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Algeria at 60: reflecting on history is good, but looking forward is better

June 30, 2022 at 8:30 am

A memorial statue of historic Algerian leader Emir Abdelkader in Algiers, Algeria. [RYAD KRAMDI/AFP via Getty Images]

This 5 July marks 60 years since Algeria got its independence from France, after an occupation that lasted over 13 decades, from 1830 until 1962, only to end with the French being defeated in a brutal liberation battle. When the Evian Accords were signed on 18 March 1962, in which France agreed to hold a referendum on Algerian independence, on 3 July that year, there was no certainty that independence was inevitable, even at that late moment.

On 31 March, two weeks after the agreement was signed, a French commando assassinated the mayor of Evian-les-Bains, Camille Blanc, for his lobbying to host the political negations in his town on the French side of Lake Geneva. The poor pacifist’s murder was a sign of how sensitive the Algerian issue to the French political elite was.

During the occupation, Algeria was known as “French Algeria”, representing the crux of French colonies around the world, and giving it up was never imagined by the French colonialists. The country across the Mediterranean became a French department, starting from 1830 some three decades before Nice, in southern France, became French. French colonial political elite used to brag about this by saying that “the Mediterranean runs through France just as the river Seine runs through Paris” meaning Algeria is an integral part of French territory.

On 3 July, Algerians went to the polls to vote for independence by answering one question “Do you want Algeria to become an independent state, co-operating with France under the conditions defined in the declarations of 19 March 1962?” Those declarations were the Evian Accords signed four months earlier. Nearly six million Algerians voted yes against less that 17 thousand who wanted Algeria to remain part of France. The Algerian political leadership decided to celebrate their country’s independence on 5 July every year.

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The battle for independence was bloody and extremely painful for France, as well as Algeria. While France claims only 300,000 Algerian lost their lives, the Algerian narrative, supported by historical documents, say as many as 1.5 million Algerians were killed, most of whom were civilians. Many historians consider the Algerian war of independence second only to the Vietnam War in the last century.

This year’s celebrations are focusing on history and remembrance in an attempt by the government to help young Algerians learn more about their country’s history in resisting French colonialism. Announcing the government plans for the festivities, Algerian Minister of Mujahideen and Rights Holders, Laïd Rebigua, said this year’s motto is “a glorious history and new era”.

The foremost lesson the Algeria war of independence is that resisting the occupation is always a winning case, however long it takes and however bloody it might be. If Algerians got their independence after 132 year of French occupation, so can the Palestinians who still live under one of the most brutal occupations the world has ever seen.

Indeed, France still refuses to recognise and apologise for what it did in Algeria but this does not mean Algerians should forget that chapter. As new generations learn about the history, they become equipped to press France, in years to come, to extract that apology their earlier predecessors failed to get. This explains why celebrations this year are dealing with legacies of resistance, war and independence.

But this should not blind the Algerian government and, particularly, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, to the fact that Algeria today is facing more serious challenges in which reliving history might not be of great help.

Young Algerians are looking for a better life where they can get education, find jobs and live the economic prosperity their country can offer them. Algeria is, after all, one of the top oil and gas producers in the region; however, this is not reflected in the lives of its citizens.

Unemployment is averaging around 13 per cent of the total workforce. The hardest hit is the young people, fresh university graduates and school drop outs. Hundreds of Algerian youth leave the country every year in search of a better life abroad, including in France. The national per capita income is estimated to be $4,600 which is unacceptable in a country that produces nearly a million barrels of oil daily. The country’s GDP is expected to hit $170 billion, but little is fairly shared. At the same time, political restrictions make it hard for aspiring new political leaders to emerge as representatives of a new, young Algeria.

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Over the last decade, Algeria has made notable progress in the economy, social programs and curbing the political role played by the military. Many Algerians blamed the military’s dominant role for political stagnation and economic corruption.

Critics say that the military’s role in liberating Algeria, since the 1 November, 1954 revolution that ended French occupation, has widened and become cherished beyond criticism, giving itself the right to intervene in politics simply because it is the grantor of sovereignty and independence. But this happens at the expense of free political expression, civil society leading to monopolistic national politics, effectively making democratic progress more difficult.

However, no one can deny the fact that President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who came to power in 2019 elections, is trying to distance the army from domestic politics and allowing more political room for national dialogue. Despite reservations form the security apparatus, he went on and released dozens of political prisoners involved in the national Hirak—civil protests that erupted across Algeria in 2019. He has also delivered on his promise of legislative elections that took place in 2021, with more youth elected at the national and local levels. Above all, he has been following up on his promises to fight corruption—a serious challenge for the country. This reform incremental process is, so far, appearing to go according to plan and must continue, however slowly.

After 60 years of independence, President Tebboune should continue his incremental process of democratisation he launched after his elections two years ago. Algeria cannot afford to go back to where it was in 2019.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.