Before October 1988, Algeria struck most observers as one of the most radical political regimes in the Third World yet one of the most stable, a strong “socialist” fortress firmly in the hands of the National Liberation Front (FLN). Comfortably backed by oil and gas exports, an expert technocratic elite monitored an ambitious industrial public sector and generous social policies. The order of things was taken for granted. Yet the solidity of this order comprised its Achilles’ heel. The October 1988 demonstrations were neither hunger riots nor clear-cut political demands for democracy. They were the result of a complex process of internecine power struggles within the body politic, as well as a popular rejection of the political and economic monolithism of the system as a whole. The rioters, mostly youngsters aged between 12 and 18, simply sought the departure of the president and all FLN officials, who had betrayed the egalitarian promises contained in the official discourse of socialism. The demonstrators appealed not for democracy but for egalitarianism, possibly the most telling obsession of Algerian society.

Paradoxically, it was the president of the republic who “initiated” the process of political democratization, with the promulgation of the 1989 constitution. The process of political democratization and economic liberalization in Algeria is far from being a neat rupture with the one-party system. The same political actors are monitoring the process — the army, the presidency and the politburo of the FLN party.

At the same time, there is a propensity within Algerian public opinion to favor a millennial solution to the economic and social problems facing the country. Hence the formidable popularity of Islamist discourse, particularly that dispensed by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which has explicitly rejected democracy as alien and divisive.

Ulama and Workers

Algeria’s descent into economic and ideological bankruptcy in the 1980s steadily delegitimized the official eclectic egalitarian ideology of “specific socialism.” [1] No official document ever fails to cite the Islamic source of Algerian socialism, while also stressing its nationalist nature and local traditional social organization and mores. Hence the specificity but also the monolithic character of the Algerian political system. [2]

This line of thought can be traced back to the national movement of the 1930s, which simultaneously comprised a secular tendency (l’Etoile Nord Africaine) born in the labor circles of the immigrant community in France and transplanted to Algeria, and an Islamic reformist movement mainly active in urban areas, al-‘Ulama’ al-Muslimun al-Jaza’iriyyun. The two tendencies corresponded with a process of class formation within the Algerian community, a century after the establishment of the colonial state. The nationalist claims, initiated in educated petty bourgeois and labor circles and directly influenced by the very Republican political culture of France, were adopted by the secular Parti du Peuple Algerien (PPA). They were more subtly put forth by the Islamic reformist ‘Ulama’ movement headed by Sheikh ‘Abd al-Hamid Ibn Badis as reminders of the rights of the Muslim community to an equal and free status, within a system of “ethnic fraternity.” [3] This is not to say that the Algerian national movement was directly inspired by the slogans of the French Revolution; rather it was working out the slogans of a nascent petty bourgeoisie and an educated urban elite, corollaries of an expanding market economy.

A new patriotism emerged from the radicalism of secular nationalists and the puritanism of the ‘Ulama’. The PPA demanded full independence, and the ‘Ulama’ a separate social and religious regime; the two wings together stood for the national ideology of Algeria, namely populism. The ‘Ulama’ stressed its Islamic and Arab character, and even the nationalists could not dispute the ‘Ulama’s identifying Algeria’s distinctiveness with its Islamic status. “For the Algerian Muslim,” wrote Le Journal du PPA in 1939, “assimilation constitutes treason since it implies the forsaking of the Muslim community.” [4]

When Ferhat Abbas, whose Union Democratique du Manifeste Algerien did not favor independence, called the existence of Algeria as a nation a “myth,” another opponent of full independence, Ibn Badis, argued that “this Muslim nation was not France…. It is a nation totally distinct from France, with its own language, mores, ethnic origins and religion. [This nation] rejects assimilation; and has a patria of its own with its well recognized borders.” [5]

This highly political claim from a non-political association marked decisively the political culture and language of the national movement. Through their extended network of madrasas (ecoles libres) and scout organizations, the ‘Ulama’ exposed hundreds of children of the cities to the slogans of nationalism. The students were intently taught Arabic language and literature, but also French, mathematics, geography and history. It was a veritable educational system, paralleling the French ecole laïque. The mosques were also used to socialize future recruits of the independence-oriented national movement, not through anti-establishment sermons but rather by subtly denouncing the marabout (Sufi) orders for their connivance with the colonial administration. The ‘Ulama’ movement was the source of the most effective agitation against both the colonial order and Algerian traditional society, strongly marked by the worship of saints.

Ibn Badis, a prolific writer, distinguished between “ethnic nationality” (qawmiyya ‘irqiyya), which he claimed for the Muslim community, and “political nationality” (qawmiyya siyasiyya), which implied independence for which the “Algerian people were not yet ready.” The concept of ethnic nationality gave him latitude to proselytize for his orthodox salafi Islam, impose a puritan interpretation of the scriptures, fight the deviations of the marabouts, and ultimately prepare for “political nationalism.” Gellner has drawn a parallel between the ‘Ulama’ and the Protestant reform movement in Europe, insofar as both gained the adherence of the scanty urban proletariat, the petty bourgeoisie and the middle classes in search of a more rational and voluntarist world view which the mythical knowledge of saintship did not satisfy. [6]

Thus the ‘Ulama’, in the shade of the colonial system, provided educated Algerian administrative and economic elites with a philosophical and political culture which they could find neither in the colonial culture nor in traditional religious mysticism. The ‘Ulama’ laid the foundations of a national ideology in Algeria by transforming puritan Islam into a modern value system. If the element of Arabness was sometimes a cause of dissension on the part of militants who reminded their comrades of Algeria’s Berber component, the Islamic element won unanimity at all times. The war of independence itself took the form of a jihad; the male fighters were called mujahidin, the female ones mujahidat, and in the countryside the colons were called kuffar (unbelievers). This was no religious fanaticism, but the expression of a rising political community whose ideational representations were extracted from an Islamic worldview, probably the only thoroughly integrated and internalized legacy shared by the vast majority of Algerians.

When the nationalist movement sought to define the national specificity of Algerians, it brandished their Islamic status. When Boumedienne’s technocratic elite embarked on the development strategy of “specific socialism,” they presented it as “naturally” inspired by Islamic egalitarianism. And when, today, Islamists claim political power, they close the circle with their demand to establish the Islamic city.

From Specific Socialism to Fundamentalism

In the last four years, Algerian populism has undergone a period of shock therapy. The outcomes remain uncertain. The metamorphosis of the monolithic “people” into a multiple “civil society,” free to choose and/or recall its representatives, will not occur without pain. The army has so far been called in twice to “defend the republican order,” in October 1988 and again in June 1991. When the October 1988 riots broke out, the masses of young demonstrators did not demand the establishment of democracy but a more egalitarian share of the national product. President Chadli Benjedid proposed instead a new constitution, adopted later in February 1989, consecrating a multi-party system and democracy as the new “social project” for Algeria. Assured of a strong social base, mainly composed of young people between 15 and 30 years old (75 percent of the Algerian population is under 30 years of age), the FIS prepared for a new landslide in the legislative elections, first promised for February, then postponed until June 1991, and now scheduled for December 26 and January 16, 1992, in two rounds.

Since the promulgation of the 1989 constitution, the FLN-controlled National Assembly has adopted no less than four electoral laws to prepare for the first multi-party elections at the national level, most recently in April 1991. Frightened by the FIS success in the June 1990 municipal elections, the deputies tailored laws to favor the FLN, creating new districts in rural areas known for their support of the FLN and allotting them an astronomical number of seats in relation to their populations. [7]

The FIS responded with a “civil disobedience” campaign in May 1991, preceded by virulent criticism of the regime in Friday sermons. Its most compelling message was the rejection of democracy as an alien value and practice, and the clear demand for the establishment of an Islamic republic whose constitution would be the Qur’an and the Sunna. This is a party which in three years claims to have gathered 6 million recruits, and won the first multi-party municipal elections in June 1990 with a 55.6 percent majority.

The FIS general strike, although scarcely honored, provoked the fall of the government in June 1991. It also brought into the open the internal conflicts of the FIS itself and those of its brother-enemy, the FLN. The leadership of the FIS (majiis ai-shura) was divided between those backing the militant stand of Abassi Madani and Ali Benhadj and those in favor of the political and social consensus leading to the legislative elections. [8]

On the other side, the new prime minister, Sid Ahmed Ghozali, faced off against prominent members of the FLN politburo. The battlefield was the National Assembly, summoned to revise the electoral law yet again so that the “clean” elections promised by the prime minister could take place before the end of 1991. The deputies were trying at all costs to keep the FLN’s chances high in the elections, and to demonstrate their autonomy vis-a-vis the executive.

Interpreting the Revolution

The duel expressed a long-standing struggle within the power elite between the young technocrats of the regime, mostly posted in the executive and enjoying total autonomy from the FLN, and the party apparatchiks who suffered an inferiority complex toward this well-organized body, the real decision-making base in the country. The FLN old guard saw this as a humiliation, confirming their legendary suspicion of “the intelligentsia.”

The enmity goes back to the early days of the war of independence. It was later exacerbated under the regime of Boumedienne, probably the only hakim (political leader) who could with impunity break the older ‘asabiyyat (group solidarities). He was himself a product of that harsh rural milieu which provided the war with most of its troops.

Boumedienne’s speeches reveal an obsession with the construction of state institutions. With the army firmly in his hands, he established the most extensive administrative and territorial network as well as the most comprehensive economic and social strategy this country has known since Ottoman times. Following in the path of colonial administrators, the technocrats of the 1960s and 1970s were eager to strike at the heart of residual regional and tribal solidarities, knowing instinctively how risky these were for the new solidarity of the nation-state. To achieve this “social project,” Boumedienne and his team eliminated the parliament. The operative legitimacy of the revolution would be solely interpreted by the Council of the Revolution. The demands of the various regional and tribal configurations represented in Parliament were better answered through regional administrative than through political channels.

The FLN party was hailed as the “symbol and inspiration of the Revolution” but firmly kept away from decisive decision-making processes, in view of the regional solidarities that marred it. As a front, it included various ideological allegiances. The marginalization of the FLN allowed Algeria to evade the model of the independent party-state (as in Tunisia, Syria, Iraq and many African states) in favor of an administrative state which managed to construct a large political consensus precisely by depoliticizing the economic and social decision-making arena.

This process contained the very seeds of today’s crisis. The formidable social mobility unleashed by extensive economic and social programs, such as industrialization and free education and health care, furthered the process of class formation. In 1976, the regime restored the National Assembly and issued a constitution and a National Charter, asserting that “the Algerian, people had reached its maturity.” It addressed this people as an idyllic totality of “progressive forces,” identifying “peasants, workers, the young and the revolutionary intellectuals” as the “lively forces of the nation.” Algeria’s social body was acknowledged to be multiple, but classified along Manichean lines: on the one hand “the progressive forces” and on the other “the retrograde forces,” including “the bourgeois and feudals” who, according to the National Charter, could never work on behalf of the national interest.

The 1976 constitution proclaimed Islam “the religion of state”; the National Charter of the same year established socialism as an “irreversible choice.” The two documents eloquently expressed the long-held eclecticism of Algeria’s dominant ideological discourse of “specific socialism,” the specificity of which lies mainly with the “egalitarianism” of Islam and the origins of its socialism in the anti-colonial national struggle.

Eroding Myths

This strange mixture of universalist and particularist representations of reality expresses very well the confusions that belie both the ideational and institutional structures in Algeria. Most importantly, they express the panic felt by a highly charismatic and populist regime whose mystification of “the people” has been steadily eroded under the pressures of an increasingly complex civil society. When the two documents came out, the regime had successfully handled left-wing Marxist and Trotskyist tendencies, using both repression and cooptation. But it had attracted the wrath of traditional landed interests with the implementation of the Agrarian Reform of 1971, and inadvertently encouraged Islamist ideas with the expansion of centers of religious learning (al-ta‘lim al-asli), initially used as a buffer against a slowly but steadily growing Islamist claim.

The death of Boumedienne in 1978 marked the beginning of the regime’s delegitimation. The problem of succession brought into the open the power conflicts in the state and party structures between advocates of liberalization and those of radical socialism, forcing the army to settle the issue by assigning one of its own, Chadli Benjedid, as president.

Succeeding Boumedienne was no easy task. The man had established a very personal contact with various social forces. In the best Machiavellian tradition, Boumedienne had neutralized most of the social, political and even military elites by addressing “the masses” directly. He used the extensive network of administrative institutions to implement decisions taken by a team of faithful technocrats. Ministers as well as party representatives of mass organizations had no choice but to acquiesce.

For most Algerians, Benjedid, with his low-profile personality and poor eloquence, represented the parvenus. They had thrived under Boumedienne, thanks to special privileges granted to war veterans and ex-party leaders in the shape of business opportunities, while the president was busy fustigating capitalism!

But all that the Boumedienne era occluded was to be revealed in the 1980s, under the pressures of an increasingly complex society and the growing signs of a deep economic and institutional crisis. The process of delegitimation was initiated by three movements of which the Boumedienne regime was totally oblivious, having concentrated its efforts on neutralizing Marxist as well as internal oppositions. Almost systematically, from the beginning of the 1980s, the Berberist, the Islamist and the feminist challenges came to constitute the forefront of civil protests. The first brandished the Berber character of Algeria, the second pressed its Islamic agenda, and the third cried out for the modernization of society.

In 1980, protests and riots broke out in Tizi Ouzou, capital of the Kabylia region, claiming the Berber identity of Algeria, rejecting the official Arabization policy, and demanding cultural and political pluralism. The “Berber spring” had at last broken the populist consensus, reminding the rest of Algerians of the multiplicity of their identity.

Between 1981 and 1987, the Islamist and feminist challenges came to the fore, administering further blows against the facade of the “unanimous” yet ambiguous social project known as the “democratic, popular, modem, Socialist Islamic republic.” These two protests, in contrast to the Berber claim, still found legitimation in the official ideological discourse: Islamists could cite the “religion of state” article of the 1976 constitution; feminists asserted their full citizenship under Articles 39 and 40 of the same constitution.

All three protest movements met with direct and firm repression. Their respective leaders even got to know one another while under arrest. During a television interview following the upheaval of October 1988, a feminist leader and a former war veteran reminded Abassi Madani of the FIS party about the moments they had shared in prison. She was responding to the sheikh’s conception of women’s role and status in Islam as primarily “domestic.” In the best tradition of incendiary Algerian feminist remarks, she replied that when women took part and died in the war of liberation, they did not ask for the permission of any guardian-father, brother, uncle or son. [9]

Behind these remarks lies the most bitter confrontation of pluralist Algeria: the fierce individualism and modernism of the feminists vs. the patriarchalism and populism of the Islamists. The process was triggered by the recurring debate on personal status legislation. While there is wide acceptance of secular law in the public realm, the domestic realm of the family unit remains tightly closed to its rulings.

The stakes are high on the domestic front, as the family unit primarily depends on the reproductive role of women. Addressing women as individual citizens whose allegiance is owed directly to the state is seen as a threat to familial harmony. The debate is far from unique to Muslim societies, but it is posed with ardor there, in view of the wider climate of Islamist contestation which not only affects aspects of personal status but also projects a whole process of social change, reflecting new class configurations and ideological tendencies.

Protests over the adoption of a family law bill in 1984 led to the arrest of feminist protesters for the first time in Algeria since independence. The power elite had hesitated for a long time before issuing family and personal status legislation, in view of its controversial nature, and finally came up with a “family code” bill which could easily be read as a “women’s code of conduct.” [10] The text is a striking expression of patriarchal idiosyncrasies, ranging from how a woman is betrothed to how she should behave with her husband and his kin. She can be married off by a guardian, divorced by a husband’s oath, thrown out of the conjugal home, get the sixth or eighth part of an inheritance — she is, in a word, a minor subject.

This legislation expressed the resilient traditionalism of the political and legislative structures, as well as the survival of patriarchal culture, but it also strained civil society. The feminist reaction went unheeded, proving that Algerian society was far from ready to challenge the idiosyncrasies of the deputies of the National Assembly where, in their delirium, some attempted to discuss the length of the stick with which disobedient women ought to be struck! [11]

Today, the Islamist claim has superseded the inclinations of the traditionalist veterans of the National Assembly, and has grown totally uncompromising in its demand to establish an Islamic Republic. They put forward a wholly mythical construct, based on a perfect cosmogony far from the chaos of modem capitalist (and socialist) society. It only requires the obedience of subjects to reach a harmonious social order. [12] This promise of a radical solution and a millennial order assured by immutable divine precepts can not go unheeded by millions of people, mostly young, looking for a healing and soothing patriarch. The FIS is promising to be just this.

Defying History

Will Algeria succeed in installing a parliamentary democracy in a “piecemeal engineering” manner, as Karl Popper would put it, transforming itself from a “closed” society into an “open” society with little strife and through social consensus, thus defying the annals of history? [13] The present euphoria, with its 60 parties and political associations representing all allegiances under the sun, and the relative civility which has marked political debates, might give one hope in the Popperian dream.

The latest developments, though, have shown greater friction in the relationship between the regime and the opposition, which has adopted a confrontational stance following the truce obtained under duress — the state of siege which lasted from June to September 1991. The FLN nomenklatura have by now clearly shown that they do not accept “the alternative” repeatedly put forth by the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), the only party that dares to declare loud and clear that it is secularist. Most parties are now taking the path of the FIS, which was the first to demand the departure of the present regime.

The flagrant and maladroit partisanship of the electoral law in favor of the FLN and the huge financial edge of the FLN over the other parties, most of which rely on state support except for the FIS, have provoked the wrath of the opposition. After the June 1991 crisis, maybe as the last civil card left for the president to play, Benjedid named a government of “neutral” experts and technocrats specifically to prepare the legislative elections, now scheduled for December and January.

The prime minister, Sid Ahmed Ghozali (a former favorite of Boumedienne), stands now in the crossfire between the opposition and the FLN politburo. He accuses the FLN of plotting against economic and political reforms. The overwhelmingly FLN National Assembly rejected most amendments he introduced into the new electoral law in September 1991. In keeping with its patriarchal delirium, it insisted on retaining a provision allowing spouses to vote for one another, a measure strongly opposed by feminists. The Constitutional Council recently declared the article unconstitutional, but this does not necessarily harbinger a passage to democracy without strife. The FIS has already gathered its rank and file in a show of strength: A recent meeting of Islamist women voiced its disapproval of the Council’s decision, and an FIS march gathered over 200,000 people. The continued imprisonment of its leaders, Abassi Medani and Benhadj, has strengthened its appeal going into the electoral campaign.

How then will the urbanite, sophisticated technocrats withstand the pressure of the encroaching ‘asabiyya of the fundamentalists, advancing not with spears and horses but using the same sophisticated means and techniques as their opponents? If there is something that the Islamist movement does not lack, it is an educated leadership and a mostly literate social basis, a new opposition phenomenon in Algeria’s independent history.


[1] Algeria’s external debt, estimated at $26 billion, constitutes the main symptom of the crisis, which is actually more comprehensive, marked by low productivity, bankruptcy of most public-sector enterprises, and endemic unemployment affecting mainly young people. Job offers decreased by half between 1983 (157,627) and 1990 (82,314), while those seeking jobs doubled between 1981 (98,626) and 1990 (233,469). Unemployment affects 1.2 million people, 19.7 percent of the total active population. In 1989, out of more than 1 million unemployed, 83 percent were under 30. See Office National de la Statistique, Donnees statistiques 139 (1990).
[2] The Declaration of November 1, 1954, the manifesto and ideological consecration of the war of liberation, stipulated that the main goal was “to restore a democratic republic based on the principles of Islam.” The 1989 constitution reiterates that Islam is the “religion of state” and the source of national struggle, an emphasis also found, in documents such as the Soummame Platform (1956), the Tripoli Congress (1961), the 1964 Algiers Charter and the 1976 National Charter and its 1986 revised version. I have argued elsewhere that the emphasis on the endogeneity or authenticity of socialism (egalitarian Islam for Algeria, ujamaa for Tanzania) has bred an ambiguity as to the status of citizenship for women, by continuing to address them as reproducers, maintaining their domesticity and legitimizing traditionalist demands. “Specific Socialism and Illiteracy Among Women: A Comparative Study of Algeria and Tanzania,” unpublished dissertation, London University Institute of Education, 1987.
[3] Ibn Badis initiated a formidable sociocultural revolution in the very traditional body of Algerian colonized society, inadvertently preparing for the emergence of nationalist ideology. He was himself the product of the movement of Arab-Islamic nahda (renaissance) started in the Mashriq by a religious reformist intelligentsia headed by people such as al-Afghani and ‘Abduh, which had preceded the emergence of Arab nationalism. Ibn Badis established an educational and cultural network propounding puritan Islamic precepts to break the cult of sainthood, and introducing modem pedagogical methods in the old madrasa system so as to counteract the teachings of the French ecole laïque.
[4] Journal du PPA, June 17, 1939.
[5] Ferhat Abbas, “La France c’est moi,” in L’Entente Franco-musulmane, February 27, 1936; Ibn Badis in al-Shihab (April 1936).
[6] See Ernest Gellner, Muslim Society (Cambridge University Press, 1984).
[7] Law 89-13 of August 7, 1989, was modified by Law 90-06 of March 27, 1990, which itself was replaced by two new provisions, Law 91-06 of April 2, 1991 and Law 91-07 of April 3, 1991. More than 500 seats were to constitute the new assembly. When, in September 1991, the new government proposed 373 seats, the Assembly delayed its adoption, an unprecedented event in the history of this otherwise docile institution.
[8] The young Imam Ali Benhadj, of modest origin, and Abassi Madani, with a Ph.D. in education from London University and the product of the 1930s religious reformist movement, are an interesting representation the new social and ideological configurations. Ali Benhadj, known for his incendiary Friday sermons against the regime, is the quintessence of youth disillusionment and religious puritanism, whereas Abassi Medani represents the typical thinker and ideologue of the Islamist trend and its view of the ideal Islamic city as a millennial solution to all human ills.
[9] The ambiguities of the official discourse favoring a domestic status for women, despite progressive economic and social provisions thrusting women out into the public arena in the 1970, combined with the pressure of the Islamist movement, have provoked the formation of one of the most outspoken feminist movements in the Arab world. No less than 15 feminist associations represent the secularist democratic trend today, facing two important Islamist women’s organization, one affiliated with the FIS, and the other with its rival Hamas. For a detailed appreciation of the issue of women’s legal and political status in Algeria, see Cheriet (1987), chapter 4.
[10] Journal Officiel de la Republique Algerienne, June 12, 1984.
[11] See Cheriet, chapter 4.
[12] Abassi Madani has so far produced three books on Islamic renaissance. His eclectic style of militant scholarship propounds Islamic reformation through education. Abassi Madani has established a veritable school of thought among young education students, scores of whom are now active within the national educational system.
[13] Popper’s shrewd depiction of The Open Society and Its Enemies is in sharp contrast with the millennial argument of the fundamentalists.

How to cite this article:

Boutheina Cheriet "The Resilience of Algerian Populism," Middle East Report 174 (January/February 1992).

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