In This Review

Les Islamistes Algeriennes: Entre les Urnes et le Maquis
Les Islamistes Algeriennes: Entre les Urnes et le Maquis
By Severine Labat
Editions du Seuil, 1995, 344 pp

Algeria is the only Arab country in which Islamists have nearly succeeded in coming to power through democratic elections. For many observers, the crisis has raised the question whether a nondemocratic movement should ever be permitted by law to gain power. Some draw a comparison to Hitler. To answer, one needs to understand the Islamist opposition in Algeria. This is the first fully researched account, primarily of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), and is based on detailed interviews. The author finds that the Islamists arose out of conditions unique to Algeria, gaining a popular following when the economic and political crises of the mid-1980s hit the first post-independence generation just as it was entering the labor force. The author identifies several factions of the movement, the most important of which were the technocrats and the theocrats. The former seem prepared to work toward their goal of an Islamic state without resorting to violence, whereas the latter are more ambivalent about the rules of the game. When the military-backed regime interfered in 1992 to deprive the FIS of its electoral victory, a portion of the Islamist movement took up arms, while others retired from the political scene or were imprisoned. Over the past four years there has been a radicalization of political life, and today the FIS can no longer pretend to speak for all the Islamist factions, especially the radical armed groups.

The author is best when she is discussing the Islamist players, their relations with one another, and their political histories. The regime itself does not play a large part in her story, and her analysis may be betting too heavily on the ability of the Islamist moderates eventually to strike a compromise with the military. Still, this is by far the best account of the Islamist rise available, and it is essential for anyone who hopes to understand where the FIS and its descendants may fit into Algerian politics.