Dubian Ade

Brief Histories: The Algerian Revolution

Dubian Ade
Brief Histories: The Algerian Revolution

The story of the French colonization of Algeria begins with Napoleon's 1798 invasion of Egypt. Napoleon made a deal with two merchants in Algeria, who loaned him grain to feed his troops. After the campaign in Egypt failed, Napoleon refused to pay back the merchants. Tensions between France and Algeria (then a territory of the Ottoman Empire) persisted until 1827.

The Ottoman Dey of Algiers called on the French government to repay the loans and met with French council Pierre Deval to resolve the issue. But during the meeting Deval repeatedly refused to discuss the loans, dismissed and belittled the Dey until out of anger, the Dey struck the French council on the head with his fly-whisk.

The so-called "fly-whisk incident" had bruised French egoism and caused general national embarrassment, especially in the eyes of other European powers. Though the Dey had insisted he meant no disrespect to the French government, the French promptly severed all diplomatic ties with the region and the French Navy moved in to blockade the port at Algiers. When the Dey responded by firing onto the ships, the French, seeking to restore national morale and distract its citizens from its domestic issues at home, prepared for conquest.

Despite Algerian resistance, the French defeated the forces on July 4th, 1830 and captured the city of Algiers. From the beginning the Algerians resisted colonization. Berber and Arab resistance in western parts of the region forestalled the French intrusion for nearly 30 more years. One key leader was Abd al-Qadir who managed to unite the Arabs and Berber confederacies into a stronghold that controlled nearly two-thirds of unoccupied land in Algeria. France signed the Treaty of Tafna in 1837 which allowed the group territorial autonomy, but subsequently broke the treaty for more land grabs. French scorched earth campaigns viciously burned people alive, destroyed crops and livestock. Whole villages were burned to the ground. In 1857 the French defeated the last of the Berber

The colonial administration in Algeria was an excessively military regime. The arrangement quickly facilitated the influx of French settlers. From 1830 to 1940 at least 8.64 million acres of Algerian land was confiscated by the colonial government and redistributed to European settlers. Vast amounts of land were converted into settler property or used for commercial agriculture.The land seizures displaced thousands of Indigenous Algerians and destroyed the traditional agrarian economy in the countryside which depended on the production of grain. The colonizers' activities and mismanagement of the lands brought on a terrible famine in 1869 and a number of plagues that claimed the lives of countless indigenous Algerians. Within a 40 year period after the French conquest their numbers dropped from 3 million to 1 million people.

The widespread starvation suffered by the Native peoples of Algeria was exacerbated by France's continued extraction of Algerian grain for war and refusal to replenish grain reserves. This sparked the 1871 Kabylie uprising, which was violently suppressed by French forces and used to justify accelerated settler expansion. A system of colonial apartheid of Muslims was further instated by the colonial administration. The Code de Indigenat essentially permitted Muslims full French citizenship only if they renounced their faith. This did not change until a proclamation made by France in 1947.

A number of pro-nationalist groups began emerging in Algeria in the first half of the 20th century including the Young Algerians, and even the Etoile Nord-Africaine founded by Emir Khalid, grandson of Abd al-Qadir. The Parti du peuple algerien or Algerian Peoples Party (PPA) was founded by Messali Hadj and was dissolved in 1939. The 1943 Manifesto of the Algerian People was written by Ferhat Abbas and made calls for an independent Algeria. But it was the Setif Massacre of May 8, 1945 that pushed the fragmented nationalist parties towards armed movement. The French troops along with settler vigilante groups killed an estimated 6,000 people within a five day period following a celebration march that ended in violent clashes with Muslims and police. Other estimates have the number around 45,000 people.

The Organisation Speciale (Special Organisation) was formed in 1947 in direct response to the massacre and took a hard-line towards armed guerrilla movement. The OS was forcefully disbanded by French police in 1951. Its surviving membership formed the Revolutionary Committee of Unity and Action (CRUA), which was seceded a year later in 1954 by the Front de Liberation National (FLN).

On November 1, 1954 the FLN coordinated a number of attacks on the colonizers throughout Algeria, officially beginning the liberation struggle. The group was originally led by six nationalist: Rabah Bitat, Didouche Mourad, Mostefia Ben Boulaid, Krim Belkacem, Mohamed Boudiaf, and Larbi Ben M'hidi. The FNL was able to consolidate the fractured Algerian nationalist groups, absorb them, and make Algerian guerrilla warfare the primary method of struggle for Algerian independence.

FNL tactics included the planting of bombs in areas heavily populated by European settlers. In retaliation, French troops set out to kill thousands more Muslims in a "tit-for-tat" policy that exposed the full barbarism of the colonial regime. The FNL's use of violence against French colonialism was most famously theorized by Martinique psychologist Frantz Fanon. Fanon's work documenting the revolutionary struggle in Algeria has become essential text for anticolonial movements all over the globe.

As the struggle intensified, the requirements of the guerrilla movement saw the transformation of the traditional Algerian family structure, the depositioning of men and the repositioning of the indigenous Algerian woman as the central actor in the revolution. The movement relied heavily on women to transport resources, equipment, and explosives through French colonial checkpoints undetected. Militant women fought alongside male combatants, performed assassinations, and conducted acts of revolutionary terrorism. It was the bombs planted in settler Algiers by three Muslim woman combatants Djamila Bouhired, Zohra Drif and Samia Lakhdari, which began the the Battle of Algiers on September 30, 1956.

The important Battle of Philippeville a year earlier had destroyed all hope of settler reconciliation. The failed attempt by the FNL to take over the town of Philippeville resulted in the disgustingly indiscriminate executions of Muslims by the French military and settler militia Pied-noirs and only justified the guerrilla's continued use of violence. A general strike was organized by the FLN. By the 1956 bombings, French police had been escalating its torture and interrogation methods.

The French utilized torture tactics as well as settler paramilitary groups and Muslim loyalists to level a crushing military response. Covert intelligence missions conducted by infiltrators caused confusion and suspicion among FNL members, resulting in combatants killing each other. Though the French were able to end FNL bombing operations via execution and imprisonment, it was not enough to convince French administrators that Algeria could be won. The people of Algeria showed a determination to fight even in the face of the most brutal of colonial repressions. In 1959 leader of France Charles de Gaulle announced to the horror of the French Algerian military that continued French rule was unattainable.

Negotiations concluded in 1961 and on July 1, 1962 a referendum was held in Algeria to approve of the Evian Agreements and establish Algerian independence.