Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version
US Army

While 50 years have passed since Algeria achieved independence from France, Algerians still lack a cohesive historical narrative of their past, writes Smaïl Goumeziane. Though fraught with difficulty, working towards such a history would go some way towards challenging ‘wars of memory’ and ‘selective amnesia’, Goumeziane stresses.

Half a century after independence, Algerians are still waiting for the history of that period which would enable them to understand where they come from, who they are and figure out where they are headed on the basis of objective facts and signposts. It is after all the history of Algeria that has made them who they are today. But to date, whether at school or elsewhere, they have only had access to stories or snippets of redacted stories forced upon them by the direct or indirect ‘representatives’ of the various conquerors, ruling powers and other enemies of Algeria.

Interwoven into this is the notion, depending on the needs or the authors, of an official history, a history of the defeated and a history of the victors. The Algerians therefore are still desperately seeking a history that would be their common heritage, which they can identify with and understand their own identity. As the saying goes, a people without history are a people without humanity. This search alone symbolises the instability that continues to plague the country, as well as the prejudices, misunderstandings and animosity it still triggers, both within and outside the country, especially in France and the uncertain future for its people, both individually and collectively. Because in Algeria as elsewhere, contemporary historical processes most often have their origins in the near or distant past. The present is pregnant with the past. That is why an objective response to these questions is so urgent.

Certainly there has been a lot of serious research with respect to this or that period, this or that event, leader or political party, conducted with utmost scientific rigour by several generations of historians. Salluste, Tacite or Tite-Live during the Roman period; there was the brilliant Ibn Khaldoun in the 14th century. The Ottoman period was chronicled by Diego de Haedo and Henri Delmas de Grammont. The French colonial conquest has been described by Hamdan Khodia, Amar Said Boulifa and Stephane Gsell. More recently, there have been important contributions from a plethora of writers one could call the ‘historians of decolonisation’. These include Charles-Andre Julien, Gilbert Meynier, Claude Liauzu, Fernand Braudel, Charles-Robert Ageron, Mahfoud Kaddache, Mohammed Harbi, Benjamin Stora, Merrouche Lemnouer, Malika Hachid and many others.

Despite this, there still isn’t a global and consensual version of Algerian history that everybody subscribes to, neither in the way it is perceived nor in its content. This is probably normal given the passions and contradictory interests of those who recount this history. It is also true that to try and put together such a consensual vision is both a gigantic and perilous, almost hopeless task, and even an army of scientists wouldn’t be able to come up with something without quarrelling endlessly amongst each other. One has to be humble therefore and proceed calmly, by adding successive and complementary touches and using appropriate methodologies, including those normally outside the domain of historians, highlighting convergences without masking divergences. In any event, given the wars of memory waged on the basis of selective amnesia which mask so many ‘burning’ reminiscences, and the attempts to manipulate history which periodically excite the milieu of politicians and the media on both sides of the Mediterranean, it is clear that a serenely written objective history of Algeria is essential for the future of the country and its people.

Even if it is true, as historian Gilbert Meynier suggests, that ‘there was no Algeria in antiquity, or before antiquity, because nations and modern states did not exist at that time’, it doesn’t change the fact that there was simultaneously a territory and its geographic reality, and a people and their political, economic and social reality. This in itself is not specific to Algeria or original. The same could be said of France (the first traces of statehood only appeared after the 15th century), the USA (the declaration of independence on 4 July 1776 was the act that inaugurated the American nation) and is even more relevant to Italy (the nation only came into being in 1870). In other words, in Algeria as elsewhere, there was an extremely ancient historic reality that goes beyond what is generally understood by the concept of the nation state. According to Malika Hachid, this goes back at least to ‘the Lower Palaeolithic, a period also known as the civilisation of the burin because this tool was typical of that era. This means there was a human presence in the Tassili region in very ancient times as these tools date back to two and half million years ago.’ Gilbert Meynier also estimates that this region was inhabited more than two million years ago, one of the cradles of humanity, adding that the ‘Neolithic revolution occurred 10,000 to 8,000 years BCE, probably before Europe.’

So, instead of squabbling over the definition of this territory, it would be more profitable to study the evolution of this historic reality of what progressively began to be known as Thamourth Imazighen, Berberie, Numidie, Dzaier, El Djazaiir or Algeria, depending on the language used and the way the people who lived through that period wrote about it. It is important that the distinction be maintained between the historic reality – it is illusory and probably useless to identify a precise point of departure – and scientific knowledge of that reality as it is conceptualised by scholars with their points of departure, epochs, events and other geographic, demographic, economic, political and military chronologies.

That is why – though I am not a historian – I have taken the risk of writing this article on the history of Algeria from a different angle – heritage. I am not certain that my expertise in economy, especially the history of economic thought, as well as my long experience with economic and political issues in Algeria, will suffice to give credibility to my contribution to scientific discourse. One could argue that this accumulated experience which makes me who I am, ‘a son of my times’ (Hegel) like each and every person and the baggage that I bring will inevitably impact on my analysis and perhaps prevent me from transcending my own political, even ideological convictions, thereby making me another participant in the intellectual squabbles that characterise historical reflection and theoretical debate. On the other hand, the fact that I am a relative outsider to the discipline could open up theoretical benefits for me and my readers – the advantage of not having any historical a priori for example, or the freedom of using less ‘traditional’ means and methods than those used by historians. Finally, it allows me to participate, alongside other historians, in the debunking of the ‘manipulators’ of history who proceed with negative subjectivity and propagate falsehoods in order to protect or serve hidden interests which as a rule subvert and run contrary to the legitimate aspirations of the Algerian people.

I am convinced that in this field, like in several others, a multidisciplinary approach is indispensable if one wants to understand the complexity of historic processes. My demarche is to understand things through reason and not affect; it is also an invitation to dialogue and collective mobilisation. For these reasons – and historians will understand this – this work is not strictly speaking a historian’s book. It would be pure pretentiousness on my part to present it as such. This is an essay which hopes to be a contribution to the identification of the essential elements and the main dynamics which I think have shaped the history of Algeria. This is one element among so many others that make up the ‘history of Algeria as the heritage of Algerians’.

From this perspective, my purpose is to look at historical heritage as content at a given moment in the movement of Algerian history. Throughout this essay, the historical narrative I present by juxtaposing a multitude of historical facts and taken from diverse sources is aimed at illustrating and identifying the sources and mechanisms which over the centuries allowed for the construction of a specific history, whose content represents the historical heritage – an interesting exercise given that even today, because it is discontinuous and manipulated inside and outside the country, this heritage has not yet been assumed and continues to divide Algerians and set one group against the other. Another of my convictions is that historical heritage possesses a key specificity – it is the only common heritage that can in fact unite Algerians. The history of Algeria is basically the history of individuals and the history of everybody. From this perspective, like Algeria itself, it is one and many, indivisible and non-negotiable. Therefore, there cannot be, as some have suggested, a ‘supermarket’ of history where each could choose, more or less for free, what items to put in the caddy, select their bit of history, and by the same token deprive others, make them feel guilty and humiliate, attack or subjugate them.

But the task of convincing Algerians that an objective rendering of this history is possible and that it is their history is an onerous one given the number of versions of Algerian history that are in currency. For many reasons, and not only methodological ones, the history of Algeria that is on display in scholarly works and specialised books, echoes of which can be found in historical literature and political discourse, is a truncated one, reduced, falsified, tweaked around and used as internal and external circumstances dictate. This has led to a situation where even today, we do not have a history of Algeria that has been scientifically and democratically ‘recognised’, but a multitude of partial histories, incomplete and partial, more or less ‘privatised’, ‘monopolised’, even confiscated by some people, groups or institutions inside and outside Algeria.

Under such circumstances, can Algerians everywhere have the same perception? It would appear not. One only has to look at the diversity of heritage exhibited or claimed by one or the other group and against each other. Most of these versions, consciously or unconsciously, are based on a selective reading of history, retaining only that which comforts their interpretation and consigning the rest, including whole chapters essential to Algeria’s historical heritage, to the dustbins of history. Small wonder there is so much of truncated and misleading accounts of heritage around, sometimes even fictional or artificially constructed descriptions that suit the needs of political, economic, legal or ideological lobbies. But historical truth cannot be subordinated to this kind of logic. A historical heritage is not an inheritance to be divided up amongst the ‘legitimate’ or ‘self-proclaimed’ heirs. Historical heritage is indivisible and belongs to the Algerian people, to be handed down to succeeding generations to be further enriched. In other words, understanding this heritage has to go beyond mere knowledge or memorisation – what is at stake here is for Algerians to individually and collectively appropriate this heritage in order to transmit it and the mark they have left on it to future generations.

So what is this history? How has it been constructed? History, and that of Algeria in particular, is a complex process with stops and starts that result from the momentum of people and events, whose bedrock is impacted by transformations over time and resistance movements of rival interest groups. History is a flux where the older, traditional base which anchors the society coexists with challenges to the established order and colliding internal and external interests – all these elements, divergent or complementary, play a decisive role in the making of history. For these reasons, history cannot be linear. It is constituted of advances and retreats, victory and defeat, progress and regression. The Algerians have inherited a history in movement that is not frozen or immobile.

The first chapter, which draws extensively on the work of several historians, is an attempt to clarify the relationship between historical reality, memory, history and heritage, before identifying the fundamental elements of this long, complex and sometimes contradictory heritage. The analysis shows that historical reality is first and foremost something lived, signs of which can be seen in rural and urban vestiges, archives (legal, economic, political, military), souvenirs, autobiographies and works of art that try to bear witness. But this history is also (if not principally) accessible through scientific research (notably that of historians) which attempts a rational account of all these life experiences – History with a capital H. From this angle, it is clear that this history, while integrating accounts of peoples’ stories, subjective and passionate, is fundamentally different from them. Because it proceeds from a scientific standpoint, it offers an objective representation of this reality. Moreover, as Pierre Nora points out: ‘History unites whereas memory divides.’ That is why it is the foundation of historical heritage. It legitimises it. Research has shown that from its earliest origins dating back to Carthage and Rome, the land, its wealth and people have been the object of predatory greed.

Taking into account the invasions, wars and other conquests sparked by greed, one can identify four key processes that have structured the history of Algeria from its inception: the process of settlements, transformations, resistance and internal rivalries. One could say that the Roman invasion and occupation sparked the emergence of Berber society. The research reveals the process of settlement-transformation based on tribal allegiance, visceral attachment to territory and language while remaining open to new ideas and exchange. It also brings to light a society that jealously protected its independence and liberty, always ready to repel greedy predators but fatally weakened by recurrent internal rivalries. This is to say that both opposition and submission to covetous outsiders are inscribed in a double contradiction – on the one hand, the movements of settlement-transformation which has resulted in the historical bedrock of the country, in terms of its territory, its people, social organisation, languages, economy and religions, and on the other, the dialectic of resistance and rivalry which marked each period and whose aims, objectives and results left an indelible impact on the process of settlement-transformation. One can see how these processes merged or collided with each other over the course of time with their corollary of mutually complementary or hostile relationships that formed and dissolved. Sometimes peaceful, but most often violent, tumultuous and tormented, these developments have made a major contribution to the specificity and meaning of Algerian history. They have served as catalysts for the course of history, but have also served to put a brake or diverting a movement from its original direction. Naturally, this history is also the business of men and women from diverse horizons who are or have been the actors of history. They are the subjects who carry the repository of the past, of the changes, resistance and rivalries. From this perspective, they are the key elements of historical heritage. Indeed, they are the very personification, and each in their own manner contribute to the construction of that heritage. An analysis which keeps all these contradictory factors in mind, individual and collective accounts of life experiences, permits us to understand the singularity and diversity of men and women, their real contribution to the history of Algeria and to their common heritage.

The second part takes off from this initial identification of Algeria’s historical heritage and attempts to understand how the Berber–Arab and Muslim heritage of the Berberie. The study shows the evolution of Berber and then Berber–Arab society through the juxtaposition of and interaction between ‘Berberness’, Islam and ‘Arabness’ from antiquity to the Ottoman period. The social set-up that resulted from this first foundation is significant. It lays bare one of the main underpinnings of Algerian history. By the end of the 14th century, the people had become mainly Berber–Arab and had converted massively to monotheist Islam. Plagued by internecine rivalries which were exacerbated by a mainly feudal, hence unproductive economy, Berberie – empires or Berber-Arab kingdoms – went into rapid decline and its economy was in its death throes. Weakened and marginalised and unable to resist the marauders from Christian countries, especially Spain, a few Berber tribes turned to the Barberousse brothers for help. This was to be a move fraught with consequences. To avoid Spanish domination, two of the Berber kingdoms (eastern and central) fell into the hands of the Ottomans. Against a backdrop of ‘an economy based on sea piracy’ and increased fiscal pressure on the tribes, internal rivalries intensified which in turn whetted Christian appetites. And with a Europe in full bloom thanks to the ‘discovery’ of the New World and two industrial revolutions, the central Berberie kingdom, which had by now become the Muslim kingdom of El Djazaiir, was about to enter one of its bleakest periods.

The third part looks at the evolution of this historical heritage in the light of resistance to France’s colonial adventure, which began in 1830. Essentially, this lays bare the violent and systematic destruction of the Berber–Arab and Muslim foundation of Algeria. Genocidal intentions aside, the process was marked by unprecedented brutality which resulted in huge massacres and the dispossession of huge swathes of territory and devastated the social, political and tribal organisation of the country, as well as its demographic structure and economy. The colonial chapter was marked by resistance and recurrent rivalries and the economic and political structures laid down by the colonial masters, the agrarian and financial capitalism introduced by them gave rise to grave injustices and inequalities which in turn provoked irrevocable economic, social and political schisms. A thorny question was which sections of the Algerian bedrock resistance movements could mobilise in order to oppose colonial rule? Why did one have to wait for the spark of November 1954 to finally set the independence movement into motion? Essentially, the analysis reveals the permanence of the underlying Berber notion of Thamourth (tribal territory) until Ottoman domination when the rapid Islamisation imposed on the El Djazaiir kingdom replaced that concept with the nation or ummah, the Islamic notion of commons or the community. The French tried to replace this with the colonial version of nation with its categories of ‘true’ and ‘naturalised’ French citizens and the indigenous Muslim subjects. Two major resistance movements emerged right at the outset of colonial conquest but they did not agree on the objectives of resistance. The dey Ahmed of Constantine wanted to go back to the kingdom of El Djazaiir and the ummah, whereas the Emir Abdelkader wanted to wage a jihad and create a new Muslim state, cut off both from French colonialism and the Islamic ummah (whose decision making centre was still in Istanbul). At the same time, this evolution of the nation had a profound impact on the form of state at any given time, going from a caliphate to monarchy and vice versa to culminate in the colonial republic. This in turn was the victim of its dichotomised structure (citizens/subjects) and a national resistance movement emerged despite ongoing rivalries between ‘indigenous’ factions. The question was what national foundation could be invoked to seal the rupture between the nation and the French colonial state.

The fourth part deals with the Algerian war of independence, which in fact incorporated three simultaneous conflicts. The first and most important was the declaration of 1 November 1954, which called for resistance to colonial occupation. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives, some after severe torture and summary executions. Several resistance leaders were killed during the ‘Battle of Algiers’. But the resistance held out and the head of the French state, General de Gaulle, was forced to enter into negotiations, which culminated in national independence in July 1962. The second conflict played out internally, pitting the FLN-ALN against the MNA, a political movement created by Messali Hadj, the father of Algerian nationalism after the PPA–MTLD crisis. Messali had refused to join the armed struggle in 1954. Other resistance groups took a similar position but joined the FLN when war broke out and before 1956. Messali still couldn’t make up his mind and was miffed that war had been declared without consulting him. This internal struggle also caused tens of thousands of casualties before the MNA was finally defeated. The third conflict, which started in 1956, was between comrades of the revolution and members of the FLN-ALN. Ignoring the principle of the political taking precedence over the military which they had agreed to at the famous Soummam meeting, this conflict led to dozens of political assassinations. The worst was that of Abane Ramdane, the organiser of the revolution who was strangled to death in Morocco. This final conflict was to have profound consequences for the independence movement, especially during the bloody summer of 1962. The army commanded by Houari Boumediene took power by force and installed Ben Bella as the head of state and of the FLN. This only confirmed that the contradictory logic of resistance and rivalry was to continue to dog Algerian history.

The fifth part focuses on the period after independence. It examines how post-independence Algeria simultaneously remained rooted in the four preceding historical phases while radically distancing itself from each of them. The result was that at independence, Algeria was perceived as an Arab–Muslim nation while the republican state itself incorporated its main elements from the kingdom of El Djazaiir under Ottoman rule, as well as from the French Jacobin republic and the Soviet ‘socialist system’. In economic terms this meant a return to a predatory and feudal system under the pretext of nationalisation. At the same time, tribal and regional pressures deepened political rivalries. A breeze of liberty seemed to blow over Algeria at the end of the 1980s when the government of Mouloud Hamrouche embarked on a series of wide-ranging reforms. But these were short-lived, and then came Islamic terrorism. One of the first victims was President Mohamed Boudiaf, whose assassination in June 1992 sparked years of bloodletting. The 1990s were the killing years and thousands of people were killed and disappeared as the army battled Islamic terrorism. It was thanks to the efforts of President Liamine Zeroual that the bloodshed finally ended after a compromise was reached with the AIS (Islamic Salvation Army). There followed a period of ‘civilian concord’ and national reconciliation under the leadership of the new head of state, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. However, despite a partial return to security and peace, this period has seen a new spate of revolts, scandals and riots, which shows how troubled the country really is. Despite the country’s immense wealth, with even more money pouring in from the exploitation of oil and gas, the vast majority of the population is mired in poverty and despair. How has one reached this point? How do the dynamics of resistance and rivalry work? Which part or parts of the national bedrock have they been able to tap into? Does this explain what several scholars call the incomplete rupture of the movement of national liberation?

Many questions remain. What has Algeria become today? What historical heritage have the Algerians inherited? To what extent does this historical heritage explain the exacerbation of social inequalities and internecine rivalries? More concretely, do Algerians have their fundamental freedoms and are they able to exercise them? The evidence suggests not. So apart from the suicidal status quo, what historical perspectives can Algerians derive inspiration from? Alongside its Berber–Arab and Muslim identity, Algeria also has to embrace democratic principles. Only this can transform the logic of resistance–rivalry into resistance–democratic rivalry, the only way for a peaceful resolution of conflicts inherent to all societies. This was what was pledged on 1 November 1954 – a promise to value the country’s historical heritage and contribute to the history of the future Algeria – where free men and women live in a free country.


* Translated from French by Sputnik Kilambi.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.