North African diversities: Algeria in flux

Algeria’s circles of power and their relationship to a complex society and history are hard to grasp. Francis Ghilès describes his own route to understanding the country in the post-independence era, when the heavy legacy of the past mixed with the confident idealism of the present.

Francis Ghilès
16 April 2014

 A balmy Algiers evening in March 1977, during the reign of the country's stern commander Houari Boumediène, was my first encounter with an uninhibited side of Algeria that thrived in the shadow of power. I was then a regular contributor to the BBC World Service, and about to join the Financial Times as its correspondent in the region, but barely knew a country that was in those years outwardly dour and had little evident public nightlife.

It was a Thursday, and a weekend: Boumediène had recently switched the weekend from Saturday-Sunday to Thursday-Friday, much to the annoyance of many of his compatriots, because it upset their daily routines and family transactions with France (where millions of their compatriots lived). At the time, ordinary Algerians were not supposed to enjoy themselves. After all, they were building socialism.

During this visit to a still unfamiliar city, I had been staying with friends at the Tour Dar el Kef, a stone’s throw from the presidency at El Mouradia on the hills which rise above the centre of Algiers and which command a breathtaking view of the Mediterranean. On returning that evening, I found that I had forgotten the keys of the flat, and my friends had gone out to dinner. I was condemned to wait several long hours at the foot of the building until they returned.

The temperature dropped and I started to get hungry. A steady stream of pretty girls and handsome well-dressed young men were entering the tower-block. I assumed, rightly as it turned out, that one of the residents was giving a party and enquired as to whether I might get a drink and a bite, explaining the reasons for my request. I was invited to join and as I stepped out of the lift on one of the higher floors of the building, was ushered into a flat and warmly greeted by the host. Wine and whisky were flowing, every conceivable Algerian delicacy was piled high on the tables, rock music was blasting loud and young couples were dancing. I started talking to some of the other guests and soon realised that in some of the rooms more exciting goings-on were in full swing. I was puzzled: the giggles and screams of pleasure suggested, if not quite a Fellini film, a libidinous world far from the austere city I was becoming familiar with. As I ate and drank, the host approached me and asked who I was. To keep things short, I simply said the BBC. His jaw dropped and, after consulting one of the other revellers, he asked me to leave immediately.

The next day, I discovered from Le Monde’s correspondent in Algiers, Paul Balta - who lived a few floors below - that I had inadvertently landed at a party hosted by young members of the much feared Sécurité Militaire. They had mistaken me for a confrére. A few days later, a minister told me that I had achieved a première of sorts - a foreign correspondent joining a party run by the SM for its own. “You look so much like a guy from Tebessa”, he told me - an eastern town from which many SM officers were drawn - “that they took you for one of them.” It was a glimpse into a world that I was to discover later, of lavish private parties held amid the luxurious colonial-era villas in the nearby Hydra, Paradou and El Biar residential districts, whose guests included foreign diplomats and well-connected Algerians.

This experience of mistaken identity, not the last, would have its advantages in what was very much a police state. My driver for many years would be a former moudjahidine who had fought the French during the war of liberation of 1954-62. Mouloud Moudjaheed had worked for executives of the state oil company Sonatrach for many years before going private and buying his own taxi. He would whisk me into ministries unannounced (albeit not the ministry of defence or the presidency). Everybody knew him. He considered me not a foreign journalist who had to be vetted at a ministry entrance, but an honorary Algerian, indeed an honorary Kabyle Berber. Mouloud was my guardian angel in Algiers.

A time of destiny

Algeria, more than most countries, takes time to get to know. I had written a thesis on early French colonial rule there in the 1830s at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and visited briefly in summer 1972. This was the middle period of Boumediène's rule (which ended with his death in 1978, aged only 46) and both the radicalism and the diplomatic prestige of the post-independence years were evident. There was a surreal quality to Algiers which made it fascinating. (Even as Boumediène had staged his coup in June 1965, he used tanks which were already out on the streets - for the filming of Gilles Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers). It was still there in 1975, when I was able to revisit courtesy of the then Algerian ambassador in London, Lakhdar Brahimi.

Algeria's foreign policy, marked by its backing for the African National Congress and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, won the admiration of western radicals disappointed by China and Cuba and prepared to switch their affection. Algeria's domestic record was mixed: the great achievement of its révolution agraire was to have turned a self-sufficient country into one that imported two-thirds of the food it consumed, its headlong rush into industrialisation was ill-thought, yet it had also granted universal education and healthcare to its people. Above all Algeria was proud of the respect, if not the fear, it commanded in the west. It believed in its destiny.

It was right to be proud, but doubts had already set in about certain key aspects of policy, despite a tightly muzzled press. Algerians who had fought a bitter war against France were uncomfortable when I brought up the subject of torture, widely practised against opponents, or of the use the regime made of Islamist students whom it was happy to see fight it out on campus with peers belonging to left-wing and Marxist groups.

Indeed, an encounter in July 1976 outside Tizi Ouzou, the capital of Kabylia, evokes the atmosphere of the time. A group of students I were lecturing peasants about the benefits of the révolution agraire, and their leader scolded me for being a representative of imperialism. Before leaving, I asked an older farmer what he thought of the BBC Arabic service during the liberation war. “Was the BBC a tool of imperialism?” I enquired. He turned to the young student revolutionary who was in charge and said: “You are too young to understand”. The student, furious at what he perceived was an impertinent question, ordered me to get out of there. This was the period when an engineer working with the president's adviser on agriculture told me that the Soviet Union (he had studied in Kiev) was far more productive of food than the United States or Europe. I had visited both the USSR and the US, and knew (and said) that he was talking rubbish.

The Mandela connection

Algiers in the 1970s was the capital of the "third world". It hosted the Black Panthers, the PLO and assorted revolutionary and independence movements (including one which aimed to “liberate” the Canary Islands from Spanish rule). Many of its diplomats and army officers were deeply involved in the fight against colonial rule, notably the Portuguese territories. “Algeria made a man of me”, Nelson Mandela movingly recalled when he visited Algiers as part of an ANC delegation Including his then wife Winnie) in May 1990, three months after being freed from prison. On that visit he was accompanied by Robert Reisha, who had been ANC representative in Algeria after independence.

Nourredine Djoudi is an emblematic figure of the period. A former officer of the Armée de Libération Nationale (FLN), he embarked on a career in the Algerian diplomatic corps and in 1961 was put in charge of establishing contact with the ANC. Djouidi, born in the southern town of Laghouat in 1934, was studying for a university degree in English at Montpellier university in 1954 when he decided to move to London to improve his English. It was then, at the start of the revolt in his homeland, that he joined the FLN and busied himself explaining the cause to new friends and allies. In London, he had to match the influence of the rival Algerian nationalist Mouvement National Algérien (MNA) - which had been born from an earlier grouping, the Etoile Nord Africaine (set up in Paris in the early 1920s and directed by Messali Hadj). The war of liberation of Algeria was a fight between Algerians and French, but also a civil war among Algerians and French. The MNA relays were Trotskyists, so Djoudi had his work cut out. Among the politicians who helped him were three Labour MPs: Fenner Brockway, the veteran pacifist, Anthony Wedgwood Benn and Barbara Castle (both of whom were to become cabinet ministers under Harold Wilson).

A few months before Algeria became independent in July 1962, Djoudi was called upon by the high command of what was by then the Armée Libération Nationale (ALN) of Algeria to meet Nelson Mandela. (Djoudi spoke English, which few of his peers did, and ANC leaders did not speak French). The meeting took place near Oujda, a Moroccan town which abuts the Algerian frontier and where part of the ALN high command was based at the camp of Zghenghen. Two years before, the ANC had decided to set up an armed wing, called Umkhonto we Sizwe; its leaders, notably Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, had come to doubt the view that the fight against apartheid could win by using the methods of Mahatma Gandhi. A number of acts of sabotage had followed, such as planting explosive devices in mines, but to little avail; the ring of security was simply too tight.

Mandela travelled to Oujda by way of Dar es Salaam, Cairo (where he established contact with the FLN representative) and Casablanca, where he was met by the FLN representative Mustafa Chowki. The initial Algerian contact with the ALN had been with Robert Reisha, who joined Mandela for discussions with Chérif Belkacem (Si Djamal). The ALN then helped set up the Congrès des Organisations Nationalistes des Colonies Portugaises (CONCP ), an initiative inspired by figures such as Amilcar Cabral and Mario de Andrade, whose aim was to help liberate the Portuguese colonies of Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau. The ANC representatives were folded into this organisation. During his stay near Oujda, Djoudi (by then a commissaire politique de l’ALN) and Chérif Belkacem were astonished to find out how much Mandela knew of Algeria’s history of resistance to the French in the 19th century, notably the legendary figure of Emir Abdelkader. A few weeks after the ceasefire concluded between the FLN and France on 19 March 1962, Ahmed Ben Bella (the future president, overthrown by his deputy Houari Boumediène in 1965) travelled to the FLN military-training camp Larbi Ben M’hidi to meet Mandela.

The Algerians advised Mandela to abandon any idea of copying Algerian tactics against the French after 1954: the ANC lacked the bases arrières the FLN had in Morocco and Tunisia, safe havens to which it could withdraw to rest, rearm and retrain. They recommended him instead to begin a campaign to isolate the South African regime diplomatically, as the Algerians had done vis-à-vis France after 1954, with some success. From inside Morocco, but very close to the country’s border with Algeria, Nelson Mandela was able to witness the fight the ALN was leading. He also met Mohammed Lamari, who would rise to become chief-of-staff of the Algerian army in the 1990s.

The feared South African security services (BOSS) got no hint of Mandela’s presence in north Africa. After the ceasefire of 19 March 1962, Djoudi was appointed Algeria military attaché in Rabat; in 1963 he was sent to what was still Tanganyika with a mission to create training-camps at Moroforo in preparation for operations against the Portuguese colonial and South African regimes. He opened Algerian embassies in Kenya, Uganda, Madagascar and Nigeria, and chaired a new defence committee for Africa's liberation created by the Organisation of African Unity; in 1973, he became the OAU’s assistant general secretary, following in the footsteps of his respected predecessor and compatriot, Mohamed Sahnoun. He stayed in that job for ten years, his only posting outside Africa having been in The Hague.

A lost illusion

The "third worldism" of the 1960s and 1970s seems lost in time today - hence the difficulty of recreating the atmosphere of the Algiers I got to know after 1975. European left-wing intellectuals projected their ideals onto the seemingly virgin lands of the newly independent, less developed nations - foremost among them (if not alone) China, Cuba and Algeria. A few decades earlier, the European left's predecessors had celebrated colonial expeditions in the name of universalism and as a prerequisite to the third-world’s own development. (Edward Said's striking analysis of Orientalism, published in 1978, put this in the perspective of a western construction of the middle east and north Africa which had started with Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt in 1798).

After 1962, Algeria enjoyed immense prestige - second only to Vietnam in the third-worldist historiography of sacrifice - owing to the ability of its poorly armed and ill-trained guerrillas to frustrate one of the world’s major military powers. It also played a leading role in calling for a new world economic order. Thousands of European revolutionaries flocked to the country, their own anti-colonial attitudes making them feel entitled to judge and even to formulate Algeria's national policy. When I met some of these people in Algeria in 1975-78, they quickly struck me as half-tragic, half-absurd - and at times half-farcical. Their hosts nicknamed them pieds rouge - a cruel label indeed, since the pieds noirs designated former French settlers in Algeria who had been the most steadfast defenders of colonial rule.

The were also national differences within third worldism. At its height it struck me that French intellectuals took a great interest in dispensing political advice, whereas their European and America peers were more interested in charitable aid. French attitudes were also more passionate than British or American ones, maybe because French intellectuals had too often collaborated with the German masters during the second world war and then become enthusiastic Stalinists. A search for forgiveness, for redemption, may have been a factor. When in 1991 a majority of Algerians voted in favour of an Islamist party, such people were rendered speechless.

A striking figure of those years was Malika Abdelaziz, a committed communist (though no Stalinist) who became the companion of the exiled “Black Power” activist Eldridge Cleaver. Malika was talented, intelligent and beautiful. She would walk about Algiers barefoot, with flowers in her magnificent mane of hair, and dance in cabarets, yet also gradually made her way as a journalist. After 1989, when prime minister Mouloud Hamrouche oversaw major economic and political reforms, Malika turned her attention to questions of international finance and Algeria’s crippling foreign debt. Her articles in the weekly Algérie Actualités easily outshone those of her better known peers in Le Monde or Le Figaro in Paris. After years of exile in Spain during Algeria’s bitter and deadly civil war of the 1990s, she returned to her homeland and resumed her investigate style of reporting with as much zest as she had shown in her earlier life.

By the 1980s, third-worldism was already going out of fashion (though it lingered among Algeria’s elite for some years more). In the Anglo-Saxon world, where it was always dismissed as arbitrary political verbiage, economic liberalism and privatisation became a new dogma that spread widely. The financial crash of 2008 could do worse than act as a reminder that self-congratulatory adherence to any creed is always misleading.

A great forgetting

Some of Algeria’s most distinguished diplomats were eloquent defenders of Boumediène's policies, and typical of a brilliant generation. Lakhdar Brahimi was Algeria’s ambassador to Egypt after 1962 and then to the UK for a decade after 1970; Mohammed Sahnoun was deputy secretary general of the OAU from 1964-73, then ambassador to Bonn, Washington and Paris; Reda Malek was ambassador to Moscow, Washington and London. Those who built the state oil company were no less clever, and advanced the creed they believed in with more than a little panache. Mohammed Mazouni built the oil-and-gas export terminal and LNG plants at Arzew in western Algeria; Nordine Ait Laoussine was Sonatrach's hard-hitting vice-president in charge of natural-gas exports. The goodwill towards Algeria was immense then; today it has been totally dissipated, and younger Algerian are very angry; for years they have despised those they call, sometimes a little unfairly, "Jurassic Park".

I soon came to understand that behind the official Algerian argument - the ruling Front de liberation national party represented a new beginning and all other parties a discarded past - was a single purpose: to discredit the party’s rivals and erase them from Algerian’s memory. History began in the faraway past, then made an enormous leap to 1 November 1954 when the war against France started. Since I had written a thesis on the first four years of French colonial rule (1830-34) and read a lot of history, I knew this to be a lie - and often said so to senior Algerians, who were not best pleased.

Nor did Algeria's militant Arab nationalism strike me as particularly attractive: after all I bore a Berber name. The then minister of culture, Reda Malek, once told archeologists from Cambridge University who were presenting him with a summary of recent digs they had conducted in eastern Algeria (where they had unearthed the remains of a Berber palace): “En Algérie on trouve des monuments Arabes, pas Berbères.” Considering that eleven of the thirteen Algerians who launch the fight for independence were Berbers, such a degree of self-denial was bound to lead to trouble. So long as Algerian leaders refuse to accept that the anthropological bedrock of their identity is Berber, they will be unable to make sense of their history and build a future which makes sense for 38 million Algerians.

An inescapable past

My origins often played unforeseen tricks on me. In August 1977, I visited a senior Algerian diplomat at the country’s embassy in Washington. The World Bank had just completed a confidential report on Algeria, one of the first of its kind, and I told my interlocutor of my regret that I would probably never get a chance to read it. At the end of a very instructive and friendly conversation, he swung his chair around, opened his safe, and handed me a copy of that very same report, murmuring “from one Berber to another”. When I got back to London, I wrote a summary of the report in the Financial Times. The deputy editor congratulated me and offered to pay the cost of my return flight to Washington (I had been there on a private visit). At the World Bank and in Algiers, I acquired a reputation which I scarcely deserved.

Two years before, in 1975, I had travelled to my grandfather’s village for the first time. On my way to Tizi Hibel, I asked my driver - who was also the driver of the mayor of Tizi Ouzou, the capital of Grande Kabylia - to stop in Benni Douala, the last (small) town before the village, to meet its own mayor. He accused me of being a spy, interrogated the driver and sent me back to Tizi Ouzou. The latter's mayor picked up his phone and proceeded to spend half an hour insulting his Benni Douala peer. He then turned to me and said: “Be my guest for five days, keep the car and the driver, I want a son of Kabylia to be welcome in the land of his ancestors.”

Paranoia among the elite about the Berbers was at its height in those years. Some feared that Vava Inouva, a popular song sung by Idir, could endanger the state. During Algeria's football cup competition, Algiers police arrested supporters of the Jeunesse Electronique de Tizi Ouzou for allegedly cheering on their team to chants of “A bas Boumediène”; the young Kabyles retorted that they were shouting “Imaziren”, which is how the Berbers call themselves. The team's very name, JET, was an insult to the Kabyles: their team had played an important role in the fight against France - but as the Jeunesse Sportive Kabyle. (In the early 1960s, the financing of football teams was entrusted to the new state industries, hence the new name).

This denial of history - mixed with simple ineptitude - was further demonstrated when in 1985 a tomb of the unknown soldier was inaugurated under three slabs of concrete costing $300m. Beneath the Makam el Chahid (monument to the martyrs) there was - as under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris - an eternal flame; but Algerian leaders had simply forgotten that Muslims are not allowed to pray in front of a flame. Everyday Algerians promptly nicknamed the new monstrosity - which looks from afar as if it is going to fall off the hill on which it stands - “Houbal”, the name of a pre-Islamic Arabian divinity.

History lurked everywhere in Algeria. One winter day, driving across the snow-bound mountains in the Akfaddou forest, the Sonatrach driver stopped the car and asked me to come and look at the scenery. "The men of the khatiba (unit) I was commanding in 1959 went up in flames here as napalm was dropped from French planes”, he explained. “I lost my faith that very moment” he said in a matter-of-fact way. Less than twenty years later, he was pointing to tree-trunks burned by napalm, which stood out against the white snow and the brilliant blue sky. Operaton Jumelles, launched by General Maurice Challes, blanketed Kabylia with napalm; the forest showed its stigmata for decades.

A virulent Arab nationalism, reinforced by self-denial about its own roots, was to cost Algeria dear. History however should incline the observer towards indulgence. That master of middle east and north African history, Jacques Berque, saw how far modern Arabism had sought to suppress or traduce the country’s Berber foundations: “Peu importe que le gros du people algérien fut arabo-berbère ou que les premières lutes surgissent dans le massif des Aurès, ou on ne parlait que le chaouia: l’arabisme, alors ( in the 1950s) en plein essor a l’échelle internationale serait l’allié le plus tapageur. C’est tellement vrai qu’en 1956 notre gouvernement cru réprimer les insurgés kabyles en allant bombarder Suez. Que le fonds soit berbère, comment le nier? Ibn Khaldoun au 14e siècle, titre son oeuvre du nom de ce people. Au fait, il a décrit la submersion par une invasion d’Arabes. Mais de l’afflut des Orientaux chez les Imazhiren nul n’évalue ni la masse ni la proportion. Pas plus l’auteur des Prolégomènes que les Occidentaux.”

I continued to pay visits to this vast and beautiful land, as an FT reporter but also on private visits. The mixture of inferiority and superiority complexes was at times maddening; the sheer obstinacy of many Algerians infuriating; but the hospitality I encountered, the lifelong friends I made, left a mark. The more I wrote and broadcast about Algeria, the more I enjoyed its rollercoaster of rigid bureaucrats, argumentative intellectuals, true believers who liked nothing better than a good glass of Cuvée du Président; diplomats who defended Arab nationalism yet spent their holidays in Europe and sent their children to western universities; confident, luminous women professionals sure of their equal rights; brilliant oil-and-gas engineers, farmers with a black sense of humour about the ruinous effects of the révolution agraire.

Albert Camus had expressed better than I ever could the exhilaration of being a journalist. In his Carnets he wrote to his friend Pascal Pia: “Vous savez mieux que moi combier ce metier est décevant. Mais j’y trouve cependant quelquechose: une impression de liberté - je ne suis pas constraint, et tout ce que je fais me semble vivant.” ("You know better than I how this trade can disappoint. But it has something else: a sense of freedom. I'm not constrained; everything I do seems alive").

An unwritten memoir

Two men helped me understand the early years of Algerian independence better than most. John Cooley learned his journalism during Algeria’s war of independence - which proved to be an excellent training-ground to understanding the wider region part of the world. It was the foundation of a distinguished career, as he became one of the most respected reporters on middle east and north African affairs. I am deeply in debt to John’s professional generosity, his wife Vania’s cuisine and the number of introductions they afforded me in Washington, New York, London and Paris. They helped me forge the tools of my trade.

Hafedh Ibrahim hailed from a secure middle-class family of the Sahel region in central Tunisia. After studying in Paris - he qualified as a doctor and worked at the Hopital Franco-Arabe in the suburb of Bobigny - he moved to Madrid and formed a company which was officially engaged in importing bulk chemicals. In fact this was a screen for more dangerous activities. This Tunisian's great cause was Algerian independence, and he used the proceeds from his business to start buying weapons for Moroccan and then Algerian nationalists.

He soon got to know the dictator Francisco Franco’s inner circle, notably General Muñoz Grande, and ensured Spain's authorities would turn a blind eye to his activities. When I got to know him in the mid-1980s, Dr Ibrahim lived with his French wife in a vast house surrounded by a beautiful garden graced with peacocks. Old Masters hung on the wall, as well as a pencil portrait of one of Algeria’s great nationalist leaders, Larbi Ben M’Hidi (who was tortured to death by the French in 1956).

Hafedh Ibrahim was bitterly disappointed by independent Algeria, but he knew every person in Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland and north Africa who had played a role in the drama. He was an invaluable fount of detailed information and a good judge of current affairs. He never wrote his memoirs, like many men of his generation: when he died it was as if a whole library of modern north African history had been destroyed. I have a reproduction of this portrait of Larbi Ben M’Hidi in my home. I often look at it and wonder what Algeria’s modern destiny would have been had men of that calibre led the newly independent country. As it was, Algeria was burdened with second-rate (at best) figures such as Ahmed Ben Bella, Houari Boumediène and Chadli Bendjedid. The struggle to free itself from the legacy of those post-independence years is still going on.

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