The Algerian Tragedy

EXETER – Commenting on the recent Algerian hostage crisis on an international news channel, one terrorism “expert” made a remarkable claim: “Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was founded because of the so-called Arab Spring, after we abandoned our Libyan ally [Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi].” After enduring a few more inaccuracies, I felt compelled to put aside the students’ papers that I was grading.

Let’s start by stating the obvious: AQIM is not a product of the Arab Spring. AQIM exists because of the military coup that ended the “Algerian Spring” two decades ago. And it has not been strengthened by the Libyan revolution, but rather by the failure of state-building in North Mali, the absence of post-conflict reconciliation and reintegration in Algeria, and a lack of accountability for a shadowy Algerian security establishment whose brutal methods have proved woefully inadequate to the challenge.

AQIM’s history can be traced directly to the coup staged by a handful of Algerian generals against President Chadli Bendjedid in January 1992. Bendjedid, whose memoirs were recently published (he died in October), gave Algeria its first relatively democratic constitution, lifting the ban on political parties and guaranteeing a minimum of basic rights, including freedom of speech, assembly, and conscience. He was the first Arab president to be criticized on state-owned TV (that is, without the critic disappearing afterwards). Algeria was the first Arab Spring country.

But the spring turned out to be fleeting. Fearing threats to their vast economic empire and their grip on high politics, the generals decided to end the reforms, overturn the results of Algeria’s first democratic parliamentary elections, and remove Benjedid from power. In the West, the prevailing narrative is that “progressive” army generals blocked the advance of the “fundamentalist” Front Islamique du Salut (FIS). But that account does not explain why the generals soon allied with another “fundamentalist” group (a faction of Algeria’s Muslim Brotherhood, Mouvement pour la société Islamique) and gave them several top posts, including control of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Endowments.