Algeria: Democracy 'On Hold.'

By Farley, Jonathan G. | Contemporary Review, March 1993 | Go to article overview

Algeria: Democracy 'On Hold.'


Farley, Jonathan G., Contemporary Review


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?

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