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No matter how delicately one tries to speak about 20th century European colonialism, saying anything positive of former colonial powers is usually seen as elitist and Eurocentric, at best, militaristic and racist, at worst. This is especially true of a complicated place like Algeria.
This past week, the international community memorialized the fifty-year anniversary of Algeria’s independence, granted by French President Charles De Gaulle on July 3, 1962, after a bloody eight-year war against pro-independence revolutionaries.
But what exactly is being commemorated? Algeria today is an absolute mess. My research work, which has taken me to the country several times in recent years, indicates that it is a highly fractured and unstable society. There is also a constant Islamist threat. Putting it bluntly, I have found the country chaotic, filthy and tension-filled. It should be an embarrassment to the country’s leaders — and to the international development experts who have advised it for decades.
Algeria’s revolutionary violence during the 1950s seems to have achieved little more than leaving an estimated 700,000 dead, and thousands more scarred physically and psychologically. Driven by an ideology of Communism and early Islamism, groups like the National Liberation Front mercilessly used guerrilla tactics, torture and terrorism against their own people. French paratroopers responded ruthlessly with their own counter-insurgency tactics — and, for a while, they succeeded. (Gillo Pontecorvo’s excellent 1966 film, “The Battle of Algiers,” depicts some of the battles and the tactics used by both sides.)
I won’t tax readers with a detailed account of that horrific war; there are numerous excellent published accounts (such as Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace). But it is worth noting that even after independence was granted, attacks on Algerian civilians —including Berber peoples — at the hands of various factions of insurgents continued for decades. The terrifying civil war of the 1990s between various Islamist rebel groups and the government left another 200,000 dead. The poor, doomed Cistercian monks of Tibhirine — seven of them decapitated by an Islamist group in 1996 — were the most famous victims of that awful decade. (This is beautifully memorialized in the poignant 2010 film, “Of Gods and Men.”)
In short, decolonization and independence from France did not result in dignified self-rule, peaceful development or political order as promised by the pro-independence ideologues of the 1950s. If anything, the departure of French authorities and the exodus of French families — the pieds-noirs (that is, Algerians descended from Europeans) as well as Catholics, Jews and loyalist Muslim intellectuals — left the country insecure and culturally impoverished. Algeria’s so-called “war of independence” effectively removed the one group that could maintain political order, promote development and ensure peace in Algeria: the French.
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