North Africa, European Presence in

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North Africa, European Presence in

Africa, located between Europe and Asia, has been of strategic importance to world powers throughout history. Additionally, the Red Sea was an important artery of commerce and a highway for the spread of ideas. European presence in North Africa dates back to the invasions of Alexander, Caesar, and Ptolemy during Greco-Roman times. Closer to our time, European presence in North Africa dates to the fifteenth century, when Spain established a hold on the North African coast and occupied Mellila (1494) and Ceuta (1580). Spain again invaded Morocco in 1859–1860. European presence in the nineteenth century altered the status quo and history of North Africa.

European presence in North Africa impinged on the practice of Islam, African tradition, and various forms of social practice. It resulted in conflict between local peoples and colonial administrations. Resistance to colonial domination exacerbated racism and discrimination against Muslims. Not surprisingly, a disparate group of North Africans (both religious and secular), led by an educated elite, revolted against the European presence. Resistance was sustained and fierce, especially in reaction to the exploitation of labor and resources, racism, and control over North African economies.


Europeans controlled the most fertile land in North Africa. In Algeria, for example, 26,153 European families owned 2,345,666 hectares (5,796,375 acres) of land, while 630,732 Muslim families farmed 7,349,100 hectares (18,160,361 acres). Despite revolts in Kabylia (1871) and other areas (1880s), French colonists increasingly displaced Algerians from the coastal plains and valleys to the Algerian highlands and steppes. The French also imposed a 3 percent direct tax on Algerians, who did not benefit from tax revenue despite harsh punishments for late payments. In addition, North Africans were subject to the indigenat laws, which required Muslims to carry passes.

Nationalist agitation began before the onset of decolonization, but accelerated after World War II. The various European powers recruited over 160,000 North and West Africans to fight in the war. France's defeat in 1940 and the Allied invasion of North Africa in 1942 weakened the aura of French invincibility and emboldened nationalists. In the Maghreb—Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia—agitation for independence intensified after 1942. The nationalist struggle was long, violent, and bloody, as the substantial, often violently racist European populations were determined to stay in power at any cost.


France invaded Algeria in the time of Charles X (1830) and that invasion culminated in a long, brutal war that Frantz Fanon chronicles in his classic Wretched of the Earth (1961). The European population in North Africa helped supply France's wartime needs during World War I and maintained its political control after World War II. By 1940, Europeans owned 2.7 million hectares (5.94 million acres) of land as compared to the 1.6 million hectares (3.5 million acres) they had owned in 1890. European immigrants, who made up 2 percent of the population, controlled one-third of all profitable agricultural land. Generally, both settlers and metropole largely ignored Algerian demands for equal rights, and whatever limited land reforms the French government initiated were blocked by the powerful Algerian settler population.

Different Algerian leaders advocated different approaches to decolonization. Ferhat Abbas (who from 1922 to 1926 published articles denouncing colonialism) favored federation with France. However, when Sheikh Ahmed Ibn Badis (founder of a nationalist reformist religious movement in 1928) died in 1940 and Massali al-Hajj (leader of the Parti du Peuple Algérien) was imprisoned, Abbas became more militant.

Ferhat Abbas sent appeals (such as the Manifesto of the Algerian People) to Marshal Pétain (governor-general of Algeria, 1941) and the American envoy, Richard Murphy, demanding agrarian reform, education, participation in government, and independence. France's Fourth Republic initiated some limited reform but the French administration in Algeria thwarted all efforts.

Charles de Gaulle's initiatives of March 1944, which aimed to give equal rights to Algerians, curtail discriminatory legislation, and open up civilian and military careers to all, were resisted by the French settlers. Frustration led Algerians to form new organizations, such as the Friends of the Declaration of Independence (Amis du Manifeste de la Liberté or AML, founded in Sétif in 1944), to carry on the nationalist struggle. In 1945 the Algerian Peoples' Party (Parti du Peuple Algérien or PPA) rejected federation with France and from May 1, 1945, anti-French demonstrations occurred in Sétif, leading to serious clashes on May 8, 1945. The brutal tactics police used to suppress the demonstrations incensed the crowds, which attacked Setif's armed garrison. Disturbances spread to Annaba, Gulma, and parts of Oran, and in reprisal the French bombed villages by air and sea. Abbas and other leaders were blamed for the disturbances and arrested and Sétif became the symbol of the Algerian nationalist struggle.

In 1945 Algerians secured the right to elect thirteen representatives to the French Constituent Assembly. The following year, Abbas, freed from jail, organized the Democratic Union for the Independence of Algeria (Union Démocratique du Manifeste Algérien or UDMA), which sought to make Algeria a republic federated with France. The UDMA won eleven out of thirteen seats in France's Constituent Assembly. Also in 1946, Massali al-Hajj launched another party, the Mouvement pour le Triomphe des Libertés Démocratiques (Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties or MTLD), to agitate for an Algerian national assembly and French withdrawal from Algeria. The Fourth French Republic responded to nationalist demands by passing the Algerian Statute (1947), which gave fiscal but not political autonomy to Algeria.

Mohamed Belouizdad, Ahmed Ben Bella, and others formed the Organisation Secrète (Secret Organization or OS) in 1948, to protest electoral fraud in the Algerian assembly elections and the repression of Algerian leaders. The OS advocated militant action against colonial rule. Ben Bella and other OS leaders were arrested after an attack on the Oran post office, but Ben Bella escaped and fled to Cairo. In 1954 the revolutionaries formed the Comité Révolutionnaire d'Unité et d'Action (the Revolutionary Committee of Unity and Action or CRUA), to work toward Algerian independence. On October 10, 1954, CRUA was renamed the National Liberation Front (Front de la Libération Nationale or FLN); under that name, it became the most potent force for Algerian freedom.

The FLN attacked targets in Algeria, destroyed infrastructure (police stations and barracks), and detonated bombs in Algiers. The French government arrested MTLD and FLN leaders and launched punitive raids against the "rebels."

In 1956 a group of liberal Europeans and FLN representatives met to declare a truce and to pledge to protect civilians. In July of that year, the FLN absorbed the Algerian Communist Party and made Casbah an important military base. In both Algeria and Cairo, the FLN intensified its independence struggle, tying down the huge French army in Algeria. After six more years of conflict, the Evian Agreements of May 1962 ended the Algerian war for independence.


Following the 1930 Eucharistic Congress at Carthage (organized by Carthage's archbishop, Monsignor Lemaîre, to celebrate a century of French/Catholic activity in Algeria), nationalist stirrings in Tunisia began to intensify. Habib Bourguiba, Mahmud Matiri, and other leaders of the Destour (Liberal Constitutional Party) launched the newspaper L'Action Tunisienne to spread their nationalist message. After L'Action was banned on April 27, 1933, Bourguiba and other leaders formed the Neo-Destour party in 1934. This was suppressed by the French colonial administration and Bourguiba was imprisoned for his role in disturbances at Bordj Le Boeuf.

In January 1938, the Neo-Destour and the General Confederation of Tunisian Workers (Confédération Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens or CGTT) organized riots in Bizerte. Police killed 112 and wounded 62 and arrested Bourguiba and other leaders, thus stifling nationalist activity.

In 1942 the new Tunisian ruler, Munsif Bey, rekindled nationalist hopes when he received nationalist leaders in his palace and demanded the establishment of a consultative assembly with a Tunisian majority. After German troops arrived in Tunisia later that year, Munsif Bey formed a new government with Neo-Destour sympathizers (chief among them Muhammad Shanniq). However, Free French authorities deposed the bey as an Axis supporter after the Allies retook Tunis in 1943.

After Bourguiba was released by the Germans in 1943, he returned to Tunisia and issued a proclamation denouncing Italian fascism. In March 1945, Bourguiba secretly left Tunisia for a North African and North American tour to seek support for the nationalists. A year later, police broke up the Congress of August 23, 1946, organized by Destour, Neo-Destour, and the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT) to coordinate nationalist activities. When demonstrations, strikes, and violence continued, the French in July 1947 asked Mustafa Ka'ak to form a new Tunisian government (with himself as prime minister), in which French and Tunisian ministers would share power. But co-sovereignty became problematic soon after its implementation because the French insisted on holding on to de facto control. Prime Minister Shanniq and other Tunisian ministers went to Paris in October 1951 to demand Tunisian independence; when the French resident-general, Hautecloque, demanded the Shanniq government's dismissal, riots broke out in Tunisia on January 15, 1952. Bourguiba was arrested on January 18, 1952, and in March, Shanniq and other Tunisian ministers were also arrested. The frightened bey appointed two successive prime ministers (in March 1952 and March 1954) who were amenable to French demands, but this was unacceptable to the nationalists, who dismissed any form of compromise after January 1952. The Neo-Destour party formed a united front with the UGTT to fight police actions, but most Neo-Destour leaders were arrested.

Tunisian guerrillas attacked settlers, and in turn the Red Hand, a settler terrorist organization, attacked Tunisian political leaders. When the Red Hand assassinated Farhat Hashdad on December 5, 1952, the violence that ensued eventually forced the French government to begin the process of granting autonomy to Tunisia. The French concluded an agreement with Bourguiba on April 22, 1955, but several Tunisian leaders denounced it because it ensured French control over Tunisia's foreign affairs, army, police, and senior administrative posts, as well as sectors of the economy. In June 1955, Bourguiba returned from France to Tunisia and on March 20, 1956, the French agreed to grant Tunisia independence. The Neo-Destour Party won eighty-eight of ninety-eight assembly seats in the March 25, 1956, election and on July 25, 1957, the assembly abolished the monarchy and declared a republic with Bourguiba as head of state.


In Morocco, economic depression increased support for anticolonial and nationalist demands, especially after 1934. The Great Depression and the attendant hunger and unemployment hit Moroccans hard. Even affluent merchants and professionals found themselves marginalized by French settlers and businesses. From its creation, Allal al-Fasi's Committee for Action (formed January 1937 to champion Moroccan independence) was constantly harassed by the government. Appropriation of Moroccan lands and French plans to divert the Sebu River's waters angered nationalists, who staged violent demonstrations. The French occupied the medina (the Muslim quarter) of Fez, surrounded Qaraouiyine University, and forced nationalist leaders like Allal al-Fassi and al-Wazzani into exile.

Even with the arrest and exile of its leaders, nationalist opposition continued. A new nationalist movement developed, composed of Abderssalem Bennouna and Abdel Khaled Torres's National Reform Party and the Maghreb Unity Party (based in the French zone) of Mekki Nacri. Nationalists in northern and southern Morocco began to work together after the beginning of World War II. France's defeat in 1940, the landing of British and American troops in 1942, and the destruction of the pro-Vichy (pro-Nazi) French administration in Morocco all strengthened the nationalist cause. At the same time, a restrictive war economy caused untold hardships.

Nationalist agitation in Morocco only increased under the inflexible administration of the Gaullist French resident-general, General Puaux. By December 1943, a coalition of merchants and professionals had founded the Istiqlal (Independence) party. Istiqlal collected signatures for an independence manifesto that it submitted to the French, American, British, and Soviet governments on January 11, 1944. The nationalists, referring to the Atlantic Charter and Moroccan support against the Vichy regime, demanded Moroccan autonomy under Sultan Mohammed Ibn Youssef.


In 1830, during the reign of Charles X, the French invaded Algeria, beginning a more than 130-year-long occupation of the North African country. French settlers moved to the country and began farming much of the available arable land, displacing native Algerians in the process. A highly profitable colony, Algeria was largely controlled by the French colonialists, known as colons, both economically and politically. Though limited actions were taken in the first half of the twentieth century to include more Algerians in the administration of the country, these efforts were largely seen as ineffectual.

Lacking a meaningful voice in their own country, many Algerians looked to overthrow the French-supported government; eventually, various opposition leaders joined forces to create the Front de Libération Nationale. In late 1954 Algerian rebels began to attack French installations, but their efforts were soon redirected toward attacking French civilians, in hopes of gaining more attention, beginning with the Philippeville massacres in which 123 people were killed. French forces in turn killed over 1,000 Algerians, setting off a spiral of new violence throughout the country. France quickly responded by sending in nearly 500,000 troops, who by early 1958 were generally in control of the country. But world opinion soon began to side with the oppressed Algerian population and many in France became tired of the military operation and the loss of so many young soldiers. As the Fourth French Republic vacillated, at times negotiating with the rebels and at other times conducting serious campaigns against them, French colonists and the military, both determined in their opposition to Algerian independence, threatened to attack the French mainland. These threats, while they were not carried out, contributed to the collapse of the Fourth Republic.

With little hope for diplomatic or military resolution, in 1960 De Gaulle proposed a referendum in France to allow the citizens of Algeria the opportunity to vote on independence, which passed the next year with three-quarters approving the measure. Feeling betrayed, the French colonists and the military again sought to overthrow the government, but this time were stymied. On July 1, 1962, Algerians voted for independence, which was granted two days later by Charles De Gaulle. According to the Evian Accords, which formally settled the war, French colonists were given the option of receiving Algerian citizenship or returning to France; thousands decided to return to the mainland. In return for promising to aid the Algerian government financially, France won access to oil fields in the Sahara, an arrangement that kept French influence in Algeria alive long after the country's independence.

The sultan secured General Puaux's retirement and the eventual return from exile of nationalist leaders like Allal al-Fasi and al-Wazzani. In exchange for his signature on several French reform decrees that he (and Istiqlal) had opposed, Ibn Youssef won French, and later British, consent for a trip through the Spanish zone to visit Tangier. This visit, the first by a Moroccan sovereign since 1899, was met with popular acclaim in the French zone. In a speech to Moroccan notables, French and Spanish officials, and the diplomatic community (on April 10, 1947), the Sultan emphasized the need for reform in Morocco rather than delivering the expected platitudes concerning French rule.

By 1951 a National Front had unified rival parties and gained support from the Arab League, Egypt, and the United Nations. In large towns workers resorted to strikes and violence, while in the countryside, peasants supported demands for reform. Trade union activity began in earnest in Casablanca, though unions were prohibited. Abderrahim Bouabid and Tayyib Bouazza started to organize a national trade union movement in 1949, but news of the murder of Ferhat Hashdad (a Tunisian trade union leader) led to riots instead in Casablanca. On December 8, 1952, the local French administration deposed Sultan Ibn Youssef and replaced him with Ben Arafa. Nationalists interpreted the French action as an assault on Islam and violence broke out in Casablanca and other cites such as Fez, Port Lyautey, and Marrakesh. Mass protests occurred in many Moroccan towns and many activists died in clashes with French troops. Then, in 1955, a guerrilla war began.

Faced with these disturbances and unable to count on Sultan Ben Arafa or the antinationalist support of several Berber chiefs (such as al-Glaoui of Marrakesh), the Fauré government in France arranged the Aix-les-Baines Conference, which brought together Morocco's representatives. Conference participants agreed on Ben Arafa's departure (without abdication), the formation of a throne council, and a national union to negotiate with France. Following this, the French started negotiations with Sultan Mohammed Ibn Youssef and restored him to his throne as Mohammed V, king of independent Morocco. After negotiations with Istiqlal, Morocco became independent on March 2, 1956.


Libya came under European control much later than the other Middle Eastern countries, and only briefly. From the mid-nineteenth century, Libya was under Turkish suzerainty. By the 1880s it was divided into the province of Tripoli (Tripolitania and Fezzan) and Benghazi (with Cyrenaica) and ruled by local governors under Ottoman control and supported by an 8,000-man garrison. Turkish officials, assisted by the Sanusiyya brotherhood (founded in the 1830s), worked with local chiefs to collect taxes. The Sanusiyya and its zawiya (lodges) maintained peace and settled disputes between the Turkish authorities and the people.

Even after World War II, Libya had many characteristics that made its political situation unique. Without a ready constituency of disaffected people, nationalist movements in Libya had to work with the colonial administration. However, the tide changed after fascist Italy invaded Libya and colonized the country. Public lands owned by the Turkish administration were seized by the Italian colonizers. Land seizures accelerated after General de Bono (the Italian governor of Tripolitania) started a program of demographic colonization that provided land to carefully selected Italian peasants. The Tajura plains, the Khums hills, the Tarhuna mountains, and the central Jaffara plains were all seized and large tracts of Libyan land were given to Italians (and other Europeans) for agricultural purposes. In 1938 some 20,000 Italians settled in Libya, and in 1939 another 12,000 did. Thus, by 1939 about 120,000 Italians lived in Libya, making up around 12 percent of the population.

Furthermore, after the Italian conquest many Bedouins were kept in conditions akin to concentration camps. Umar al-Mukhtar, leader of the Cyrenaican resistance, was captured and hanged in 1930. Italian rule of Libya lasted until early in 1943, when British forces gained control of both Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.

Following World War II, British military administrators governed Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, while the French controlled the Fezzan. In November 1949, the U.N. General Assembly resolved that Libya would become independent in two years. With U.N. help, Sayyid Muhammad Idris, the Sanusi leader, was accepted by the Tripolitanians and, later, by Cyrenaicans, as their leader. In December 1951, Libya became the first North African colony to achieve independence.


In Egypt, the interwar years witnessed increased anti-colonial militancy and effective political organization for independence. Economic deprivation led to strikes and demonstrations, which were exacerbated by the arrest of Sa'ad Zaghlul and two colleagues on March 8, 1919. Students from Al-Azhar University, supported by transport workers, judges, and lawyers, staged a revolt in 1919. This resulted in Britain abolishing its protectorate and recognizing Egypt's independence on February 28, 1922, on four conditions: namely, British control of imperial lines of communication through Egypt and between the Mediterranean and Red Sea, responsibility for defending Egypt against external attack, British protection of foreign interests in Egypt, and control of the "Anglo-Egyptian condominium" of the Sudan.

Egyptian nationalists accepted this partial independence because the Wafd Party (formed in 1918 by Zaghlul Pasha) was weak. The Great Depression increased popular discontent and civil strife, and in 1936 an Anglo-Egyptian treaty (with Zaghlul's successor, Nahas Pasha) made concessions to Egyptian nationalists.

Britain used Egypt as a military base during World War II and drove Germany out of North Africa by 1943. Nationalism intensified in Egypt after the war. The creation and expansion of the state of Israel strained Anglo-Egyptian relations, as Arabs held Britain responsible for giving Arab Palestine to Israel. Furthermore, Britain's continued occupation of the Suez Canal Zone (resumed in 1952) energized the Muslim Brotherhood (founded in 1922), which became a force in Egyptian politics during the late 1940s and 1950s.

The Israeli defeat of Egypt in 1948–1949 discredited the Egyptian monarch and Nahas Pasha. In 1952 a group of young military officers opposed to the monarchy and British control of the Suez Canal Zone seized power in a bloodless coup d'état and formed a new government under General Muhamed Naguib. Egypt was declared a republic on February 10, 1953; in 1954 General Naguib, who many nationalists considered too conservative, was replaced by Lt. Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970) following a palace coup. Gamal Abdel Nasser then became president. Britain agreed in July 1954 to evacuate its troops within twenty months. They kept this agreement, but the United States and various Western European powers grew increasingly hostile to Nasser's anti-Western rhetoric and policies. After the United States and Britain retracted offers to provide financial aid for the construction of the Aswan Dam, Nasser turned to the Soviets for aid and nationalized the Suez Canal.

Nasser's actions galvanized Britain's determination to get rid of him by any means possible. His radical nationalism was viewed as a type of communism, and thus a threat to Western supremacy. At the same time, the Israeli leadership regarded Egypt as a threat to Israeli security.

In November 1956 Israeli troops invaded the Canal Zone under a secret agreement with Britain and France. The invasion was condemned worldwide, and when the United States opposed it, Israel and its British and French allies quickly withdrew. Egypt then emerged as a truly independent state for the first time in modern history.

see also Independence and Decolonization, Middle East; Secular Nationalisms, Middle East.


Bernard, Stéphane. The Franco-Moroccan Conflict, 1943–1956. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1968.

Hoisington, William A. The Casablanca Connection: French Colonial Policy, 1936–1943. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Lucas, Scott, ed. Britain and Suez: The Lion's Last Roar. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1996.

Salem, Norma. Habib Bourguiba, Islam and the Creation of Tunisia. London: Croom Helm, 1984.

Smith, Tony. The French Stake in Algeria, 1945–1962. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978.

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