Abbas Madani, the leader of Algeria’s banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and his deputy, Ali Belhadj, were released from house arrest and jail respectively on July 2, having served 2 days more than the 12-year sentences they were given following their arrests in June 1991 for leading weeks of political demonstrations calling for free elections.
Despite their arrests, FIS went on to convincingly win the first round of parliamentary elections in December that year, prompting the Algerian military to intervene to prevent the election of an Islamic government. The coup prompted an uprising to which the military responded with brutal force.
Their release was unexpected. For the last twelve years, Algeria’s military rulers have blamed the FIS leaders, particularly Belhadj, for all their subsequent problems, despite the fact that they have been behind bars and the problems have been largely of the military’s own making. Although their lawyers had professed confidence that they would be released, government figures and military generals had openly opposed their release, saying that they should be tried again for further political offenses and kept in jail.
Their release is not unconditional, however. Within hours of their release — Madani from house arrest in his Algiers apartment and Belhadj from prison in the town of Blida, south of Algiers — the state radio announced that authorities had imposed draconian restrictions on them, amounting to an effective ban from political life. They are not permitted to vote, to stand for election, to express their support for any candidate in an election, to address public or private meetings, to publicise their views on any issue, to belong to any association or charity, or to engage in any political, social, religious or cultural activities. The radio claimed that Madani had accepted the restrictions but Belhadj had refused to do so. The claim that Belhadj was released from imprisonment without his having accepted the conditions may be in preparation for his re-arrest in the near future.
The severe restrictions placed on both Madani and Belhadj suggest that the authorities are genuinely fearful of the influence they could still have on Algerian politics. Belhadj, who is recognised as a charismatic figure and is still only 47 years old, is particularly feared. Immediately after his release, he startled authorities and others alike by heading straight for the television building in Algiers where he had been arrested, and demanding the right to complete the statement — a reply to allegations against him — that he had been making at the time.
In the decade since the military coup, Algeria’s political life has remained in disarray, with the military unable to consolidate the secularism they acted to protect. No-one knows what impact Madani and Belhadj could have because the military has been too scared to permit any genuine test of the public will since that time. On the one hand, many people still regard FIS and its leaders as the victims of a gross political injustice, and still look to them as the main alternative to the military regime; on the other, FIS has virtually no organizational infrastructure and is unlikely to be permitted to reconstitute itself.