Where has Algeria's revolutionary spirit gone?

Where has Algeria's revolutionary spirit gone?
Comment: Algerians have a strong sense of collective pride in their national heroes, but little was learned from their struggle that could be injected into modern battles, writes Yasmina Allouche
7 min read
01 Nov, 2016
The heroes of Algerian independence are now part of the problem, writes Yasmina Allouche [Getty]

November 1st marks 62 years since the beginning of Algeria's war of independence which would see the deaths of 1.5 million defiant Algerians mark their country's history.

While stories of heroism in the face of the brutality of 132 years of French colonial rule, have maintained Algeria's collective pride, they have seldom driven the same revolutionary spirit forward in challenging the country's current socio-political stagnation.

Where the patriots of the independence movement are rightly hailed as heroes, their hold over power since 1962 has led them to become part of the problem, and not the solution. 

The events of 1st November 1954 undoubtedly remain cemented in history as the beacon for revolutionary movements, but it is the revolutionary spirit that needs to be carried forward for Algeria's problems to be solved through tools that reflect the current generation and its challenges.

By the early twentieth century, groups such as the Star of North Africa and the Party of the Algerian People (PPA) mobilised for independence but none achieved much success outside of the intellectual sphere that bound them together.

This was largely due to the fact that these groups were formed by European-educated Algerians in the 1920s and 1930s who infused the objectives of independence with those of modern nationalism and self gain.

By the early 1950s, a patriot, Ahmad Ben Bella would create the Revolutionary Committee of Unity and Action (CRUA) in Cairo and with the support of Egypt's anti-imperialist leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) would be formed with its military wing, the National Liberation Army (ALN).

Spurred on by the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the FLN insurgency began on 1st November 1954, with armed attacks on the French government and French military bases across Algeria calling for a sovereign Algerian state.

For the French, it was unfathomable that Algeria could annex itself when it was so deeply integrated into the structure of the French Republic

With the leadership based in Cairo, the FLN called on all Algerians to support the fight for full independence from France and to accept nothing less.

The French responded by attempting to crush the insurgency before it could gain any momentum among the masses. For the French, it was unfathomable that Algeria could annex itself from France when it was so far integrated into the structure of the French republic.

The FLN strategy was simple: Gain the support of the local population by circulating information and laying out objectives; dissociate the French government from the Algerian people by adopting peaceful and then violent methods; annihilate the network of French collaborators and informants; and lastly establish an alternative social system and governance that would transition to power once the French ceded control.

The FLN were deeply influenced by Brazilian leader Carlos Marighela's theories on guerrilla warfare and militarisation, and by 1955 the FLN announced a total war on all French civilians with the words of Marighela in their minds, justifying "collective reprisals" against civilians, both French and Algerians, in order to "militarise" the conflict.

But the extent of the French military's anti-insurgency operations and their widespread use of torture and violent tactics, drove otherwise apathetic Algerians to support national interests of independence. Internationally, the French government was also losing support, with many countries withdrawing their support for colonial anachronism.

Algeria's generationally-fractured society would erupt in October 1988 and set the course for Algeria's Arab Spring of the 80s

In 1958, France was aware that its days were numbered in Algeria, and Charles De Gaulle voiced the idea that withdrawing from Algeria was becoming a necessary option. A new constitution on Algeria's self-determination in France's Fifth Republic was called, and six million Algerian voters took to the ballot.

When elected president in 1959, De Gaulle began steps to negotiate an end to the conflict by way of a loose association between the two countries with France still maintaining authoritative power. The FLN, not surprisingly, refused to end the conflict on these terms and continued their fight for complete independence.

In 1961 peace talks were opened and The Evian Accords in 1962 brought an end to the war. By then, around 1.5 million Algerian and around 25,000 French people had perished, in violence that would go on to influence Algeria's political standing decades later.

If Algerians thought their independence in 1962 would mark the end of their country's period of violence, and that the revolutionary FLN government would preside over liberated Algeria in peace, they were sadly mistaken.

The levels of violence witnessed in the war of independence would come knocking once more in the late 1980s where strong dissent to the FLN regime would enable insurgent groups to mobilise once more.

Algeria's generationally-fractured society would erupt in October 1988 and set the course for Algeria's Arab Spring of the 80s.

For Algerians the legacy of the War of Independence legitimised the use of force in achieving a set goal

Young Algerians called for the democratisation of the corrupt and autocratic one-party system of the FLN, which had constantly prevented them from becoming social and collective actors and had relentlessly marginalised them from the socio-economic discourse.  

The violence that erupted was the worst since independence and though reforms were introduced by President Chadli Bendjedid by 1992, Algeria would descend into civil war when the election process was cancelled by the FLN when it was clear that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) party would win by a majority.

The FLN's fight to overthrow 132 years of colonial rule and the violence adopted by both sides was mirrored in painful fever. The civil war that followed would see around 200,000 people killed and the disappearance of thousands by both Islamist groups and the army's repression in consolidating the regime's standing.

Waiting for France to officially apologise 62 years later - as though doing so would dispel socio-political stagnation - is a woeful state of affairs

For Algerians the legacy of the War of Independence legitimised the use of force in achieving a set out goal. Whether it was against foreign colonialists or against fellow Algerians, violence was seen as the answer to self-determination, and to stamping out dissidence and political difference.

However, 62 years later and precious little has changed. Today's observers often draw parallels between Algeria's current standing and the state of the national movement at beginning of the 1940s and 1950s, in a damning analysis of Algeria's (lack of) socio-political development.

The collective pride in Algeria's national heroes - who adorn the country's institutions and roads - has long moulded Algerian identity, but little has been learnt from their struggle that could be injected into modern battles. 

Algerians must recognise that the revolutionary leaders of the 1950s and 1960s cannot remain forever in power, or initiate the reforms Algeria so desperately needs.

The hard won stability that came after the civil war is too precious for Algerian's to risk on the uncertainty that revolutionary movements bring, and the risks of violence that dictate social memory.

However the fact that Algerians are still influenced by the emancipatory promises of postcolonial nationalism and populist politics post-independence, is enough to anticipate some scope for ideological change.

Waiting for France to officially apologise 62 years later - as though doing so would dispel socio-political stagnation and decades of deprivation - is a woeful state of affairs. 

As the post-independence generation departs from the social memory that has caused its crippling stagnation, it is inevitable that the uncontained frustrations that mirror the dissidence of the 1980s will eventually become evident. 

The unity behind the struggle, and the lessons of independence will be key in recognising the faults of the current regime and in calling for change.

Yasmina holds a Masters in International Conflict Studies and has a particular interest in Algeria and the Maghreb region. She also regularly organises seminars and events on the MENA region.

Follow her on Twitter: @animsche

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.