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The re-entrance of an iconic figure from the Algerian revolution into Algerian politics has always sent shock waves through the whole society. The latest entrant is Djamila Bouhired, one of the most recognised faces of the revolution worldwide. The manner in which she shot back into the political arena commands further analysis than the typical response that has been written, and is still being written in various Algerian and Arab outlets.
Very few living people in Algeria still command the same respect as Djamila Bouhired as a revolution figure. The revolution is sacred, and so are the people who participated in it – but only those who passed away during the revolution or stayed on the touchline after the independence. After 1962, the men and women of the revolution chose or were forced into three different paths. The first group took control of the country in a single party rule and dived in its wealth, sharing it with those who turned out to be opportunists. The second group voiced their discontent about the direction that the new state was taking, and were all forced into exile or were mysteriously assassinated. The third group chose to keep quiet, living on the sidelines, content with being remembered every year on the national day and being given a token state recognition every now and then. Djamila has been one of these until two weeks ago, when she chose to step back into the field, and what a step it was.
Djamila sent two letters to the most popular Arabic and French newspapers, Echorouk and ElWatan. The first is mainly pro-state and the second is firmly in the opposition camp. But that doesn’t matter, the goal was to reach the largest audience. The letters voices her personal hardship and her discontent with the way she has been mistreated along with war veterans. But Djamila’s aim is not to merely voice her unhappiness, it seems to be an effort to embarrass the current government in general, and the current president, Bouteflika, in particular. The letters were addressed in his name.
Like most veterans, Djamila is drawn a remuneration that is modest to good by Algerian standards. Djamila was given an apartment in ElMouradia, one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in the country and the site for the Presidential palace itself. She has been assigned a maid to help her in the apartment. The remuneration money would not be able to cover for the typical private health costs of her age, so her claim is legitimate. Djamila could have contacted one of the many veterans organisations in the country, and they would have scrambled to help her. But the Ministry of Mudjahideen (veterans) and the Organisation of Martyrs both claimed that Djamila never contacted them directly about her hardship.
Djamila must know the status that she holds with Algerians and Arabs all over the world. She was depicted in both La Battaile D’Alger and the Egyptian blockbuster “Djamila”, both films that thrilled the international and Arab audiences respectively. She has always been a symbol of feminine activity in largely men dominated Arab societies. Her letters caused an outcry in Algerian circles to the huge embarrassment of the state. The Arab press roamed free to criticise the Algerian government’s carelessness, with much of the criticism coming from Egyptian circles (ongoing football row). The blow was with such force that the government could not even issue a statement or apologise, instead there are reports of efforts to appease her with better Villas and a potential position in the cabinet or one of the veteran organisations.
Her move signals that she is foremost deeply unhappy with Bouteflika, who, just a few months ago, held her hands as he paraded her to an audience of foreign personalities and diplomats during the yearly independence celebrations. The feud could be personal: Bouteflika enjoyed the legacy of the revolution to the fullest: he became foreign minister at the age of 27, having served for only the last few years of the revolution. His return was orchestrated using his revolution and Boumediènian credits, and he used that to concentrate power more than ever before into the presidency and seek a third presidential term.
It would not be a surprise if Djamila’s move was encouraged by a circle of veterans, many of whom may still be powerful figures in the Algerian army. It has for long been known that there is a great power struggle between Bouteflika and some Army sections that are unhappy with the way he has been stripping them from power. The struggle manifested itself more openly in Benflis’s attempt at unseating Bouteflika in the presidential elections of 2004 and the ensuing internal struggle within the FLN. Djamila’s letters may not necessarily suggest an evil motive as she may simply be unhappy with the way Bouteflika and his henchmen have been benefiting from the country’s wealth while ignoring the plight of countless veterans.
Djamila’s cry sheds further light on the colossal mismanagement of the veterans issue. Veterans of the revolution enjoy quite a range of benefits that are a point of envy, greed and controversy for Algerians. In addition to the remuneration, veterans can import certain goods without tax and often get priority when houses and apartments are allocated by the state. In many eyes, the veteran system has become a vehicle of corruption where opportunists and corrupt officials use dubious revolution credits to maximise their wealth. Algeria is often quipped to be the only country whose number of veterans increases over time. In 2006 there was a great debacle at the claim that up to 50000 registered veterans are not only false veterans, but were actively fighting against the revolution.
The veteran system has become to be seen as a vehicle with which power hungry officials claim credence. It represents the failed legacy of the revolution in many Algerians’ eyes. The revolution captivated the people’s minds and set the Algerians hopes high with visions of freedom and development. But now the agony of the disappointment over its legacy can be seen in many writings and events , such as Ahlam Mosteghanmi’s trilogy, the illegal immigration problem (Harga) and now Djamila’s letters. Djamila’s complaint is, in the end, a continuation of this collective mourning.
Digging through the writings of various historians of 20th Century Algeria, one almost always unearths some dirt. I admire the spirit of the Algerian revolution against the French to a great degree, but I wish we were told the whole story in our educational programmes. The story I was given is that of heroic fighting, ample dedication, determination and brotherhood. Much of this true, but a large piece of the picture was not painted, and many details were swept under a neatly woven carpet of historical perfection*.
In particular, the events that happened directly at the ending of the revolution during the course of the year 1962 remain a mystery, with conflicting accounts from various historians inside and outside the country. So much happened too quickly to untangle: French Army factions breaking away, FLN internal strife, false fighters, Harkis, Pieds Noirs run anti-independence resistance movements, opportunists trying to get the best booties and the list goes on. It all ended in a blood bath where so many were killed in sometimes shameful ways, unfolding one of the dark chapters of the revolution.
Mobs would go through urban areas and extra judiciously kill anyone who was suspected of being complicit with the French side against the FLN. Sometimes false fighters would aid in these operations to get some credit and snap a couple of photos to gain Mujahid status. The benefits of the status were substantial in the newly created socialist state: a life long renumeration, free transportation, medical care, priority when importing goods (e.g a car or a fridge…). Some of these people would go on and hold high offices in the state, only for their back-story to be revealed decades later, much to the confusion and astonishment of the Algerian people. Accusations and false reports still spread to this day. It is all still a mess to be sorted.
Many suspected Algerian Muslims, Jews and Christians were targeted during the mob killings. Some Jews and Christians continued to live in the infant state even though the majority left. I do not believe that the FLN and the revolution had an inherently racist or xenophobic agenda. While digging through history books, specifically Mohamed Harbi’s “La Guerre d’Algérie”, published in 2004, I came through a letter from the FLN written to the Jewish community in 1962. The FLN tried to engage the Jewish community and appealed to them to side with the Algerian revolution. The FLN was sympathetic to the plight that the Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis and Vichy’s government. It aknowledges the help of many Jews that were in the cause of the revolution.
Harbi was a high officer within the FLN, served in the first government after the independence and later fled after Boumediène’s coup of 1965. The letter led me to find another written in 1956, two years after the start of the revolutions. Excerpts of the letters appear below.
From the translation of the first letter (1956) (all emphasis is mine):
The National Liberation Front, which has led the anti-colonialist revolution for the past two years, feels that the moment has arrived when every Algerian of Israelite origin, in light of his own experience, must without any ambiguity choose sides in this great historic battle. The FLN, authentic and exclusive representative of the Algerian people, considers it its obligation to directly address the Israelite community and to ask it to solemnly affirm its membership in the Algerian nation. This choice clearly affirmed, it will dissipate all misunderstandings and extirpate the seeds of hatred maintained by French colonialism. It will also contribute to recreating Algerian fraternity, broken by the arrival of French colonialism.[…]
Without going too far back in history, it seems useful to us to recall the time when the Jews, held in less consideration than animals, didn’t even have the right to inter their dead, the latter being secretly buried during the night wherever this could be done, due to the absolute prohibition against the Jews having any cemeteries. At precisely this period Algeria was the refuge and land of freedom for the Israelites who fled the inhuman persecutions of the Inquisition. Precisely during this period the Israelite community was proud to offer its Algerian fatherland not only poets, but consuls and ministers.
It is because the FLN considers the Algerian Israelites the sons of our Fatherland that it hopes that the leaders of the Jewish community will have the wisdom to contribute to the building of a free and truly fraternal Algeria…
And from the second letter (1962):
The Algerian problem is at a decisive stage. We want to address this appeal to you, in the face of the hysterical and racist clamor of the fascists who claim to speak in your name, declaring that you are French and that you are all participants in the criminal acts of the backwards colonialists. You know full well that this is both a gratuitous declaration and a policy of mystification that should fool know [sic] one, and even less so you, who are Algerians.[…]
…Recently, in Oran, demonstrations provoked by young hotheads in the Israelite neighborhood took place, followed by fires set in stores belonging to Muslims. These acts are the clearest illustration of how some of you attempt to thoughtlessly align yourselves with the racial policies of the ultras. Will you today make yourselves the accomplices of the backwards colonialists by rising up against your Algerian brothers of Muslim origin?…[…]
Israelite compatriots, many Israelites are active in our ranks. Some among them were interned, others are still in prison for their acts in service to the Algerian cause. Algeria’s independence is near; independent Algeria will need you and tomorrow you will need it, for it is your country. Your Muslim brothers honestly and loyally offer you their hand for solidarity coming from your direction. It is your duty to answer.
These letters are not new, I am not trying to break new ground or rewrite history. They were just found by a curious mind digging back through the history of his country. These letters do not excuse the treatment that Jews or anyone endured after the revolution, what they show is that the Jews were not targeted because of their religion, they just shared the fate that anyone that was suspected of complicity and treason with the French did.
[* For the record, I don’t believe Algerians are unique in this. Some French still believe that colonialism is great, the British believe they delivered prosperity everywhere throughout their empire, and some Americans think they ought to deliver democracy or freedom or something wherever there is oil. Nationalism is sweet like that.]