The War of Algeria’s Independence – 1954-62
Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD
It was the century of colonialism. The nations of Europe fanned out across the globe in search of profits and in the process subjugated vast regions of the earth, pillaging the land, destroying old cultures, displacing local languages, transforming ancient customs. They played with the nations of Asia and Africa as if they were playing with pieces on a chess board that could to be captured and removed off the board at will. The people of the colonized territories were pawns, second class citizens at best and slaves at worst, their resources at the disposal of the colonizing power, their destinies decided in European capitals tens of thousands of miles away from home. Despite shifting alliances in Europe, the colonial structure held. The principal colonial powers were the United Kingdom, France, Russia and the Netherlands. By the second half the 19th century there was a broad understanding between these powers about colonies and regions of influence. The structure held until the beginning of the 20th century when the failure of the established empires to accommodate the rising power of Germany precipitated the Great War and spelled the beginning of the end of the colonial world order.
The 20th century witnessed a rising tide of resentment against colonial rule. Political movements arose calling for the rights of the colonized people. It was a slow, tortuous and painful struggle. The colonial powers were dug in. They enjoyed overwhelming superiority in technology and military power. The colonial order was backed by sociology of dominance which arrogated the right of the European races to rule the world. The term “the white man’s burden” was invented to express the self arrogated right of the Europeans to “civilize” the natives. By contrast, the colonized people lacked the organization, the institutions and the resources to confront the colonial order. Any semblance of effective resistance was crushed with a heavy hand. It was only after Hitler’s war, with the colonial powers financially bankrupt and militarily exhausted that the people of Asia and Africa saw the light of emancipation and freedom.
Of all the countries that achieved independence in the immediately post World War II period, Algeria stands out as a tragic exhibit of the brutality of colonial rule. Even an exhausted France was unwilling to relinquish its hold on its colonies. After its defeat and expulsion from Indochina (1954), France was even more adamant in holding onto Algeria. Attempts at reforms and proposals for integration of the colony with continental France were quashed leaving no option to the nationalists but to resist. The ensuing War of Independence (Guerre d’Algerie-1952-62) was one of the bloodiest struggles of the 20th century.
Estimates vary, but according to historians, between 500,000 and 1,500,000 Algerians perished in the conflict. Over two million in a total population of ten million were forced out of their homes and put in concentration camps. French army losses were approximately 28,000 dead and 65000 wounded. Thousands of European settlers lost their lives. The war was characterized by torture and brutality against the Algerian Muslims and terror on the part of the resistance. In a long and protracted test of wills, the French won the military conflict but lost the political battle. The cessation of hostilities and independence opened the floodgates of refugees from North Africa into France. More than a million fled, many were Frenchmen, others were Algerians who had sided with the French during the war. The children and grandchildren of the North African immigrants constitute an unwelcome presence in France and face systemic discrimination in the land of their adoption. Their presence rocks the social and political fabric of France even to this day.
Algeria is the heart of the Maghreb. Situated between Morocco to the west, Tunisia and Libya to the East, Mali and Niger to the South, it is a large North African country, second in size only to the Sudan. The Mediterranean coastline, six hundred miles long, has fine harbors located at Oran, Algiers, Skikda and Anaba. The Atlas Mountains run from Morocco through Algeria into Tunisia. The highlands and the coastal areas receive a moderate amount of rainfall. The bulk of the country in the south is part of the Sahara with scant rainfall, little vegetation and very few habitations. Oil discovery in recent years has increased the strategic importance of this vast and desolate region.
As a part of the Mediterranean world, Algeria has been fought over and settled by wave after wave of invaders. The local people, the Berbers, have inhabited the land from prehistoric times. Circa 800 BC, Phoenician sailors arrived from the Eastern Mediterranean and established the city of Carthage, located in modern Tunisia. The city grew prosperous through trade and in succeeding centuries established a strong city based state and an empire that straddled the coastlines of the Maghreb and Spain. In the second and third century BC, Carthage was an adversary of Rome and a contestant for power in the Mediterranean. The Romans captured the city and destroyed it in the year 146 BC and the Maghreb became a part of the Roman Empire. Algeria was a granary for the Romans. Urbanization grew. Illustrious men graced the land. Among the noteworthy greats was St. Augustine. In the year 698 CE the Arab general Hasan ibn al Numan defeated the Byzantines (Eastern Romans) at the battle of Carthage. North Africa fell before the relentless march of the Arab armies. A combined Arab-Berber army crossed the Straits of Gibraltar in 711 CE. By the year 732 CE, Spain and southern France had been incorporated into the far flung Arab empire. Islamic influence took roots, and by the 9th century, North Africa and Spain were predominantly Muslim.
During the Islamic period, the Maghreb was ruled by successive dynasties including the Omayyads, the Abbasids, the Aghlabids, the Fatimids, the Almoravids, Al Mohads and the Merinides. After the fall of Granada in 1492, Spain thrust its power across the Mediterranean and captured several ports along the Mediterranean coast. The Muslim potentates appealed to the Ottomans for help. A long series of battles ensured. By 1570 CE Ottoman power was fully established in North Africa as far as the kingdom of Morocco. The Battle of Lepanto (1572 CE) arrested the expansion of Ottoman naval power. However, succeeding attempts by the Christian Iberians to colonize the Maghreb were beaten back. In 1588 CE, Emir Ahmed al Mansur demolished an invading Portuguese force led by King Sebastian at the Battle of al Qasr al Kabir. Thereafter, despite occasional forays by the Christian Iberians, the hold of Islamic empires on the Maghreb held, with the Merinids, Wattasid, Sa’adis and Alouite dynasties in Morocco, and the Ottomans in Algeria, Tunisia and lands farther east.
Until the 19th century, Algeria was the western province of the Ottoman Empire and was a source of manpower for the Ottoman navy. It was also a grain surplus area. A governor (Dey) appointed by the Sultan in Istanbul ruled the province and acted as the arbitrating authority in a pyramidal structure supported by local landlords and successful merchants. Due primarily to its distance, the province was largely autonomous. It was divided into four districts, each governed by a Bey.
The Napoleonic wars (1798-1812 CE) released enormous energies in the European continent and provided an impetus to the imperial expansion of the great powers. The weakening Ottoman Empire was the coveted prize. There was consensus between Britain, France and Russia that the Ottoman Empire was crumbling. However, there was no agreement as to how to dismantle it and who would control its pieces after it was dismantled. The Russians had the advantage of geography. They coveted the Caucuses which provided access to the Black Sea. They also pressed their claims as protectors of the eastern Orthodox church whose followers formed a majority in the Balkans. The grand Russian design was to reach the warm waters of the Mediterranean and make their land based realm a world empire. The French had their eyes on North Africa. The strategic goal of Great Britain was to protect its fledging Indian empire by controlling the land and sea routes leading to the Indian Ocean. Hence the British had the dual aims of containing the Russians and enhancing their own interests in the Middle East. The three Great Powers played a grand game alternately cooperating and competing with one another.
The colonial history of Algeria begins in the year 1830 CE. The Ottoman Empire was exhausted from the Russian-Turkish war of 1828-29 and had ceded Georgia, Armenia and the Caucuses to Russia, while accepting Russian influence in Serbia, Rumania and Bulgaria. The Greeks had waged their war of independence (1828-1830 CE), and with encouragement from both Britain and Russia, had broken off from the Ottoman Empire. The powerful governor of Egypt, Mohammed Ali, openly challenged the authority of the sultan, sending his armies into Syria and Anatolia to extract concessions from Istanbul. Sensing a historic opportunity, the French made their move in North Africa. The initial French thrust had the dual aims of containing piracy in the western Mediterranean and enhancing its commercial interests in the region. Using a feigned insult to the French consul in Alger as an excuse, the French navy bombarded the city, and after a fierce battle, occupied it in 1830 CE. With the city of Alger as a base, the French army fanned out across the Mediterranean coast. The Algerians fought desperately but lost out against the superior armaments and discipline of the French invaders. A people who had raised the banner of liberty, equality and fraternity barely a generation ago, now became the perpetrators of the worst kind of human rights abuses. The war against the North Africans had become a “science”, in which superior technology was used to enslave entire nations and tribes. Torture was used as a weapon to break down the resistance. So destructive was the French onslaught that the population of Algeria decreased from 3 million in 1830 to 2.5 million in 1840. By the summer of 1834, the French controlled the entire northern coast of Algeria and declared it to be an integral part of France.
Algerian resistance continued. As has often happened in the history of the Maghreb, it was the Sufis who took up arms against the invaders. In 1558 CE the Jazuliya Sufis, marshaled the Moroccans to defeat an invading force led by the Portuguese king Sebastian. In 1835 CE, it was the Qadiriya Sufis. Shaikh Abdel Qader was the leader of this resistance. He was born in Oran in 1807. His father was a well known Qadiriya shaikh. After studying the Quran, Tafseer, logic and philosophy, he proceeded to Mecca for hajj and on his way back visited Baghdad to visit the tomb of Shaikh Abdel Qader Jeelani and other awliyah. Upon returning to his homeland he found it under occupation. He took up arms and with the help of tribes in the western Algeria, gave battle to the invaders inflicting one defeat upon another on the French (1932-37 CE). Shaikh Abdel Qader was chivalrous to the enemy as he was valiant in battle and won the admiration even of the invaders. In 1937 CE a truce was concluded between the two sides allowing the French to keep Alger and Oran but keeping the hinterland independent under Shaikh Abdel Qader. Two years later the French unilaterally broke the truce. Using overwhelming force, they pursued Abdel Qader’s forces, burning, raping and using widespread torture as they went. Fighters and civilians fleeing the advancing French hid in caves. The French used smoke bombs to flush them out or kill them. Shaikh Abdel Qader surrendered in 1841 on a promise that he would be allowed to stay in Algeria. The French broke the promise and the Shaikh was exiled first to France and then to Damascus where he passed away in 1883.
Colonization destroys the old social, economic and military alliances and creates new ones throwing up in their wake new historical opportunities. So it was with Algeria. The occupation of the northern coast attracted settlers from southern France looking for new economic opportunities. Colonization created a new class of French bureaucrats beholden to the settlers. The old Ottoman aristocracy in which local landlords and businessmen held high positions was destroyed and became subservient to the French bureaucracy. In time the collusion of the settlers, called the colons, and the French administrative machine created a powerful lobby which no government in Paris could disregard. Although Algeria was annexed, it was legally not a part of France, but was administered as three “departments”. The colons had representations in the French parliament but not the Muslim Algerians. The one sided political relationship between the occupier and the occupied created a corresponding imbalance in the economic and social conditions on the ground. Agricultural land owned by Algerians was confiscated, often arbitrarily, and given to the settlers who amassed huge plantations and grew rich in the process. The displaced Algerians were forced to become laborers and servants for survival. As economic disparities grew, so did the social chasm between the settler and the native. A sociology of discrimination emerged which justified the economic and political stratification as a natural order.
The colonial wars had the indirect consequence of French penetration into the interior of the country. The policy of land confiscation and its distribution to the colons was now extended to the Atlas highlands. The local farmers were increasingly squeezed into less productive lands. Traditional centers of power based on land ownership were destroyed. The Algerian farmer had no choice but to become a sharecropper on land owned by the colons or to migrate to the larger cities along the coast and seek employment in menial jobs working for the immigrant Europeans.
The French occupation of Algeria showed the classic signs of colonialism, and was characterized by rabid racism, religious bigotry and exploitative capitalism. The European settlers, Christians immigrants from France, Spain, Malta and Italy, looked down upon the Berbers and Arabs who were predominantly Muslim. The Muslims who constituted ninety five percent of the local population were systematically excluded from employment, housing and social services. Political and economic power resided exclusively with the Europeans. The settlers took over most of the choice land and converted it into plantations for cash crops. Roads and schools were built but these were for the Europeans only. An Algerian Muslim could enlist in the French army and was permitted to shed his blood for the empire but he could not become a French citizen unless he was willing to give up his allegiance to the Shariah. Traditional education based on the Madrasa system was decimated while access to French education was restricted. The use of Arabic language was discouraged and its place taken up by French. Illiteracy increased so much that in 1960, after 120 years of French rule, only ten percent of Algerian Muslims could be considered literate. The Algerians were not just second class citizens; they were not citizens at all in their own land and were considered by the settler Europeans as no more than serfs worthy of benevolent patronizing at best and contempt at worst.
The oppressive policies of the French spawned several revolts. In 1871, the Kabyle tribes in the eastern Sahara rose up under the leadership of Shaikh al Haddad of the Rahmaniya Sufi order. The cause of this insurrection was the extension of colon rule over reserved Muslim villages. There was also widespread famine due to a sustained drought. The French officials were negligent and did nothing to ameliorate the situation. Wars in Europe and increasing commerce between Algeria and France had driven up the price of Algerian wheat to world market levels and the peasants had sold their reserves to speculative French hoarders. The administration reneged on its promise to advance loans to the farmers to replenish their seed grains exhausted by years of famine. More than 200,000 Algerians perished in the famine. Shaikh al Haddad declared a jihad against the French, mustered a force of 100,000 tribesmen and marched on Constantine. Lacking modern firearms and the discipline of modern armies, the uprising was quickly down and Shaikh al Haddad was captured. Following the insurrection, the colonial administration instituted harsh statutes against the Algerian Muslims which sanctioned arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, abrogation of the right to assembly and severe punishment for the slightest disrespect to French officials.
The French government was aware of the growing social and political imbalances but was divided on the issue of Algeria. The French emperor Napoleon III did make a feeble attempt to stop the arbitrary seizure of Algerian lands in 1863 but had to rescind the measures in the face of hostility from the entrenched colons.
In the colonial order, the Algerian Muslim had two strikes against him, one because he was an Algerian, and the other because he was a Muslim. The discriminatory laws had a definite religious angle to them. The Sephardic Jews were accorded full citizenship in 1870 as if to proclaim openly that religion was a key criterion in the discriminatory and oppressive emerging colonial order. Christians and Jews could become full citizens; not so the Muslims. The statutes offered French citizenship to a handful of Muslims provided they gave up their allegiance to the Shariah. This was tantamount to giving up their religion and few Muslims took up the offer.
The Franco-Prussian war of 1880-81 was a disaster for France. The Prussians decisively defeated the French, took Napoleon III prisoner, and occupied Paris. The German states were consolidated into a single state which emerged as the strongest power on the continent. France lost Alsace-Lorraine and was forced to pay an indemnity of 5 billion francs to the Germans. The Third Republic that emerged in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war was too weak to withstand the pressures of the colons in Algeria who were instrumental in getting the Code de l’indigent passed through the French National Assembly in 1985. The Code legalized discrimination against Algerian Muslims and expanded the powers of the colons. Confiscation of Algerian lands proceeded unabated. The growing power of the Europeans attracted further immigration from Southern Europe. A new entrenched European personality emerged in North Africa, more determined than before to keep Algeria French and keep a tight lid on the aspirations of the native population.
The interlude between the war of 1880-1881 and the First World War was a period of colonial consolidation. There emerged in Algeria a two tiered socio-political structure with the French and the colons at the top and the Algerian Muslims at the bottom. The Sephardic Jews were considered honorary Frenchmen. Each group had its own interests and its own political agenda. The French government, licking its wounds from the Franco-Prussian war, was aware of the economic and political condition of its Algerian subjects but was too weak to do anything about it. The colons, determined to preserve their privileges, were adamantly opposed to any concessions to the Algerians. The Algerian Muslims, continuously squeezed economically and politically by the colons, increasingly resented their condition but were powerless to do anything about it.
The worsening social condition of the Algerian Muslims was manifest in their educational backwardness. The old madrasa system was destroyed by the French. Lycees, or high school similar to those in France, sprang up in North Africa, but these were reserved for the French and the colons. The Algerians were reluctant to send their children to the lycees lest they inculcate alien values. But even if they wanted to, Algerian Muslim children were not welcome in French schools. The educational backwardness was most conspicuous in the predominantly Muslim hinterland which received little investment in the educational infrastructure and was at best treated with benign neglect.
The onset of the 20th century saw the colonial empires at their zenith. The British were the paramount power in the world. The French sway over North and Western Africa was unchallenged. The Netherlands had an iron grip on Indonesia. So secure was the political structure that the most that the native populations in the colonies could ask for was a dominion status within the empires. Independence was no conceivable. The colonial powers conceded nothing except tokenism. Any hint of serious political resistance was ruthlessly crushed.
World War I was a war that nobody wanted. The European powers stumbled onto it through a series of miscalculations. Serbia coveted Bosnia-Herzegovina which was ruled by Austria-Hungary after the Ottoman capitulation of 1886. The refusal of the Austrians to relinquish their control of Bosnia-Herzegovina was the pretext for the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo (1914). The assassination of the crown prince could not go unpunished and so Austria, with the tacit approval of Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, declared war on Serbia. Russia, which was an ally of Serbia, and self declared protector of its Eastern Orthodox population, declared war on Austria. Germany, an ally of Austria, declared war on Russia. The French saw in the ensuring war an opportunity to win back Alsace-Loraine. So, France declared war on Germany. The German armies cut through Belgium, advanced on Paris, hoping to deal a fatal blow to the French as they had done in the war of 1880-81 and bring the war to a quick conclusion. Great Britain, concerned that the balance of power in Central Europe was shifting inexorably towards Germany, declared war on Germany. British dominions and colonies including Canada, Australia and India joined in. A stalemate developed on the Franco-German front. The Germans convinced the Ottomans to join the fray on their side with offers of gold and the prospects of winning back the Balkan provinces lost in the war of 1911. Russia dropped out the war after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. There was a risk of an allied defeat and forfeiture of loans which the United States had advanced to the allies. The United States, which was initially neutral, entered war in 1917 partly in response to German submarine attacks on its trans-Atlantic shipping in support of the British war effort and partly to ensure that the allies would repay their debts to Washington. A single assassination thus turned into a world conflagration. The calculations of all the major powers proved incorrect. The Great War dragged on for four years and exhausted the economies and manpower of the European powers.
More than 100,000 Algerians fought for the French in the war, along with troops from Tunisia and Morocco. Thousands gave their lives defending Paris. Many thousands more perished in the trench warfare that pitted contesting armies towards the later stages of the war.
The North Africans had hoped that their sacrifices would improve their political status within the French empire. The American President Woodrow Wilson had articulated a 14 point program which promised self determination for the colonized people. Nationalists in Afro-Asia, from India to Morocco had pinned their hopes that a successful outcome of the war in favor of Britain and France would improve their political prospects. This was not to be.
The allies did win the war. Germany surrendered in August 1918 and was forced to pay enormous war reparations. Alsace-Lorraine was back under the control of France. The Ottoman Empire was occupied and dismembered. Wood Wilson who attended the victor’s conference in 1919 left disillusioned with the scheming of the European powers. France occupied Syria and Lebanon. Britain took Palestine and Iraq. Protests against colonial rule were brutally suppressed in India (Jalianwala Bagh, 1919), Syria (Damascus, 1920) and Algeria. It looked as if the colonial edifice which looked imposing at the turn of the century had received further reinforcement as a result of the war. But the picture was deceptive. The seeds of the next war were sown in the humiliating terms dictated to Germany. The colonial people, having fought for their masters in distant lands, grew restless. The movements towards autonomy and independence gathered momentum.
The First World War contributed to the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917. The impact of this event was global. A host of communist movements spring up in Asia and Africa deriving their inspiration from the success of the Bolsheviks in Russia. The communist rhetoric had its appeal to the colonized masses that were at the receiving end of unbridled exploitative colonial capitalism. In some of the larger countries such as India and Indonesia the communists became important players in the ensuing struggle against colonialism. Communism also made inroads into Algeria. However, there was a difference. Whereas the communist parties in India and Indonesia were home grown, those in North Africa found their voice only through the communist party of France. The presence of a large European colonial population and the repressive political environment they fostered precluded the formation of effective political parties on home turf.
One of the earliest Algerian nationalists who tried to break out of this paradigm was Messali Hadj Abdel Qader. A grandson of the legendary Algerian resistance fighter Shaikh Abdel Qader, Messali Hadj (1898-1974) grew up in the town of Tlemcen. Drafted into the French army, he fought in the waning years of World War I and experienced first hand the discrimination faced by native troops in the French armed forces. Presence on French soil exposed him to new and exciting political ideas. Returning to Algeria in 1921, he held a series of menial jobs under appalling conditions which reinforced in his young mind the wide disparities in the living standards of the French and the Algerians. He returned to France in 1923, settled in one of the North African shanty towns on the outskirts of Paris, married a French woman who was a member of the communist party, became a small businessman and set about giving a voice to Algerian aspirations.
Political opinion of the Algerian émigré population had split into two camps. One camp sought accommodation with France and ultimate integration with French society. These were the elite, the highly educated and successful businessmen. The other camp, consisting of small businessmen, workers and petty bureaucrats wanted autonomy. Messali Hadj worked with the latter group. In 1926, with encouragement from the communist party of France, he founded the Etoile Nordafricaine (North African Star). He gave forceful expression to North African aspirations in a declaration read at the Socialiste Internationale Conference in Brussels, Belgium in 1927. It was here that he first put forth a demand for Algerian independence. The French, apprehensive of the growing popularity of Messali Hadj’s views, dissolved the Etoile Nordafricaine in 1929. The party went underground and continued its activities. Hadj Messali founded a journal El Ouma which found wide readership among the Algerian émigré communities as well as Algeria itself. Hadj Messali tried to combine his socialist rhetoric with Islamic themes so as to broaden the appeal of his message to the working masses as well as the learned ulema in north Africa.
The continued political assertiveness of Hadj Messali was viewed with suspicion by the French establishment and he was sentenced to jail for six months in 1933 on charges of illegal political activities. It was a time of great economic dislocations in Europe. The Nazis had come to power in Germany, riding on a wave of mass unemployment and economic collapse. America was in the grip of the Great Depression. The French needed social peace on the home front. Accordingly, the government of France proposed minor reforms to allow a handful of Algerian Muslims to become French citizenships. These proposals were viewed with favor with the elites who favored integration with France. Hadj Messali travelled throughout Algeria and in speech after speech roused the people to oppose. The proposals were abandoned because of the determined opposition of the colons. Hadj Messali founded the Party of the Algerian People (PPA) in 1937 but it too was suppressed by the French and he was jailed until 1945.
The Second World War intervened. Hitler’s armies occupied Paris, the Vichy government set itself up in Southern France, and as part of the armistice agreement with the Germans continued to govern the north African colonies. Algeria witnessed the same repression against the Jews and the communists as did metropolitan France. The tide of the war turned in 1942 with the American entry into the war and in 1943 Algeria firmly in Allied hands. General de Gaulle set up the headquarters of the Free French Forces in Algiers and there it remains until the liberation of Paris in August 1944. More than 200,000 North Africans saw action during the war as part of the Allied forces. Discriminated, ill-equipped and treated with racist contempt by French officers, these soldiers, often recruits from villages, fought with valor in the Italian and French campaigns, even while the vaunted French corps of the Fifth Republic collapsed and were taken prisoner by the Germans. The colonial order placed these brave men in a class of sub-humans, to be used to preserve and perpetuate the very colonial regimes that suppressed them.
The Provisional Government of the French Republic (GPRF) was no less hostile to Algerian aspirations than its predecessors. Algerian resentment, contained by decades of repressive measures, was like pressurized steam in an air tight kettle. The lid came off immediately after the war.
On May 8, 1945, the day that Germany surrendered, the Muslim population of Setif took out a procession to celebrate the allied victory. Scuffles between the marchers and the Europeans broke out as the procession made its way through the French quarter. The situation got out of control, riots ensued, and in the mob violence that followed, more than a hundred colons were killed. In revenge, the French army went on a killing. Muslim quarters were raided by the army accompanied by vengeful colons. Mountain villages around Setif were strafed and bombed. Estimates vary, but the Algerian chroniclers estimate that over 40,000 civilians were massacred. This was a turning point in the struggle for independence of Algeria. The violence and its fury disillusioned moderate Algerians and political opinion began to shift in the direction of armed resistance.
Meanwhile, on the continent, Hadj Messali was released from prison and he founded a new political party, the Mouvement pour le Triomphe des Libertes Democratiques (MTLD). Even though he remained the most conspicuous spokesman for Algerian independence after the war, the struggle was moving ahead of him. The Setif massacres had convinced many in the younger generation that France would not willingly relinquish control of its north African colonies. Disillusioned, they turned increasingly to armed resistance.
Ahmed Ben Bella, a rising star in the anti-colonial struggle, founded the secret Organisation Speciale in 1947 whose purpose was armed resistance to French rule. Ben Bella is considered the father of Algerian independence. Born into a poor, religious family in Tlemcen in 1916, Ben Bella joined the French army in 1936 as a way of advancing his career. After the fall of France in 1940, the French army was demobilized, Ben Bella volunteered to serve with a regiment of Moroccan infantry and fought in the Italian campaigns. Returning home after the war he participated in the assembly elections of 1947. French interference in the elections convinced the young Ben Bella that peaceful emancipation from colonial rule was impossible. The Organisation Speciale carried out sabotage of French installations. Ben Bella was arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison in 1951. He escaped from prison and found his way to Tunisia and from there to Cairo, Egypt.
In 1952, Hadj Messali was arrested once again, and the MTLD fell apart. It was obvious that France had no intention of withdrawing from Algeria and it was apparent that the older generation of Hadj Messali was becoming irrelevant. Frustrated, young Algerian men deserted the MTLD in droves. In October 1954 they formed the National Liberation Front (FLN) with a military wing Armee de Liberation Nationale. The War of Algerian Independence had begun.
On November 1, 1954 a group of FLN nationalists struck at French military and civilian installations. On the political front, the FLN established its headquarters in Cairo and with the support of Gamel Abdel Nasser obtained access to Radio Cairo and the Arab masses. As the uprising began, the FLN broadcast an appeal to all Algerian Muslims to rise up against French colonial rule and establish a sovereign, democratic and socialist state in accordance with the principles of Islam. The nationalist appeal was packaged in Islamic terms so as to have the broadest appeal to the peasants, the intellectuals and the ulema alike.
France was reeling from its defeat at Dien Bien Phu and the loss of its Indochina colonies. It was in no mood to entertain independence for Algeria, a province that it had long considered a part of itself. The reaction of the French government was to dig in and seek a military solution. This was a grave miscalculation. France’s repressive rule in Algeria for over a hundred years, characterization by discrimination, violence, neglect and exploitation had used up the patience of the native Muslim population. But even at this late date there was a substantial section of Algerian population that was willing to seek an accommodation with France, perhaps some form of association or even integration. A political solution might have worked. But the history of French rule in Algeria was long characterized by racism and blindness to the rights of the Algerians. It was astonishing how even well meaning Frenchmen could claim Algeria as part of France while keeping the native population in a state of perpetual servitude, without political rights or education and employment opportunities. Over the years, even modest attempts at reform were torpedoes by the entrenched colon lobbies in Paris. The die was cast. The cup was full and events moved inexorably in the direction of armed conflict.
Violence begets violence. In retribution for the riots at Setiff, the French army and the colony perpetrated widespread massacres. This in turn nurtured Algerian resentment and armed attacks on French installations inviting more vicious retribution in return. The colons were particularly vicious, carrying out deadly raids on Muslim quarters in which innocent men, women and children were slaughtered. The moderates who sought an accommodation with France were increasingly marginalized. The Algerian merchant in the coastal cities as well the farmer in the highlands came to the conclusion that armed struggle was the only way to throw off the French yoke. What was a political issue became a war of attrition with increasing ferocity in which it was hard to separate the victims from the victimizers but in which the Algerian Muslims were the primary sufferers.
Even in the midst of this mayhem, the voices of moderation were not silent. Ferhat Abbas, the moderate nationalist, who prepared the Algerian People’s Manifesto in 1943, founded the Democratic Union of Algerian Manifesto (UDMA) in 1946. This party stood for political accommodation with France and a resolution of the conflict based on dialogue and compromise. In the initial phases of the War of Independence, during 1954-55, Ferhat Abbas and his party were lukewarm towards the armed insurrection. So were the ulema. It was not until 1956, with positions hardening on both sides, and avenues for compromise exhausted that Ferhat Abbas joined the FLN.
The FLN did not represent all shades of opinion in Algeria. The veteran Messeli Hadj, miffed at not being consulted by the FLN, founded theMouvement Nationale Algerien (MNA) in 1954 as a rival organization to the FLN. The MNA found support among Algerian émigrés in France and also received covert support from the French government to weaken the influence of the FLN. A war of attrition between the FLN and the MNA ensued spanning both sides of the Mediterranean Sea. Many thousands died during the so called “café wars” in Paris between the protagonists of the two political parties. Ultimately, the Armee de Liberation Narionalale (ALN), the military arm of the FLN, gained the upper hand, and the MNA lost out on both political and military fronts.
Using Cairo as its base, the FLN organized its political and military activities with the dual aim of soliciting Arab public support and compelling the French to the negotiating table. Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt was an ardent Arab nationalist and the FLN received his blessing as well as his full political backing. In the anti-colonial atmosphere of the post World War II world, the Algerians also received moral and political support from the emerging Afro-Asian countries. The FNL set up a Comité Révolutionnaire d’Unité et d’Action-CRUA in Cairo. Its nine executive members, Ait Ahmed, Ben Bella, Rabah Bitat, Moustafa Ben Boulaid, Mohamed Boudiaf, Mourad Didouch, Mohamed Khider, Belkacem Krim and Larbi Ben M’Hidi formed the brain trust behind the Revolution. Local political committees were established to influence workers’ union, students, intellectuals and women’s groups. For effective armed action, the CRUA divided Algeria intowilayets and Kasbahs with local commanders assigned to each cell. The decentralized units were autonomous and could initiate military contact at opportune moments. It was classic asymmetrical warfare, which pitted a diffuse, highly motivated insurgency against a centralized, modern French army.
The initial phases of the insurrection witnessed low intensity combat. The FLN stages hit and run attacks against army and police installations, avoiding pitched battles against a superior military force and melted into the local population from whom they drew their moral and material support. The French, who viewed the conflict as a pacification program, confined their initial attacks to FLN positions. The situation changed when the FLN operatives killed scores of civilians in Skikda in August 1955. In retribution, the governor Jacques Soustelle unleashed a rain of terror. The French army raided Muslim Kasbahs, bombed villages and killed, according to some accounts, over 12,000 civilians. In this asymmetrical warfare, the settler Pied-Noir gangs took a leading part. What had started as a pacification program now became a full fledged war. France, which had fewer than 60,000 troops at the start of the war, now had an army of over 400,000 battling the insurgents. The repression and cruelty of the French army and of the settlers further radicalized Algerian political opinion. The moderates, with no quarters to hide, increasingly drifted to the FLN position that armed resistance was the only way to achieve independence.
On the political front, the issue of Algerian independence was brought before the General Assembly of the United States by the Arab states and was supported by the Soviet Union and the emerging nations. To influence the debate at the UN session of September 1956, the FLN initiated a major military campaign in Algiers. Merchants shuttered their doors and the city was virtually shut down. The offices of the French airlines were bombed. The French responded with a major offensive killing many innocent civilians in the process. The battle had an impact on the UN debate and the resolution for Algerian independence passed by an overwhelming majority.
Egyptian support for Algerian independence was a major factor in France joining with Great Britain and Israel for an attack on the Suez Canal in October 1956. In a lightning strike, Israel captured the Sinai peninsula while a joint Anglo-French force occupied the Suez Canal region. However, the opposition of both the United States and Soviet Union forced the occupiers to withdraw. The Suez crisis was a major milestone in the 20thcentury because it demonstrated to the world that the era of the European colonial powers had ended and a new era dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union had begun.
Undeterred by world opinion, France continued its brutal crackdown in Algeria. Soustelle’s successor, Lacoste applied repressive measures with increasing severity. In addition to the French army, the Muslim population endured savage attacks by colon vigilantes and police action by the Harkis who were Algerians who sided with the French in the fight. The French used covert operations to divide the FLN rank and file. Psychological warfare was used to infuse terror into the hearts of the Algerian population. In 1957 Salan succeeded Lacoste and carried the colonial war to new levels of barbarity. Salan divided Algeria into wards. Each ward manned by a platoon of French troops. Trenches, road blocks and walls were installed to preclude movement between wards. Tanks, armored units and helicopters were used with impunity against defenseless civilians. Napalm was used to destroy villages. More than two million villagers were herded into concentration camps where they lived in the most abdominal conditions. This wholesale forced migration of population caused entire villages to be deserted, their orchards untended, fields laid desolate for lack of cultivation. Political prisoners were tortured to death and their deaths classified as suicides. A common punishment for political activists was to be dumped in the ocean from airplanes. Once, when a group of insurgents and civilians sought refuge in a cave, the French walled up the entrance to the cave and left the refugees die in the caves without food and water. Opinions vary, but it is estimated that over a million Algerians were killed by the French and vigilante colonial gangs during the Algerian War of Independence. This was roughly twelve percent of the population of France in 1954. Very few nations of the world had to endure this level of colonial savagery. The president of Algeria, (Abdelaziz Bouteflika), once called the wartime slaughter, a “genocide”.
By 1958, the French had effectively contained the Algerian insurgency and could genuinely claim that they had won the military conflict. However, the conflict in Algeria was not military; it was political. It was for the independence of a land, for the reclamation of its very soul. The French won the battle but lost the war. The widespread use of torture and the brutalities committed by the French armed forces, caused revulsion in France. Public opinion was divided. The divisions were most apparent in the National Assembly which was split into three camps-the socialists, the left wing Stalinists, and the right wing MRP. The right wing parties were adamant about keeping Algeria French and conceding as little as possible to the Muslim Algerians. The socialists favored some kind of accommodation which, while keeping Algeria French would bestow basic rights to the Algerians. The communists and the left wing parties favored a withdrawal. As the debate became intense, the army and the right wing colons became concerned that a weak government, divided between the CP, the SP and the MRP might withdraw from Algeria leaving its influential European population in the lurch.
Even as the National Assembly in Paris was divided over the war, unable to take decisive action, the power of the army in Algeria had grown. By 1958, the bulk of the French army was deployed in Algeria. It was backed by an air wing, airborne commandos, naval power and intelligence units. The balance of power in the Fourth Republic had shifted in favor of the army in Algeria which was suspicious that the politicians in Paris would sell out French interests in Algeria and precipitously withdraw as they had done from Indochina in 1954. In May 1958, the army units based in Algeria staged an insurrection. General Salan displaced the civil authority in Algier and declared himself the head of a Committee for Public Safety. On May 13, French paratroopers were dropped in the island of Corsica and took it over. An ultimatum was sent to the government in Paris to hand over powers to General De Gaulle, hero of World War II, who the army felt would keep Algeria French and safeguard the interests of the European settlers. On May 29, the National Assembly capitulated and ratified the transfer of power to De Gaulle. The Fourth Republic had come to an end, a victim of the Algerian War of Independence.
De Gaulle had deep misgivings about the French colonial venture in North Africa but he was politically suave enough to realize that extrication from the military quagmire had to come in slow, deliberate steps. He promulgated social and political reforms for the Algerian Muslims and constituted a committee to draft a new constitution for the Fifth Republic with strong powers vested in the Presidency. He called on the FLN to lay down their arms and engage in the political process. The FLN saw in the reforms an attempt to weaken the movement towards independence. It rejected the call to lay down arms declaring that the problem of Algeria was a political, not a military one. Its response was to set up a Provision Government with headquarters in Tunis which was quickly recognized by the Arab states and the Soviet Bloc. In spite of FLN opposition, when the reforms were put to a vote, a majority of Algerians cast their ballots in favor.
Support for Algerian independence was also growing within France. The communist party of France openly supported it. Europe was moving away from the age of overt colonialism. New alliances were emerging that would shape the destinies of the nations of the world and De Gaulle desired France to be a key player in these alliances. Intellectuals, abhorred at news of torture inflicted by the army, argued for an exit strategy. It was time for change.
De Gaulle was the man of the hour. A man of extraordinary eloquence, Del Gaulle had a grand vision of France as part of a united Europe that would play a central role in world affairs. Algeria was a distraction from the pursuit of this grand vision that France had to shake off. He backed the movement towards a united Europe that was sweeping the continent in the post World War II climate. The center piece of this unity was a political and economic relationship between Germany and France. De Gaulle backed the Treaty of Rome in March 1957 that created the European Economic Community, or the Common Market. The signatories included, in addition to France and West Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Italy.
The right wing elements in the army as well as the colons felt let down by De Gaulle’s moves to grant greater autonomy to the Algerians. They were alarmed that he was beginning to talk about self determination for the people of Algeria. Resentment boiled over in early 1960. On January 24, student leader Pierre Lagellairde organized an insurrection in Algiers. Some of the military units, led by Colonel Jean Garde joined in. The rebels seized government buildings and erected barricades all over the city. The bulk of the army stood by and did not intervene. General Challe, who commanded the Algerian armies, did not commit his troops.
De Gaulle went on the air and made a passionate appeal to the army to back his moves for an end to the Algerian war and support self determination for the Algerian people. The bulk of the army heeded his call and remained loyal. The leaders of the insurrection surrendered on February 1, 1960 and Lagellairde was moved to Paris where he was imprisoned. While on parole, he escaped to Spain where he joined hands with a renegade general Raoul Salan and the two together founded a terrorist organization, Organisation Armee Secrete (Secret Army Organization commonly known as the OAS) with the objective of sabotaging any moves towards Algerian independence.
A second attempt was made by some army generals in 1961 to topple the government but failed. Discredited, the army stayed out of politics for the remainder of the Algerian war. Undeterred, De Gaulle negotiated a ceasefire with the FLN in March 1962 at Evian. The terms of the Evian accords guaranteed the safety as well as the social, political and property rights of the colons who were given the right to stay in Algeria as Algerian citizens or be repatriated to France. De Gaulle placed the question of Algeria’s independence before the French electorate. A referendum was called for July 1, 1962.
The OAS, opposed as it was to Algerian independence, let loose a reign of terror bombing schools, hospitals, mosques, cafes and torturing innocent men, women and children. This was one of the deadliest periods in the history of the war. Thousands died. The political objective was to draw the FLN into a tit for tat war of attribution thereby sabotaging any hope of compromise between the government and the FLN. They were, however, not successful in their diabolical plot, and the referendum took place on July 1, 1962.
Over 91 percent of the French voters who took part in the referendum voted for independence. De Gaulle declared Algeria independent on July 3. The FLN declared July 5 to be their independence day to coincide with the day the French had landed in Algiers in 1840. The long night of horrors was over for the Algerians. The sun rose in its splendor on the morning of July 5, 1962 in the desert sands of Algeria bringing with it the glad tidings of freedom, joy and hope.
The FLN negotiated a truce with the OAS but pent up feelings of hatred were so high that on July 5, Algerian mobs seeking retribution for past crimes, killed a number of Europeans. With no guarantees of security, the settler population moved en masse to the continent. More than 1.2 million Europeans as well as Algerians who had fought for the French against the FLN left North African shores and became refugees in France. A large number of Muslim refugees settled in the shanty towns surrounding Paris. Over the decades, their population has grown, augmented by fresh immigration from North Africa and their presence continues to strain the cultural and social fabric of France to this day.
The ravages of war continue to haunt the national psyche of both the perpetrators and the recipients of torture. The French look at the Algerian presence through colored glasses of Eurocentric prejudice. There is a measure of denial on the part of the French for what they did to the Algerians. Most French school children do not even know about the Algerian war. Many documents relating to the war are still classified and not accessible to historians so that a complete picture of the horrors must await another half a century when memories fade, those associated with the war have passed away and future generations may dispassionately look at the events of this monumental tragedy. On the Algerian side, the success of the FLN cemented a one party political structure making it more difficult for a multi-party democratic set up to take hold. This was evident during the municipal elections of 1991 when the prospect of victory by the Islamist parties brought on a massive military intervention. Civil war ensured and consumed tens of thousands of innocent people. The Algerian army, backed by western powers, has shown just as much fear of Islam as had the French in the heyday of colonial rule. There has been a measure of stability in recent years, with amnesty for all sides, while the phenomenal rise in energy prices has enabled the Algerian economy to get back on its feet and embark on the path of economic reconstruction.