Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Riots of 1988 Leading to Riot of Democracy in Algeria

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Riots of 1988 Leading to Riot of Democracy in Algeria

Article excerpt

Until the violent riots of October 1988, Algeria's political system was one of the most monolithic in the Arab world: a single party, the National Liberation Front (FLN), dominated virtually every aspect of life. The government press was stodgy; the economy a tightly centralized socialist one. Today, only a year and a half after the establishment was shaken by the bloodshed and the rioting of the very people it had claimed to represent, Algeria has 20 legal political parties and a burgeoning partisan press. If the dramatic events in Eastern Europe had not been occurring at the same time, Algeria might be cited as a model for democratization.

While the FLN still runs the government, it has proven to be deeply divided, with the old guard fighting a tough rearguard action against change. Last year, when President Chadli Benjedid sought to fire Prime Minister Kasdi Merbah (a hardliner from the old guard), Metbah refused for several hours to give up his post. He finally yielded to new Premier Mouloud Hamrouche, a close ally of Chadli and a supporter of reform.

A Shock to the Establishment

The riots of 1988 were a shock to the establishment, for the very areas of Algiers which had been hotbeds of the revolution against France (led by the FLN) were now seen as the centers of resistance to the Party. Chadli promised reform, and has moved rapidly towards an opening of the political system.

All is not perfect, however. Efforts to streamline the economic system, while proceeding, have been slowed by bureaucratic inertia and the resistance of the dedicated socialists in the FLN's old guard. Chadli has opened up the political system, but if he cannot alleviate the economic problems which caused the 1988 riots, some wonder if he can survive. The economy is a shambles, despite Algeria being an oil producer.

Half of all Algerians were born after independence. They do not remember the struggle against the French and no longer venerate the FLN as a liberation movement, knowing it only as a rusting socialist bureaucracy. The FLN has shown itself to be a dinosaur, resistant to change even when a strong president tries to push it in that direction. And Chadli has not defeated his rivals in the FLN, or silenced them as effectively as Mikhail Gorbachev seems to have done in Moscow. Some have suggested that it might have been better for Chadli to scrap the FLN entirely, and try to create a new presidential party to lead Algeria into an era of political pluralism. By choosing to stay with the FLN, Chadli may have limited his own options against the old guard.

A Plethora of Parties

But if the FLN is unchanging, the plethora of new parties and newspapers is something unseen before, and rare enough anywhere in the Middle East. Parties ranging from Communist through Social Democrat to Islamic have emerged from the shadows. Some of them are linked to old, pre-independence movements which had broken with the FLN, or to former political figures. Others are tiny groups representing almost no one but their founders. But there is at least one big exception: The Islamic Salvation Front, headed by Sheikh Abbasi Madani, is unquestionably the FLN's biggest rival.

Prime Minister Hamrouche himself has suggested that the Islamic Salvation Front might win some 30 percent of the vote in upcoming municipal elections. The Party is the largest of several Islamic groups, and claims to be the only legal Islamic political party in the Arab world. …

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