July 5, 2022, marks the 60th anniversary of Algeria securing its independence from France. Algeria’s revolutionary example inspired activists and freedom fighters around the world, including anti-colonial leaders throughout Africa and Black revolutionaries in the United States. Yet much has changed in Algeria over the last half century. In this special interview commemorating the battle for Algerian independence, author, activist, and TRNN board member Bill Fletcher, Jr. sits down with Brahim Rouabah to discuss Algeria’s history since independence—from the 1965 coup to the civil war of the 1990s and the recent Hirak Movement—and to examine how colonial interests have continued to shape Algeria’s politics and history into the present.
Brahim Rouabah, an Algerian activist and scholar, is the cofounder and former leader of the UK Algeria Solidarity Campaign. He is currently a doctoral student at the City University of New York and the author of the 2020 essay, published in the Review of African Political Economy, “The Colonial Counter-Revolution: The People’s Revolution in Algeria.”
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Adam Coley
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Greetings, my name is Bill Fletcher Jr., and on behalf of The Real News Network, I’m your host for a discussion about the Algerian Revolution. July 5 marks the 60th anniversary of Algeria securing its independence from France. After a brutal war of national liberation in which hundreds of thousands of Algerians were killed fighting to break French domination, Algeria declared independence on July 5, 1962.
For many activists around the world including in the United States, the Algerian Revolution was a beacon of inspiration. A mass movement plus a guerrilla campaign had driven the French out, and the new government not only pursued non-traditional approaches to development, but offered badly-needed support to freedom fighters in other parts of Africa, as well as around the world.
Many African American activists in the United States saw in the Algerian Revolution, including the writings of the Martiniquan revolutionary psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, who devoted himself to Algeria, an approach and a lens to fighting racism, settler colonialism, and imperialism that went beyond the limits of civil rights or a Black-white paradigm.
But all was not paradise in Algeria. Today we’re going to spend some time examining the historical significance of the Algerian Revolution as well as its trajectory since 1962. We’ll attempt to understand the twists and turns, but also the tragedies that afflicted Algeria in the 1990s and the conditions that have led in the last several years to new popular movements challenging the status quo.
To assist us in this journey, we’re honored to be joined by Brahim Rouabah, an Algerian activist, co-founder, and former leader of the United Kingdom Algeria Solidarity Campaign. He’s currently a doctoral candidate and a teaching assistant at the City University of New York, and is the author of an essay I strongly recommend from the Review of African Political Economy, entitled “The Colonial Counter-Revolution: The People’s Revolution in Algeria.” Welcome, Brahim. Thank you for joining us.
Brahim Rouabah: Thank you for having me. Thank you, Bill.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: So, I want to just start with what you would say in terms of the historical significance of the Algerian revolution. Why should people care? What should people be looking at?
Brahim Rouabah: As you know, that’s a big question to answer in just a few minutes, but what I would say, as you mentioned before, that the Algerian Revolution really did break the legs of French colonialism in Africa, and that had reverberations across the continent and beyond. The Algerian Revolution has served as an inspiration to liberation movements both on the African continent and elsewhere in the world, but it has itself been influenced by other popular movements elsewhere, the Cuban Revolution. An example that may be more closely connected to the Algerian was the struggle of the Vietnamese people and the victory of the Dien Bien Phu in 1954, really gave the impetus for the Algerian Revolution.
So, just to set the context, in the mid ’50s, like ’56, ’57, the French Empire had around half a million soldiers, troops on the ground in Algeria, hanging tooth and nail to the jewel in the crown in its empire. And the Algerian Revolution, through breaking down French power and prestige and reputation, allowed or created the space of possibility for over a dozen African colonies. So a dozen African states came to be, in large part, thanks to the struggle in Algeria.
But that also reminds us that oppressed peoples, the struggles of oppressed peoples, against racial, colonial, capitalist domination anywhere in the world is a struggle on behalf of all of us, on behalf of all of the oppressed in the rest of the Earth. So it had that significance, that’s one angle. The second area that it had an impact was in enshrining certain international norms, normalizing, in some ways, the resort to armed struggle as a legitimate means to unload the colonial yoke and dignifying it. And highlighting the fact that what is more malicious, or the cause of the reaction of oppressed peoples, and they resort to armed struggle as a result of the violence of the colonial system, of colonial white supremacy.
So it had imposed or helped to reinforce those international norms, and enlarged the toolbox for people struggling everywhere in the world. It had also created the space for international or transnational solidarity between movements, anti-colonial movements struggling against colonialism all over the world.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: For many of us here in the United States, I was quite a young activist in the late ’60s, and many Black power, Black liberation activists were very inspired by the Algerian Revolution. But my sense is that with the coup in 1965, that something was changing within Algeria, even though Algeria’s international relations seemed to remain fairly anti-imperialist. But something was going on that many of us didn’t understand. And I’m curious if you could sort of give us an idea of what happens after ’65 going forward.
Brahim Rouabah: I’m not sure I want to start in ’65 or say that the coup in 1965 is sort of the original sin, if you like, of what came afterwards. In some ways, I want to say that the gains that were achieved by my forefathers, that decolonization for them, or emancipation from colonial rule, was a horizon of expectation, if you like. And their generation has worked to achieve as much as possible, but what has been called independence is not a neat category, it’s not a neat process.
So what happened, I think, in ’62, we have this tendency of thinking about history and historical time in terms of breaks and ruptures, that somehow on the 4th of July in 1962 Algeria was colonized, and on the 5th of July it became fully and absolutely sovereign or independent. And I think that’s a mistaken view, because it just invisibilizes the ways in which colonial relations remain and are extended, and the struggle between revolutionary and counterrevolutionary forces continues after that.
So, in ’62, what I would say before ’65, in ’62, what happened was that the people who have come to power, Ben Bella and Boumediene, who internationally, especially in leftist circles, are held in very high esteem, unfortunately they allied themselves, they aligned themselves with deserters of the French Army, Algerian deserters from the French Army, with officers who served in the French Army, some of whom fought the Battle of Algiers but on the French side, to take over power in the summer of ’62.
And 2000 Algerian fighters from the inside, people who were inside Algeria fighting the French, they killed 2000 people to take power in ’62. So power from day one was concentrated in the Army, in the Liberation Army and in the leadership of Boumediene, who was really the power hiding behind Ben Bella. So Ben Bella served, in some ways, as a civilian façade for the sort of [inaudible] that came in and took over power in ’62. It only took three years for that military and the leadership of Boumediene to then depose Ben Bella, and that unfolded. We can talk a little bit about what happened in the ’90s, but that’s sort of the original knot that needs to be undone.
Then the changes in ’65, there were changes because after 1965, Algeria was still home to liberation movements, as Amilcar Cabral referred to Algiers as the Mecca of revolutionaries. But some of that, I think, was also due to popular pressure, to the ethos, the egalitarian ethos and internationalist ethos of the Algerian people involved in the revolution against racial colonial domination. So Algeria remained open to those movements, but unfortunately not for that long afterwards.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: So, in the interest of time, if you could then take us to what happens in the late ’80s, and then how does that transition to this bloody civil war that too few people in the United States, including in the US left, really understand what was going on? So what’s happening? Because as you’re describing it, it sounds like the revolution was eroding from within. But was there a particular crisis that happens in the ’70s or ’80s, or was it just sort of the evolution of events?
Brahim Rouabah: I don’t know whether it was just erosion from within, but I think erosion from within is a process that is constituted also by external forces. And that’s what I think of as the colonial counterrevolution. That’s why I mentioned that we need to think about history in terms of continuities and not only in terms of ruptures, that we can’t think that the interests that were pre-independence just disappeared. We can’t think that the colonial powers just dragged their tails of defeat back into Europe, turned the page, and all of a sudden they are treating Algeria as an equal partner and Algerians as equal human beings. That’s not the case.
So the colonial counterrevolution would always want to hollow out, would always want to empty the gains of the Algerian Revolution from their content, and in some ways, to go back, if possible, to the status quo [inaudible] as much as possible, to regain colonial privileges, racial privileges in Algeria. So in the ’80s what happens, I think again it’s a conjuncture and a coming together of multiple forces, with the rise or the ascendancy of neoliberalism, what is called neoliberalism, which is part, again, and parcel of this colonial counterrevolution.
So you had that on a global stage, the decline of the Soviet Union, the Cold War, and the bipolarity on the international stage created the space of possibility for Third-Worldist politics. You needed to have bipolarity. That’s not possible, or it’s much, much harder, let’s say, in a unipolar world, which comes later, after ’89. So there’s that, the move towards unipolarity, neoliberal ascendancy.
And then at the same time, the ascendancy of that officer class that I was talking about in Algeria, who served in the French Army. By the mid ’80s, they’d become generals. So, initially, the reasoning for Ben Bella and Boumediene to bring them into the fold or to ally themselves with them… So these were deserters who went to the Algerian Army on the borders in Tunisia and in Morocco. So aligning themselves with them gave them… In some ways, they justified it in technocratic terms, that these people have the know-how, the military know-how, they’re trained in the French Army, and they’re going to be useful to us in training the National Army in the project of state building.
But by the ’80s, they have become generals, so they are the top brass officers in the Algerian Army, and their interests have always, in some ways, been linked to those of the colonial metropole. They are Francophone. They are Francophiles, in fact, not just Francophone. They think that France represents modernity, civilization, and the telos towards which Algeria should move.So in some ways they are intellectually colonized, they haven’t decolonized intellectually. And they are connected organically, their economic interests are also intertwined with those of the imperial metropole.
So what happens with oil? The oil prices fall, which are the main income for Algeria, as an oil and gas producer. That creates food shortages, high prices of foodstuffs, and brings Algerians on the streets demanding more social justice, because that created all these differences.
And this military oligarchy, or comprador military oligarchy, then, as the local agent of the colonial counterrevolution, embarks on a period, if you like, of dispossession. So it dispossesses the Algerian people of what had been re-commoned, or put back into the commons in ’62. The privatization of land, of the publicly owned companies and so on, and selling them for peanuts to networks of privilege, those networks that orbit around this military oligarchy.
And they justified this to themselves and to the world outside and to a certain section of Algerian society by saying this is a fight against… They justified the violence that accompanied that project, the accumulation through dispossession, they justified it by saying that, oh, this is a civil war. Or, we’re fighting Islamic or Islamist terrorists, while they were referring to the party that won free and fair elections fair and square. So that brings us up to the early ’90s, I guess.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Which results in the military taking over, and a civil war that by all standards was incredibly bloody. From what I understand, it was… Well, actually, let me just ask you directly. So, what was really at stake in the civil war? Was this primarily a battle of Jihadists against a secular progressive state, or a secular neoliberal state, or was this something else?
Brahim Rouabah: I think the framing of civil war is a misleading framing of what had happened in the ’90s in Algeria. And that’s a framing that the ruling military oligarchy in Algeria pushes because it serves to confuse, especially people outside of Algeria, thinking that it is a civil war. Civil war implies that there are two parts of Algerian society that are fighting one another. Well, that was not the case. I think this was a war on civilians by a comprador military oligarchy that was dispossessing Algerians, and any dispossession is a violent process. You need to back it by violence because people are going to resist that.
And for them to divide the people and to make it as if it is about religious forces in the country, and also framing it as a fight against Jihadists, Islamists, which was… We’re talking about an accredited political party that was accredited by the Algerian state. But to buy international support and to justify it on the international stage to the French, to the French public opinion, to the American public opinion, they were saying, oh, look. This is the rise of Islamism, and the rise of religiosity is going to bring about another Iran in the Southern Mediterranean.
So the Iranian Revolution had been around for less than a decade, and that had a major impact on the American psyche, the Western psyche, in terms of a force or a struggle that should not be allowed to be exported… Or to be contained, it needed to be contained. So, the Algerian military oligarchy played on those fears, and they said, this is what’s going to happen if you don’t back us in eliminating this threat.
What ended up happening was a quarter of a million Algerians lost their lives. These people who lost their lives, the massacres that happened, there are studies now showing that most of the massacres that happened in fact happened in constituencies that had voted for the Islamist party in the 1991 elections. So it does not make sense to say that it is these people who have killed their own supporters. It had to be someone else who had an interest in doing that.
But more and more research is being done on this period, and Algerians themselves, in some ways, are still rewriting, especially with the recent movement, that is a push to rewrite Algerian history and to deconstruct the official historiography and narratives.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Well, let me ask you about this, then. We only have a few minutes left and I’d like to segue from what you just said to the current moment. You said that there’s a reexamination of that history. The news had many stories about a popular movement, the Hirak that was underway. Is there a connection between that Hirak and an assessment of what happened in the 1990s?
Brahim Rouabah: Absolutely, absolutely. Again, because it’s the destruction. The degeneration that’s involved in Hirak is a product of the destruction, the massive destruction that was wrought on Algeria since 1990 or 1992. So it’s the dispossession, the refraction of the state, the privatization of publicly owned goods and resources, the opening up of the economy for imperial interests and multinational corporate interests. So some of it, the Hirak movement since 2019, has challenged all these processes and the narratives that come with them.
So, the Hirak sees itself as linked to the Algerian Revolution, anticolonial revolution, in organic ways, that this is the continuation of that struggle. Often you hear people saying that in 1962 we liberated the land, and now it’s about liberating the people, or the humans. So it’s linked to the anticolonial revolution, and it’s very much linked to the ’90s because the conditions in which this movement comes or gains to which it’s rising up have been put in place over the last three decades.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Brahim Rouabah, I wish that we had two hours to go deeper. This has been fascinating. And as I said, since I was a young radical, I’ve had this great love of Algeria and hope for Algeria. And at many points my heart has been broken when I’ve looked at the tragedies that have unfolded, but at the same time, becoming very inspired by the resilience of the people. And I want to thank you very much for joining us, because I think it’s important that we celebrate the 60th anniversary of Algerian independence, recognizing that there’s many challenges ahead. So I want to thank you again very much for joining us.
Brahim Rouabah: Absolutely, thank you so much for having me.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: And this is Bill Fletcher signing off for The Real News Network, and thank you very much for joining us today for this examination of the Algerian Revolution and the 60th anniversary of their independence from France. Thanks very much.