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Politics as Usual in Algeria

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Getting to Egypt was yet another "odyssey" into and around certain countries. The team found itself going on the "scenic route" to get across Africa. Just like in Zimbabwe, when we had to take a detour around Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the team had to go the long way around Africa by passing through southern Europe to get from Morocco to Egypt. So what was the problem this time?


One of the 5 countries that makes up Saharan North Africa, Algeria is situated in between Morocco, Tunisia and Libya.
It is the second largest country in Africa, after Sudan! If you have ever had visions of nothing but enormous mounds of sand for miles and miles for as far as the eye can see, Algeria is probably what you were thinking of. Unfortunately, given the current state of affairs there, a "vision" of the place is the most you are going to get!

Although the State Department has not forbidden Americans from travelling in the country, it is warning its citizens to "evaluate carefully the implications of their safety and security before deciding to travel to Algeria." In other words, think long and hard about going there because the risk to your safety is very high. Not wanting to push its luck, the team decided to get to Egypt another way.

It is easy to associate religious fundamentalism with Arabs. We always hear reports on the news talking about Islamic fundamentalists. But be careful not to assume that only Arabs or Muslims can be labeled in this way. The first religious fundamentalist movements began, not in Algeria or even Iran, but in the southern part of the United States, among various sects of Christians at the turn of the century.

Even today, religion and religious beliefs play a large role in the U.S. political system, despite the fact the U.S. Constitution calls for a separation of church and state. The debate over school prayer is one example of how religion is involved in U.S. politics. Can you think of any other ways that religion is part of our political system?

Other examples of how religion is part of our government: the Pledge of Allegiance ( nation, under God, indivisible...), when we take an oath on trial we place our right hands on the Bible, our currency says "In God We Trust", Christmas and I think Good Friday (I know the stock exchanges are closed on Good Friday) are national holidays. If you want to really get into sticky issues you could also bring up abortion, and the creationism vs. evolution debate which has reared its ugly head again.

But this former French colony wasn't always a dangerous place to go. With some of the largest reserves of oil and natural gas in the world to form its economic backbone, by the late 1970s Algeria was achieving a modest level of development. So what happened?

Starting well before independence in 1962, Muslims in Algeria were becoming highly politicized. Not just in Algeria, but all across the Arab world, people were taking to the streets and protesting their secular governments who seemed more interested in pleasing Western powers, than in caring for their people and abiding by the laws of the Koran. You might have heard of the expression, "Islamic fundamentalism." This is a term to describe people who are protesting societies or governments, which they believe have abandoned basic Islamic principles or fundamentals. They want to take over these "heathen" governments and reinstate Islamic law, called Shari'ah. This includes things like making women wear veils to cover their faces and making sure everyone prays at prescribed times during the day.

Some of what the Islamic fundamentalists are fighting for isn't all that bad. Mostly, they want to restore a sense of community where everyone is safe and taken care of; no crime, no corruption, just their Islamic values, which call for a simple, virtuous way of living. They are protesting amoral Western influences, which they fear are eroding their traditions.

The most dramatic example of this kind of protest is the Iranian Revolution of 1980. There, the fundamentalists were successful in overthrowing the government and cutting ties with all of the evil Western nations. The international community, especially the West, was very concerned with what happened there for a variety of reasons. First of all, Iran is an oil-producing nation, which had now cut itself off. What was this going to do to the global oil supply?

Secondly, would the kind of traditional, almost medieval lifestyle, that the fundamentalists in Iran were calling for, actually work in modern times? How were these new leaders and this old governmental system going to handle modern economic and social problems like high population growth, increasing poverty rates or AIDS? Western leaders were also worried that their ascension to power would result in a flood of refugees, who did not want to live under this system, which would further destabilize the region.

Vocabulary Box

Heathen - not acknowledging the God of Christianity and Judaism and Islam
Amnesty - An act of the government or sovereign power which grants a general pardon, for a past offense.
Referendum - a vote on a law or issue that is by the people as opposed to the legislature.
Null and void - having no force, binding power, or validity.

A third concern with the Iranian revolution was whether it would be exported to other countries. And in Algeria, their fears were realized in the 1991 parliamentary elections. The National Liberation Front had been the ruling party of Algeria since its independence in 1962. But during the first round of these elections, it lost 82% of its seats in Parliament to the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a group that promised to reinstitute Shari'ah. Runoff elections were set for January 1992, and it was widely expected that the fundamentalists would win a decisive majority in Parliament. However, before the elections could take place, the military stepped in and declared the elections null and void.

The government declared the FIS illegal and insisted they disband. Instead, the armed wing of the FIS, the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), waged terrorist attacks against the government in an attempt to claim the power that they felt was rightfully theirs. Mindless extremism has taken the place of radicalism, with groups even more militant than the FIS rising up against the Army, which has yet to fully retreat from politics. Massacres and bombings on cities and small towns have become commonplace. The government has responded with even more repressive measures. Worst of all, since 1992, thousands of people have been killed. One wonders if the country would have been better off had the FIS been allowed to take power in the first place.

Recently, the situation has improved. In June 1999, the AIS fully surrendered to the government. Newly-elected President Abdelaziz Bouteflika responded by pushing legislation through Parliament, that grants a partial, or in some cases total, amnesty to armed fundamentalists not guilty of "crimes of bloodshed," rape or bomb attacks. This law won massive approval among Algerians in a September 16 referendum which was seen as an endorsement of Bouteflika's plans to end conflict in order to tackle enormous social problems facing the country. Despite these strides, much of the violence has been by groups other than the FIS, who have not necessarily signed on to these agreements. It is also being reported that the AIS is going to take up arms once again, if certain conditions are not met. Peace in Algeria is not a sure thing. And the country remains highly unstable.

The role the West has played in all of this has been interesting. If democratic elections in Canada, Sweden or even Kenya were crushed by the military, the United States and the West would have jumped right in and done something about it. Using a variety of channels from diplomatic pressure, to the withholding of economic aid, to the deployment of troops, action would have been taken to stop such an act against democracy. But in this case, the U.S. stood quietly by and did nothing. It was decided that stopping the threat of Islamic fundamentalism in yet another strategic oil-producing country was more important than a blow to a democratic process. You might say that this was pretty hypocritical of the West. We are always touting the ideals of democracy and demanding that authoritarian regimes become more democratic. And yet, here in a clear attack on democracy, we looked the other direction.

It would be easy think that Western motives only revolve around oil. But before you do that, consider that if these fundamentalists had come to power, they could have imposed a new order that was very authoritarian. The FIS might have used the ballot box to get to power but there was no guarantee that they would have preserved those democratic traditions, which are not part of the Koran or Shari'ah law. Whatever limited freedoms Algerians enjoy could have been taken away, much like they have been in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. But then again, maybe it all would have turned out okay. There is no way to ever really know for sure. The Algerian government and the West, certainly did not wait to find out.


The Team - Memphis: The Ancient Capital of Egypt
Abeja - Introducing Egypt's Living Dead
Jasmine - One Step at a Time: Egypt's First Pyramid
Kavitha - Many Streams, One River
Monica - Learning How To "Walk Like An Egyptian..."
The Team - U.S.-Libya: A History of Tense Relations
Making a Difference - Just Do It
Making a Difference - The Parthenon

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