Algeria, Politics/Africa
Algeria – Ancient to Contemporary  - Africa

Algeria – Ancient to Contemporary

Posted by Aneela Shahzad on

The Earth spins in haste, racing to square its days into its months and finally making the year. In the hurry, it has rudely obliterated much of precious history from the memoirs of reckoners. Treading upon its deep chest, must is that the Mediterranean should bury in its heart coffers filled with reminders of the adventures of the earliest human travels upon her. Will it beckon then that yes she has been the most traversed of all waters from the earliest of civilizations.

The Phoenicians were perhaps among the first to put their boats in her waters. With the death of Pharaoh Ramesses XI at around 1200BC and the subsequent decline of Egypt as an imperial power, which had kept the Phoenicians under their fiefdom for the last few centuries, the Phoenicians must have found themselves free to extend their seafaring trade to as far as the Mediterranean would take them. In little time the Phoenicians dominated the islands of the Mediterranean and the northern coast of Africa throughout its length, making several trade-centers, of which Carthage (814 BC–146 BC, Tunisia) became the most splendid and powerful one. Another city they established as early as 300BC was Yksm, later the Romans called it Icosium and today we call it Algiers.

In its height Carthage controlled all coastal cities and major islands of the Mediterranean including Yksm. But after Hannibal’s defeat at the hands of the Roman general Scipio Africanus in the 3rd Punic War, 146BC, all these cities came under Roman control. Icosium remained under the Romans until Uqba Bin Nafe conquered Algeria along with Tunisia, Libya and Morocco under the Ummayyads in the 7th century AD and Buluggin ibn Ziri re-developed Algiers in the late 10th century as a great city again.

With the Muslim Caliphate’s advent of Algeria, came Islam and the Arabic language – at first the Berbers resisted this new culture and faith, but eventually all assimilated into it. Power was returned to the local Berber leaders starting from the Rustamids (719) to the Zirids, the Hammadids, the Almoravid, the Almohad and the Zayyanids – all local Berber dynasties. As a political strategy this was starkly opposed to the vision of the later European colonists who kept all powers exclusive to their skin color. Finally the Ottomans made Algiers their Regency in 1525 and remained in power over it until 1830 when the French invaded.

The Algerians had been a Muslim nation for 12 centuries when the French arrived – although the French might have had good intention to convert Algeria into a Christian Francophone – but they faced bitter resistance to this idea. After 132 years of colonization, even though French was widely spoken, yet the Algerians insisted on making Arabic their official language and 99% of the population was Muslim. Perhaps the reason for this alienation to French culture was the fact that the Berbers converted to Islam in the early phase of the Arab conquest, assimilating in them and fighting with the Arab armies in their further conquest, as they were fighting their own wars - whereas to the French they remained skeptical to the end. Another reason perhaps was the fact that for centuries the Berbers of Algeria had been part of the Arab armies that fought and conquered Spain and more of Europe, and they were not of a mindset to easily subjugate to their perceived enemies of the faith.

The first resistance movement, in the Oran region, headed by Sheik Abdul Kedir was launched in 1832, within two years of the invasion. The Sheikh led violent battle against the French for 15 years until he was captured. Lalla Fatma N'Soumer led another resistance in Kabyle from 1849 to 1871. The French were so brutal in their suppression in Algeria that the Algerian population was reduced to one third due to killings and disease in the first 40 years.

France adopted a policy of settling French immigrants in Algeria who were given free land in fertile areas and who made French Aristocracy in major cities. Although France declared Algeria as an ‘integral’ part of France but the Algerians were far from being given equal rights. As usual the colonial mindset took control of all economic activity forcing the locals to produce cheap raw material for France and import consumer goods in return. Excruciating taxes were levied on the locals, literacy declined and political and social discrimination practically made the French era, an era of quasi-apartheid for the Algerian people. 

But a small number of Muslims were allowed to join the French schools. In time this privileged group of Muslims, strongly influenced by French culture and political attitudes formed the much needed interlocuteurs evolues, meaning the ‘evolved go-betweens’, that would later help the French to govern the people.

On the other hand, from 1920 onwards several movements arose with the idea of gaining equal right for the Algerians through political struggle – such struggles found little or no fruit. After WW11 many Algerian soldiers returned from France mainland where they had fought alongside French soldiers against the Germans – this experience added to their conscience for equality. On their return some of them became part of the political process and large-scale, peaceful demonstrations started being organized.

On May 8, 1945, demonstrators were met with hostile gun fire causing large-scale riot to break out, resulting in the killing of a 100 Frenchmen. France called its air force and paratroopers who responded to the demonstrators with such extreme violence that 45,000 Algerians were killed within a few days. This changed the political climate and several new parties emerged with the demand for independence, some of them making para-military wings to organize revolts and guerilla tactics against the French and by 1954 the Algerian War of Independence had begun.

The National Liberation Front (FLN) emerged to be the major armed belligerent against the French and other parties united under it for the national purpose. Extreme acts of killing and violence caused deaths of over 25,000 French as opposed to 1.5 to 2million Algerians killed by the French in this final war – an act nothing less than genocide.

Independence was gained in 1962.

Before that, in Oct 1957, the French had seized the aircraft carrying Ahmed Ben Bella along with 3 major figure of the FLN - they were to remain in custody in France for the rest of the war. On his return in 1962, Bin Bella was elected prime minister and Algeria was turned into a one-party-state with the FLN as the sole party. The FLN has ruled Algeria ever since. In 1965, Bella was deposed and replaced by Houari Boumédiènne, who served as president until his death in 1978. After Boumedienne, Chadli Bendjedid remained in power for 13 years, and after another period of instability AbdelAziz Bouteflika took power and has won four consecutive terms as the President of Algeria till now.

Like many African countries gaining independence in the 1960s, the question remains if Algeria gained sovereignty over its national interests in 1962 or did the French succeed in construing a deal that would safeguard their interests in Algeria in absentia. This is speculated for the Evian Accord signed by Ben Bella in 1963. The Accords gave France industrial and commercial primacy in Algeria and control over the newly discovered Saharan oil reserves along with control over some air bases, terrains, sites and military installations - in exchange, Algeria received technical assistance and financial aid from the French government. All in all the accord was seen as a sell-out by many and the hitherto united FLN found itself ideologically divided, because of which political unrest continued in the country.

The divide was between a moderate sector that was in favor of post-independence relations with France and a radical ideology that wanted a full-independence. During the war years, the FLN had set a government-in-exile by the name GPRA, but the irony was that this exile government was stationed in France itself and its members were those who had been previously sent out as diplomats, meaning the French-educated moderate elites, and it was these who negotiated the Avian Accords in France. In contrast the leaders who were fighting in the fronts were more radical. Therefore it can be safely concluded that the independence gained by the Algerians was actually a sell-out between an elite class and the ex-colonizers.

One can perhaps rule out the small era of Houari Boumedienne as a time when a politician tried to break the terms of this sell-out. Boumedienne was one of the major field commanders of the FLN, who had waged guerilla warfare against the occupiers from his base camps in Morocco, across the borders. The 13 years of Boumedienne’s rule were marked with his radicalism, in 1971 he nationalized the Algerian oil industry and set the nation on a path to industrialization. He made Arabic the official language and on the international front he was at the forefront of the Non-Aliened Movement, advocating balanced relations with both the Communist and the Capitalist blocks and supporting anti-colonial movements in all third-world countries. But after Boumedienne’s mysterious death in 1978, a lot of socialist ideals of development of the masses were forsaken for liberal ones, leading to wholesale corruption in the political system again and further deterioration of living standards of the commons.

Behind the political developments in Algeria lay a history of socialist ideology that had grabbed much of the Arab world as the only modern alternative that could rid them of the capitalist monopoly of their colonial occupiers. In socialism is rooted the seed of revolution led by the proletariat and the Algerians were ready for a revolution – but the socialist ideal was going to fail for two reasons. One, the bulk of the population that lived in the hinterland that was not under western influence was not ideologically socialist but Muslim – two, the socialist did not venture to integrate socialism with Islam, leaving the two practically disassociate. So when the FLN failed to deliver the better life that was to come after the long struggle for independence it was but natural that the majority populace would look to Islam as the only solution that was going to work for them.

The socialist leaning can be traced as back as 1907 with the ‘Young Algerian’ Movement, who were ‘assimilationists’, wanting the Algerian society to integrate with French colonial society. The Young Algerians formed the Fédération des Élus Indigènes in 1926, which was evolved into the UDMA party in 1948 by Farhat Abbas. This change symbolized the change from assimilation to nationalism and furthermore to radicalization. Messali Hadj made the Star of North Africa party in 1926, in Paris, later he formed the Algerian People's Party PPA in 1937  and the MTLD in 1946. Ahmed Ben Bella was a part of the OS, the military wing of MTLD, later when the OS was dismantled by the French, Ben Bella founded the FLN. Most of the activities of these parties originated in the coastal cities and in Paris, where the evolues interacted with the political experiences of Europe itself and tried to find their way forward from there. While Colonial France despised their activities, the communist parties of France embraced them and helped them organized their struggle for independence, making some of their work in France sort of underground - which is another trait of the socialist revolutionaries. In totum the struggle was going to be ‘to save the Muslims with socialism’ but the question of ‘whether the Muslim faith will cohort with socialism or not’ was left for later.

Perhaps this was the reason why in 1989, when Chadli Bendjedid amended the constitution to allow parties other than the ruling FLN to be formed – Abbassi Madani and Ali Belhadj made the Islamic Salvation Front, FIS, with the goal of changing Algeria from a socialist to an Islamic state. The FIS criticized extensive state-ownership and called for Ribah-Free Banking and the use of Arabic in higher education. FIS quickly became the favorite party of the people, in 1991, the FIS won the first round of parliamentary elections – alarming the ruling FLN. Full elections were postponed, FIS was banned and thousands of its members were arrested. In retaliation FIS followers formed the Islamic Armed Movement (MIA), based in the mountains, and the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), based in the towns. Fierce civil war began in Algeria taking the lives of 44,000 to 150,000.

But one thing was proven – that Islam was the ideal of the masses in Algeria.

Did FIS militants kill so many of their countrymen? There have been allegations from several sources that the Algerian Army had in fact infiltrated the GIA and ordered its agents to commit indiscriminate mass killings so as to root out all favor for the Islamist party in the people. As the FIS gained unpopularity due to brutal killings around the country, the GIA was hunted down by the government and practically made to disappear by 2002.

The GIA was also entered-in by recruits that had returned from the Afghan and other Jihads. Since the late 1980s AlQaeda operatives had been organizing the seeding of trained Jihadists in all possible conflict zone around the Muslim world.  The Algerian Civil War was to become one of the breeding grounds for Al Qaeda, a phenomenon that is not local to any state as yet but has been a global one with a disposition matrix of its unique kind.

In 1998 the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) had splintered out of GIA. In 2003, they announced support for Al-Qaeda and in 2006, Ayman al-Zawahiri announced a "blessed union" between the two groups. In 2007, the group changed its name to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM. In the coming years AQIM would serve as the backbone to militant activity before and after the Arab Spring in North African states – its activities would outreach into Iraq and Syria as well.

In a way Algeria has proven its strength through the Arab Spring, where protests went on for over a year starting from Dec. 2010. While in neighboring Tunisia, Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali had to flee leaving his 23 years of power behind and likewise on the other side, Gadhafi had to face a torturous demise – Boutiflika has still cling to power. Apprehending this strength, some sought Algeria to become the ‘policeman of North Africa’, foreseeing its possible military  intervention in Mali and Libya to resolve their crisis, but Boutiflika made it clear that Algeria has no such intentions, though he has tried to lead negotiated crisis-resolution.

In spite of this show of strength, Algeria is not free of internal uncertainties, nor is it safe and secure amidst a conflict-ridden neighborhood. Considering the infiltration; and the fast penetration of AQIM in West Africa and AQIM’s attacks in France - the position of President Boutiflika is not less vulnerable than that of Syrian president Al Assad has been. Today it may seem irrelevant to question President Boutiflika, one of the founding members of the FLN, on whether the FLN played dirty with the FIS and why instead of being a protector it allowed the massacre of its own people. But the alarming question is that in doing so, had the FLN opened its soil to a yet terrible destabilizer, the al Qaeda, a phenomenon the world had not encountered with as yet – and does the FLN have a strategy to expunge AQIM from their country like they did the FIS?