Deconstructing the Algerian Revolution

George Tarabishi
On the left, photograph of Mohammed Harbi by Richard Dumas/Le Monde.
Une vie debout, Memoires politiques, Tome 1: 1945-1962
(Resistant Life: Political Memoirs, 1945-1962)
By Mohammed Harbi
La Decouverte, Paris, 2001
When I translated Gerard Chalian’s book “The Difficulties of Socialism in Algeria” in the mid-1960s, I was hesitant and conflicted, for I felt I was violating a sacred institution. The Algerian question was, in our view (we, the generation who became politically conscious in the 50s), a perfect model of a holy cause and thus above criticism. To justify translating revolution, I wrote an introduction explaining that the transformation of Algeria into a state has allowed one’s transformation from a position of unconditional support to a position of conditional criticism. 
The intellectual courage of Mohammed Harbi lies in the fact that he has taken it upon himself since the early 80s to resume the postponed mission: the task of critically deconstructing the Algerian revolution and rewriting its history based on facts instead of the ideological mystification with which it was once shrouded. In keeping with this goal, he published in 1980 “The Algerian National Liberation Front: Myth and Reality.” This was followed in 1981 with “The Files of Algerian Revolution,” and one year later, “Algeria and Its Destiny.”
Today, with the publication of the first volume of Harbi’s memoirs, he has taken his basic critical approach to the maximum, as if he decided to burn bridges to the past. When one reaches 70 years of age and is an intellectual, perhaps the only venture one finds seductive is the venture of discovering the truth.
The reality of the Algerian revolution, as it comes across in Harbi’s “Resistant Life,” is bitter. This is evident in his account of the revolution’s internal contradictions, which became almost schizophrenic. This revolution, which presented itself as a model for high moralism, failed to match those standards in day-to-day political practice. In fact, many of the revolution’s leaders degraded themselves, if not publicly, then in secret. Admittedly, given the historical circumstances, this disgraceful conduct was the only means to reach political power.
From the first bullet, the Algerian revolution was two-faced: the external was painted with gold and told the epic of resisting the French colonialist, while the internal was secretive, telling the dark story of the struggles over power and personal influence which resorted to mafia tactics including making deals, recruiting mercenaries, exchanging benefits, and ordering assassinations and deaths.
It appears that whole chapters of the secret history of the Algerian revolution could be written in terms of assassination and counter-assassination. The revolution's first years were those of struggle between the National Liberation Front and the Pro-Democracy Movement led by Massali al-Hage. Harbi does not conceal from his readers that Mohammed Boudiaf (an NLF leader), who harbored intense animosity toward Massali al-Hage, plotted to assassinate the historic leader of the Algerian national movement in 1954, while al-Hage himself ordered his followers to physically attack and even kill Boudiaf. At this stage, the struggle between the National Liberation Front, which had determined to monopolize the national struggle, and the National Algerian Movement, which inherited the Massalian organization, was equally disgraceful.
Then the struggle spread within the National Liberation Front ranks, including military and civilian leaders. Assassinations reached France, where five union members were killed in April and October of 1957. According to an official secret document issued in 1957, the National Liberation ordered the assassination of all union leaders who supported Massali and worked within the framework of “the union of Algerian workers.”
But Ramadan Aban was the victim of the most famous assassination in the history of the Algerian revolution. Aban was one of the five most prominent members of the Coordination and Executive Committee, which was elected during the historic Wadi al-Samam Conference in 1956 to lead the Algerian National Movement. Sharp differences soon developed between Aban and Colonel Karim Balqasim over moving the military struggle inside France. Collaborating with four other colonels, Belqasim decided to keep Aban away by having him arrested in one of the Moroccan-based camps of the Algerian National Liberation Army.
Three colonels — Bosof, Sharif, and Belqasim — rushed to execute him rather than merely arrest him. They issued orders to specialized military personnel to kill Aban by strangling and secretly burying him. They issued a statement later declaring that he fell as a martyr in a confrontation with the French forces inside Algeria. Harbi comments that this assassination was his most painful emotional moment, for a while in Tunisia working in the Ministry of Armed Forces (which at the time was headed by Belqasim), he saw Belqasim carrying in his arms a small child, Aban’s son Hasan, playing with him as if nothing had happened!
One cannot account here for the development of the bloody internal conflicts between the cadres in the National Liberation Front, particularly on the eve of independence when the struggle became confined to Belqasim himself (the leader of the Tizi-Ozo group) against Ahmad Ben Bella, a leader with Hawari Boumedienne of the Tal Masan group. Besides assuming a Berber-Arab dimension, the struggle had changed into a conflict between “the Army of the Inside” led by the leaders of the states and “the Army of the Outside” based on the Tunisian borders under the leadership of Boumedienne.
At this point, the struggle came out into the open, expressing itself not only in secret assassinations but also in open confrontations and street battles in larger Algerian cities. On August 29, 1962, a bloody confrontation erupted in the al-Qasba suburb of the capital, forcing residents into the streets protesting and shouting, “We’ve had enough! Seven years of war!” The next day, the Army of the Outside forced its way into the capital after a violent confrontation with the Fourth State caused the death of hundreds.
Finally, Algeria celebrated its independence, but this happy ending did not stop the internal fighting. Ben Bella became president of independent Algeria in 1963, only to be overthrown by Boumedienne in 1965. However, these and subsequent developments which led Algeria into the current civil war have no place in the first volume of Harbi’s political memoirs, which ended during the very important year of Algeria’s independence.
Translated from the Arabic by Elie Chalala
This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 8, No. 41 (Fall 2002).
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