Algeria: From Pan-Arabism to Islamism

The collapse of the FLN and the ISF‘s rise to power lay in the continuing failures of pan-Arabism and the development of political Islamism.

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.

SOURCE: Algeria, 1830-2000: A Short History, by Benjamin Stora (Cornell U. Press, 2001), pp. 201-202

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Filed under Mediterranean, Middle East, religion

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