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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 1989, Page 14
An Erie Parallel: The Algerian Rebellion and the Palestinian Intifada
By Roy C. Macridis
Although historically analogous events do not always have the same outcomes, there are significant parallels between the Algerian rebellion and the Palestinian intifada a generation later. When the Algerian rebellion began on Nov. 1, 1954, the entire French political spectrum, including the Communists, closed ranks to oppose it.
Leading the way was Prime Minister Pierre Mendes-France, who had just managed to extricate the French from Indochina, and the minister of the interior, Francois "Mitterrand." No accomodations can be made," Mendes-France proclaimed, "when the domestic peace of the nation and the integrity of the republic are at stake." He attributed to the rebellion to foreign interests and provocations.
Mitterrand went further: "From Flanders to the Congo there is but one nation and one parliament," he proclaimed, and French leaders agreed. Algeria was a French land. At least a million French settlers lived there.
Acts of rebellion by Algeria's National Liberation Front (FLN) assumed familiar forms: terrorist attacks against persons and property; assassination of Algerian collaborators with French authorities; bombs in crowded theaters and cafes; random shootings and killings of civilians and military. All were met with the utmost determination and ruthless repression. The French increased their military presence, obliged strikers to return to work, and reopened by force stores shut down by Algerian shopkeepers.
Elite units under General Massu fought and "won" the "battle of Algiers"-tearing down the walled Cashbah at the core of the city. Mass arrests were followed by the most thorough ratissage andquadrillage of Algerians and Algerian neighborhoods. Special indoctrination camps were set up into which dissidents were herded. They were then released with a certificat du civisme.
Negotiations to reestablish order were not excluded. These were not to be conducted with the FLN and its leaders, however, but with interlocuteurs valables. These were Algerians hand-picked by French authorities and contemptuously dismissed by their fellow Algerians as thebenis oui-oui.
The French looked beyond Algeria, too, to what they considered the real source of the rebellion. This led to the short-lived 1956 tripartite Suez expedition to punish Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The result was world condemnation of the French, British and Israelis and elevation of the Egyptian leader to the personification of pan-Arab nationalism and a leading spokesman for the entire Third World.
Algerian rebel bases were bombed in Tunisia, and French forces entered the small and virtually defenseless state in "hot pursuit" of Algerian rebel forces. New techniques of psychological warfare and intimidation were introduced, and information was extracted from Algerian rebel prisoners and suspects by routine and prolonged torture.
Only when events reached this juncture did the French-the intellectuals leading the way-begin to reexamine their policies, and their consciences. The political elites split, and the army, in close cooperation with the French settlers, rose against the metropolis. The Fourth Republic fell and Charles de Gaulle returned to the national stage from the village to which he had withdrawn after he led Free French forces to victory in World War II. He was hailed by the public as the leader who would keep Algeria French.
There are conflicting accounts of de Gaulle's ultimate goals. In his Memoirs d'Espoir, he claims that he planned all along to bring about Algerian independence. Yet, at first his position was summed up in the adamant slogan, "Cease-fire, pacification, self-determination.
There still was no question of dealing with the FLN-which had transformed itself into a provisional government in September of 1958. Nor was there any question of independence. Only self-determination was to be considered, and only after a period of "pacification."
In the meantime, however, the impact of the rebellion began to be felt in the metropolis. Secret organizations were formed by nationalist and veterans organizations. Bombs began to explode in the homes of French intellectuals and in the offices of French newspapers that advocated negotiations and Algerian self-determination. Political parties split, and even some prominent Guallists abandoned de Gualle. The political landscape of France froze over the Algerian issue, and a paralyzed France seemed unable to extricate itself from its incubus. So it went, on and on, until the inevitable finally happened and Algeria became independent on July 1, 1962.
It took a political leader with de Gaulle's immense moral stature and remarkable political skills to carry public opinions through an insurrection of the French settlers in Algeria, and a military uprising led by four generals. What's still missing from the analogy between Algerians and Palestinians and the French and the Israelis is an Israeli de Gaulle.
Dr. Roy C. Macridis is professor of politics at Brandeis University in Boston, Massachusetts.