Algeria: Arab mecca, patron of third-world liberation movements

In the seaside village of Tipasa, west of here, a new mosque is rising next to an unused and dilapidated Christian church.

From a minaret of another nearby mosque, prayer calls echo five times daily - illustrating that the West, its traditions, and its religions are far removed from today's Algeria.

Just 20 years ago a part of France, Algeria is moving deeper and deeper into the Arab fold. Today it is hard to imagine the French ever having been here.

In the Algerian capital, Algiers, street signs are in Arabic only. Many young people no longer learn French, not even as a second language. All over the country, new mosques are opening.

Architecturally, Algiers is still Alger la Blanche; an art nouveau city of stucco doorways and wrought-iron balustrades against blinding-white facades, arguably one of the loveliest cityscapes in the Mediterranean.

About the only thing that has not changed is the kasbah, which is is still the kasbah of the Battle of Algiers - overcrowded and unsanitary. But the city designed for 700,000 Frenchmen now is home to more than 2 million Arabs.

The country is a one-party state ruled by the same guerrilla organization ( the Front Liberation Nationale) that fought the French.

Its independence war (1954-62) gave it prestige in the third world far out of proportion to its size, speeding up the timetable for French evacuation of the other colonies.

And since independence, Algeria has been a patron to almost all third-world liberation movements.

''We consider the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization), Polisario, SWAPO (South-West Africa People's Organization), and all the others to be exactly like our liberation movement prior to independence,'' says a Foreign Ministry spokesman.

On July 5, Algeria celebrated 20 years of independence - the result of the bloodiest colonial war ever fought. A million Muslims were slain in the eight-year independence struggle, and another 1 million French settlers were left homeless.

A Western diplomat based here says Algeria takes very very little notice of the Western industrialized world.

''The government and people of this country are in their own orbit, a galaxy away from ours. They don't relate to either of the two superpowers, they don't want to be considered as under somebody else's sphere of influence. They have their own sphere of influence - the third world, and especially the former French colonies of Africa. That's why places like Mauritania and Niger are so much in the news here.''

President Chadli Benjedid, a socialist, is committed to pan-Arabism. And although the country is obsessed with its revolutionary past, it is inching out of this state.

The government is loosening the controls on the economy, and is - for the first time - evincing concern over its image in the West. ''We want Americans to know that Algerians are not a hostile people, even if we have divergent views,'' said a Foreign Ministry spokesman.

The adviser to the minister of planning and development says the state-managed economy - which served Algeria poorly in its first 20 years - was instituted as a reaction to what was seen here as colonialist and capitalist exploitation.

''But now it is apparent we must diversify, and foreign cooperation will be needed,'' he said, explaining that the private sector will play a larger role in the future.

For years, Algerians have claimed to have ''turned the page'' away from their bloody freedom struggle. But only now does the cliche seem true.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.