Re: Algerian leftists & the Winter Uprisings: or, the weakness of political parties

UPDATE: Below is an image mapping the genealogy of the Algerian parties mentioned in this post. Here is the PDF. An updated version will be posted on the “Charts” page.

The role of the Tunisian left in the winter uprising was critical. This has been widely noted. The communist tendencies are especially interesting to consider in relation to their Algerian cousins. The Tunisian parties have a broader base among students and workers than the leftist parties in Algeria do. While the Tunisian Communist Workers Party (PCOT) resisted co-optation by Ben Ali, the Algerian communists (PAGS and later Ettihadi) were supportive of and tolerated by the Algerian government. The major elements of the Algerian left took the government’s line during this winter’s uprisings directly contrasting with the Tunisian left’s decisive organizational function. The Algerian left ended up in the opposition from the 1990s but mostly because they were allied with factions of the regime’s anti-Islamist hardline in the Civil War or have become decorative elements parliament. PAGS (the Avant-Guard Socialist Party) was the successor of the colonial-era Algerian Communist Party, and was tolerated by the regime during the one-party days of the FLN. It had a reasonable following among young people and some working people in the 1960s and 1970s under Ben Bella and Boumediene; their toleration was in part the result of Boumediene’s efforts to keep good relations with the Soviet Union and partly because the communists had been supportive of the nationalist cause during the war and had a reasonable following on their own. It was dominated at first by pieds-noirs (with a large Muslim clique) until independence and ran the paper Alger Republicain and was influencial in Revolution Africain. It had sympathizers in the FLN, even among Maoists although their disposition was heavily urban-centric and neglected the peasantry handing this element’s potential to the FLN and the state.

PAGS lost its importance in the 1980s especially as the importance of ideology declined in Soviet-Algerian relations and Islamism became popular. PAGS had an easier time under Ben Bell than Boumediene: many of its members saw Boumediene as a reactionary given his criticism of Ben Bella’s socialist rhetoric and policies and his religious credentials (which he leveraged immediately after his coup to gain the support of religious people opposed to the March Decrees and Ben Bella’s “socialist” pretenses). The party thus benefited from Algeria’s position in the Cold War context as well as certain FLN figures’ sympathies. It was dealt a serious blow by the collapse of communism in the Eastern Bloc after 1989; this intensified ideological and practical divisions within the party. PAGS supported the 1992 coup and its leaders were openly critical of the FIS and the Islamist tendency generally. After 1992 it was known as Ettihadi and was headed by El-Hachemi Cherif — Islamist assassins attempted to kill him in the mid-1990s. Ettihadi dropped the explicitly communist line, probably in hopes of better integrating into a political environment where religion was more powerful than in the past. Another faction broke away and formed the Marxist-Lenninist Algerian Party for Democracy and Socialism (PADS). This party claims the legacy of the historic Algerian Communist Party. Cherif’s Ettihadi became the Democratic and Socialist Movement (MDS) in 1998/1999, which he headed until his death in 2005. One could find Cherif on al-Jazeera arguing with Algerian opposition figures about the conduct of the government during the Civil War — he became a defender of the official position on these issues. His presence in those kinds of conversations was outsized for the popularity of his party. The party kept to the eradicationist line with the Islamists and became progressively more obscure as time went on — also moved closer to the ideological center. MDS won one seat in parliament in the 2007 parliamentary elections. PADS remains active as an opposition party, though extremely small and probably more obscure than MDS (it is a member of the International Conference of Communist and Workers Parties). Since Cherif’s death in 2004, the MDS has been split between two factions, one led by Ali Hocine and another by Ahmed Meliani. Louisa Hanoune’s role as the head of the Workers Party (PT) has been written about on this blog on many occasions. She is by far the most prominent personality on the left in Algeria today due to the size of her party and her strong personality.

The PT was founded in 1990 gathering trade unionists, youth and middle class workers; it follows the Trotskyite line. Its origins are in the Organization of Socialist Workers (OST) which Hanoune also led in the 1980s when she worked underground. She was active in opposing the junta in the 1990s and sought out roles for herself and her party in negotiations with the FIS and the Islamist tendency generally. From 1997-2007 her party gained seats in every parliamentary election relatively steadily compared to other parties. Since 2007 especially the PT has been seen as house opposition, legitimizing the government’s rigged electoral processes through its participation in exchange for more seats and prominence, causing skepticism. Hanoune ran for president twice: in 2004 (she won less than 1% of the vote) and against in 2009 (she came in second place with 4.2% of the vote). She draws the attention of a reasonable number of left-leaning middle class women and many former government workers (her party has the highest proportion of female delegates in parliament). Her leadership style is often criticized as dictatorial (though party members claim to be satisfied with most of their political achievements). During the recent winter riots, she fell in line with the rest of the political class in blaming speculators for the price increases and condemning the youth demonstrations. Statements attributed to PADS and MDS have appeared on communist websites in light of the winter uprising in Algeria. Their online presence is very weak, though PADS publishes (or published) its own newspaper. Hanoune’s recent criticism of the regime has been more cautious than in the past; usually she or her party members will take an extreme line on some economic issue and then moderate their stance and rhetoric with time. But they routinely oppose privatizations and what they seen as immodest alterations to investment laws. Its base being small one often hears young people describe Hanoune’s outlook as being “from another era,” and like other politicians most people regard her participation in government as irrelevant (after all, she “has no problem with Bouteflika personally,” which distinguishes her from many Algerians to whom this sounds like “[t]he Stalin regime is accepted by the Russian masses.”). The PT’s agenda is focused on women’s emancipation in ways that no other opposition party is and it is one of the few that makes respect for worker’s rights a primary issue; on the other hand like Ettihadi and the MDS the PT is less assertive on secularism than other issues (it is seen as divisive). The party organized small protests to oppose the American invasion of Iraq in 2003; this produced a famous photograph of Hanoune being arrested by police. Hanoune can be an aggressive and powerful speaker though (there used to be a video on YouTube of her speaking at a rally in very fine Arabic, really riling up the audience; it seems to have been taken down though). One finds a more critical and systematic approach in pronouncements from PADS, though. None of these parties played the major role the Tunisian left was able to play this winter; party because the Tunisian regime repressed the Islamist tendency so aggressively and without ideological co-optation unlike the Algerian regime which repressed it but adopted parts of its narrative and following in order to de-legitimize and control it. The political class in general has adopted a far more accommodationist line on religion in Algeria in the last ten years and religion plays a very large role in national identity to begin with. Thus the political space for communists of any background is severely limited and the Algerian regime has been effective in killing the appeal of political parties by interacting with them (in Algerian politics anything the regime touches turns to coal in the eyes of the masses). [Edited] The protests around  22 January were pushed in some parts of the country by the right-wing, secularist (and Berberist) Rally for Culture and Democracy; older the social-demoratic (and also Berberist) Front of Socialist Forces (FFS; the party was founded by Hocine Ait Ahmed after independence and has a tradition of resistance based in Kabylia) was uninvolved; the many popular minor forces often appeal to religion and oppose socialism (and certainly communism) ideologically whether they be in the vein of Malek Bennabi or some sectionalist personality. The RCD has a stronger popular base in Kabylia than anywhere else and it made a similar compromise with the regime in 1992 in supporting the coup a way of holding back Islamists. The FFS was rejectionist and remains vocal in boycotting presidential elections and mobilizing protests. The parties were not the crucial element in the December and January riots and demonstrations though: young people have turned away from official institutions and are taking their social and political demands in their own hands without leaders, by and large. The weakness of the left in Algeria comes in part from this background, as does the weakness of official Islamist and “nationalist” parties (and the communist tendency in the Arab countries has its own special reasons for failure broadly, as As’ad AbuKhalil has written with somewhat controversially). Parties in Algeria often lack the popular legitimacy to have the kind of power they have had in Tunisia’s recent events.

Repressed during the last twenty years, the PCOT’s activists were arrested and hunted throughout and it build a respectable base of support given its circumstances. It kept ideological consistency and popular legitimacy. The Algerian parties compromised with the junta and then Bouteflika for survival. At one time PAGS had a significant following among young people; its successors have had less luck among Algerian youth. Hamma Hammami, the leader of the PCOT, was arrested by the Tunisian regime and had sympathizers among the people who demanded his release; if the head of PADS or MDS were arrested in Algeria even politically astute people would likely ask: “What is PADS? What is MDS?”


10 thoughts on “Re: Algerian leftists & the Winter Uprisings: or, the weakness of political parties

  1. Just a minor detail: I don’t think the FFS had anything to do with the January 22 protests, it was a solo effort by the RCD. There was talk of a protest, initially scheduled for February 9 (anniversary of the state of emergency in Algeria in 1992)that would include a few parties (FFS, RCD, PT) and some labor unions but both the and the PT backed out. The FFS has announced that it asked for permission to hold some meetings in February. No word on that yet. The new government (expected to be announced any time soon with Ouyahia making his exit) may take its time responding.

  2. What people all over the Maghreb countries and the whole Arabian world need, is: an independent movement, that means independent from all established parties and trade unions. A revolutionary perspective following the Theory of the Permanent Revolution will be the only way to ensure that the Arabian masses can organize themselves in a democratic and peaceful way. Therefore, these statements should be published as far as possible: (arab) (english)

  3. The role of leftists aw well as other political parties in Tunisia is overestimated. What happened in Tnisia was a social unrest wuth a political meaning but without political project.
    We must notice that this unrest was weak in the wealthy regions of Tunisia. At the moment when Ben Ali escaped, there was no real threat coming from this unrest. Wahat could have happened, we will not know because the USA asked the tunisian military to overthrow ben Ali. In Egypt the crowds are marching in Cairo and in other big cities like Alexandria, it’s very different with what occured in Tunisia.
    What happened in Tunisia was a military coup before the happening of a revolution which could not have been led by a leftist party and certainly not by a communist party.

    • I’m not saying they led or are leading it; I’m merely pointing out that they played a much bigger role than their Algerian counterparts. And they played their role in organizing. But it is true, more than many realize, that the key element here were the disaffected. And I agree that Egypt is a very different case than what we’ve been seeing in Tunisia and the Maghreb.

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