Algerian Independence and Global Revolution 1962-2022: Introduction



Welcome to the 42nd issue of The Funambulist. Just as we wanted to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune and highlight its internationalism with our 34th issue (Mar–Apr 2021), we would like to honor the legacy of the Algerian Revolution as we’ll be commemorating the 60th anniversary of its final victory against French settler colonialism on July 5, 2022. Far from the Algerian regime’s official celebrations, we find the legacy of the Revolution in the three-year-old Hirak of the Algerian people, who face those who have become enamored with power in the decades following the country’s independence. The many Palestinian flags that have been floating alongside the countless Algerian ones (as described by Salah Badis in this issue) in the massive revolts of these past three years are also only one of many indications that the Algerian Revolution is about much more than the liberation of one territory, of one people.

This issue attempts to resituate it as vital to the African, Arab, Amazigh, and even global anti-colonial revolutionary movements.

Coordinated from Paris, this issue partially attempts to problematize the flourishing body of work published every year (and this year in particular) in France around the Algerian Revolution, or what the French call “the Algerian War.” This knowledge production has had the tendency to trap the Revolution between the two banks of the Mediterranean, thus strengthening the colonial ties that link them. We had this in mind when curating the contributions that follow this introduction, which draws many more relational lines at the global scale. However, denying the ties between Algeria and France would be as absurd as making them the alpha and omega of Algeria’s international existence. For one thing, around two million people living in France are part of the Algerian diaspora. This anti-colonial victory is part of their political identity and it is a source of inspiration and dignity for all of us involved in the anti-racist struggle today.

Moreover, we should not forget that France was designated by the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) as the Revolution’s seventh Wilaya (region administered by a semi-autonomous revolutionary leadership). Consequently, the political geology of cities like Paris or Marseille is as much composed by this history as by 19th century proletarian insurrections or by the resistance against the Nazi occupation in the early 1940s. Here again, the role played by Algerian revolutionaries on the northern side of the Mediterranean should neither be underestimated nor overestimated within the whole liberation struggle. On the one hand, the Revolution was undeniably led first and foremost in Algeria itself. On the other hand, the Messalist protests of July 1953 and March 1956 in Paris, the Eid Revolt of La Goutte d’Or in 1955, the FLN coordinated attacks of August 1958, and the massive demonstration of 30,000 Algerians in Paris against the racist curfew that led to hundreds being murdered on October 17, 1961, are fully parts of both Algerian and French histories. This acknowledgment being made, it is important to state that just like the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) or the Viet Minh’s victory against the French colonial army (1954), the Algerian Revolution should be read as part of the global revolutionary pantheon, following the explicit wish of many of its main figures.

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Painted ceramic in Algiers depicting the October 17, 1961 massacre of hundreds of Algerians by the Paris police—a proof of the relative importance of the Revolution in France in the official Algerian history. / Photo by Léopold Lambert (2018).

In order to do so however, it is necessary to acknowledge that the Algerian Revolution is generally less well-known in the anglophone world than in arabophone and francophone contexts. Some key historical elements are therefore important to state here. As always, when attempting to describe an eight-year-long historical event in only a few words—an event situated within a 132-year-long colonial period—one is doomed to do it imperfectly, if not misleadingly. One crucial thing to note, to mitigate this, is to remember that delimiting the Algerian Revolution to the final eight years of the anti-colonial struggle in Algeria should not erase the fight that began with the French invasion of Algiers in 1830 which persisted until 1962. The large revolt that started on the very day World War II ended in Europe (May 8, 1945), where in northeastern Algeria thousands of Algerians were massacred by the colonial army and European settlers, is one of many examples that preceded the FLN understanding of the revolutionary period. The latter is claimed to have begun on November 1, 1954, when the newly created and relatively unknown National Liberation Front (FLN) initiated a coordinated series of attacks against settler colonial objectives in many parts of northern Algeria.

The three years that followed saw the French state deploy a massive military counter-revolution in the mountains and countryside, displacing hundreds of thousands of people (two million between 1954–1962) and relocating them in camps controlled by the army (see our contributor Samia Henni’s book Architecture of Counterrevolution to understand what this entailed). Legal and extralegal colonial violence, bombardments, torture, and executions intensified while France attempted to convince the world that what was happening in Algeria was of domestic nature. A part of the Revolution took to the cities, in particular in Algiers in 1957, where the FLN, helped by the Casbah’s inhabitants and its built environment, was able to lead an asymmetric guerrilla against colonial paratroopers, thus gaining visibility on an international scale.

The old city, half destroyed by the French following their invasion in 1830 and replaced by Haussmannian-type urban planning, proved indeed that if there might not be such a thing as revolutionary architecture, there surely are built environments that provide favorable spatial conditions to revolutionary struggles.

In May 1958, colonial officers were encouraged by crowds of settlers in Algiers to attempt a putsch that ultimately brought General de Gaulle back in power. He imposed a new Constitution on France and its colonial empire, initiating the 5th Republic, through which France continues to operate today. In addition to attributing exacerbated power to the President, this new republic opportunistically organized the autonomy (and two years later, the independence) of French colonies on the African Continent (Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Tchad, Centrafrican Republic, Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Burkina Faso, Benin, Togo, Ivory Coast, and Senegal, excluding Cameroon and Djibouti) with tight economic and military strings attached that remain today. Guinea, under the leadership of Ahmed Sékou Touré, refused to ‘play the game,’ and so found itself independent overnight and brutally targeted economically by the French state. As for Algeria, de Gaulle designed a two-headed counter-revolution. Militarily, he engaged a merciless war against the FLN forces—the National Liberation Army (ALN)—attacking their positions with bombs and napalm. Meanwhile, he undertook a massive plan in the cities to provide housing to tens of thousands of Algerians in modernist urban design (again, see Samia Henni’s work) that would later be applied in France to house their diasporic descendants. Shantytowns, from where part of the Revolution was organized, were demolished and replaced with new buildings that proved much easier for the French authorities to control.

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A politically consequential contrasts between two forms of built environment in Algiers: the Casbah from where the FLN was able to lead an asymmetric guerrilla against the colonial army, and the massive housing buildings of the de Gaulle plan like this one in Cité Malki. / Photos by Léopold Lambert (2018).

Despite these crushing efforts, the Algerian Revolution was never vanquished. Instead, international and domestic pressure forced de Gaulle to negotiate with the Provisional Government of the Republic of Algeria (GPRA) in 1961. Initial stages of negotiations saw the French state offer independence only for parts of the country, leaving the northwestern parts to the settlers, and the Sahara desert to gas and oil extraction, as well as to the spatial and nuclear bomb experimental centers. When agreement was finally reached on March 18, 1962, the full territory of Algeria remained intact for the revolutionaries, but secret neocolonial clauses remained inscribed within it (in particular the possibility for France to continue its nuclear bombings in the desert until 1966). The last two years of the Revolution also saw an exacerbation of settler violence, in particular through the creation of the Secret Army Organization (OAS), engendered after another putsch attempt in April 1961 by colonial officers fearing that France would “give up” on Algeria. As described by Malika Rahal and Daho Djerbal in this issue, the OAS attacks that followed the signature March 1962 ceasefire are some of the most murderous of the entire counter-revolution.

On July 1, 1962, a national referendum was held in Algeria to confirm the people’s desire for self-determination. 99.72% of the voters approved—the 8% of voters who refused to vote were surely among the settlers. On July 3, France recognized the independence of Algeria, which was celebrated on July 5 everywhere in the country, as well as in Algerian neighborhoods in France, Tunisia, and Morocco. Daho Djerbal and Malika Rahal both attempt to give us an idea of the immense and unfathomable collective joy and celebration that took place that day and the following ones. Daho in particular speaks of “an immense breathing of an entire people.” This analogy recalls the “combat breathing” described by Frantz Fanon a few years earlier in Tunis, from where he continued to contribute to the Revolution after having done so clandestinely from Algeria in 1954–1956.

Despite strong conflicts between numerous ideologies and personal interests at work amidst the FLN, the ALN, and the GPRA, a government led by Ahmed Ben Bella was formed in September 1962. The years that followed were those of many political experiments (such as workers and farmers’ self-management described by Muriam Haleh Davis in her text) and internationalist solidarity.

Algiers became the “Mecca of Revolutionaries,” famously described seven years later by Amílcar Cabral, the founder of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde.

Notably, the 1965 coup d’etat undertaken by Houari Boumédiène that began an era of military rule in Algeria, has still not fundamentally altered this internationalist dynamic. In July 1969, Algiers even hosted the first Pan-African festival that gathered over 4,000 musicians, dancers, actors, writers coming from many places of the African continent and diaspora (cf. Sophia Azeb’s text “Pan-African Performance and Possibility in North Africa: Lessons from Algiers 1969” in The Funambulist 32 (Nov-Dec 2020) Pan-Africanism).

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A cartographic attempt at depicting Algiers as the capital of revolutionaries in the 1960s. / Map by Léopold Lambert (2022).

When millions of Algerian people took to the streets (in ways that somewhat recall the massive revolts of December 1960 in Algerian cities) to demand the end of a military oligarchic regime half a century later, they did not do so as a form of rupture with the Revolution’s legacy, but rather as a reactivation of the spirit of immense possibilities that 1962 had offered. Algerian internationalism (both at the giving and receiving ends)—with the exception of their never-fading support to the Palestinian and Western Saharoui people—has aged to become a form of allyship between self-interested states, rather than practical political solidarity between people. Its current relationship with the African Continent (of which Algeria is the largest country since the 2011 creation of the South Sudanese state) encourages a politically improductive nostalgia of the 1960s—a risk this issue tries to negotiate with. On the other hand, as of today Algeria’s median age is 28-years-old, perhaps making way for a new generation to pave the way for new futures. However, internationalism is by definition a political relationship between several entities, which needs to be cultivated.

On its very humble scale, this issue therefore attempts to play a role in nurturing the idea that the memory of the Algerian Revolution belongs to the Algerian people, but also to those of us who struggle against colonial violence in the rest of the world. ■