If everything goes according to the plans of the Algerian generals, in less than three weeks time, on 16 November, polling stations will open throughout the country for a presidential election which will at best be an absurd display of sham "multiparty democracy" and at worst, the pretext for a bloodbath.
Seven legal opposition parties are calling for a boycott of the poll. The country's largest political party to-date, the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), being illegal, will not be allowed to stand in this election. Having imposed drastic legal requirements on all other candidates, thereby eliminating most of them, the army then simply dismissed those they did not want, particularly former prime minister Redha Malek who was considered as one of the few serious contenders. Of the initital 20 or so declared candidates, four only will be allowed to stand. And out of this shortlist, only one, Liamine Zeroual, a retired general who is the army's candidate and already the strong man of the regime, has any chance of winning.
In addition, there will be no public meetings, canvassing, bill posting or leafletting during the election campaign. The radio and television will be the only way for the candidates to be heard. And since both are controlled by the army, Zeroual will get the lion's share of all broadcast time.
The whole country is under a state of emergency. In areas where, on the contrary, the authority of the state is threatening to collapse, rampaging armed guerillas are striving to take over from the state's regulars. The population is held hostage between the terrorism of the state's elite troops and that of the fundamentalist groups. Even if the polling stations do open on 16 November, which remains to be seen, who will want to risk his life and that of his family by voting for dubious candidates under the even more dubious "protection" of the state's gunmen when the fundamentalist gangs threaten anyone taking part in the ballot with execution?
Democracy has nothing to do with this cynical farce, of course. This election is just the latest episode in the four-year power struggle between the military and state establishment and the fundamentalists. It is yet another attempt by the army to regain the initiative. By staging such a show, the army must be hoping that getting Zeroual elected after nearly four years in power will restore some legitimacy to its rule and improve its bargaining position in future negotiations with the fundamentalists. Above all the army is trying to prove - to its imperialist partners and to the Algerian bourgeoisie - that it can still deliver the political stability that the imperialist order demands.
Whatever the results, this election will not be the last episode in the present power struggle. The deep economic and social crisis which has been used as springboard by the fundamentalists in their bid for power will not be resolved through the ballot box. Powerful social forces have been unleashed. So far the fundamentalists have been able to ride these forces. By using and abusing the despair of the poorest layers of the population, they have built up a mass party. But this social tide may also change direction should the poor masses realise eventually that their self-proclaimed leadership is betraying their aspirations. Just as the fundamentalist leadership may choose to drop their uncompromising stand and come to some settlement with the regime - and then join ranks with the army to crush any expression of desperate rebellion among the empoverished masses. Obviously, it is impossible to predict what the outcome of this struggle will be.
The only certainty is that the protagonists in this power struggle are both enemies of the working masses. They are fighting for the control of the state machinery and both pledge to run it in the best interests of the Algerian and imperialist bourgeoisies, against the working masses.
Whatever the outcome of this power struggle, whether it strengthens the army's grip over the country or propels the FIS to power, or whether it involves some compromise between these two forces, the working masses stand to be the losers. Already the reactionary shift in Algeria is weighing heavily on the Algerian proletariat. But it could get even worse, if only simply as a result of its duration. And because of Algeria's economic and political importance, being the second largest industrial economy in Africa, after South Africa, the consequences will inevitably be felt far beyond its borders, in the entire Maghreb and beyond, in the rest of the Arab world.
Algeria may seem a long way away from Britain. But it is not all that far given the traditional involvement of British imperialism in most of the political intrigues in the Arabic and Muslim world. Hasn't the British state always proved "tolerant" towards the most reactionary political factions, provided they had the potential to undermine the influence of Britain's imperialist rivals and, at the same time, could be trusted to keep the proletarian masses under the yoke of imperialism? Unquestionably the Algerian FIS has all the qualifications required. The fact that its most prominent figure at present, Abassi Madani, as well as a number of members of its leadership graduated in Britain is not a coincidence. Nor is the fact that London has been selected by the FIS as its diplomatic headquarters. Algeria may never have been part of Britain's sphere of influence, but the British bourgeoisie, once again, has its hands deep in the tragedy of the Algerian masses.
This is to say that what is happening today to the Algerian working class must be a matter of concern for the working class here. Because of our fundamental class solidarity with any other section of the world proletariat but also because there is every reason to suspect that British imperialism is not as innocent or "neutral" as it claims in the Algerian crisis.
Four years of civil war
Most reports published in the British papers about the situation in Algeria over the past four years focused on the shooting of intellectuals, journalists and foreigners by fundamentalist gangs and on the bomb attacks they organised in Algeria and more recently in France. But these are only the tip of the iceberg. There is an open civil war going on, with an estimated 15 to 20,000 armed fundamentalists engaged in an all-out confrontation with the much larger forces of the army and police across the country.
According to recent estimates this confrontation has claimed something like 45,000 casualties over the past four years. Such estimates are unreliable, but they are indicative of the scale of the fighting.
The vast majority of the victims are obscure people belonging to the poorer classes. Most are youth. Young fundamentalist activists have been shot on sight by the so-called "ninjas", the black-hooded gunmen of the state's special forces while others have died under torture in the huge detention camps set up by the army in the Sahara desert. Young conscripts have been killed because their inexperience made them easy targets for the fundamentalist gangs. Many youth, who were not involved in any way have died in blind reprisals by both sides - killed by the army because they belong to the generation which provides the fundamentalists with most of their recruits; or killed by the fundamentalists, in the name of the koranic law, because they were dressed in the wrong clothes, drank alcohol or did not fast during Ramadan or because they were women who refused to be locked up and veiled just to please a bunch of bearded religious fanatics.
While the army concentrates on protecting the larger towns, several regions of the country are controlled by the fundamentalist guerillas who have taken over law and order as well as the forcible collection of taxes from the population. And there is little to choose between the army's reign of terror and that of the fundamentalists.
This is a fight for power between two cliques whose ambition is to run the country for their own benefit and that of the bourgeoisie. That one of these cliques has chosen to put on the rags of Islam as a means to cover its ambitions and secure the support of large layers of the population, is purely circumstancial, just as the fact that the regime happens to be, this time, on the "wrong" side of religion. After all, the history of the past 33 years, since Algeria became independent, is an unending story of devious uses of Islam by the regime, among other means, to stifle what little freedom existed for the proletariat.
What is different today from the past on-going fights between rival factions for the control of the state, is that the fundamentalists have chosen to ride a large-scale popular mobilisation against the brutality, corruption and parasitism of the ruling clique. This explosion of frustration has been maturing throughout the past decades. The ground for it was paved, many years ago, right from the early days of the fight for independence, by the nationalist leaders when they used the aspirations of the poor masses as a lever to overthrow the French colonial power and then crushed these aspirations to impose their own dictatorship, on behalf of an emerging Algerian capitalist class.
Behind the FLN's past radical image
In some respects, Algeria stands out as something of an exception in the Arab world. Indeed the French bourgeoisie, who had occupied Algeria for over a century, was forced out of the country after a protracted war which lasted seven years. Moreover, this war was not confined to military operations. It involved a popular uprising which penetrated deep into the urban areas of the country. Certainly, at the time, it was expected that once independence was won, the scale and depth of this popular mobilisation would result in the eradication of the traditional features of the Algerian society.
All this gave the post-independence Algerian regime an image of radicalism which lasted for years - at least outside the country itself. There was even a current among the Western revolutionary left who, during the war and for a few years afterwards, referred to the Algerian FLN as being "unconsciously socialist" - despite the fact that this was a contradiction in terms.
In reality, the FLN's radicalism, let alone "unconscious socialism", was an illusion. And contrary to a legend still told today, the FLN and the regime it set up did not "degenerate" into today's corrupted dictatorship. The FLN leadership undoubtedly resorted to radical means in its fight for power against the French domination. But its radicalism never extended beyond this fight. In fact, both socially and politically, the FLN was, right from the beginning, a reactionary force whose relationship with the population was dictatorial.
From a social point of view, the FLN leadership was always reactionary in that it never questioned capitalist exploitation - rather, like all nationalist movements, it expressed primarily the aspirations of the Algerian middle-class to become the main beneficiaries of the wealth produced by Algeria's exploited masses. In that sense, the FLN was, right from its inception, the same party of profiteers and careerists that can be seen plundering the country today - only in the early days, they were still only aspiring careerists and profiteers.
Nor was the FLN ever a democratic leadership, neither before, nor after independence. On the contrary the roots of today's brutal dictatorship can be traced right back to the first days of the FLN. The name chosen by its initiators, for instance, was significant in itself. Being a "Front" implied that all political differences had to disappear behind the fight for national liberation. It also meant that anyone outside the "Front" was an "enemy of the nation" and therefore a traitor.
Yet, when the FLN was set up in 1954, it did not emerge in a political vacuum. The Algerian nationalist movement had long standing traditions. It was organised in the MTLD (Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Freedoms), the last of a long series of organisations - which had been banned one after the other - set up under the leadership of a prestigious nationalist militant, Messali Hadj. Nine years before, in 1945, Messali Hadj and his followers had been at the forefont of a mass uprising in Setif and Guelma, which had been bombed into the ground by the French government. Since then, the MTLD had built a large base among the poorest layers of the population, primarily in the towns, but also in the countryside. It was unquestionably a nationalist organisation, with all the limitations this implied from the point of view of the proletariat. On the other hand, the MTLD's roots in the urban proletariat meant that it was, to an extent, responsive to proletarian pressures.
This was precisely what the founders of the FLN objected to. They were only a handful of activists who came from the illegal military wing of the MTLD. One of their gripes against Messali Hadj was his past association with the Communist International, in the 20s and 30s. Political, let alone class considerations, they said, should have nothing to do with the fight for independence. Anyone willing to fight the French should be welcome regardless of his political opinion or social position. In particular the so-called elites, the better-off Algerian middle-class who prospered in the shadow of colonial rule should be given a place in the national fight. Behind the patriotic jargon, this was just another way of saying that the nationalist movement should abstain from putting in question the social organisation of society - which meant in effect that their aim was nothing more than an independent bourgeois Algeria.
A war within the war
Within two months of setting up the new organisation, the FLN had already set up its own "army" - the ALN, or National Liberation Army - which mimicked the army of the colonial occupants, including its hierarchy and titles. Having done this, the FLN immediately proceeded to declare war against the French occupiers with a series of bomb attacks on 1 November 1954.
But almost at the same time, the FLN leadership started an undeclared war against all other political currents. Soon a majority of the Algerian Communist Party applied to join the FLN as individuals, without any criticism, thereby capitulating to the FLN leadership - which did not prevent some of the best CP cadres from being executed subsequently by anti-communist guerilla officers. Some reactionary currents submitted willingly once they were reassured as to the aims of the FLN leadership. Thus, the Ulemas, a small religious Islamic movement based mostly among the old rural feudal layers, merged with the FLN in 1956 at the same time as a moderate nationalist organisation based among the urban middle-class. This left Messali Hadj and his followers as the only remaining competitors to the FLN leadership.
The French government was quick to blame the FLN bombings on the MTLD. Within days the MTLD was declared illegal while troop reinforcements were sent to Algeria. Messali Hadj responded immediately by launching a new, underground organisation, the MNA (National Algerian Movement) with its own armed organisation. It took another few months before the FLN felt strong enough to move against the MNA. When they eventually did, they launched a bloody war against the MNA's armed groups in Kabylia while the French army looked on. It took the FLN a few months to achieve their aims. The end of their offensive, and their victory, was marked by a last horrific massacre in May 1957, in the village of Meluza in South Kabylia, which was still controlled by the MNA, where an FLN unit machine-gunned all males over 15, leaving 301 dead bodies.
The 400,000 Algerian workers living in France, still under MNA influence, proved a much more difficult target. In 1956, worried by the in-roads made by the FLN, the MNA ordered its armed groups to liquidate the fledgling FLN organisation in France. Eighty-two FLN cadres were executed. This was a terrible revenge, but a useless one. Over the following two years, gangs of gunmen from both organisations went on the rampage in France's working class suburbs, spraying Algerian cafés with bullets, executing individual activists, bombing Algerian community centres, etc.. By the end of 1958, the FLN had won this war and it proceeded to eliminate systematically all the remaining MNA cadres.
How many people were killed in this internicine war is impossible to say. In France alone, according to a leading FLN activist who broke away from the FLN many years later, over 4000 people were killed and 9000 wounded. But among the victims, both in Algeria and in France, were the cadres with the most political traditions and the closest links with the Algerian working class, in particular many trade-union activists.
The in-fighting did not end with the extermination of the MNA's cadres, however. Throughout the war of independence, the rivalries within the FLN leadership led to murderous confrontations between factions, while a number of leading FLN figures were executed because they were a potential threat for the uneasy factional alliance which ruled over the organisation.
The FLN's control over the population
The FLN's attitude towards the masses who fought behind it against French colonialism and left one million dead in the war was not any more democratic than towards its political rivals.
The FLN leadership borrowed from the methods of other nationalist leaders, in particular from Ho Chi-Minh in Indochina, who had just inflicted a decisive defeat on the French army. Leaving aside all other political means, the FLN concentrated on rural guerilla warfare and urban terrorism. In terms of casualties these were the most risky and costly tactics, for the FLN itself - at least for those of its cadres who remained in Algeria - but much more so for the Algerian population which, immediately, became the target of the terrorism of the colonial machinery. But these tactics had a number of advantages for the FLN leadership. On the one hand, the ferocious retaliations by the French army pushed the population to seek the protection of the FLN while generating enough anger and fear among the youth, in particular, to provide the guerillas with a steady flow of recruits. On the other hand, the requirements of illegality and the need for military discipline in front of the repression provided the FLN leadership with an ideal pretext to impose absolute obedience and prevent any form of political discussion, among their troops as well as among the masses.
In fact, less than two years into the fight for independence, the recruiting methods of the FLN had already lost any militant character and looked increasingly like those used by warlords all over the Third World. As early as 1955, a colonel by the name of Amirouche became famous for liquidating the population of a whole village near Constantine, which he found lacking enthusiasm for the independence struggle. Such methods spread rapidly among local guerilla commanders who came to rely increasingly on terrorising the population. The guerillas depended on the rural population for food, clothes and recruits. Soon this dependence became a justification for looting and killing reluctant "contributors". And each guerilla commander became a local dictator with his own clientele queueing for favours but also with his own henchmen, spies, prisons and torture chambers.
The same corruption and nepotism developed at the head of the FLN, only on a much larger scale. Part of the leadership soon moved abroad, mostly to Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, where they set up various diplomatic and military structures split into rival factions, each with its own intelligence and security apparatus. More and more money was required to run these increasingly sophisticated machineries and satisfy the growing appetites of those whose interests they protected. The collection of funds became one of the most important activities for the FLN underground, and one of the most bloody too.
Among the Algerian emigrants in France, where the largest share of these funds was collected, it soon became compulsory to "contribute to the patriotic war" by paying "taxes" to the FLN. To boost their collection figures, and make them look good to their superiors, those in charge of organising the collection of funds started imposing fines on the community, under many different pretexts, like alcohol drinking or late payment. Those who failed to pay had to face the punishments imposed by the FLN's collectors. And when bashing a head or two was not enough, failure to pay was simply equated to betrayal, and "treachery" was invariably sanctioned by death.
The birth of a dictatorship
Eventually, the French bourgeoisie had to give in. The FLN proved unable to defeat the French army militarily but they were succesful in defeating the French state politically. Continuing the war had become too costly, both politically and economically, for a second rate imperialist power like France.
On 18 March 1962, the Evian agreement was signed between De Gaulle and an FLN delegation led by Ahmed Ben Bella, one of the FLN's historic leaders who had just been pulled out of a French prison to participate in the negotiations. This agreement guaranteed that an independent Algeria would remain in the French economic sphere of influence and that the French oil companies would retain their assets in the Algerian Sahara for the foreseable future. In exchange, it recognised the FLN as the legitimate representative of the new Algerian state which was to become independent on July 3rd.
By then, indeed, the FLN leadership had in its hands a fully-equipped state machinery capable of taking over from the colonial administration.
Admittedly, in Algeria itself, the ALN guerilla army was too weak to inflict decisive defeats on the French. But it was still strong enough to keep most of the country under control, once the French army had departed. The FLN's main military instrument, however, was not in Algeria but in Tunisia and Morocco. The construction of this "border army", as it was called, had started many years before, as early as 1956. It was a modern army, well-trained and equipped with the most modern weapons, including heavy artillery and tanks. A majority of its officers were ex-officers and NCOs who had served in the French army, many of them in Indochina against Ho Chi-Minh's guerillas.
Next to this army, the FLN had set up, as early as 1958 a Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic, or GPRA, based in Tunis. By the time of the Evian agreement, the GPRA was no longer just a symbolic government in exile. It was a fully-fledged administrative machinery whose cadres were mostly former Algerian functionaries who had come straight from the French colonial administration, including from the French police.
The setting up of these heavy and expensive machineries reflected the FLN's determination to prevent any vacuum of power in the country once the French occupants withdrew. The FLN leaders, who were officially so hostile to the idea that the Algerian population was divided into classes, knew exactly what class they had to fear. They were determined not to allow any space for the proletarian masses to express their aspirations, let alone to measure their strength.
But as it turned out, the transmission of power from the colonial army to the new regime was not as smooth as had been hoped by both sides. A majority of the Provisional Government, supported by a number of guerilla commanders, refused to submit to the alliance formed by colonel Boumedienne, the commander of the border army, and Ben Bella. A two-month civil war followed between the two sides. In some areas the population rose up against the killing and intervened between the warring factions shouting «Seven years is enough», which probably played a role in the compromise which ended the fighting. In any case, there were several thousand more victims, mostly among the FLN's former underground in Algeria. And eventually, in September 1962, the tanks of the border army entered Algiers. Soon Ben Bella proclaimed himself prime minister with Boumedienne as Defence minister.
The hand-over of power was therefore completed. The new regime had come to power over the bodies of tens of thousands of anonymous nationalist activists killed during the on-going factional fights during and after the war. At no time had the Algerian population been given a chance to voice its aspirations, let alone choose its future.
Soon after, however, the massacres were to start again. From August already, in the areas occupied by Boumedienne's army, a wholesale "cleansing" operation had been launched against those who had "collaborated" with the colonial power. It lasted until the beginning of 1963. Former Algerian soldiers of the French army were hunted across the country by soldiers whose officers had themselves often served in the same French army. Scenes of collective killings, torture, emasculation, crucifixions, were described later by FLN defectors. The most ferocious in this man-hunt were the so-called "Marchists" - those who had joined the FLN in March, just after the Evian agreements, when it was already safe. For several months, anyone critical of the regime was in danger of being accused of past imaginary crimes and eliminated. And, of course, this campaign was the pretext for all kinds of settling of accounts, which had often more to do with the private ambitions of the new regime's supporters. In any case, by the time this wave of massacres stopped, the initial enthusiasm which had been generated among the proletariat by the departure of the colonial power had been replaced by a sense of demoralisation. The FLN had overcome what it saw as the main threat - the risk of the proletariat taking seriously its new "freedom".
After independence, a regime for the privileged
In so far as it was aimed at protecting the interests of French capital, the Evian agreement imposed a straightjacket on the Algerian economy. But there was never any question, for the FLN leadership, of not complying with the conditions agreed at Evian. The interests of the Algerian bourgeoisie and its trade with France were a primary concern for the new regime.
Of course all the rival groupings within the new ruling circles used the same slogans about "democracy" and "socialism". But as far as the future state was concerned there was an explicit consensus. This would defend the social organisation and capitalist relations previously enforced by the colonial state. Even its law system was to be left intact. Ben Bella's version of "socialism" as stated in the FLN's programme left no space for doubt: the «control of the economy by the state...will allow the accumulation of capital required for profitable industrialisation» - in other words this so-called "socialism" boiled down to channelling, through the state, the country's resources to ensure the future development of capitalist profit.
In September 1962, the candidates for the National Assembly were all duly selected by the FLN leaders. The population had the privilege of merely endorsing them by their votes. This was supported, more or less willingly, by all the other organised political forces outside the FLN, including by the small Algerian Communist Party, under the pretext that the reconstruction of the country required a "strong state". Even this, however, did not save the Communist Party from being banned in November 1962 - anti-communist prejudices and anti-proletarian fears were much too strong among the FLN leaders for them to take the Communist Party's servility seriously.
There were, however, a few attempts at challenging the FLN's monopoly. But they reflected primarily the overspill of old rivalries within the FLN itself, rather than actual political differences. Each one of these organisations was eventually either destroyed or driven underground while their leaders were jailed. Only one of them still exists today, the Front of Socialist Forces (FFS) set up by Ait Ahmed in 1963, which was based among the Berber comunity of Kabylia. Driven underground the following year, it barely survived, mostly among Algerian emigrants in France, until it was eventually unbanned in 1989.
A potentially more serious opposition came from the grassroots, however. During the Summer crisis of 1962, while the factions of the aspiring government cliques were at war with each other, some workers and peasants attempted to take over the factories and farms where they were employed, leading to the spontaneous emergence of local self-management committees. This, however, did not fit with the FLN's plans and it was dealt with swiftly. In late August the provisional executive of the new regime issued a decree ordering the appointment of caretakers in all the industrial and farming sites which had been left unattended by their owners. These caretakers were to see to it that «these sites remain well kept until their legal owners express their wish to resume their activity.»
However, this pressure from the working class had some impact within the the FLN-controlled union confederation, the UGTA. Its leadership responded by seeking to distance itself from the regime, in an attempt to retain control of the militancy on the ground. Thus one UGTA leader was quoted saying that his union «had no interest in supporting this or that leader - all appearing equally opposed to ceding one iota of their decision-making power to the workers.» And the UGTA went as far as staging demonstrations in Algiers against those leaders who might be tempted to dismiss popular aspirations. But this responsiveness to proletarian pressure was more than what the FLN leadership was prepared to tolerate. Ben Bella retaliated at the first congress of the union, in January 1963, by flooding it with his own men and ousting the union's leadership! From then onwards, the UGTA leadership confined itself to the role of a loyal appendage of the regime, stating that workers should «mobilise their energy, devotion and technical skill in the service of the nation through rapid and conscientious execution of the orders of the party.»
The army takes over
Meanwhile, the FLN leadership was consolidating its new state apparatus. Over the Summer crisis alone, Boumedienne's border army had already more than doubled its numbers. Soon new recruits were flocking into the various structures of the new state. Most were probably just looking for a job. But many were also primarily anxious to be on the winning side and hoped, by doing so, to get their cut of the spoils.
In the first year after independence, the state's civilian apparatus grew by 30%, with 100,000 jobs for functionaries being created, while the state army was expanded to 60,000 by 1964. And between 1962 and 1964, 6,500 police officers, 168 superintendents of police and 340 officers of the gendarmerie were trained in specialised centres.
This consolidation of the state, however, did not mean and end to rivalries within the FLN leadership. Far from it. The initial victory won by Ben Bella and Boumedienne was based on an uneasy alliance which did not last very long. As Ben Bella's initial prestige was wearing thin he sought to consolidate his position. His attempts to boost his support among the population by resorting to "socialist" posturing, were never very successful, but did upset the most conservative sections of the army. At the same time his systematic policy of appointing his own men in new key positions within the state apparatus was not taken kindly by those left on the sidelines. By 1965, the ruling alliance was dead. The opposition to Ben Bella within the FLN had become confident enough to come out openly, and strong enough to convince Boumedienne that the army could do without Ben Bella's prestige.
In June 1965, Boumedienne moved to dismiss Ben Bella. The official government structures were disbanded and replaced by a 25-strong National Revolutionary Council headed by Boumedienne. Within less than two years the only two civilians within this body had been pushed out.
Before 1965, the army had been the regime's backbone while the FLN was at the steering wheel. The fact that there was hardly any reaction to Boumedienne's coup showed that this division of labour had concealed the real balance of power - it was really the army which ran the show. After 1965, while the FLN remained officially the ruling party, providing the state machinery with most of its personnel, the army settled openly into the driving seat and remained there for the next eleven years, until Boumedienne's death in 1978.
This change at the top did not end the factional fights despite the stepping up of repression. The prisons filled up steadily. Torture became more common. Ben Bella's previous supporters within the FLN and all those who had condemned Boumedienne's coup, like the members of the clandestine Communist Party, were prosecuted. It was not a bloody repression but it became systematic like that of a well-oiled machinery. And this way both outside opposition and internal rivalries were pushed into the background, allowing the regime to get on with its real job - that of developing the sources of income of the Algerian bourgeoisie.
The Algerian bourgeoisie entrenches its privileges
At the time of independence, there was hardly any industry at all in Algeria. Production of oil in the Sahara had only started in 1961. The country's economy was mainly based on agriculture which was dominated by 22,000 European settlers who held over one fourth of the land, the best part of course, and an equal number of Algerian landowners holding land of 50 hectares and over. The rest of the land was divided into very small plots worked by over 600,000 small farmers. At the other end of the social spectrum were two million displaced peasants who had lost their ties with the land during the war and had nowhere to go.
The aftermath of independence resulted in a huge social and economic vacuum. Within months, 800,000 French settlers who had been large-scale farmers, administrators, manufacturers, businessmen, shopkeepers, engineers and skilled workers, had fled the country, taking most of their wealth and skills with them. What they could not take with them was their land and properties.
In the countryside where fertile land was so scarce, huge estates became vacant overnight. It was only logical that farm workers and displaced farmers should grab the opportunity and take over these estates under the authority of "self-management councils" usually set up hastily by local FLN activists. Just as it was logical for workers in many commercial and industrial companies where the management had disappeared to take the same steps, if only in order to keep the business going - as a matter of survival.
In the towns, the Algerian middle-class, of course, had no such problem of survival. Yet the departure of the French led to an undignified scramble for properties. Cafes, shops, businesses, villas and even cars, were bought at bargain prices by aspiring proprietors with enough cash in hand. And some of those who had left without selling, were even pursued abroad by wealthy Algerians - as one contemporary witnessed:
«An astonishing spectacle, of business speculators and petty capitalists, rushing to France, Switzerland, to look for repatriates willing to sell them their farms, their businesses, their factories. By this stalking for the property titles, the Algerian bourgeoisie set about inheriting French colonisation.»
The leadership of the FLN was also involved in this seizure of abandoned properties, of course. Boumedienne's army, as it moved towards Algiers had placed some estates under its own direct control, forcibly dissolving "illegal workers' councils" and even expelling the original permanent workers as punishment. At the same time some land was distributed to war veterans, in order to legitimise this crude empire-building.
In the end, the new regime was nevertheless faced with the fact that 1.2m hectares of fertile land, or about half of that previously held by French settlers, and about 1,000 industrial and commercial units were now under the control of the workers and peasants who had taken them over.
Faced with the need to restart the economy and at the same time to avoid a confrontation with the working masses while the new state was still far from consolidated, the new regime had to find an indirect path to achieve its goals. Such was the function of the so-called "self-management socialism" of the following few years.
The March decrees of 1964 placed all self-management committees under the direct control of government bodies and the regime appointed its own men to run them. These measures initiated the emergence of a new layer of state managers. And with the development of large-scale state enterprises, first in farming and subsequently in industry, the leverage of these managers began to grow rapidly.
At the same time, however, the Algerian bourgeoisie was encouraged to buy back some of the industrial and commercial facilities under state control. In addition they were granted state aid to help them consolidate and expand their positions at the expense of the poor farmers who could have done with that help too. The net result was that the capitalist class won a significant increase in assets as well as a larger share of state revenue.
The economic boom
The next period, under Boumedienne, saw a wave of nationalisation of foreign assets which brought most of industry into the hands of the state while huge state companies were set up for each industry. First the main foreign companies in mining, banking and insurance were nationalised. Then the takeover of the oil and gas industry was completed step by step. Between 1967 and 1971, all foreign-owned companies operating in this industry were bought by SONATRACH, the state company, which eventually also bought 51% of the biggest chunk of all, the French oil and gas companies. Even then, while the US oil majors jumped on the opportunity to grab some long-term contracts, France retained a privileged position gaining regular supplies at cut-down prices.
Under Boumedienne it is said that the Algerian landscape looked liked a vast building yard, with industrial plants and production units spreading throughout the country. It was thanks to the sharp rise in oil prices from 1973 that the regime was able to embark on such fast industrialisation. Huge loans became available to oil-producing Third World countries such as Algeria, thereby allowing Boumedienne to launch large-scale industrial projects.
This period was described by Boumedienne's regime as that of the "socialist turn" (again!). Increasing production was the watchword and the regime borrowed from Stalin's slogan book in the hope it would boost workers' enthusiasm. From 1971, Boumedienne even sought the unofficial co-operation of the former Communist Party, which by then had set up a new illegal party, the Socialist Vanguard Party (PAGS). Although the PAGS was never legalised, its members were encouraged to take leading positions in the UGTA union confederation and in the official student organisation linked to the FLN, in order to whip up the so-called "socialist" drive. And the PAGS became a willing accomplice to Boumedienne's attempt to screw more labour out of the working masses.
Over 500 factories were indeed built during 1966-1980, under Boumedienne's various three and four-year plans, mainly along the coast in pre-existing industrial areas. These industries were largely of the low-technology assemby type. At the Rouiba truck manufacturing complex, for instance, the importation of components comprised 40% of the cost of the finished vehicles. Besides import licences were often bureaucratically delayed by miles of red tape and depended on an elaborate system of bribes. As a result there were long delivery times and the problem of input supplies eventually became a serious brake on the full utilisation of production capacities.
Although, during this period, the country boasted one of the highest rates of accumulation in the world, its actual economic growth in terms of production per head was only an average 2% a year. At the same time, by piling up debts, the regime made the economy so dependent on the world market that its utopian dreams of self-sufficiency were soon turned into a nightmare.
Indeed, despite the massive use of state revenue, the relatively weak Algerian bourgeoisie could not avoid the domination of the international capitalist market. Debts had to be serviced, and foreign currency was required for this under the terms of the World Bank. Therefore a large proportion of the production in the new industries had to be aimed at the export market rather than the home market. The sectors which produced for export inevitably received the lion's share of investment. And worse still, investment funds for the development of agriculture and domestic consumption in general, though already small compared to that of industry, steadily declined.
The result was that by the end of the industrialisation period Algeria had ceased to be self-sufficient in food and basic domestic products. But in the increasingly posh night clubs of Algiers, an affluent bourgeoisie whose main activity was as intermediaries and subcontractors for the state sector, was now drinking whisky and champagne with their state manager friends and their foreign business partners.
The collapse: the chickens come home to roost
For the Algerian economy, the chickens started coming home to roost by the late seventies.
Politically, Boumedienne's death in 1978 opened up an acute succession crisis. After all these years of tight state control, a whole section of the bourgeoisie who had grown fat on the "socialist" drive, aspired to more independence, more freedom to put their money where they wanted to and, in general, to enjoy their wealth. This led to clashes with the layer of top-ranking managers and state industrial barons who were determined to cling to their power. In the end the army, once again, arbitrated the conflict by appointing its own man and most senior general, Chadli Benjedid, to replace Boumedienne. But this time, the army's intervention failed to prevent the growth of factional fights. And Chadli's reign was a long series of compromises with various sections of the bourgeoisie and state establishment, always at the expense of the poor masses.
This political instability was compounded by the economic crisis which began at the same time on a world scale, with immediate and severe consequences in Algeria. World interest rates began to rise in 1979, reaching a peak in 1986. Algeria by this time was one of the most indebted Third World countries outside of Latin America. The Western banks started to call in their loans, imposing drastic conditions on debtors.
The Algerian bourgeoisie was quick to pass this cost on to the working class with the help of the regime. One after another, the new industries were "restructured" while shut-downs and lay-offs were made inevitable by cutting back drastically on essential capital goods imports.
Then as if things were not bad enough, came the sudden fall in world oil prices in 1985-86, from $38 to $7 a barrel. Within one year, income from oil fell by 40%. Plants which could no longer renew their machinery reduced their production even more or simply shut down. An attempt was made to increase exports in other areas, returning to the reliance of the colonial days on cereals and wine for currencies. The result was another increase of the country's dependency on imports for basic commodities - to the tune of 60% by the late 80s. And this meant brutal price increases and chronic shortages across the economy.
By the mid-eighties the Algerian economic miracle was dead. The debt crisis, despite all attempts to alleviate it, went from bad to worse. Foreign debt rocketted from 32% of GNP in 1985 to 68% in 1992. Interest payments which already represented 33% of the country's export income in 1985, reached 75% in 1992. By 1994, Algeria stopped its interest payments. The debt was then rescheduled with a total of $7bn in stand-by loans, after the government agreed to a 80% devaluation of the currency and another programme of austerity measures.
Part of the various deals agreed by Chadli with the IMF has been tied, as in other Third World countries, to a condition that the state begins to privatise its huge public sector. In Algeria, rather than call this privatisation, it is called "rehabilitation". This has serious repercussions. By the early nineties, the state employed 65% of all wage earners. The "rehabilitation" programme plans to make 200,000 workers redundant, or 22% of the workforce, over the next three years.
But while, from the mid-80s, unemployment started to become a major plague in the towns, the enrichment of the wealthy did not slow down. Every new loan contracted by the Algerian state is split three ways: one part goes to the international banks in interest repayments, another goes to foreign importers and the rest goes to the Algerian bourgeoisie and state managers, in the form of profits made by intermediaries on imports and bribes taken for allowing these imports in. This works out well for the privileged and, significantly, there has been a large increase in imported luxury goods over this whole period of crisis. Meanwhile, a growing section of the population has become unable to buy basic staple food, due to price increases (which doubled in 1979-81 alone while wages decreased) and the end of most state subsidies.
The rise of the Algerian working class
Algeria has long ceased to be a mainly agricultural or rural country. The majority of its population lives in the urban areas. The rapid industrialisation initiated from 1967 onwards, increased the ranks of the proletariat sixfold within a decade, and tenfold within another five years. By 1984, the number of industrial workers stood at nearly 1.1m.
While in the late sixties, the largest employers were the food, textile, public works, construction and transport sectors, by the late seventies, it was the state fuel, steel, vehicle, metallurgical and engineering industries which became the major employers. The concentration of workers increased considerably too. Many of the huge industrial complexes built in the 70s, employed tens of thousands, giving to the workforce an unprecedented potential industrial muscle.
This extremely rapid and spectacular growth led to a profound transformation amongst the population in terms of their outlook and expectations. There was a certain upward mobility and improvement in living standards, which opened up new opportunities for tens of thousands of poor, previously condemned to scratching out their existence on tiny pieces of land. This allowed a new generation of workers and their children to begin to challenge and throw off the shackles of past stultifying traditions. The swelling of the state bureaucracy also provided numerous white collar jobs for the youth who were now gaining access to education.
More importantly, this working class was young, in age and in experience, and dynamic. Unlike the old working classes of the rich countries, it had not been through the crushing and demoralising experiences of repeated betrayals by an entrenched reformist leadership. On the other hand, it was not totally raw thanks to the working class traditions brought back from Europe by emigrant workers. This was a promising combination. There was the basis of a potentially powerful proletarian movement.
The Algerian working class never accepted the growing gap between the affluence displayed by the establishment and their own poverty. As the economy grew so did its confidence and the number of its strikes. From 152 in 1971, they went up to 392 in 1975, which saw public sector workers laying down their tools for the first time, illegally since strikes were banned in the state sector. Then in 1977, railway and dock workers struck nationally, as well as municipal workers, bakery hands and tram-workers. There were street battles between the dockers and the police - all in all there were 521 strikes that year.
Under Chadli the strike curve went up dramatically: 696 in 1979, 922 in 1980. Yet, by then, strikes were taking place in the context of the growing debt crisis accompanied by restructuring. Factories were cutting production, cutting their workforces. Strikes, specially in the state sector, were now met with tougher repression. After a strike, even though the demands were often granted, the strike leaders were usually sacked, and often arrested, while hundreds of workers were transferred to other jobs. But nevertheless, more and more workers kept joining strikes across different industries and sectors.
By the early 80s the situation became tense all over the country. A first warning was served on the regime in 1980. In Kabylia, students, unemployed youth and workers joined ranks in riots against the police while schools and factories were closed down by a strike which threatened to spread like wildfire. This time, the wave of unrest stopped after two months. But what if a similar movement developed against the regime itself and its privileged? What if the over one million unemployed living in the towns, nearly two-thirds of whom were under-25s, followed the lead of the working class? Surely this could spell the end of the regime?
Towards a decisive confrontation
Chadli tried to learn from this lesson. During the following years, the regime did its best, in particular, to isolate the working class from the unemployed. So-called "sanitization" raids were organised in the main towns. In September 1982, for instance, a series of these raids were organised to demolish slums in Oran, Algiers and Constantine. 500,000 slum-dwellers were evicted and sent back to the countryside. The numbers of unemployed in these towns went drastically down overnight - but not for long. Soon the displaced unemployed were back, having nowhere to go in the countryside anyway.
In the end, these repressive measures proved utterly useless. When the price of oil fell suddenly in 1985, the regime reduced subsidies for basic foodstuffs. Poverty became more widespread and visible while the affluence of the rich became more offensive to the poor. Soon the retaliation came, in the form of a series of violent riots in Constantine and Sétif where students and unemployed youth fought the police for several days. Some rioters were killed and everything which was at all associated with wealth and state power was smashed, broken into or burnt.
Two years later came the real confrontation. In July 1988, a new wave of strikes broke out. It started at the Rouiba truck factory, involving 10,000 workers. Fighting broke out between strikers and the special police. Many workers were severely beaten up and arrested. Nevertheless the strike remained solid and, by September, it spread to other large factories in this huge industrial area, eventually reaching the Post Office in Algiers. In the meantime, schools and universities had started to join the strike. By the end of September, the word spread that a general strike would be called on 5 October. Two days before that date, in Algiers, school students staged a solidarity strike in support of the call for a general strike. Tens of thousands of youth, students and unemployed, flooded the streets, determined to hold their ground against the police. When the uniformed battalions did show up, shovels, wooden sticks, bricks, anything that could be used as a weapon or a missile, materialised out of nowhere.
The rioting lasted for five days and spread to other cities. Shops were looted, cars were burnt, but FLN headquarters were attacked too. The rioters seemed to have had no leaders. The most "radical" force among them, the PAGS, followed the movement in order to cool it down, not to provide it with a perspective. This time, however, the conjunction of the strike wave and the riots made the generals fear for the regime. They chose to resort to terror. In Algiers, demonstrators were machine-gunned in cold blood. It was a massacre, the worst seen for many years. Over 1,000, mainly youths, were killed, and many more thousands were injured, tortured and imprisoned.
For having frightened the regime, the Algerian youth had been made to pay a very heavy price. For all his liberal posturing when it came to economic liberalisation, Chadli had ordered the blood bath. And this opened a political crisis which is still unresolved today.
The fundamentalist offensive
The explosion of October 1988 showed the level of radicalisation reached by the unemployed working class youth. The fact that this radicalisation was tightly linked to a large wave of strikes was an indication of its class potential. This meant that the powerful ferment of the economic crisis was steering the proletariat as a whole into a direct confrontation with the state apparatus of the rich. The question was whether this would lead workers to go on the offensive against the privileged classes and their capitalist exploitation.
Unfortunately, seven years after the 1988 explosion, the answer to this question can only be negative. Instead of a revolutionary leadership emerging from the ranks of the proletariat to lead its fight for political power against the Algerian bourgeoisie, reactionary politicians, posturing as religious leaders, have managed to take the lead of the movement and used it to serve their own ambitions.
Religion, a tool for the regime
It was the FLN itself which paved the way for the rise of religious fundamentalism. Back in the early days of the FLN, its founders made a conscious choice of promoting a return to a certain traditionalism, which included that of Islam. As nationalist leaders they were suspicious of the poor masses and they saw religion as a convenient firewall against the development of social demands by the proletariat. In any case, the FLN declared its allegiance to Islam. Ben Bella himself, although often described as being on the "far-left" of the FLN leadership, never failed to mention his Islamic faith even during the periods when, for the sake of political expediency, he resorted to socialist phraseology. The fact that the FLN absorbed the Ulemas Islamic group only reinforced this trend.
After independence, the FLN never made any pretence of setting up a secular state. Islam was proclaimed the state religion and a Ministry of Religious Affairs was set up to oversee the mosques and Koranic schools. As early as 1963, the FNL government was already preaching strict observance of the Islamic rules during the Ramadan fasting period. This was only inaugurating the new style of the regime, made of a combination of hypocritical bigotry and repressiveness, in the name of religious conservatism. Five years later, in fact, when Boumedienne started tightening the noose of repression, hundreds of people were jailed for being caught eating before dawn during the 1968 Ramadan.
While tightening the screw of religion and moralism, the FLN launched a policy of imposing the Arabic language, in the name of nationalism, in education throughout the country. As it turned out, this arabicisation became another vehicle for the promotion of Islam. Because there were very few teachers competent enough to teach Arabic, clerics were brought in, whose knowledge of Arabic was mostly confined to the Koran. Then, Islamic organisations in Iraq, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia provided Arabic-speaking teachers to replace the mostly French-speaking staff for all other subjects. Of course, most of them were devout propagandists of Islam so that schools and universities became increasingly dominated by bigots whose main concern was to force Islamic values upon the youth.
At the same time, arabicisation was used as a cover to put more and more restrictions to the cultural rights of the Berber minority. The Berber language was increasingly pushed out of the education system, including in Kabylia where the largest Berber concentration was located. In 1971, live sport coverage that used to be broadcast in Berber was switched to Arabic. Two years later, the Chair of Berber dialects in the University of Algiers, which was held by the famous left-wing novelist Mouloud Mammeri, was discontinued. In the end, these anti-Berber provocations were to spark off the 1980 riots in Kabylia.
Towards the Islamic Family Code
Under the Ministry of Religious Affairs, large numbers of mosques were built. From 2,200 in 1966, the number of state mosques reached nearly 6,000 in 1980. The "Khotba" or sermon delivered on Fridays in these mosques was written by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and dealt mainly with current political affairs, like the agrarian reform and the threat of communism.
By giving such a prominence to religion, however, the regime paved the way for the growth of a layer of clerics who soon gathered enough confidence to demand more independence from the state and further concessions to Islam. The main victims of these concessions were the Algerian women.
Not that restrictions on women were new on the part of the FLN. While women were used, during the war of independence, as convenient bodies to carry bombs discreetly and lure soldiers into ambushes, they were banned from active service in the guerilla force and, as a result, from any post of responsibility within the FLN. And after independence, the marginalisation of women from social life was written into the Independence Charter: «The integration of Algerian women into the work productive cycle must take account of the limitations placed by their role as wives and mothers with responsibility for creating and maintaining... social cohesion.» Until 1977, the number of women in jobs remained more or less at the same level, between 5 and 6% of the workforce. The small number of those employed were largely from the educated classes - 46% of them had higher education qualifications, compared to only 10% of the male working population.
But this was not enough for the clerics. In 1981, an attempt was made to turn the inferior status of women into law. This included a regulation prohibiting women from travelling abroad without a husband's permission and the proposal to ratify the so-called "Islamic Family Code", which was inspired by the traditional Islamic law, in the National Assembly. There were large-scale protests against this. As a result, the code was amended and its implementation delayed until June 1984, by which time the protest had largely subsided, and it became law. Despite the amendment however, the Family Code still legitimised polygamy and made women legally dependent on their male relatives with even fewer rights than their own male children.
The fact that, today, fundamentalist thugs can get away with spraying with acid, slaying, beheading or, even more often, raping women for not being veiled or for wearing European clothes, without this provoking a massive reaction of anger in the population, is to be blamed, first and foremost, on the regime's policy which, for three decades, has whipped up and given respectability to the worst misogynist prejudices.
The training of the FIS cadres
Islamic fundamentalism is not a new phenomenon, neither in Algeria nor in the rest of the Arab world. Without going too far into the past, one can trace the origins of the FIS to the Al Qiyam group set up in 1964 to fight for «a single state, with a single leader ruling according to the principles of Islam». This group was banned in 1970 but it gave rise to a number of offshoots which were mostly active in the newly arabicised universities. In 1982, for the first time, these groups made the headlines by going on the rampage against non-religious students at the university residence of Ben Aknoun, in Algiers. At the same time, the Movement for an Islamic Algeria (MIA) was formed as an armed guerilla organisation fighting for power. Its members managed to escape the police for several years, until 135 of them were caught and put on trial in April 1985. By that time, however, the fundamentalist movement was no longer marginal. Although it only had a very limited support in the population, it could already rely on thousands of activists across the country.
Where had these activists come from? One should recall the impact across the Arab world of Khomeini's victory in Iran, in 1980. The anti-imperialist posturing of the new regime struck a chord with a whole layer of Arab nationalists. This undoubtedly helped the fundamentalists to recruit, amongst young students in particular. There were social reasons which also contributed to this success. The country's demographic explosion coupled with the arabicisation drive was producing a large layer of students and intellectuals who spoke no other language than Arabic. Yet the French-speaking middle class kept an almost complete monopoly over the best jobs in the industrial and administrative machinery of the state, giving rise to the accusation that the regime was only a cover for France's continuing influence over Algeria.
This layer of middle-class Arabic-speaking students were all the more easy prey for the fundamentalists as they had already been exposed to Islamic influences at school and university. Thus emerged a new generation of young imams who had joined the fundamentalists for lack of a better career, but with the ambition of making a real career for themselves, at some point, after overthrowing the FLN regime.
The fundamentalists, therefore, had embarked on a determined fight to bring down the regime and its state establishment. But how could they capitalise on religion when Islam in general and the mosques in particular were a virtual state monopoly? Their answer was to challenge this monopoly on the ground. By 1980, independent mosques started mushrooming built with money raised by fundamentalists. They were built in every available space - in garages, schools, factories, apartments, hospitals and in the shanty towns. Soon, a power struggle developed between the government and the fundamentalist imams over who was to control the mosques.
These "pirate" mosques were the training ground of the fundamentalist activists. They learned how to rouse an audience using a mixture of religious fanatism and reactionary prejudices. They trained themselves into organising urban terrorism by setting up vigilante groups to hunt down those who did not observe the Islamic law. But they also learned how to appeal to the poor by giving them the impression that they were being listened to and by talking to them using a radical language, the language of revenge - against the wealth of the rich, the corruption of the functionaries, the brutality of the army, the corrupting influence of Europe, etc..
There were other training grounds for this generation of fundamentalists. One of them, which played a decisive role in shaping the present civil war, was the Afghan war in the early 80s. Those who returned from there were above all anti-communist, shaped as they were by years of fighting against the USSR's military intervention. But they had also learned all the tricks of guerilla warfare.
The FIS places itself in front of the radicalised youth
Up until 1988, the FIS, still had little support in the population at large. But in the period which followed the initital wave of strikes and the massacre of rioters that year, they won some respect and support among the radicalised youth. Not that the fundamentalists had actually been all that active in the 1988 explosion, in fact. But in its fear of a working class backlash, Chadli's regime promptly blamed the fundamentalists for the rioting, in an effort to dissociate the working class from the unemployed youth. This certainly helped to push the youth towards Islam. Besides, the fundamentalists moved quickly, calling on the youth to avenge the victims of the police and declaring that the time had come for an all-out offensive against the corrupted regime. And this was exactly the kind of language that the angry youth were looking for.
By that time, in the hope of taking the steam out of the threatening social explosion, Chadli had brought in a new constitution allowing the legal existence of other political parties, for the first time in 27 years. By the summer of 1989, 18 new parties were registered. Among them was the FIS, which had been launched clandestinely a few months before. Ironically, the only party to oppose the liberalisation was... the FIS, whose number two leader, Ali Belhadj, argued: «Yes to pluralism within the framework of Islam. But if Berberism, communism, etc.. are allowed freedom of speech today, our country will become a battleground for ideologies which contradict the beliefs of our people. The Muslim cannot tolerate the existence of parties which advocate opposition to Islam.»
On the strength of its legal status, the FIS immediately proceeded to promote its public image as the best defenders of the Algerians against foreign decadence and to develop its roots in the poor areas. They made their presence felt on every kind of issue which appeared to be associated with European influence - for instance they forced the cancellation of a concert by the populist Portuguese singer, Linda de Souza, tearing down her publicity posters on the grounds that they were too provocative and that she was a "Jewess". They had a play banned by a Kabyli playwright who they claimed was a communist.
To the desperate young men of the poor districts, who felt crushed by the system and its state, the FIS pointed out that they could at least feel superior to women, that they could blame them for all sorts of ills, like unemployment for instance, prevent them from going to work, push them around and impose their will on them - a mechanism which is not unlike the racist scape-goating of far-right parties in Europe or in America.
The FIS gave these young men a new dignity and sense of strength, but at the expense of the community, by turning them into a moral police and giving them some power. Hence came into being the so-called Islamic "guardians", inspired by Khomeini's official thugs in Iran, who proceeded to mete out their own kind of "justice". They raided cafés to force them to close during the hour of prayer and to prevent them from selling alcohol; they raided beaches where women were "uncovered". They even succeeded in getting the government to submit to some of their rulings. Thus in the Khenchela region in East Algeria, the sale of alcohol was banned while, in Constantine, schools which had been made mixed-sex only in 1988, went back to being single sex.
In the poorest areas the FIS combined their usual thuggishness with a kind of "socially" orientated community policy. When the earthquake of November 1989 struck the Algiers area, FIS militants organised aid, collecting food and setting up of tents for those made homeless by the earthquake. They led protest demonstrations against the government's negligence. And of course the government was negligent and ignored completely the plight of the disaster victims. At the same time, the FIS set up community centres which provided help and advice for the unemployed. In some areas, like the town of Ain Delfa, they even started an experiment where they bought fruit and vegetables directly from the producers and sold them at practically cost price; elsewhere they organised collections for the poorest families in order to distribute to them free bags of semolina.
Within a few months of this feverish activity, the FIS had won the credit they were seeking among the poorest urban layers, simply by being seen to do the basic social work which is carried out elsewhere by state agencies and charities. But in the conditions of Algeria, where neither the state nor the numerous political parties seemed in the least concerned about the poor masses, even this basic social work was enough for the FIS to win many loyalties.
It took another few months for the FIS to really build itself into a mass party. But the fact that they were able to achieve this within less than two years of setting up a legal party was an illustration of the depth and scale of the wave of anger and radicalisation which they had chosen to ride.
Towards the confrontation
The policy of the FIS remained therefore a combination of radical populism and reactionary demagogy. They also developed the skill of combining the use of legal possibilities and insurgency methods. Thus, in June 1990, the FIS ran slates in the local election in almost every town and village in the country. They won 54% of the vote, nearly twice as much as the FLN, and took over control of most of the major towns. But less than a year later, on the eve of the general election scheduled for 26 June 1991, the FIS took to the offensive, leaving aside temporarily the electoral process itself. One of their aims was to get the regime to remove all restrictions preventing the FIS from standing candidates. But the other was to tighten and strengthen the ranks of their supporters after a period which had been dominated by huge anti-Islamic marches.
In May they called a general strike. The call itself was meaningless. The FIS had very little influence in the working class and they knew it. Predictably the strike was a complete flop. But the real objective of the FIS was elsewhere. In Algiers they brought the youth out, and got them to occupy the main squares of the town which they held against the police for several weeks, in a way which was meant to be reminiscent of the student sit-in of Tiananmen square in Beijing. In June, the army intervened. Again youths were shot dead, although in smaller numbers than in 1988, and a state of siege was declared. Within days, the decision was made to postpone the election and the leaders of the FIS were arrested. But the FIS had reached its objectives. While all other parties seemed to be taking shelter behind the regime, the fundamentalists had regained the initiative. They now had their own martyrs in the fight against Chadli. And they had forced the regime to postpone the election till December and to allow their candidates to stand freely.
The December 1991 election demonstrated the extent of the FIS' success. On the first round, once again, the FIS won twice as many votes as the FLN, with 47% of the poll. This forced the regime onto the defensive. Rather than take the risk of the FIS sweeping the vote in the second round, the army staged a coup, forcing Chadli to resign. The election was cancelled and the army appointed its own High State Committee to run the country. Within days a new state of emergency was declared and all the organisations linked to the FIS were banned and their leaders arrested.
The stage was set for the present civil war. The army was in charge and the FIS had managed to appear both as a legitimate representative of the poor masses and as a martyr of the fight against regime. By then, the FIS could rely on considerable support among the poor masses, the unemployed and the youth. The fundamentalists' weapons, which they had been preparing for some time already, could now be used and a guerilla army organised to carry out an elaborate policy of confrontation aimed both at making the regime even more unbearable to the poor masses and at forcing the army into a more and more defensive position.
An unchalleged rise
But was the rise of the FIS inevitable? No definite answer can be given to this question. But what can be said for sure is that no political force actually challenged the FIS' rise, neither at the time nor since the civil war broke out.
The liberalisation which followed the 1988 riots led to a groundswell of political activities. Scores of parties, committees of every description, newspapers, etc.. appeared overnight. Among the main non-Islamic parties to occupy the forefront of the political scene was the PAGS, which emerged from its clandestine existence, soon followed by Ait Ahmed's old FFS. Ben Bella resurfaced too, with the Algerian Democratic Movement (MDA), which never managed to develop much influence. Then there was Said Saadi's RCD (the Regroupment for Culture and Democracy, whose base was among the Berber community of Kabylia), which appeared to be set up, on the basis of a rather strange understanding with the regime, for the sole purpose of counter-balancing the FFS's influence in Kabylia. And, of course, there was the old FLN which, from 1989, had lost its previous total control over the state apparatus.
Of all these main anti-Islamic parties, only two had any kind of militant presence among the population - the PAGS through its roots in the working class, its influence within the UGTA union confederation and its youth organisation and the FFS through its network of district committees which more or less covered Kabylia and some poor areas in the main towns. And the size of the demonstrations called by these two organisations in Algiers between 1990 and 1992, ranging between 100 and 300,000, showed that their support was significant. In any case, only these two parties were therefore visible to the poorest layers of the population who were able to compare their policies with those of the FIS.
But what were their policies? In fact they were well illustrated by the social composition of their larger marches - which was by and large the French-speaking intelligentsia, and, in the case of the PAGS, a layer of the working class mainly based in the state sector. But no significant numbers of unemployed youth or dwellers of Bab-El-Oued, or other poor districts of Algiers, were ever seen on these marches. And this reflected the fundamental orientations of these two parties, which they shared with all other anti-Islamic parties, towards one section or another of the regime's state bureaucracy and more or less privileged layers. None of these parties ever sought to express the aspirations of the poorest layers of the population, of the unemployed, let alone of the unemployed youth. All of them were busy proving that, unlike the FIS, they were respectful of the regime's legality. And this at a time when the youth were mourning hundreds of victims from their ranks, killed by the police and when the patience of the population in the poorest districts was wearing thin due to the ever-enlarging gap between their poverty and the affluence of the privileged. The poor masses were seeking revenge, but the anti-Islamic parties only managed to talk the language of compromise and accomodation.
What the radicalised youth and the poorest masses were looking for, since 1988, was a perspective aimed at ending privileges and corruption by a radical overthrow of the regime and its various appendages. The FIS won its influence because it appeared to be proposing just that. In reality this was an illusion. The many contacts between the FIS and the regime since December 1991, have shown that the FIS does not dismiss the possibility of a compromise with the state apparatus. And even if the FIS do not reach a compromise with the army leadership, they will still come to an agreement with the worst enemies of the poor - the Algerian bourgeoisie - for the simple reason, which the FIS does not even bother to conceal, that their aim is to serve capitalism.
The FIS' rise was never really challenged because no-one, no force, no established party, ever offered to the radicalised youth an alternative policy to that of the FIS, one which offered a way for the poor masses to take their revenge on the profiteers and to escape once and for all from their desperate empoverishment.
The key to the situation remains in the hands of the working class
To-date the anti-Islamic forces are split two ways. One section, which includes the FFS, the FLN and a host of smaller parties, including one far-left group, has concluded a pact, known as the Rome pact, with the FIS, whereby they support the FIS' call to boycott the presidential election and their demand to be unbanned in return for the fundamentalists' pledge to respect the democratic process and keep religion out of politics. This pact, of course, is not even worth the paper on which it is written. The anti-Islamic parties who signed it are only deceiving their supporters in the hope, presumably, that once the FIS gets into power they will prove grateful enough to leave them some space on the political scene. And this, of course, is no more than self-delusion.
The other section among the anti-Islamic parties has chosen to rely on the army to protect them from the fundamentalists. Its main representatives are the PAGS and the RCD who, with different nuances, both advocate the "eradication" of fundamentalism through drastic repression. The logic behind this stance is not different from that of the parties involved in the Rome pact, except that the PAGS and RCD choose to bet on the army rather than on the FIS - and this amounts to the same deception and self-delusion.
As to the army it is facing an uneasy situation. Since mid-1993, it has experienced massive desertions which, in some cases at least, revealed that the fundamentalists were at work deep in its own ranks. More recently, in early October this year, the leadership of the AIS, the FIS' armed wing, issued a call for army units to remain in the army but take their orders from the FIS. Meanwhile a leaflet issued by a Union of Free Muslim Officers was circulated in barracks across the country, calling «all officers, NCOs, privates and conscripts to join the ranks of the AIS» . In other words the possibility of a split in the army is not to be dismissed. Hence the renewed attempts of the generals at finding some form of compromise with the fundamentalists.
That is to say that whatever the outcome of the present power struggle, the perspective offered by the various anti-Islamic parties can only work against the poor masses who are being used today as cannon fodder by the FIS.
On the other hand, the real issue raised by the economic and social crisis in Algeria is that of the parasitism of the Algerian bourgeoisie. Putting an end to its parasitism by overthrowing its rule and ending capitalist relations would provide the vast majority of the population with the only way out of its increasing poverty. Back in 1988, it was the fights of the working class which brought about the radicalisation of the youth. Since then, although strikes have not totally disappeared, the working class has been mostly absent from the political scene. But while the fundamentalists have made inroads in its ranks in electoral terms, which certainly shows a degree of demoralisation among the workers concerned at least, it seems to have failed to establish its control over any sizeable section of workers.
In any case, only the working class can have the social weight to pull the poor masses towards a different perspective, away from the fundamentalists, towards a perspective clearly aimed at taking on the privileged classes and not just their armed thugs, as the FIS is claiming to do.
What has yet to emerge in Algeria is a party capable of representing this perspective, that is a proletarian revolutionary party. If such a party does emerge, it will have to treat the FIS and the army as its irreconciliable enemies and fight them as enemies which are equally lethal for the proletariat. It will have to base itself firmly on the capacity of the working class for organising itself collectively and consciously with the aim of building on the exemplary impact of such a form of organisation to extend it to the unemployed youth.
Such a party will have to fight very difficult battles in a situation were the most reactionary prejudices have already won the upper hand in a large section of the population. But it would have natural allies among the poorest masses themselves - the women who have never given up their dignity and have only toed the Islamic line to survive. A clear challenge by the working class to Islamic would have an immediate impact, bringing back hope and fighting spirit to millions of oppressed women in the poorest districts, in the heart of the fundamentalists' strongholds. Prejudices are a matter of relationship of forces and the fundamentalists themselves have no significant social weight compared to that of the working class as a whole.
For such a party to emerge before it is too late, it will take both the unbending resistance of the small numbers of activists who are still fighting on a class basis against the reactionary tide, and a resurgence of the militancy of the working class on such a scale as to restore its confidence. We can only hope that this resurgence will take place, that it will produce the realisation that a collective offensive against the privileged and their thugs, whether in the army or in the FIS, is necessary and that it will generate a collective determination to build this offensive. Then and only then will a real challenge be put up to counter the fundamentalist reaction and what is more, a challenge that has a chance to win.