By cancelling the elections planned for the end of 1991, banning the Front Islamique du Salut (fis), arresting its top leadersfootnote1 and detaining thousands of activists, the Algerian regime prevented an Islamist government from being elected, but did not succeed in forcing the theocratic djinn back into its bottle. Enough armed Islamic integralist militants remained at large to keep the movement’s name alive by attacking the police and security forces. Hardly a week has passed since February 1992 without several policemen or soldiers being reported killed in ambushes or shoot-outs with Islamist insurgents.footnote2

The regime itself, a hollow husk of the fln monolith of the 1970s, did not go unscathed. Chadli Bendjedid, who succeeded Houari Boumedienne more or less constitutionally in 1978 and presided over the phased dismantling of the sclerotic single-party structure, was forced to resign at the beginning of 1992 in a sort of quid pro quo for the suspension of the electoral process. Loathed by the population whose economic situation continued to worsen during his period in office, and by fln cadres whose sinecures have evaporated,footnote3 Chadhi was sacrificed by the army colleagues who imposed him as a little-known compromise candidate in 1978/9 over the rival claims of Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Mohamed Salah Yahiaoui. He quit as part of the same conjuring trick that annulled the election and brought Mohamed Boudiaf back from exile in Morocco, where he had been peacefully running a modest business, to take the helm at a particularly difficult moment.footnote4

The curiosity and apprehension aroused by this appointment soon subsided. There were no further great surprises. That is, until Boudiaf’s assassination on 29 June 1992 by members of the security forces said variously to be, and not to be, acting for the fis. The assassins’ motives have not so far been clearly established. Boudiaf was a declared adversary of the Islamist movement, but other enmities may have played a part. The bomb that killed many people—all Algerians—at Algiers airport in August is also unattributed so far. Ruling with the authority of an Haut Comité d’État (hce), a sort of ad hoc successor to Boumedienne’s Revolutionary Council and Chadli’s 1979 fln Politburo,footnote5 with the government including a prime minister—a Chadli innovation—functioning normally, Boudiaf seemed to represent a sort of dogged continuity of the regime, whose centre of gravity had drawn even closer to the upper reaches of the armed forces. But the scale and nature of the repressive measures used against the fis attracted the sort of attention from Amnesty International usually reserved for the King of Morocco’s dungeons.footnote6 Even the virulently anti-fis French government tutted a bit. The irritable response included the expulsion of the Le Monde correspondent, a customary move when relations sour.

The profusion of small parties and political viewpoints that boiled into existence when politics were legalized turned out not to be a problem. The problem turned out to be something that was not pluralist at all, something that was itself intolerant and very widespread in socialist Algeria: the belief that solutions to political and economic problems can be sought in religion. The presence of religious motifs in the independence struggle—noted by Fanon—and the fact that the fln appealed to Islam had always been balanced by a vigorous modernist element.

There are several crude parallels between the reasons for the disintegration of the Soviet Communist Party and that of the fln, and in the ways these ruling parties dismantled themselves.footnote7 Political reform was already in the air when Boumedienne died suddenly in late 1978. Despite the good oil prices prevailing at the time, it was already apparent that Algeria’s high rate of population growth, combined with the unproductiveness of the government’s massive investments in heavy industry and agriculture, were depriving Algerians of the fruits of prosperity. A ‘national debate’ was organized whose product, a National Charter, was supposed to embody the national will. The result was an unusual explosion of free speech. Apart from grumbles about the worsening quality of life, there were pressing demands for more objective mass media, greater freedom of movement, relaxation of import restrictions and so forth. Reading between the lines, it was clear that people were heartily sick of the fln, whose dead hand weighed heavily on all sectors. There were bitter complaints about corruption, incompetence and the associated bureaucratic effrontery. Something, it was hinted, would be done about all this, but when published the National Charter simply enshrined the status quo, and reiterated the fln’s—Boumedienne’s—basic ‘options’: socialism, Islam, state monopoly of everything. Things were going to improve, but there would be no u-turns. As the Algerians struggled to work out what it all meant, Boumedienne died. Although perfectly genuine, the mourning that followed was strangely tinged with relief as well as apprehension. The major obstacle to change had gone.

Chadli purged the regime in stages: familiar fln grandees were moved out of the government, then out of the Politburo, then out of the Central Committee (and later, in some cases, out of the fln), to be replaced by new faces of supposedly technocratic cast. At the same time these bodies were altered in size, composition and function in a complex process familiar to all regime-watchers: piecemeal tinkering combined with a sort of card-sharping element. Changes to the military hierarchy included the promotion of a large number of colonels to newly created field ranks. Decentralization of responsibility began with the appointment of a prime minister in Chadli’s first government (although for over a decade, like Boumedienne, he kept the defence portfolio for himself).

Substantive change was slow in coming, however. Proposed reforms were framed so cautiously that it was child’s play for those defending sinecures, or with ingrained habits of obstructiveness or indifference, to shunt them into sidings. Economic plans were outlined, political reforms discussed and promised, the national charter ‘enriched’. But little change was perceptible to most people except a worsening standard of living: in fact, contrary to most people’s expectations, the economic reckoning had already arrived. During Boumedienne’s last decade there was much relaxed discussion of ‘preparing for the post-petroleum era’. Ten years later, by 1985 when the oil price collapsed, Algeria—still in possession of large quantities of oil and enormous quantities of gas—was staring economic crisis in the face. What had happened?