National Sections of the L5I:

Algeria: state of siege

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Algeria won its independence from France in 1962. Today the tanks that are patrolling the streets of the capital, Algiers, are there on orders from the leaders of the National Liberation Front which led the struggle against the French. Algeria, as Emile Gallet explains, has become a classic example of imperialism’s new policy of “militarised democracy” in the semi-colonies.

At the beginning of June, for the second time in less than three years, the Algerian President, Chadli, dismissed the government and declared a state of siege. The streets of Algiers were the scene of mass demonstrations againstChadli and of the bloody suppression of the demonstrators by the tanks and heavily armed troops he ordered in.

Instead of voting in the first multi-party parliamentary elections, the Algerian masses are now subject to a curfew and await the outcome of a series of negotiations between the new Prime Minister and the principal opposition party, the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), whose general strike call had led to the confrontation with the state.

This latest state of siege is the direct outcome of the events in October 1988, when Algerian youth took to the streets in a series of food riots. Bloody repression followed, lleaving over 500 dead. The whole of the country was paralysed as the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) seemed about to lose its hold on power.

Faced with this threat President Chadli launched a policy of democratisation. He first assured himself of a new mandate—he was re-elected with 81% of the votes in December 1988—then legalised opposition parties in July 1989.

He also began to separate the FLN and the state, which had been effectively fused since independence. In March 1989 the Popular National Army (NPA) withdrew from the Central Committee of the FLN. As the June state of siege shows, however, the army remains close to the ruling party—President Chadli himself is a Colonel in the NPA.

The undoubted victor of the whole process of democratisation is the FIS. Legalised in the September 1989, the FIS rapidly became the main opposition party. In the June 1990 municipal elections it took control in all the major towns, getting over 54% of the vote compared to only 28% for the FLN.

It was clear that the FIS would sweep the board in the parliamentary elections scheduled for 27 June 1991. Fearful of losing power, the FLN tried to fix the election. On average, ten times as many votes were required to elect a deputy in the urban areas, which voted for the FIS in June 1990, as compared to the FLN rural strongholds!

Faced with this fix, the opposition parties called a series of protests, to no avail. The FLN was adamant. On 25 May the FIS launched a general strike, followed immediately by a 100,000 strong demonstration in Algiers under the slogans: No parliamentary elections, immediate Presidential elections, Islamic state (“Dawla islamiya”) now.

Although the demonstration was a success, the strike was not. Neither the small shopkeepers, who constitute an important part of the FIS mass base, nor the working class showed much sign of responding to the strike call.

When it became obvious that the strike was a flop signs of dissent appeared within the FIS. A communiqué was issued from one wing of its ruling body, the Madjliss, calling for the end of the strike. The response of the leader of the FIS, Abassi, and his number two, Benhadj, was to try and provoke the government into a crackdown. They hoped to once again bring the youth onto the street in their tens of thousands. But there was no repetition of the October 1988 events. The FIS plan enjoyed only partial success.

Following the occupation of key parts of Algiers by sit-down protesters, a series of bloody confrontations broke out between police and demonstrators. On 4-5 June tear gas, molotov cocktails and automatic weapons were used. To cries of “Down with democracy”, police stations were attacked and barricades were built. Although non-fundamentalist youth were widely involved in the violence, the mass participation of October was absent. The FIS were unable to moblise the masses behind them.

Chadli felt sufficiently threatened by these events to resort, once again, to the armed forces. An anti-democratic and repressive state of siege was installed on 5 June. The Prime Minister, Hamrouche, and his government were sacked. The tanks went onto the streets. Over twenty people were killed and the general election was cancelled “for the foreseeable future”.

The FIS, sensing that it was better to quit whilst ahead, accepted the state of siege, called off the strike and before the week was out was negotiating with the new prime minister, Ghozali, over the holding of parliamentary elections.

The tanks were withdrawn from the streets of Algiers and the country settled into apparent calm, although the state of siege remained in force and the police continued to arrest FIS members, claiming that there was an armed conspiracy led by Bendhaj to launch a coup d’état.

The way now appears open for parliamentary elections in October, on the basis of “fair” constituency boundaries and with the FLN now no longer in control of the government. Although Ghozali is an FLN central committee member, none of the other ministers have held office in the FLN.

The FIS have strengthened themselves in this crisis and are poised for more successes when (or if) elections are called. Despite the failure of their general strike, they were able to provoke the government into a state of siege and to get the anti-democratic electoral law withdrawn. The repressive policy of the FLN has enabled the FIS to turn a fiasco of a strike into a political triumph.