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9 August 2022

From the NS archive: New dawn in Algeria

6 July 1962: So, after 132 years, French colonial rule in Algeria is over.

By KS Karol

After seven years of war, a referendum held in Algeria on 1 July 1962 resulted in 99.72 per cent of voters deciding in favour of their country’s independence. The conflict between France and the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) had been complex, characterised by guerrilla warfare and the use of torture. It came to be considered a civil war – a result of a century of colonisation. The brutality of the tactics employed by the French forces alienated support from many in metropolitan France and abroad. After major demonstrations across Algiers and other cities in 1960, Charles de Gaulle decided to open negotiations with the FLN, concluding with the signing of the Évian Accords in March 1962. In this article published days after the referendum, the French journalist KS Karol reports on how, after succeeding in their goal, the leadership of the Algerian nationalist group fell apart.  


So, after 132 years, French colonial rule in Algeria is over. With great self-discipline, and unanimity, six million Algerians voted for independence at last Sunday’s referendum. Militant nationalists, some of them armed, kept the crowds under control and distributed the first issue of El Moudjahid – the official paper of the FLN – which is at last being published in Algiers. On the first page one can read this moving appeal: “Brothers and sisters. Avoid anarchy. Do not permit Algeria to become a second Congo.”  

Yet it was at the very moment of independence when the leadership of the FLN fell apart. In order to understand what has been happening, it is necessary to look at the way the personal differences have emerged. During the inter-war years one man dominated the Algerian scene – Messali Hadj. He was a demagogue of great talent, who could rouse the masses by his appeals for a holy war against the French. In his flowing robes, and with his long beard, he was the spit-image of a Muslim prophet. He was idolised in the Muslim districts, and it is said that the hairs from his beard were sold as holy relics in the casbahs. The French first jailed him, then exiled him, but this persecution only strengthened his appeal as a nationalist leader.  

After the war ended in 1945, the former associates of Messali Hadj realised that the high-flown appeals of the prophet were leading nowhere. Many of them were politically mature men, open to modern ideas and more anxious to get results than to indulge in sentimental rhetoric. That is why the central committee of the Messalist party (the MTLD) refused to follow the orders of its leader. Among these dissidents – who were called the “centralists” because they were a majority of the central committee – was an able, cool-headed young intellectual from Blida, Ben Youssef. Ben Khedda, who was born in 1920, trained as a pharmacist, and possessing great ability as a political organiser, he worked with Henri Alleg on the extreme left-wing paper L’Alger Républicain and was thus thought to be fairly close to the communists.  

[See also: From the NS archive: Sand-in-the-salad days]

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But, in fact, Ben Khedda had little use for the revolutionary romanticism of the communists. During the Fifties, he published his own paper, La Nation Algérienne, in which he called for the achievement of independence by non-violence and in stages. He was even willing, at one time, to consider joining the liberal municipal authority in Algiers headed by Jacques Chevalier. It seems that he was surprised by the outbreak of the insurrection on 1 November 1954. It had been prepared by another faction, also composed of former associates of Messali Hadj, led by Ahmed Ben Bella and Mohammed Khider. There were nine of them in all when they founded the CRUA (Comité Révolutionnaire d’Unité et d’Action) and today they are regarded as the founding fathers of the Algerian Revolution.  

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Ben Bella – he is only 39 – served as an officer in the French army, and he had begun an armed struggle against the French even before 1954. Messali Hadj had put him in charge of the defence squads formed to protect Muslim politicians, and he was director of the “special organisation” of the Messalist party. Tough-minded and with some military experience, he was less sophisticated than Ben Khedda, but he had a politically experienced right-hand man in Mohamed Khider, who had once been a deputy in the National Assembly. Ben Bella quickly established his personal ascendancy: he was the leader of the revolt from the very beginning. Unhappily for him, being the first to start the armed struggle, he was also the first who was forced to seek safety abroad. When the French put a price on his head in 1955, he fled to Cairo.  

It is an example of the stupidity of French policy in Algeria that, on 2 November 1954, the French imprisoned Ben Khedda and his “centralist” associates, who had nothing at all to do with the outbreak of the revolt. A year later, when the French finally realised that these men had not supported the armed uprising, the damage was done. Immediately after they were released, they all joined the nationalist maquis. By the beginning of 1956, the first quarrel had broken out among the “brothers”, as the Algerians call each other. It was a spilt of the kind that is familiar in all revolutionary movements – between those who are in exile and those who carry on the difficult struggle at home. But the main person involved was neither Ben Bella or Ben Khedda. It was Abane Ramdane, and those who knew him at the time say that he had the appeal of a Castro or a Tito. He organised a secret congress in Algeria, in a valley of the Soummam, which adopted a declaration of socialist aims; and the FLN still adheres to the charter drawn up by this congress. Ramdane believed that the leaders of the revolution should carry the battle into Algiers itself, aging a ruthless struggle against the French with all kinds of weapons, including terrorism. Accompanied by Ben Khedda and Krim Belkacem he launched this offensive, which was the beginning of the famous and tragic “Battle of Algiers”.  

After the paratroops of Colonel Massu had burnt out the terrorist centre in the casbah Ramdane, Ben Khedda and the other leaders were forced to seek refuge outside Algeria. Then something mysterious happened. Abane Ramdane was liquidated by his comrades. No one knows exactly what took place: some people say that his “brothers” reproached him for the cost of this lost battle. Others say, on the contrary, that he had become so dominant that his colleagues feared he would become another Messali Hadj; and that in the name of collective leadership and to prevent an Algerian “cult of personality”, Ramdane had to be sacrificed.  

This was the manner in which Ben Khedda and Ben Bella became the central figures in the FLN. But Ben Bella was already in prison, together with Mohamed Khider. On the other hand Ferhat Abbas, the leader of a moderate nationalist movement (the UDMA) had rejoined the rebel leadership in Tunis. Paradoxically, it was because he was the best known in the outside world that he was named the first president of the Algerian provisional government. But, at the crucial moment in the peace negotiations with France, it was Ben Khedda who came into the limelight and – since last August – became the formal leader of the nationalist movement.  

[See also: From the NS archive: The Tuscan holiday]

No revolutionary movement can refuse to make tactical compromises with its enemies. But when it does so, it is essential that its leader must have unchallenged authority. This was not the case with Ben Khedda when the cease-fire was signed at Évian. Despite the facade of unity it was already known that many Algerian politicians – led by Ferhat Abbas – were challenging his policy and accusing him of having imposed a “directorate” on the FLN which was composed of his old “centralist” friends such as Saad Dahlab, Yazid and others. Moreover the leaders of the 40,000-strong Algerian Liberation Army across the frontier in Tunis and Morocco were in favour of continuing the struggle until the French were driven out.  

When Ben Bella was released from his imprisonment in France last March, he showed his displeasure with his former comrades. For whatever reason he refused to play ball with the collective leadership. In sharp contradiction to the tradition of solidarity which has marked the FLN leadership, be began to make personal statements in the Arab countries and to let it be understood that he did not accept either the authority or the policy of Ben Khedda. The deal with the OAS, which finished the shooting and bombing in the large towns, probably proved to be the last straw for him. A special session of the parliament-in-exile was called in Tripoli last month, and it seems that Ben Khedda found himself in a minority. But he left Tripoli with his friends before any final decision was taken about the leadership.  

It is difficult to predict the course that this struggle for power will eventually take. Those who are now contending for control are men who have come through the hard school of war and prison, all of them animated by the belief that they embody the true interests of the Algerian Revolution. Most French sympathy understandably goes to Ben Khedda, because he seems the most moderate and the most determined to carry out the agreement with France. President Bourguiba of Tunisia has also given warm support to Ben Khedda. In the short run, all this has no doubt helped him, and he was the first to make a hero’s entry into Algiers this week. But this “Western” support may prove to be a kiss of death. The last word, of course, will be with the rank-and-file who have carried on the struggle inside Algeria for seven years. Reports from the countryside this week suggest that the FLN are in such a militant mood that they may well respond to extremist appeals to carry the revolution through to the bitter end. 

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

[See also: From the NS archive: The newspapers we deserve]