Whilst the mythos surrounding the independence struggle in Algeria of the 1950s and ‘60s, and the subsequent canonization of its central revolutionary party, the FLN, remains strong; less attention is paid by sections of the so-called “anti-imperialist” or ‘Third Worldist” left to the deficiencies of the clique that assumed power following independence.
The remnants of the independence generation now represent a stuffy gerontocracy composed of the military in alliance with unelected members of the political-bureaucratic class and the business elite, known as “Le Pouvoir.” The challenges of a newly-independent, post-colonial African state were navigated by a succession of authoritarian governments which operated on a nominally “socialist” basis, fusing a Stalinist-derived political and economic settlement with a moderate, yet conservative state-sanctioned Islam, the imposition of an all-ecompassing “Arab” identity and a laudable, if sometimes inconsistent, commitment to liberation struggles in what we now call the Global South.
There have been many ruptures and challenges to the hegemony of “Le Pouvoir” in the years since independence which have been inspired by a number of ideological currents from the Islamist wave that eventually triggered the devastating Civil War of the nineties and early nougties to the Amazigh struggles against marginalization and forced Arabization that have periodically erupted since the eighties, nineties and noughties. The FLN government has however been able to maintain power on the basis of ensuring calm and stability following the violent nineties through its tight-control of decision making that occurs behind a thin veneer of democracy and its liberal deployment of petroleum revenue used to provide well-funded public services during periods where market fluctuation has been minimal. The last two years or so have provided the most sustained and optimistic effort towards political change with the advent of the Hirak movement.
The young, cross-demographic Hirak movement sprang up in February 2019 as a reaction to the announcement by Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a veteran of the independence struggle whose advanced age and poor health led many to question the real centre of power in the country, that he was to run for a fifth presidential term. This ignited resentments that had compounded over years as the mostly young population reckoned with a future beset by economic stagnation, unemployment, corruption and cynical Monumentalism. The key demands of the Hirak movement are the clearing out of all of the key figures who constitute or help to maintain the structural preeminence of “Le Pouvoir,” a Constituent Assembly and a broader and deeper democratization process. Shackled politically for years by the ruling class and isolated from the international community by a stodgy economic nationalism and an IMF-imposed privatization process that has seen revenues mostly flow back into the pockets of corrupt officials; Algerians have had little in the way of popular sovereignty. Despite the encouraging participation of independent trade unions, a contingent that is still finding its footing after decades of being overshadowed by the government-friendly General Union of Algerian Workers, it would be premature and overly optimistic to state that the movement is pursuing distinctly socialist goals. We can however look upon the sincere yearning for democracy, basic freedoms and, to some extent, the furthering of progressive social norms, as a thoroughly positive development and a decisive rupture with the beards vs jack-boots dichotomy that has often been the justification for authoritarian governments in the MENA region.
This leaves us with two key questions: what could a free, forward-looking Algeria look like and which currents, whether active or dormant, in the popular consciousness can help us get there? As socialists and internationalists living outside of Algeria whether as part of the diaspora, as interested onlookers or as activists supportive of the protest movement, we cannot hope to impose our vision on a foreign population. We can however, as an act of solidarity with democrats, socialists and those with a mind towards general emancipatory politics in Algeria, speculate on how the hopes and promises of the Algerian Independence movement might finally be realized.
One figure we can look to as someone who has contributed positively to emancipatory politics in Algeria is Mohamed Harbi. As an original member of the FLN during the War of Independence who went on to be imprisoned by the most authoritarian aspects of the regime following Col. Houari Boumediene’s post-independence coup in 1965, Harbi’s life and work offers a compelling narrative highlighting the requirement for any revolutionary political project to not merely abolish the dominance of the old order but to do away with dominance and subjugation entirely. Born in 1933, to a what he describes as “bourgeois [family],” Harbi was educated privately in French-speaking schools and gradually became cognizant of his identity as “an Arab and Muslim [and also] [...] an Algerian.” It was at high school that he came under the influence of Pierre Souryi, an anti-Stalinist Marxist who had served in the French resistance and inspired his move away from the quasi-Islamic national-populism that was the dominant ideological current of the FLN, towards a more libertarian socialist outlook. Harbi forged links with various leftists groups, including Trotskyists and anarchists, as he went on to study at the Sorbonne in Paris, and he continued his efforts to gain French support for the FLN, which he had joined as a teenager.
Following the War of Independence, Harbi served as an advisor to the nascent Ben Bella government. Amongst other promising measures brought in by the first post-independence government such as the expropriation and socialization of European-owned land, the forging of an international network of anti and post-colonial movements and mass-literacy programs, Harbi was instrumental, with the assistance of Greek Trotskyist Michel Pablo, in the development of a program of decentralized worker self-management. There was however an authoritarian streak within the regime, which alienated the elements of the independence movement that favoured political pluralism and enshrined a one-party state. The slide into authoritarianism eventually culminated in the seizure of power by Colonel Houari Boumediene- an unabashed autocrat who dissolved any remaining democratic mechanism and centralized all elements of the state and economy under the control of his Revolutionary Council of senior military personnel. Harbi had few illusions about the regime that he served, yet he urged Ben Bella, then in the final throes of his leadership, to arm the population against the coup.
Harbi was imprisoned following the coup and would remain locked-up until managing to escape from house arrest in 1971. He fled to Tunisia on a fake Turkish passport and eventually found passage to France in 1973, taking up a post at the University of Paris, where he taught Political Science for 20 years. Having written a number of volumes on the history of the Algerian Independence struggle and the FLN, Harbi, now retired, continues to enjoy a reputation as “the most respected historian of the Algerian national movement,” as he was called by Arun Kapil, an American academic and expert on Algeria.
In his years of exile Harbi has continued to defend democracy, secularism and freedom in the face of death threats from both the military-bureaucratic complex and violent Islamists, the two faces of reactionary authoritarianism in Algeria, jointly culpable for “the massive exclusion of people from power and the rejection of pluralism.'' The decades succeeding the independence struggle illustrate why it is incumbent on today’s leftists to examine the legacy and political thought of Mohamed Harbi and his brand of decolonial, emancipatory socialism. Following the deposing of the Ben Bella government, Algeria entered decades of de facto military dictatorship; the autogestion initiative set up by Harbi and his colleagues were scrapped and brought under a centralized, statist model whereby any surpluses produced by the workers flowed upward toward the ever-inflating bureaucratic class. Further nationalisations prompted significant economic growth and industrialisation but the lack of democratic control led to rampant corruption, uneven distribution and the alienation of the workers from the proceeds of their labour. The economic disenfranchisement was matched in the socio-political sphere, as the military’s conquest of civilian life persisted unimpeded, with senior personnel coming to dominate the FLN, parliament and government. In the cultural sphere, the top-down imposition of a homogenizing “Arab” identity, previously introduced by the Ben Bella government, was intensified at the expense of the Amazigh language and culture, and the hybrid dialects and manners of speaking that reflected the nation’s rich diversity. Decades of authoritarian rule, the militarization of civilian life, political exclusion and economic stagnation culminated in the “black decade,” a period between 1991 and 2002, in which a brutal civil war claimed the lives of around 150,000 people. Harbi astutely posited at the time that the roots of the conflict were in “the failure of a generation which did not know how to find the paths to freedom.”
The uneasy settlement that ended the war, which was formulated under Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s government, saw the majority of the government’s Islamist opponents pardoned and made immune to any prosecution. Taking advantage of a population fatigued by brutality and bloodshed, the ruling class were able to manipulate, from above, the dichotomies that existed: Islam vs. secularism, economic liberalism vs. state-capitalism, whilst locking the majority of the population out of any kind of collective decision making.
The tight control that the ruling class, or Le Pouvoir, have been able to maintain over multiple aspects of public life, is exercised in the name of control and balance. Pluralism, as envisioned by Harbi and many others, is cast as being too risky and compromising toward the collective identities and modes of self-understanding that have been imposed on Algerians from the top downwards rather than being self-determined through debate and free expression. One only has to consider the fate of Algeria’s long-standing Jewish population, whom Harbi defended on several occasions as a young FLN operative, whilst others in the ranks engaged in targeted harassment, intimidation and even assassinations. Harbi posited that Jewish Algerians and other non-Arab or Amazigh peoples who supported the independence struggle ''were arguably the most genuine nationalists, because their understanding of Algeria wasn't colored by religion'' and in his 1962 letter To the Israelites of Algeria he made the below appeal:
Algeria’s independence is near; independent Algeria will need you and tomorrow you will need it, for it is your country. Your Muslim brothers honestly and loyally offer you their hand for solidarity coming from your direction. It is your duty to answer.
Harbi’s experiences and his unsentimental reflections on the decades in which he had been an active historical agent, also provide a framework for how we understand violence as a methodology for political change. He is unapologetic about the mode of revolt, saying “Independence, the French would never have granted us. So we took it,” yet he is clear that the brutality and authoritarian practices that proliferated within the ranks of the FLN had a corrosive effect on the organization’s collective understand of emancipation- something that would echo down the years and find its expression in the bloody divisions that occurred in the population.
“[...] our ideals were in contradiction with the means imposed by our leaders to make them triumph. Libertarian by conviction, my ultimate objective was the affirmation of a system of values independent of any domination and any exploitation, and I found myself in an organization where plebeian authoritarianism inculcated in everyone that evil turns into good. as soon as it is done in the name of the revolution. I suffered from the use of practices such as slaughtering, mutilations (nose or ears cut off) and from the discredit that the killings brought to bear on us, not among those who initiate.”
As the Hirak movement, which has temporarily suspended its weekly demonstrations due to COVID-19, continues to develop and grapple with the questions of freedom and popular sovereignty, we must not project our desires and current objectives onto their struggle. We can and should however make sure that we support socialists who, in the vein of Mohamed Harbi, prioritize a democratic economy, pluralist political sphere and an open, tolerant civil society, so that this time, the emancipatory potential of the struggle for independence can be properly realized.