July 5, 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of Algerian independence from 132 years of French colonialist rule. After eight bitter years of armed struggle, marked by 300,000 to 1,000,000 Algerian deaths, large-scale repression, torture, and the removal of millions from their homes, Algeria’s forceful rejection of French control was an immense accomplishment. The Algerian people’s courage, will, and sacrifice for the sake of national liberation from a major Western power was one of the most inspiring and dynamic political models of Third World struggle during the 1950s and 60s. On this anniversary of Algerian independence, commemorating this achievement is important.
Yet, for most Algerians, there are obstacles to celebration. Algerian filmmakers have proposed nearly 150 projects to commemorate the wartime struggle. But expensive film projects require substantial government funding, and a new Algerian law requires government approval of any film on wartime themes to “safeguard national memory.”[i] Outsiders might think that the criteria for granting permission for these projects are cost and talent. But, as with so much in Algeria since independence was achieved, heavy political stakes are at play, and Algeria’s regime has the last say.
A Contested History
Before and during the war for independence, Algeria’s national liberation movement was marked by personal, clan, and ideological rivalries that implicated many chief figures in the Algerian regime (and opposition) from 1962 to the present. The war also involved threats and violence against Algerians who did not support the National Liberation Front (FLN) as well as attacks against unarmed European civilians.
This history challenges past and present political legitimacy and obstructs full and honest interpretations of the national liberation revolution itself. It remains contested terrain that the regime, whether through school textbooks or research authorizations, refuses to explore.[ii] But how can a people come together to celebrate an anti-colonial national struggle against French colonialism that, despite censorship, is known to have included internal political assassinations, purges, betrayals, attacks on unarmed civilians, and manipulations of the base?
Aside from the politics of history, the great majority of Algerians today were born after 1962, and have no deep or direct personal connection with that struggle or Algeria’s wartime dreams. While young Algerians generally share an abstract national pride—witness the delirious popular celebrations when Algeria qualified for the World Cup championship round in 2010—quite understandably their focus is on immediate economic, social, and political contexts.
So what is there to celebrate when for 50 years various Algerian regimes have continuously repressed the population, engorged themselves and their political clienteles, and failed to create adequate jobs and housing despite huge state petrochemical revenues? What is there to celebrate in the government’s mandatory Arabization of education and linguistic policy, and its adoption of Islamist-appeasing social measures such as the retrograde Family Code? What is there to celebrate when only 20 years ago the military committed a coup d’etat, canceled elections and sparked a decade-long civil war against Islamists that claimed 200,000 Algerian lives and left deep social and psychological scars that remain close to the surface today.
I arrived in Algeria in 1965 to carry out field research for an American graduate degree. I was shocked when the first worker I spoke with told me that if he had known how Algerian independence would turn out he would never have taken part in the struggle. Until today, the country’s post-independence regime has affected millions of Algerians with this deep alienation and de-politicization. It has also produced a constant stream of exiles abroad. For Algerian society, it is a huge and tragic loss of vitality and talent.
The Legacy of Foreign Involvement
The impact of French colonial role on Algeria, as well as the continued neo-colonial policies of both French and American governments, must not be ignored. The country’s colonial rulers encouraged the fracturing of Algerian society and identity, and exploited the land and its people for the economic benefit of a European settler elite and metropolitan France. The colonialist pretence that Algeria was not a colony but rather a set of three French départements did not hide the colonial project’s deep racism and violence. As so aptly captured by Frantz Fanon, colonial rule violated Algerians’ social, economic, and political dignity and wellbeing. French rule led directly to vicious military repression and terrorism by many pieds-noirs during the fight for liberation from 1954 to 1962. This left the economy in shambles, encouraged a militarized Algerian leadership, and produced a wounded and traumatized population after independence.
French and U.S. governments (especially after 9/11) have provided international support and legitimacy to Algeria’s rulers, and thus greater latitude and protection for the Algerian government’s domestic authoritarianism, corruption, and social neglect. For many ordinary Algerians neglected and insulted by their government, political Islamism increasingly appeared as the only alternative. However, in the 1990s, the Islamists’ use of religion for personal and political power, as well as their increasingly violent threats and actions toward secular opponents and women, polarized Algerian society. In response, the military opportunistically used the Islamist threat to justify its continued rule.
The Roots of Resistance
Nevertheless, Algeria has much to celebrate in the 50 years since independence. From 1962 to the present, many ordinary Algerians have steadily resisted, in a variety of ways, greed, power schemes, and repression from above. At the same time, they have done what they can to contribute positively to their society with the limited resources at their disposal. Beginning during the first years of independence, thousands of Algerian workers spontaneously and with the encouragement of the nationalist trade union took over the operation of modern farms and industrial units abandoned by Europeans fleeing to France, and set to work to self-manage the grassroots re-booting and deep reform of the national economy.
The military, bureaucrats, and the bourgeoisie resented this growing horizontalist sector of hundreds of thousands of Algerians and feared the general challenge to elite power and privilege it represented. Though opposed and sabotaged by these elites, many workers struggled for several years to maintain and embrace this attempt at socialism from below.
In 1980, a largely spontaneous wave of massive protest and resistance emerged among the proud Berbers of Kabylia. It was based on long-standing grievances against regime authoritarianism, government disdain for Berber linguistic and cultural identity, and neglect of the region’s economy. This “Berber Spring” was the first large-scale political challenge to the regime since the early 1960s. It inspired a decade of continuing activism and independent cultural expression by the Berber Cultural Movement. Similar upheavals cropped up among alienated and oppressed urban residents, especially young people, in Constantine, Sétif, Ghardaïa, Oran, and other locales.
In turn, thousands of young people protested in the capital, Algiers, in October 1988. Without an explicit political program, they expressed their contempt for political and economic elites prospering at the expense of ordinary Algerians, and targeted the symbols of this injustice (the government, FLN party offices, and opulent retail stores).
In response, the regime employed gunfire, arrests and torture to repress this explosion of massive street demonstrations over several days. The government subsequently used the protests to justify introducing a partial, but still controlled, liberalization of politics and economic policy. As with the recent Arab Spring, in this brief moment known now as Algeria’s “parentheses democracy,” many hoped for a genuine multiparty pluralist political system that respected freedom of expression and human rights.
A new outspoken Algerian human rights league developed during this period. New media, independent women’s rights groups, and autonomous trade unions separate from the regime’s largely submissive General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA) also emerged. However, an increasingly confident and demagogic Islamist movement, including a strong radical component, threatened to win the legislative elections slated for January 1992. The military responded by blocking efforts at genuine democratization and canceling the elections. What followed was a nightmare decade of repression, massacres, tortures, assassinations, “disappearances,” and rapes committed by both sides.
In 1999, during the waning years of this “civil war,” the military selected Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a long-standing regime official, to be president and to act as the regime’s civilian face. The military (led by the secret police, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS)) sponsored a new phase of democratic window-dressing, pursuing a policy of “reconciliation” by disarming Islamists and enforcing silence about crimes committed by both sides during the war. Over the next decade, the military permitted periodic local and national elections, a variety of political parties, newspapers, civil society organizations, and limited public critiques of the regime. But elections continued to be notoriously manipulated. Newspapers, parties, and other organizations were regularly infiltrated and pressured from above or purposefully multiplied so as to confuse and divert political opposition. Public meetings and demonstrations were tightly controlled or banned altogether.