The Battle of Algiers and the Algerian War

Within the past week I have watched The Battle of Algiers twice. For those unfamiliar with the subject, this 1966 classic by Gillo Pontecorvo depicts the conflict between the FLN (Front de Liberation Nationale) insurgency and the French armed forces as it was waged in Algiers between 1954 and 1957, within the larger context of the Algerian War (1954-62). Filmed in black and white, Pontecorvo’s film narrates the sequence of events leading from the outbreak of the FLN’s armed rebellion until the (as it turned out, temporary) crushing of the movement by the military. Generally considered to be very historically accurate and often coming across as a documentary, The Battle is a masterpiece of realist cinema.

Today the Algerian War is often seen as the first successful national liberation movement in the Third World. Although not strictly a colonial uprising, for Algeria was officially considered an integral part of the French Fourth Republic (1946-1958), the armed uprising of the FLN drew on the same anti-colonial sentiments felt earlier in India, Pakistan, and Palestine. For whatever the official designation, the political and social situation in the country had all the overtones of colonialism. After 120 years of French rule in Algeria, the ethnically European settlers (Pieds-Noirs, “black feet”) concentrated in the main cities of Algiers and Oran had developed their own national consciousness. Controlling much of the fertile land and agriculture, as well as being extremely disproportionately represented in government and the professions, the pied noirs grew into a privileged class within the country’s social structure. Their significant influence over the local administration and in Paris ensured that the native Algerian population would remain in a disadvantaged position, with the Muslim population that outnumbered the Europeans nine-to-one crowded into the slums of the Casbah while suffering from illiteracy and high unemployment.

The migration of large numbers of native Algerians into the cities ultimately contributed to the emergence of a disenfranchised urban population. By the 1950s, nationalism in the Islamic world had become deeply linked to urban-centered movements that took up liberation from colonial rule as their guiding principle. In the prior decade, Algerian nationalist movements like the UDMA (Union Democratique du Manifeste Algerien) and MTLD (Mouvement por le Triomphe des Libertes Democratiques) had tried to develop a common nationalist platform upon which to link their anti-colonial opposition. Despite certain concessions made by the French in 1947, including representation being granted to Algerian Muslims in the French parliament and an increased political role for the Algerian Assembly, these failed to address the fundamental imbalances in Algerian society; as an example, the elections to the Algerian assembly were managed by the French administration to ensure a favorable outcome, and the assembly itself was given sovereignty over the institutionalization of the Islamic religion, thereby only favoring the Algerian ulama (clergy) and not the country’s poor. The MTLD’s inability to create radical change despite its significant membership caused it to lose influence between 1951-54, until that year an offshoot from the movement formed the core of the FLN. Unlike the MTLD, which saw itself as a political party jousting for better positioning within the French political system, the FLN proclaimed to be a ‘state party,’ thus rejecting the establishment altogether. In November 1954 the FLN’s war of liberation officially began.

The stated goal of the FLN to “restore a sovereign, democratic and social Algerian state under Islamic principles” was broad enough to unify the previously fragmented Algerian nationalist movements under a single cause. As depicted in The Battle of Algiers the FLN’s tactics initially comprised of isolated guerilla attacks on local French police forces. The simultaneous bombing of three locations by disguised women in 1956 (in what is one of the most widely remembered segments of the film) set off the Battle of Algiers. While throughout 1957 the French army managed to regain control of Algiers by systematically hunting down the FLN’s leadership, followed by a systematic displacement of the people in the countryside, the crisis of the Fourth Republic in the next year that brought De Gaulle to power would eventually lead to a negotiation of Algerian independence. An armistice signed in March 1962 would lead in July to Algeria’s self-declaration as a sovereign state (while still receiving French aid). The brutalities on both sides – the FLN’s attacks on both European and Muslim civilians, including women and children; and the French paratroopers’ use of torture to extract information – characterized a conflict that by the end of the war left near one million dead in total, with the Algerian population bearing a vast majority of the casualties.

The war would have long-lasting effects on Algerian society. The country’s agrarian sector that previously thrived under French rule declined after the discovery of oil in the Algerian desert, leading to the displacement of peasant families into cities and thereby worsening urban poverty. Almost the entire European population left soon after the war ended. Meanwhile, the FLN’s use of Islamic discourse in the cause of a nationalist movement marked a key historical moment in the twentieth-century history of the Middle East, becoming one of the best examples (alongside Egypt under Nasser and Iran under Mossadegh) of how urban nationalism defined Islamic identity – a pattern that would not fully change until the 1980s.

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The information here was primarily drawn from two works: Reinhard Schulze, A Modern History of the Islamic World (NYU Press, 2000) and Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (Harvard University Press, 1991)

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