This article is part of the History of Algeria series.
Nationalism and resistance in Algeria
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2 Polarization and Politicization
A new generation of Muslim leadership emerged in Algeria at the time of World War I and grew to maturity during the 1920s and 1930s. It consisted of a small but influential class of évolués, other Algerians whose perception of themselves and their country had been shaped by wartime experiences, and a body of religious reformers and teachers. Some of these people were members of the few wealthy Muslim families that had managed to insinuate themselves into the colonial system in the 1890s and had with difficulty succeeded in obtaining for their sons the French education so coveted by progressive Algerians. Others were among the about 173,000 Algerians who had served in the French army during World War I or the several hundred thousand more who had assisted the French war effort by working in factories. In France they became aware of a standard of living higher than any they had known at home and of democratic political concepts, taken for granted by Frenchmen in France, which colons, soldiers, and bureaucrats had refused to apply to the Muslim majority in Algeria. Some Algerians also became acquainted with the pan-Arab nationalism growing in the Middle East.
One of the earliest movements for political reform was an integrationist group, the Young Algerians (Jeunesse Algérienne). Its members were drawn from the small, liberal elite of welleducated , middle-class évolués who demanded an opportunity to prove that they were French as well as Muslim. In 1908 they delivered to France's Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau a petition that expressed opposition under the status quo to a proposed policy to conscript Muslim Algerians into the French army. If, however, the state granted the Muslims full citizenship, the petition went on, opposition to conscription would be dropped. In 1911, in addition to demanding preferential treatment for "the intellectual elements of the country," the group called for an end to unequal taxation, broadening of the franchise, more schools, and protection of indigenous property. The Young Algerians added a significant voice to the reformist movement against French colonial policy that began in 1892 and continued until the outbreak of World War I. In part to reward Muslims who fought and died for France, Clemenceau appointed reform-minded Charles Jonnart as governor general. Reforms promulgated in 1919 and known as the Jonnart Law expanded the number of Muslims permitted to vote to about 425,000. The legislation also removed all voters from the jurisdiction of the humiliating indigénat.
The most popular Muslim leader in Algeria after the war was Khalid ibn Hashim, grandson of Abd al Qadir and a member of the Young Algerians, although he differed with some members of the group over acceptance of the Jonnart Law. Some Young Algerians were willing to work within the framework set out by the reforms, but Emir Khalid, as he was known, continued to press for the complete Young Algerian program. He was able to win electoral victories in Algiers and to enliven political discourse with his calls for reform and full assimilation, but by 1923 he tired of the struggle and left Algeria, eventually retiring to Damascus.
Some of the Young Algerians in 1926 formed the Federation of Elected Natives (Fédération des Elus Indigènes--FEI), as many of the former group's members had joined the circle of Muslims eligible to hold public office. The federation's objectives were the assimilation of the évolués into the French community, with full citizenship but without surrendering their personal status as Muslims, and the eventual integration of Algeria as a full province of France. Other objectives included equal pay for equal work for government employees, abolition of travel restrictions to and from France, abolition of the indigénat (which had been reinstituted earlier), and electoral reform.
The first group to call for Algerian independence was the Star of North Africa (Étoile Nord-Africain, known as Star). The group was originally a solidarity group formed in 1926 in Paris to coordinate political activity among North African workers in France and to defend "the material, moral, and social interests of North African Muslims." The leaders included members of the French Communist Party and its labor confederation, and in the early years of the struggle for independence the party provided material and moral support. Ahmed Messali Hadj, the Star's secretary general, enunciated the groups demands in 1927. In addition to independence from France, the Star called for freedom of press and association, a parliament chosen through universal suffrage, confiscation of large estates, and the institution of Arabic schools. The Star was banned in 1929 and operated underground until 1934, when its newspaper reached a circulation of 43,500. Influenced by the Arab nationalist ideas of Lebanese Druze Shakib Arslan, Messali Hadj turned away from communist ideology to a more nationalist outlook, for which the French Communist Party attacked the Star. He returned to Algeria to organize urban workers and peasant farmers and in 1937 founded the Party of the Algerian People (Parti du Peuple Algérien--PPA) to mobilize the Algerian working class at home and in France to improve its situation through political action. For Messali Hadj, who ruled the PPA with an iron hand, these aims were inseparable from the struggle for an independent Algeria in which socialist and Islamic values would be fused.
Algeria's Islamic reform movement took inspiration from Egyptian reformers Muhammad Abduh and Muhammad Rashid Rida and stressed the Arab and Islamic roots of the country. Starting in the 1920s, the reform ulama, religious scholars, promoted a purification of Islam in Algeria and a return to the Quran and the sunna, or tradition of the Prophet. The reformers favored the adoption of modern methods of inquiry and rejected the superstitions and folk practices of the countryside, actions that brought them into confrontation with the marabouts. The reformers published their own periodicals and books, and established free modern Islamic schools that stressed Arabic language and culture as an alternative to the schools for Muslims operated for many years by the French. Under the dynamic leadership of Shaykh Abd al Hamid Ben Badis, the reformist ulama organized the Association of Algerian Muslim Ulama (Association des Uléma Musulmans Algériens- -AUMA) in 1931. Although their support was concentrated in the Constantine area, the AUMA struck a responsive chord among the Muslim masses, with whom it had closer ties than did the other nationalist organizations. As the Islamic reformers gained popularity and influence, the colonial authorities responded in 1933 by refusing them permission to preach in official mosques. This move and similar ones sparked several years of sporadic religious unrest.
European influences had some impact on indigenous Muslim political movements because Ferhat Abbas and Messali Hadj essentially looked to France for their ideological models. Ben Badis, however, believed that "Islam is our religion, Arabic our language, Algeria our fatherland." Abbas summed up the philosophy of the liberal integrationists in opposition to the claims of the nationalists when he denied in 1936 that Algeria had a separate identity. Ben Badis responded that he, too, had looked to the past and found "that this Algerian nation is not France, cannot be France, and does not want to be France . . . [but] has its culture, its traditions and its characteristics, good or bad, like every other nation of the earth."
The colons, for their part, rejected any movement toward reform, whether instigated by integrationist or nationalist organizations. Reaction in Paris to the nationalists was divided. In the 1930s, French liberals saw only the évolués as a possible channel for diffusing political power in Algeria, denigrating Messali Hadj for demagoguery and the AUMA for religious obscurantism. At all times, however, the French government was confronted by the monolithic intransigence of the leaders of the European community in Algeria in opposing any devolution of power to Muslims, even to basically pro-French évolués. The colons also had powerful allies in the French National Assembly, the bureaucracy, the armed forces, and the business community, and were strengthened in their resistance by their almost total control of the Algerian administration and police.
The mounting social, political, and economic crises in Algeria for the first time induced older and newly emerged classes of indigenous society to engage from 1933 to 1936 in numerous acts of political protest. The government responded with more restrictive laws governing public order and security. In 1936 French socialist Léon Blum became premier in a Popular Front government and appointed Maurice Viollette his minister of state. The ulama, sensing a new attitude in Paris that would favor their agenda, cautiously joined forces with the FEI.
Representatives of these groups and members of the Algerian Communist Party (Parti Communiste Algérien--PCA) met in Algiers in 1936 at the first Algerian Muslim Congress. (Messali Hadj and the Star were left out owing to misgivings about their more radical program.) The congress drew up an extensive Charter of Demands, which called for the abolition of laws permitting imposition of the régime d'exception, political integration of Algeria and France, maintenance of personal legal status by Muslims acquiring French citizenship, fusion of European and Muslim education systems in Algeria, freedom to use Arabic in education and the press, equal wages for equal work, land reform, establishment of a single electoral college, and universal suffrage.
Blum and Viollette gave a warm reception to a congress delegation in Paris and indicated that many of their demands could be met. Meanwhile, Violettee drew up for the Blum government a proposal to extend French citizenship with full political equality to certain classes of the Muslim "elite," including university graduates, elected officials, army officers, and professionals. Messali Hadj saw in the Viollette Plan a new "instrument of colonialism . . . to split the Algerian people by separating the elite from the masses." The components of the congress--the ulama, the FEI, and communists--were heartened by the proposal and gave it varying measures of support. Mohamed Bendjelloul and Abbas, as spokesmen for the évolués, who would have the most to gain from the measure, considered this plan a major step toward achieving their aims and redoubled their efforts through the liberal FEI to gain broad support for the policy of Algerian integration with France. Not unexpectedly, however, the colons had taken uncompromising exception to the Viollette Plan. Although the project would have granted immediate French citizenship and voting rights to only about 21,000 Muslims, with provision for adding a few thousand more each year, spokesmen for the colons raised the specter of the European electorate's being submerged by a Muslim majority. Colon administrators and their supporters threw procedural obstacles in the path of the legislation, and the government gave it only lukewarm support, resulting in its ultimate failure.
While the Viollette Plan was still a live issue, however, Messali Hadj made a dramatic comeback to Algeria and had significant local success in attracting people to the Star. A mark of his success was the fact that in 1937 the government dissolved the Star. The same year Messali Hadj formed the PPA, which had a more moderate program, but he and other PPA leaders were arrested following a large demonstration in Algiers. Although Messali Hadj spent many years in jail, his party had the most widespread support of all opposition groups until it was banned in 1939.
Disillusioned by the failure of the Viollette Plan to win acceptance in Paris, Abbas shifted from a position of favoring assimilation of the évolués and full integration with France to calling for the development of a Muslim Algeria in close association with France but retaining "her own physiognomy, her language, her customs, her traditions." His more immediate goal was greater political, social, and economic equality for Muslims with the colons. By 1938 the cooperation among the parties that made up the congress began to break up.
Polarization and Politicization
Algerian Muslims rallied to the French side at the start of World War II as they had done in World War I. Nazi Germany's quick defeat of France, however, and the establishment of the collaborationist Vichy regime, to which the colons were generally sympathetic, not only increased the difficulties of the Muslims but also posed an ominous threat to the Jews in Algeria. The Algerian administration vigorously enforced the anti-Semitic laws imposed by Vichy, which stripped Algerian Jews of their French citizenship. Potential opposition leaders in both the European and the Muslim communities were arrested.
Allied landings were made at Algiers and Oran by 70,000 British and United States troops on November 8, 1942, in coordination with landings in Morocco. As part of Operation Torch under the overall command of Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Algiers and Oran were secured two days later after a determined resistance by French defenders. On November 11, Admiral Jean Louis Darlan, commander in chief of Vichy French forces, ordered a cease-fire in North Africa. Algeria provided a base for the subsequent Allied campaign in Tunisia.
After the fall of the Vichy regime in Algeria, General Henri Giraud, Free French commander in chief in North Africa, slowly rescinded repressive Vichy laws despite opposition by colon extremists. He also called on the Muslim population to supply troops for the Allied war effort. Ferhat Abbas and twenty-four other Muslim leaders replied that Algerians were ready to fight with the Allies in freeing their homeland but demanded the right to call a conference of Muslim representatives to develop political, economic, and social institutions for the indigenous population "within an essentially French framework." Giraud, who succeeded in raising an army of 250,000 men to fight in the Italian campaign, refused to consider this proposal, explaining that "politics" must wait until the end of the war.
In March 1943, Abbas, who had abandoned assimilation as a viable alternative to self-determination, presented the French administration with the Manifesto of the Algerian People, signed by fifty-six Algerian nationalist and international leaders. Outlining the past evils of colonial rule and denouncing continued suppression, the manifesto demanded specifically an Algerian constitution that would guarantee immediate and effective political participation and legal equality for Muslims. It called for agrarian reform, recognition of Arabic as an official language on equal terms with French, recognition of a full range of civil liberties, and the liberation of political prisoners of all parties.
The French governor general created a commission composed of prominent Muslims and Europeans to study the manifesto. This commission produced a supplementary reform program, which was forwarded to General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French movement. De Gaulle and his newly appointed governor general in Algeria, General Georges Catroux, a recognized liberal, viewed the manifesto as evidence of a need to develop a mutually advantageous relationship between the European and Muslim communities. Catroux was reportedly shocked by the "blinded spirit of social conservatism" of the colons, but he did not regard the manifesto as a satisfactory basis for cooperation because he felt it would submerge the European minority in a Muslim state. Instead, the French administration in 1944 instituted a reform package, based on the 1936 Viollette Plan, that granted full French citizenship to certain categories of "meritorious" Algerian Muslims--military officers and decorated veterans, university graduates, government officials, and members of the Legion of Honor--who numbered about 60,000.
A new factor influencing Muslim reaction to the reintroduction of the Viollette Plan--which by that date even many moderates had rejected as inadequate--was the shift in Abbas's position from support for integration to the demand for an independent Algerian state federated with France. Abbas gained the support of the AUMA and of Messali Hadj, who joined him in forming the Friends of the Manifesto and Liberty (Amis du Manifeste et de la Liberté--AML) to work for Algerian independence. Within a short time, the AML's newspaper, Égalité, claimed 500,000 subscribers, indicating unprecedented interest in independence.
During this time the outlawed PPA was creating secret political cells throughout the country and paramilitary groups in the Kabylie and the Constantine region. In addition, PPA supporters joined the AML in large numbers and attempted to promote Messali Hadj's independence concept in contrast to the more moderate autonomy advocates. Social unrest grew in the winter of 1944-45, fueled in part by a poor wheat harvest, shortages of manufactured goods, and severe unemployment. On May Day, the AML organized demonstrations in twenty-one towns across the country, with marchers demanding freedom for Messali Hadj and independence for Algeria. Violence erupted in some locations, including Algiers and Oran, leaving many wounded and three dead.
Nationalist leaders were resolving to mark the approaching liberation of Europe with demonstrations calling for their own liberation, and it was clear that a clash with the authorities was imminent. The tensions between the Muslim and colon communities exploded on May 8, 1945, V-E Day, in an outburst of such violence as to make their polarization complete, if not irreparable. Police had told AML organizers they could march in Sétif only if they did not display nationalist flags or placards. They ignored the warnings, the march began, and gunfire resulted in which a number of police and demonstrators were killed. Marchers rampaged, leading to the killing of 103 Europeans. Word spread to the countryside, and villagers attacked colon settlements and government buildings.
The army and police responded by conducting a prolonged and systematic ratissage (literally, raking over) of suspected centers of dissidence. In addition, military airplanes and ships attacked Muslim population centers. According to official French figures, 1,500 Muslims died as a result of these countermeasures. Other estimates vary from 6,000 to as high as 45,000 killed.
In the aftermath of the Sétif violence, the AML was outlawed, and 5,460 Muslims, including Abbas, were arrested. Abbas deplored the uprising but charged that its repression had taken Algeria "back to the days of the Crusades." In April 1946, Abbas once again asserted the demands of the manifesto and founded the Democratic Union of the Algerian Manifesto (Union Démocratique du Manifeste Algérien--UDMA), abandoning the alliance that the AML had made with Messali Hadj's PPA and the AUMA. Abbas called for a free, secular, and republican Algeria loosely federated with France. Upon his release from five-year house arrest, Messali Hadj returned to Algeria and formed the Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties (Mouvement pour le Triomphe des Libertés Démocratiques--MTLD), which quickly drew supporters from a broad cross-section of society. Committed to unequivocal independence, the MTLD firmly opposed Abbas's proposal for federation. The PPA continued to operate, but clandestinely, always striving for an independent, Arab, and Islamic Algeria. The clandestine Special Organization (Organisation Spéciale--OS) was created within the MTLD by Hocine Ait Ahmed in 1947 to conduct terrorist operations when political protest through legal channels was suppressed by authorities. Ait Ahmed was later succeeded as chief of the OS by Ahmed Ben Bella, one of the early Algerian nationalist leaders.
The National Assembly approved the government-proposed Organic Statute of Algeria in August 1947. This law called for the creation of an Algerian Assembly with one house representing Europeans and "meritorious" Muslims, and the other representing the remaining more than 8 million Muslims. The statute also replaced mixed communes with elected local councils, abolished military government in the Algerian Sahara, recognized Arabic as an official language with French, and proposed enfranchising Muslim women. Muslim and colon deputies alike abstained or voted against the statute but for diametrically opposed reasons: the Muslims because it fell short of their expectations and the colons because it went too far.
The sweeping victory of Messali Hadj's MTLD in the 1947 municipal elections frightened the colons, whose political leaders, through fraud and intimidation, attempted to obtain a result more favorable to them in the following year's first Algerian Assembly voting. The term élection algérienne became a synonym for rigged election. The MTLD was allowed nine seats, Abbas's UDMA was given eight, and government-approved "independents" were awarded fifty-five seats. These results may have reassured some of the colons that the nationalists had been rejected by the Muslim community, but the elections suggested to many Muslims that a peaceful solution to Algeria's problems was not possible.
At the first session of the colon-controlled Algerian Assembly, an MTLD delegate was arrested at the door, prompting other Muslim representatives to walk out in protest. A request by Abbas to gain the floor was refused. Frustrated by these events, the nationalist parties, joined by the PCA, formed a common political front that undertook to have the results of the election voided. French socialists and moderates tried to initiate a formal inquiry into the reports of vote fraud but were prevented from doing so by the assembly's European delegates, who persuaded the governor general that an investigation would disturb the peace. New elections in 1951 were subject to the same sort of rigging that had characterized the 1948 voting.
In 1952 anti-French demonstrations precipitated by the OS led to Messali Hadj's arrest and deportation to France. Internal divisions and attacks by the authorities severely weakened the MTLD, draining its energies. Colon extremists took every opportunity to persuade the French government of the need for draconian measures against the emergent independence movement.
Ben Bella created a new underground action committee to replace the OS, which had been broken up by the French police in 1950. The new group, the Revolutionary Committee of Unity and Action (Comité Révolutionnaire d'Unité et d'Action--CRUA), was based in Cairo, where Ben Bella had fled in 1952. Known as the chefs historiques (historical chiefs), the group's nine original leaders--Ait Ahmed, Mohamed Boudiaf, Belkacem Krim, Rabah Bitat, Larbi Ben M'Hidi, Mourad Didouch, Moustafa Ben Boulaid, Mohamed Khider, and Ben Bella--were considered the leaders of the Algerian War of Independence.
Between March and October 1954, the CRUA organized a military network in Algeria comprising six military regions (referred to at the time as wilayat; sing., wilaya). The leaders of these regions and their followers became known as the "internals." Ben Bella, Khider, and Ait Ahmed formed the External Delegation in Cairo. Encouraged by Egypt's President Gamal Abdul Nasser (r. 1954-71), their role was to gain foreign support for the rebellion and to acquire arms, supplies, and funds for the wilaya commanders. In October the CRUA renamed itself the National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale--FLN), which assumed responsibility for the political direction of the revolution. The National Liberation Army (Armée de Libération Nationale--ALN), the FLN's military arm, was to conduct the War of Independence within Algeria.