Chadli Bendjedid

Chadli Bendjedid

Bendjedid, who had collaborated with Boumediene in the plot that deposed Ben Bella, was regarded as a moderate not identified with any group or faction; he did, however, command wide support within the military establishment. In June 1980, he summoned an extraordinary FLN Party Congress to examine the draft of the five-year development plan for 1980-84. The resultant First FiveYear Plan liberalized the economy and broke up unwieldy state corporations.

The Benjedid regime was also marked by protests from Berber university students who objected to arabization measures in government and especially in education. Although Bendjedid reaffirmed the government's long-term commitment to arabization, he upgraded Berber studies at the university level and granted media access to Berber-language programs. These concessions, however, provoked counterprotests from Islamists (also seen as fundamentalists).

Islamists gained increasing influence in part because the government was unable to keep its economic promises. In the late 1970s, Muslim activists engaged in isolated and relatively small-scale assertions of their will: harassing women whom they felt were inappropriately dressed, smashing establishments that served alcohol, and evicting official imams from their mosques. The Islamists escalated their actions in 1982, when they called for the abrogation of the National Charter and the formation of an Islamic government. Amidst an increasing number of violent incidents on campuses, Islamists killed one student. After police arrested 400 Islamists, about 100,000 demonstrators thronged to Friday prayers at the university mosque. The arrests of hundreds more activists, including prominent leaders of the movement, Shaykh Abdelatif Sultani and Shaykh Ahmed Sahnoun, resulted in a lessening of Islamist actions for several years. Nonetheless, in light of the massive support the Islamists could muster, the authorities henceforth viewed them as a potentially grave threat to the state and alternately treated them with harshness and respect. In 1984, for example, the government opened in Constantine one of the largest Islamic universities in the world. In the same year, acceding to Islamist demands, the government changed family status law to deprive women of freedom to act on their own by making them wards of their families before marriage and of their husbands after marriage.

The country's economic crisis deepened in the mid-1980s, resulting in, among other things, increased unemployment, a lack of consumer goods, and shortages in cooking oil, semolina, coffee, and tea. Women waited in long lines for scarce and expensive food; young men milled in frustration on street corners unable to find work. An already bad situation was aggravated by the huge drop in world oil prices in 1986. Dismantling Algeria's state capitalist system seemed to Bendjedid the only way to improve the economy. In 1987 he announced reforms that would return control and profits to private hands, starting with agriculture and continuing to the large state enterprises and banks.

Notwithstanding the introduction of reform measures, incidents indicating social unrest increased in Algiers and other cities as the economy foundered from 1985 to 1988. The alienation and anger of the population were fanned by the widespread perception that the government had become corrupt and aloof. The waves of discontent crested in October 1988 when a series of strikes and walkouts by students and workers in Algiers degenerated into rioting by thousands of young men, who destroyed government and FLN property. When the violence spread to Annaba, Blida, Oran, and other cities and towns, the government declared a state of emergency and began using force to quell the unrest. By October 10, the security forces had restored a semblance of order; unofficial estimates were that more than 500 people were killed and more than 3,500 arrested.

The stringent measures used to put down the riots of "Black October" engendered a ground swell of outrage. Islamists took control of some areas. Unsanctioned independent organizations of lawyers, students, journalists, and physicians sprang up to demand justice and change. In response, Bendjedid conducted a house cleaning of senior officials and drew up a program of political reform. In December he was offered the chance to implement the reforms when he was reelected, albeit by a reduced margin. A new constitution, approved overwhelmingly in February 1989, dropped the word socialist from the official description of the country; guaranteed freedoms of expression, association, and meeting; and withdrew the guarantees of female rights that appeared in the 1976 constitution. The FLN was not mentioned in the document at all, and the army was discussed only in the context of national defense, reflecting a significant downgrading of its political status.

Politics were reinvigorated in 1989 under the new laws. Newspapers became the liveliest and freest in the Arab world, while political parties of nearly every stripe vied for members and a voice. In February 1989, Abbassi Madani and Ali Belhadj founded the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut-- FIS). Although the constitution prohibited religious parties, the FIS came to play a significant role in Algerian politics. It handily defeated the FLN in local and provincial elections held in June 1990, in part because most secular parties boycotted the elections. The FLN's response was to adopt a new electoral law that openly aided the FLN. The FIS, in turn, called a general strike, organized demonstrations, and occupied public places. Bendjedid declared martial law on June 5, 1991, but he also asked his minister of foreign affairs, Sid Ahmed Ghozali, to form a new government of national reconciliation. Although the FIS seemed satisfied with Ghozali's appointment and his attempts to clean up the electoral law, it continued to protest, leading the army to arrest Belhadj, Madani, and hundreds of others. The state of emergency ended in September.

Algeria's leaders were stunned in December 1991 when FIS candidates won absolute majorities in 188 of 430 electoral districts, far ahead of the FLN's fifteen seats. Some members of Bendjedid's cabinet, fearing a complete FIS takeover, forced the president to dissolve parliament and to resign on January 11, 1992. Leaders of the takeover included Ghozali, and generals Khaled Nezzar (minister of defense) and Larbi Belkheir (minister of interior). After they declared the elections void, the takeover leaders and Mohamed Boudiaf formed the High Council of State to rule the country. The FIS, as well as the FLN, clamored for a return of the electoral process, but police and troops countered with massive arrests. In February 1992, violent demonstrations broke out in many cities, and on February 9 the government declared a one-year state of emergency and the next month banned the FIS.

The end of FLN rule over Algeria opened a period of uncertain transition. Widespread discontent with the party stemmed from many roots. People were frustrated and angry because they had no voice in their own affairs, had few or no prospects for employment, and had a deteriorating standard of living. In addition, the poor and the middle class grew outraged over the privileges enjoyed by party members, and many Algerians became alienated by what they felt was the unwelcome encroachment of secular, or Western, values. Algeria's brief democratic interlude unleashed these pent-up feelings, and, as in earlier periods of the country's history, the language of Islam served many as the preferred medium of social and political protest.

Whereas the vast majority of the historical writings on Algeria are in French, several excellent works are available in English. John Ruedy's Modern Algeria provides a masterful synthesis and analysis focusing on the period from the French occupation to early 1992. Land Policy in Colonial Algeria by the same author is also interesting. A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period by Jamil Abu-Nasr provides a thoughtful and detailed look at the region going back to the Arab conquests. For an in-depth treatment of the struggle for independence, especially political and military affairs, see Alistair Horne's A Savage War of Peace. For the precolonial period, see Charles-André Julien's Histoire de l'Afrique du nord. Julien's Histoire de l'Algérie contemporaine and Charles-Robert Ageron's book by the same title cover the colonial period. Raphael Danziger's Abd alQadir and the Algerians is a serious and comprehensive study of this national hero.


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