An Overshadowed Anniversary

In commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of Algeria’s independence from France in 1962, this dossier features articles on various facets of Algerian independence, along with its political, economic, and social development — building a bridge between the past and present to understand Algeria today.

Author: Andreas Bohne

Hirak Demonstration 2019 in Oran, CC BY-ND 1.0, Sofian Philipp Naceur

The Evian Agreement signed on 18 March 1962 ended the Algerian war of independence between the French government and the National Liberation Front (Front de libération nationale, FLN). Although it did not lead to complete pacification in the following months, it laid the cornerstone for the proclamation of Algerian independence on 5 July of that same year. Years earlier, Francois Mitterrand, French Minister of the Interior at the time, expressed a sentiment shared by many of his contemporaries when he proclaimed: “L'Algérie c'est la France”.

A Century of Repression and Hope

In light of this mantra, repeated by French officials for years, it is unsurprising that France’s colonial past and the Algerian war are still suppressed or even silenced by many French people. Even the current president, Emmanuel Macron, has not been able to issue a consistent apology — not least for domestic political reasons.

It thus seems only logical that a sculpture of Emir Abdelkader, who led the fight against the French invasion of Algeria in 1830, was damaged a few weeks ago, just before its ceremonial inauguration in Amboise in central France. This mood in French society and the views held by the political Right are reinforced by scholarly colonial revanchist and apologetic discourses.

Andreas Bohne is the head of the Africa Unit and a Senior Advisor for North Africa and academic cooperation at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

Translated by Loren Balhorn.

The struggle for independence paved the way for violent repression against both the Algerian civilian population as well as protesters in France — dates such as 8 May 1945, or the “Paris Massacre” on 17 October 1961 when hundreds of Algerian demonstrators were killed and their bodies thrown into the Seine, are exemplary of this.

At the same time, the Algerian independence movement was not the monolithic bloc it was often portrayed as, especially abroad, and tensions over the independence struggle’s political orientation were already emerging during the war — both within the FLN and between it and other anti-colonial movements. The internal tensions within the Algerian anti-colonial movement not only led to autocratic tendencies within the FLN, but were also reflected in increasingly repressive structures across the country.

“Have the courage to read this book”, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in the preface to The Wretched of the Earth. In his most important work, author Frantz Fanon not only put forward an unsparing reckoning with French colonialism, but also refused to shy away from criticizing the emerging Algerian bourgeoisie of the time. On the eve of independence, Fanon already foresaw that they would not overthrow the colonial system, but rather take on the position of the former colonial masters.

Beginning in the 1960s, the new rulers in Algiers began to orient the country’s economy towards the extraction of natural gas — a decision that would bring with it devastating consequences for Algeria’s political system and socio-economic development. The rentier economy that emerged in the country, based almost exclusively on the extraction of natural gas and oil, hindered development towards a diversified economy.

The resulting economic crisis in the 1980s culminated in the revolt of 1988, which in turn paved the way for a democratic transition. Yet the electoral victory of an Islamist party and the subsequent military coup by the Algerian army in 1992 dragged the country into a bloody civil war that lasted ten years and has not been reckoned with either socially or politically to this day.

Algeria took on a special role during the so-called “Arab Spring” in 2011, but widespread protests failed to materialize for numerous reasons — at least at first. It was not until the spring of 2019 that they found their way to the surface in the form of the Hirak movement and began to shake up Algerian society. For three years now, this movement has been demanding a genuinely democratic political system and an end to the interference of the all-powerful military in the country’s politics.

The Hirak’s powerful rhetorical invocation of Fanon’s writings, along with the recent worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, also helped to broaden the movement’s perspective, which is characterized by arrests and a lack of political vision, but nonetheless has thus far not failed. Due to the fierce repressive measures executed by Le pouvoir, as Algeria’s military regime is often called in the country, the movement is increasingly reliant on activists in the diaspora.

Evaluating Algeria’s Foreign Policy Record

Algeria’s foreign policy continues to draw on its earlier solidarity with many liberation movements in Africa and other parts of the world. However, this policy — which was once extremely popular among international left-wing movements — has since been reduced to a shadow of its former self. The title of the documentary film Mecca of the Revolutionaries describes in a pointed way how Algeria was perceived in the world at that time, when Algiers was teeming with offices of revolutionary independence groups until the 1970s.

The fact that Algeria had made a formative commitment to the Non-Aligned Movement and took clear sides in the Western Sahara conflict garnered it great respect among many on the Left, who in turn tended to turn a blind eye towards the domestic political situation. Today, this solidarity has clearly developed cracks. Algeria, for many decades a country of immigration and transit for migrant workers and refugees from West Africa and the Sahel, now deports hundreds of refugees to neighbouring Mali and Niger almost every week.

This dossier features people who have not only been involved with Algeria for a long time, but also those whose biographies are closely interwoven with older and more recent political developments. The interview with Mohammed Harbi is particularly noteworthy in this regard. During the war of independence, the well-known historian took on important tasks within the FLN and participated in the negotiations on the Evian Agreement. As an advisor to Algerian President Ahmed Ben Bella, he was imprisoned from 1965 to 1968 following Houari Boumedienne’s coup. Later placed under house arrest, he escaped from prison into exile in France in 1973 and has since worked as a university professor. Today he lives in seclusion in Paris, threatened by the Algerian secret police, radical Islamists, and right-wing former French settlers.

The author thanks Werner Ruf for his valuable advice.