Initially, the Gulf crisis, set off by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, drew increasingly marked lines of separation within the Algerian political class. Although all the parties condemned the Western reaction–the massing of troops and weapons in Saudi Arabia–whose aim, according to some, was only to “preserve their interests,” or even “seize control of hundreds of billions of Arab dollars and threaten the Islamic and Arab nation in its security,” the position toward Saddam Hussein’s regime was far from unanimous.
The ISF [Islamic Salvation Front] Islamists proved to be increasingly embarrassed. How ought one to “protect” Saudi Arabia’s appeal for Western troops? Response: “Let us brandish the torch of Islam. Let us brandish the jihad. Down with the servants of colonialism! No to Iraqi intervention in Kuwait, no to the intervention of unbelievers in Saudi Arabia, no to the governments that have compromised with the West. Yes to the peace dialogue. My dear brothers, we reject all intervention in our affairs.” The ISF preacher who gave this speech in Constantine ended it with the search for the inevitable scapegoat, “the Jews, who occupy all the holy places of Islam” (Sigau 1991).
The rejection of “the American war,” which increased after the air offensive by the coalition against Iraq on January 17, 1991, did not signify adherence to the doctrine of Iraq’s sole party, the Baas [= Baath]. From one end of the Maghreb to the other, the violence of the conflict provoked the return in force of the tradition of revolutionary populism, of a movement of unanimity without any possible differences in points of view. And yet, in the many pro-Iraqi demonstrations that occurred in Rabat, in Algiers, and in Tunis, a rift appeared.
On the one hand, there were those who demanded peace, an immediate cease-fire. They spoke of safeguarding the unity of the “Arab nation.” They adopted the tone of the Third World movement of the 1960s, supported in the past by the Moroccan Mehdi Ben Barka and the West Indian writer Frantz Fanon: they denounced the oppression of the peoples of the “Arab nation” by a regime resolved to establish its hegemony over it. The rejection of US intervention against Iraq was accompanied by a denunciation of the petroleum monarchies in the Gulf. They were accused of placing their capital in Western financial institutions when, in the overwhelming majority of Arab countries, social progress remained very slow. But that effort at social clarification collided with the power of consensus based on identity, the sense of belonging to the same “Arab camp.” And the “Palestinian cause” further united people. Some, however, particularly the heads of the human rights leagues, attempted to explain the necessary distinction between Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian regime and the suffering of the Iraqi people.
On the other hand, in Morocco and Algeria the Islamist movement championed the jihad. The Western view of the Arab world, simplified to the point of caricature, encouraged this movement. Feeding the worship of a fixed past, the Islamist movement assimilated democracy (seen simply as a product of European history) to irreligion, that is, to one of the weapons in the vast conspiracy fomented by the enemies of the Prophet.
The West, out of habit or laziness, has relegated all the Arab countries to a global otherness–a homogeneous whole, sometimes invaded by abrupt fits of fever–without understanding that these peoples, in mobilizing against the war, aspired not to a return to military nationalism, but only to a greater degree of justice.
Public opinion brandished the democratic argument with the slogan “two weights, two measures.” The Algerians emphasized the glaring inequality in the application of UN resolutions. But the majority of them did not embrace Saddam Hussein’s regime. In Rabat and Tunis as well, there was a demand for more rights and not for the withdrawal of the international community.
The tragedy lay in the refusal by the “North” to take these considerations into account. It has then been easy for the Islamists to demonize the idea of democracy, understood as a product of the West and not as a universal principle.
Daily Archives: 18 June 2005
The Arab defeats by Israel (in 1967 and 1973) led to the crisis in Arab nationalism. The volatile mixture of Islamism and oil led to new conflicts, while the state apparatus originating in Arabism defended itself with concessions and repressions. Given the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) and its parade of atrocities, the persistence of underdevelopment, the lack of resolution of the Palestinian question, and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, people in the 1980s were troubled by a queasy sinking sensation and the certainty that the collapse of values would ineluctably be punished. Gradually, for some, the hope of a return to original Islam was carved out. The new power acquired by the Gulf states (especially Saudi Arabia) after the oil crisis appeared to many faithful as a sign of divine providence. Compared to the patent failures of the secular states, which had fashioned their industrial development model on that of Eastern Europe, the international weight acquired by Riyadh gave fundamentalism a new credibility.
In the early 1980s, the landscape of the Maghreb was transformed. With the urban riots in Morocco in 1981 and 1984 and in Tunisia in 1984, and the Algerian outbreak in October 1988, social frustrations were laid bare. The organs for controlling and organizing societies were no longer adequate to stifle their expression. The rise of the individual and the slow acquisition of personal freedoms were translated into the creation of associations (the human rights leagues, for example) and public demonstrations to demand new rights.
That approach required the end of the single-party system, which had failed in its curious mixture of universalism and specificity (Islam and national socialism). The Algeria of 1990, with the multi-party system and elections planned for 1991, opened the way to the nation/society’s appropriation of the freedoms until then confiscated by the party/state. That desire for democracy, which opposed the “forced modernity” proposed by the military, fractured the vision of Arab nationalism, especially since every state baldly obeyed its own logic, its own interests. In practice, every instance of nationalism developed at the expense of pan-Arabic propaganda. The borders, even the most artificial ones coming out of colonization, produced the same state allegiances in the territories they circumscribed, the same networks of sympathies and behaviors that gradually became fixed and institutionalized. Positions were taken, choices made, which the bureaucratic cadres in the states were reluctant to abandon.
Political Islamism emerged as a major factor, and took its place in the void left by Arab nationalism (Peuples méditerranéens, 1990). The populations were barely gathering up the detritus of modernity. They felt that yawning gap–between the rulers and the ruled, between the very rich and the very poor, and between the “North” and the “South”–as an injustice. The rise of Islamism, experienced as the hope for a return to ethics, in combination with the bankruptcy of the single-party system, brought about a need for individual responsibility, which would go hand in hand with the search for a new kinship.
At the same time, the crisis of “Arab Socialism” made a need for personal freedom, or individualized responsibility, appear. Human rights leagues, but also new unionist organizations, women’s movements, cultural associations, and a series of journals began the work of criticism: how could the state become disengaged from the economy? How could individuals assert themselves as political subjects and as citizens? How could the culture, and in particular the representations of Islam, transform itself? That reflection on democracy was still very fragile when the Gulf crisis erupted, with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990.