The writer explains why the FLN of Algeria is hard to rout
NEXT year will mark 40 years of untrammelled power and unlimited corruption for the National Liberation Front (FLN) of Algeria, if it makes it that far. But it may not, in which case we just might be confronted with the spectacle of a genuine popular revolution in an Arab country for the first time since -- well, since the last time Algeria did it, back in the liberation war of half a century ago, and that didn't turn out too well.
It will not be easy to oust the FLN. "They are a true mafia, secretive and perfidious -- a veritable laboratory of conspiracies," as
Hocine Ait Ahmed, one of the 'historic nine' who launched Algeria's
liberation war against the French in 1954, put it a few years ago. "There
is nothing they will not do to hold on to power." But sometimes even
ruthlessness is overwhelmed by popular anger.
There is little chance, alas, that Algeria's revolution, if it happens, will be non-violent. Over 100,000 Algerians have been killed in the nine years of
insurrection and terror since the regime stole the 1992 elections. The shadowy generals who run the country (chillingly known as the 'eradicators') would certainly go down fighting, for they know that
they would not survive defeat.
The riots began two months ago, in the south-eastern region of
Kabylia which is home to the country's 6 million-strong Berber minority. A
young man was murdered by police in the Berber city of Tizi Ouzou on 18
April, an everyday event in today's Algeria -- but popular disgust has
grown so great that it triggered a wave of
At first the open defiance of the regime was
confined to Kabylia,
and tied to demands for equal rights for the Berber language, Tamazigh. By last week, however, it had reached the swarming capital of Algiers, where
unemployment probably exceeds 50 percent and housing is so scarce that
people sleep in shifts. At least 50 and perhaps as many as 80 people have been killed in the demos; but the populace shows no signs of backing down.
It has moved beyond the stage where the regime could hope to isolate it as a mere Berber nationalist movement. The demonstrations continue in Kabylia (the next big one is scheduled for Monday), but on July 5 they will hit the capital again -- and the demonstrators in Algiers and the other big cities are young Arabic-speakers whose main grievance is that in an oil-rich country, independent now for a full generation, they have no jobs and no future.
They have almost nothing to lose, and now that they feel the strength of their numbers they will be very hard to stop. Killing them
just creates more martyrs, and more fuel for the next round of protests.
This time, repression may not work. And what then?
This is where the scenario turns dark, for it is hard to believe that Algeria can emerge from the last ten years of horror as a tolerant, functional democracy. Too many people have been killers, and too many
people have been victims.
The past decade of violent terror in Algeria was an indirect result of the riots of 1988, which forced the regime to begin a controlled process of opening up that ended in elections it believed it could control in 1992.
When it turned out that the anti-FLN opposition (which mostly backed
Islamic parties) was going to win, the regime
panicked, cancelled the
second round of the elections, and banned the Islamist parties.
The fight back began almost immediately, with moderate opposition
parties being pushed out by more violent and extreme ones until the
dominant organisation was the vicious Armed Islamic Groups (GIA). These are terrorists who inflict the "big smile" (throat-slitting) and even
chainsaw massacres on innocent villagers -- but even more people have been killed by government death squads,
disguised as GIA
militants, who use exactly the same techniques to eliminate opponents and spread fear.
Nine years and one hundred thousand murders later, Algeria is a society ruled by cynical, corrupt killers and assailed by sadistic, fanatical killers, with about 30 million people trapped in the middle. The "war" is evolved from an emergency into a system, one that allows the
regime to kill anybody who opposes it. (You either blame the killings of dissident journalists, writers and the like on the Islamic terrorists, or
say that your victims were Islamic terrorists.) But the current riots are a mortal danger to the system: murder can't stop them, because they really
have no leaders.
Young Algerians are not stupid. They are less well educated than the previous generation, because decades of looting by the FLN elite have destroyed the education system along with every other instrument of
development. They have a very clear understanding of why their country is
a wreck, however, and they have no patience left. For this job, they don't need leaders.
But what if the revolution that almost came in 1988 and again in 1992 really does happen this time? What if the FLN
apparatus is finally swept away? Could Algeria become the first real Arab democracy?
You should never say 'never' about this sort of thing. Maybe Algerians will be able to rise above a decade of savagery and four decades of servitude and oppression to create a real (though desperately
impoverished) democracy from the ruins. But I wouldn't bet the farm
Gwynne Dyer is