorously in protests. The images and videos of Algiers during this time are shocking and express the profound social unrest that the country was living. Thousands of people crowded in large squares, listening to speeches of Ali Belhaj and his followers, and screamed in unison “Allah Akbar”. The Mosques became the centers of social and political mobilization. Consequently, the state ideology was challenged and the legitimacy of dominant elite was eroded.

The appearance of Nikab for women and Kamis6 for men in Algerian streets was a sufficient indicator to realize the profound changes that affected societal structure. On the one hand, those changes were an expression of a deep influence of an Asian exported model (such Iranian and Afghan model), and the hegemony of the FIS’s political orientations, rather than a result of an organized education process inherited in the society. Thus, the new Islamic uniform for both genders reflected specific political orientations, attitudes, and a new politicized social identity, more so than a deep conscience and understanding of Islamic principles. On the other hand, the large popular support to the FIS was an interpretation of national rejection to the preceding corrupt system, than a symbol of the deep belief in the movement’s doctrine. In other words, what has been described by western researchers and media, as a maturation of Islamic radicalization in Algerian society, was in fact, a symbol of the radicalization of domestic grievance by the FIS. This is also the reason why the front quickly lost the large support that it enjoyed in the end 1980’s.

The low-capability of the regime to deal peacefully with similar collective contests offered a great opportunity for the Islamic front to gain large social support. However, it is important to note that the success of this movement to radicalize the domestic grievance was due to additional factors : firstly, the relative compatibility between some movement’s principles and the hierarchical structure of Algerian family that has been consolidated before the colonization. Secondly, the inability of liberal movement to extend its networks to the more isolated sectors of the population i.e. small towns as well as rural region, where it had been presented by radicals as a symbol of neocolonialism7. Thirdly, the effect of what might be called the collective unconscious of crowd psychology. This phenomenon cannot be understood without comprehending the pull of strong psychological ties between the Muslim people and their religious identity, especially in times of crisis. This facet of religion identity cannot be separated, of course, from the effect of social mobilization through schools, mosques, university, media, family, and community.8

Soon after, FIS escalated the tone of its political discourse and adopted more radical attitudes that threatened the continuity of post-colonial state, and challenged the “November legacy”.9 The front’s extremist attitudes were plainly on display in its publicly expressed position toward various social issues, such women’s clothes, education, and learning of foreign languages. Also, the rejection of constitution, the call to apply Chariaa, expressions such “Vote for FIS, means vote against Ibliss” (Satan), and Taghout,…..were all strong signs that referred to the real political identity of the movement. Meanwhile, on the external level, this extremist language was equally clear from its official statements about the first gulf war.

The meeting of Abbas Almadani with Khaled Nezzar, the minister of defense, wearing a military uniform was an indicator that the front had sought more than a political share of power10; in fact, its goal was to create a new Islamic model in North Africa and to replace the old legacy by another one based on the total rejection of existing social and political structures.11 To give full expression to this objective, the front launched a full-fledged intensive campaign against all symbols of actual social and political life: its aim was not to reconcile Islam with post-colonial society ; however, it was to focus on “social rupture” rather than “cohabitation”, and on “violent rejection” rather than “cooperation”.

FIS’s extremist language was a sufficient pretext to cancel the elections, re-establish the state of emergency, and arrest its leaders.12 As a result, the supporters took up arms and sought to refuge in the countryside in order to organize an armed resistance against the government. They organized small groups in every town (Wilaya) under the leadership of Emirs, and each Emir coordinated with his counterparts to buy arms and recruit more members. In the beginning, they gained a relative support from the population, especially from families of victims that helped them to collect arms, money, and information. Every night they made visits to households to take rifles and money or what they called “jihad contribution”, which could cost as much as 800 euros; this last was generally dependent on the economic situation of the particular family. If someone refused to pay the demanded amount, he or she would be threatened or his/her land and crops would be confiscated. Predictably, this caused considerable resentment among the population, especially among traders who were most directly affected by extortion. Moreover, as a result, many civilians had constituted self-defense groups, especially in isolated areas, where the army was unable to protect them.13

The protests against FIS steadily mounted, especially after it fragmented into several conflicting factions. The crowds that participated in large protests, screaming “people and military are with Zarouel” in 1995,14 were a manifestation of the erosion of the FIS’s social legitimacy. Extremist violence was used against innocent people under false pretenses, especially by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). Many towns suddenly turned into scenes of massacres, like: Jijel, Ghelizan, Bouira, Blida….. Collective murders against children had been committed near to military barracks and there were no official immediate responses. The massacres of Rais, Ben Talha, and Beni Messous were just a partial part of an unannounced chain of collective murders. As we woke up in the morning, we could expect anything: a burned school, an assassinated director or teacher, large arrests, bombing cars, even our own death…..etc.

In this civil war, both parties, the government and the FIS, had committed crimes against innocents. An entire generation had been denied a normal life, and the society was totally fractured. They destroyed the basis of national cohesion and interpersonal trust, even within family. Sociologically, it is arguable that the war gave a new limit and a new definition to the concept of “social solidarity” which, in turn, play a major role in explaining the following domestic reactions toward political and economic policies of the following system.

The mechanisms of adaptation after war

After the arrival of General Zarouel to power, the government proposed “Rahma project”, which called the FIS militants to lay down their arms and to stop fighting. This initiative came about after secret negotiations and contacts between the representatives of the government and their counterparts in their effort to reach a global agreement, but it could not stop the torture. When Abd Alazizi Bouteflika seized power, he continued the process under what was called “Wiam Madani” project, which represented a global reconciliation involved the release of FIS leaders and the general amnesty for its militants.

Various questions had been posed about that initiative, its mechanisms, and its actors to bring an end to the social hatreds and rebuild the channels of social interdependence. Regarding the given context and the evolution of events, national reconciliation and amnesty were the perfect solutions to contain the violence. Nevertheless, the application of such alternatives was not easy: the process needed a global strategy to integrate the ex-militants and prepare the victim families; it needed large mobilization to solve the dilemma of individual trust and social exchange obstruction. The government’s concern was to stop the fighting while the real security concern was how to foster peaceful interactions and eradicate the roots of social violence that ravaged the country during the war.

Institutionally, few efforts have been made to enhance the integration and social communication that are necessary to prevent any type of violence in the future. However, it is important to acknowledge that the large infrastructure projects (universities, roads, commercial centers), that have been initiated by the power at the beginning of 2000’s, have substantial and sufficient positive impact to curb violence and lessen the urge for revenge. Beside the development projects, the ex-militants found another informal ways to re-integrate into the society. According to our field research and our contacts with religious social networks, in towns as well as in periphery,15 we could record three such informal mechanisms:

  1. Firstly, “Rukia” or what called in English “Islamic healing”. It is the tradition of having some Qur’anic verses read over a sick person in order to achieve some betterment, most people assuming it to be medical. There are hadiths (recorded practices and sayings of Prophet Mohammad) refer that Prophet Muhammad practiced it. This practice remains widespread in many Muslim communities around the world, including ones in western society.

In Algeria, there are two famous branches of Rukia : the first one represents the legal clinics that are subject to strict procedures. Those clinics try to associate religious practices with medical science. The second one represents the Soufism networks that have no relation to Islam, and their Rukia is more prone to the traditional sorcery. Both branches act separately. Recently, this practice has been turned into a widespread channel to re-insert the ex-militants who developed a third branch. Arguably, the strong tendency of Algerian people to believe in spiritual rationalization, than concrete solutions, has helped those new returners to extend their activities.

  1. The second mechanism is the “Halakat”. It is a set of religious courses that are always organized by teachers, professors, or Imams who have a deep knowledge of Islam. There are separated courses for males and for females. Moreover, not every religious scholar is qualified to do this job ; according to the Quran, the behavior and individual perception are important factors to recruitment. However, the reality is quite different especially in the rural communities. Notably, a large number of ex-members of FIS or their supporters assist frequently these courses as listeners, and they participate in open discussions, to convey their perspective on the social and political issues.
  2. The third mechanism is commercial activities. Most of ex-militants did not have a high level of education that allowed them to work in administration. Therefore, they felt obliged to orient themselves toward three activities : agriculture, construction, and small businesses. Meanwhile, others have laid the groundwork for large businesses. It is also important to note that the prevalence of informal economy has largely helped them to expand their wealth and accelerate the rate of capital accumulation.

The previous mechanisms helped the ex-militants to readjust to social life, but as a distinguishing social category. Members of this community developed unique styles, perceptions, opinions, and are trying hard to expand their margins of social action. Often, they attempt to impose themselves, acquire a large space, and influence in social arena rather than quietly cohabite with others. Remarkably, that social category has two contradictory features : on the one hand, its flexibility to take advantage of new technologies and social organizations to recruit more supporters, on the other one; its great concern to ensure the protection of its identity boundaries. Undoubtedly, the rapid urbanization and unprecedented spread of mass media posed a big challenge for the members of that social category ; however they succeed in attracting a considerable portion of the youth through small business, especially in recent years, due to the increasing rate of unemployment. Although, sociologically, they cannot be considered as a class, they constitute a powerful social network. This last one remains as a fairly autonomous entity based on the familial linkages like marriage, and common vision toward social organization and political future.

Recently, this network participates in public service projects like the construction of mosques and the organization of collective marriages for poor people, activities that play an important role in rapidly attracting new members. Consequently, what were previously re-integration mechanisms have slowly become new recruitment channels for a non-cooperative social category. Accordingly, the question that is still open here, what is the role of this new social category in today’s new era? Does it represent a challenge or a threat to the national cohesion of the Algerian society ? Could be this non-cooperative social category transformed into a non-cooperative political actor ?


  1. Both of Egyptian origins, Hassan Al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb’s books and texts played a dominant role in the formulation, organization, and diffusion of fundamentalist Islam. The first is the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood; the second is the most influential thinker and philosopher identified with radical Islam. The best work on the Muslim Brotherhood is Richard Mitchell, The Society of Muslim Brothers (London 1969); for an outstanding compilation of the writings of Sayyid Qutb, see Albert J. Bergesen editor, The Sayyid Qutb Reader: Selected writings on politics, religion and society (Routledge 2008). After studying in the US, Qutb returned to Egypt where he joined hands with President Nasser in his fight against British colonial rule, only to become a victim of Nasser’s purges of the Muslim Brothers (Ikhwan). Al-Banna was assassinated in 1949. []
  2. John Ruedy, Modern Algeria: the origins and development of a nation (USA: Indiana university Press, 1992), 216-220.  []
  3. Interview with Ahmed Talib Al-Ibrahimi, (ex-minister at Boumedien’s government), presented by Ahmed Mansour, part 06 and 07, Aljazeera, available in; []
  4. Abbas Almadani was a professor of psychology at the university of Algiers, and Ali Belhadj was a professor of Arabic. []
  5. Unfortunately, some trade union leaders and technocrats who refused the new system and the FIS, were the victims of violence and exclusion from both sides. I had many interviews with trade union leaders which were dependent to Alhadjar factory in Annaba before the privatization process. They struggled hard to protect the factory’s production from the military, especially during civil war. Interview with Yakoubi Mahmoud, (one of the pioneer leaders of trade union in Alhadjar, Annaba) 10-12-2008 []
  6. - Religious Uniforms which appeared in Algerian society since the end of 1980’s.  We do not deny that Nikab is an Islamic uniform, but this last one was new for Algerians in 1980’s. There was what called Hayak, it is a traditional uniform for woman, in addition to the Hidjab, but in its simple form. Our reference to Nikab or Kamis is not an expression of a political or a religious opinion, but to clarify the features of the new social identity. However, it is worth to mention that the apparent features are not sufficient to analyze the attitudes and the behavior of any social club or social category, especially when the study concerns the Arab countries. []
  7. - Louisa Hanoun, the general secretary of workers party, declared that a large part of population refused to participate in election, because of fear, disorder, and social trouble. In addition, Ait Ahmed, the leader of the Front of socialist forces, announced that there was not enough social mobilization to re-direct and re-organize masses. Meanwhile, FIS had took full advantage from the existed mosques and transform them to a basis for the mobilization, “Years of Fire in Algeria”, Documentary, Jalyss TV, 21 Juin 2013, in : =10. []
  8. -Such linkages are not necessarily violent; however they depend to how religion is internalized by various actors, the ability of the government to expand the citizen’s trust in his rulers, and the efficiency of the modern state. []
  9. - “Militarism in Algeria: who is governing,” Chourouk Tv, Algeria, 10-02-2015, available in ; []
  10. - Interview with the ex-defense minister Khaled Nazzar, presented by Samy Klib, Aljazeera, 08- September 2013, []
  11. - Abd Alaziz Rahabi (ex-minister of information ministry at Bouteflika’s government) asserted that this model was too close to the Afghani one, in; “years of fire in Algeria”, Loc. Cit. []
  12. - The opposition split into two parts: the first one supported the state of emergency option, and the second one like Ait Ahmed called to continue the electoral process. []
  13. - Through our contacts with the self-defence groups in Jijel and the president of the association of the terrorism victims, M/ Yakoubi Zakia, we could collect considerable information about this type of armed organizations. Some western media considered those movements as militias. In fact this description has not a scientific legitimacy for two reasons: firstly, those groups never reacted independently, all their activities were under the command and the direction of army. They were used as a guide because they know the countryside more than the army did. The second reason, they did not use the violence against civilians, even terrorists families. They were women and men that were seeking to protect their families and their properties. []
  14. - An ex-general and the president of Algeria from 1995 to 1999. []
  15. - The research is based on direct observation, informal interviews with ex-militants families, and our visits to Rukia networks. We started the field research since five years ago, by observing the behaviors and the networks of this social category. We have many contacts with the ex-militant families and their friends to study their behaviors and reactions. Moreover, our large knowledge to periphery and small towns, give us more flexibility and allows us to integrate with those social clubs and know more about their attitudes. []

Faouzia Zeraoulia

Somalia Piracy”, Algerian Revue for Security and Development, No. 02, January 2012. “Oi Spill In Nigeria: An Old Problem in Need of New Approach”, Policy Paper, Thinking Africa, July 2013. “Political Economy of Conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa: Resources Abundance Debate”, Geopolitics, No.03, September 2015.

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