Chapter 4, The War of the Algerians (1954-1958)

November 1, 1954, the official date of the outbreak of the Algerian War, did not coincide with the imposition of a single leadership (the emergent FLN, for example) or with the collapse of all earlier political currents. As it turned out, the FLN was to structure and consolidate itself over two years, culminating in the Soummam Congress on August 20, 1956. In these two years, cadres were recruited and selected, the population trained, the idea of independence developed, channels established, and guerrilla warfare reinvented. But, above all, it took two long years to have the envied title of "authorized representative" recognized through the integration of all other currents into the FLN, with the exception of the proponents of the old nationalist leader Messali Hadj, who in December 1954 founded the Mouvement National Algerien (Stora 1985).

Differences among Nationalists

The dissolution of the MTLD by the Council of Ministers on November 4, 1954, led to the arrest of several hundred Algerian nationalist leaders and militants. Those who were not arrested had no choice: they had to go underground or join the guerrilla forces. The FLN took full advantage of the dissolution of the MTLD. It set structures in place to intercept the majority of disoriented Messalists and welcome them into the underground forces; they took possession of the stocks of weapons inherited from the O5, the paramilitary organization of the MTLD; and they initiated contact with the Tunisians and the Moroccans. A large number of immigrants joining the guerrilla forces were taken in hand by the FLN. But, in the first phase of the insurrection, it also suffered very cruel blows. On January 15 , 1955, Didouche Mourad, leader of Constantinois, died in battle; on February 11, Mostefa Ben Boulald, leader of the Aures, was arrested; on March 16, Rabah Bitat, who had organized the urban guerrilla war in Algiers, was also arrested.

Under these conditions of very active repression (between November 1954 and April 1955), efforts at reconciliation took place between "activists" (the members of the MTLD who had perpetrated the events of November 1, 1954), "centralists" (the majority of the former members of the central committee of the MTLD), and "Messalists" (the followers of Messali Hadj). During this period, the FLN was still seeking its identity, assessing its strength. In Algiers, in Cairo, and among the guerrilla forces, contacts and efforts at reconciliation took place between "Messalists" and "Frontists" (supporters of the FLN). That did not fail to promote confusion within the immigrant community in France, and in Algeria. To be sure, the grass-roots nationalist militants had to expend a great deal of effort disentangling the maze of triangular relationships among all the parties involved (Messalists, CRUA, centralists) and understanding the disputes, which were Byzantine in their view, in the period preceding and immediately following the insurrection of November 1, 1954.

Confusion was also at its height among the guerrilla forces. All currents, though not acting in concert, accepted the designation" ALN" as the sole military structure. A large portion of Messalist militants decided on their own to resort to weapons as soon as the November 1 operations became known. In certain regions of Algeria, particularly the Aures and Kabylia, armed groups formed independent of the existing leadership. They were "taken in hand" after the fact. Animated simply by patriotic desire, some were familiar with the FLN, while others embraced Messali. On November 1, 1954, the pamphlets clearly distinguished between the FLN, the movement's political organization, and the ALN, a military organization. But in the Aures, for example, the entire political side answered to the authority of Chihani Bachir, Ben Boulald's second in command. The Aures zone leaders did not see the usefulness of the distinction. They believed it was enough to proclaim open revolution and to train militants. In Kabylia, and especially in the Bowra region, the militants fought under the name" Armee de Liberation Nationale," which tended to create ambiguity regarding the designation "ALN," shared by the FLN and the MNA. Things came to a head politically in 1955.


In early 1955, the "activists" of the former MTLD, who had founded the FLN, managed to pull the members of the "centralist" current along with them. Conversely, the Messalists, heirs to a long political tradition, and who did not believe exclusively in military action to achieve independence, rejected the activist aims, which they judged simplistic. For Messali Hadj, formed within the French left, the activists were the victims of an "infantile disease." The two organizations, the FLN and the MNA, were about to en- gage in violent confrontations.

On June 1, 1955, the murder of Saifi, an old PPA militant, whose hotel and restaurant on rue Aumaire, in the third arrondissement of Paris, harbored illegal aliens, precipitated the confrontation. In a pamphlet issued in late November 1955, Abbane Ramdane, assistant to Krim Belkacem and leader of the FLN in Algiers, called Messali Hadj "a shame-faced old man who holds the Angouleme front, at the head of an army of police officers, which assures his protection against the anger of the people." After various insults and accusations exchanged via pamphlets, weapons took the place of words. On December 10, 1955, in Algiers, Salah Bouchafa and Mustapha Fettal, FLN militants, executed Sadek Rihani, the leader of the MNA in Algiers. The test of strength had begun. For both organizations, the nature of the future independent Algerian society was not at issue. The violent rivalry took place at a different level: who ought to be, who could be, the exclusive representative of the Algerian people?

From 1955 to 1962, the "shock commandos" of the FLN and the MNA waged a long, cruel battle using every means possible: traps, betrayal, infiltration, and executions to serve as an example, all of them sowing fear. In Algeria, this internecine struggle was exemplified, in May 1957, by the FLN's bloody massacre of 374 villagers in Melouza, who were suspected of Messalist sympathies. The massacre spurred the MNA fighters, especially those of Mohammed Bellounis, to immediately join the French army. On March 20, 1962, the newspaper Le Monde published statistics on the scope of the confrontation between nationalists in France (the FLN versus the MNA): more than twelve thousand assaults, four thousand deaths, and more than nine thousand injuries. In Algeria itself, the toll of that civil war was very heavy: six thousand dead and fourteen thousand wounded. In total, in France and in Algeria, the number of victims rose to nearly ten thousand dead and twenty-five thousand wounded in the two camps.

The FLN would emerge victorious in this war within a war. But thousands of militants who had been trained for modem political life in the immigration movement in France, in particular, were killed in the process, and would be cruelly absent from the leadership of an Algeria at war, and then of an independent Algeria.

Converts to the FLN, the Soummam Congress

In 1955 and 1956, the FLN increased contacts and discussions with the other Algerian components. All the same, aware of the "bankruptcy" of the earlier parties, it expected them simply to dissolve and their members to join the FLN in a purely individual capacity. Following in the footsteps of the "centralists" (Ben Youssef Ben Khedda, Sa ad Dhalab, M'Hamed Yazid, and Hocine Lahouel), Ferhat Abbas's UDMA rallied behind the FLN in late 1955.

The FLN was to obtain this massive conversion of the "old elites," so avidly desired, from another organization, the ulama (a religious reformist movement that championed the rebirth of Islamic identity in Algeria). That religious organization, worried about its lack of control over the events, went over to the FLN camp during its conference on January 7, 1956, and glorified the "resistance to colonialism." Then there was the case of the Parti Communiste Algerien, or PCA (Algerian Communist Party). In May and June 1956, Ben Khedda and Abbane Ramdane, representing the FLN, and Bachir Hadj Ali and Sadek Hadjeres, representing the PCA, began protracted discussions. On July 1, 1956, the Algerian Communists-were inte- grated into the ALN.

The Soummam Congress, which was held on August 20, 1956, made official "the bankruptcy of the former political organizations of the old par- ties," and noted that the "grass-roots militants" had rallied behind the FLN, and that the UDMA and the ulama had been dissolved. With this congress, held in the Soummam Valley in Kabylia, the "Algerian revolution" changed its aspect. The long (twenty-day) debates culminated in a well-defined pro- gram, the structuring of the FLN-ALN, and the affirmation of the primacy of political over military action and of the domestic scene over the exterior (feguia 1984).

Initially planned for July 31 in the region of the Bibane, the congress did not open until August 20 in a forester's cottage close to the village of Igbal, on the western slope of the Soummam. Sixteen delegates participated; they very unevenly represented the different regions of Algeria. In addition to the absence of the external delegation, there was no representative of the Aures-their leader, Mohammed Ben Boulald, had been killed, and his brother Omar could not come, given the constant movements of the French anny. Oranais was represented only by Larbi Ben M'Hidi. Six delegates came from Zone n (North Constantinois): Youcef Zighoud, Lakhdar Ben Tobbal, Mostefa Benaouda, Brahim Mezhoudi, Ali Kafi, and Rouibah. Four came from Zone III (Kabylia): Belkacem Krim, Mohammedi SaId, Amirouche, and Kaci. Three came from Zone IV (Algerois): Amar Ouamrane, Slimane Dehiles, Ahmed Bouguerra. And one came from Zone VI (the south): Ali Mellah. These fifteen men were representatives of the combatants. The sixteenth, the only political secretary, was Abbane Ramdane.

From the deliberations of this congress, three major concerns emerged:

  • an assessment of the material forces of the revolution, judged by the delegates to be moderately satisfactory. There was criticism of the weakness of weapons supply operations, and imbalances in the introduction of political structures were pointed out (good for Kabylia, despite the existence of a few Messalist strongholds, and for Constantinois; acceptable for Algerois; clearly lagging behind for Oranais);
  • the drafting of a political platform-partly put together by Amar Ouzegane, but profoundly bearing Abbane's mark-which was articulated around the principles of a collegial structure of the leadership, the primacy of the political over the military, and the domestic over the external;
  • a reorganization of the structure of the ALN, now modeled on a regu- lar anny. Algerian territory was carved up into six new wi/ayas, themselves subdivided into mintaka (zones), nahia (regions), and kasma (sectors); Algiers was set up as an autonomous zone. A strict hierarchy of battle units and ranks was instituted, which would give birth to the army, a true linchpin of the future Algerian state.

This "counterstate" in gestation was justified by the suffocating power of the colonial state. According to that argument, the pursuit of the pluralist traditions of Algerian nationalism prior to 1954 appeared too feeble a means for breaking free of the ponderous weight of French tutelage (Slimane Chikh 1981).

Although the Soummam Congress, the only one in the FLN's history, was historic in the "legislative" work it accomplished, it also inaugurated the struggle for control in the highest echelons of the nationalist organization. On September 23,1956, Abbane Ramdane (a native of Kabylia) sent a letter to Mohammed Khider, informing him of the congress's decisions. When Ben Bella learned of the letter and received the minutes of the congress, he decided to compose a three-point response. He insisted on the "nonrepresentative" character of the congress. "The Aures, the external delegation, Oranie, and the eastern zones did not attend, nor did the Federation de France." He attacked "the questioning, once again, of the Islamic character of our future political institutions" and thereby demonstrated his rejection of the secularism of the state, and his refusal to make a place for the European minority. Finally, he denounced the presence of former leaders of parties within the leading organizations. This reply repeated word for word the themes of the leadership of the PPA-MTLD against "the Berberists" of 1949 (Stora 1991 a: 111 ). But did not Abbane also accuse Ben Bella "of distrusting them because they were Kabyles"? Part of the reason for the dispute over legitimacy can be found in a "regionalist" explanation.

The Battle of the Guerrilla Forces

The principal unit of the ALN was the katiba-the equivalent of a light company-which might reach the size of one hundred men, or the platoon, about thirty men. These men eked out an existence in the territory constituting their field of operation, which they knew intimately for having traversed it in every direction.

Their solidarity was that of combatants waging war for the duration of the conflict, without any thought of return, constantly facing the same dangers and the same privations, whatever their rank or duties: the officer was no less Spartan than the djoundi (soldier); the secretary, the medic, the radio operator if there was one, all engaged in combat. It was not military ritual that made for cohesion. The link that united the mujahideen (fighters) was the blood spilled, the cause served, the danger marking their existence. It was also the acquisition of a discipline that, if breached, might entail a punishment of death-for example, for indecent behavior or a weapon in poor condition. It was also the shared background of these men, almost all of whom were coarse, rural folk, trained for a hard life since birth. Each man carried his ration of semolina or couscous; as often as possible, oil, chick-peas, and onions were part of the daily menu, as were sugar and coffee. Mutton and fresh fruit appeared only rarely. The medic did not always have the medications needed for the ill and wounded. Whereas battle was an ordeal, marching was hardly so for a mountain dweller or a peasant. Once he had become a soldier, he was equipped by the ALN with lightweight laced boots, called "Pataugas," made of coarse canvas with rubber soles. His equipment was limited to the minimum. He had no change of clothes. Except for a few food rations and possibly a blanket, nothing counted more than his weapon and ammunition. The unit was moving more or less constantly. In the first place, it had to be present everywhere, at intervals close enough to keep the population aware of its strength.

Truly offensive action always required that the katiba (or platoon) move secretly and quickly from one point to another that was as far away as possible, since in guerrilla warfare nothing works like surprise. That meant that marches, except those in the forest, were usually done at night along ridges, in wadi beds, or at best over goat trails. The soldiers slept out in the open. Without warning, an SAS post would be assaulted with mortar; a rural bus would be attacked and burned; or an ambush, carefully set up at a bend in the trail, would patiently wait for the military convoy that informers in the neighborhood had said was likely to pass. A hand-made mine, camouflaged in the dust, would blow up a vehicle, block the convoy line, and set off machine gun fire; then came the assault. At every moment, the FLN leader's concern was to avoid the surprise of an unexpected encounter with the adversary in full strength, or the chance of having his unit spotted out in the open. In that respect, the ALN's conditions of existence varied markedly de- pending on the period and region considered. In some rocky, wild, or wooded massif, or one still barely penetrated by the French army, an ALN unit would have its cantonments, usually several of them, sometimes in shelters dug in the ground, sometimes in a relatively depopulated hamlet: between two changes of location or two interventions, it could rest there more or less at ease.

In that underground war, the ordinary world was closed off for the fighter, who had no means of escape except death or definitive peace. It was in the years 1956 and 1957 that the ALN (with about sixty thousand men) had its greatest successes against French army troops, thanks primarily to the weapon supplies from Morocco and Tunisia. Things would be different after the construction of the barriers at the Tunisian and Moroccan borders.

Immigration, the Second Front

The 1954 census listed 211,000 Algerians in France; the 1962 census listed 350,000. During the same period, the Ministry of the Interior put out the figure of 436,000. Apart from considerations regarding the delicate problem of nationality and citizenship (who, in effect, was Algerian in 1962, the year of the census in France and of Algerian independence?), one fact became clear: Algerian immigration to France had doubled between 1954 and 1962, the very years of the war.

Most of the immigrants were men age twenty to forty. Of all the upheavals that rural Algerian society had experienced between 1955 and 1962, those that had been caused by the relocation of the population were the most profound and the most consequential. In 1960, half the rural population, that is, a quarter of the total population, was brutally displaced.

In addition to the "displacements," let us mention that one million "men of working age" were unemployed in Algeria. One wage earner out of two worked fewer than one hundred days per year. In total, from 1954 to 1960 only 45,000 new industrial jobs were created, of which 25,000 were in construction and public works. Demographic pressure worsened the process leading to unemployment. The population of Muslim Algerians went from 4,890,000 in 1921 to 8,800,000 in 1954. The active male population in- creased by 385,000, which means that beginning in 1955 it would have been necessary to create 70,000 new jobs annually for the young men of working age. Since that was far from the case, immigration became the last hope.

The need to replace men of the French contingent sent to fight in Algeria and the renovation of the internal French social structure are the two essential elements allowing us to understand the paradox of the large number of Algerians who emigrated to a country that was at war with them.
In examining the geographical distribution of Algerians in the metropolis, we find that five departments continued to serve as centers of attraction; the Seine; the Nord, with the Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing agglomeration, which had coal mining and heavy industry; the Moselle, which was experiencing an industrial boom; the Rhone, with Lyons; and the Bouches-du- Rhone, with Marseilles. There were few Algerians engaged in agriculture; most were located in the industrialized regions. Their concentration in the industrial zones only became more pronounced in the years 1948-1955.

The FLN federation in the metropolis retained roughly the same structure as the MTLD, to which a large number of its members belonged. The FLN divided the country into five regions; the Paris region and the west {Paris); the northern and eastern region (Longwy); the central region (Lyons); the southeastern region (Marseilles); and the southwestern region, still unorganized in 1956. The organization had approximately eight thou- sand members in June 1956, but thanks to an improvement in recruitment the number of militants registered approached fifteen thousand in 1957 (Stora 1992).

The Algerian nationalist movements, applying the principle that the success of an enterprise is a function of the financial means its organizers possess, devoted their efforts to developing and increasing their sources of revenue. The high cost of weapons for the guerrilla forces, the requirements of diplomatic action, and the support of families of militants who had been detained or killed pushed expenses ever higher. The development of the clandestine organization also required installing new cadres paid by the parties.

To take the year 1961 as an example, given the number of paying members in the FLN (150,000) and the MNA (10,000), and the increase in membership fees to 30 francs per person, we obtain the figure of 58 million new francs total (about 400 million 1993 francs) for the single year 1961. Nearly 6 billion centimes raised for the single year 1961! In the seven years of war, approximately 400 million new francs (slightly more than 3 billion 1993 francs) were collected from the Algerian immigrants in France. An altogether substantial contribution, made by the "second front" of Algerian nationalism, a contribution obtained sometimes voluntarily and sometimes by force.

The FLN's Doctrine

The radical pro-independence movement drew its strength from the fact that it was located at the intersection of two major projects: that of the Socialist movement and that of the Islamic tradition.

Of the first aspect, that of the French influence, let us say first of all that the birthplace of the pro-independence movement (Paris in 1926) influenced its subsequent ideological development. The French experience taught the first radical Algerian militants the models of organization and the rudiments of socialist ideology by which they would analyze the situation of their nation and seek to understand the mechanisms and values of an alien world; in the end, that experience put them in contact with industrial and urban models of life. But once they had returned to Algeria, they could not realize their aspirations in the leftist unions or parties, which were dominated by the Europeans.

Regarding that "French influence," let us also note that most of the nationalist cadres in the FLN were rootless, cut off from their social origins and integrated in a way that often led them to become "professional revolutionaries." The movement had few peasant leaders or intellectuals. For the most part, however, these leaders were better educated and better informed than the majority of the Algerian people. Many had gone to French schools, and had completed elementary school. It is an irony of history that the French school system, which saw itself as assimilationist, in fact appears to have opened paths of criticism and liberation.

On the benches of French schools in the Third Republic, the republican credo and the episodes in the "Great Revolution" of 17891eft a lasting impression on the minds of the Muslim Algerians who become nationalists. Their curiosity about France's history was sustained by a hope; they took an interest in it because they felt at a loss about their own freedom. An abstract France wicl1 universal principles was contrasted to cl1e temporal France. That conception continued to be asserted during cl1e time of cl1e Algerian War, as this letter from prison attests, written by Mohammed Larbi Madi, an FLN leader: "1 confess to you cl1at I am less and less able to separate cl1e real France from cl1e statutory France. I am seeking cl1e France I learned of in school, and I find it only in a few French people, who, in fact, are embarrassed to be French where cl1e Algerian War is concerned" (Perville 1984).

Regarding the second principal factor, that of Islam, we must first of all explain that almost all Algerians in the first half of the twentieth century remained faithful to the religious customs of their ancestors. That fidelity was composed of social relics and habits, an attachment to practices where conformity played as great a role as personal conviction. Pro-independence politics reactivated cl1e religious factor. Islam was bocl1 a combat ideology and a social project. The reacquisition of the terms and rights fixed by time, the increasingly lost "paradise" of origins, became more and more vital through religion. The promised pro-independence revolution still had certain characteristics of revolts based on millenarian hopes, or of riots for subsistence. This type of nationalist ideology produced a refusal to compromise with the existing world. A central event, independence, was the long-awaited and un-hoped-for moment, the sense of a future and especially of a pure present. The Algerian militants experienced the colonial institutions in which cl1ey were destined to live not as founded in reason but as perfectly arbitrary.

The historical merit of cl1e leaders who set off cl1e insurrection in November 1954 was cl1at, through weapons, they unjammed the colonial status quo. They allowed the idea of independence to take on substance for millions of Algerians. But, as cl1e Algerian sociologist Abdelkader Djeghloul {1990) notes, "the war set in motion a process of destruction of cl1e capital of democratic experience and modern politics, which cl1e different political organizations had begun to accumulate before 1954."

The FLN, aware of the contradictions that permeated it, constantly bowed to the tactical emergency: draining off convictions, mobilizing the available energy in the cause of independence, while putting off until later any examination of the particulars. That conception of an undifferentiated society "guided" by a single party implied a particular vision of cl1e nation. After independence, an undecomposable bloc, the nation, was perceived as a unified and unanimous--indissociable-figure.

The theme of the "people united" reduced the threat of external aggression (Gallicization, assimilation) and internal disintegration (regionalism, linguistic particularism). The latter had to do primarily wicl1 the "Berber question," which was disregarded in the establishment of national institutions in the postwar period. The recourse to populism increased the rift between the real society, which was socially and culturally diverse, and the one-party political system, forged primarily during the second part of the war, between 1958 and 1962. In December 1957, the murder of Abbane Ramdane (the organizer of the Soummam Congress who had advocated the supremacy of "politicos" over the "military"), ordered by other FLN leaders, opened the way for the "border army's" political domination of Algerian nationalism. After the construction of the barriers along the Tunisian and Moroccan borders, the army was camped outside Algerian territory. Led by Houari Boumedienne, its importance and its role in- creased as of 1958.

The International Action of the FLN

The Algerian nationalists realized the risk of finding themselves face to face with the formidable French war machine. Very quickly, they became aware of the need to broaden their audience to the international level. The armed struggle was thus combined with political and diplomatic action. The objective was to heighten public awareness throughout the world of the cause of Algerian independence, to interest foreign governments, and to mobilize such international authorities as the UN and the Red Cross. That internationalization of the conflict, desired by the FLN, would allow it to find material support (deliveries of weapons, especially from Eastern countries), and moral support (pressure on France regarding its Algerian policy).

From the beginning of the conflict in January 1955, the members of the Arab League, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, directed the attention of the UN's Security Council to the gravity of the situation in Algeria. The Bandung Conference of nonaligned nations in April 1955 heard the communications of the Algerian leaders. In September of the same year, the UN placed the problem of the "events of Algeria" on its agenda for the first time. In July 1956, the Union Generale des Travailleurs Algeriens, or UGTA (General Union of Algerian Workers), a union organization linked to the FLN, was recognized by the ICFTU (International Confederation of Free Trade Unions) over its competitor, the Union des Syndicats des Travailleurs Algeriens, or USTA (Algerian Workers' Federation of Unions), run by MNA militants. At the same time, the Union Generale des Etudiants Musulmans Algeriens, or UGEMA (General Union of Muslim Algerian Students), actively participated in different worldwide cultural groups and developed an intense propaganda campaign (Perville 1984).

In that way, the Soummam Congress in August 1956 established the FLN's international actions: "Externally, seek out the maximum material, moral, and psychological support. Among the governments of the Bandung Congress, incite the intervention of the UN as well as diplomatic pressure ...on France." In 1956, when the UN once more put the Algerian question on the agenda (Gadant 1988), FLN delegations set off on a mission: to Eastern Europe (East Berlin, Prague), Western Europe (Bonn, Rome, London), the United States (New York), China, India, and Latin America.

The two events that accelerated and broadened the internationalization of the Algerian conflict were the hijacking of the plane of FLN leaders on October 22, 1956, and the French bombing of the Tunisian village of Sakiet-Sidi-Youssef on February 8, 1958, which had a particularly strong emotional effect on world opinion. On the eve of the Fourth Republic's fall, France found itself brought up on charges by the UN. Atlantic and European solidarity was very uncertain on the question of North Africa.

In waging war against France, the Algerian nationalists set in place "a diplomacy of guerrillas." Very early on, they constructed a diplomatic apparatus, an external presentation that would continue to function effectively after independence in 1962.