The decolonization of Algeria became the bloodiest chapter in African colonial history. In the 1950s, both Morocco and Tunisia became independent states, but France wanted to hold on to Algeria, which had large natural resources and was closely linked to the French economy. Developments in other parts of North Africa, as well as political demands from other colonized peoples, contributed to the further radicalization of the nationalist movement in Algeria – as the liberation struggle in Algeria then inspired the liberation movement in other colonies. In France, the Algerian issue dominated domestic politics, leading to the fall of the Fourth Republic in 1958.
In 1946, the Mouvement pour le triumphe des libertés démocratiques (MTLD) was formed as an extension of the PPA, which was banned; also this led by Messali Hadj and with demands for independence. Also in 1946, the Union démocratique du manifest algérien (UDMA) was established, led by Ferhat Abbas. It was like AM advocating self-government, closely linked to France. Organization spéciale (OS) was created as a secret armed branch of MTLD. In the first decade after the war, the more radical MTLD gradually gained more support than the moderate UDMA.
In 1954, a group of militant nationalists based on MTLD and the OS formed a group, the Revolutionary Revolutionary Union and Action (CRUA), to develop a more revolutionary direction, with armed struggle as a means of achieving independence. CRUA’s founders are known as the original leaders of the liberation struggle, the chiefs’ historiques, including the late Presidents Ahmed Ben Bella and Mohammad Boudiaf. CRUA was then transformed into the Front de libération national (FLN) – the Algerian liberation movement based in Cairo, Egypt. A secret liberation army, the Armée de libération nationale (ALN), was created.
The liberation war started with a revolt, initiated by a series of terrorist attacks on November 1, 1954. The French government responded to the FLN’s demand for independence by declaring that France’s interests in Algeria would be defended by all possible means. The country’s defeat in Indochina contributed to this determination. After two years of armed conflict, FLN had established freed areas to operate from, and where a separate administration was gradually introduced. The FLN held its first congress in Algeria in the fall of 1956.
The country was divided into six autonomous zones (wilayat), each led by military commanders. Congress adopted a political platform for the war and elected a Revolutionary Council, the Conseil National de la Revolution Algeria (CNRA). FLN also supported the establishment of the trade union organization Union générale des travailleurs algériens (UGTA) and the student organization Union générale des étudiants musulmans algériens (UGEMA) was established, in connection with FLN. After French authorities cut off a plane with several FLN leaders on board and imprisoned them in October 1956, initial contact aimed at a ceasefire and negotiation solution became impossible and the war escalated.
France’s 1956 decision to give Morocco and Tunisia full independence, but retaining Algeria, helped to intensify the conflict. Following a conference between nationalist parties in Morocco, Tunisia and the FLN in Tangier, Morocco in 1958, the FLN established a provisional government, the Government Provisional de la Republique Algérienne (GPRA), first led by Ferhat Abbas.
In 1956, ALN was able to muster about 15,000 soldiers; The French had deployed 200,000. Most of France had half a million soldiers in Algeria. FLN launched a terror campaign in the cities from the end of 1956, and from January 1957 the so-called Battle of Algiers was fought, and FLN was driven from the capital. Inland, the fighting continued – even after Prime Minister Charles de Gaulle promised political and economic reforms in October 1958 as part of an effort to find a political solution to the conflict.
He also offered peace talks. This was rejected by the majority of Algerian Europeans. These formed several far-reaching groups that resorted to weapons against the French government; a failed coup attempt was conducted in 1961.
FLN sought to internationalize the conflict, and in 1955 brought it to the UN. In 1958, the General Assembly declined by a slight margin to recognize independence. Also part of the international dimension was France’s participation in the Suez crisis, the invasion of Egypt in 1956, which was intended by French to strike FLN’s bases in the country. FLN established bases in Tunisia; in 1958, France bombed a Tunisian village in retaliation for ALN actions. The attack helped put the war of liberation on the international agenda.
After the French set up an electric fence along the border with Tunisia and Morocco, leaving 900,000 landmines in the border areas, it became difficult for FLN to get supplies. The French also forced over two million Algerians, most of whom were placed in “concentration centers” to cut off contact between the guerrillas and the civilian population. France gained military control and retreated ALN.
Despite the military progress, there was growing resistance to the war in France, and support for the FLN increased. When General de Gaulle took over as President of France in 1959, he again sought a peace solution, but a new negotiation attempt in 1960 failed. A referendum on the country’s future held in January 1961 gave a majority in both Algeria and France, after which the GPRA entered into negotiations.
Prior to these, de Gaulle announced that Algeria would be separated from France. This led to a group of departed generals conducting a coup in Algiers. They received no support from the French military forces and the attempt to seize power failed. The coup makers went underground and established the terrorist organization Organization de l’Armée Secrète (OAS). Negotiations began in Evian, France in May 1961, and continued with a new round from February 1962 – which led to a ceasefire entered into on March 18, 1962. As a result, France agreed to surrender sovereignty over the now 15 départements in Algeria, including major territories. in French Sahara where oil was found.
French citizens of Algeria could hold dual citizenship for three years, after which they had to choose one. France should be able to maintain a military presence for three years; longer for an air base in the Sahara and a naval base in Oran – as a security for French interests in the country. In return, France was to provide technical and financial assistance. This solution was confirmed in a referendum in France, with just over 90 percent of the vote. It was then accepted in a similar vote in Algeria on July 1, 1962, with 5,975,581 votes in favor; 16 534 against. Prior to this, the OAS attempted to sabotage the peace solution by launching a terror campaign involving the killing of civilians as well as sabotage against installations, in an attempt to provoke military action by the FLN.
The war left deep social, economic and political footprints. It is believed to require up to one million human lives, the vast majority of civilian Algerians. Around 8,000 villages were destroyed, large areas were burnt and ravaged, and over two million people had become homeless. The European people rejected the Evian agreement, and a massive emigration of about one million Europeans to France took place. A large part of Algeria’s Jewish minority also left the country. Many Muslim Algerians who had supported France (known as harkis) also fled.
The political consequences consisted in particular of the fact that FLN was given a strong and long-standing position in Algerian politics. Algeria became part of the radical bloc in the so-called Third World, and a supporter of liberation forces elsewhere in Africa. The war also led to a long-standing strained relationship with France.
In France and Algeria, the FLN soldiers were considered and referred to as terrorists; among Algerian Muslims they were seen as mujahedin (liberation fighters).