Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1639
With the subtitle Anger of the Dispossessed, Martin Evans and John Phillips evoke well in their book Algeria the tragic fact that, since the French invasion and occupation of Algeria in 1830, most Algerians have been effectively excluded from any meaningful involvement in determining the economic, political, social, and religious policies of their country. This marginalization quite naturally caused deep feelings of bitterness, especially because Algerian Muslims, who remained faithful to Islam, recognized all too clearly their powerlessness to create a society in which the basic tenets of Islam determined governmental policies and the rule of law in Algeria.
Evans and Phillips do an excellent job describing the humiliating nature of the French domination of Algeria, which lasted 132 years, from 1830 until 1962. This was far longer than French colonial rule in any other African country. Further insults to Algerian Muslims were manifested when France annexed Algeria, sent French immigrants to settle in the country, and showed contempt for the well-known Muslim prohibition against alcohol by planting vineyards and making wine in Algeria. France made a mockery of its supposed commitment to liberty, equality, and fraternity, three values affirmed in the motto of the French Republic, by offering French citizenship to those Algerians who renounced Islam. Apostasy is an unforgivable sin for Muslims. Algerian Muslims understood all too well that they would be exploited for as long as they remained under French domination.
Although many Algerian soldiers fought bravely with Free French Forces under the command of General Charles de Gaulle and helped to liberate France from Nazi occupation, nothing really changed in Algeria after France and Algeria were freed from Nazi rule. In November, 1954, Algerian Muslims saw no alternative to overt resistance to continuing French domination in Algeria. Under the general leadership of the National Liberation Front, Algerian Muslims began a civil war that French soldiers and police officers could not suppress. In 1958 the French Fourth Republic came to an end, and French voters turned to De Gaulle to extract France from the seemingly endless violence in Algeria. Although De Gaulle had favored preserving the French empire during and immediately after World War II, he was a realist: He realized that the modern world was rejecting colonialism. Starting in 1960, he began granting independence to French colonies throughout Africa, while at the same time offering financial and technical assistance to new democracies. In Algeria, rebel French army officers undertook military action against Algerian Muslims in a vain effort to prevent De Gaulle from granting their country independence, but De Gaulle handled effectively this disobedience to the rule of law. He went on French television and denounced military officers who had committed treason by disobeying lawful orders from their commander in chief. His speech followed several attempts by French traitors in the Secret Army Organization led by General Jacques Massu to assassinate De Gaulle. De Gaulle skillfully persuaded people in both Algeria and France that France could remain faithful to its ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity only by granting these same values to all people, no matter where they might live. He presented French and Algerian people a simple choice: order or chaos. Order meant a peaceful transition in Algeria from colonial domination to independence; chaos meant endless violence fomented by the Secret Army Organization under the traitorous Massu against Algerian Muslims or violence by the National Liberation Front against French citizens in Algeria that had been occurring since 1954. On March 18, 1962, Algerian and French negotiators signed the Evian Treaty, granting Algeria independence, and submitted it to Algerian and French voters. In both countries, support for the independence of Algeria was more than 90 percent. This permitted a peaceful transition to independence, and both countries were understandably hopeful.
Things, however, quickly deteriorated in Algeria. The leaders of the National Liberation Front promptly transformed Algeria into a one-party dictatorship in which socialism and not Islam inspired all significant political, social, and economic decisions. The new Algerian government made numerous decisions that hurt Algeria economically. Its new president, Ahmed Ben Bella, undertook an absurd and costly war in a vain attempt to seize land in eastern Morocco. Ben Bella also forced French residents in Algeria to leave the country in order to completely eliminate French influence in Algeria. The immediate result was that Algeria lost the expertise of thousands of well-educated technicians and professionals. Algeria has vast amounts of petroleum, but without technical experts, the petroleum remained in the ground. In addition, Ben Bella and other leaders in the National Liberation Front ignored Muslim leaders who wanted Islam to have a significant influence in the newly independent Algeria. Ben Bella created a sharp separation between religion and politics, alienating influential imams. Algerian Muslims soon concluded their government was no more responsive to their needs than were the French colonial administrators.
Although Algerian generals overthrew Ben Bella in a 1965 coup and replaced him with Houari Boumédienne, nothing really changed. Like Ben Bella before him. Boumédienne spoke repeatedly about the supposedly positive values of Russian and Cuban communism. He invited thousands of Cuban and Russian advisers into Algeria, where they drank alcohol publicly in clear violation of the Muslim prohibition against the presence or consumption of alcohol in a Muslim country. In the minds of practicing Muslims, who constitute a vast majority of Algerian citizens, atheistic communists had simply replaced French administrators. The new Algerian government appeared as unsympathetic to Islam as was the French government. Although Algeria did earn a great deal of money by selling petroleum to other countries, almost all of this money was used to pay down debts to the Soviet Union and to enrich the generals who ruled Algeria with iron fists. Very little was spent on education, health care, and infrastructure. Average Algerians continued to live in abject poverty while generals lived in luxurious villas in fancy neighborhoods to which ordinary Algerians came as domestic servants.
Although significant increases in the price of petroleum in the 1970’s enriched the Algerian government which had nationalized the oil fields, this wealth was not distributed fairly. Basic needs such as housing, health, clean water, and education were not met, and unemployment remained distressingly high in a country that was receiving massive amounts of money from the sale of petroleum. Algerian Muslims, observing that things were going badly in their country, demanded change. However, no significant change was forthcoming from the National Liberation Front. After President Boumédienne’s death from natural causes on December 27, 1978, the generals appointed Chadli Bendjedid as the new president of Algeria. His government continued its Soviet-style planned economy that prevented economic innovation and flexibility, making the Algerian economy even worse.
The National Liberation Front was unwilling to change a corrupt system that had enriched a privileged few at the expense of a suffering majority. Several influential Muslim clerics under the leadership of Abassi Madani and Ali Belhadj argued that a return to the purity of Islamic traditional practices would eliminate the overt corruption that had denied Algerians basic human dignity. Together, Madani and Belhadj created a political movement called the Islamic Salvation Front. Preachers in mosques in Algeria called upon faithful Muslims to participate in peaceful protest marches against political corruption among Algerian military and political leaders. By the fall of 1988, the Islamic Salvation Front had a huge following, and Algerian generals viewed supporters of the Islamic Salvation Front as a threat to their wealth. They feared that if the Islamic Salvation Front were ever to attain political power, it would audit bank accounts of leading Algerian military and political leaders, who might then end up in prison. In October, 1988, Algerian generals overreacted by firing on peaceful demonstrators in the streets of Algiers, turning the Algerian people en masse against Algerian military leaders.
In an effort to restore calm, President Bendjedid tried to appease alienated Algerians by permitting multiparty participation in free elections. He mistakenly thought that he could somehow control the righteous anger of “dispossessed” Algerians, but he underestimated the depth of their mistrust of the National Liberation Front which had ruled Algeria since independence in 1962. He scheduled the two rounds of parliamentary elections for December 26, 1991, and January 16, 1992. In the first round, 231 members of the Algerian parliament would be elected, and the remaining 199 seats would be determined in the second. Much to the surprise of President Bendjedid, the Islamic Salvation Front won 188 of the 231 seats in the first round, and it was expected to do as well in the next round. The Algerian generals were unwilling to accept the loss of their absolute power. On January 11, 1992, Bendjedid was forced to resign, and just three days later Algerian generals canceled the second round of elections, imprisoned the leaders of the Islamic Salvation Front, and installed an aged businessman named Mohammed Boudiaf as the puppet president of Algeria. This “putsch” enraged the Algerian public and contributed to active resistance and violence against the usurpers, who had transformed Algeria into an overt military dictatorship. Several resistance groups that came to be known by the French acronyms GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) and the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) carried out violent attacks throughout Algeria, and the Algerian soldiers retaliated with similar violence to all attacks against the Algerian governments.
Political assassinations were common, and President Boudiaf was assassinated on June 29, 1992. Evans and Phillips, who lived in Algeria for many years, confirm that most Algerians believe that Algerian generals had Boudiaf killed because they believed that the president was about to arrest high-ranking military officers for corruption. Murders of simple workers and apolitical religious leaders were frequent occurrences in Algeria throughout the 1990’s. Abdelaziz Bouteflika won a fairly honest presidential election in 1999 and was then reelected in 2004 to a second five-year term. Although Algerians generally admire President Bouteflika for his personal integrity, it will take a succession of ethical leaders for Algerians to begin to trust their political and military leaders.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 27
Foreign Affairs 87, no. 1 (January/February, 2008): 192.
History Today 58, no. 12 (December, 2008): 70.
International Affairs 84, no. 2 (March 2008): 394.
Publishers Weekly 254, no. 44 (November 5, 2007): 59.
The Spectator 306 (January 5, 2008): 26-27.
The Times Literary Supplement, October 10, 2008, p. 24.
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