Forgiving and forgetting fratricide – reconciliation in Algeria after the ‘Black Decade’

by Jacob Lindelöw Berntson

A woman cries out after having witnessed the horrors of the Bentalha massacre of 1997. This photo, taken by Hocine Zaourar, would become known as 'The Madonna of Bentalha'.
A woman cries out after having witnessed the horrors of the Bentalha massacre of 1997. This photo, taken by Hocine Zaourar, would become known as ‘The Madonna of Bentalha’.

A few weeks ago, Algeria celebrated the ten year anniversary of the referendum on the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation. The Charter was a plan towards reconciliation, after a decade of horrific civil war, put forward by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in August 2005 and approved by more than 90 % of the population in a referendum roughly a month later. Even though the fratricidal violence of the Algerian Civil War decreased in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the introduction of the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation (CPNR) in many ways constitutes an official end date of the civil war.
The war itself erupted when the military suspended Algeria’s first ever democratic parliamentary elections, therefore robbing the Islamist party the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) – poised to win – of an election victory. As a response, several armed groups were set up, aiming to establish an Islamic state by force rather than by democratic means. What followed was a decade of violence that pitted not only Islamist guerrillas against state security forces, but neighbour against neighbour and friend against friend. Today, Algeria remains fragmented, and is in no way reconciled. Therefore, perhaps one should not speak of a celebration of the anniversary of the referendum on the CPNR. Rather, one should take the opportunity to look back at what has actually been achieved by this measure.

How did the CPNR work?

What the CPNR did was give amnesties to militants who turned themselves in to the state. ‘Militants’ in the Algerian case designate the thousands of people who joined one of the several Islamist guerillas that were set up in the aftermath of the suspension of the 1992 elections. Many of these groups did not exist before the elections were suspended, but were a result of internal divisions within the FIS, whose leadership was initially reluctant to armed struggle, whereas the more extreme factions of the party went on to form groups such as the GIA (Armed Islamic Group). The GIA in particular specialised in killing foreigners, artists and journalists during the course of the war, and were guilty of some of the war’s worst atrocities, such as the Bentalha massacre where more than 200 people were slaughtered.
It is important to note that the amnesties in the CPNR did not cover those guilty of rapes, massacres or the use of explosives in public places. Nonetheless, there was an understandable outcry against this clause as both local and international NGOs criticised it for promoting impunity. However, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has time and again reiterated that this was a necessary step to make people put down their arms and turn themselves in. Furthermore, there was a considerable punishment in the sense that those ‘using religion for political purposes’, i.e. the Islamists, were banned from politics.

Another measure taken by the CPNR was that victims of terrorism or families of disappeared were given reparations. The official statistics places the number of disappeared people around 7000, whereas some human rights organisations set a much higher number. SOS Disparus, an organisation working with the case of the disappeared, has criticised the fact that in order to receive the reparation money, a family would have to sign a death certificate, which in turn could render a sense of giving up and leaving the issue behind rather than finding the perpetrator and promoting accountability. This issue is intricately linked to the most controversial article of the CPNR, Article 45, giving the army and the security forces blanket immunity since they ‘saved the nation’. Despite this claim, it is fairly well-known that the security forces are responsible for most of the disappearances. However, as stated in Article 45, accountability does not apply to the security forces. As mentioned, it is important to remember that although many of the militants were given amnesties for turning themselves in, they could still be sentenced for certain crimes, whereas the security forces – who have been accused of massacres and murdering of innocent people – were allowed to go unpunished.

According to human rights organisation SOS Disparus, the number of disappeared during the Algerian Civil War is around 8000.
According to human rights organisation SOS Disparus, the number of disappeared during the Algerian Civil War is around 8000.

The Charter for Peace…but not reconciliation?

What we notice with the CPNR is that is does not really provide any incentives for reconciliation between people, or at least it does not explain how this shall occur. Together with the fact that blame is put on only one side, when there were two belligerents, the CPNR has been criticised for primarily establishing one version, one narrative, of what happened during the civil war. One should remember that the military is responsible for having suspended the elections, which triggered the armed response from the Islamist militants. Therefore, the CPNR has rightfully been denounced for equating reconciliation with submission of a few select militants to a regime guilty of many of the crimes they accuse the ‘terrorists’ of.

La réconciliation, c’est quoi?

The Algerian case raises important questions about reconciliation. First of all, does reconciliation require forgiveness? According to this case: no. The CPNR does not explicitly promote forgiveness. Rather, it is a political project aimed at establishing peace and reducing the number of militants fighting for the guerillas. French philosopher Jacques Derrida famously stated that forgiveness needs to be without any underlying purpose, or goal, in order to be ‘pure’. Following his line of thought, the CPNR does not create an environment conducive for forgiveness, but does not aim to do so either. Even though Algeria still suffers from the presence of armed Jihadi groups, the regime has been successful at creating stability – probably the main purpose with the reconciliation project. Second, does reconciliation require accountability? Yes, and no. Amnesties may be required in order to convince people to lay down their arms, which itself is a prerequisite for there to be an end to the conflict, and, subsequently, reconciliation. However, a sense of justice is ultimately conducive for helping people to move on – which is something that is not present in the Algerian case. Lastly, the Algerian case represents something that all transitional justice mechanisms risk falling victim of – even the more successful examples such as South Africa’s post-apartheid truth commission and Rwanda’s Gacaca courts – namely that the issue of ‘justice’ or ‘truth’ becomes politicised, or that only one truth is presented. This is apparent in the CPNR, as it establishes one narrative of the war, and by doing so, covers the Algerian Civil War in opacity rather than finding an unbiased truth. Furthermore, this has been complemented by the regime’s way of speaking about the civil war, which paints a very binary picture of the conflict in which terrorists attacked the nation, after which the state and the military saved it. Given that the Algerian Civil War was full of uncertainties and ambiguities as to who did what, and because of the sheer complexity of the conflict, the regime’s narrative gives the war a much too simplistic character.

The Kasbah in Algiers
The Kasbah in Algiers

Unfinished business

This is where Algeria is today. Today, it is mainly the regime who believes in the reconciliation plan. As has been highlighted above, this has both to do with the technicalities of the CPNR itself and with the general language and narrative surrounding the civil war. Obviously, many Algerians know people who lost their lives in terrorist violence, making it difficult for them to accept the state’s amnesty policy. Simultaneously, many have seen the repressive tactics employed by the security forces in their crackdown against the Islamists. When I travelled in Algeria I heard several stories of people joining militias because of the harsh treatment they and their families received from the security forces due to the latter’s suspicion of them being Islamists. Some would even call it unfair to ban Islamist parties, which the CPNR did implicitly through its stipulation that parties ‘who use religion for political purposes shall be forbidden’, because they are ‘responsible for Algeria’s national tragedy.’ Interestingly enough, this has not worked, as there are still Islamist parties active in Algeria today. The difference this time around is that they have been ‘approved’ by the regime, and has in many ways been coopted and does not constitute a viable opposition. This once again proves that placing the culpability on the early 1990s Islamists is nothing more than a political move; however one might see the Algerian Civil War and its causes.
Similarly, the still non-resolved disappearances are something that the military are guilty of, not to mention the suspension of the 1992 elections which de facto started the conflict. Knowing this, many Algerians are suspicious of the state’s narrative of the war. The situation has also led to the emergence of several conspiracy theories, with several groups claiming to know what actually happened during the war. The sad conclusion is that Algeria, despite all of its advantages and strengths, in this way remains a fragmented society. Certainly, even a perfect reconciliation plan would have made genuine reconciliation difficult to achieve (even though the case of Rwanda sends encouraging signals), but there is no doubt that Algeria’s Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation has prevented the emergence of a stable and peaceful post-conflict society.  With falling oil prices, and with an absence of genuine solutions to important political problems, the fact that the civil war has not sufficiently been dealt with may come back to haunt Algeria in the future. This way, the Algerian case presents an important case study of post-conflict or transitional justice measures, as it contains many flaws and instruments non-conducive to reconciliation. Given the complex internal conflicts currently unfolding in Yemen, Syria and Libya, the lessons from Algeria may be crucial in order to tackle future transitional justice projects.


Select bibliography:

Arnould, Valerie. “Amnesty, peace and reconciliation in Algeria”. Conflict, Security & Development, 7:2 (2007) 227-253.
Derrida, Jacques. “Le Siécle et le Pardon”. 2008.
Joffé, George. “National Reconciliation and General Amnesty in Algeria”. In Mediterranean Politics 13, No. 2 (2008) 213-228.
Moussaoui, Aberrahmane. “Algérie, la réconciliation entre espoirs et malentendus”. Institut français des relations internationales (IFRI) | « Politique étrangère » (2007) : 339-350.
Silverstein, Paul A. “An Excess of Truth: Violence, Conspiracy Theorizing and the Algerian Civil War”.  Anthropological Quarterly 75, No. 4 (Fall 2002): 643-674.


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