Islamic Salvation Front

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Even for Algerians, the founding of the Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS, Front Islamique du Salut, or al-Jabha al-Islamiyya li-l-inqadh), in February 1989, and its sweeping electoral victories in the 1990 municipal elections, and then in the first round of legislative elections in December 1991, were events as unforeseeable as they were phenomenal. Islamic symbols and discourse had been used repeatedly to oppose the alliance between the army and the sole legal political party, the National Liberation Front (FLN, or Front de Libération Nationale), since Algeria's birth as a nation in 1962. Nonetheless, the meteoric rise of the FIS can mostly be attributed to the growing economic gap between the elites and the masses, which worsened in the 1980s and pushed people over the edge of frustration and despair.

In October 1988 young people took to the streets to protest the state's inability to satisfy their basic needs, and in five days the army had killed over five hundred protesters. President Chadli Benjedid, sensing the gravity of the situation, boldly proposed a constitution to pave the way for multiparty elections. Yet it was not the handful of secular-leaning parties who gained from the riots, but rather those who saw in Islam the salvation for the nation's woes—Algeria's homegrown Islamism.

Islam had already played a key role in Algeria's struggle against French colonialism. The reformist Salafiyya movement was launched by Shaykh ˓Abd al-Hamid Ibn Badis when, in 1931, he founded of the Association of Algerian Ulema. The FIS's two founding leaders claimed to wear Ibn Badis's mantle, yet only ˓Abbasi Madani (b. 1931) could realistically do so. Indeed, he grew up in ulema circles, joined the FLN, and spent several years in French prisons. He later obtained a doctorate in philosophy in England. As a professor he and other Islamic leaders cultivated the growing Islamist student movement of the 1980s. By contrast, the second leader, ˓Ali Belhadj, born in 1956, was a school teacher, and knew no French. His rise began as a young, fiery, eloquent imam who successfully organized a massive peaceful rally at the end of the bloody 1988 riots. From the start, Madani led the more moderate, reformist wing of the FIS, and Belhadj its more radical wing.

The army arrested Madani and Belhadj in June 1991 and, after the December first-round elections, which portended an Islamist majority in parliament, deposed Benjedid and banned the FIS. With all of its leaders either imprisoned or exiled, the uneasy populist coalition fell apart. A more moderate leadership took over the party under ˓Abdelkader Hachani, and the radicals broke off to found the GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé). In the bloody civil war that ensued (over 120,000 killed, mostly civilians, in ten years), two rays of hope appeared in the 1990s. First, eight opposition parties, including the FIS, signed the Rome Platform in 1995, condemning violence and calling for the reestablishment of democracy. Second, single presidential candidates were successively elected by majority vote, Liamine Zeroual (1995) and ˓Abd al-˓Aziz Bouteflika (1998). In the early 2000s the army retained its strong grip on power, but in spite of the continued ban on the FIS and the competition of two other legal Islamist parties (HAMAS and al-Nahda), most Algerians believe that without the reinstatement of the FIS, Algeria will not likely see the return of democracy and national reconciliation.

See also˓Abd al-Hamid Ibn Badis ; Madani, ˓Abbasi .


Shahin, Emad Eldin. Political Ascent: Contemporary Islamic Movements in North Africa. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1997.

Shah-Kazemi, Reza, ed. Algeria: Revolution Revisited. London: Islamic World Report, 1997.

David L. Johnston

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Islamic Salvation Front

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