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Algeria: democracy 'on hold.'

1992 was, politically, a turbulent year for Algeria. In January, the transition to democracy instituted by President Chadli Benjedid in 1988 was abruptly halted by the military and Chadli himself deposed: in June, Mohammed Boudiaf, Chadli's successor was assassinated in circumstances which have yet to be fully explained. This article attempts to examine the tensions within Algeria's body politic and to assess the likelihood of Algerians being able to enjoy, within the not too distant future, some element of political choice.

Political choice is a concept rather remote from the experience of most Algerians. Older people recall how France's colonial authority was never questioned, except in dark corners, until the outbreak of the War of Liberation in 1954. Equally, today, young Algerians of voting age have yet to experience the elation of choosing a government via the ballot box, for, ever since independence in July 1962, political power has been the preserve of the National Liberation Front (the FLN) whose leaders, Ben Bella, Boumedienne and most recently, Chadli, brooked no opposition.

During the latter part of the 1980s however, this pattern of power came under challenge: for this, there were three distinct, albeit interrelated, reasons. Firstly, the early 1980s witnessed the end of the boom in energy prices, from which Algeria with its substantial oil and natural gas deposits had derived much benefit. Thereafter, a steady slide began and the terms of trade moved inexorably against Algeria. Between 1985 and 1986, the price of hydrocarbon products declined by 50 per cent and at the same time, the EC raised sharply the tariffs in North African produce entering the Community, lowering the quotas on processed and semi-processed goods that it was prepared to accept on favourable terms. With some 75 per cent of its export trade going to west European markets, Algeria came under economic pressure on both these fronts--and in addition, had to bear the yoke of European inflation rates whenever it imported goods from the EC. The result was an increase in the country's indebtedness, to combat which, the government had to raise taxes and cut subsidies, a measure which gravely affected the standard of living of ordinary Algerians.

The second reason was the marked increase in the economic gulf between the masses and the elite. If the man in the street was still in employment, his weekly wage packet was being eroded by rapid inflation. If he possessed adequate housing for himself and his family, he was part of a fortunate minority. His sense of rapport with the Algerian state was in no way enhanced by the spectacle of FLN politicians, bureaucrats and military men clearly leading lives of unabashed affluence with residences in the more pleasant suburbs of Algiers and chauffeured limousines to whisk them around the capital. If the country laboured under a burden, it was at least one that should have been more equitably shared.

The third factor was the Islamic revival movement, more commonly known in Western Europe as Islamic fundamentalism. The revolution against the Shah of Iran in 1978/79 was basically international in character making the same kind of appeal to Moslems throughout the Middle East and North Africa as did Trotsky's to the European proletariats some 60 years before. The strength of its appeal lay in its call for a return to 'true' Koranic values, a call particularly addressed to the various Shi'ite communities in the region who felt that the oil prosperity of the previous two decades had passed them by. But Khomeini's Islamic crusade also made a notable impact on the poorer and less educated Sunnis along the whole North African littoral and caused these communities to question the relations which their governments maintained with non-Islamic, particularly Western countries. After all, was not the USA the great ally of Israel and was not Israel in possession of Arab Palestine and the holy places of Jerusalem? These three elements, therefore, the worsening economic situation, the gulf between rulers and ruled and the Islamic revival movement, conspired together by 1988 to make political life infinitely more parlous for Chadli than it had been for Boumedienne a decade previously.

Chadli's problems had their root in the deficit in the balance of payments which occurred in the 1985/86 period. The aforementioned decline in hydrocarbon prices struck a body blow at the Algerian economy. This might conceivably have been withstood, had the country been self-sufficient in food as it was in the last days of the colonial period. But both Chadli--and indeed Boumedienne before him--had run down the agricultural sector in the interest of the energy industries, leaving the country dependent on imported food-stuffs to the annual tune of 2 billion dollars. This caused Chadli's government after a couple of years of indecision, to raise taxes and to cut subsidies on staple commodities in an attempt to bring Algeria's export earnings and import expenditures into equilibrium. This resulted in October 1988 in massive riots in Algiers; it was the cut in the bread subsidy, increasing its price fourfold overnight, which served to trigger these off. Chadli's administration had to bring in the army to restore law and order, which it did--but only with difficulty and not without the death on the streets of several hundred people, nor indeed without the co-operation of the main Islamic groups. The riots took on a highly populist character, eventually encompassing much more than the original issue of the reduced state subsidies, indeed calling into question the very legitimacy of the regime. There were calls for more open government, more dialogue between government and governed, less corruption and less economic inequality. Despite his success in holding on to power, Chadli felt obliged to bow to this pressure and announced early in November that the country would be given a new constitution, which would permit a multi-party system and the holding of free elections. Regional elections would be held in June 1990 as a prelude to national elections the following year.

Under this new dispensation, political parties proliferated. By the summer of 1990, some forty political parties had emerged to contest the regional elections. Of these, many were small in membership, narrowly based geographically or dominated by one or two strong personalities. Only three stood out, the FLN which had ruled the country since independence and the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) and the FFS (Front of Socialists Forces) which under Ait Ahmed constituted a secular opposition, though much less strong than the FIS, led by Abbas Madani. Campaigning was vigorous by both the FIS and the FFS: the FLN tended rather complacently to rely on its 28-year record as Algeria's ruling party and to emphasise the dangers of 'mullah' rule. The FFS picked up a sprinkling of votes all over the country from the discontented and religiously disinclined, but the palm of victory went to the FIS which made striking gains in the main towns, where the effects of impoverishment, bad housing and unemployment were most harshly felt. In all, it garnered 54 per cent of the vote: the FLN 28 per cent principally from the country's rural areas--and the FFS 15 per cent--from all over the country, but particularly from Kabylie east of Algiers. The other parties between them gained but 3 per cent of the vote.

A word at this stage must be said about the FIS. It was formed early in 1981 not as a political party, but as a religious organisation and permitted by the government to function as such. By that time, the Islamic revival movement was well into its stride and making an impact along the whole North African littoral. Chadli felt that the existence of such an organisation would serve as an outlet for the expression of general religious sentiments which were in tune with the spirit of the times: indeed to a certain extent, he viewed the FIS as a prop to his own regime in maintaining civil order and stability in accordance with well established Islamic principles. On one or two occasions, most notably in October 1988, the FIS had acted as a calming influence when tempers were running high, persuading demonstrators to desist and afford the government fresh breathing space. After the ban on political parties was lifted, however, the FIS formally registered as a party and entered the political fray. It criticized the FLN regime for its lack of religiosity and moral fibre, for its incompetence and corruption. It asserted its intention of cleansing the Augean stables to which the corridors of power in so many Algerian state ministries now led. This could only be achieved by strict adherence in public affairs to the precepts of the Koran.

The FIS had been expected to make a moderately respectable showing in the same 1990 regional elections, but no more. For it to have picked up more than half the votes cast boded ill for Chadli and the FLN, come the first round of national elections. To avert, therefore, the possibility of a FIS victory, the FLN government of Moulud Hamrouche engineered in the latter part of 1990 and early 1991 certain amendments to the electoral law designed to disadvantage the FIS. These related to the use of proxy voting (husbands being no longer allowed to cast votes on behalf of their wives) and to the use of mosques at election times (sermons of a 'political' nature being formally banned). These measures were bounced hurriedly through a parliament which possessed an FLN majority. At the same time, it was determined that national elections would be held early in June 1991--by which time these new laws would be in force.

These measures of President Chadli and his prime minister Hamrouche led to a serious rift in FLN/FIS relations. It was probably true that some irregularities had occurred as a result of proxy voting and indubitably true that the FIS had exploited to the full their access to the mosques for political purposes, but the new electoral provisions were seen, quite understandably, as a blatant attempt by the FLN to shore up its own political position at the expense of the FIS. The latter feared that if they fought the election under the new rules, they would suffer defeat. It therefore declared, on May 25th 1991, that it would boycott the elections due on June 27th: instead it called its supporters out onto the streets to demonstrate and participate in a general strike. The strike call was neither well received nor generally obeyed, but the call for anti-government demonstrations turned Algiers into a city under siege during the first week of June and led to the cancellation of the proposed elections. Order eventually was restored, but later in that month a state of emergency was declared, the FIS proscribed and its leaders, Abbas Madani and Ali Belhadj interned.

The whole affair precipitated the resignation of the Hamrouche government and its replacement by one under Sidi Ghozali, who was by background an internationalist and diplomat rather than one of the FLN 'old guard'. Ghozali agreed to rescind the new electoral laws and, at a conference of all the political parties convened in October, the FIS agreed to participate in the parliamentary elections arranged for December 1991/January 1992 despite the internment of its leaders. This fact gave the FIS a heightened charisma and the mosques were again put, especially at the Friday gatherings of the faithful, to particularly fruitful political effect. The FLN was on the defensive, having to defend both its own unimpressive political record and the incarceration of the FIS leadership. In the first round of the elections held on December 26th 1991, the FIS gained 47 per cent of votes cast, the FLN 23 per cent and the FFS 7 per cent. So, as 1991 drew to a close, it became clear that no government could be formed after the second round of elections due in mid-January without the participation or active consent of the FIS.

What happened next remains speculative. Chadli made it clear to his FLN entourage and to the army that he was prepared to let events take their course. Notwithstanding his own reservations regarding the FIS, he was prepared, as head of state, to work with them as partners in government if need be. Perhaps he had undergone a full conversion to democracy or, more likely, felt that he could 'handle' the FIS. Whatever the truth, he had failed to take sufficient account of the fears and sensitivities of those in the upper echelons of the FLN and the Armed Services who saw a FIS victory as something beyond the pale. On January 12th, therefore, just four days before the second elections were due, the Armed Services intervened to abort them and suspended the whole constitutional process. Chadli was deposed and placed under house arrest.

Why was a FIS victory viewed with such alarm by so many in both the Algerian political establishment and the Algerian community generally? Firstly, there was a genuine fear that the FIS, once victorious, would establish an Islamic republic like Iran and put the country socially and politically back into the Dark Ages. This would involve halting the democratic process founded on free parliamentary elections and instituting new social norms based on the Sharia law. Women would be prevented from working and compelled to wear the chador, men from drinking and dancing in public and this in a country where such things had long been the norm. The elections of December had shown that the average Algerian was discontented with his lot and wanted change, but change in the sense of economic and social betterment, not metamorphosis into an Islamic state. Such sentiments were common, but the fears of the political establishment were yet more acute. A FIS victory would mean the institution of a new political and economic system from which the present FLN politicians, technocrats and army officers would be excluded. It would mean, almost certainly, an investigation into the widespread corruption, which Algeria's command economy had made so great a temptation for those in positions of public authority. Not only would future opportunities for enrichment be removed, but the question of retribution for past misdeeds would loom large. The stakes were too high for President Chadli Benjedid to be allowed to tango with the FIS. He had, therefore, to be removed. In his place, the army brought in one Mohammed Boudiaf, an Algerian politician active in the days of Ben Bella and in the anti-colonial struggle against France, to head the High Council of State. Boudiaf had fallen out with Ben Bella in 1964 and taken refuge in Morocco, where he had remained ever since. The army leaders needed someone with an ostensibly uncontaminated record to serve, as they thought, as figurehead and guarantor of their new regime's respectability.

For some months, Boudiaf fulfilled this role as planned and all proceeded smoothly. Boudiaf, conscious of the low turnout at the December 1991 elections, endeavoured to rally the 'silent majority' of the Algerian electorate by his creation of the RNP (the Reassemblement National de Patriotism) which aimed to unite the 15 smallest political parties into a more cohesive organisation. He wanted to produce a viable alternative to both the FLN and the FIS with which he refused in any way to compromise or parley. Whether this move would eventually have succeeded is not clear: what is clear is that Boudiaf gradually became more and more aware of the nature of the system over which he was presiding. Evidence exists that he was planning to move against those members of the regime most steeped in maladministration and corruption and to replace them with his own appointees. This, if correct, may serve to explain his assassination which occurred on June 29th 1992. Initially, an official statement was issued that this was the doing of a Muslim fanatic, though this was retracted some months later following a fuller investigation. Far more likely is that the assassin or assassins came from within the upper echelons of the army or the FLN, though on this the jury is still out. Since the events of 29th June, Algeria has been governed by a new administration under Ali Kafi as President and Belaid Abdeslam as Prime Minister, both of whom are founder members of the FLN, but in essence this new regime, as dependent as its predecessor on the support of the military, has yet done little to unblock the political impasse created by the moratorium imposed on multi-party electoral activity on January 12th 1992. This impasse has exacerbated the general lack of international economic confidence in Algeria's medium term future and the country at present finds it exceedingly difficult to borrow money in the world's financial markets.

As 1993 opens, the prospects for its transition to democracy look bleak. The continuing threat to civil order by political extremists is reflected in the recent imposition of a curfew throughout the country between the hours of 10.30 p.m. and 5.00 a.m. Despite the high degree of support for it evinced in the December 1991 round of elections, the FIS remains proscribed and its leaders incarcerated. There is however no guarantee that, if this situation were reversed, Algeria would enjoy democratic, majority rule on the pattern of that on the Mediterranean's northern shore. For the FIS, its political philosophy is unambiguous and nonnegotiable: it is the establishment of an Islamic, not a democratic state. Therefore to preserve democracy and Algeria's orientation towards the modern world, the FIS must be suppressed. But can a movement which enjoys so much support in the country be suppressed either morally or practicably? How long can the general popular will be denied by the imposition of force majeure even if that will is muddled and speaks with several voices? Many who voted for the FIS voted against the FLN and all its works rather than for the establishment of an Islamic state. Many who voted for the FLN did so to preserve the democratic system created by Chadli rather than for love of the party per se. Can any conclusions be drawn about the motives of those many who did not vote at all in December 1991, when they could and perhaps should have done? Whatever the truth of these matters, the denouement of Algeria's problems must await the arrival of a more benign, less ideological political climate. For the present, sadly, Algerian democracy remains 'on hold'.

Jonathan G. Farley is Principal Lecturer in the Department of History and International Affairs at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich.
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Author:Farley, Jonathan G.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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