Algeria: A Case Study of Decolonization

Mariano Navarro is a Vienna-based consultant currently working on projects in the Middle East and North Africa. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College and a doctoral candidate at the University of Leiden.


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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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  • PhillipGaley

    To the whole of this great article I would say, yes;

    "Try all things, hold fast that which is good."—maybe kind of like a cow has what for to handle this or that roughage, because Western Culture came so equipped, it is able to eschew the evil and to assimilate the best of other sources. And, to the extent that, Islam is not nearly so much a religion but a criminal ideology—as has been ever and anon, and so must it continue—the inferior nations are to continue in pupilage, and at the grace of those which occupy the place of the superior. Oddly enough, our Lame Street media in all ways appears as wishing to hold these backward and perennially regressive groups in contemplation as nations of equal status. When the Australians came to New Guinea, the commander bought a pig, and shooting it in the sight of the tribal leaders, communicated to them that, if cannibalism continued there, the pig's fate would be the fate of them, also. And, that's the story of how cannibalism in modern times, ceased.

    I would say, in duties and responsibilities, for some time now, the Western Powers have been grossly remiss—as in dealing with the Taliban, say, . . .

    • janet

      To many commentators I have to say that when France left Algeria 75% of the people were illiterate. When the new government wanted to start new building projects, they found that there was only one Muslim Algerian architect in the whole country! France did a lot for Algeria, but very little for Algerians. Most of previous French colonies are poor today- not a coincidence. France offered discrimination and marginalization and poverty and cooperated with the settlers who had taken over the best land of Algeria. So please let's not imagine a glorious era of colonialism.

  • dmw

    Also recommend a book (and movie of the same name) called 'The Lost Command' by Jean Larteguy (in addition to 'The Battle of Algiers').

    And, after reading PhillipGaley's comment above, is that not what 'The West' is doing? Ceding the world to cannibals that utterly consume body, mind, and spirit. Poverty, dust, deterioration, and then horror.

    • dmw

      Corrrection: Jean Larteguy's book was entitled 'The Centurions', on which the movie 'The Lost Command' was based. Starred Anthony Quinn, Alan Delon, and George Segal (who of all things played a former French paratrooper and Algerian native on the Algerian insurgent side).

  • Richard-

    Where will all this end? No one, bar China, can really challenge the West, and they won't, yet we are being terrorised in everyway by idiots and buffoons, by people and societies we could crush in a weekend.

    If Romney was a real Republican he would crush Obama, but he isn't, so he might lose, then what?

  • flyingtiger

    The reason the French left was that international pressure was put on them to leave. The country that put the most pressure? The United States of America. We must hold our heads in shame because the French were winning.

  • Ghostwriter

    I think that flyingtiger may want to remember something. To us at the time,Algeria was suffering terribly under French rule. I think it gave us memories of how we were treated under British rule. We had no idea how things would turn out. We thought things would turn out all right. There are very few Algerians who live in the United States,not comparable to those who live in France. I believe we thought we were doing the right thing. There are those like flyingtiger that say different. I'll be honest. I don't know how it would have been if the French held on to Algeria. I don't know at all.

  • Larry

    Some years ago I had a conversation with an old Algerian Berber who had moved to Australia. He had been a politically active young man during the 1950s in both France and Algeria, and had been jailed by both sides at one time or another.
    His summation of what happened?
    "We made a huge mistake. We should have taken what was on offer from the French Govt, which was Algeria to become a full part of Metropolitan France, with all that it entailed. Instead, we shot ourselves in the foot to create a disaster area." That is a direct quote, it is something I remember very clearly, and was so succint that I pulled a note pad out and wrote it down.

  • amiused

    LOL….the natural nexus has arrived ……now we have one who is likely a conservative , making the case for colonialism .. Totally ignoring the fact that colonialism itself is the primary cause of the situation many ex-colonies find themselves in .
    Save all your anecdotal stories , weak arguments and sorry excuses , no people wish to be ruled by foreigners and would rather be free for better or for worse . We in the US of all people should know that better than most .
    What is this ? Some ideology huh ! Look at haiti , a dismall failure , but they suffered terrible abuse under the French , in fact Haiti is STILL paying France for it's expenses to occuppy and rulee them !!!! The author and ANYONE who agrees with this article have lost their minds .

    • dffffff

      algeria was a barbary state, a haven for musulmaniac pirates bent on raiding European shore towns and taking Europeans as slaves or for ramson, oh but Europe is the primary cause for that situation as it was developed an rich, doesn't it, you moron? And you should remember the negroes from haiti are as foreigners to that island as were the French, you idiot, and those negroes invaded the other country on the Hispaniola island which was Dominican Republic, so, poor, poor negroes.

  • amused

    Algeria before muslim invasions was a land of a people called Berbers you f—king dolt . And in the Caribbean WHO brought the Negroes there to begin with SCHMUCKO ? So I guess you're one of the assssholes who agrees huh ?
    Man ….sooooo many asssssholes , soooo little time !
    Go back to your video games jerkoff .

  • Ageofreason

    "…I am not necessarily arguing for the superiority of one culture over another…." Why not? Why do so many "intellectuals" have such reluctance to weigh value, to make judgement calls? Islamic culture is vastly inferior to western culture for so many reasons obvious to all but the imbeciles among us. This defense of colonialism is almost apologetic. Tribal cultures cannot produce "miracle" drugs that kill disease, modern hospitals, rockets that take men to the moon, modern agriculture that feeds billions, and so on. I would not suggest for a second that colonialism is without fault or deny that it created innocent victims, but when uncivilized cultures gain modern weapons and are left alone to wreak havoc, all of us are put at risk.

  • Jakareh

    France failed in Algeria for the same reason that the United States failed in Iraq and will fail in Afghanistan. They did not destroy Islam. It is no more possible to civilize an Islamic country than it is to clean a swimming pool when there is a pipe dumping raw sewage into it. Think of everything the French accomplished in Algeria–infrastructure, schools, draining malarial swamps–as stuff they jammed into the pipe. That didn't cut off the flow, however, and after 130 years the pipe was so backed up that the French civilizatory blockage was dislodged by a big torrent of Mohammedan crap.

    If the French had not been so in love with the garbage called laicité–which is eating away at their society to this day–they would have restored Algeria to Western civilization, which is to say, to Christianity. Indeed, the country was the native land of Saint Augustine, before there was such a thing as Islam. Mohammedanism belongs in North Africa no more than it belongs in Paris itself. It would have been fitting and proper to eradicate it. In other words, the sewage pipe should have been disconnected, dug up, and sent to the junkyard; blocking it was not enough.

    We gringos, in our recent Middle Eastern misadventures, did not even try to block the pipe. Even doing that much was deemed too politically incorrect. Instead, we simply pretended the sewage was an asset to the pool. "Once you understand sewage, how rich and complex it is, you see that it's really wonderful," said our leaders. So our own mission civilisatrice–instead of being successful for a century–was good for about ten minutes, the time it took for some jihadist to look up on the 'Net how to rig a car with explosives.

  • amused

    Well the French were not battling islam in Algeria , although since then islam dominates in a different way .Anyone attempting to make a case for colonialism has got rocks in their head . The middle East , Pakistan , Vietnam ,Cambodia , all are glaring examples of the direct result of colonialism . Not to mention Africa . Sooner or later by sheer force of human nature , any people will shed the restraints of colonialism . What in the hell is the matter with you people ?

    • Tomas F. Richards

      Typical reaction of someone who reads carelessly and who takes away only what he wants to understand. A more appropriate response to you, sir, is to ask; What is the matter with all of you who, with little reflection or analysis, celebrate all independence movements without regard for consequences, without regard for the people within those countries? In all the examples you list, the correct question is to ask why are they so underdeveloped, so chaotic, so miserable? You seem to put all the blame on colonialism. But there were many, many other factors. You clearly have drunk from the Marxist Kool-aid for too long.

    • Bill Ransom

      Of course they were battling Islam! Why do Pentagon leaders and other Islamic counter-insurgency experts study the battle of Algiers to this day — because it has direct relevance to what the West is facing now!

  • H BRAIK

    The Algerians earned their independence and it was not granted as mentioned in your article.

    • Bill Ransom

      "Earned"??? They terrorized their own people …

  • abadan1830

    If Algeria is in a poor state, then that means ALGERIANS have a lot of work to do. Mr Navarro, you seem far too emotionally attached to Algeria, a country that has nothing whatsoever to do with you and never will. Why don't you criticise Spain instead, whose present condition could absorb much criticism.

    You say "Algeria today is an absolute mess." Look at Spain today 27.2% of workers are unable to find a job! Youth unemployment in Spain has passed the 55% mark, let me repeat: passed the 55%!! This in my opinion is a foreboding for civilisational collapse. To appreciate this you you must consider this figure in a strictly European context. These unemployed youth are the future of that country, yet they are obliged to find their future in South America in increasing numbers. (This is a punishing humiliation since, as we know, Spaniards look down Latin Americans generally.) So yeah, Spain is the mess! It is teetering on Greekization. And you point the finger? We Algerians have a saying: a Camel criticises other Camels' humps as he does not notice his own.

    And more than that, you said Algeria "is a highly fractured and unstable society." Hmmmm. Again, senior, please notice what's going on in Spain. Disgruntled citizens have become rioters, filling the streets with aggression, hazard and disorder. A productive region, Catalonia, is earnestly seeking to break away from Spain forever, necessarily smiting the territorial integrity of that country. Look at your own fractured country first before pointing the finger. Is this the western civilisation you are inviting us to?

    The French were vicious pirates seeking to emulate the “success” their Anglo-Saxon rivals enjoyed in America. They chose to confiscate North Africa for the sake of this project. The “mission civilisatrice” was a mere pretext to conquer lands and bring prestige to France. The natives in the land were simply considered a nuisance instead of the customers of the mission. France’s definition of civilisation: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité was not seen in France’s treatment of the natives. Hello! Any benefits will be dwarfed by these immense injustices. "Colonisation" is a gruesome euphemism. The more accurate descriptor is Genocide! Lets not forget MILLIONS died as a consequence of the French outsourcing of its civilisation. I know you would rather focus on the story of a Pied-Noir coming to Algeria with moist eyes and nostalgia for the former French presence, but at some point you must at least acknowledge the almost unspeakable crimes of France. Someone has to do it since France itself lacks the intellectual honesty and humanism to do so.

    If the Algerian people were not brave enough to defeat French occupation and expel the aliens from their territory, we would have millions of aliens in Algeria post-independence with a superiority complex. Such a condition would guarantee tension, a fractured social map, an incubator for bloodshed– in short a mess! The French cannot even live with the paltry number of Algerians that exists in their midst today; do you think the results would be different if the French mingled with a greater number of Algerians in Algeria? Give me a break!

    Western civilisation emerged in the 13th century and it will soon exit the World stage in the 21st century. It is a civilisation of exploitation, something that is increasingly becoming difficult. The western heritage you laud now will become a stigma in the centuries to come.