National Sections of the L5I:

The writing on the wall

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By Emile Gallet

Over three hundred people were killed in Algeria in a single week in January. In the two years since the military coup, Algeria’s undeclared civil war between the army and the Islamic fundamentalist FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) has claimed up to 5,000 lives.

The FIS have blown up army barracks and carried out a series of systematic assassinations of gendarmes and army officers. They have become so proficient that, in many parts of Algiers, the police have to wear masks to prevent identification.

For its part, the army has imprisoned over five thousand FIS militants without trial. It has instituted a campaign of torture. It has napalmed parts of the countryside where FIS guerrilla units are active. Villages suspected of helping the guerrillas have been burnt to the ground. Several hundred FIS members have been killed or executed.

But there have also been other victims. The FIS have assassinated hundreds of people simply because of their trade union activity, their opposition to fundamentalism or for being foreigners.

The army, which has always been the real power in Algeria, has now taken over the Presidency, with the nomination of Colonel Zéroual as head of state. But the civil war continues, and the death toll grows daily. All the signs are there of a growing pre-revolutionary crisis.

Until 10 years ago, Algeria was relatively prosperous. Its highly nationalised and state-controlled economy, entirely dependent on oil and gas production, was able to provide the corrupt ruling party and the state bureaucracy with a comfortable living. It also provided enough food to keep the masses from open revolt.

Following the collapse in oil prices in 1986—a 30% drop in one year—the Algerian government was obliged to take two steps that changed all this. First, to make up for declining oil revenues, they borrowed money from the IMF.

Secondly, they began to invest heavily in gas production. This cost more money, which meant that they had to borrow even more to pay back the money they already owed. The country entered the vicious spiral beloved of loansharks the world over.

Oil prices slumped even further, reducing Algeria’s income to such a point that today the country can no longer repay its debt.

The first decisive cracks in the one-party state appeared in October 1988 when a strike over union rights exploded into a general strike and mass rioting over food price rises.

Over 500 people—overwhelmingly youth—were killed in the repression which followed. The FLN—the ruling party which had led the Algerian masses in the independence struggle against French imperialism—was able to maintain its hold on power for the time being. But the writing was on the wall. And increasingly, it read “FIS”.

A series of democratic reforms were instituted in the aftermath of the 1988 uprising, notably freedom of the press, freedom of political parties and the promise of parliamentary and presidential elections.

The FIS—a loose reactionary coalition between “moderate” Islamic leaders and a vicious clerical fascist wing—had one key advantage over the other new opposition political parties: it had never compromised with the regime.

All the other bourgeois parties were led by one-time FLN hacks who had fallen out with the leadership. In these circumstances, the FIS’s simple message—anti-regime, anti-west, anti-women—struck a chord amongst sections of the Algerian masses. The FIS programme is “back to basics” with a vengeance: back to the medieval religious law of the Islamic sharia.

By the 1990 municipal elections it was obvious that, in the growing political vacuum, the FIS were the only solid force. The FIS got 54% of the vote and took over more than 200 local councils. The one-time heroes of the revolution, the FLN, only got 28% of the vote.

In May 1991 the FIS tried to launch a general strike for an Islamic republic. The army moved in, crushing the movement, arresting the FIS leaders and installing a state of emergency.

The FLN was obliged to go ahead with stalled elections, at the end of 1991. Despite an initial hesitation about participating, the FIS swept the board in the first round.

Victory in the second round seemed assured. The FLN President, Chadli, opened negotiations with the FIS, but there was no second round. Fearing high-level purges and opposing the anti-western outlook of the FIS, the army high command obliged Chadli to resign and installed a new state of emergency “to save democracy”.

Thousands of FIS militants were rounded up and sent off to prison camps in the desert. The FIS, officially banned and increasingly dislocated because of successive waves of repression, began to lose control of the movement as gendarme after gendarme was killed.

By the end of 1993, Algerian military intelligence estimated that there were a total of 625 fundamentalist armed units operating in the country. The FIS spokesman in exile, Rabah Kébir, had to admit that the FIS were no longer in control of the situation.

The catalogue of violence is gruesome. Schools have been burned down, railways sabotaged, soldiers and gendarmes have been killed, left-wing militants, journalists and foreign workers have had their throats slit.

The army has discovered that it cannot beat the FIS. Repression has clearly failed. So too have the attempts to create a new popular front behind the regime. The masses remember what the army did in 1988. The FLN are completely discredited, and the army too.

Cynicism and discontent mingle amongst the unemployed youth who make up both a key part of the FIS’s base and the most explosive section of Algerian society.

The response of the left has revealed a deep crisis of leadership. The Communist Party, which discredited itself through its slavish support for the FLN, has disintegrated.

The two main so-called Trotskyist organisations have also completely failed the test. The Parti des Travailleurs (Workers Party), led by Louisa Hanoune, has consistently mis-led the Algerian workers by arguing for an alliance with the FIS and other bourgeois forces against the government!

On the other hand, the PST, section of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, has simply set its sights on “preparing the political conditions which will lead to democracy”.

In these circumstances, the FIS’ simple and reactionary message has gone unchallenged. The left has given them a free hand in winning over the mass of the unemployed youth.

Despite the fact that they are—literally—at daggers drawn, the army and the FIS are obliged to come to a compromise. Everything the regime has been doing over the last few months shows this. Negotiations between the two forces have taken place, although the army’s attempt to corral all the main political parties—including the FIS—into an agreement during the recent “National Conference” came to nothing, when all parties boycotted it.

The reason why an agreement is probable is obvious. With oil prices at their current low level, Algeria simply cannot repay its massive foreign debt. It does not have the money. Rescheduling is therefore an inevitability, but a prerequisite for this is social peace. Rescheduling will be disastrous for the Algerian masses; it will require a devaluation of the dinar, perhaps of 50%, for a country dependent on imports for 99% of its food. They will mean even greater hunger and misery. Already youth unemployment is over 60%. Inflation is at 40% and industry is producing at only half capacity.

The IMF and the World Bank do not want to pour good money after bad. To guarantee their investments they need to keep a tight rein on the masses.

The FIS, despite being deeply divided on what the next move should be, therefore hold all the cards. Their support for any government action to re-schedule the debt will be necessary if there is to be any chance at all that the masses will accept it.

Despite their anti-western rhetoric, the FIS is not an anti-imperialist force. They want to ensure that imperialism’s domination of Algeria continues.

All sides—army, FIS and IMF—are desperately worried that the Algerian masses will take matters into their own hands. The last few months have seen signs of a revival of the class struggle.

During the summer, workers at the state-owned EBA construction company went on strike over plans to sack 580 workers. The strike lasted an unprecedented 110 days and although the workers did not win, it represented a sign of resistance which has given heart to all sections of the working class.

In December there was a general strike in Rouiba—the industrial region which launched the October 1988 strike—over sackings and trade union rights. Strikes are also threatened by teachers and gas workers. Any major attacks on workers’ living standards, such as the IMF will insist upon as part of any rescheduling programme, would inevitably provoke a fightback.

The one-time FLN trade union, the UGTA, is aware of this growing desire to fight and has been trying to contain workers’ anger. The leadership has launched a campaign against repaying the debt and has consistently refused any support for a rescheduling agreement.

But until last September, the UGTA was an avid supporter of the government’s frenetic campaign to repay the debt come what may, despite the mini-austerity programme which was involved. The last prime minister, Bélaïd, had a traditional Algerian state-interventionist policy which was very much to the UGTA’s reformist taste.

Today, just like the FIS and the army, the UGTA fear that the masses could escape their control.

And that is precisely what will have to happen if there is to be a progressive solution to the current crisis. Neither the FIS, nor the army, nor the IMF can do anything to resolve the desperate problems of the Algerian masses.

Unemployment, hunger and lack of accommodation all need radical, revolutionary answers. Neither neo-liberalism, out-dated state capitalism nor medieval religious rubbish will provide a solution.

The wealth is there which could free the masses from their poverty and cultural backwardness. It is in the hands of the imperialists and the state bureaucracy. It just needs to be taken.

The land is there which could produce food: it needs a workers’ plan to organise production, to dynamise the agricultural sector.

But such an answer to Algeria’s impending catastrophe would mean a complete break with the reformist and bourgeois nationalist policies which have dominated the workers’ movement since independence in 1962.

Only a worker’s party, built around a revolutionary programme, giving answers both to workers and to unemployed youth, will break the hold of reformism, nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism. It is on this that the future of Algeria’s workers depends.