Brutal Algerian conflict of half a century ago a warning from history


ALGERIA/FRANCE: A bitter war between the Muslim population of Algeria and the French colonial power began 50 years ago today. Are there any lessons for wars being fought today, asks Lara Marlowe.

Before dawn 50 years ago today, insurgents attacked 30 French police and military targets across Algeria. The "All Saints Day revolution" had started.

For nearly eight years, Algeria, and at times the French mainland, would be wracked by assassinations and bombings. The National Liberation Front (FLN) inspired liberation movements around the world, and the Franco-Algerian war was viewed as the ultimate colonial struggle.

This is how a present-day Algerian school manual explains the events that set the war in motion: "The preparation for the great armed revolution began in secret. Twenty-two young militants who believed in armed struggle (Jihad) met during the summer of 1954 in Algiers . . . They gave responsibility for preparing the Revolution to a small group of six members, who set the date of November 1st, 1954, at midnight. At the appointed hour, close to 3,000 Moudjahidin surprised the colonial army with co-ordinated attacks and announced the beginning of the Revolution."

The main conflict between Algerian nationalists and the French government splintered into wars within the war. Pro-French Algerians (Harkis) fought the separatists; the FLN crushed rival independence movements; Pieds-Noirs (Christian and Jewish Algerians of European origin) fought Muslims, as well as the French.

And in the last two years of the war, the Secret Armed Organisation (OAS) pitted right-wing French extremists, many of them from the military, against the legitimate French army.

The one feeling shared by all these groups was a sense of betrayal. At independence, as many as 70,000 Harkis were disarmed by their French mentors and left to be slaughtered by the FLN.

So embarrassing was the infighting within the insurrection that the official version of history glorified the "martyrs" killed by the French but omitted leaders like Abdane Ramdane, killed by his comrades, and Krim Belkacem, murdered by Algerian intelligence agents in 1970.

Benjamin Stora, France's leading authority on Algerian history, says the war profoundly destabilised Algerian society: "One million peasants were displaced. There were 250,000 refugees at the borders. Between 400,000 and 500,000 Algerians were killed - proportionately higher than the number of French killed in the first World War.

"It was an extreme brutalisation. The rural population invaded the cities. The exodus of the Pieds-Noirs, who occupied all positions of management and authority, left a structural void."

The Algerian war brought down six French prime ministers and destroyed the Fourth Republic. Gen Charles de Gaulle was brought back to power in 1958 to solve the conflict, and he bequeathed the Fifth Republic with the system still in force, in which the president is all-powerful.

The presence of up to three million people of Algerian origin (half of the country's six million Muslims) in France today is the legacy of 132 years of colonisation.

Most of the immigrants are stuck in tower blocks in the Banlieues, bitter, unassimiliated, and increasingly drawn to fundamentalist Islam.

While post-war Algerian regimes harped on the war of independence to legitimate their grip on power, France observed an uneasy silence for much of the past 50 years.

"The groups of memory - Pieds-Noirs, Harkis and a whole generation of French soldiers felt rejected and misunderstood," explains Benjamin Stora.

These "groups of memory" include up to 7 million people.

"They were screaming in a void. And they closed themselves off and argued among themselves."

During the 1990s, the civil war between the Algerian military and Islamic fundamentalists often seemed a replay of the 1954-1962 conflict.

Some 150,000 Algerians died. Mutilations, beheadings and massacres were repeated. Algerian security forces tortured systematically, using the same Baignoire and Gégène techniques (forced swallowing of liquid, electrical shocks to body parts) that the French used.

Now there are signs that France is recovering from its amnesia over the Algerian war. The use of torture has been extensively investigated and debated in the media and courtrooms over the past four years. In 2002, President Jacques Chirac - who was an army lieutenant in Algeria - inaugurated a memorial to the 23,000 French soldiers who died in North Africa. Last year, December 5th was declared a national day of homage to those who died in the conflict. Chirac intends to conclude a treaty of friendship with Algiers next year.

Attitudes in Algeria are changing too. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika cancelled a military parade today because, he said, he wants to show Algeria's desire for peace. He has invited the country's surviving former presidents - Ahmed Ben Bella, Chadli Bendjedid and Liamine Zeroual - to official ceremonies.

Ben Bella was imprisoned after he was overthrown by Col Houari Boumediène and has lived abroad for many years. Hocine Ait-Ahmed, another historic leader of the independence war who went into exile, will also attend.

Print media in Paris and Algiers are marking the anniversary with an outpouring of commemorative books and magazines. Gillo Pontecorvo's film, The Battle of Algiers, has been shown in both capitals; it was banned in France when it came out in 1966.

The horrors of the Algerian war now resonate in reports from Iraq. The Pentagon shows Pontecorvo's film to US officers to teach them how to fight an insurgency rooted in a hostile Arab population.

Half a century after the French in Algeria, the US use of torture has discredited the military and fanned Iraqi hatred of US forces. The Iraqi insurgents, like the FLN before them, claim the dual inspiration of nationalism and Islam.

France incurred the condemnation of the international community for its conduct of the Algerian war; indeed, de Gaulle's dread of isolation was one of his motives in granting the country independence. The US was one of France's harshest critics.

Now Paris says "we told you so" to Washington, as it sinks into the Iraqi quagmire.

Have the officers in the Pentagon screening rooms fully understood the message of Pontecorvo's film?

It is possible to win militarily, but lose the greater political battle. "There's only one lesson to be learned from Algeria," says Benjamin Stora: "You cannot solve people's problems against their will. There is no turn-key model for democracy.

"France thought it was bringing La Civilisation to Algeria - which is what the Americans want to do in Iraq. It doesn't work; peoples must make their own way."