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Socialist Review, March 1994

Notes of the Month


Poor and angry

From Socialist Review, No. 173, March 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

British journalists in Algeria have been shocked by the recent spate of killings there. A journalist working for Australian television was among those foreign nationals shot by the Islamic GIA. Yet many of those now horrified at the chaos backed the military clamp down which has led to it.

The present situation of civil strife is the direct result of events two years ago, when multi-party elections – almost certain to be won by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) – were halted by the military, who have ruled Algeria through a junta ever since.

In December 1991 the Algerian people used the opportunity of the first free elections to move against the ruling FLN and the army and vote in the FIS. Two weeks later the army forced President Chadli Bendjedid to resign, cancelled the second round of elections, banned the FIS and set up a five man high state committee (HCE). FIS leaders were either jailed or forced into exile.

Despite the army breaking every possible law they themselves had written, they did so in the name of democracy. Many on the left supported their actions, on the grounds that the FIS was neo-fascist and undemocratic.

Far from stabilising the political situation, the cancelling of elections has led to the increasing state of civil war in Algeria. Thousands of Islamic militants are in desert prison camps, subject to vicious torture and what Amnesty International calls ‘incommunicado detention’. Special military courts have been set up to persecute Islamic militants. In the last two years 3,500 people – mainly opponents of the regime – have been killed.

The recent killings of foreign workers are mostly carried out by the Islamic Armed Group (GIA), which is independent of FIS. Many Algerians have suffered heavily too, including intellectuals, journalists and women who have been caught in the increasing polarisation between the junta on the one hand and the GIA on the other.

There seems no way out of the crisis for the Algerian ruling class. Despite the state of emergency and repression the opposition has not been silenced. The junta is not helped by the acute economic crisis, with 80 percent of Algeria’s export revenues (mainly from oil and gas) going to cover its $26 billion external debt last year.

Algeria gained its independence in July 1962, after a bitter struggle against its French colonial rulers which left the FLN in power. Whole industries were nationalised and the FLN attempted to develop a centralised state capitalist economy. The collapse of oil prices in the mid-1980s pushed an already weak and corrupt ruling class into isolation. In 1988 strikes followed by riots took place in Algiers and spread throughout the country. It was then that the political reforms were conceded, with rival parties to the now discredited FLN being set up.

The impasse since the banning of the elections has led the HCE to talk of reform. It set up a ‘national conference for dialogue’ in January. It was meant to bring together the different political organisations including the banned FIS and the military junta. Although the FIS did not attend the conference, and nor did any other major party, contacts are taking place between the junta and FIS leaders inside and outside the country. The junta has also replaced its original hardline prime minister with a reformist, Redha Malek.

But there is no sign that the military is about to give up power, as shown by the recent appointment of yet another general, Lamine Zeroual, as the new state president. It would however like to see a way out of the crisis, and it is certainly possible that the FIS could make a deal with the military.

The FIS itself is not free from crisis. Many of its leaders are abroad, and their decision to engage in guerrilla struggle against the ruling class has weakened their popularity and made it difficult for them to control much of what is happening in Algeria. The killing of 12 Croatian workers in December led the FIS leaders abroad to condemn it.

This apparent split between the FIS and GIA on the one hand, and pressure from French politicians on the other to persuade the Algerian government to break the deadlock, has led to the generals in power saying, ‘the government would now consider talking to leaders of the FIS who show respect for the law of the land.’

Pressure from the French government comes from fear that the conflict will have its effects among the large Algerian population in France itself. The French interior minister, Charles Pasqua, who backs the military junta, is busily arresting blacks and North Africans. He has also promised to double expulsions at the borders and to remove automatic rights of French citizenship at 18 and for foreigners in mixed marriages.

According to recent statistics, before the introduction of the so called Pasqua Law non-European immigration to France had fallen by 5 percent, the number of families reuniting by 8.3 percent and the number of people getting political refugee status by 30 percent.

Three months ago over 80 Algerians alleged to belong to the armed wing of FIS were arrested. Not a single one has been convicted.

The spectre haunting the French and other European ruling classes is of Algerian economic collapse and mass emigration. As a recent Financial Times editorial put it:

‘An Algeria racked by civil war and deprived of much of its westernised middle class would not attract foreign investment and would be likely to stagnate economically. Europe could face more and more poor and angry people on its very doorstep.’

That is certainly true. But responsibility for that lies firmly with the military dictatorship and its backers in the big capitalist powers.

Europe is also facing poor and angry workers from within, as Algerian workers witnessed when they saw the Air France strikes on satellite television. Politically, a large number of Algerians are not taken in by the armed guerrilla methods of the Islamic opposition, and want to fight for a better world.

The working class in particular will be expected to pay the price for any supposed solution to the crisis. Recent strike action points to the beginning of a workers’ fightback.

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