Dec 31, 1995
The presidential election will take place in Algeria in November – at least if nothing happens to upset the timetable established by the government. Liamine Zeroual, the present head of state, has declared that this election is proof that the situation in Algeria is becoming normalized. He claims that the government that had once been legitimized by elections, will be in a position to take further steps toward that situation again. These declarations, however, can't hide the fact that the Algerian government is a very long way from bringing the situation under control.
Every day in Algeria death squads sent by the GIA, the most extreme Islamic terrorist organization, blow up booby-trapped cars in Algiers or other big cities; every day intellectuals or foreigners are threatened or murdered. And the terrorist bomb attacks in France serve to demonstrate to Algerians and those in the rest of the world, that Islamic fundamentalists are still a decisive force in Algeria, and that their aim is to win power.
Perhaps this sham election of pre-selected candidates may even give some semblance of legitimacy to the government. But it will not get rid of the enormous problems that the growing influence of Islamic fundamentalism poses for the Algerian population, especially its poorest social layers.
In December 1991, the FIS won the first round of general elections with enough votes to show that it would win a clear majority of seats in the second round. Algeria's military leaders canceled the second round election in January 1992, believing that they had checked the fundamentalists' march to power.
The FIS, a religious and reactionary party that advocated setting up an Islamic regime, did not disguise its dictatorial aims. But it was the main beneficiary of limited liberal reforms that the regime had been forced to carry out after October 1988, when the army had brutally crushed an explosion of the country's poor. The FIS's success in the December 1991 general election had followed another success in the June 1990 local elections.
The Islamic fundamentalist movements's position in Algerian life was due to its relations with the politicians of successive regimes that went back to the time of independence. The government used them several times as a counterweight to leftwing forces; on other occasions it kept them more firmly away from the corridors of power. But the Islamic movement, including its fundamentalist tendency, was a recognized part of Algerian political life. Under Islamic influence, in 1976 the government adopted a Family Code which officially sanctioned women's dependence on men, and legitimized the inequalities to which they were subjected.
The Islamic movement played a leading role in the political crisis created by the fight over the succession of Houari Boumedienne in 1978, and then the economic and social crisis which followed the collapse of oil prices in the eighties.
The discredited FLN had become the target of criticism after thirty years in power. But all the other political movements, even those which claimed to stand for leftwing ideals, had left the road open for the "bearded men" – who were already well implanted in the population. And the Islamic fundamentalists were able to develop further support and increase their implantation among the poorest classes, in particular among the country's desperate young people. The FIS militants, who were active in associations linked to the mosques and who carried out welfare action in the poor areas, were able to gain influence among the most destitute sections of the population. With its condemnation of modernity and social progress, its hostility to class struggle and its campaigns in favor of a strong return to Islamic values and rules – particularly that women should be kept indoors and dependent on men – this reactionary party set political aims, and relied on demagogic propaganda and methods which made it a kind of poor country's fascist party. Nevertheless, its radical opposition to the FLN made the FIS seem like the champions of popular protest; people who were not afraid to condemn the privileges and corruption of the regime. The radicalism of some of the FIS's actions, particularly during the spring and summer of 1991, had helped to give it the image of a party which refused to be restricted by the limits of legality. It appeared like the party of revenge, advocating Islamic values in opposition to western values, which had been the source of too many dreams and disappointments. For impoverished young people were now convinced that they would never be able to enjoy the lifestyle of rich countries.
Over the years, the FIS also gained credibility, when the government used the fundamentalists to maintain order. At the same time, it also enjoyed prestige because its leaders had periodically been tracked down and imprisoned by that same government.
But the FIS did not intend to be a mere stooge or associate, to be used by the government to contain any new, uncontrolled explosions of popular anger. The fundamentalists were out to win power, if possible by election. But if necessary, they were also prepared to use illegal means and force.
In January 1992, in flagrant contempt of the most basic democratic procedures, the army warded off the immediate danger of seeing the FIS triumph when it blocked the electoral road. But the fundamentalists showed they were capable of conducting an alternative policy. And the army was soon forced to conclude that they had not solved any of their problems.
The elections were canceled, political preaching on Fridays in the mosques was suspended, the FIS was banned, the local councils the party had won in June 1990 were dissolved and FIS militants were tracked down. But the fundamentalist movement's forces quickly regrouped in secret.
There were still a lot of FIS militants. They succeeded in recruiting young people who were ready to do anything. The militants tested those they planned to enlist in the armed struggle by getting them to take part in violent actions or attacks on policemen or soldiers. Once the victim had been killed, they had to take his weapons.
The police and army reacted with punitive expeditions, carrying out arrests, summary executions and acts of violence against the civilian population. And for the young people tracked down in this way, the only options were to hide or join one of the underground groups organized by the FIS. Young people from a particular neighborhood, often belonging to families originating from the same region, were in a position to win support in order to organize underground groups. At the same time, however, these groups became too easy for the authorities to identify, and in many cases they were quickly disbanded. Many young activists were killed, wounded or tortured. But others enlisted in their place. The assassination of Boudiaf in June 1992 led to increased repression. While all attempts to unify the armed movement failed, the authorities succeeded in liquidating or dismantling the networks of the FIS's armed organization, the MIA.
The field was free for rival terrorist groups to try their luck. And it was the GIA which imposed itself and effectively took over the leadership of terrorist politics.
At the end of 1992, Abdelhak Layada, an adventurer linked to various arms trafficking networks, declared himself the commander of the military groups. In January 1993, he organized a conference, handing out responsibilities to his closest associates. He proclaimed his independence from the various organizations involved in armed action and from the former FIS leaders in exile. To establish its authority, the GIA began a policy of bomb attacks coupled with a wave of terror aimed at intellectuals opposed to the fundamentalists.
We do not know what the relations were between the GIA leaders and the former FIS leaders. Nor do we know what the balance of power was between the various political and military apparatuses which coexisted within the fundamentalist movement, and which continued to develop underground.
However, the aims and policy of the GIA are based on the same logic and the same perspectives as those of the FIS. No matter what their relations are, and no matter what tensions exist between the GIA and the AIS (an armed organization directly linked to the former FIS), their policies remain complementary.
The GIA, however, no longer seeks to win supporters by paternalistic activities in poor neighborhoods, as the FIS did before the elections of 1992. Its policy is aimed at using violence to force the population to take sides.
According to the GIA, all those who are not with them are against them. The murders they commit, including slitting young women's throats because they refuse to wear the veil, are not just an expression of unthinking violence or barbaric misogyny. They are part of a vile political logic. Out of conviction or fear, they refuse to tolerate a woman not wearing the veil while others agree to wear it, because she seems to be declaring that she does not accept the rules, the practices and the dictatorship of the GIA. It is as if she were wearing a badge of opposition to the GIA. So she has to be eliminated – to serve as an example to others. And that is why the courage of those women who refuse to bow to the GIA's dictates is one of greatest hopes for the future.
The purpose of the GIA's military operations is not to win the war against the army by force of arms. Even when these military operations are directed against the army or other forces of order, they are aimed at the population. They are intended to demonstrate to the population the GIA's strength and capacity to strike at the army when and where it wants.
Many, if not most of the GIA's military operations are directed against the civilian population. They are all political assassinations, even if, depending on the targets chosen, they serve different aims. The targets are not only women but also intellectuals, particularly journalists, or foreigners living in Algeria. In the fall of 1994, the GIA even declared war on the new school year by destroying schools and murdering teachers and pupils. Beyond the specific political meaning which the GIA wishes to give to each of its operations, they are all aimed at showing the population that it now has no choice but to accept fundamentalist dictatorship.
This terror is basically aimed at poor neighborhoods. In order to have a chance of coming to power, the fundamentalists need to demonstrate that they are capable of controlling these neighborhoods and subjecting the proletariat, particularly the urban poor, to the control of fanatical gangs. They must show that all those who might oppose their social order are punishable by Islamic law.
The terror is also aimed at forcing the petty bourgeoisie to commit itself more widely to the fundamentalists. Those sections of the petty bourgeoisie that had not benefitted from the period of relative prosperity had played a major role in the initial period of growth of the Islamic movement. They accentuated the oppositionist nature of the movement, and at the same time controlled it. Embittered minor government officials, middle class people in economic ruin, and unemployed, penniless intellectuals joined the traditional religious dignitaries. They outflanked these dignitaries and created a movement which, by waving the flag of a radical Islam opposed to the existing regime, sought to win grassroots supporters in the poor neighborhoods. These people were subsequently followed by other petty bourgeois elements that were drawn to a growing movement by a mixture of attraction and fear
The Islamic movement is above all a petty bourgeois movement, despite its influence in the poorest neighborhoods, particularly among the lumpen proletariat.
Without even assuming power, the fundamentalist movement has already pulled the whole Algerian society backwards. And the fact that it is capable of such brutality today gives an idea of the kind of hold it would have over society if it controlled the state.
For the past four years, the leaders of the military regime in Algeria have been presenting themselves as the only barrier holding back the Islamic peril. But they have caught the population in a full-scale civil war. The official toll is at least 30,000 people killed, not to mention those who have been injured or who have disappeared (probably twice the number of victims). The toll from this war illustrates the military regime's inability to get out of a political and military quagmire in which time is against it.
The regime has had no shortage of military resources. According to the chiefs of staff, between 45,000 and 60,000 troops are constantly mobilized in the fight against the fundamentalists.
Nor has it lacked determination or brutality in carrying out its repression. Poorer neighborhoods are systematically searched, activists tracked down and underground groups dismantled. Thousands of young people have been liquidated. Thousands more are still interned in camps where they suffer hunger, violence and torture. This is how the military has used its control of the state apparatus to terrorize the population. But this policy of state terrorism against the GIA killers, as well as those in the neighborhoods who shelter them, has not isolated the GIA from the population. On the contrary, it is driving the population into the arms of the GIA.
In these four years of dirty war, the Algerian leaders have combated their enemies with methods and policies which, far from breaking the fundamentalists' hold over the poorer classes, have helped to bring them closer to this population. This is why it is not at all surprising that the Algerian army has been unable to defeat the fundamentalists, despite the overwhelmingly superior resources at its disposal.
The sacrifices in this war have been made by the poor. Zeroual and his allies speak of "democracy." But for most of the inhabitants of the poor neighborhoods where the fundamentalists are based, this has meant nothing but constantly repeated violence: curfews, punitive expeditions by the army, kicking-in of doors, arbitrary arrests, liquidations and violence even against women and children.
All poor families have seen one of their number die or disappear. Young people leave their homes and parents after hearing shots in the distance, never to return again. Have they joined some underground group? Have they been interned in a camp? Or are they dead? Thousands of families do not know. And they probably never will know. Many on the fundamentalists' side have died. But there are also those who have died because they were doing their military service. And there are many more still, who did not to take sides, but are victims of either Islamic or state terrorism.
In these poor neighborhoods, there are people who have not chosen fundamentalism, who live in fear of the fundamentalists' pressures and reprisals, and who disapprove of the GIA's brutality. Yet they still place most of the blame for the situation on the government, to the point that they sometimes attribute the bombings to government provocations – which in some cases is true.
In addition to all the violence and suffering, the poor face a steady decline in their economic situation. Algeria's financial problems have been slightly alleviated with some additional credit, and the rescheduling of its debt. Some sectors of the economy have been privatized, to the profit of Algerian (and French) business sharks. But at the same time, the standard of living of the poorest sections of the population has grown worse.
The state has further restricted social expenditures and allowed the country's infrastructure to deteriorate. The housing situation, long characterized by the problem of big families in overcrowded conditions, has deteriorated dramatically. This is true in the poor neighborhoods, shanty towns, as well as 30-year- old state housing projects that have not been maintained. They all have flaking walls, failing electrical and water supplies, which are cut off for nearly 15 hours a day. People take turns sleeping in a few beds. There are open sewers, and people wash along polluted and stinking water. Rats and cats constantly fight amid piles of garbage.
The state is not spending any money to solve these problems. It prefers to use its funds to serve the rich, both the old-style wealthy and all the new kinds of sharks, who are reaping fortunes not only through the revival of business and legal trade, but also through smuggling.
At the same time, a growing proportion of the population is finding it increasingly difficult to survive. In the course of 1994, the price of the food staple, semolina, increased roughly twelve-fold. Controls on the prices of most basic products have been totally lifted, without any social protection to soften the consequences for the poor.
The destitution of the poorer classes is even more dramatic today than in 1988 when anger boiled over into urban uprisings. The government's dictatorship over the poor has been reinforced. The result is that the regime is being discredited even more, while the influence of the former FIS persists.
Aware that they have become bogged down in a seemingly endless war, last year the Algerian leaders attempted to open negotiations with the historic leaders of the FIS. However, these negotiations failed. The fundamentalists refused to agree to the government's conditions for holding the meeting. Instead, as a precondition for any agreement, the FIS demanded that the government release the FIS leaders and all political prisoners. The government refused to grant such a concession, since it might boost the credibility and boldness of the fundamentalists.
Algerian politicians do not unanimously support the policy of the ruling military government toward the fundamentalists. On the one hand, there are those who consider the present government to be too soft, and think that the repression should be stepped up still further to eradicate fundamentalism. Many of these people hold high positions in the state apparatus, and are perhaps well placed to interpret the calculations and hesitations of the army leaders, who may one day decide to negotiate with the fundamentalists in order to preserve the unity of the state apparatus. But the fate of the poor is of no concern to these "eradicators." They do not oppose greater sacrifices and less freedom for the poorer classes in the fight against fundamentalism.
On the other hand, various parties, including the FLN, Aït Ahmed's FFS and other organizations also oppose the government's policy. They advocate the reintegration of the former FIS into Algerian politics. They see the FIS as the only party capable of curbing GIA terrorism and restoring order.
Over a year ago, these parties met the leaders of the former FIS in Rome. They all signed a pact demanding that the government allow the FIS to assume its place in legal Algerian politics, in return for renouncing terrorist struggle. But this pact did not persuade either the military or the fundamentalist leaders to moderate their stance. However, the initiative illustrates the fact that, despite the civil war and despite the brutal terrorism, a large number of Algerian politicians effectively accept the former FIS as a political movement.
In the same way, the politicians in the main imperialist countries also broadly accept the former FIS. The fundamentalists are generally well received among the American, British or German authorities. The French authorities may have some reservations about having to deal with fundamentalists if they come to power. But it is only a concern that French imperialism may lose some business: contracts may be renegotiated, links with French companies may be replaced by links with British, American and German companies, and so on.
The main problem for imperialism is certainly not religious fundamentalism, the application of the shari‘ah (Islamic law), the subordination of women and the other medieval aspects of the FIS's program. If that were the case, the United States would have had to break long ago with the kings, emirs, sultans, etc., in Saudi Arabia and around the Persian Gulf. Imperialism often relies on the most backward-looking political forces in the countries it plunders. For imperialism the only problem might be if the fundamentalists are unreliable. It is not too clear who is in charge, what their authority is over the masses or how far their anti-western demagogy might go. Even though its domination is not threatened by movements like the ones which brought Khomeini to power, imperialism is obviously not too keen on such things happening again.
However, one can imagine many situations, such as violent reactions by the masses, which might bring the Islamic movement to power. The imperialist powers would then come to terms with this movement, provided that it was able to channel and control the masses.
In case of situations like this, the imperialist powers are showing tolerance toward Islamic circles, and most probably maintaining discrete links with some of their leaders.
This is not just for general reasons. Workers originating from Algeria and North Africa constitute an important section of the working class in France. If the working class was completely gagged in Algeria, and subject to dictatorship and control like under the fundamentalist regime in Iran, if it was reduced to silence, one can imagine the resulting effects among workers of Algerian origin in France, and the direct and indirect pressures exerted towards a regression, not only in people's consciousness but in social life itself. One can already see the effects of Islamic pressure, particularly on women. An Islamic dictatorship on the other side of the Mediterranean could strengthen the anti-immigrant pro-Le Pen far right in France.
Things have not gone that far yet. The fundamentalists are not yet in power, and their hold over society is not yet what they would wish. This is not because of the repression by Zeroual and his army, but because there is still resistance within society to the Islamic regression.
But this movement can only really be checked by a major change in the relationship of forces, i.e. by the working class itself. Only the working class can offer a way out of the crisis in Algerian society. Only the working class can offer political perspectives fundamentally different from the twin evils of military and Islamic dictatorship. Only the working class can offer the political perspective of radical social changes which might win the support of all the poor. The only real way to combat the fundamentalist influence over society is for the working class to put forward its own values and a different perspective in opposition to the political and social repression and superstition which the fundamentalists wish to impose.
In the current situation, this could not just be a mere battle of ideas. The working class would have to be ready to forcibly oppose the terrorist gangs. For example they must be ready to protect those women who have the courage to resist pressure to wear the veil. The working class would have to become aware of the need to resist the rise of fundamentalism, to be ready to defend itself and to impose the law of an eye for an eye on the murderers.
This is not the kind of struggle being proposed by those among the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie who are resisting the fundamentalist pressures. For such a struggle can only be led by men and women totally committed to the cause of the exploited, by men and women who stand for the working class. It can only be led by people who do not, like the petty bourgeoisie the world over, look on the most exploited classes as a world apart, destined to live in poverty and oppression. Instead it must be led by those who see the working class as the only social force capable of stopping the current regression, and, far beyond that, of emancipating the whole society.