The origins of political agitation For independence of Algeria (*)

Ammar Boumouche **

On January 31, 1830 the prime minister of France, de Polignac, decided to send an expedition to Algiers in order to restore the prestige to the unpopular government of CharlesX and liquidate some financial affairs that France owed to Algeria. The appointment of General Bugeaud as Governor-General in 1840 opened a period of “official”
colonization. The advocates of this type of colonization wished to see Algeria a colony
of small French peasant settlements and believed that such immigrants would not go
to Algeria without official assistance. Free land was made available, along with the
army’s help in clearing roads, planning settlements and erecting buildings. The European revolutions of 1848 and The Coup d’etat of Napolean III in France brought political exiles to Algeria.

As the number of settlers increased in Algeria, they sought more  important roles in both their local government and the formulation of the French policy. In 1834, General Drouet d’Elron became the first Governor of the French possession in North
Africa. He was in charge of both civil and military powers and the settlers disliked the extensive and arbitrary powers exercised by the French army on the local scène. In 1858 Napoleon III temporarily ended the continuing struggle between the civilians and the military by creating a Ministry for Algeria and the Colonies, thus establishing a civil regime. But the settlers did not succeed in eliminating the power of military men until 1871 when a civil Governor General, directly responsible to the Ministry of Interior in Paris, was named. The settlers sought the intervention of Paris to assure their rights as French men in the face of arbitrary military rule. The settlers moved to strengthen their power and achieve autonomy. Paris was far from Algeria and no one would stop them from doing whatever they liked. The majority of the settlers believed that the Arabs Should be exterminated and eventually disappear, but some liberals in France thought that the Algerians should be retained for cheap labour. In 1896, France loosened her ties with Algeria; and by 1900 the settlers succeeded in establishing their full control over the finances of Algeria. In fact, the settlers were able to convince Paris to divorce itself from Algeria and from its Arab inhabitants. The settlers remained in political control of Algeria until the outbreak of the Algerian Revolution in 1954. On the one hand, they regarded themselves without equivocation as the masters of the Arabs. On the other hand, their supremacy depended upon backing from metropolitan France.

“It is very difficult,” Jules Ferry wrote in 1892, ” to make the European settler understand chat there are rights other than an Arab country, and that the natives are not a race subject to taxes and forced labour at will “.


From 1830 to 1871, the Algerians strongly resisted the foreign invasion. The hero of this era of rural patriotism was Emir Abdel Kadir, a young man from Western Algeria, who called upon the Moslems to unite in a holy war against the conqueror. This résistance of the rural population of Algeria was not due only to the leadership of Abdelkader and resentment of French brutality. More importantly it was due to Algerian attachment to the land and to Islam. In 1840, a French decree provided confiscation of all lands of the Algerians, who had taken arms against the French army. This confiscation resulted in disrupting the basic structure of the rural society. Moreover, in 1843, there was the confiscation of Hobous (land and other donations for religious activities, thus permitting the independence of Islam). This action was considered very dangerous because it gave the French control over Moslem institutions. Another blow to Algerian rural society came as a result of an unsuccessful revolt in Kabylia in 1870, which led to the confiscation of five million acres of land.

The Warnier law of 1873 made the communal tribal lands available For sale. To be sure, any land sold would remain thereafter under French land codes and could not return to a previous status under Moslem law even if bought by a Moslem. In fact, the differences between French and Moslem property ownership laws, made the question of land remain a cause of Moslem discontent even in the twentieth century. The result of the numerous confiscations was that the Algerians were forced to leave the fertile coastal areas and good lands which they had previously owned, and to move to the countryside where the land is less fertile and less familiar. For instance, the population of Algiers, estimated at around 75,000 in the eighteenth century was reduced during the first years of the French occupation to about 60,000 of whom only some 25,000 were Arabs. Moreover, an exodus to the Middle East occurred throughout the nineteenth century in protest against the French measures. A particular exception to the history of decline is the city of Constantine, where both religious and political opposition to French rule were to flourish in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. In fact, this city had a strong middle class elite which was distinguished by its ancient origins, high intellectual traditions, an opening on the hinterland and ability to dominate the Turkish ruling class in the cultural field.

Much of the New land was marginal, and more intensive cultivation wore out some of the old land. In fact, what made the Algerians suffer more was the strict French enforcement of property rights which put an end to the easy grazing of the past. For instance, livestock herds dropped precipitously, sheep falling from eleven million


in 1866 to six million in 1911. Thus, the traditional economy was even less able in 1920 than in 1830 to support the traditional population of three million, let alone the nearly five millions Arabs on the land in 1920.

The effect of losing fertile lands and easy grazing places for cattle, was a striking decline in the traditional base of subsistence. Squeezed out of traditional society, the Algerians migrated into the European sector of the economy. It was the first time that large aggregates of Arabs and Europeans came to live side by side in close daily contact. This contact benefited both communes. This allowed the Algerians:

  1. To spread their patriotism to urban population and not confine themselves to rural
  2. To modernize themselves and learn the new technology which the enemy used
    against them.
  3. To have full freedom of movement which contributes to better organization and
    formation of a solid front of the militants.
  4. To obtain concession from the French through peaceful means.

The European settlers benefited from this contact because this enabled them:

  1. To get cheap labour and make a huge profit at the expense of the natives.
  2. To penetrate the Algerian society and find some individuals who might create a favored position to France among their fellow citizens.
  3. To mobilize the young people in order to serve in the French army and defend
    France in any future war with Germany.
  4. To expand the market and increase the purchasing power of the Algerians.

Algeria experienced a population explosion since the 1920s. Up by 25,000 every year in the 1920’s, it increased by over 100,000 annually in the 1940’s, and by nearly 200,000 yearly in the decade of the fifties. In short, the Algerians are doubling their ranks every twenty years. Three millions in 1830, they are now ten millions and will reach twenty millions in 1980, forty millions at the turn of the century. The population trends have exhausted to the breaking point all of Algeria’s scarce resources. This forced-thousands of Algerians to migrate to France and seek employment in order to feed their families in Algeria. Before World War 1 there were over 4,000 Algerian workers in France but this number rose to about 80,000 after the war. Migration to France continued up to 1924 to fill France’s reconstruction manpower needs.


The history of the recent Algerian national movement goes back to the few years before the First World War. It is appropriate here to mention some of the factors that contributed to the emergence of nationalism before we list the individual movements.


  1. The emergence of national movements in the Middle East, both Arab and Moslem, had a direct impact on the evolution of national consciousness in Algeria.
  2. The special pledges for independence given to the Arabs by the Allies.
  3. The fourteen points of President Wilson which promised self-determination to all occupied territories.
  4. The presence of the first group of educated Algerians who graduated from different French educational institutions advocating the cause of liberty and equality for Algerian people.
  5. The return of 94,300 Algerian soldiers who had fought on the side of the allies in the First World War. The Algerian soldiers and workers went back to Algeria demanding the same rights and privileges the French enjoyed,

But these demands of equality and freedom which aroused national aspirations and manifested themselves during and after World War I, found no favorable response from the French authorities. What happened was that the French adopted a policy of “divide and rule” . When this policy did not succeed, the French simply suppressed the national movements by naked Force.

Right after World War I, Emir Khalid, grandson of the nineteenth- century hero, Abdel Kader, formed his short lived “Bloc of Algerian Elected Moslems.” He formed a delegation which made representations to President Woodrow Wilson in Paris, demanding that Wilson’s fourteen points be applied to the Algerian problem. This organization was suppressed in 1924 and Emir Khalid was arrested. The Algerian National movement began to show greater determination in 1924 with the formation of an organization in France known as Najm Shamal Afrikia (Star of North Africa- Etoile Nord Africaine).

This organization was dedicated to the defense of ” material, spiritual and social interests of North African Moslems.” The aim of the organization was to represent Tunisian, Moroccan and Algerian workers in Paris. The head of this movement was an Algerian and he demanded from the start the independence of all of North Africa. In 1929, the French Government was displeased with the word “independence” and dissolved the organization. Yet, many of its members went underground and kept publishing a newspaper called El-Ummah (The Nation). In 1933, the Star of  North Africa re-organized and held an important General Assembly meeting in France. In this meeting the Star adopted a resolution urging freedom of the press, admission of Algerians to all public offices, evacuation of occupation troops and complete independence for Algeria. Again, in January 1937 the Popular Front Government of


Blum dissolved the organization because it rejected Blum’s policy of assimilation and continued to advocate the independence of Algeria. After 1937, the movement resumed its activities under the title of The Party of the Algerian People (Parti du Peuple Algerien-PPA). As the title indicates, the party started to concentrate on Algeria and moved its headquarters to Algeria and became Algeria’s first mass party. At the end of World War II, the Political parties resumed their activities, stirring
national emotions and demanding their national rights. The Party of the Algerian
People (P.P.A.) reappeared under the name of ” movement for the Triumph of Democratic liberties ” (Mouvement pour la Triomphe des Libertés Democratiques—MTLD). The Party continued to function until 1954 when the Algerian Revolution broke out. In fact, the revolution was initiated by some militants of this party which collected arms, trained, recruits and planned a strategy for the eventual liberation of Algeria.

The second of the three major movements was the ” Democratic Union of the Algerian Manifesto” (Union Démocratique du Manifeste Algérien—U.D.M.A.). This party was founded on March 16, 1946 in Algeria. The party wanted to follow a moderate path for achieving the independence of Algeria. It demanded from the official authorities autonomy and political, social and economic reforms. It called for the recognition of the principle of self-determination for Algeria in the well-known Manifesto of the Algerian People. U.D.M.A. suffered from the French colonial policy which polarized the Algerian opinion, leaving little room for moderate nationalism to survive between the “Beni-oui-oui” (yes-men) and the revolutionaries. Secondly, U.D. M.A. lacked much contact with the peasant and worker masses, and its basic reliance upon intellectual and middle class support also left the heart of the Algerian problem untouched. Thirdly, U.D.M.A. did not mobilize foreign public opinion to add to its own pressures upon France for reforms. However, its final fusion with the Revolution in 1956 rallied intellectuals and contributed greatly to the broadening of Algerian Nationalism social base.

The third major movement was the Association of the Algerian Moslem Scholars (Association des Uléma Musulmans Algériens). The aim of this association was to mobilize the Algerian people behind the national cause, and defeat the French Policy which aimed at assimilation. In my judgment, the leaders of this association were reformists. They started to build schools for pupils, and teach them Arabic, the principles of Islam and gave lectures to the people on the history of the Algerian Nation. The Uléma Association came into existence in 1931. It got its inspiration from the Wahhabist movements in the Middle East and from the modern Egyptian reformist doctrine of Professor Mohamed Abdo. Abdelhamid Ben Badis received his islamic education in Zitouna University in Tunis and he was aware of the fact that the Algerians have strong faith in the religion and that enlightening the masses will contribute to strengthening the principles of Islam and restoring the independence to


Arabo-Islamic state of Algeria. The Ulema’s weekly newspaper Al-Bassair (The Vision of the Future) was very successful and it was the only Arabic newspaper which was published and read in Algeria until 1956 when the Uléma joined the Revolution openly. The Ulema’s schools were teaching over 50,000 pupils in 1951. The Association suffered a setback in early 1956 when about 28 of its leaders were discovered to be working with the revolution and were executed in the city of Constantine.  On the same day, one of these leaders was Reda Houhou who was considered to be one of the best musicians, writers and author of different books.


The impact of the Algerian parties and reformists in the 1920’s and 1930’s was great and their activities induced the Algerians to be more conscious and aware of the miserable situation of every Algerian. The Algerians who had achieved a degree of education soon began to demand equal status within the Algerian society. In the election of 1936, the French left achieved a substantial victory and a Popular Front Government was founded under the leadership of socialist Leon Blum. This government wanted to respond favorably to the Algerian moderates and proposed Blum-violette law which would have granted equality to certain categories of educated Arabs in Algeria without abandonment of Moslem status. The Blum-violette proposal was not approved by the French Parliament because of strong colon (French settlers) opposition. Its failure led to the disillusionment of many educated Algerians.

         The success of the colons didn’t last forever. The Second World War came to discredit the French settlers who collaborated with Vichy’s government. Algiers became the headquarters of the French resistance (under the leadership of de Gaulle) to liberate France from German occupation. In March 1944, General de Gaulle issued a decree to expand a version of the Blum-violette project which gave the right to vote to some 60,000 Arabs, without renunciation of their codes of Islam. Moreover, Arab representation on local councils was raised from one-third to two-fifths. The big disillusion to Europeans as well as Algerians came on May 8, 1945 when both of them were celebrating the victory of the democracy over totalitarianism and the defeat of the Nazi aggressors. The victory of the allies meant for the Algerians the end of an era of injustice, inequality and indignity. The Algerians thought that the French must have learned a lesson from Nazi occupation. In short, the Algerians expected the French to understand their feeling and allow them to play an important role in their country. But the French Government as well as the Colons (settlers) believed that since the war was over, the Arabs must be curbed and should be taught a lesson which would show them their weakness vis-a-vis the colons and France itself. The exact date for giving the Algerians the lesson was May 8, 1945, The innocent people poured into streets


parading and celebrating the victory of the allies and some patriots carried some banners when the local police shot and killed hundreds in different cities. The European snipers assassinated any Algerian who appeared in the streets. This tragedy was followed by one of the severest and most brutal repressions in Algerian history. The French Air Force, then under the direction of French Communist Minister for Air, Tillon, bombed and strafed.

Many Algerian villages. The repression was not reported in the press and the official estimates ran from 40,000 to 45,000. To be sure the Governor-General’s Commission of Inquiry into the repression was cut short and the official admitted it was not completed!

Without any reservation, one can say that the tragedy of 1945 marked a turning  point in Algerian history, both for the colons and the Arabs. For the colons, it was the beginning of decline in their power. The Algerians lost their faith in the French administration and principles of “liberty, fraternity and equality.” The people lost their illusions and realized that they would never be free and respected until they were strong. Therefore, all the Algerian movements concentrated on unity and organization from 1944 to 1954. Unfortunately, the leaders of various movements did not achieve much unity and did not succeed to form a single leadership capable of leading the people. Some militants believed in action from that moment on, while others believed in a moderate path and claimed that the Algerians were not ready for action.



What confused political leaders most was the Statute of 1947 which proclaimed that Algeria “constitutes a group of departments endowed with a civil personality, financial autonomy and a particular organization…” It declared the “effective equality of all French citizens.” Under the Statute, the Governor-General, the Council of Government and the Algerian Assembly governed Algeria, The Assembly was composed of 120 members, of whom 60 were elected by the first college of colons and certain educated Arabs, and 60 by the second college of the remaining Arabs. If the Governor-General refused to promulgate a law of the Assembly, as required by the Statute, the final decision would be taken by the French Parliament. One may wisely stop here for a while and pose this question: were the French and colons sincere in applying what the Statute of 1947 had contained? Let us examine the achievement of this Assembly and present some evidence which might answer tins question. The author of this article believes that if the Statute had been honestly administrated, there could be no doubt that  the Nationalists would have very quickly come to dominate the Arab College, using it as a sounding board for independence,


The Statute of 1947 induced the parties to participate actively in politics and in the election of 1948. The parties forced the resignation of liberal Governor-General Chataigneau, who was replaced by Socialist Naegelon who was a leftist in France but
rightist in Algeria. Naegelon took vigorous measures to limit Nationalist activity and to prevent its expression within elected assemblies. To assure the supremacy of “French presence” in Algeria he resorted to extensive rigging of the elections for the first Algerian Assembly in 1948 and its renewal in 1951 In April 1948 when the first  election took place, of the 60 Arab seats, only 17 went to the protesting parties. The other 43 were won by the Administration’s picked candidates the so-called Beni- oui- oui (yes-men). For instance, in the town of Blida, the vote for one protest party dropped from 10,000 to 2,000, and at Bone it fell off from 6,000 to 78. Moreover, 32 of the 59 candidates of on Arab group were put in prison before the voting began. The  correspondent of Le Monde wrote from Algiers: “The rigging of the second college elections is the talk of Algeria” and one of the Arabs told him, “These elections are a comedy.” More important, the Assembly did nothing to put into effect proposals to expand educational opportunities for the Arabs or apply a constitutional provision that would have given Arab women the right to vote. One could conclude that two years after the Algerian Statute had passed, the settlers were able to treat it openly as a dead letter. In fact, the French Government became shameful of itself and forced Naegelen to resign in 1951 because of “election irregularities.” In 1956 this Assembly was abolished and its doors were closed because the Nationalists were sitting on the top of mountains singing with the masses a very popular song called Our Algeria:

Our Algeria,

Land of our ancestors,

We rose  in revolt to break the chains that bind us,

Despite the enemies

We will rule our land

and like a storm we will drive away injustice and the unjust.

Hail, O Hail

Mountains of the land

For you are our castles and our support.

In these mountains, we decided to crusade.

And from these mountains we marched

against the conquerors.



The victim number one of the settlers was the masses and not only the leaders of political parties. The causes of discontent in Algeria were social, economic  and religious. In 1954, 75% of the active population was engaged in agriculture. According


to the Maspetiol Report of 1955, 90% of the economy’s wealth was in the hands of the 10% French inhabitants. The average annual income per capita of the rural Arab population was about $45, and out of 2,300,000 Arab workers some 820,000 were either permanently unemployed or only worked for two or three months of the year.  According to a study made for the French Economic Council by Mr. Delavignette in July 1955, of about 15,000,000 acres of cultivated land, European owners, 25,000 in number, owned 6,875,000 acres. This gave each European farmer 275 acres on the average. Also in modern agricultural sectors were some l5,000 Arab farm owners possessing 1,875,000 acres, averaging 150 acres per farm. In the traditional  agricultural sector, there were  500,000 Arab owners possessing some 6,250,000 acres, thus averaging only 12.5 acres per farmer. Thus, the Europeans had larger farms and owned the most fertile lands where the most valuable crops were grown. Another factor contributing to the poverty of Algerians was the relatively slight graduation in the tax burden which has tended to favor the wealthier classes. In 1951, the burden ranged from 2.7% for the classes of Arabs earning $45 a year to only 29.2% for the wealthy colons earning $3,181. Urban Arabs earning only $121 a year had about the same burden (20.4%) as middle class Europeans (21.4%) earning $502 a year.

In reality the economic poverty of the Algerians is caused by lack of education. The settlers believed that if an Algerian is educated he will be a rebel. The census of
1948 showed that only 9% of the Arab males and 2.1% of the females could write in any language. In 1954 illiteracy was still well above 90%. In contrast the vast majority of Europeans were literate. All European children desiring education were in schools in 1954, while only 15-20% of Arab, children were able to attend schools. Over 2,000,000 Arab children of school age were without schooling. On the university level, there were only 500 Algerian students at the University of Algiers, out of a total of over 5000 students (about one European student for every 227 Europeans’ and one Algeria student for every 15,342 Algerians).


The Algerians were living in poverty, and pessimism made their lives bitter and intolerable. One can say that they just needed arms and leaders to do something and put an end to that miserable life. It happened that some militants knew what the people wanted and believed in action and not in dialogue any more. In December 1947, the revolutionary elements in the “Movement of the Triumph of Democratic Liberties -MTLD) quit and formed the “Special Organization – Organization Special (OS)” in order to train an army of 1800 and start the insurrection. On March 18, 1950, a “Commandos” of OS tried to kidnap  a man knowing too much about it and two the “Commandos” were captured and France captured most of the leaders of OS. In March 1954, the same leaders of OS met in Switzerland and formed the “Revolutionary

Committee of Unity and Action—Le Comite  Revolutionaire d’Unité et d’Action” (C.R.U.A.) which was composed of 9 members and its duty was to train the army and buy the necessary”‘ weapons. On julv 10, 1954 the leaders of C.R.U.A, met in Algiers and made the  historic decision to launch the revolt at 1:00 A.M. on the morning of November 1, 1954 in all parts of Algeria. The revolutionary leaders of C.R.U.A. decided that on the eve of the rebellion, the C.R.U.A. would be transformed into the political (FLN) “Front of National Liberation and (ALN) “Army of National Liberation.” This was to ensure collective leadership and avoid quarrel on who was going to be :he leader of the revolution. The leadership consisted of 9 men and not a single leader because of fear that a single leader might make disastrous decisions for personal reasons. In fact, what handicapped the revolutionary movement and caused the delay in achieving unity and action was the continuous persistence of a leader of a party to impose his absolute rule or there would be no revolution…! This is why he was denounced and the slogan became “The struggle for the country and not for a man”. In reality, the FLN was not a Front of parties, but a Front of individuals who, no matter what their previous political views, accepted the Revolution’s aims. In my judgment, this is the secret behind the tremendous success of FLN and ALN.

By 1956, all parties were voluntarily dissolved and every competent leader was leading the fight against the army of occupation. On November 1, 1954, FLN circulated a tract which declared in it that its action was “directed solely against colonialism” and its objective was “National independence.». In August 1956 there was a National Congress uniting leaders of all groups and establishing the “National Council of the Algerian Revolution— Conseil National de la  revolution Algerienne. CNRA” .Moreover, the FLN organized the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA), The Moslem Union of Algerian Students (UGEMA) and the General Union of Algerian Traders (UGCA) in order to mobilize them behind the Revolution. La Résistance (in French) and the Al- Moukawamah (the resistance issued in Arabic) became the weekly newspapers of the FLN. Neither the arrest of the five leaders of the Algerian Revolution in 1956 nor the atrocities of the French army and the settlers were able to stop the revolution of the Algerian people.

In 1958 the French Government lost its control over the army in Algeria. The Generals warned pflimlin about any attempt to negotiate with the Algerian Rebels and later they forced him to resign in favor of de Gaulle. But Charles de Gaulle did not succeed in suppressing the rebellion either. The war continued until 1962 when all attempts had failed to end the rebellion and de Gaulle became quite sure that the logical conclusion of the popular revolution is the independence of  Algeria. On March 18, 1962 the representative of the FLN and the French Government met in Evian les Bains and reached an agreement which resulted in independence of Algeria. The FLN is governing the Algerian Republic today.



  1. Alwan, Mohamed, Algeria before the United Nations, (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1960).
  2. Aron, Robert, Les Origines de la Guerre d’Algérie, (Paris: Librairie Aztheme Fayard, 1962).
  3. Clark, Michael, Algeria in Turmoil: a history of the Rebellion. (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1959).
  4. Gillespie, Joan, Algeria, Rebellion and Revolution , (New York: Frederick A. Praeger I960;.
  5. Isnard, Hildebert, Algeria, (London: N. Kaye, 1955).
  6. Kraft, Joseph, The Struggle for Algeria, (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1961).
  7. Pickles, Dorothy, France and Algeria, (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1963).
    S. Rosa, Guido, North Africa. Speaks, (New York: The John Day Company, 1946).
    9. Tillion, Germaine, France and Algeria, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961).



Per person Muslim European Total Class
$ 45

$ 121

$ 240




$ 3181





















Traditionnel agriculture

Urban Muslims

Small and medium

Wage – earner, crafts – men and businessmen

Middle class

Wealthy Class

  8,000,000 1,000,000 9,000,000 Total

Adapted from: France, Government – General of Algeria, Rapport du Groupe d’Etude des
Relations Financières entre la Metropole et l’Algérie, June 1955, pp. 79 -80 .


(* )- Published in  the Arab Journal , Vol II, Number 4, 1965, PP4-10.

(** )- Treasury of the national Union of Algerian Students , U.S.A Chapter.


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