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Algerian War of Independence


This war ended more than 130 years of French colonial rule over Algeria.

The Algerian war of independence began in the early hours of 1 November 1954 and ended officially on 3 July 1962, when France's President Charles de Gaulle formally renounced his nation's sovereignty over Algeria and proclaimed its independence.

The French occupation of Algeria, begun in 1830, led to a colonial situation in which a minority of European settlers and their descendants dominated the Algerian economy. They maintained that domination through monopolies of political power and the means of coercion. During the first half of the twentieth century, a series of initiatives by various indigenous leaderships sought first to secure meaningful political participation for the Muslim majority within the colonial system and later to negotiate autonomy, confederation, or independence. When these efforts proved fruitless, a group of radical young nationalists founded the Comité Révolutionnaire d'Unité et d'Action (CRUA; Revolutionary
Committee of Unity and Action), which began, in the spring or summer of 1952, to plan an insurrection. Six CRUA members, together with three political exiles, are considered the chefs historiques of the Algerian revolution. The CRUA chiefs, led by Mohamed Boudiaf of M'sila, included Moustafa Ben Boulaid, Mourad Didouche, Belkacem Krim, Rabah Bitat, and Larbi Ben M'hidi. The external leaders were Hocine Ait Ahmed, Mohamed Khider, and Ahmed Ben Bella, who later became Algeria's first president.

Estimates of the number of militants taking part in the initial insurrection range from nine hundred to about three thousand. It began with attacks on French installations in several parts of the country, but the most effective actions took place in the Aurès region of the southeast. During the ensuing winter, the French managed to contain the insurrection, limiting its manifestations to distant and inaccessible regions. In August 1955, the leadership, concerned that neither the bulk of Algerians nor the European community were taking the insurrection seriously, decided to begin targeting European civilians in some twenty-six localities in the eastern part of the country. As many as 123 people were killed in what were called the Philippeville massacres. In outraged reaction, French forces responded by taking a far larger number of Muslim lives. These events served to polarize the two communities in such a way that a narrowly based insurrection became a nationwide revolution; thousands of men joined guerrilla units, while France rapidly built its own forces into the hundreds of thousands.

In its initial proclamation, on 31 October 1954, the CRUA had announced the creation of a Front de Libération Nationale (FLN; National Liberation Front) to which it had invited Algerians of all political persuasions to rally. As a result of the polarization following the events of August 1955, Algerian political classes across a broad ideological spectrum gradually closed down their independent operations and joined the FLN in revolution. By the summer of 1956, only Messali Hadj, long leader of the most radical wing of the Algerian nationalist movement but now bypassed by events, remained outside of the FLN.

In order to accommodate the dramatically broadened movement, the revolutionaries organized a clandestine congress in the Soumamm valley of the Kabylia during August and September 1956. It created a broad Conseil National de la Révolution Algérienne (CNRA) to serve as a protoparliament and a Comité de Coordination et d'Éxécution (CCE; Committee of Coordination and Implementation) to bear the executive functions. One of the first decisions of the new executive was to initiate, at the end of September 1956, the urban warfare strategy that became known as the Battle of Algiers. A very visible phase of the war that the French managed to win by the middle of 1957, the recourse to urban warfare brought the war home in a physical way to the majority of Colons, who were urban residents, and attracted the attention of metropolitan Frenchmen and the wider world for the first time to the Algerian situation. Another result of the Battle of Algiers was that the severe French repression drove the top FLN leadership out of the country to Tunis. This in turn generated problems in communications and orientation between the external leadership and the internal mojahedin. These problems caused troublesome divisions within the movement that lasted throughout the war and beyond.

Between the fall of 1957 and the spring of 1958, the French army, now grown to roughly 500,000 men, succeeded in bringing most of Algeria under its physical control and was concentrating on limiting cross-border raids by Algerian guerrillas from Morocco and Tunisia. But the military were apprehensive. They feared that their achievements might be undone by the divided political leadership at home, which was sensitive to the violence involved in pacification and to growing world pressure. Thus, the army, under the leadership of General Jacques Massu and with the enthusiastic support of the colons, proclaimed the creation on 13 May 1958 of a Committee of Public Safety at Algiers. This challenge to government authority brought down the Fourth French Republic and propelled de Gaulle to power as head of the Fifth Republic, pledging an early resolution of the Algerian conflict. By the autumn of 1958, de Gaulle offered Algerians the opportunity of total integration as equals into the French republic, inaugurated a massive plan of economic renewal, and invited the revolutionary troops to join their French compatriots in a "paix des braves."

The CCE and the CNRA rejected these terms and, instead, created a Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (Gouvernement Provisoir de la République Algérienne; GPRA) at Tunis, with Ferhat Abbas at its head. From this point on, even though French forces remained in control of most of Algeria, the GPRA campaigned to win world support for Algerian independence. The campaign centered primarily on developing and eastern bloc countries and upon the United Nations. Within a year, de Gaulle began speaking of Algerian self-determination. The war of independence might have ended soon afterward, but there were obstacles. Principal among these was the fate of the Sahara, in which French companies had recently discovered oil. Even more important was the resistance of the colon community, which increasingly found more in common with the military. During 1960 they created a Front de l'Algérie Française in order to fight against independence and in January 1961 the Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS; Secret Army Organization), which eventually led an armed insurrection against French civil authority and launched a campaign of terror against Muslim Algerians.

After several abortive attempts at negotiations, the provisional government and France finally signed the Evian Agreement on 18 March 1962, which led to unequivocal independence in July. The war had caused the dislocation from their homes of about 3 million Algerians, the destruction of much social and economic infrastructure, and the deaths of several hundred thousand Algerians. The rebuilding tasks faced by independent Algeria would be formidable.

see also abbas, ferhat; ait ahmed, hocine; ben bella, ahmed; ben boulaid, moustafa; ben m'hidi, muhammad larbi; bitat, rabah; boudiaf, mohamed; colons; comitÉ rÉvolutionnaire d'unitÉ et d'action (crua); conseil national de la rÉvolution algÉrienne (cnra); didouche, mourad; front de libÉration nationale (fln); hadj, messali al-; kabylia; khider, mohamed; krim, belkacem; organisation armÉe secrÈte (oas).


Horne, Alistair. A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 19541962, revised edition. New York: Penguin, 1987.

Ruedy, John. Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

John Ruedy

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