Reflections on Algeria’s 50th Independence Anniversary

David Porter

David Porter is a professor of political science and history and author of a new book, 'Eyes to the South: French Anarchists and Algeria', released by AK Press.




Algeria marked its 50th anniversary of national independence from French colonial rule on July 5th 2012. Independence came at a heavy price, after a bitter eight-year long armed struggle, marked by nearly 1,000,000 Algerian deaths, terrible repression, military removal of millions from their homes and torture. This forceful rejection and overthrow of French colonial control was an immense and spectacular accomplishment. It demonstrated Algerian courage and willpower against a major Western power. It was one of the most inspiring mid-20th century political struggles of the formerly colonized world. For many in North America and Europe, it was well-publicized by the writings of Frantz Fanon, a theorist of the Revolution. Commemorating this achievement at the 50th anniversary is important.

Yet, paradoxically, for most Algerians, the idea of a celebration for this anniversary is a hard one. Much of the evolution of the national liberation movement, before and during the war, was marked by bitter personal, clan, and ideological rivalries, deeply implicating many of the key figures of the Algerian leadership from 1962 through to the present. The war was accompanied by threats and violence against those Algerians who did not support the struggle, as well as attacks against unarmed European civilians. Such issues raise challenges to past and present political legitimacy. It creates impediments against thorough and honest interpretations of the national liberation struggle.

How can a people celebrate in unity a national struggle for freedom that by now is well known also to include, beyond heroism, political assassinations, purges, betrayals, attacks on unarmed civilians and manipulations of the base? Similar contradictions, of course, exist in most if not all revolutions, not the least in the American colonies’ struggle for independence from Britain.

Aside from the bitter politics of history there is the obvious fact that most Algerians alive today were born well after 1962, and have no personal link or deep connection with the struggle for independence or the wartime dreams that accompanied it. Young Algerians may share an abstract national pride. Witness the delirious grassroots celebrations when Algeria qualified for the 2010 soccer World Cup trouncing Egypt, its neighbor and traditional rival. But overall young Algerians today are more concerned with immediate economic, social and political matters.

What is there to celebrate when 50 years of Algerian regimes have brought nothing but pains to the vast majority, as rulers and their clienteles engorge themselves? Successive regimes failed badly to assure adequate jobs and housing despite huge state petrochemical revenues. They have instead imposed unpopular policies such as the notorious retrograde Family Code. What is there to celebrate when only 20 years ago, the military cancelled election and engaged the Islamists in a brutal civil war that lasted for a decade and caused over 200,000 death and wrecked terrible psychological damage.

When I arrived in Algeria in 1965 for field research for an American graduate degree, I was shocked when the first worker I spoke with at the student housing complex told me that if he had known that Algerian independence would turn out as it had, he would never have taken part in the revolution. This deep feeling of alienation affected millions of Algerians and drove millions into exile, representing a huge and tragic loss of talent and vitality.

The colonial role of France and subsequently the neo-colonial policies and practices of France and the United States constitute a serious problem. Colonial rule encouraged the fracturing of Algerian society and identity. It exploited the land and its people for economic benefit of European settlers and metropolitan France. Despite a pretence that Algeria was not a colony there was deep racism and violence at the base of the colonial project that constantly violated the Algerian social, economic and political dignity and well-being, as Fanon so well describes. French atrocities led directly to the vicious military repression and to the terrorism by many pied-noirs from 1954 to 1962 that left much of the economy in shambles, encouraged a militarized Algerian leadership and produced a wounded and traumatized population.

In turn, the present, French and increasingly United States policies and practices have provided crucial international support and legitimacy to successive degenerate Algerian rulers, promoting in Algeria massive corruption and bad governance. For many of those neglected and abused by the regime, political Islam seemed increasingly the only viable alternative. But Islamists’ self-serving use of religion for personal gain and political power, their violent threats and actions toward secular opponents and toward women greatly contributed to the polarization of Algerian society. That the military, in turn, opportunistically and cynically used to justify its own continued rule. The bloody civil war was the result.

Regardless of the above, Algeria has much to celebrate about the 50 years since independence. From 1962 to the present, many grassroots Algerians have steadily resisted, in a variety of ways, the greed and corruption of their rulers, while simultaneously doing what they could to contribute positively to their society with the limited resources at hand. In the first year of independence and after, thousands of Algerian workers spontaneously took over operation of modern farms and units in industrial and other realms abandoned by fleeing Europeans and set to work to self-manage the grassroots re-booting of the national economy. Though opposed and sabotaged by the military and bureaucrats and the bourgeoisie who resented this growing horizontality, many workers struggled for several years to maintain this attempt at socialism from below.

In 1980 emerged a largely spontaneous wave of massive protest and resistance among the proud Berbers of Kabylia, based on their long-standing grievances against the regime’s authoritarianism, disdain for a Berber identity as well as its neglect of the region’s economy. This Berber Spring was the first large-scale political challenge to the regime since the early 60s, inspiring a decade of continuing activism and independent cultural expression by the Berbers and inspiring similar uprisings among alienated and oppressed urban residents, especially among young people, in Constantine, Sétif, Ghardaïa, Oran, and other locales.

In turn, a similar and much larger protest by thousands of young people took place in the capital, Algiers, in October 1988. The protest lacked an explicit political program, but it demonstrated its contempt for constituted political authority and the corrupt elites prospering at the expense Algerians. This explosion of massive street demonstrations over several days was repressed by gunfire, arrests and torture. At the same time the regime used the protests to manipulate a partial liberalization of politics and economic policy. It was a brief moment of what some referred to as Algeria’s parentheses democracy. At the time many hoped for a genuine multiparty pluralist political system with respect for free expression and human rights.

Still out of this, a new outspoken human rights league developed along with new media, independent women’s rights groups and autonomous trade unions separate from the regime’s long-standing and submissive UGTA union federation. In the end, however, the combination of a growing and increasingly confident and demagogic Islamist movement, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the moves by the military to block any genuine democracy culminated in a cancelled legislative electoral process (about to be won by Islamists) in January 1992. What followed was a long nightmare decade of repression, massacres, tortures, assassinations, “disappearances” and rapes committed by both sides.

About Algerians one thing is certain. Defiance and resistance to oppression are traditional to them, dating way back before as well as throughout French colonialism.  Since 1962 Algerians have continued and pursued a post-colonial national liberation struggle in many forms. It is this struggle which can and should be celebrated. Inevitably, it will continue for years to come, hopefully with more concrete victories along the way.