1998 Scores

Status: Not Free
Freedom Rating: 5.5
Civil Liberties: 5
Political Rights: 6

Ratings Change

Algeria's civil liberties rating changed from 6 to 5 due to a slight easing of repression in the country.


Algerians suffered a seventh year of bloody civil conflict marked by horrific and often random violence that has claimed as many as 70,000 lives. The conflict between Islamist radicals and the country's military-dominated regime began in 1992 when the regime cancelled elections that Islamic parties appeared poised to win. Comprehension of the conflict is clouded by heavy official censorship and an Islamist murder campaign which has killed approximately 70 journalists and forced many into exile. While Islamist radical groups are primarily responsible for the vicious massacres of men, women, and children, government-backed militias have also apparently committed some mass killings. Human rights groups have also charged government forces with thousands of disappearances, torture, and other excesses against alleged militants and their suspected supporters. The overall security situation improved in 1998, but daily killings continued in several parts of the country. In addition, new laws mandating the use of Arabic throughout the country has inflamed the minority Berber community, which has been a staunch foe of the Islamists.

President and former Major-General Lamine Zeroual announced in September that the next presidential elections would be advanced by over a year to early 1999 and that he would not be a candidate. Despite the slow reconstruction of representative institutions in Algeria, the army remains dominant, and Zeroual's successor will likely be determined by infighting between military factions long before any voter reaches the polls. Two leading contenders are Army Chief of Staff General Mohammad Lamari and Zeroual's top advisor, former military intelligence chief General Mohammad Betchine. There is no prospect for an early end to the war. The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) has called for a ceasefire, but the extremist Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and other radical armed elements are unlikely to abandon the use of force unless they gain outright power, an outcome that the military will go to any lengths to prevent.

International policies towards Algeria are shaped both by revulsion over the ongoing violence and many countries' strong opposition to the extreme Islamist thrust for power. In July, the United Nations Human Rights Commission issued a report harshly critical of the Algerian regime's human rights record. In September, a report by a top-level UN mission to the country expressed qualified support for the Algerian authorities' efforts to quash the rebellion. According to the Washington Post, Western governments believe that this position reflected the "distasteful necessity of supporting an imperfect and intractable government seeking to thwart the much greater menace of an Islam-driven revolution only a few miles across the Mediterranean from Western Europe."

After a bloody liberation struggle convinced France to abandon its 130 years of colonial rule, Algeria achieved independence in 1962. The National Liberation Front (FLN) ruled as an effective one-party regime until the political system was reformed in 1989. Algeria's army canceled the second round of 1992 parliamentary elections in which the FIS had achieved a commanding lead. FIS's avowed aim to install theocratic rule under Shari'a law would have ended many constitutional protections, yet corruption, housing shortages, unemployment, and other severe economic and social problems had increased anti-government sentiment and convinced Algerians to vote for change. In 1993, Major General Lamine Zeroual was appointed president after President Chadli Benjedid was forced from office.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Algerians' right to choose their government freely in democratic elections has never been honored. The country has effectively been under martial law since the cancellation of the 1992 polls. The government-backed National Democratic Rally party scored a sweeping win in June 1997 legislative polls that excluded the main Islamic opposition groups and that were conducted under severe restrictions of freedom of expression and association. International observers found the parliamentary vote to be seriously flawed. A November 1995 presidential election victory gave Zeroual limited legitimacy in a vote that was restricted to regime-approved candidates and that drew a 75 percent turnout. A new constitution that was approved in a 1996 referendum expands presidential powers and bans Islamic-based parties. The declared emergency and an anti-terrorist decree give the regime almost unlimited power.

Human rights violations are rife, and the rule of law is seldom respected by any of the sides to the conflict. Members of the security forces and government officials are among the fundamentalists' favorite targets, but all of civil society and, increasingly, the civilian population are under threat. Unveiled women, Christians, foreigners, and other individuals not fully committed to an Islamist state are marked for execution. Many murders are committed in a calculatedly cruel manner to maximize their terrorist impact. Government security forces have responded brutally as well. Extrajudicial killings are allegedly common, even beyond the thousands of militants who have died in armed clashes. Many suspected militants and supporters are detained without trial, and reports of torture are common.

The civil war has drastically curtailed freedom of expression. Journalists, especially employees of state broadcast media, have been particular targets for Islamists. The regime is also unrelenting in its efforts to restrict and direct reporting. The state controls broadcast media and some newspapers and has repeatedly threatened and arrested reporters and editors and closed newspapers. Government censors must approve all war reports. These conditions have caused extensive self-censorship by the country's media. Approximately 500 Algerian journalists have fled the country, but more than 20 newspapers still publish and offer a lively, if circumscribed, forum for political debate.

Both Islamist terror and government strictures constrain public debate. Public assemblies other than those that support the government are rarely permitted, although legal opposition parties technically need no permission to hold meetings. Non-governmental organizations must be licensed. The Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights has offered harsh public criticism of human rights abuses. Matoub Lounes, a popular signer, leading figure of the minority Berber community, and public critic of both sides in the civil war, was murdered by Islamists in July. The Berber, who predominate in the northeastern Kabylie region, are targeted by extreme fundamentalists because of their more liberal interpretations of Islamic practice. They are also now in near rebellion because of strict new laws imposing Arabic as Algeria's only official language and downgrading the Berbers' native Tamazight language and related dialects.

Constitutionally-guaranteed religious freedom is under threat by the fundamentalists. The GIA has publicly declared Christians, Jews, and polytheists to be targets. The Shari'a-based 1984 family code, other laws, and many traditional practices discriminate against women. Trade union rights are protected, and nearly two-thirds of the labor force is unionized. An FIS-allied union has been banned, but strikes and other union activity are legal. In September, the one-million strong umbrella Algerian General Workers Union won concessions, including the limiting of factory closings, in a pact with the regime.

Algeria's economy is burdened with more than $30 billion in foreign debt, but foreign investment in oil exploration and production continues. Extractive industries produce few local jobs, however, and unemployment remains a serious problem. Privatization plans have been expanded, but the largest state-owned enterprises are not yet on offer.

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