Memories of the 1988 Algerian Spring

Algerians might say they are alright when they see what is happening in Syria or neighboring Libya. However, like other Arabs they continue to waste opportunities to catch up with the free, developed world. On Oct. 5, 1988, Algerians rose up against their deteriorating living conditions. As usual for Arab authoritarian regimes, the government oppressed its angry people, killing around 500. However, the protests continued and anger rose.

This is the Arab Spring we did not watch on Al-Jazeera, which did not exist then. In the end, Algeria’s then-President Al-Shadli bin Jdid al-Salam chose what was best for him and his people, announcing constitutional, political and pluralistic reforms and free elections, thereby ending one-party rule. Despite this, however, governance failed, and production, the economy, services, education and quality of life deteriorated.

Historians and analysts disagree on the causes of the Algerian Spring. Some consider it a planned movement to settle scores inside the government, while others believe it is the real and transparent result of repression, economic failure and deteriorating services. As a journalist I witnessed the Algerian Spring, and will share some of my memories there without commenting, so the reader can interpret them however he or she wants.

Presidents and governments have come and gone, but the same class still rules, as with other Arab republics

Jamal Khashoggi

• I was invited to Algeria to attend a seminar right before the famous elections that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won. Afterward, the gates of hell opened on Algeria due to a military coup and the cancellation of the election results. The star of the seminar was the late Sheikh Muhammad al-Ghazali, and its subject was “the Islamic future.” I had never seen a crowd that interested in what someone had to say.

I took four Islamists from the audience to my room in the Eurasia Hotel, to learn more about their orientation and their participation in the protests. My room was on the top floor, and the hotel was on a hill overlooking all of Algeria. A young man, leaning against the wall and looking at the capital of his country from the balcony, said: “We couldn’t pass next to the fence of the hotel, and now I’m on the 14th floor above the whole capital. God is the greatest!”

• The hotel gave me an insight into the strict socialist system that prevailed in Algeria. One had to convert dollars at the official bank, and carry the receipt to pay with the local currency as the employee would attach the receipt to a bond he would keep. The menu was limited, and when I complained about my chicken platter to the waiter, he said there was nothing better. His rudeness was not an imported socialist trait, but purely Algerian.

• During my following trips to Algeria, I went to the more prestigious Algeria Hotel, which was once home to the French governor. It was very generous, putting Close Up toothpaste and a Kleenex tissue box in my room. These capitalist brands were prized back then because Algeria did not produce high-quality, simple goods such as tissue boxes and toothpaste.

• I accompanied FIS leader Sheikh Abassi Madani to Mostaganem city in western Algeria during his electoral campaign, which was totally free with no government interference. He drove his car himself, without any escorts or guards. His son Osama was in the car behind us with the famous footballer Osad, who joined the FIS and was arrested with them later on.

The FIS was the party of the Algerian people, as it was very popular and not only Islamic. We passed through fields that were once France’s bread basket. I asked Madani: “Throughout our journey, I’ve never seen in these fields a tractor harvesting or cows grazing.” He answered: “It’s their failing socialism. If they brought a bull and a cow here after independence and let them graze, they would’ve had huge animal wealth today.”

• A huge stadium was filled with FIS supporters - Algerian women and men from all social classes. People cheered and chanted “God is great” and “Islamic state” whenever a speech ended.

• I asked Madani’s permission to come back with one of the Salafist members of the FIS, which was a coalition of Islamist forces that was formed in a short space of time, united by the desire to build a just Islamic state. However, he asked me to come back with him.

I discovered later that there were problems within the FIS, especially when Madani told me about a member: “He grew up in a bad environment, this has distorted his way of thinking.” Madani kept talking about the problems he had with Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood, and asked me not to publish what he had told me. I am free of my promise after a quarter of a century.

Analyzing these events demonstrates Algeria’s situation 25 years ago. Unfortunately, nothing much has changed. Pluralistic democracy is a facade, and elections are pre-determined.

Presidents and governments have come and gone, but the same class still rules, as with other Arab republics. It fails in governance, while succeeding in wasting development opportunities for its citizens.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Oct 10, 2015.

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Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels. Twitter: @JKhashoggi

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:45 - GMT 06:45
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