A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 18: Algeria #3


We ended the last post with the government’s cancellations of elections (which the Islamists were certain to win with an overwhelming majority) in January 1992. This put an end to the hopes of the FIS that they might attain power by peaceful means, and effectively turned a huge number of its supporters into armed insurgents against the state. Those shadowy elements in the military who had engineered these developments claimed that they were cancelling democracy temporarily in order to ‘protect’ it from those who would cancel it for good if they came to power. So who were these people, who I have been euphemistically referring to as ‘the state’ and le pouvoir up till now? The most important thing to note about this elite is they had no over-riding ideology besides keeping power, enriching themselves and clearing the path for their kids to do the same.

They were the kind of grafters who do well under any regime. When the rhetoric of socialism had suited their purposes, they had espoused socialism; now they espoused neoliberalism. I have always  suspected that many of the people who thrived under ‘communism’ in places like the Soviet Union and East Germany were probably the same people who did alright when these countries adopted capitalism. Algeria was (and is) run by such people. Bendjedid had been useful as a figurehead because those shady generals didn’t enjoy being in the spotlight. Because of this, it’s fun to shine such a spotlight on them, so before we get into the descent into chaos, lets identify some of the key figures in the military establishment who are going to do whatever (and I mean whatever) it takes to cling on to power.

Top left to right: Mohamed Lamari, Abdelmalek Guenaïzia, Liamine Zéroual, Khaled Nezzar. Bottom left to right: Mohamed Mediène, Larbi Belkheir and Benabbès Gheziel.

Space doesn’t permit a detailed biography of each of these characters. It should be noted, however, that these dudes who really ran the country, the overseers of the ‘deep state’ if you like, were mostly French-trained officers alluded to in the previous post, who had joined the Algerian independence struggle pretty late on when the war was already won. They had been around a long time and Mediène would be around a lot longer. Also known as ‘Toufik’, he was often regarded as the most powerful figure for his power to make or break political opponents at will, as head of the secret services, the DRS (Département du renseignement et de la sécurité), from 1990 to 2015, that is twenty-five years: a long time to wield such terrifying power. Mediène, Nezzar (the minister of defense) and Belkhier, the interior minister, were the leading hardliners, along with Lamari, and they suspected Bendjedid for allowing the Islamist threat to grow out of control on purpose, in order to increase his power at their expense.

If there was a less hardline member of this group it was Zéroual, who was rumoured to have favoured negotiations with the Islamists. Within the regime, the following years would see a factional struggle between these two camps. Although Zéroual would become president (1994-99) and seem to have the upper hand for some years, you could argue that in the end it was the hardliners who won out, as they kept their positions of power later on when Bouteflicka became president. Before all that, though, in the Spring of 1992, this military junta established a body called the High Council of State as a front for their rule. The chairman of this institution would be the new head of the state of the country. Of course, none of them wanted the job and they sought a useful figurehead to take the spotlight off them. Various names were bandied around, and of all the people to be chosen, it was Mohamed Boudiaf, one of the founders of the FLN who had been in Moroccan exile for almost three decades. Regarded as a neutral figure, untainted by the corruption staining all other major political figures in Algerian politics, and without a network of supporters in the country (he had not even been politically active in exile, running a brick-making business instead) the generals and securocrats believed Boudiaf would be a malleable pawn who might lend legitimacy to their coup d’état. He was welcomed back to Algeria as the returning saviour on 16 January and met at the airport by his new ‘friends’.


Within six months, he would be dead.

To everyone’s surprise, Boudiaf turned out to be way more energetic and proactive than they’d expected, and (from the point of view of those who appointed him) not in a good way. Although he was clearly against the establishment of a theocratic state (why would they have appointed him otherwise?) Boudiaf quickly went off-script on his return. Instead of painting the situation in the simplistic terms of fanatical Islamists vs civilised secularists that le pouvoir wished to portray it, the old man offered a much more nuanced and honest assessment of the country’s problems to the Algerian public, arguing that the Islamists had only been able to get this close to power because of widespread disaffection with the regime and its corruption. It was this root cause that he intended to tackle. Although largely forgotten by the public (having been airbrushed out of official histories of the war), he was widely commended for these sentiments, and energetically went about a campaign of confronting corruption at the highest level of society.

While this campaign won over the public and engendered a brief feeling that things might, after all, be alright, it also won him enemies in high places. The very elite that had placed Boudiaf in power realised that instead of a puppet with which to combat the Islamists, they had someone threatening to expose and punish their own venality. No-one, it appeared, was safe. There were rumours that he was preparing to remove Lamari and Mediène by presidential decree. What all of this context suggests is that there are real questions to be asked about the assassination of Boudiaf on 29 June 1992, at a cultural centre in the eastern city of Annaba. It has never been proved conclusively that the army was involved in the killing, but the official version—that it was carried out by a lone Islamist, Lambarek Boumaarafi, a lieutenant in the GIS (Algeria’s version of the SAS)—raises its own questions and sounds so implausible that one of the many conspiracy theories seem a more likely explanation. These problems with the official account are neatly summarised by Evans and Phillips:

Why, given the train of events in Algeria, was the protection afforded Boudiaf on that day so lax and uncoordinated? At least three security agents left their posts beside Boudiaf just before the attack happened, and differing branches of the security services were operating on the scene apparently oblivious of each other’s presence. Commander Hadjeres and Captain Sadek, charged with Boudiaf ’s close protection, subsequently claimed to be ignorant of the presence of a unit of the specialist Groupe d’Intervention Spéciale (GIS) standing just behind Boudiaf. But it was as a member of this GIS detachment, included at the very last minute, that Boumaarafi was given such close proximity to Boudiaf. Moreover, when the shooting began, Hadjeres and his two adjutants Captains Zaidi and Sadek were conveniently outside the hall, while none of the GIS agents reacted to the gunshots. In fact one of them, Driham Ali, went so far as to shoot and wound Hamadi Nacer, the only police officer who pursued Boumaarafi.

There was, furthermore, no autopsy on Boudiaf’s body and the weapon used to kill him was conveniently lost. Perhaps most damning, several years later a dissident group of high-ranking officers based in Madrid affirmed that he had been the victim of a plot by the army and security services and explaining the subsequent killings of several figures who had tried to expose the crime. As of yet (2018) conclusive evidence is lacking, but all that can be said is that almost no-one believes Boudiaf was killed by an Islamist acting on his own. Perhaps most importantly of all, no-one believed it at the time either.



So hope drained away, and the momentum towards civil war seemed unstoppable. Neither the army nor the Islamists seemed particularly keen on avoiding one, but of course a significant proportion of the Algerian population supported neither side. Even among the combined 70% who voted for the FIS or FLN, there were no doubt large numbers who didn’t support a war, certainly not the kind of war that it was destined to become. The way the situation was deteriorating, it is hard, even now, to see  what could have been done to avoid it at this stage. Fatwas and hit lists were being circulated in the mosques; by the start of 1993, there were over 20,000 armed Islamists active, mostly, for the moment, in mountain hideouts. Belhadj smuggled a letter (he and Madani had been sentenced to twenty years’ in prison) lending his support to the armed groups, especially the Armed Islamic Movement (MIA) led by Abdelkader Chebouti, but in no sense were these groups under the control of the FIS. Many of the recruits for these armed groups came from disenchanted young men from the cities, and influential (although not hugely numerous) leadership was provided by veterans of the war in Afghanistan.

The killing started, on both sides, even before the cancellation of elections. The army and police were already killing unarmed protesters, and the MIS launched a major attack on a police station in November 1991 from which they obtained a large amount of weapons and ammunition. From the very beginning, however, the jihadists were weakened by internal divisions and rivalries, which sometimes descended into violent confrontation with one another. They were also infiltrated by the security services, which sowed further mistrust between the different groups and made co-operation all but impossible. The army had several successes throughout 1992, largely due to information obtained from spies within the Islamists movement. The government made no attempt at negotiations making clear they had committed themselves to all-out war. If this had merely involved seeking out and attacking the Islamists in their mountain strongholds, the consequences of the war might have been contained, but it didn’t. What was already a rather authoritarian state became even more repressive: suspected sympathisers with the Islamists were put under surveillance, phones were tapped, people disappeared and tortured. If all this seems reminiscent of the methods practices by the French in the final years of the war of independence thirty years earlier, the probably wasn’t lost on many older Algerians either.

As we have seen so many times before in this blog, however, the very effectiveness of the government’s repression, instead of cowing the Islamists into submission, alienated significant parts of the population into sympathising with the latter’s cause. As we saw in the efforts of the French to hold on to their Algerian colony, a tactical victory does not automatically translate into a strategic one. There was also a growing belief, which posterity has rendered more and more credible, that the state was allowing some of the more horrific acts of violence to occur, or even colluding in them, in order to terrify the population into supporting it and turning against the Islamists. A bomb at Algiers airport in August killed 10 people and wounded 128 others, which it subsequently emerged the security services had known about and made no attempt to evacuate the airport. Worse was to come in this respect, and it came most notoriously in the form of the GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé, the armed Islamic group), which was hardly a group at all, but a collective term for number of different groups that emerged throughout 1993, acting more or less independently, who were under the leadership of figures who viewed the MIA as insufficiently Islamic and insufficiently militant.

The evolution of this group was accompanied by a clandestine return to the cities by many militants. The rural guerilla campaign wasn’t working and it was clear that the army believed it could maintain the violence at an acceptable level if they could restrict it to the mountains. The jihadists focused on creating insecurity and making the country ungovernable by striking in the cities and towns. Although it would not ultimately win them the war, they succeeded in this way in escalating it far beyond the capacity their numbers and resources would suggest they were capable of. They seemed capable of striking at will and carried out numerous attacks on the army and police, killing over forty people at an army barracks in March 1993 in one particularly successful attack. As terrifying as the randomness of such attacks was the methods of killing. Decapitation, throat-slitting, torture, leaving bodies out in the street to rot as a warning to others-such things became commonplace.

Suddenly on the back-foot, the authorities imposed draconian curfews and restrictions on the civil rights of everyone, guilty and innocent, and parts of the country (even parts of Algiers) slipped entirely out of their control, with militants roaming freely and enforcing their strict Islamic moral code on the inhabitants. Desperation on the government’s side manifested itself in a widespread belief within the corridors of power that only a terrorism of equal savagery could win back the momentum, and suspicion towards anyone who didn’t adopt this mindset. A special counter-insurgency force was created that sped around in Landrovers, acting outside the law, men who were accountable to no-one and for whom human rights abuses were a routine part of their work. To conceal their identity, they usually work masks and hoods, for which reason they became known as ‘ninjas’.


As often happens in these situations, it became increasingly impossible to stay neutral. Non-commitment to one side was regarded as active assistance to the other. A grim joke from 1994 says it all:

A man is stopped by a roadblock. The hooded men ask him if he supports the government or the GIA. He replies ‘the government’ so they cut his right ear off. Shortly after, he is stopped by another roadblock of hooded men. They ask him the same question. When he replies ‘the GIA’ they cut his left ear off. The following day he goes to the doctor, who asks him which part of his face he wants sewn up first. ‘My mouth, so I cannot speak,’ he replies.

Besides army and police personnel, the GIA began to target intellectuals and public figures they considered hostile to their cause. To give just two high-profile examples (there were many others), the internationally-acclaimed novelist Tahar Djaout was killed in May 1993 for his criticism of the Islamists and advocacy of secularism. In September 1994 of the following year, the raï singer Cheb Hasni was killed outside his home for singing about drinking alcohol and premarital sex.

Tahar Djaout and Cheb Hasni

It became clear as 1994 wore on that the populace as a whole was becoming alienated by the GIA’s excesses. After all, even if you are not keen on being ruled by a brutal police-state, you are still not going to turn to a bunch of people who slit people’s throats and cut their tongues out for political solutions. Seeing this, the more ‘moderate’ elements of the Islamist movement who still hoped for a place at the political table (the GIA had no interest in negotiations; their avowed aim was to eliminate all ‘enemies’ of Islam) formed the AIS (Islamic Salvation Army) in July 1994 in response to the perceived rabid-dog image of the GIA. This group would take up arms against both the government and the GIA and was under the control of (what remained of) the FIS to some extent. Although they provided a serious challenge to the GIA in the east and west, the latter held strong control over the region south of Algiers, an area that would become known as the ‘triangle of death’ for reasons that will become clear.

AIS member writing a hitlist, somewhere in the mountains outside Algiers, 1994. Still from the BBC documentary ‘Algeria’s Hidden War’ from 1994.

The violence of both sides became increasingly nihilistic and it is simply too depressing to recount every single horror story in detail. Assassinating pop stars was one thing. The GIA next expanded the list of targets to all foreigners and non-Muslims in the country, then to members of rival Islamist groups, then to anyone who refused to conform to strict Islamic practice. With each new leader of the GIA, the net of enemies of Islam widened until it encompassed almost everyone in Algerian society except the GIA. Abdelhak Layada, a car mechanic from Algiers, oversaw the escalation of violence and the complete separation of the GIA from other Islamist groups, declaring any participation in the political process to be treason and that only victory by force of arms was legitimate. He was captured in Morocco in July 1993 and imprisoned, which probably saved his life; unlike most of the GIA’s leaders he is still alive, having been released in 2006.

Layada, Zitouni and Zouabri, three of the GIA’s leaders.

Layada’s successor, Mourad Si Ahmed (aka Djafar al-Afghani, because he had fought in Afghanistan) was killed the following year and replaced by Cherif Gousmi, who declared the GIA as ruling over a Caliphate with himself as ruler. He was killed in September 1994 and replaced by Djamel Zitouni, who escalated the conflict to targets outside the country (primarily France) which of course played into the government’s hands by re-enforcing a narrative of them fighting a barbaric enemy of ‘civilisation’ in general. Zitouni, a poultry farmer with little education, also stepped up the war against other Islamist groups such as the FIS and its armed affiliates. Indeed, it is around here that the actions of the GIA become truly strange and difficult to understand from a strategic or tactical point of view, nor are the official explanations satisfactory.

Much of what the GIA began to do now—its killing of Islamist rivals, its attacks abroad, the increasingly gruesome murders of innocent civilians—all of it seemed ideally designed to discredit the Islamist movement as a whole. It was common knowledge that the security services had been very successful in infiltrating the GIA, which was relatively easy as they recruited their soldiers from the disenfranchised, anonymous young men of the slums. It was this infiltration that made it easy for the authorities to kill a succession of its leaders. But rumours began to circulate that this involvement went further than mere intelligence gathering, that the security forces were actually directing the GIA’s activity in ever-more extreme directions in order to turn the people against them in revulsion and present the government (warts and all) as the only bastion against the unspeakable barbarity of the GIA and their fellow travelers. There were even suggestions that Zitouni and, when he was killed in July 1996, his successor Antar Zouabri, were somehow controlled by the ‘deep state’. Rarely has the fog of war been so impenetrable as in Algeria in the 1990s.

Before we go into this, a word must be said about ‘conspiracy theories’. Anyone who reads this blog will know that I try to avoid indulging in them. The term has invariably-negative connotations, implying the theory in question, by definition, lacks credibility. But sometimes, theories have to be formulated in the absence of conclusive evidence one way or another, which is often the case, and a distinction has to be made between good and bad conspiracy theories. In the case of Boudiaf’s assassination, for example, the ‘official’ version is sometimes simply so implausible that other explanations must be sought. This does not make them conspiracy theories in the inevitably-negative sense of the word, if a great deal of evidence points towards their veracity, even if it falls short of proving ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. Just as we should be wary of indulging in exciting theories about the moon landing being filmed on earth, or holographic planes simulating an attack on the Twin Towers, we should equally be wary of dismissing out of hand evidence-based explanations for events which are otherwise poorly explained. The term ‘conspiracy theory’ is–as often as it is rightly used–used to shut down legitimate discussion.

The activities of the GIA in Algeria in the 1990s are a case-study in this. There are less-conspiratorial explanations, that the GIA was simply a victim of its own twisted logic and came to define the enemies of Islam so broadly as to encompass practically everyone in Algerian society (even members of less-ardent Islamist groups) except themselves. There are also psychological explanations to the otherwise inexplicable brutality and sadism of the killing. Evans and Phillips argue convincingly that it had a cathartic element: the dispossessed and hitherto helpless showing the government that they would not be repressed any longer and that they could do what they liked now, exacting personal revenge on police officers and authority figures who for years had abused them. All of this may, at a stretch, be true. There are strong indications, however, and they become stronger as the years pass, that there was something more going on here.

In the killing of the author Djaout noted above, for example, those alleged to have killed the writer were conveniently killed by the police before a proper trial could be conducted. Then, when a truth commission was formed by concerned public figures, its two leading members, a journalist and a psychiatrist, both prominent campaigners for human rights and critics of the government, were both murdered with no apparent motive in broad daylight. This led some to suspect that, if not actively complicit in such killings, the security services were allowing them to happen in order to rid the regime of prominent critics. But it gets worse, far worse, under Zouabri’s leadership. An obscure figure, Zouabri rose up through the ranks under Zitouni, but few seem to remember him before his involvement with the GIA. He issued fatwas basically condemning to a gruesome death everyone who didn’t join the GIA and presided over the nadir of the conflict, a series of massacres in late 1997 and early 1998 in the ‘triangle of death’, the most notorious (although there were too many to list) of which were at Rais (200-800 casualties), Beni-Messous (87+) and Bentalha (200-400).


These massacres were committed, in most cases, against civilians who had been supportive of the Islamist cause. They were without the slightest shadow of tactical purpose and carried out with the most sadistic brutality, killing for its own sake. At Bentalha, several hundreds had their throats slit, at Rais, numerous babies were decapitated, pregnant women were sliced open.

Oum Saad, whose eight children were all killed in the massacre at Bentalha on the night of September 22–23, 1997. Credit: Hocine of Agence France

The above picture, of Oum Saad whose eight children were all killed at Bentalha, is one of the most famous images of what really cannot be dignified by the name of war. But it says everything about the fog of uncertainty now enveloping events in Algeria that the picture and its context were almost-immediately contested. The government argued it was a distortion and that the woman was mourning her brother’s death, and Oum Saad apparently tried to sue the Agence France-Presse on the grounds that it misrepresented her story. It then emerged, however, that she had come under pressure to do so. What was true? Hard to say. What has become increasingly clear as the years have passed is that serious questions remain unanswered.

At Bentalha, for example, there were thousands of soldiers stationed in the area, some only hundreds of meters from the village. The GIA were able to attack with no interference from these, seal it off any carry out their murders for several hours uninterrupted. Witnesses recalled soldiers looking on and refusing to intervene. Some claim that the attackers themselves wore false beards and spoke of being in cahoots with the military. The most famous testimony was that of a survivor, Nesroullah Yous, who escaped to France and published a book Qui a tué à Bentalha? (Who Killed at Bentalha?) which provided a great deal of circumstantial evidence of government collusion with the killers. This theory was backed up by much of the foreign media present in the country, when it was allowed to operate (under close surveillance), and Amnesty International.

The journalist John Sweeney interviewed members of the security services who, on condition of anonymity, revealed the government’s role in the massacres. If all of this was a ploy to discredit the Islamists and win support from the international community, it has to be said that it worked. Horrified by the GIA’s actions, some Islamists split off and founded new groups, the most powerful of which was the ‘Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat’ (GSPC : Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat) under the leadership of Hassan Hattab, which will later eclipse the GIA as the main insurgent faction and morph into al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. But this is getting complicated enough as it is, so we won’t mention them again for now.

But there was more than one strategy on the government’s side. As noted above, a faction within the leadership led by Liamine Zéroual favoured some kind of dialogue with the more moderate Islamists. They vied with a group known as the Les éradicateurs, led by Lamari and Nezzar, who sought the complete defeat and eradication (hence the name) of the latter: no negotiations, no compromise, simply wipe them out. Zéroual, an army officer who had been in early retirement when the events of 1988 sullied the reputation of many army figures, was the closest le pouvoir had to a popular figure, and in 1994-5 he seemed to have the upper hand against his éradicateur rivals. He was therefore put forward as their candidate when they sought to have some kind of legitimacy bestowed on their regime by holding elections in November 1995.

Such legitimacy became more urgent because a series of negotiations to find a way out of the conflict were held in 1994-5 through the mediation of the Sant’Egidio community in Rome. These had drawn the participation of several significant factions in Algerian politics, including Ben Bella and Aït Ahmed and the FIS, but rejected by the government, who viewed it as outside interference, and of course by the GIA. The parties involved agreed on a common platform for progress, by which human rights would be respected and the FIS would accept political pluralism, but the Algerian regime’s hostility, as well as a lack of enthusiasm on the part of western government’s to support the initiative, meant that it was a dead letter, and the killing went on.

Ben Bella at Rome in January 1995

The elections of November 1995 were nevertheless seen as a step in the right direction, even if there was no serious opposition to Zéroual and little doubt about the result from the start. The GIA threatened to kill anyone who voted, promising ‘one vote, one bullet’. Under the circumstances, the official turnout of 74.9% (or more realistic unofficial estimates of around 50% for that matter) is quite impressive. Although there was a general feeling of goodwill and cautious optimism about the whole process, once again this proved to be something of a false dawn. The government’s attitude towards the Rome agreement said more about their capacity for compromise than all the fine rhetoric of a return to normality signaled by the election and, as we have already seen, the worst of the war was yet to come in 1997-8.


It was only after this horrific bloodletting that the war gradually began to wind down. Even if the government was ‘winning’ the war, such was the hardship it had involved for most ordinary people, this ‘victory’ was for many a profoundly pyrrhic one. Zéroual was visibly drained by his failures and the gradual clawing of his hardline rivals back into the ascendency and he announced his resignation in 1998, two years before his term was due to end.

A new president had to be found, and at this stage, pretty much everyone hated anyone who had been anywhere near power. This provided an opportunity for Abdelaziz Bouteflika to return centre stage. When we last saw him, he was failing to be appointed Boumédienne’s successor when the latter died in 1978. Under Bendjedid, he became a marginalised figure and fled the country to avoid corruption charges, only returning in 1989. As was so often the case in Algeria, absence was the best guarantee of popularity; he had also added his signature to a petition condemning the army’s violence in 1988, which didn’t hurt his image among the people. Gradually, as presidential elections approached in 1999, backdoor negotiations and machinations led to the once-sidelined Bouteflicka being adopted by the generals (despite some initial reservations) as their preferred candidate. Given that these were the same people that had started a civil war when the people didn’t vote the way they wanted, it was made abundantly clear to the Algerian electorate that this was more a matter of rubber stamping their appointment than a real election. Bouteflicka was given preferential treatment in the state-run media, and with early signs of fraud being organised, the other candidates withdrew in protest only 24 hours before the vote.

Screenshot from 2018-11-02 20:55:23.png
Bouteflicka, election broadcast, 1999

The coronation (sorry, election) went ahead with a turnout of around 20%, which is ironic when you think that this is lower than when people were threatened with death for voting a few years earlier. It was an inauspicious beginning for what was supposed to be a new era, but Bouteflicka was an experienced and canny operator. In the years ahead, he walked a tightrope between currying favour with the public by partly owning up for the state’s wrongdoings in the war, while never going far enough to really annoy his supporters in the military. The war did not end overnight of course. Just in case anyone was beginning to think Algeria’s troubles were behind them, the former FIS Leader Hachani was killed in broad daylight in 1999. Once again, claims that the GIA killed him were believed by some, and regarded with scepticism by others, who saw it as a convenient death for the security services, given Hachani’s status as a moderate Islamist with whom they might be forced to do business with.

This is a crucial feature to remember about the Algerian civil war: that the deep state was always far more comfortable fighting the most extreme fringes of radical Islam than sitting down and talking to its more moderate elements. By the time Zouabri was killed in 2002, the threat from the GIA had been suppressed to the extent that it could be described as a fringe group. As noted above, however, the GSPC grew in capabilities to the point that it would rebrand itself as part of the ‘al-Qaeda’ network after 9-11. Speaking of 9-11, the radicalisation of American foreign policy that took place after the attack on the Twin Towers was a key part of Algeria’s rehabilitation on the international stage. Once regarded as an embarrassing ally to be kept at arm’s length, in late 2001, the Algerian hardliners were suddenly able to portray themselves as having been right all along about militant Islam, and suddenly became a valued ally in the ‘war on terror’ and the simplified worldview it represented. After the mess of the last decade, it says everything that the US Deputy Secretary of State for North African Affairs, William Burns, saw Algeria as a success story, remarking in late 2002: ‘Washington has much to learn from Algeria on ways to fight terrorism’. Rising oil prices between 2002 and 2015 no doubt also assisted the state’s efforts to return to normality.

But the war was never wrapped up neatly, and it might still be asked what ‘normality’ really means in Algeria.

I suggested above that that the éradicateurs won over their dialoguiste rivals in that more of them kept their jobs into the Bouteflika era, but another way of looking at it is that the latter faction got their way in that many of the Islamists were not eradicated, and were instead reintegrated back into Algerian society. The reason for this is that Bouteflicka’s strategy for ending the war, with the AIS at least, involved passing a ‘Civil Concord Law’ which granted amnesty for atrocities committed during the war to all Islamist fighters who signed up to it. Seeing no way out of the morass of war at the time, most people approved the law in a referendum, although it has been suggested that critics of the settlement were cowed into accepting it without debate because the public debate was framed in terms of being ‘for’ or ‘against peace’. Either way, in the years since, the Civil Concord law has been more and more criticised by those who feel the need for peace was used to excuse all sorts of barbarities for which no-one was held accountable. But an appetite for dissent has understandably been lacking in a country exhausted by years of brutal conflict, and protests are rare and generally low key. Even when the rest of the Arab world was asserting itself during its ‘spring’ of 2011-12, things never really kicked off in Algeria, the police and military containing what protests did take place. There are, in this picture, almost as many riot police as protesters:


Ultimately, the legacy of the war is ambiguous and deeply unsatisfying, especially for people who lost loved ones and have had to endure seeing those responsible walk away scot-free. It’s a complicated issue, and one which I feel completely inadequate to express an opinion on, so I won’t.

The long-term plan for this blog is that we will eventually reach the more-or-less present in all these individual national stories, and no doubt we will return to Algeria to look at the present situation then. Spoiler alert though: Bouteflicka is (as of 2018) still president after almost twenty years, despite the fact that a president is supposed to be limited to two terms. He had the constitution changed in 2008 to allow him to run for a third, and the limit was extended again in 2014 to hand him a fourth. There is talk of him running again next year. All of this is as dodgy as it sounds, with Bouteflicka routinely winning elections with around 80% of the vote, despite evident widespread unpopularity and the fact that he is, at this stage, clearly in failing health and scarcely able to speak on the rare occasions he is wheeled out for public appearances.

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Charles Robert Ageron, Modern Algeria: A History from 1830 to the Present (London, 1991; first published in French 1964)

Martin Evans and John Phillips, Algeria : Anger of the Dispossessed (Yale University Press, 2007)

James McDougall, A history of Algeria (Cambridge University Press, 2017)

Featured image above: eyes of Antar Zouabri, GIA leader from 1996 to 2002.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 18: Algeria #3

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 17: Algeria #2


Ultimately, the idea here is to set the stage for the civil war of the 1990s and explain the long-term conditions which led to its eruption. The period between Algeria’s attainment of independence and the growing crisis of the late 1980s must be examined in order to explain why Algeria became such a powderkeg. When Algeria won independence in 1962, the world stopped paying attention. That other dirty secret of French colonialism, Vietnam, had by now taken over the headlines in any case, as the Americans went from cautious advocates of Third World liberation, to energetic opponents of it. But the end of French rule was far from the end of Algeria’s woes, although it may have seemed so at the time. The 1960s and 1970s were in many ways an optimistic period, in which the country took the lead as a standard-bearer of the rights of Third World nations to assert themselves, and give substance to their newly-won independence in the face of attempts by the old colonial powers to extend a kind of neocolonial economic domination over them. Countries like Algeria, therefore, drifted towards socialism and the Soviet sphere of influence while also playing a leading role in the Non-Aligned Movement of ‘Third World’ nations who sought to remain aloof from the Cold War rivalry of the two superpowers.

The socialist direction was evident from the first year of Algeria’s independence, as a struggle for leadership within the FLN resulted in the predominance of the more left-leaning revolutionary faction. This leftward direction emerged from meetings held in the Libyan capital, Tripoli in May, at which the FLN leadership criticised the Evian accords as making too many concessions to the colonial interest while not being sufficiently revolutionary in, for example, not securing the seizure of the settlers’ land, which the FLN regarded as stolen from the Algerian people. Agreement about these issues was far from uniform, however. While the movement for independence had maintained its unity while it had to concentrate on fighting the French, once this goal was achieved and the question of who would run the new state came up, cohesion quickly broke down and factions developed, vying for power and over competing visions of what kind of country Algeria would be. This was especially true after the release of the leaders arrested in 1956. This took place in July, at the same time independence became a reality, and everything was up for grabs in the turmoil of that summer.

In the previous post, we have already looked at the chaos surrounding the flight of the Pieds-Noirs and the massacre of some of them, any many Algerians who had collaborated with the French. Simultaneously with this was the struggle between Algerian factions in Algiers in July and August, to seize power. At Tripoli, while there was agreement on the broad strokes of a plan for Algeria’s future, the practicalities were another matter. One of the main points of contention was how and who the idealistic aspirations were to be put into execution by. The choice of the country’s first president was a particular bone of contention. The most popular figure among the people for this position was Ahmed Ben Bella (below), among those kidnapped in 1956 and just released by the French. Ben Bella was a bit like Algeria’s version of John F. Kennedy: charming, glamorous and popular, but less fabulous when you look beyond the surface gloss. Unlike many others in this story, he lived for ages, only dying in 2012 at the age of 95. He will reemerge in Algerian politics in the 1990s but he was not destined to remain around long after the winning of independence.

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Ahmed Ben Bella

Perhaps even more important than charisma at this stage, Ben Bella had the support of the head of the ‘frontier army’, Houari Boumediène, who remained outside the country until September. These troops, organised more like a regular professional army than the forces that had been fighting a guerrilla war inside Algeria, were to become a vital factor in the showdown for power in 1962. Boumediène (below) was the king-maker, and had chosen to back Ben Bella, having sent his henchman, Abdelaziz Bouteflika (of whom we will hear more later), to sound out the jailed leaders earlier in the year. The choice of Ben Bella as leader was opposed, however, by the head of the Provisional Government, Benyoucef Benkhedda (who had replaced Ferhat Abbas), theoretically in charge of the country when the French left. He walked out of the Tripoli meetings, and returned to Algiers. I say he was theoretically in charge because really, it was unclear who actually wielded power in the new capital. Different armed groups affiliated with different commanders fought it out in the streets while the politicians bickered. Some of these armed factions supported the part of the army led by Boumediène, others were jealous and fearful of the power they would wield when they entered the country.

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Houari Boumediène

Ben Bella and his allies claimed legitimacy for their ‘political bureau’ in Tlemcen in late July. Benkhedda declared this illegitimate and his GPRA the legal authority. Two of the formerly-jailed leaders, Mohamed Boudiaf and Hocine Aït Ahmed (below left and right), were also opposed to Ben Bella’s installation as leader, but did not have sufficient muscle to stop him. As internecine fighting threatened to devour the country, most people simply wanted an end to war and for someone to come and impose order. Boumediène’s frontier army, along with its allies already inside the country, obliged marching into Algiers and establishing order in September. Constituent elections were held for the first National Assembly that month, but all candidates came from a single list of FLN members, purged of many of Ben Bella and Boumediène’s enemies. Ben Bella was duly elected Prime Minister and, when the new constitution was adopted the following year, President. Opposition figures (to the extent that opposition was allowed) like Boudiaf and Aït Ahmed attempted to use the National Assembly as a forum for their opposition, but it quickly became clear it was just a toothless talking shop. Real decisions were made within the higher echelons of the FLN and even the constitution was not thrashed out in the assembly, but written elsewhere and presented to them for the rubber stamp.

Mohamed Boudiaf and Hocine Aït Ahmed

Boudiaf formed an underground party to resist the regime but was arrested, and then escaped to Morocco after being released. He would spend the next twenty-nine years abroad, in obscure exile, taking no part in Algerian politics even from afar, but he will dramatically re-enter the story again in the early 1990s. The Berber Aït Ahmed likewise formed his own party, the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), and led a brief revolt in the Kabylie region in October. It was put down with brutal violence by the national army, and Ahmed would be arrested, receiving a commuted death sentence in 1965. He escaped the following year, however, and spent the next twenty-four years of his life in Switzerland. He too would return to Algeria during the crisis of the late 1980s, but ultimately thought better of it and returned to Switzerland, where he died in 2015, aged eighty-nine.

What these, and other figures (really the situation was more complex than I am presenting it here, and Boudiaf and Aït Ahmed are just representative examples) objected to was, among other things, the lack of pluralism in this new Algeria that Ben Bella and Boumediène were cooking up. Having said that, many of them would likely have done likewise, and it should not be imagined that the establishment of a one-party state was simply the result of a fiendish plot by the triumphant faction to keep its hands on power. There was a deep-rooted mistrust of multi-party politics within the FLN and the nationalist movement in general. Under the French system, when some limited participation had been allowed for a brief period in the 1940s and 1950s, separatists had found themselves frustrated and demoralised by their efforts to get anywhere within the rigged electoral system, which seemed to dissipate their energies and encourage factional infighting. The FLN had swept all this away when they emerged in 1956, demanding that all other separatist groups disband and join their struggle, or risk being branded traitors to the cause. While to us this seems extreme and intolerant, at the time it was widely viewed as providing a refreshing focus and single-mindedness to the campaign.

As James McDougall has written in his History of Algeria:

By 1956, many would see ‘politics’ itself in this vein — electoralist, legal, parliamentary, plural — as thoroughly discredited, ineffective at best, the deliberately time-wasting and obstructionist business of ‘traitors’ at worst. The FLN, in an important respect, would in this sense be an anti-political movement of militarised direct action. In the longer term, the consequences of this would be dramatic.

Indeed they would.

The habit of solving problems by direct action, often violent, would also leave a lasting legacy. As the post-independence summer was marred by the deaths of thousands in internecine fighting within the FLN itself, Ferhat Abbas wrote despairingly:

If armed militants today turn their guns on other militants, we may as well say that tomorrow they will turn them on the people and on their freedom. And in that case, what nation and what homeland shall we have, if those with arms can impose their will on the people?

Nor should we overestimate the yearning for democracy in the form of regular elections among the people as a whole. The FLN possessed huge popular legitimacy as a result of its leading role in winning the war, Ben Bella was himself tremendously popular, and most people were more concerned with putting bread on the table. If someone had to be made dictator for life to guarantee these basics, there doesn’t appear to have been a huge amount of opposition to it. This was particularly urgent because the country was in ruins at independence. While Ben Bella had great plans to emulate Tito’s Yugoslavia or Castro’s Cuba, there was a severe shortage of technical skills given that these had been heavily dominated by the French settlers, most of whom had now left. There were reportedly only two architects in the country and less than a hundred doctors. This state of ruin was the legacy of French rule, it should be noted, and those that blame the ruined state of the country on the war (and thus on the Algerians for rising up) miss the point spectacularly.

Ben Bella does appear to have sincerely tried to tackle these problems. Far from projecting a distant, authoritarian image, he was a hands-on leader, traveling the country and meeting the people to assess their needs and problems. Realising the scale of the effort facing him, he devised grand plans and brandished lofty rhetoric about Third World liberation and Algeria’s natural resources saving the country. A huge bureaucracy would be necessary to manage this project, and he intended to exert direct control over as many of its aspects as possible. Ben Bella began to concentrate more and more power in his own hands, and he made the mistake of getting cocky and forgetting who had put him in power in the first place. During 1963-65, he took over the ministries of information and finance, folding these departments into his own office, and even brought the important post of Secretary General of the FLN into his own hands. There was talk of him taking over foreign affairs, depriving Boumediène’s pal, Abdelaziz Bouteflika (below right, next to Boumediène at the United Nations), of the post to which he had been appointed in 1963. In the event, Bouteflika, would remain in the post until 1978. Why? Because they got rid of Ben Bella.

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In centralising power around him, Ben Bella made little effort to conciliate or try to bring back on board those rivals in the FLN he had pushed aside in his ascent to power. His biggest mistake was that he failed to keep the army under Boumediène sweet, and even gave them cause to fear he was planning to challenge their power when he declared the army’s subordination to the FLN in the Algiers Charter of 1964, then spoke of creating popular militias as a counterweight to their power. His popularity among the people may, have conversely, told against him in the corridors of power, and there were mutterings of him cultivating a ‘cult of personality’. Acting before it was too late, Boumediène had his soldiers arrest Ben Bella on the 19 June 1965, and put the country under the control of a Revolutionary Council, of which he was chairman. Ben Bella was put in jail for several months, but later allowed to live under house arrest. He would eventually be released and flee, like Aït Ahmed before him, to Switzerland. The parliament and constitution (which had not enjoyed the substance of power in any case) were suspended and, once again, there appears to have been little appetite for resistance among the people as a whole, despite Ben Bella’s popularity. There was an attempt by left-wing factions within the FLN to organise political opposition against the coup in the hope that the people would rally to their cause, but this didn’t amount to very much.

Boumediène’s style was very different to Ben Bella’s. He kept a low profile in the early years of his rule (he wasn’t officially president until 1976) and you get the impression from reading his biography that he fell into the position almost by accident, that he didn’t really see himself as destined for political power, and was by nature reluctant to step into the spotlight. In many pictures of him meeting other world leaders, he has a bemused ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ look on his face.


At the end of the 1960s, his regime consolidated its power by either eliminating the opposition or placating and assimilating it. He also faced opposition from some within the army jealous of his and his cliques’ power, but easily crushed a coup-attempt. Relations with the Soviet Union grew stronger and the economic programme more explicitly socialist. There was an optimism which Boumediène managed to keep going from the Ben Bella era, of a brighter future for formerly-colonised nations who were now taking control over their own destiny (and natural resources). Algeria was seen as a leader of this movement and Boumediène explicitly reorientated his country away from Europe and the colonialism of the past and towards Africa and (what they hoped was) the potential of the future. This hope was never more clearly manifested than in Algiers’ hosting of the Pan African Cultural Festival of 1969, a huge event in which thousands of artists from all over Africa descended on the city and filled it with music, dancing and colour for a week. There is some cool footage here:

All of this was helped in the 1970s by a huge rise in oil prices (Algeria nationalised their oil in 1971), which gave the appearance of success to the Algerian economy. Boumediène’s regime must be given credit for not hoarding all this for themselves in Swiss bank accounts (unlike many other newly-independent countries rich in resources) but instead invested heavily in education, healthcare and social projects….as well as the army and secret police. Basic foodstuffs and goods were subsidised and available at affordable prices. In the modern west, where economic success tends to be measured in how often people can buy a new iphone or how many millionaires live in a country, there is a tendency to scoff at such achievements. This is deeply stupid. These were tremendous achievements in a country where people had been allowed to literally starve to death under French rule a generation earlier.

There is also often a tendency to play down the efficacy of such conditions in shoring up the legitimacy of even an authoritarian regime. Boumediène did not try and make the Algerian people like him. He sought their co-operation through actions and results, and if he couldn’t get it that way, he resorted to violence. Although many people would look back fondly on the Boumediène years as relatively prosperous and peaceful compared to what followed, there were warning signs even then for those who were prepared to look for them. The state violence and crushing of dissent was one, of course, but even economically, the flaws were in retrospect obvious; the economy suffered from the same shortage of consumer goods that would stymie most Eastern-Bloc countries in their final decade, not to mention the fact that much of its success was due to inflated oil prices, a phenomenon which wasn’t going to last forever. The ‘oil glut’ of the 1980s saw the price of a barrel of oil fall between 1980 and 1986 from $35 to under $10, over half of this decline occurring in 1986 alone.

By this stage, Algeria was deep in crisis and Boumediène was long gone, having died of a rare blood disease in 1978, after being in a coma for over a month. Algeria’s problems were much deeper than a crisis of leadership, but the unpreparedness and farcical way in which he was eventually replaced didn’t help. The main candidates to succeed as president were Bouteflicka (generally seen as favourite and a pro-western liberal) and the left-wing candidate, Mohammad Salah Yahiaoui, whose support came from the trade unions and youth movements. Decisions were made, largely by the army and security services, behind closed doors and from their point of view, both men represented a threat in that they had their respective power bases beyond the army. What they ideally wanted was a fairly weak character they could manipulate, a front to facilitate the exploitation of the fruits of power which already existed but would go into overdrive in the following decade. They decided to appoint the virtually-unknown Chadli Bendjedid (below), an army colonel and commander of the Oran region, who would become a figurehead for all the venality and negligence of Algeria in the 1980s.

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Although certainly not an inspirational figure or very competent president, in some ways it is unfair to place too much emphasis on Bendjedid’s role in the mess that was unfolding. This is largely because it lets so many others off the hook: corrupt army officers and business associates, those paying bribes and those receiving them, denying the Algerian people the basic securities they had once been able to rely on, just as the price of oil was crashing and undermining the fragile foundations of the economy, just as the population-boom of twenty years earlier was throwing millions of young people onto a labour market that had no jobs for them, just as an impoverished rural population was flooding into the shantytowns surrounding the big cities that hadn’t the infrastructure to house them or even provide for their basic needs. Algeria was a society in freefall, and everyone knew it. A small elite attached to the army and the FLN were the only ones doing well and increasingly (it was the 1980s after all) flaunted their wealth and luxury, while growing more detached from the general population, living in gated communities and sending their kids to French-language schools and universities.

The cabal of army generals who were the real power behind the government were largely trained in the French army and in many cases had only joined the independence struggle in the final period, after it was already won. All of these facts confirmed a general impression held by the population that saw the the corrupt oligarchy that now ran Algeria, popularly known as le pouvoir (‘those in power’) as somehow affiliated with, or supporting the interests of, the old French colonial power. Another disparaging name for this elite has been the hizb fransa or ‘party of France’, and there was a growing feeling in the years before October 1988 that the FLN that now ran the country was not the same FLN that had won the war, but had been transformed into the very oppressive clique the Algerian people had sought to get rid of when they scared off the Pieds-Noirs. Bendjedid was a perfect figurehead for the pouvoir: widely perceived as a gangster who had used his position to enrich him and his family (his son was a particular object of scorn), an extra dimension was added to the public’s disdain by the widespread perception that he was also weak and somewhat unintelligent. Playing on a trope deep within Algerian society, of the weak henpecked husband who can’t even ‘rule’ his own house, never mind a country, he was portrayed as being the puppet of a domineering wife, Halima, who was believed to be the real brains behind the operation.

Whatever the truth of these allegations (Bendjedid does not appear to have been so hapless as often portrayed) the reality is that the country was really run by the army, and this would become more and more obvious in the years that lay ahead. Being army men, they knew no other response than force when faced with the eruption of street violence in October 1988, as thousands of rioters went on the rampage, protesting against the stagnancy and hopelessness of their plight. The sight of young men,  idle and resentful, hanging around the streets with nothing to do was by this stage a fixture of Algerian society. Essentially, a generation (and a particularly large one demographically) was left to rot by the ruling class. Disenfranchised, unemployed, their reality was rarely articulated or acknowledged in the sterile, state-sponsored media. It found a manifestation in football and Raï music, a synthesis of Algerian folk music, influenced by western forms and instrumentation. Disapproved of by the establishment, Raï addressed taboo social issues like sex, alcohol and infidelity, giving a voice to an otherwise voiceless and disregarded youth culture. Oddly, just as Algeria was imploding in on itself in a maelstrom of senseless violence, Raï would explode onto the world stage in this period, producing international stars like Cheb Khaled (below). It would also find itself in conflict with religious conservatives, whose vision of Algeria was very different from the liberal, cosmopolitan and outward-looking ethos behind Raï.

The riots of October 1988 (often known as ‘Black October’) were a watershed in the history of modern Algeria. The authorities almost lost control of the situation, and it marked the beginning of the slide to civil war. Crowds of young men went on the rampage, attacking the affluent commercial district of central Algiers: the shops they could never afford to buy anything in, the nightclubs they could never afford to party in. Within days, the army under General Khaled Nezzar declared a state of martial law and the army killed around 500 protesters in the following days, showing little or no regard for civil rights. Political leadership was curiously lacking in the first days, as Bendjedid took a week to appear on television and appeal for calm, making vague promises of reform. Where leadership did come it was from the Islamists who, heavily influenced by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, had been organising among the poorest sections of Algerian society for years and, for many, were the only credible political force in the country that were untainted by the corruption of  le pouvoir. Attempting to give the riots some kind of positive direction, a march of 20,000 was led on the 10 October by a young preacher named Ali Belhadj (below) and fired on indiscriminately by the army. It could be argued that, notwithstanding Bendjedid’s promises for reform, it was at this point that the battle lines began to be drawn between the Islamists and the army.

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Ali Belhadj

Among the reforms that followed the events of October 1988 were the holding of elections and the opening-up of the political system to parties other than the FLN. A new constitution was approved in February 1989. Opposition parties flourished, there was a liberalisation of the press. Political debate was suddenly permitted in the public sphere. The collapse of the ‘communist’ bloc in eastern Europe later that year should also be recalled, and there was a great deal of optimism that Algeria was following a liberalising trend at the time. Ben Bella and Aït Ahmed returned from exile, although it would become painfully clear they were no longer relevant to most young Algerians, many of whom hardly remembered them. Instead it was the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS: Front Islamique du Salut) who would emerge as the main opposition, so it is time to look at the forces of political Islam which, in the following years, looked poised to take power.

FIS emblem

We have already noted one of the FIS leaders in Ali Belhadj, who was a talisman for the young and angry who formed a large part of their constituency. The appeal of the FIS was not limited to the dispossessed poor, however, and a part of their following also consisted of the pious middle-classes and small-time businessmen who sought social stability and moral certainty through religion. Their interests were represented in the co-leadership of Abbassi Madani (below), a university teacher and preacher who had fought for the FLN during the war of independence and been jailed by the French, who later turned to Islam, arguing that the Islamic content of the FLN’s original charter had been betrayed.

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It’s worth looking briefly at the place of religion in Algeria since independence and the Islamists’ activities. Islam had been acknowledged by leaders such as Ben Bella as central to the identity of the country, and cultivated a kind of state-sponsored Islam which was sold to the people as going hand in glove with socialism. This can be compared with the efforts discussed in part ten, of the Karmal regime in Afghanistan to turn Islamic scholars into employees of the communist regime. Over time, and with the coming of Boumediène, however, the socialism tended to predominate and the government’s stance towards Islam came to be seen more and more by the clerics and fundamentalists as mere lip service. While some preachers and scholars continued to work within the confines dictated by the government’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, others argued that political independence from France represented a revolution only half finished. While French may have been expelled, their culture remained, and from the Islamists’ perspective, the task of cleansing Algeria of French and Christian influence had not been completed.

In this sense, the FLN, and their various charters since the winning of independence were seen as a betrayal of the principles inherent in the original declaration of November 1954 which began the war. The Islamists thus saw themselves as picking up the baton where the FLN had abandoned it. They represented the closest thing to an opposition in the 1960s and 1970s, when they were financed by big landowners and wealthy people threatened by Boumediène’s reforms, especially the redistribution of land. The al-Qiyam (Islamic values) movement was, until its banning in 1970, the standard bearer of this dissenting Islamism, led by Abdelatif Soltani (below), an Imam who had supported the FLN and independence as a means of Islamicising Algerian society, but grown disillusioned when things didn’t pan out that way. He protested vigorously against socialism, and the continuation of practices deemed western after independence, such as the sale of cigarettes and alcohol and the participation of women in public life.


Indeed, the role of women would become a  battleground between the Islamists and statists (for want of a better word) in Algerian society. While women played a central role in the fight for independence, some (and not only religious conservatices) then expected them to retreat to the private sphere and play no further part in politics. Some, such as Djamila Bouhired (below) did no such thing, and took the rhetoric of liberation and equality as effecting everybody, not just men. She continued to be active in several political organisations after independence, coming into conflict with both Ben Bella and conservatives for not wearing a hijab in public and campaigning for equal rights for women. This had to be done, because despite independence, the status of women turned out to be not a high priority for the government, and something of an obsession for the Islamists, who saw women wearing western clothes, working, going to school, etc. as all symptoms of an insidious neo-colonialism and moral corruption.


That it wasn’t massively important to the government can be seen in the fact that they were prepared to roll back whatever progress had been made in this respect in their efforts to appease the Islamists in the early 1980s. Having long been under pressure to legislate on these issues, Bendjedid’s government produced the family law in 1984, which basically threw out the idea of a socialist, progressive Islam that embraced equality for all, and sought to instate a code of laws in which women were treated as legal minors, dependents of their closest male relative, whether it be father, brother or husband. Under these laws, women would need the permission of their ‘guardian’ to travel, get married, work. It provoked a fierce reaction from women and progressive members of society, many of whom were FLN activists and many of whom were veterans of the war against the French. While initially backing down, the government implemented the laws and instead worked to undermine this opposition by undercover police operations and dirty tricks.

It might be asked why the Islamists were already so influential at this stage that the government felt the need to make concessions to them. The support they enjoyed among the population, even while operating largely underground, was evident. In the Friday moque, Islamists had a ready-made recruiting centre and platform for the propagation of their ideas. When Soltani died in April 1984 his funeral, despite going unannounced in state media, attracted 25,000 people. The government sought to mobilise this movement as a means of weakening its other opponents, primarily on the left. As we have seen with Sadat’s attempts to do this in Egypt in the 1970s, this would ultimately prove to be a huge mistake, and one that they would only realise was a mistake when it was too late and the Islamists had already been emboldened and established themselves as a potent force. A part of the reason the Bendjedid’s regime saw the Islamists as a useful cat’s paw was the economic crisis. With its debts out of control, the state had been forced to borrow from the IMF and was as a result was compelled to implement a raft of austerity measures, opening up the economy to foreign investment on more liberal terms, while cutting public spending and removing many of the safeguards that had hitherto made the peoples’ lives tolerable. Some of these measures were popular with the anti-communist Islamists,and in other ways they benefited because the resulting immiseration of the population drove many people into their arms.

The activities of the Islamist movement among the poor must be taken into account when explaining their growing popularity in the late 1980s. While the social conservatism should not be forgotten, it should also be remembered that for many poor Algerians, the Islamists were the only political grouping who seemed to be prepared to come into their neighbourhoods and share their poverty, who really seemed to care about them. The left was completely discredited by this stage, and seemed to offer no solutions. For one thing, the rhetoric of socialism and equality had been hijacked by the ruling FLN. Other left-wing groups were distant, academic theoreticians led by people who had been exiled for decades and displayed little understanding of their lives. The Islamists, on the other hand, spoke in an idiom they understood and seemed to promise a complete overthrow of the existing order and its replacement by the moral certainties of the Quran.

Another factor that increased the influence of Muslim Brotherhood ideas in the country was the fact that the government had been attempting since the 1960s to promote Standard Arabic (very different to the Maghrebi Arabic spoken colloquially in Algeria) as the language of administration and public life in place of the still-overwhelming French in these contexts. Finding few Algerian teachers able to teach it, they had brought in many teachers from other Arab countries, many of whom happened to be Muslim Brotherhood activists. Taking all these factors into account, it is not surprising that, when opposition politics became possible after 1988, the masses chose neither traditional left- or right-wing parties, turning instead to political Islam.

The FIS was created in March 1989 and made legal in September. This was not as straightforward as it might appear, because the new constitution forbade political parties which operated on a confessional, linguistic or regional basis, which frustrated the activities of Berbers campaigning for their rights. While in theory it also forbade religiously-based parties, the government either didn’t dare deny permission for the FIS to operate, or more likely Bendjedid was still trying to use the Islamists as a force in his own power struggles, not so much with left-wing opponents, but with other factions within the FLN and, perhaps even more so, with the army itself. He had been making attempts for some time both to tackle corruption and to rein in the power of the security services and the military. Feeling threatened, elements within these groups suspected that the president was using the FIS to strengthen his grip on power and might even make an electoral deal with them to do so. In the period immediately after October 1988, Bendjedid certainly displayed more political cunning than he is often credited with, and used the fear created by the events to shore up his own support within the political establishment, winning re-election as president by the end of the year and pushing through some modest reforms that weakened the hold of the military on the state.

This is important to remember: that this was not a simple struggle of government versus Islamists, there was far-from a united front on the government’s side, and this fact partly explains why the FIS were allowed to permitted to grow and develop as a force. The big mistake Bendjedid and others like him made was that they thought they could contain the Islamist challenge, and harness it to their own ends. Instead, it quickly grew beyond their control, and asserted its own ideology and objectives, that would clearly have little use for the machinations of le pouvoir once they had obtained power. The success of the FIS was spectacular. In local elections held in June 1990, scarcely a year after its foundation, the Islamists won 54.2% of the vote, almost double that of the FLN, their nearest rival. In the big cities: Algiers, Oran and Constantine, they won a 70% share. They took power in hundreds of local councils which an alarmed government moved to divest of many of their powers and starve of funding. Le pouvoir had no intention of handing over power without a fight, and this kind of underhand dealing did not go unnoticed by the Islamists, and was only the first of many measures, increasingly extreme, that the state would go to to prevent them from taking power.

It should be noted, however, that while the FIS would complain of election fraud and irregularities, its leaders openly admitted that once they took power there would be no more elections, and that there was only one form of just government, one based on Islam and the Quran, that needed no elections or mandate to legitimise itself. It might be asked why the FIS were prepared to use elections as a means to gain power in that case, and its enemies accused it of hypocrisy on that score. There were also those within the ranks of Islamism who likewise were impatient with this strategy, and they would come to the fore when the army closed off the avenue of electoral victory to them. But it had not come to that yet. 1991 saw a transformed Algeria. The rise of the Islamists had not just changed things on paper. The FIS were only the political manifestation of a social revolution, comparable in some ways with what occurred in Iran in 1979. Far more women were now veiled in the streets, some willingly, some unwillingly. Islamist youth, emboldened by their successes, were given license to harass those women that held out against these diktats, and pressurised shopkeepers to cease selling alcohol and cigarettes. Entertainments like concerts and cinemas were frequently canceled and those who had satellite dishes receiving French television signals intimidated into removing them.

The nationalist-religious fervour was only heightened by the start of the First Gulf War in early 1991 which, despite Saddam Hussein’s aggressive secularism and hostility towards political Islam, the Islamists took his side as an anti-imperialist cause, further boosting their popularity among the people, to whom the Iraqi leader (and indeed, pretty much anyone taking on the might of the United States) was a hero. The initial wave of optimism and enthusiasm for multi-party politics hardened into something else as the year progressed. A polarising took place into two camps: those who wanted an Islamic state and those who feared it, feared it so much they were prepared to abjure democratic principles to avoid it. Those who could afford it, the wealthy, Francophone middle classes, began to leave the country before the FIS took power. The army was already making contingency plans to prevent an Islamist takeover.

The FIS and its supporters understood this, and saw the desperate government’s changing of electoral boundaries and rules as a transparent attempt to thwart them of victory in National Assembly elections that were promised for July 1991. In protest against this, and also against continuing and painful economic reforms that were seen (rightly) as a neo-colonial foreign imposition, the FIS called a series of street protests and strikes in late May and early June. The rhetoric of its leaders became more strident and militant, talking of jihad and the establishment of an Islamic state by force if they could not obtain it by electoral means. Belhadj in particular was both an electrifying (to his fans) and terrifying (to his enemies) figure, whose charisma and skills as a impassioned speaker were legendary, capable as he was of whipping a crowd into a frenzy of anger or reducing them to laughter with his withering put-downs. He had a keen sense of the theater of politics and its symbolism (check out the clip below, where he produces an old photograph of his father holding a Kalashnikov, and vows to do the same if necessary), and seemed to have no fear of the consequences of his increasingly reckless statements. The prospect of him holding an office such as Prime Minister was deeply worrying to many, for whom he was almost the personification of unhinged fanatic:

But he was enormously popular and, compared to the career politicians and corrupt technocrats they were accustomed to, he came across as refreshingly blunt. A hundred thousand people came out onto the streets and once again the police could barely contain the violence. Given the pretext it needed to intervene, the army once again came onto the street and shot at protesters. All hope that the FLN might be able to mount a comeback in elections was more or less lost at this point and Bendjedid moved to distance himself from it, resigning as its president. In late June, Madani and Belhadj were arrested on charges of planning an armed uprising. Soon afterwards, the Salafist wing of the movement began gaining traction and younger, more militant members headed to the mountains to take up arms against the state. More moderate elements in the movement managed to retain control, for the moment at least, and a new leader from this wing of the party, Abdelkader Hachani (below), was chosen. This so-called Algerianist faction of the FIS was prepared to take part in elections and co-operate with other groups, and represented an alternative to the unbending ideological clarity of others such as Belhadj.

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Abdelkader Hachani

Hachani was well aware of the militants within his party and their preparations for a war, and indeed he made his own clandestine military arrangements so as not to be outflanked by them. But, when the government announced that the two rounds of national elections would take place after all, in December 1991 and January 1992, the FIS announced they would take part. The government had more or less given up on any hope of the FLN mounting a serious opposition at this stage, and throughout the campaign it was clear that the FIS was heading for a overwhelming victory, not merely because of their undoubted popularity, but also their aggressive taking-over of public space and physical intimidation of political rivals on the ground. A memorable campaign rally held in the Olympic Stadium, Algiers attracted hundreds of thousands of supporters. While Belhadj had invoked the memory of his own father in the earlier press conference, now that he was in jail, his young son was presented to the massive crowd:

The first round of elections were held a few days later, and even though a FIS victory had looked likely, the scale of it was still shocking to the establishment and foreign observers. Winning 188 of the 231 seats contested in that round, it now seemed inevitable the FIS would attain the two-thirds majority of parliamentary seats to be able to make fundamental changes to the constitution, paving the way for their Islamic state. The following fortnight was filled with trepidation and rallies, both by the triumphant FIS and by political groups (especially socialists and feminists) calling for steps to be taken to prevent an Islamist takeover. Much of what took place  in the corridors of power during this time remains obscure, but the broad outlines are clear. While at first it seemed as if the regime was prepared to accommodate and work with the FIS, behind the scenes, the army decided they had sailed close enough to the democratic winds and determined to pull back.

Bendjedid was compelled to announce his resignation as president on television on the 11 January 1992, creating a constitutional crisis in which the continuation of the elections was declared to be impossible. Troops were put on the streets to impose ‘order’ on the situation and it was announced that, until a new president could be chosen (whenever that would be) the country would be run by a council composed of military figures and their allies within the regime. The second round was, therefore, canceled and the FIS were livid that they had been cheated of victory. Within weeks, the party’s leaders were rounded up and imprisoned and over eight thousand members put in camps out in the Sahara desert. With more moderate leaders like Hachani now in jail, the anger of the rank and file was channeled into more militant avenues, and those who could, took to the mountains or went underground, prepared to take up arms against the state.

This was the end of the road for the FIS as a viable political project. From now on it would be war: a war (spoiler alert) that they were destined to lose, but it is worth while dwelling for a moment on the reasons why the movement failed to establish an Islamic state. In retrospect, the FIS, buoyed by its early successes, probably overplayed its hand, and played it too early. They allowed themselves to believe that their victory was inevitable, and that they were in a more powerful position than they actually were. It’s leaders scared away powerful sectors of society (Belhadj making threats towards the army and Madani talking about not having any more elections after the FIS took power), alienating large groups like the middle classes and the military, who had the financial and military resources to thwart their project, notwithstanding its obvious popular appeal.

It’s an interesting conundrum: is it permissible to cancel democracy in order to prevent anti-democratic forces from gaining power? Do you become one of those anti-democratic forces when you do so? While people were justifiably worried about the kind of regime the FIS would establish, at the same time, its followers could not be blamed for thinking the commitment of the state to democracy (and the west’s espousal of it) was all a sham if they refused to recognise the results of any election that brought Islamists to power. In many respects, Algeria would be an early precursor to the double-standards witnessed in our own time, as the west has refused to recognise the democratic mandate obtained by Islamist parties (for example Hamas in Palestine or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) and instead gave their support to authoritarian forces seeking their overthrow. But those are stories for another post, as is the continuation of this story.


Charles Robert Ageron, Modern Algeria: A History from 1830 to the Present (London, 1991; first published in French 1964)

Martin Evans and John Phillips, Algeria : Anger of the Dispossessed (Yale University Press, 2007)

James McDougall, A history of Algeria (Cambridge University Press, 2017)

Featured image above: Police keep an eye on Friday prayers in the week after the second round of elections were canceled, January 1992.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 17: Algeria #2

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 16: Algeria #1


As I  often seem to find myself doing, I will begin this post by justifying beginning so far back in the past, given that this is supposed to be a ‘contemporary’ history, and that what I am ultimately interested in exploring here is the Algerian Civil War of the 1990s and the growth and nature of the Islamist movement there. There is no way of understanding what went wrong in Algeria at this time, however, without understanding its bitter and traumatic struggle for independence from France, and there is no way of understanding that struggle without looking at what French rule actually meant in practice. It isn’t a huge leap from examining the conquest by France in 1830, to looking back at the period of Ottoman rule and the very beginnings of a concept of something called Algeria, as a distinct region in the central Maghreb. So, back to the sixteenth century it is, and the fallout of the Spanish conquest over the last Muslim stronghold in Iberia, Grenada, in 1492.

Emboldened by its expulsion of the Muslims from Iberia (at the same time their ships were landing in America for the first time) the Spanish invaded North Africa in the years that followed, and the fragmented dynasties that ruled small territories in the region appealed to the Ottomans (a major power at the time, having conquered Constantinople/Istanbul in 1453) for help. There followed a period in which the Spanish and Ottoman Turks vied for power in the region, some local dynasties siding with one of the other power, embroiled as they were in their own power struggles with each other. By 1529, a group of Ottoman adventurers had succeeded in establishing a unified state from these disparate territories with its capital at a small port town called Jaza’ir Bani Mazghana, or as it is today known, Algiers, which gave its name to this new state, the Eyalet or Regency of Algiers, a vassal state ruled immediately by figures (who held titles like Dey, Pasha, Agha) who were ultimately subordinate to the Sultan back in Turkey. The Ottomans survived a serious attempt to retake Algiers in 1541, led by the Habsburg emperor Charles V, and ruled the area for the following three centuries, during which the idea of a (sort of) cohesive territory known as ‘Algeria’ began to be distinguished from the surrounding area (modern-day Morocco to the west and Tunisia-Libya to the east).

As we want to get to the twentieth century as quickly as possible rather than get bogged down in the detail of Ottoman rule (although interesting in its own right) we are going to gloss over these centuries, noting a couple of points on the way: firstly, the regents who ruled Algeria on behalf of the Ottoman empire enjoyed a great deal of autonomy, especially after the advent of a class of rulers known as the dey in 1671, so much so that they often conducted their own foreign policy, having independent diplomatic relations with many European powers. In this sense, Algeria then might be considered what we now call an independent state, even while nominally a part of the Ottoman empire. This does not mean that it enjoyed self-determination, however. While they shared the same Islamic religion as their subjects, the Ottomans were foreign rulers, and they failed to cultivate an indigenous ruling class. The country was ruled by a Turkish military corps and privateering entrepreneurs, mostly outsiders, while the native population’s main contact with the administration was through judges and tax collectors whose role was to manipulate and control the local tribes and their leaders. A dichotomy in Algeria between the mountains and the plains (see map below) is important.


In the lowland areas, looking out over or at least in contact with the coast, lived a people who not only interacted with whatever foreign power happened to be running the country at the time, but interacted with the broader Mediterranean world as a whole.  The mountains, on the other hand, were beyond the control of the state and inhabited by independent peoples who were never under anything more than a loose, distant rule. They maintained their tradition of resistance to central authority, whether it be that of the Ottomans, the French, or later on the Algerian government itself. This divide can also be loosely seen in terms of the Arab plains and the Berber mountains. Although its ruling elite have sometimes forgotten it, Algeria is not an exclusively-Arab country. The Berbers lived here before the Arabs settled the area in the centuries after its conquest by the Muslim Caliphate in the seventh century, and to this day they constitute somewhere between 25-30% of the population, speaking their own language, Tamazight, and concentrated in the Kabylie region east of Algiers.

The name Berber has the same origins as the term ‘barbarian’, from the Greek word barbaroi, which they used to describe anyone who didn’t speak Greek. For some reason, it stuck as the ethnic identifier of the Berber people of North Africa, and also gave the name ‘Barbary coast’ to the area, as well as ‘Barbary pirates’ which was what this area of North Africa was primarily known for in Europe in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, when pirates known as corsairs operated with the blessing of the Ottoman regents, kidnapping people and selling them into slavery, or making money by ransoming them back to their European rulers (the ones who were prepared to pay for them anyway). The heyday of the Barbary corsairs had passed by 1830, when the country was conquered by France, although there was a recrudescence of activity in the period of European instability accompanying the Napoleonic wars. It was in this context that the French invaded Algeria in the last days of the restored Bourbon monarchy.

Very very briefly, the French Revolution developed into the military dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte, who founded the first French empire. On its defeat by the Seventh Coalition at Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon was finally deposed for good and the Bourbon monarchy, which had been abolished by the original Revolution in 1792, was restored. By 1830, the highly-conservative Charles X was deeply unpopular at home and (classic example of a troubled regime trying to bolster its popularity by launching an unnecessary foreign war) took advantage of a diplomatic incident in which the Algerian dey hit the French consul with a fly whisk while demanding the French pay a very large, and very late loan. In response, the French king blockaded Algiers for three years and, when a French ship was bombarded, decided to launch an invasion in June 1830. The Ottoman (not very robust) defenses were subdued and Algiers taken on 7 July, although the Bourbon dynasty that had launched the war lasted less than a month after this, as the July Revolution of 26–29 saw Charles X deposed and replaced by the Orléanist Louis Philippe, who would rule for eighteen years until France once again became a republic (the second) in 1848.

The Ottoman’s attempt to retain their hold over Algeria may have been swatted aside relatively quickly by the French (who quickly found a new commander prepared to swear allegiance to the new king), but the Algerian’s resistance to the French invasion took decades to quell. This was led in the eastern half of the country by a religious-military leader called Emir Abdelkader, who succeeded in holding the French at bay in the east for over a decade, until forced to surrender in 1847, whereupon the French (who had promised to let him leave the country and settle abroad) imprisoned him in France. Abdelkader is a fascinating figure to whom I can’t do justice in the limited space here. Renowned for his relatively-enlightened views on human rights and his honourable treatment of enemy prisoners, he later gained even more admiration, even in the west, for his protection of Christians in Damascus, having been released by the French and allowed to settle there. He underwent a transformation in the French imagination, from rebellious fanatic to honourable enemy. They even built statues of him in the 1940s.

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Abdelkader photographed in 1865.

Having consolidated their hold over the country, the French were in for the long haul. What Algeria endured under French rule was far more thoroughgoing and invasive a conquest than that experienced by most other French colonies. As a writer who is primarily concerned with Irish history of the seventeenth century, I cannot help being struck by the many parallels between Algeria’s ordeal under French rule and Ireland’s with English. For one thing, Algeria became a settler colony just over the water and not merely one in which a distant government exploited a subject population for material gain. French people (often poorer people squeezed out of the home economy or those seeking cheap or practically free land) emigrated across the Mediterranean in large numbers and, at their peak in 1926, came to comprise 15% of the population. The French even denied Algeria was a colony (just as some continue to deny Ireland was) by legally integrating the country (the northern part at least) into France as three départements (Alger, Oran, and Constantine) after the 1848 revolution. This was something which the French settlers liked to imagine made them as French as Paris or Nice. Indeed the latter was only a part of France since 1860.

‘Our lovely colonies, French Algeria.’

The Pieds-Noirs (the name given to people of European descent who were born there and came to constitute the ruling class) actually ruled over the Arab-Berber Muslims as conquerors over a conquered people. The reality of life for this subject people belies the idea that it was ever ‘just another part of France’. Such a notion is patently nonsense, and again I am reminded of Margaret Thatcher’s equally-nonsensical statement that Northern Ireland (basically a war-zone at the time) was ‘as British as Finchley’. So let’s look at what made Algeria a colony in fact, if not on paper. It goes a lot of the way to explaining why most Algerians would come to emphatically reject French rule.

A caveat, and a revealing one at that, should be noted here: that not all Algerians explicitly rejected French rule from the word go, and for a long time some of them believed it might be turned to their favour. There are reasons for suspecting that many of these might have accepted it if they had actually been treated as equals and not subjected to the abuse and depredations of the Pieds-Noirs. Such an idea, that the modernisation and development of Algeria might take place under the aegis of French rule if only the natives were admitted to the same rights and privileges as the colonists, can be detected in the early thought of someone like Ferhat Abbas, who would later become a separatist but who in his earlier years had campaigned for equal rights for Muslims under French rule. It was only when the racist underpinnings of that rule became apparent did people like Abbas realise that this was never going to happen.

And this racism is crucial to recognise: the belief on the part of the Europeans that the native people were simply worth less and that the values that regulate human society in Europe did not operate there. This remained the case right up until the end of French rule and was in evidence from the very start, in the conduct of the war of conquest, where promises of respect for rights and the Algerians’ culture and religion were violated almost immediately, as people were summarily executed by an army completely without discipline and restraint, entire tribes were wiped out (the Ouffia, for example, who were all killed as punishment for the theft of some cattle) and one of Algiers’ main mosques confiscated and converted into a cathedral. As a commission of inquiry appointed by the French themselves put it:

We have sent to the gallows, on the merest suspicion and without trial, people whose guilt has remained more than doubtful, and whose heirs have since been despoiled of their goods; we have killed people carrying promises of safe-conduct, massacred on suspicion whole populations who were afterwards proven innocent [. . .] we have outdone in barbarism the barbarians whom we came to civilise and we complain of not having been able to succeed in civilising them.

Commission nominated by the king, 7 July 1833

Despite the enlightened sentiments here, note at the end the belief that the French had come to ‘civilise’ Algeria. Notwithstanding all the brutality and evidence to the contrary, those liberal Europeans (this is not a uniquely French thing) continued (and continue) to labour under the delusion that their colonial project was motivated by essentially noble intentions of spreading ‘liberty’ and ‘progress’ among ‘backward’ peoples, a cause betrayed by a few wayward generals and greedy landgrabbers. This idea would prove, in its way, more pernicious than the wayward generals and greedy landgrabbers, in that it has allowed France (and Britain) to tell itself a story of its empire completely at odds with the evidence: that the colonies were, in fact, an expression of the will of the aforementioned worst elements in their societies and were all about exploiting subject peoples overseas in the economic interest of the ‘mother country’. The liberal rhetoric was merely window-dressing, and not even window-dressing that was very prominent at the time. While toothless commissions may have condemned the conduct of the conquest and occupation, its commander spoke before the National Assembly in 1840 with refreshing candour:

Wherever there is fresh water and fertile land, there one must locate colonizers, without concerning oneself to whom these lands belong.

Thomas-Robert Bugeaud

And so it was. Algeria became known as a place where poor French people could come and get their hands on land for next to nothing. This land had to come from somewhere or, to be more specific, someone, and that someone was of course the native Algerians.

Some continue to claim that the transformation of the Algerian population to the point that they would become fully integrated into the French nation was a sincere (if long-term) goal of French rule. It bears taking a closer look, therefore, at some of the evidence that this was empty rhetoric, basing our assessment on the actual actions (as opposed to professed intentions) of those who ran Algeria: the settlers who, with the full backing of Paris, sought to keep the native population in subjugation. One hint that the integration of the Algerians into French society was not envisaged is that laws enacted in 1865 stipulated that Muslims were to be subject to Islamic law and Muslim judges (the cadis) as opposed to the French civil code, which sounds very tolerant and relativistic, but does give the lie to the idea that the French were interested in reforming the Muslims’ culture and legal system. Furthermore, it meant that, if a Muslim wanted to become a French citizen and enjoy all the attendant rights, they had to sign away their right to be governed by their own laws, essentially abandoning their religion. Given that religion is tied up with culture and values in such a complex way, it is not surprising that few Algerians made this choice. By 1936 only 2,500 had done this. (Evans and Phillips, 2007)

As an ‘integral part of France’, Algeria sent six deputies to the Assemblée nationale in Paris. But only French citizens could vote, so this effectively disenfranchised almost all natives. The government elected by the Pieds-Noirs served their interests exclusively, and because they perceived their interests to be threatened by any concessions towards the Arab and Berbers, Algeria’s ‘representatives’ worked hard to defeat any measures that might be cooked up in Paris to make life easier for the Algerians. Discrimination was hardwired into the system. Three departmental councils were established in 1875, on which colonists were guaranteed four-fifths of the seats, despite constituting little more than a tenth of the population. The fifth of seats allocated to Muslims were, in any case, handpicked by the French authorities. At a local government level, the percentage of Muslim representatives could not exceed one quarter. In communes mixtes, places where there were basically no Europeans yet, all representatives were appointed by the French administration. While Muslims were subject to Islamic law in some cases, there was also a special set of French laws enacted in 1881, the Code de l’Indigénat, which imposed harsh penalties for ‘crimes’ such as being rude to a colonial official or making disrespectful remarks about the Third Republic. On a day-to-day basis the supposed racial superiority of the Pieds-Noirs was reinforced. Settlers addressed all Muslims by the familiar tu rather than the more respectful vous, by which they insisted the natives address them. Algerians were regularly referred to by racial slurs such as melon, raton and bougnoule (the equivalent of terms like ‘raghead’ or ‘wog’ in English) or addressed by settlers as if they were children, which is reminiscent of the way blacks in Apartheid South Africa or the antebellum south were often addressed as ‘boy’, even by young people addressing elderly men.

Another idea that should be addressed is the claim (which continues to be bandied about by apologists) that French rule, even if harsh, raised the material living standards of the natives and, as such, was somehow a blessing for all its flaws. The facts simply do not bear this out. Economically, the communes arranged their finances for the exclusive benefit of the French settlers and taxed the natives as they saw fit. Even an imperial fan-boy like Jules Ferry described the system as ‘daylight robbery’. (Ageron, 1991) The Warnier law of 1873 was particularly destructive in that destroyed indigenous, communally-owned landowning practices, allowing smaller parcels to be bought up by settlers. And boy did they buy land, in the following three decades acquiring almost one million hectares. (Evans and Phillips, 2007) As more and more land was taken from them, the natives were crammed into the cities or emigrated to France, that is to say, the native population were impoverished by colonisation, with the exception of a small elite of collaborators.

Their growing immiseration was accompanied by a rapid population growth in the century that followed the French conquest, tripling to reach 6.5 million by 1940. This growth was largely a result of French medical science reducing child mortality, which might be placed in the ‘progress’ column, but for the fact that this growth came during a period when Algerians were less and less able to feed all these new mouths. The results were predictably catastrophic. A famine in 1867 cost untold thousands of lives (I have read conservative estimates of 800,000: McDougall, 2017) while as late as 1937, a terrible famine (for which I can find no solid casualty figures) saw corpses litter the roadsides while the colonists suffered few shortages. Again, this was because during times of economic contraction (like the 1930s Depression), the Algerian government was wholly focused on protecting the settlers’ economic interests above all else. Some cheerleaders for French rule have argued that the number of casualties in these famines was a result of the backwardness of native agriculture, and actually spoke for the imperative of French agricultural ‘modernisation’. In fact, Algerian society had, through centuries-long experience of surviving in an environment that permitted only a marginal existence, developed their own techniques, such as storing a certain amount of food for times of hardship, to handle such crises. Life in such harsh environments has to be rigorously disciplined and organised to make the best of scarce resources and the people actually living there knew best how to do so. When the French came in with their land confiscations, the impoverishment of the rural population messed up this system, pushing them to the point where food scarcity resulted in starvation and death. (Evans and Phillips, 2007)

So much for progress.

In 1930, the French establishment celebrated a century of this misery with much aplomb and rhetoric about the benefits of their ‘civilising mission’. The following magazine cover gives you some idea of the vibe. The subtitle beneath the headline reads: ‘Since the capture of Algiers, a century has sufficed to transform the barbarian coast into rich and prosperous departments’.


The Algerians, it would become increasingly apparent in the following decades, did not feel the same way.

The turn of the twentieth century might be mistaken for a period of ‘peace’ in French Algeria, as overt organised resistance from the population subsided. This has more to do with the utter subjection of the people than their contentment, however, as James McDougall has described this gap up until the beginnings of the independence struggle in the 1950s:

…the ‘law and order’ that followed, and with which Algerians thereafter had to contend, remained [. . .] a life lived under conditions of continuous, low-intensity warfare’.

McDougall, A history of Algeria

Even the beginnings of political activity in the Algerians’ interest cannot be rightly considered a nationalist or separatist movement from the start. As indicated above, people like Ferhat Abbas (below) initially saw the struggle of the Algerian people in terms of winning rights under French rule, not outside it. He even denied, as late as 1936, the existence of any notion of Algeria as a nation. Remember, this was the same dude who would become the nation’s first president thirty years later. Other groups, such as the jeunes Algériens or ‘Young Algerians’ of the 1910s likewise presented their demands in terms of increased civil rights and assimilation for Arabs and Berbers within French society, not separation. Things began to change, however, in the period around World War Two, as Algerians’ calls for their rights grew louder, and it became more and more clear the French would never grant them.

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Ferhat Abbas

In 1936, a left-wing, anti-fascist government was elected in France, the Popular Front, which was relatively enlightened and progressive by the standards of its time and attempted to introduce some modest reforms which would have given citizenship to some Algerians. Seeing any conciliation towards the Muslims as the beginning of Armageddon, the Pieds-Noirs bitterly opposed these and they never got off the drawing board. Things might have been different if these reforms had succeeded, but after this failure, it became difficult to argue for anything other than complete independence on the Algerian side; indeed, the reforms were opposed by an emerging separatist movement led by Messali Hadj (below), often considered the grandfather of the independence movement.

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Messali Hadj

Of humble origins and a self-taught intellectual and scholar, Hadj was an electrifying public speaker who had spent time in France, influenced both by the Communists and, increasingly, a sense of Islamic nationalism which placed religion at the heart of Algeria’s struggle for separation from France and a recovery of its honour. From the 1920s onwards he spent long bouts in prison, even being deported to the Congo by the Fascist Vichy government during World War Two. The Vichy regime was of course brutally repressive, although popular with the Pieds-Noirs, and besides a campaign of zero tolerance towards the separatist movement that was emerging, they also revoked the citizenship of the Jews in Algeria, who would henceforth be treated as second-class citizens, just like the Muslims.

The Second World War, and the ‘liberation’ of Algeria from Vichy (although the applicability of the term ‘liberation’ must be questioned, given that it simply returned to the colonial fold of ‘Free’ France), was nevertheless a watershed for the independence movement. Although leaders like Churchill and De Gaulle tried to argue that the principles of self-determination, enshrined in the Atlantic and later the United Nations charters, only applied to European countries, Arabs, Vietnamese and other peoples saw no reason why they should not apply to them as well. Agitation for independence or at least autonomy had been brewing for some time, but the impulse was quickened by several factors and events. Firstly, there was no doubt the huge participation of Muslim soldiers in the French war effort. Just like many other colonies in both world wars, many indigenous people fought for their colonial masters in expectation that their sacrifice would be rewarded by being treated as equals within the empire. Muslims made up 90% of the ‘French’ force defending Algeria. In a desperately poor country, the army was a steady job and many young men were attracted to  what, under the circumstances, was a relatively secure income for themselves and, if they got killed, those family members they left behind. In this respect, Algeria was like Ireland during World War One, where many Irishmen volunteered for the British army and, despite attempts by some to claim that this suggests loyalty and affection for the ruling power, it is far more likely that there weren’t many other jobs available for men, who were left with little choice but to join the army.

The fact that such a large proportion of the army defending Algeria was Muslim begged the question: were they simply holding the fort until the colonial power was able to resume power? After the allies removed the Vichy regime from North Africa and returned the colony to De Gaulle’s government in 1942, there was hope among Algerian separatists that the defeat of German fascism might be linked with the fight against French fascism. An umbrella-organisation of most progressive Algerian parties, the Association des Amis du Manifeste et de la Liberté (AML) was founded and, at the end of the war, on VE Day itself (8 May 1945), demonstrations were organised throughout the country to remind the French that the end of the war did not mean a return to business as usual. Unfortunately, as far as the Pieds-Noirs were concerned, this was exactly what it meant. Most demos passed off peacefully, but at Sétif (see map for locations) in the east of the country, one group was attacked by the police, in retaliation for which the demonstrators began to indiscriminately attack the settler population, killing around 100 people. In counter-retaliation for this, the authorities launched brutal revenge attacks that left between 6,000 and 20,000 dead (yes, those figures are vague, because they are hotly debated, but in any case, it was a lot) and the violence spread to other areas, especially Guelma, where the army carried out mass executions and pretty much all Arab males were considered fair game.


This was a turning point. The AML and other organisations agitating for separatism were dissolved and banned. Even moderate leaders like Abbas were imprisoned and the army given a free hand to crush the movement by violence. Many of those responsible for this repression were the leaders of La Résistance, supposedly the more progressive elements of French political society such as the French Communist Party, who rather absurdly blamed Nazi Germany (who had just been defeated) for organising the protests. It was becoming clear to Algerians that even the left in France was indoctrinated to believe their rule was justified and would never take concrete action towards even modest reforms. This realisation created a new generation of separatists who would fight for nothing less than complete independence, and more radical parties and even armed cells began to form, especially in remote areas where they were harder to keep an eye on. Those reformists who sought to work within the parameters of French rule, meanwhile, became irrelevant, even as modest reforms were carried out, which to most Algerians were too little too late, and to most Pieds-Noir were a step too far.

The first manifestation of a new movement devoted to armed struggle was the Organisation Spéciale (OS), a secret guerilla group that was linked to Messali’s political movement. Several of the key figures in the Algerian War of Independence first made a name for themselves in the OS: Ahmed Ben Bella, Mohamed Boudiaf and Hocine Aït Ahmed, pictured here (left to right) under arrest together in 1956:

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The military activities of the OS simply provoked the French authorities to redouble the repression, and the movement was decimated by arrests and confiscation of their weapons in the years that followed. Ben Bella was arrested but escaped to Egypt, while other leaders had to go into hiding. The momentum seemed lost at that point, and in October 1954, the minister of the interior (later president from 1981-95) François Mitterrand toured the country (pictured on the right, below), sending out a clear message that, although his government had already lost the northern part of its Indochina colony to Hồ Chí Minh’s Viet Minh, and was in the process of conceding independence to neighbouring Morocco and Tuniaia, Algeria would remain French and that the settlers had the government’s full support.

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But unbeknownst to the French, a new body had been in existence for some months which would soon assume the name Front de libération nationale (FLN). This was another clandestine paramilitary organisation, to which most of the OS leaders became attached which, although ostensibly no better-prepared than the OS, launched a series of co-ordinated attacks against French targets only a fortnight after Mitterand’s visit. This date, 1 November, is generally regarded as the beginning of the FLN’s eight-year war against French rule which would win independence for their country. That this would be the eventual outcome was far from clear in the first years of the war, as the French turned the screw and the general uprising of the population against colonial rule which the FLN had hoped to spark off, failed to occur.

In fact, it is questionable whether some of the FLN’s more astute leaders even expected this to happen. Many of them were aware that their struggle, a few hundred poorly-armed men and women against the fourth-largest army in the world, had little prospect of military victory, but this was not the point. The strategy was instead to use armed struggle to achieve political ends by making Algeria ungovernable, by provoking the French into repressive measures that would fatally undermine the legitimacy of their rule both at home and abroad. In this, the FLN were extraordinarily successful, and the Algerian War of Independence is a classic example of an imperial power winning tactically, but failing strategically, winning the war but losing the peace. How exactly was this seemingly-impossible task achieved?

In its initial stages, FLN attacks were isolated and mainly concentrated in the countryside of central and eastern Algeria. Despite its aspirations, it did not enjoy the unequivocal support of the masses. While many no doubt shared the goal and broadly sympathised with its objectives, this does not mean they were willing to risk their lives or their families’ lives in order to help them or participate in the uprising. As ever, most people probably hedged their bets, reluctant to commit themselves to one or the other side until they saw who had the upper hand. This would be apparent in the closing months of the conflict, when it became clear the FLN had won and many so-called marsiens joined in order to gain some of the credit and show their loyalty to the new ruling party.

In the early days, however, when the French state still enjoyed overwhelming superiority, it might sound strange to say that some were obliged to hedge their bets, but this is because the FLN employed coercive methods of their own to drag an uncommitted population kicking and screaming (sometimes literally) into the revolution. As we will see in the civil war of the 1990s, neutrality or fence-sitting was simply not an option for most civilians. Non-committal to one side was considered siding with the enemy, and both the French and the FLN forced people to co-operate with them, often at gunpoint. Examples (often gruesome, such as throat-cutting) were made of those who betrayed the FLN to the authorities and refused to aid the insurgents.

A key dynamic here is that the French played their assigned role of dumb colonial oppressor to perfection. The summer of 1955 especially was a turning point, as the army enforced a policy of collective responsibility, punishing whole populations for the actions of the FLN. This backfired spectacularly, of course, and ensured the population identified with the FLN en masse in areas where they hadn’t before. In August, dozens of women and children were massacred alongside FLN fighters. As the bodies piled up, the situation became more polarised, and the idealistic rhetoric of those who sought to amend the status quo by reform became untenable. The FLN made sure this was made clear to rival political organisations by demanding their dissolution, and that they all come under their umbrella and fight together. One of the FLN’s most firmly-held tenets was the need for unity and an anxiety to avoid the factional infighting of the past. No more, they declared, would Algerian nationalists dissipate their energies by internecine quarreling. Somewhat ominously for the future of multi-party politics in Algeria, however, it is clear that they regarded multi-party politics itself as ‘internecine quarreling’ and a dissipation of vital revolutionary energy, but more of that in the next post.

Even longstanding campaigners for separatism such as Messali Hadj became branded traitors to the cause for refusing to toe the party line. The year the FLN launched their campaign, his followers formed a rival group, the Algerian National Movement (MNA: Mouvement national algérien) which became embroiled in a vicious civil war with the FLN in the following years, resulting in numerous atrocities. The MNA was particularly strong among emigré communities in France, and the two fought each other in what is often known as the ‘café wars’ in which as many as 5000 people lost their lives. While a hero to many with Alegrian nationalism, by September 1959 the FLN was attempting to assassinate Messali Hadj. Although he survived, many other prominent leaders did not, and by 1960, the MNA in Algeria was practically destroyed. While Ferhat Abbas attempted to maintain his stance as a ‘moderate’ conciliatory figure in the early stages of the war, its polarising logic led him to take a more pragmatic route, and he joined the FLN in 1956, being utilised as a diplomat and a representative on the world stage and, when the time came, a figure the French might see as someone they could negotiate with.

The growing prestige of the FLN as the sole torch-bearer of the independence struggle followed a series of diplomatic successes in 1955. They were invited to the historic Bandung Conference of newly-independent ‘Third World’ nations, and recognised as the representatives of Algeria. They also got their situation discussed at the United Nations, which provoked a walk-out by the French in protest against interference in their ‘internal affairs’. While things may have been going well on the political front, however, on the military, they were being squeezed. The actual military wing of the FLN was officially known as the ALN (Armée de libération nationale) and comprised elements within Algeria fighting both a rural and urban war, but also armed forces outside the country in Morocco and Tunisia, who allowed them to operate within their territory when they became independent in 1956. At the end of 1959, this ‘frontier army’ was formally organised under the command of a twenty-seven year-old colonel, Houari Boumediène. Both this frontier army outside the borders of Algeria (for the moment) and Boumediène himself will become crucial figures in the story of post-independence Algeria.

ALN soldiers training in Tunisia

If there had been any inclination on the part of the French to compromise, this was now abandoned and they committed themselves to total victory over the FLN, although they refused to officially acknowledge it as a war (and, by extension, the FLN as a legitimate enemy) and maintained the legal fiction that the whole thing was merely a criminal problem. This renewed determination was perhaps not unrelated to the fact that they had recently discovered oil (they badly needed their own supply which they could pay for in Francs, so they were feverishly searching in the Sahara) at Hassi Messaoud in 1956. Later on, they would be so desperate to hang on to this that they offered the FLN an independent state that excluded the interior areas of desert where the oil was. For all the nationalistic bombast and talk of prestige and defending their colonists, this simple material exploitative relationship between the metropole and colony should always be remembered. Similarly, France used the Sahara to test its first nuclear devices in 1960, and continued to do so for several years after the country became independent.

Getting back to the war (oops, criminal problem), in early 1956, the French government voted ‘special powers’ to the Algerian settlers, and basically gave them a free hand to do whatever it took. Between March and July 1956 the number of French soldiers in the country doubled from around 200,000 to 400,000 (McDougall), and in October of that year Ben Bella, Boudiaf and Aït Ahmed were all abducted after they were kidnapped by the French authorities when en route between Morocco and Tunisia. In what must surely count as one of the world’s first acts of airline terrorism, the FLN leaders were scheduled to take a flight from meeting the sultan of Morocco to the Tunisian government. The airplane, which was Moroccan, was nevertheless registered in France and the pilot had a French license. While flying over Algeria, he was ordered by the military to land, whereupon Ben Bella and the others were arrested. It was a flagrantly illegal act which was initially celebrated by the French ruling elite, but only further undermined their legitimacy and made them look like a criminal gang.

The year that followed, up to around October 1957, is often described as the ‘Battle of Algiers’, as the army focused on crushing the FLN in the capital. They succeeded militarily, but the means they used to do so made a great contribution to the eventual strategic defeat of the French. By this stage, the army was more or less a law unto itself, acting outside all legal and moral norms. The paratroopers under the command of Jacques Massu (below) were particularly notorious, and a campaign of systematic torture and extra-judicial executions was carried out to break the urban guerrillas. Often this torture (which typically involved electrocution, simulated-drowning and rape) was not even to extract information, but merely to humiliate and demoralise the Algerians who, in many cases, were not even FLN activists, although you can imagine a lot of them ended up being after they were released. If they were released. Some prisoners were thrown to their death from the windows of prisons and police stations, others were brought into the forest, ostensibly to collect wood, where they were shot for ‘attempting to escape’. If the FLN member Louisette Ighilahriz is to be believed in an interview she gave in 2000 (and I don’t see why she would lie), General Massu was present at these tortures, and watched as she was raped and tortured repeatedly in 1957.


Massu, along with others like Marcel Bigeard, Raoul Salan and Maurice Challe (more of whom below) were the ones who presided over this carnage. Another well known name is that of Paul Aussaresses, who orchestrated much of the killing and torture under Massu. While others tried to play down or express mealy-mouthed regret for what happened, Aussaresses is one of those unrepentant imperialists that provide great material for a historian. Either too stupid or too racist to be ashamed of his and his colleagues’ actions, he wrote a bullish defense of French crimes, arguing that they were necessary, also revealing how these actions were not just those of a few ‘bad apples’, but sanctioned from the highest levels of government. Aussaresses could write with the assurance of knowing that De Gaulle passed an amnesty by presidential decree for all Algerian commanders in the 1960s, which meant they couldn’t be prosecuted for what they did. Even if it couldn’t form the basis for a trial, it is in any case a great source for the period. Another great source is The Battle of Algiers (1966), a fantastic film about the war, an absolute classic of the art form directed by the Italian Gillo Pontecorvo based on the memoirs of FLN soldier Saadi Yacef.

It also contains one of my favourite bits of dialogue from a film ever, at 1:28:34, when the captured FLN leader, Ben M’Hidi, is attacked by a French journalist for using bombs in baskets to kill innocent civilians:

Isn’t it cowardly to use your women’s baskets to carry bombs, which have taken so many innocent lives?

To which Ben M’Hidi replies:

And doesn’t it seem to you even more cowardly to drop napalm bombs on unarmed villages, so that there are a thousand times more innocent victims? Of course, if we had your airplanes it would be a lot easier for us. Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets.

Larbi Ben M’Hidi, incidentally, was one of the founders of the FLN who was captured in February 1957, tortured and hung by the army, who said he committed suicide. Aussaresses in 2000 finally admitted that his men murdered him in custody. Here is a picture of him with his captors. Everyone looks oddly cheerful:


It was in military defeat that the FLN and its cause found the path to victory. With the people now not merely alienated towards the French, but prepared to risk everything to end their rule, they declared a Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA) in September 1958, in exile, first in Cairo, then moved to Tunis. Abbas was its first president, although this should not mislead us into thinking he was really a leading figure in the struggle now. The post was largely an honorary one, and he was appointed mainly because of the esteem in which he was held abroad and in diplomatic circles. The new president was very much being led by events now, as opposed to leading them. Just who was leading events is hard to say. Within the FLN certainly, the military was always the prime mover, and the political elements affirmed this over and over again. Militarily, however, the FLN was almost defeated by 1958. At this point, however, French political turmoil breathed new life into the Algerian liberation struggle.

As this is a post about Algerian history, I do not want to dwell at length on French internal politics. Briefly, the Algerian situation was one of several causes of mounting discontent with the series of ineffective governments of the Fourth Republic, which suffered from, among other defects, a weak executive, and was perceived as being too indecisive to hold on to the colonies. The crisis came to a head in 1958, as rumours were rife that the government (there had been twenty-one of them since the republic’s founding just twelve years earlier) were about to enter into negotiations with the FLN. The Algerian settlers, led by General Massu, campaigned to have the retired Charles de Gaulle returned to a new, more powerful, presidency, and the army threatened a military coup if the government refused to make it happen. In May, the Fourth Republic acquiesced, voting itself out of existence and making De Gaulle ruler of what would soon be the Fifth Republic.

The Pieds-Noirs and the army generals were, of course, delighted. They had got ‘their man’ installed in power now, and surely he would soon put the boot in and finish off the independence struggle once and for all. This is what they were under the impression he had promised when he declared from the balcony of the governor-general’s residence ‘Je vous ai compris’ (I have understood you). They were, however, in for a rude awakening. Although De Gaulle had made macho statements about keeping Algeria French forever, when it came to the crunch, he showed the pragmatism and shrewdness that had made him such an astute political survivor. Maybe he had understood something else about the Pieds-Noirs.

He first attempted to quell the drive for independence by promising to modernise Algeria and work towards integrating it into France by bestowing on it the benefits of that status: modern technology, development, education, health-care etc. These were all nice ideas, but in practice they involved forced relocation of people from rural zones in which they were no longer allowed to live in for security reasons; they involved disrupting social patterns of life that had existed for centuries in a misguided zeal for ‘progress’; in short, it was ‘development’ on France’s terms, many aspects of which Algerians didn’t want. In any case, it was too little, too late. As McDougall has put it:

The metropole was thus at last imposing a solution, but as ever, it was a solution to the problems of twenty years earlier.

Even offers of a paix des braves, a sort of amnesty to those who had taken up arms against the state, were largely ineffective, and under pressure from outside (the Americans especially) and the growing prestige of the FLN on the international stage, De Gaulle began to give way. The problem was that, as he put out feelers towards offering some kind of limited recognition or autonomy, the settlers reacted with intense fury and accusations of betrayal towards the man they had thought would save them. Settler paramilitary organisations had been around for some years already, manned by ‘ultras’ who had been responsible for numerous atrocities towards Algerian civilians. Now, their violence intensified and involved elements within the army who felt they were being sold out, and several attempts were made to kill De Gaulle when he visited in 1960. Early 1961 saw the foundation of the Organisation armée secrète (OAS), the ‘secret army organisation’, by right-wing former army officers exiled in fascist Spain, and began a campaign of violence in Algeria designed to keep Algeria French.

Thus, just as the army thought it had quelled the revolution, the country descended into a downward spiral of violence orchestrated by those who were determined to make sure that the French government offered no concessions that would alter their domination of the natives. This, of course, guaranteed that the crisis could not be defused and made independence inevitable. De Gaulle began to realise this and (probably even more importantly for him) that the Algerian problem threatened to stymie all his attempts to rectify the problems facing France itself in his new Fifth Republic. Another development also forced De Gaulle’s hand, which was in part a response to settler and OAS violence: namely, the mobilisation of the Algerian people. Whereas in the early days, the FLN had been a relatively small group of visionaries who often had to coerce the civilian population into co-operating with their strategy, by the end of 1960, tens of thousands of Algerians were demonstrating on the streets of Algiers, Oran and other towns, not just against the nature and abuses of French rule, but French rule in itself. French soldiers firing indiscriminately into the crowds and killing hundreds only hardened their.

Nor was the violence confined to Algeria. In France itself, where the Algerian émigré community (by 1964, there were almost half a million Algerians in France) was an important source of funding and support for the FLN, protest marches took place, one of which was attacked by the police on 17 October 1961, enthusiastically joined by métro workers, firemen and passers-by. At least 120 (but possibly as many as 300) of these peaceful protesters were beaten to death or thrown in the Seine to drown.

‘Here is where we drown the Algerians.’ Saint-Michel Bridge over the Seine, Paris, 1961.

Even after independence, a deeply-poisonous relationship between Algerians and the French occasionally erupted into violence. As late as 1973, the killing of a bus driver by a mentally-ill Algerian in Marseille sparked off a Summer of killing across the south in which thirty-two ‘Algerians’ (many of whom were French citizens of Algerian descent) were left dead, killed by French mobs, whipped up by a media which likened Algerians to a ‘vermin’ and ‘a plague’. Another aspect of this is the effect that large numbers of Pieds-Noir fleeing Algeria as independence became more likely had. There were about a million in 1960, of whom 800,000 more or less left immediately and another 150,000 in the years that followed, so that there were only about 50,000 of them by the end of the 1960s. These overwhelmingly settled in the south of France or Corsica, and many would go on to support the anti-establishment, far-right Front National of Jean-Marie Le Pen, which was founded in 1972 and support for which was strongest in precisely the areas where the Pieds-Noirs settled, disgruntled and resentful towards a French political establishment which had betrayed them, and likewise resentful towards the Arab emigrants in France, with whom they lived side by side, and whom they felt it was their birthright to lord over, which was now taken from them.

This was just another sense in which the poison of the Algerian war was seeping into the body politic of the ‘mother country’, and De Gaulle began to talk of the inevitability of ‘self-determination’ and an Algerian republic. A referendum was held in early 1961 which gave him permission to negotiate with the Algerian provisional government, and negotiations began shortly after. One result of this was an attempt by some of the more right-wing generals in Algeria to launch a coup, designed to remove De Gaulle and prevent the loss of Algeria. It had the opposite effect. De Gaulle went on television to appeal to the nation to stand by him, and in the end most of the army backed him. Having faced down this threat, serious talks with the FLN got underway near the Swiss border at Évian-les-Bains in May, and continued until March the following year, during what the violence of the OAS intensified, against both the FLN and French government targets.

One of the main sticking points preventing an agreement was the French demand, alluded to above, that they retain large areas of the Saharan interior, where oil had been found and nuclear weapons could be tested. The increasing brutality of the OAS (they blinded a four year-old child in an assassination attempt on a French minister in February 1962) undermined the efforts of the French to hold out in their demands, however, and in March a ceasefire was declared, with referendum called for April (in France) and July (in Algeria) to ratify the so-called Evian accords, granting independence to Algeria. The French agreed to hand over most of the territory, excepting small areas they could temporarily use for military bases and testing sites; they also secured preferential treatment when it came to trading for Algeria’s oil, as well as guarantees regarding both the rights of Algerian immigrants in France and those of the settlers in Algeria.

Celebrations in March 1962

Algeria became formally independent on the 5 July, 132 years to the day the French invaded the country. This did not mean an end to the tragedy, however, and in many ways the worst of the killing was still to come. It seems a theme of grudging imperial decline (cf: the Belgians sabotage of the Congo before they left, and the British hasty withdrawal from India that resulted in horrific communal riots and mass killings) that the departing ruler likes to leave as much of a mess as possible behind them, and Algeria was no exception. This could be seen in long term effects, such as the fact that the French took with them the blueprints for the drainage system and refused to share them, so that the Algerian authorities would have to dig up half the city every time they wanted to fix a burst pipe. The more dramatic short-term effect was the flight of the Pieds-Noirs, reprisals towards those who had collaborated with the French, and a campaign of senseless nihilistic violence by the OAS.

Many of the provisions of the Evian accords as they related to protecting the rights of those French left behind in an independent Algeria were rendered obsolete by the speed of events. As noted above, about a million Pieds-Noir fled to France, having no faith in the promises made regarding their lives and property. They can hardly be blamed for scepticism, since events like the Oran massacre, where hundreds of settlers were massacred by mobs after independence, and the FLN (or indeed the French police) didn’t lift a finger to help them, cannot have inspired confidence. Over the Spring and Summer, over 3000 settlers disappeared. You would think the OAS would have seen the writing on the wall in early 1962 and given up, but quite the opposite. They ratcheted up their campaign, exploding over a hundred bombs a day and launching attacks on French police and army. They also sought to prevent Pieds-Noirs from leaving, and had hoped to provoke the FLN into breaking their ceasefire and thus wrecking the prospects of peace, but the FLN kept their discipline and obeyed orders not to retaliate.

It was this discipline and organisation that probably sealed their victory, but as noted, this discipline did not extend to preventing vengeful mobs from massacring civilians, both Pieds-Noir and those who had sided with the French in the war, the so-called Harki (from the Arabic word for a ‘war party’). The fate of the Harki is, in many ways, saddest of all. While the Pieds-Noir were allowed to migrate to France for protection, the French authorities were far less generous towards those Algerians who had fought for them over the past decade, and De Gaulle issued orders that they be prevented from leaving along with the settlers. Although some escaped with the help of sympathetic police and army personnel, the Algerian population took a bitter revenge on the Harkis, killing perhaps 70,000 over the summer, often torturing them beforehand. Much of this was done by the above-mentioned marsiens, who joined the independence struggle late in the day and were now especially brutal in order to signal their loyalty and zeal to the new regime.

That the FLN condoned, even encouraged, this, did not bode well for the future of the independent state. In September, Boumediène’s ‘army of the frontier’ marched into Algiers, and a new round of blood-letting got underway, as the new state sought to consolidate its power and eliminate threats from within, both rival factions of the independence movement and the remnants of pro-colonialist sympathy. But nothing could be more misleading than to portray a united, harmonious FLN now taking the reins of power. As is often the case, when they had a single enemy and objective to rally around, factional struggles could be laid aside in order to focus on the task in hand. Now that was achieved, rivalries and conflicts-of-interest began to emerge as the victors squabbled over the spoils. I have not spent a great deal of time in this post looking closely at the personnel of the FLN and those who would become the leaders of an independent Algeria, because in the next post we will look at these power struggles, as the FLN established a one-party state and the heroic early years of Algeria as a torchbearer for Third World liberation gave way to the stagnation of the 1980s and devastating civil war in the 1990s.



Charles Robert Ageron, Modern Algeria: A History from 1830 to the Present (London, 1991; first published in French 1964)

Martin Evans and John Phillips, Algeria : Anger of the Dispossessed (Yale University Press, 2007)

James McDougall, A history of Algeria (Cambridge University Press, 2017)



Featured image above: soldiers search women in Algiers during the war of independence.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 16: Algeria #1