Algeria Still Seeks Identity

Thirty years after Algerians won independence, an assassination shows that triumphs of the past do not unite a land divided over its future

By , M. Reza Behnam, a political scientist, is director of the Institute for Advanced Middle Eastern Studies, Eugene, Ore.

JUST a few days before Algeria was to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its independence from France, an assassin's bullet ended the life of Muhammad Boudiaf, and with it all festive preparations. Mr. Boudiaf had been a hero of the war for independence and was president of the five-member High State Committee that has ruled Algeria since January of this year. The violent removal of this old leader suggests that Algeria is not yet ready to celebrate its political identity, because the proper path to its e mergence as a modern, prosperous society has not been reconciled with the deep-seated Islamic ideals of its people.

Thirty years after Algeria gained its independence, the country continues to search for its political identity. Six months after a military-backed ruling council took control in January and quashed the Islamists rise to power, the country still faces the same grievous economic conditions and political uncertainties left behind by the rule of a single party, Front de Liberation (FLN).

Over 130 years, generations of French known as pieds noirs (black feet) ruled Algeria, exploited its resources, built up its infrastructure and profited. But the nationalist revolt started in 1954, and in 1962 the Evian Agreement granted independence to the country.

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The cost of victory was enormous. The war of liberation led by the FLN caused the death of some 250,000 Algerians and the wounding of 500,000. The final victory failed to erase the French imprint. The country has an Islamic culture coated with a French colonial veneer. During France's century-long "civilizing" campaigns, Algerians were reduced from relative prosperity to economic and cultural inferiority. Millions died, tribes broke up, and the traditional economy was altered. In particular, the producti on of wine for export in an Islamic land had replaced the traditional production of cereals.

Since the war of liberation, Algerians have clamored for a democracy that will allow for the expression of their own political culture; like other colonized people, they have had to struggle to define their goals and the means to achieve them.

While the FLN had deposed French rule, the state was run to create prosperity for the new elite, and it kept from power traditional political people believed to be reactionary. Pent-up discontent finally erupted into rioting at Algiers in early October 1988 and quickly spread to other cities. Over 500 people died when the armed forces opened fire on demonstrators at the capital. Discredited and its leadership demoralized, the FLN succumbed to political pluralism. About 50 political parties were formed.

In December 1991 the FLN was humiliated in parliamentary elections, winning only 17 seats compared to 188 seats for the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). But the success of the Islamists was halted in mid-January when the Army called off a second round of elections and put the High State Committee in power. Within two months the FIS was banned, and party leaders either were imprisoned or took refuge underground.

Although Algerians remain divided over the notion of an Islamic state, they have turned to their faith for political identity. Eighty percent of Algerians under 30 are unemployed. Ignored by the political system, the alienated generation turned to the mosques in their search for roots and for a political forum where opposition could be freely voiced.

People blame the political system, past and present, for widespread corruption in government, inadequate housing, and a burgeoning black market. The government has been unable to reverse the reliance on food imports to a country which was once nearly self-sufficient in agricultural production and unable to lower a foreign debt estimated at nearly $26 billion.

The current leadership in the Maghreb countries, as in well as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, are all concerned by the rise of Islam as a political force in the Middle East. Islamists' political victories in Algeria earlier this year arguably could have become a model for Islamic activism in other Arab Middle East countries.

Algeria faces many of the problems Iran experienced under the late shah - alienated youth, limited opportunity for social mobility, hopelessness in a world of shrinking resources. Iran, whose budding democracy movement was stifled in 1953, is an example that a society cannot ignore its problems for long without facing dramatic political results. The government of Algeria may be able to crush one movement or another, but they cannot crush the desire for reform forever.

Algerian activists are using Islam as a battle cry, saying they want democracy. It seems they want neither democracy nor a return to traditional culture, but desire a new synthesis that turns to traditional culture for political values and for a political forum or institution. However, the activists live in the modern world, and they want prosperity for the nation.

If politics is the art of compromise, it is advantageous to the present government to open the political system to allow participation by all Algerians. If allowed to participate, political parties will be tested in the political arena. Their active participation will help Algeria develop a political identity. The country needs to look to a new political synthesis whereby political identity and economic progress replace collapsed ideas and the quest for the spoils of the war of liberation, which have mar ked Algerian politics for the last 30 years.

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