Algeria - What way out for the Algerian peoplen caught in the war between the army and the Fundamentalists?

Apr/May 1997

Five years after the cancellation of the legislative elections in Algeria, the first round results of which had indicated a probable majority for the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the power struggle between this party and the government has turned into a civil war in which the poorer classes of the Algerian population are the main victims.

The representatives of the different political clans linked to the government, and those of the opposition political parties, are now discussing the next election date to be set by the army leaders. Liamine Zeroual has on various occasions confirmed his intention to hold a general election between April and June 1997. And it was with this in mind that he organised a referendum in December 1996, concerning a revision of the 1989 Constitution, intended to increase the powers of the President of the Republic, to make him more independent of the parliament and above all to legally justify the banning of explicitly religious-based parties, i.e., of course, the banning of the former FIS.

The preparation of elections designed to lend a tailor-made parliamentary facade to the military government and legitimise the regime while keeping out the FIS, will no doubt dominate the political scene and mobilise all parties. It is impossible to say whether they will really take place, or what positions the various political tendencies will adopt. But it can already be seen that they do not offer any way forward for the poorer classes in Algeria, who for the past five years have been suffering the consequences of the civil war which the military dictatorship and the fundamentalist organisations are waging against each other, at the expense of the population.

The periodic declarations by the Algerian government asserting that the terrorist groups are on the decline or are being marginalised, and that there will soon be a return to normal life, are constantly contradicted by the bombings and massacres perpetrated by the armed groups of the GIA (the main Fundamentalist armed groups) and by reports of confrontations between the army, or groups of civilians controlled by the army, and armed Islamic groups.

According to the international press, some 40 000 to 60 000 people have been killed and large numbers have disappeared. 17 000 people accused of being linked to the former FIS, mostly young people, are in prisons or camps. And the reports drawn up by organisations such as Amnesty International provide more and more proof that indiscriminate violence, torture, brutality, assassinations and score-settling are practised on both sides.

The FIS - a by-product of the FLN regime

The FIS, a reactionary religious party which, in 1989, when political parties were legalised, began a rapid ascent to become the country's leading party, did not spring up out of thin air. Its cadres and leaders came out of the Islamic movement which has always played an important role in Algerian political life. It was by attracting a large proportion of the young poor who had nothing to lose, that the fundamentalist movement had gradually, from the eighties onward, become an organised political force which was seen as the main opposition force to the regime. And in the aftermath of the 1988 crisis, the absence of other opposition parties capable of offering perspectives to the popular masses and desperate young people had left the way open for it.

The fundamentalist leaders used, as far as possible, all the legal means which the so-called liberalisation measures and the holding of local, and then legislative elections, afforded them. But when the government, faced with the fundamentalists' successes, decided to put a halt to their legal march to power by cancelling the elections after the first round, by banning the FIS and tracking down its militants, the fundamentalist leaders resorted to armed struggle and terrorism. At the time of its dissolution, the FIS was a large party with electoral influence, cadres, militants and sympathisers: men, women and young people, in the poor districts of the towns in particular, who saw it as representing them. So it only took a minority of these hundreds of thousands of people, organised by the FIS, to conduct a terrorist policy enabling it to remain a decisive force in political and social life. Above all, the terrorist turn enabled the FIS to enroll young people in a hierarchical military apparatus uncontrolled by the population. And as with all terrorist movements, the fundamentalists' tactics consisted in provoking situations in which the army could only react and hit back, and thus create a bloody divide between those who supported the fundamentalists and the rest.

On the Islamist side, there were enough clan and gang leaders to form commando groups and organise an underground movement. Many areas of the big towns remained under the control of the fundamentalists, while little by little, in various rural areas of the country, armed bands attempted to impose their control over populations, demanding weapons and provisions and enlisting young people, by choice or by force. The assassinations of prominent figures and spectacular bombings were not primarily aimed at getting the government to back down, or at preparing its downfall. Their main objective was to terrorise populations and show them that they had no option but to choose sides.

On the government side, terror was also employed, this time organised with the immense resources of the state. Young army conscripts were forced to go and track down the Islamists in the poor districts. Thousands of them were turned into murderers and torturers. Thousands of others took part in the liquidation of underground Islamic movements. And all these young people knew that on the opposing side there were probably neighbours, friends, brothers and cousins. But the policy of the army was also to create a divide.

The Algerian state attempts legitimise itself

When the leaders of the Algerian state chose a test of strength against the FIS in January 1992, they claimed to be barring the road to the fundamentalists in the name of democracy and modernity. They even claimed to be the only barrier against Islamist barbarity and won the support not only of cliques close to the regime but also of part of the population. But the whole political situation in Algeria was there to show that this was a lie and a trap for those who did not want to see the FIS win. For these army officers and politicians were, after all, responsible for the dictatorial regime which showed no pity for the poor. It was they who, in the recent past, in October 1988, had responded to a movement of revolt among young people by opening fire on teenage demonstrators, massacring more than five hundred of them in Algiers. The few political reforms made in the aftermath of this 1988 crisis, which were aimed at setting up a regime based on a multi-party parliamentary system, as demanded by a large section of the political class and a section of the petty bourgeoisie, had not changed the nature of a regime in which real power has lain with the army since the end of the war of independence. Who could believe that the checking of the rise of the FIS, the cancellation of the elections and the dissolution of this party were aimed at protecting this shop-window "democracy"? Some politicians and some intellectuals hypocritically pretended to believe this, hoping to protect themselves against the Islamic danger, but they simply chose one reactionary dictatorship in preference to another.

In the space of a few months, the latent civil war which had begun in the weeks which followed the banning of the FIS resulted, on the army side, in incursions by military commando groups into the poor districts, with executions and arrests. Enormous resources were deployed in the rounding-up of the underground movements. But while the government's military operations and its use of all forms of repression led to a kind of dismemberment of the FIS and its break-up into numerous armed groups, the military means used were not powerful enough to liquidate it.

...And then goes on the offensive

In 1994, it was plain to see that huge areas, with the exception of the main towns, were no longer under the authority of the state. Every time the army carried out operations to destroy the underground movements, young soldiers were killed, and others went over to the FIS. And every time, once the army had left, armed Islamic groups formed up again.

It was in this situation that, after some hesitation, the government chose to enlist not only professional soldiers and conscripts in the armed struggle against the former FIS, but also civilians. Communal guards were set up under the authority of the mayor. Made up of around forty men who had undergone military training, equipped with light battle gear and operating in uniform, these groups were backed up by so-called self-defence groups. Some of these groups had formed more or less spontaneously to combat the incursions of the Islamist bands, but it seems that in most cases they were initiated by the local authorities. Furthermore, a growing number of these groups were rapidly integrated into the general security system.

The participation of the population in these kinds of militias, to prevent Islamist incursions into the villages to obtain rifles, arms or provisions, did not, of course, make the actions of the army any more democratic. Torn between the pressure and terror of the Islamists and those of the army, the population lived and still lives in a state of total insecurity.

But despite the victorious communiqués of the regime's leaders, asserting that, thanks to these methods, terrorism has been reduced to a residual level, the armed Islamic groups constantly demonstrate that they have in a sense adapted to the dispersal imposed on them. Certain armed groups apparently went to ground in the poor areas of the towns, where they prepared bombings requiring only a few people and few material resources, while in small towns and the countryside more and more executions are carried out and scores settled using knives and swords.

The deterioration of the situation and the persistence of terrorism demonstrate that, despite the self-satisfied communiqués, the government has up to now been incapable of dealing with the fundamentalists. That is why the Algerian military have all the more need politically to legitimise their role for internal as well as external political reasons.

The army, which had taken control of the situation in January 1992, had remained politically in the shade, leaving the front stage to a National Transition Committee. But the assassination of Mohammed Boudiaf in June 1992 allowed it to take direct responsibility for government. It did so by putting forward a man chosen from its own ranks, Liamine Zeroual. And since then, the government has conducted a complex political game, manoeuvring between the existing political forces in order to govern. And these political forces, ranging from the former FLN to the moderate Islamists of the Hamas movement, and including the rival parties based in Kabylia (the RCD and the FFS), are constantly lurching between support for the regime and compromises with the former FIS.

One of the political problems for Zeroual is that he has no political party which can serve as a stable link with the population. The FLN, which had played this role for thirty years, is divided and discredited, and its successive leaders fluctuate between critical support for the regime and respectful opposition.

That is why all the current pre-election manoeuvres are fa-removed from the concerns and interests of the poorer classes.

Dead end "democrats" and deadly French interests

Today the Algerian people is torn between two sides and subjected to a double dictatorship of two armed clans who for several years have been getting the population to kill each other. And the scale of this tragedy exposes the nature of those who advocate a return to what they call "democracy" - in reality a mere facade of parliamentarism which, they hope, will allow them a little space in the corridors of power.

All these so-called "democrats" are now lamenting the situation. Some regret having trusted the army to restore order and deal with the problem of the rise of the fundamentalists. Others demand that the same government should respect the election results and reintegrate the former FIS into the political establishment, asserting that otherwise the parliamentary system cannot function.

For all these people, democracy, in the parliamentary sense of the word, serves as a justification for their capitulations and their social selfishness. And in the case of those calling for the legalisation of the FIS, it is just a way of masking their surrender to the Islamists' pressure.

Their attitude and their positions reflect the fact that they are not concerned about proposing a way forward for the poorer classes, who are paying for this war not only in tens of thousands of deaths but also a dramatic increase in poverty.

And that is why the poorer classes cannot hope for any solution, or any way out, from these so-called "democrats".

There is no middle way between two sides who wish to establish their dictatorship over the proletariat and over the whole of society. And yet these democrats fluctuate between these two sides, acting by turn as accomplices of both.

And the attitude of France to the Algerian problem is also typical. French imperialism has lined up on the side of the ruling dictatorship. But it is prepared to come to terms with any leading clique which is capable of exercising power, i.e. maintaining order and guaranteeing business as usual. If French imperialism had been capable of concern for the democratic rights of the Algerian people, there would have been some evidence of this in the past 130 years. The problem for the leaders of French imperialism is only which dictatorship will be most effective: that of the current military rulers, with whom they are well acquainted, or that of the Islamists, which may seem more risky to them. But they are in any case in favour of a dictatorship over the Algerian people, for, as in all the poor countries plundered by imperialism, only dictatorships make it possible to impose the all-out exploitation needed in order to extract profits from the poorest of populations.

The poor classes have only their own side

The problem for the poorer classes in Algeria is not one of respect for the rules of parliamentary democracy. The problem is to fight from a position which is not that of one of the two dictatorships competing for power, who have at least one thing in common: the desire to exploit the working class even more. The problem for the working class and the poor is that they have no other means of defending themselves than to use violence against both dictatorships, on their own behalf and to defend their own interests.

And this is not a problem merely of weapons. There are weapons everywhere in the towns and in the countryside. And millions of Algerians have them.

No, it is a problem of organisation and political consciousness. And the only way forward is for a section of the Algerian proletariat in the main urban centres and in the rural areas to become politically conscious: for this section to refuse to allow thousands of its young and old to die for the competing cliques.

Of course, we do not know when or how the Algerian working class will take this path. But what gives cause for hope is the fact that the working class of this country, which has just been through so many negative experiences, is numerically strong and concentrated both in workplaces and in towns. All the country's wealth passes through its hands - the country's gas, oil and mining products - and it can have a future other than that of submitting to the dictatorship of the army or the FIS, and allowing young people and women to be killed, tortured and reduced to silence. The FIS and the army may have placed weapons in the proletariat's hands to massacre each other on their orders. But the working class can use them for another purpose. For it also has, collectively, a far more powerful weapon in its hands. This weapon is the position it occupies in society and in the economy. A weapon which could make the army and the wealthy tremble if workers decided to use it on their own behalf.

This is, at any rate, the only alternative worth mentioning for the poorer classes in Algeria. And also for all those who do not want to seem them subjected any further to either of the forms of barbarity presented today.