Contextualising contemporary Algeria: June 1965 and October 1988

With the population now standing at just 37 million, the memory of October 1988 refuses to go away. That event encapsulated the gulf between the small political and military clique and the excluded majority, still the defining feature of Algerian politics.

Martin Evans
25 May 2012

In the early hours of June 19, 1965, Houari Boumediène came to power in a carefully planned coup, overthrowing the first Algerian president Ahmed Ben Bella. It is a key event in post-independence because it made plain the unwritten rule which exists to this day, namely that the army is the deciding force in Algerian politics.

Ever since, the country’s future has been decided in secret by an inner circle of high-ranking officers, despite the official slogan, proclaimed on every government building, that Algeria is ‘ruled by the people and for the people’. This fact explains why so many Algerian are cynical about the system. They feel that both the constitution and the elections are a facade that conceals the real power.

Boumediène was born near Guelma in eastern Algeria into a poor peasant family in 1932. A student at the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo, his political model was the pan-Arabism of the 1952 Egyptian Revolution that overthrew the pro-British monarchy and led to the rise of Colonel Nasser. In 1955 he joined the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) which had launched a war against French rule in November 1954. Every inch the ambitious military man, Boumediène quickly rose up through the ranks of the FLN’s armed wing in Morocco. There he honed his military power base - the army of the frontiers: an officer caste whose spine was a shadowy secret police which used torture to instil obedience on the Algerian refugee population. For Boumediène the war against French colonialism was a waiting game. He did not wish to engage in wasteful attacks. He wanted to build up a professional fighting force in advance of the power struggle within the FLN at independence.

When this independence came in July 1962 the contours of this struggle pitted Boumediène’a army of the frontiers against the Algerian Provisional Government, established in September 1958. Boumediène attacked the Provisional Government as having sold out to the French in the peace negotiations. And in this war of words, which exploded into a brief but bloody FLN civil war, he carefully allied himself with Ahmed Ben Bella. As one of the progenitors of November 1954, captured and imprisoned by the French in October 1956, Ben Bella still saw himself as the custodian of the FLN revolution.

The Ben Bella-Boumediène alliance quickly defeated the Provisional Government with Ben Bella becoming President and Boumediène Minister of Defence. But once in power both turned on each other. Ben Bella tried to marginalise Boumediène, while Boumediène fine tuned his support within the army. In this world of plot and counter-plot Boumediène struck first with the 19 June 1965 coup. Imprisoning Ben Bella, Boumediène announced the creation of a Revolutionary Council which he would lead as head of state.

From the outset Boumediène sought to end the political chaos of the Ben Bella years through the promotion of military values which equated the army with the people. Equally this was a revolutionary regime that nationalised French oil and gas assets in 1971, and allied itself with Fidel Castro’s Cuba while denouncing neighbouring Morocco and Tunisia as pro-western and bourgeois. On the world stage Boumediène became a leading voice in the ‘Non-Aligned Movement’ which, in bringing together countries from Africa, Asia and Latin America, rejected the two cold war blocks.

All this was very popular within Algerian and by the early 1970s there was a close identification between the people and the regime; a sentiment that was particularly clear during Castro’s triumphal visit to Algeria in 1972 when the Cuban leader lionised Boumediène’s revolutionary model.

However, when Boumediène died in 1978 the problems were becoming apparent. The central planning system was coming unstuck. There were mutterings about corruption. The main problem though was the demographic time bomb. Between 1966 and 1987 the population nearly doubled to 23 million; a new post-independence generation with no personal experience of the anti-colonial struggle. As Algeria, badly hit by the collapse in oil and gas prices, became mired in a downward economy, this generation bore the brunt of the crisis. Unemployment mushroomed to over 25 per cent and, as society began to fracture along generational lines, young Algerians felt anger towards the elite.

Algeria was a blocked society and what made this resentment even worse was the impact of the new president, Chadli Bendjedid. His encouragement of free market reforms saw the emergence of a new business class that was keen to display its rising wealth and in an age of austerity such ostentation was an affront to the deprived many. In this tense context, if June 19, 1965 is the first key date in post-independence, the second is 5 Oct 1988. On that day rioting broke out in central Algiers as thousands of youths ransacked shops, businesses and, above all, the offices and symbols of the one-party FLN system. Riots had broken out in the east of the country in 1986, but October 1988 was on a different scale. With demonstrators chanting ‘Rise up, youth’, the violence lasted several days and quickly spread to the rest of the country. In reply the army declared a state of siege and used tear gas and tanks to restore law and order. By October 10 anything up to 500 people, mostly young men, had been killed, while many more had been arrested and some tortured. It was the worst violence in Algeria since independence in 1962.

Nothing could be the same again: a conclusion that led Chadli to open up the country to a multi-party system. However, if through this managed transition Chadli hoped to preserve FLN dominance, he badly miscalculated. The main beneficiary was the new Islamist party, the Front Islamique de Salut (FIS), which, in appealing to youth anger in the name of ‘authentic’ Islamic values, stood poised to win elections in January 1992. Scared of losing the reins of power the army stopped the electoral process and banned the FIS. Thereafter the country was on the edge of a precipice and finally tipped over in the spring of 1993, when armed Islamist groups unleashed a wave of violence which met with full-scale repression by the army. Over the next decade between 70,000 and 200,000 people would perish in this conflict.

Now, under the seventy-five year old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in power since April 1999, the terrorist violence has receded to a minority phenomenon. Yet, with the population now standing at just 37 million, the memory of October 1988 refuses to go away. That event encapsulated the gulf between the small political and military clique and the excluded majority, still the defining feature of Algerian politics.

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