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Algerians held presidential elections in April 2004, and incumbent Abdelaziz Bouteflika won a landslide victory against five challengers in a process that international observers pronounced free of serious problems. The violence in Algeria continued to claim lives, but it was considerably diminished and Bouteflika's triumph was attributed largely to a "civil harmony" program he introduced when he first took office in 1999. After his reelection, Bouteflika promised to resolve the Berber crisis and free women from a restrictive family code.
Algeria gained independence in 1962 following 132 years of French colonial rule. Algeria's current problems can be traced to the 1986 oil market collapse, which reduced its key source of foreign exchange. Unemployment, housing shortages, and other social ills fed growing popular resentment. With no political outlet, young men took to the streets in violent riots during October 1988.
Once peace was restored, President Chadli Bendjedid legalized political parties after more than 30 years of single-party rule under the National Liberation Front (FLN). The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was formed in 1989 as an umbrella organization of Islamist opposition groups, with significant grassroots support. In January 1992, the FIS was poised to win a commanding parliamentary majority when the army intervened, forced Bendjedid to resign, and canceled the vote. The FIS was banned and its leaders imprisoned. The country was placed under a state of emergency that remains in effect.
Violence ensued as Islamist militants took up arms against the regime. The FIS splintered into rival armed factions and a guerrilla-style insurgency erupted in the countryside, while urban-based extremists resorted to terrorism. An estimated 150,000 were killed in a series of massacres perpetrated by Islamic extremists and in mass killings attributed to government-backed militias. Human rights groups have accused the Algerian security forces of responsibility for thousands of "disappearances."
In 1997, the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), the least radical of the armed groups, announced a unilateral ceasefire and laid down its arms. However, extremist offshoots such as the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) continued to conduct terrorist attacks on civilian and government targets.
A presidential election held in 1999 was severely flawed. Citing government fraud and manipulation, opposition candidates withdrew, leaving Bouteflika to run unopposed. After Bouteflika took office, the government introduced a "civil harmony" law that granted amnesty to Islamist rebels who renounced violence. By January 2000, some 5,500 members of the armed groups had surrendered, but the GIA and the GSPC continued to wage attacks, killings thousands in 2003. The attacks diminished in 2004, but instances of weekly clashes with security forces and ambushes against civilians continued. In June, the army said it had killed the leader of the GSPC, Nabil Sahraoui; the group quickly appointed a new leader. Another GSCP member, who was one of Algeria's most wanted terror suspects, was handed over to the government in late October. Caught in Chad, Amar Saifi (Abderrezak El Para) was accused of being behind kidnappings of 32 German and European tourists in 2003.
A massive earthquake in May 2003 left 2,200 dead and thousands homeless. The government responded slowly, and the only rapid assistance came from Islamic charitable networks. In 2004, tens of thousands of people still lived in temporary housing, which contributes to Algeria's festering social ills. A lighter earthquake hit Algiers in February 2004, causing injuries and the destruction of more houses.
The 2004 presidential election marked a difference from previous votes. Bouteflika ran against five other candidates, but his strongest opponent was his former right-hand man, Ali Benflis, a prime minister whom he fired in 2002. The army, long at the political helm of the country, announced its neutrality. Although government control of the broadcast media gave Bouteflika a clear advantage, he and the other candidates ran strong campaigns around the country, using new campaigning techniques to grab voters. Candidates included a woman, Trotskyite Worker's Party leader Louisa Hanoune; the head of a Berber party; an Islamist leader popular in the poor districts of Algiers; and the chief of a nationalist party. Public apathy and a low turnout combined with support for Bouteflika by Islamists, nationalist parties, and Algerian workers to give him a resounding 84.99 percent of the vote. Opposition candidates denounced discrepancies and irregularities, but international monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe declared the electoral process to be free of serious problems.
Bouteflika seemed to take steps in 2004 to reinforce his strength in the small circle of powerful generals. He reshuffled senior military positions and, in August, accepted the resignation for health reasons of the army chief, General Mohammed Lamari, long at the center of the war against the Islamists. The daily Al Watan hailed the move by saying "The time has come for the military to ... go back to the barracks."
As a result of increased security and political stability in Algeria, the World Bank and France, Turkey, and other countries started talks in 2004 on economic growth programs and structural reforms. Algeria suffers a 30 percent unemployment rate as well as housing shortages, and a significant proportion of the population lives below the poverty level.
The right of Algerians to choose their government freely is restricted. While the last presidential elections may signal a cautious new start, the fact remains that Abdelaziz Bouteflika was endorsed by the army for his first term. Algeria's civilian president is generally the nominal head of state, but the president wields minimal leverage with the small group of generals who retain ultimate power. Parliamentary elections have been largely free of systematic fraud.
Algeria was ranked 97 out of 146 countries surveyed in the 2004 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. In late 2004, President Bouteflika promised to fight corruption. In recent years, a number of scandals involving bribery, embezzlement and fraud have been brought to light in both the private and public sectors. Such corruption is partly to blame for continued poverty in Algeria despite the country's oil wealth.
The press in Algeria is relatively vibrant, with more than 40 newspapers, but the government often enforces strict defamation laws and influences content through the state-owned printing press and advertising company. Activists and journalists claimed that following the reelection of Bouteflika in 2004, the government moved to stem reports revealing corruption or human rights violations. The International Federation of Journalists opened a branch office in Algiers in November to campaign for improved press freedom. Reporters without Borders, a press freedom watchdog, said 2004 was "an especially hard year for the news media in Algeria," because of the number of newspapers suspended and of journalists arrested and given prison sentences. A local correspondent served a six-month jail sentence for defamation after he reported on police abuse and a local hospital scandal in the southern town of Djelfa. In June, Mohammed Benchicou, publisher of the daily Le Matin, received a two-year prison sentence for violating foreign currency controls. Benchicou was strongly critical of Bouteflika and other officials during the election campaign. Around ten other journalists were detained or sentenced on similar charges. In July, the authorities temporarily suspended the work of the Arab satellite station Al-Jazeera, and a court sentenced the editors of a press group to two months in jail for insulting an official figure. They had published articles critical of local officials in Oran. Access to the Internet is almost completely open, despite potentially restrictive legislation demanding Internet service providers monitor their sites for material harmful to the public order and morality.
Religious freedom is generally respected. Islam is the state religion, although the government rarely interferes in the practice of non-Muslim faiths. The government monitors mosques closely, to prevent political activities. The government does not restrict academic freedom.
Algerian authorities have exploited the state of emergency, in effect since 1992, to curtail freedom of assembly. Government permits, sometimes difficult to obtain, are required for public meetings and a decree bans demonstrations in Algiers. In other areas of the country, security forces dispersed peaceful demonstrations in 2004, sometimes violently. Emergency laws have also impeded Algerians' right of association as well as their right to form political parties and nongovernmental organizations. The Algerian workers unions are largely thought to be allied with the government. Other professional associations maintain relative independence, but have been subjected to government harassment.
While the human rights situation has improved, torture has not ended, thousands arrested remain "disappeared," and investigations into human rights abuses are rarely carried out. Human rights activists say that the judiciary is not independent except for a few judges who are subject to disciplinary or other repressive measures. FIS leaders Abassi Madani and Ali Belhadj were released in July 2003 at the end of their 12-year sentences. Belhadj was briefly re-arrested in the summer of 2004 while attending the wedding of the daughter of a deceased FIS founder.
The government in late 2003 established an ad hoc mechanism to look into the issue of the more than 7,000 "disappearances," mostly dating to the mid-1990s, and to serve as an interface with the families of the victims. The committee lacked the power to investigate the cases or end the impunity enjoyed by those responsible for the violations. In 2004, Amnesty International called on the government to conduct full investigations of human rights abuses by armed groups, security forces, and state-armed militias. It also asked for the investigation of mass graves believed to contain the bodies of victims killed by armed groups or by state-sponsored militia during the mid-1990s. In November 2004, President Bouteflika said a general amnesty covering all those implicated in the sectarian violence of the past decade would be considered. It would include armed Islamists as well as members of the security forces accused of torture and summary executions.
Berbers comprise approximately 20 percent of the population. However, their cultural identity and language are not fully recognized, and riots have erupted over the last few years, leaving scores dead. In his acceptance speech, Bouteflika called for a return to the negotiating table, but in September 2004, police clashed with Berber activists protesting that Bouteflika was not meeting their demands.
The law provides for freedom of domestic and foreign travel, and freedom to emigrate; however, the government at times restricted these rights, especially concerning former FIS leaders. The government also does not allow draft-age men to leave the country without a special permit. Under the State of Emergency, the Interior Minister and the provincial governors may deny residency in certain districts to persons regarded as threats to public order.
Women face discrimination in several areas. The 1984 Family Code, based largely on Sharia (Islamic law), places women under the legal guardianship of a husband or male relative. The code allows men to have up to four wives and makes divorce easy for men but nearly impossible for women. After Bouteflika promised to focus on reform, in September 2004 the government said it would press ahead with a bill reversing many of the code's articles, despite protests by Islamic political parties and clerics. However, by the end of the year no change had taken place. Some feminist groups have asked for the family law to be scrapped altogether.