Remembering a revolution

Published : Dec 03, 2004 00:00 IST

Ahmed Ben Bella. A file picture. - SIDALI/GAMMA

Ahmed Ben Bella. A file picture. - SIDALI/GAMMA

Algeria celebrates the 50th anniversary of the start of the struggle for independence from French colonial rule.

THE Algerian revolution is a landmark in the struggle against colonial rule. Its success 50 years ago in the face of overwhelming odds continues to inspire people fighting against oppression. Commentators have in fact started drawing parallels between the struggle being waged by the Iraqi people today and the war the Algerian people fought against French colonial rule.

The Algerian war of independence is one of the bloodiest wars fought on the African continent. More than 1.5 million Algerians died in the struggle. The French lost over 27,000 soldiers, and over 4,000 civilians.

The conflict left deep scars on civil society on both sides. Within four years of the start of the guerilla war, the French "Fourth Republic" collapsed. The late French President Francois Mitterrand, then Interior Minister in the French government, had said in response to the rebel offer of talks that "the only possible negotiation is war". General Charles de Gaulle emerged as the new leader of France, vowing to bring the rebel forces to heel. However, within a couple of years he realised the futility of his mission and started negotiations. The protracted talks eventually led to Algeria's independence in 1962.

ALGERIANS celebrated the 50th anniversary of the revolution on November 1 with great pomp. There were fireworks at the stroke of midnight, accompanied by the blaring of car horns. The main display was above the Martyrs Memorial in the hills that surround Algiers, the capital. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in a speech broadcast nationwide, appealed for national reconciliation and unity of the Maghreb. A military parade for the occasion was cancelled mainly to allay the fears of neighbouring Morocco, which had been alleging that its neighbour was planning a military offensive in coordination with the guerillas of the Polisario Front to liberate Western Sahara.

Western Sahara is one of the few countries that remain under the colonial yoke. The former Spanish colony has been under Moroccan occupation since 1975. In October, King Mohammed of Morocco once again rejected the United Nations proposals for a referendum in the territory. "The Western Sahara issue is not a conflict between Morocco and Algeria. The matter is in the hands of the United Nations. Algeria has nothing to do with it," Bouteflika said in a speech. The Algerian President stressed that his country was for a dialogue between the Polisario Front and Morocco. "Algeria will be the first to recognise the results of that dialogue", said Bouteflika.

Fifty years ago, on November 1, a series of 60 explosions rocked Algiers, killing 10 persons. The well-planned operation targeted police stations, bridges, municipal buildings and electrical facilities. It may not have been a coincidence that the uprising started a few months after the French lost the historic battle of Dien Bien Phu at the hands of the Vietnamese Resistance forces.

The French colonial administration had no inkling of the events that were to unfold. Algeria was the jewel in the French crown. Many Frenchmen had taken it for granted that Algeria would be a French possession forever. More than a million Frenchmen had settled in Algeria, since the 19th century, occupying the best agricultural land, and lording it over the local populace. The French government had started viewing Algeria as a province of France, rather than as a colony

The events of November 1, 1954, marked the birth of the National Liberation Front (FLN). On that day the FLN issued its first official communique in French, announcing the start of the liberation struggle. It emphasised that the task of achieving the goal of independence was in the hands of the FLN. The statement, which emanated from Cairo, claimed responsibility for the explosions and called for "the restoration of the Algerian state". Egypt in the 1950s under Gamal Abdel Nasser, was a haven for revolutionary leaders from all over the Arab world. Nasser did not hide his sympathies for the Algerian revolutionary cause. Ahmed Ben Bella, FLN leader, had travelled to Cairo to keep Nasser informed about the plans for the insurrection.

The first communique of the FLN was aired over Egypt's "Voice of the Arabs" radio. Not only the French authorities, but the Algerian public and the Arab world in general were taken by surprise when the announcement about the formation of the "Revolutionary Committee for Unity and Action" was made. Three of the nine original leaders of the Algerian revolution were based in Egypt. The other six operated underground in Algeria.

Only two of original core leadership are still alive - Ben Bella and Hocine Ait Ahmed. Ben Bella went on to become the first President of Algeria in 1963 after the FLN wrested power from the French after eight years of guerilla warfare, which was noted for its brutality. Hocine Ait Ahmed fell out with the FLN leadership and became a leading opposition figure. Another of the core group, Rabih Bitat, died in 2000.

Three of the "Sons of November" became martyrs to the revolutionary cause. Murad Didoush, who is considered the "mastermind of the revolution", was killed in a battle with the French Army in 1955. Mustafa Ben Buleid also died in action, in 1956. The third, Arabai Ben Muhadai, was executed by the French without trial after he was captured in 1957. The French authorities used torture and other brutal methods as a tool to break the resistance.

The Algerian liberation struggle was immortalised on celluloid in the 1960s by the famous Italian director Gillo Pontecervo in the The Battle of Algiers. Interestingly, the film is considered mandatory viewing for those engaged in insurgency and counter-insurgency operations now. According to reports appearing in the American media, the top brass of the U.S. Defence Department had a special screening of the film after the insurgency in Iraq started gaining momentum. The film is also popular with the Israeli Army establishment, according to reports appearing in the media.

The French colonial power had constructed a "wall" in the 1950s to keep out Algerian "terrorists" coming in from neighbouring countries such as Morocco and Tunisia. The Battle of Algiers, very much like the battles raging in Baghdad and other cities today, was characterised by attacks on civilian targets, like restaurants and buses. The Algerian resistance had come in for criticism from the Western media for its choice of tactics. "Give us planes and tanks and we will abandon terror", Ben Bella said at that time.

As the Iraqis and the Palestinians face overwhelming force, whether it is in Falluja or in Gaza, the Algerian revolution provides valuable guidelines and inspiration. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Algerian revolution inspired those struggling for independence. The Algerian government provided invaluable help for liberation movements. Many guerilla groupings from Palestine, such as Al Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), were trained by the Algerians. The Algerian government also stood solidly behind the popular movements that led the liberation struggles in countries such as Angola and Mozambique. Algeria has also been a steadfast supporter of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and causes associated with the developing world.

However, since the early 1990s, Algeria has been caught in the vortex of violence triggered by the Army's crackdown on Islamists. In the last couple of years, Algeria has managed to calm civil strife and achieve political stability. Algeria's economy is the biggest in Africa after South Africa's.

Somewhere along the way, the revolutionary fervour that made Algeria stand out may have gone. Today, the majority of the populace is below 25 years, unaware of the sacrifices made by the founding fathers to achieve independence from colonial rule.

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