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Ian Birchall


New ills, old cures

(November 1988)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.114, November 1988, p.11.
Transcribed & marked up Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

LAST month’s savagely repressed riots in Algeria may mark the beginning of a new phase of social struggle in a country which, for a century and a half has suffered bitterly from the effects of imperialism.

Algeria was colonised by France in the early nineteenth century, but by a legal fiction was not considered a colony but an integral part of French territory. This did not deter Algerian nationalists from launching a struggle for independence; in November 1954 the National Liberation Front (FLN) began the insurrection which was to lead to eight years of harsh warfare.

French imperialism did not give up easily. FLN militants faced napalm, concentration camps and torture, but they maintained their struggle, losing at least 140,000 dead in the course of a war.

It was one of the great epic liberation struggles of the twentieth century.

In 1962 De Gaulle’s France conceded defeat, and Algeria gained its independence. The legacy of war and imperialism could not easily be overcome, and from the outset there were disputes among the FLN leaders. The first president of the independent state was Ahmed Ben Bella, one of the historic leaders of the FLN who had spent much of the war in jail.

For a year or two Ben Bella enjoyed great prestige among the international left. He was hailed as taking the revolution in a socialist direction.

In fact the FLN smashed opposition in the trade unions and packed them with loyal government supporters. Women were excluded from the campaign to extend literacy.

The real power remained in the hands of the army, and however superficial Ben Bella’s “socialism” was, it was too much for some of them.

In the spring of 1965 one of the most powerful army leaders, Boumedienne, staged a coup and removed Ben Bella from power. There was virtually no resistance to the coup, despite Ben Bella’s alleged popularity. (An acquaintance of mine was having his hair cut in Algiers on the day of the coup and was told by the hairdresser in the course of casual conversation: “By the way, there’s been a coup.”) For Ben Bella it was back to jail.

Boumedienne had one thing going for him – the rise in oil prices in the seventies. Oil and gas constitute 98 percent of Algeria’s exports, and as long as the oil boom lasted the deep-lying economic problems could be concealed.

When Boumedienne died in 1978 he was replaced by President Chadli. Chadli made a few liberal gestures – for example releasing Ben Bella from jail in 1979 – but in essence he continued Boumedienne’s line. The army remains the backbone of the regime – roughly a fifth of the delegates to the party congress are soldiers.

In December 1985 the fall in the price of oil cut Algeria’s foreign currency earnings by 40 percent. Instead of re-scheduling its foreign debts the government cut imports. Working people were faced with shortages and empty shops, while the rich continued to display their wealth ostentatiously.

In this situation the October riots are no surprise. Naturally enough it was the youth who took the lead. Over half the rapidly growing population of Algeria is aged under twenty – they have no memory of the struggle against the French and show no deference to those who still derive their legitimacy from that struggle. The young, too, bear the burden of the economic crisis – 50 percent of those aged between 20 and 24 have no job.

Even more threatening for the government is the fact that behind the rioters looms the power of the working class. The Algerian working class is now far bigger and stronger than at the time of the liberation struggle; around 60 percent of the population live in towns. In the week just before the riots there was a wave of strikes. Thirteen thousand car-workers struck in the former Berliet plant, now nationalised, and the strike spread to postal workers and airport employees.

The riots produced results. Chadli promised reforms, although he was extremely vague as to what their content would be, since the economic situation leaves him little room for manoeuvre. More significantly, hi the days after the riots, the shops were conspicuously well stocked – an object lesson for all that struggle pays.

A presidential election is due next January, and it is not clear whether Chadli will stand. To remove the President would undoubtedly be a symbolic victory, but his replacement would be unlikely to have politics of a significantly different nature.

For the moment no authentic political alternative exists. Certainly the Islamic fundamentalists have played a major role in the riots. Chadli had sought to outflank the fundamentalists by giving greater recognition to Islam in his policies, but as the crisis deepens the fundamentalists seem certain to grow in influence. But they are no more than the other side of the coin to the nationalists – they have no policies to confront the needs of the working people, the youth and the unemployed.

Two of the founding leaders of the FLN, Ben Bella and Ait Ahmed, now both in exile, have issued statements denouncing the Chadli government. (In 1985 Ben Bella and Ait Ahmed issued a joint appeal for democracy in Algeria – a surprising line-up, since when Ben Bella was in power he sentenced Ait Ahmed to death.)

The “historic” leaders of the FLN certainly retain a degree of credibility, and may have some following. But they too have no solution.

The real hope is that among the thousands of students and unemployed who took to the streets last month, a few have begun to draw the lessons and are beginning to discuss the need for the organisation that can offer a way ahead – a revolutionary party rooted in Algeria’s growing and militant working class.

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