The hostage situation in Algeria and the intervention in Mali have thrown a light on a dirty secret that Western governments have done their best to hide
The media have mentioned, usually as an aside, that the alleged leader of the hostage takers, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is a veteran of the Algerian Civil War in the 1990s. This was one of the bloodiest and most brutal conflicts of recent times.
Quite a lot of that blood is on the West’s hands. It is was a conflict that not only exposed the hollowness of the West’s talk about democracy, and the lengths they are willing to go to make sure that there is none in the Arab world, but also the emptiness of the rhetoric of the old 'radical' Arab regimes.
It is the Algerian people’s peculiar tragedy that they had to go through two lots of bloodletting in the space of as many generations. In the first, between 1954 and 1962, they had to fight a war to free themselves from French rule. Later the victors of that war fought a murderous war against the disappointed children of the new state, with the backing of the former colonial master.
A war for liberation
Conquered by the French in the 1830s, and settled by colonialists, Algeria was considered to be an integral part of France, yet a part of France like no other. Whilst the French settlers who made up 10% of the population lived a lifestyle almost indistinguishable from that in France, the Arab 90% were miserably exploited, lived in dire poverty, and were completely excluded from the rights and freedoms of Republican France.
This could not last forever and the wave of anti-colonialism which swept the European empires hit Algeria in 1945. But a protest in the town of Setif in 1945 was crushed with massive state violence and some 6,000 people were killed. It was the end of the idea of peaceful change.
In 1954 the National Liberation Front, FLN, was formed to free the country and the War of Independence started. As is so often the case with these things, the then Socialist Party, then in government and in theory opposed to colonialism, supported their own national imperialism. Prime Minister Guy Mollet ordered violent repression.
The French deployment quickly rose to half a million troops, who would use all the resources of one of the world’s premier military powers to try and crush a guerrilla insurgency. Through bombing, napalm, massacres and torture, large parts of the country were cleared of people.
Bloody as the war in the countryside was, at the centre of the war were the cities, as is depicted so powerfully in Gillo Pontecorvo’s film, the Battle of Algiers. The French army’s campaign would become the model for all urban counter-insurgency campaigns across the world since. Central to it was the massive and systematic use of torture to terrify the urban population and break the network of FLN fighters in the cities. The French put to good use the knowledge of torture that they had learnt from their Nazi occupiers in the Second World War.
The repression extended to France itself and was directed in particular against the growing population of Algerian refugees and migrants who had fled the bloodshed and poverty at home. It reached a peak in 1960 when as many as 200 were massacred on a demonstration in Paris, their bodies dumped in the Seine and the Bois de Bologne.
But the French could not hold down a nation of millions in Algeria - and in 1962 they were forced to concede independence to the new state. The war however had cost the Algerians dearly, and though the number of dead will never be known, common estimates range between 500,000 and one million.
An independent, yet dependent, Algeria
The Algerian struggle, and the FLN who led it, inspired oppressed people across the world to struggle and throw off the chains of colonialism. The new regime, initially led by Ahmed Ben Bella, was to form the radical wing of the Arab states with its anti-colonial heritage and 'Arab Socialist' ideology. Officially a one party state under the FLN, from the seizure of power by Houari Boumediane in 1965, real power was in the hands of the military and its former guerrilla leaders.
However, the state’s new leaders’ goal was not so much world, or even Arab, revolution, but to find an accommodation with the imperial powers (in particular France). Despite the massive violence done to the country by the French state, relations with it quickly became close, mutual self-interest of the two countries rulers proving stronger than the bitterness of past history or ideology.
Plans for economic development largely ran into the sand as the country re-entered something like a colonial relationship again, but this time with the pay back of oil revenues. The economy became like that of the Gulf states dependent on fuel exports. The revenues flowing back, though, ended up in the hands of a few around the former guerrilla leaders of the regime. The country’s only other export was its people, whom left in ever greater numbers for Europe, and especially France, to look for work.
Most of the population, now living in the cities, were excluded from the oil and gas bonanza and lived in poverty. Failed attempts to modernise the country meant that millions of young people were being educated in preparation for a life of unemployment and precarious work. An army of hittistes, or 'wall-leaners' (a Franco-Arabic portmanteau based on 'hit' for 'wall'). An army of the dispossessed and disappointed was slowly assembling on street corners and cafes across the country.
Aware of the threat, the state started to encourage the activity of conservative Islamic radicals in the universities in order to use them against the secular leftists whom they considered a greater worry.
They would not do anything about the real cause of discontent though: the growing social and economic inequalities and total lack of any future in the country for the 65% of Algerians under the age of 25 (and by now most also knew that France was no promised land).
The First Arab Spring
In the mid-1980s, as part of the Iran-Iraq war, the conservative Gulf monarchies turned on the oil taps in an attempt to starve the Iranians of revenue. It worked: the market was glutted and the price of oil plummeted. The Iranian regime endured, but the Algerian regime would almost fall, as its oil revenues also crashed.
In “Black” October 1988 a riot broke out in Bab el-Oued, a poor and overcrowded area of the capital. Within days it spread across the country as the young, driven to distraction by poverty, lack of prospects, and inspired by the Palestinian Intifada, rose up.
At first the state tried repression but after hundreds of deaths, it realised this alone would not stop the unrest. President Chadli Benjdaid announced a lifting of the state of siege and promised political reform.
There followed the first Arab Spring. Dozens of new parties were formed along with trade unions and civil society organisations. The media became almost overnight the freest in the Arab world.
The old regime had been weakened and thrown off balance, but it had not fallen. The FLN tried to manipulate the process of reform to protect itself and ensure that its rule would continue. But in the local elections of June 1990 it was not able to prevent the newly formed Islamic Salvation Front, the FIS, from emerging as the largest party. It was they who now formed the opposition to the regime. The previous bearers of this standard, the left, had been marginalised by years of repression, competition with the Islamists (who then had covert backing of the state) and the state’s own misuse of the word 'socialist'.
In June 1991 the military led by General Nezzar reasserted itself. It launched a crackdown, declared a state of siege and started arresting FIS activists. Still they could not return the country to the way it was before the 'Revolution of Stones', and national elections were eventually held in December 1992, nearly three years after uprising.
The ruling establishment was stunned by the results. Despite all their attempts to gerrymander the elections, the FIS had won 188 of the 231 seats decided in the first round. They were heading for a landslide. The former ruling party FLN had won just 15.
But then a state of emergency was declared. The military in effect staged a coup forcing President Chadli to resign and forming their own High State Committee to rule. A former FLN leader, Mohamed Boudiaf, was brought back from exile to be a new figurehead President. A massive campaign of repression was launched against the FIS, with thousands of its members were arrested.
Deprived of any democratic, political expression the opposition first turned to mass demonstrations, and after these were violently crushed, insurgency. The supporters of the FIS formed a guerrilla army, the AIS, out of its supporters fleeing repression in the cities, and launched a campaign from hideouts in the country’s mountainous north. Soon it was also spreading through the teeming city slums. They were fighting the same war that their parents had a generation before against the French.
But they were fighting a state rooted in Algerian society. That state’s reaction was a continuous escalation of violence. The military came to be dominated by men known as the 'Eradicators' who dispatched 'Ninjas', police and troops and police wearing ski masks, onto the streets, to do their work. Tens of thousands were arrested, many to end up in desert camps. The use of torture, in abeyance during the years of reform, reappeared, and on an industrial scale. Within the first year of conflict President Boudiaf himself fell victim to an assassin’s bullet, fired by one of his own security guards.
The war took on an ever more bloody turn after the emergence of the GIA, the Armed Islamic Group, a split from the AIS. Led by Afghan veterans who were Takfiris, supporters of an extreme form of Islamism which labels almost all other Muslims as apostates, it was also more amorphous than the AIS and quickly infiltrated by the security services.
There followed a series of massacres of increasing horror: whole villages and neighbourhoods murdered, beheadings, mutilations. The areas that suffered the most were those that had previously supported the FIS. Blamed on the GIA it became increasingly unclear who was actually committing them and the finger was ever more turned at the military and the 'deep state'. It is widely believed that the state had a hand in the activities of the GIA.
Bloody deeds come back to haunt
By the end of the 1990s the state had effectively won. The AIS ended its campaign and negotiated an amnesty. The GIA destroyed itself and its remaining fighters gave up or scattered across the Sahara region. Mokhtar Belmokhtar was one of them.
Anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people died in the civil war. In 1999 Abdelaziz Bouteflika, another FLN veteran, was elected President. He has been in power ever since. There is a semblance of democracy, there are elections, but everyone knows who is going to win.
And all this time the West backed the Algerian regime. Barely a peep was heard from the Western democracies when the elections were cancelled. The western powers also remained silent as the state conducted a war of eradication against the opposition.
However, just as in Afghanistan, the Western powers are finding that it will reap what it sowed in North Africa. Once again it will be ordinary people who pay the bloody price.
Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.