Thoughts for independent Algeria’s 50th birthday

Published on Pambazuka News, by David Porter, July 5, 2012.

Algerians are by nature anarchists. Whether at the level of local daily life or in periodic broader social movements, large numbers of grassroots Algerians over the past five decades have refused to accept the authoritarian and corrupt regime imposed since independence. That struggle continues.  

5 July 2012 marks Algeria’s 50th anniversary of national independence from 132 years of the French colonial regime. At the heavy price of a bitter eight-year armed struggle, marked by 300,000-1,000,000 Algerian deaths, large-scale repression, torture and military removal of millions from their homes, this forceful rejection of French control was an immense accomplishment. Algeria’s example of courage, will and sacrifice to gain national liberation from a major Western power was one of the most inspiring and dynamic political models of mid-20th century Third World struggle, well-publicized for many in North America by the writings of Frantz Fanon. Commemorating this achievement at the 50th anniversary is important.

Yet, paradoxically, for most Algerians, it is hard to celebrate. Algerian filmmakers have proposed nearly 150 specific projects to present various aspects of the wartime struggle. But expensive film projects require substantial government funding. As well, a new Algerian law requires government approval of any film on wartime themes in order to “safeguard national memory” (R.N., 2012). Thus, Algeria’s regime has the last say. Given the potential to dramatically portray Algeria’s struggle, outsiders might view such decisions as simple, subject only to criteria of cost and artistic talent … //

… In 1980 emerged a largely spontaneous wave of massive protest and resistance among the proud Berbers of Kabylia, based on long-standing grievances against regime authoritarianism, its disdain for rich Berber linguistic and cultural identity as well as its neglect of the region’s economy. This “Berber Spring” was the first large-scale political challenge to the regime since the early 60s, inspiring a decade of continuing activism and independent cultural expression by the Berber Cultural Movement and similar upheavals among alienated and oppressed urban residents, especially young people, in Constantine, Sétif, Ghardaïa, Oran, and other locales.

In turn, a similar but larger protest by thousands of young people took place in the capital, Algiers, in October 1988—without an explicit political program, but demonstrating through their choice of targets (government and FLN party offices and opulent retail stores) their contempt for political and economic elites prospering at the expense of most Algerians. This explosion of massive street demonstrations over several days was then repressed by gunfire, arrests and torture and used by the regime to justify and manipulate a partial liberalization of politics and economic policy. In this brief moment of what some referred to as Algeria’s “parentheses democracy,” like the recent Arab Spring, many hoped for a genuine multiparty pluralist political system with respect for free expression and human rights.

A new outspoken human rights league developed in this period along with new media, independent women’s rights groups and autonomous trade unions separate from the regime’s long-standing and largely submissive UGTA union federation. In the end, however, the combination of a growing and increasingly confident and demagogic Islamist movement, including a strong radical component, and manipulation by the dominant military to block genuine democratization culminated in a cancelled legislative electoral process (about to be won by Islamists) in January 1992. What followed was a long nightmare decade of repression, massacres, tortures, assassinations, “disappearances” and rapes committed by both sides.

In 1999, the military selected Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a previously long-standing high regime official, to be president as the regime’s civilian face. Along with a policy of “reconciliation” with disarming Islamists and enforced silence about crimes of both sides, the military (led by the secret police, the DRS) sponsored a new phase of democratic façade. Over the next decade, it permitted periodic local and national elections, a variety of political parties, newspapers, and civil society organizations and limited public critiques of the regime. But elections are notoriously manipulated, while newspapers and parties and other organizations are infiltrated and pressured from above or purposefully multiplied so as to confuse and divert political opposition. Typically public meetings and demonstrations are tightly controlled or banned altogether.

Nevertheless, the human rights league, autonomous trade unions, women’s rights groups and other grassroots organizations continue to survive and to take strong political stands. Elections are boycotted by large numbers, most recently a month ago for the national assembly. In this latter case, the political stakes were especially high after unprecedented strong government appeals through radio, TV, social messaging and supportive imams calling for massive voter participation, thus to demonstrate regime legitimacy and deter “Arab Spring”-type challenges and potential Western intervention. However, the continued habit of boycotts by alienated voters and further appeals for abstention by opposition figures produced another humiliating grassroots rejection of the system. While the regime claimed a 42% participation rate of eligible voters, the lack of transparency in vote-counting and other traditional forms of electoral manipulation led critics to suggest a much lower rate and fraudulent victories. As well, even among those who voted, admitted the government, about 22% of cast ballots were faulty or blank (Mammeri, 2012).

The earlier Kabyle insurrection of April 2001, followed by mass demonstrations and a widespread horizontalist “assemblies movement,” also showed a large-scale rejection of the regime. Responding to long-standing grievances against the government and to local gendarmes’ murder of a young student and deadly attacks on demonstrators, virtually the entire region of Kabylia rose up in defiant protest, besieging police stations with rocks and fire bombs while also burning government and political party offices. Other Kabyles formed local grassroots councils based on centuries-old Kabyle horizontalist principles and confederated together from the bottom up. As well, a million protestors marched on Algiers demanding trials and punishments for the gendarmes, compensation for the hundreds of wounded, acquittal for demonstrators,
programs for social and economic development, and a system of genuine democratic accountability.

This rising massive defiance and spontaneous self-organization threatened to spread elsewhere in Algeria and to mobilize a national uprising against the regime. But events happened too quickly to develop a coordinated national insurrection and the regime repressed marchers before they could reach the center of Algiers. Nevertheless, the self-organized assemblies movement persisted for several years, while mostly refusing and denouncing contact with the unresponsive regime …
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