The War of Independence in Algeria began on 1 November 1954, but the atrocity that sparked it took place nine years earlier.
Over four days European colonists and the French army massacred as many as 40,000 Algerians in the town of Setif.
For millions of Algerians colonialism meant poverty, vicious repression and brutal killings while the colonists enjoyed their privileged positions.
The resistance by the Algerians was wholly justified.
As the revolutionary Frantz Fanon put it, “The policeman and the soldier, by their immediate presence and their frequent and direct action, advise the native by means of rifle butts and napalm not to budge.
“It is obvious here that the agents of government speak the language of pure force.”
The National Liberation Front (FLN), the main nationalist party, struck the opening blow in the war for liberation on 1 November.
A handful of rebels in the east of the country attacked French outposts.
In 1955 the FLN made a turn towards a “total war” strategy. This was a decisive point in the drive for independence.
It meant anyone or anything to do with France was a target—from rich colonists to Algerians who had beneficial relationships with the French.
To mark the turn, attacks were planned on 20 August. FLN members went to 26 localities around the eastern end of the coast and encouraged people to rise up—123 Europeans were killed.
In reprisals 1,273 Algerians were killed by French troops and colonists were allowed to rampage.
This set the tone for the rest of the war. Some 150,000 Algerians would be killed by its end in 1962.
France had “granted” neighbouring Tunisia and Morocco their independence in 1956.
But Algeria was officially part of the French Republic, not a colony, so any suggestion of independence was seen as a greater threat to the state.
Prime minister Guy Mollet, of the French Labour-type SFIO party, signed off “special powers” in 1956 that allowed him to send conscripts to Algeria.
This meant that the number of French troops in Algeria shot up from 180,000 to 500,000, despite a widespread revolt among soldiers in France against being sent.
The FLN had 20,000 troops in 1956 and far fewer weapons than the French.
Disgracefully, the French Communist Party supported Mollet, arguing for “the existence and permanence of political, economic, and cultural bonds between France and Algeria”.
Algerian Communist Party members were left to fight alone. Many joined the FLN as individuals.
Open confrontation with the French was impossible, so the FLN made a move towards a terrorist strategy. One of its leading members, Ramdane Abane, said, “One corpse in a jacket is always worth more than 20 in uniform.”
Abane also pushed for the politicisation of the conflict. He launched a newspaper and began to use transistor radios to spread propaganda.
Abane also sought to balance between the religious and secular nationalist forces of the resistance.
The contradiction would remain unresolved—until it came undone for the FLN in the 1980s and 1990s.
Strategy was contested within the nationalist movement. Abane was at odds with figures such as Ahmed Ben Bella, who wanted to focus on the peasantry and a guerrilla war in the outlying regions,
Abane’s focus was the central region nearer the coast.
His strategy brought the war to the capital, Algiers. The square kilometre of the city, which was home to around 100,000 Algerians, was turned into a fortress of secret tunnels and bomb workshops.
The French guillotined two FLN fighters in Algiers on 19 June 1956. In retaliation 49 Europeans were shot dead on the streets of Algiers over four days.
Colonist violence exploded.
The new governor, Robert Lacoste, called in paratroopers and handed their general Jacques Massu control of public order in the city.
This was a fateful move. It meant a founding principle of the French Fourth Republic—civilian political rule—had been undermined.
Massu used extreme violence to put down an eight-day general strike called by the FLN.
In 1958 tensions between the French army in Algeria and the French state boiled over.
The army seized the government building in the capital, fearing that politicians were preparing to give Algeria more autonomy.
To stave off the army move, right wing politician and former general Charles De Gaulle was given power by the president.
He was under increasing pressure from events within Algeria, including a four-day general strike in 1960 organised by the newly-formed UGTA. The union federation had deep links with the FLN.
De Gaulle began negotiating with the FLN to organise French withdrawal in 1961.
The FLN’s campaign had unleashed over a century of visceral anger at brutal colonial rule and made Algeria ungovernable. The war had become a financial drain and increasingly unpopular in France.
In March 1962 the Evian Accords between France and the FLN brought the war to an end. Algerians finally celebrated independence on 5 July 1962, but with liberation came a new set of problems.
In the turmoil of French withdrawal, a new layer of Algerian capitalists began hoovering up land and riches. And money still poured to France.
There were competing visions of how to develop Algeria.
Ben Bella became the first president of Algeria. For him “the popular, democratic revolution is first of all an agrarian revolution.” But Bella’s limited reforms, which excluded women from literacy programmes and broke up trade union organisation, were too much for sections of the FLN.
Some looked more to industial development and didn’t want to alienate landowners and bosses. And Bella’s moves to centralise more power at the army’s expense threatened the generals.
Boumedienne, one of the strongest generals, seized power in a coup in 1965.
His regime benefited from runaway oil prices, but trouble came for the FLN when the oil boom ground to a halt in 1985.
Algeria’s foreign currency earnings fell by 40 percent. Foreign imports were slashed, leading to food shortages.
Unemployment stood at 50 percent for 20 to 24 year olds. Protests and riots spread following strikes in the Algiers area.
The FLN’s had encouraged moderate Islamist forces to attack the left. The nationalists had always guarded against the left because it saw it as a threat to the development of capitalism in Algeria.
Now the Islamists were articulating people’s anger at a quarter of a century of military dictatorship.
The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won 55 percent of the vote in local elections in 1990.
But it was caught between its mass support base of the urban working class and its wealthy financial backers.
Although it rode a huge wave of popular anger to office in the localities, the FIS put down strikes in its areas to appease the bosses.
The FLN were forced to organise Algeria’s first multiparty election in 1991, but still tried gerrymandering to stop the Islamists from winning.
Despite this, in the first round of elections in December 1991, the FIS won 188 seats. The FLN came third with 15 seats.
The FLN promptly moved to outlaw the FIS, which then rose up against these blatantly undemocratic measures.
It took control of central Algiers, which led to a brutal crackdown by the state.
The country descended into a decade of civil war which saw as many as 200,000 people killed. State forces killed indiscriminately. One member of the Algerian Association of the Disappeared described how “the military and police would come together. They’d circle a village looking for so-called ‘terrorists’.”
“If they couldn’t find who they were looking for, they’d take other family members,” they said.
The civil war ended in a ceasefire and the FLN back in charge.
The mass movement in Algeria today comes from deep anger at decades of anti-democratic rule by leaders who claim legitimacy as Algeria’s liberators.
But the society they ushered in after independence was still designed around the needs of the rich. The current protest movement has the potential to change all that.