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“Give Us Back Our Oil:” Claims for Justice in Light of Algeria’s Colonial Past

[Image of a Sonatrach oilfield in Ouargla. Image from Fibiladi.] [Image of a Sonatrach oilfield in Ouargla. Image from Fibiladi.]

[This is one of six pieces in Jadaliyya's electronic roundtable on the anniversary of the Algerian Revolution. Moderated by Muriam Haleh Davis, it features contributions from Ed McAllisterJames McDougallMalika RahalNatalya VinceSamuel Everett, and Thomas Serres.]

In this article, I aim to show how Algeria's colonial past is used in order to express a feeling of injustice and to denounce the contempt and violence of the ruling elite. In so doing, I highlight that the meaning “colonialism” itself is highly contentious. The non-dominant discourses in Algeria use the term differently depending on their strategic objectives and their understandings of the social and political stakes involved.

The Epistemological Crisis of the Postcolonial Order 

At the heart of my argument is the claim that Algeria can be considered as an extreme example of an epistemological crisis that marks the postcolonial order.  In other words, there is the sense of disappointment with the failure of the political and economic emancipation that was promised by independence and then developmentalism. This crisis of the postcolonial order is also deeply linked to the fact that there are a number of continuities with the colonial era.[1] This may appear paradoxical since the ruling elite has based its authority on the memory of the war. As evidenced by the constitution itself, the regime has upheld independence as the founding moment that justifies its appropriation of both political power and economic wealth.[2]

Nevertheless, the founding paradox of the postcolonial order is that many of the institutions in the newly independent countries were inherited from the former colonial power. Moreover, the new state is not only incapable of fulfilling its promises of emancipation and material progress, but also actively participates in the capitalist logic behind globalization - most notably by the exportation of hydrocarbons and the exploitation of subsoil. The many corruption scandals in Algeria confirm the fact that there is no longer a leadership that can articulate a clear vision of progress. Instead non-dominant narratives denounce the treason of a ruling elite that engages in an erratic appropriation of what was once considered to be common wealth. Thus, when Ahmed Ouyahia, the former Prime Minister, visited Bouira during the race for legislative elections in 2012, he faced protesters chanting “Liars, robbers! Give us back our oil!” Many other candidates, with diverse political allegiances, were also threatened while campaigning.

This popular disappointment is also a reaction to the role that political elites play in Algeria as they seek international credibility by emulating the discourses and practices tied to the notion of “good governance” - such as security and democracy. Members of the regime often act as if they were above Algerian society, assuming that it is their role to teach their citizens how to act in a way that is consistent with “modern” ideals. Here, of course, one finds strong resemblances with older colonial discourses. This narrative of the “infantile and violent nature” of the Algerian people signals an attempt to explain political phenomenon by cultural essentialism, a trend that harkens back to colonial discourses. Consequently, the idea that there is a so-called "culture of violence" allows for the regime to make the paternalist claim that the Algerians must be “educated”/”civilized” in order to learn the acceptable ways to express their discontent. For example, after the nation-wide wave of riots in January 2011, the former head of the FLN, Abdelaziz Belkhadem, explained that the rioters were merely repeating political slogans heard during football games, which showed that the country lacked a fully developed civil conscience.[3]

While these trends in global governance are by no means specific to the postcolonial world, they assume a particular form in countries that were formerly colonized. In Algeria, for example, political protests can link the current regime with the former colonial oppressor. In the symbolic repertoire of the post-colony, memories of colonization are a central resource to explain the so-called treason of the once-revolutionary elite. Rather than questioning the fact that colonialism remains the primary reference for all that occurs in the post-colony, non-dominant narratives echo the official discourses in defining the social and political situation in Algeria through the lens of colonial rule. In the process, they often make recourse to the classic accusation of neo-colonialism in order to discredit the Algerian state.

Neocolonialism(s) and Internal Colonialism 

The idea that the Algerian revolution would be completed only when the people were economically – as well as politically – emancipated has been advanced by the Algerian state itself. As early as the Boumediene era, the dominant narrative claimed that the War of Independence would only be completed through economic development. During the eighties, growing frustration and the confiscation of national wealth popularized the idea that a “Party of France” (Hizb al-Fransa) controlled the Algerian state, joining the denunciation of corruption with the idea of national treason. Later, during the civil war, the FIS claimed that it was performing a new jihad to fulfill the liberation of the country.[4]

The notion of neocolonialism helps to make sense of the violence of the 1990s by offering a simplified vision that divides the world into neatly defined groups with clear objectives. As a number of important officers in the Algerian army during the eighties and nineties were former deserters of the French Army (known as DAF, Déserteurs de l'Armée Française), the commanding staff of the Army has often been accused of seeking to perpetuate French influence. For example, the oath taken by the Algerian Movement of the Free Officers (Mouvement Algérien des Officiers Libres, MAOL), which is a clandestine organization of former officers in exile, demonstrates the sentiment that the French has infiltrated the Algerian Army. The oath insists on the responsibility of former DAF in what is described as a “genocide” of the Algerian people during the Civil War. In this case, the use of the word “genocide” implies that an extraordinary violence has been carried out by foreign elements, inserting the Black Decade into the violent logic of neocolonialism. This narrative allows individuals to make sense of the disproportionate use of violence by the state - both in October 1988, during the civil war, as well as during the Kabyle Black Spring of 2001.

Nevertheless, presenting a simple dichotomy between “foreign” and “national” elements is much too simple in that neocolonialism has also been re-appropriated in the context of the long-term conflict between the region of Kabylie and the central power. Arezki Bakir, a former member of the Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylie (MAK), declared last year that: “After French colonialism, it is French neo-colonialism that one must fight. Indeed, if the Algerian territory was conceived and made by France, the Algerian regime was also conceived by France.” For the Berberist opposition, the state has ignored the Berber components of Algerian culture through its policy of Arabization. By identifying the state as a neocolonial power, Bakir represented the Algerian nation as a colonial construction, undermining the very legitimacy of the state. Yet Kabyle narratives themselves often draw on an older – and properly colonial – myth, that of the civilized Berber versus the savage Arab.[5]  In other words, Kabyle cultural activism, especially when expressed by members of the MAK, is rooted in the idea that Berber culture is more compatible with modernity and secularism that its Arab counterpart. Thus, while the goal of this discursive construction is to defy the nationalist claim of a unified Algerian national culture and a centralized state, it presents a paradoxical situation in which a so-called neocolonial regime is denounced through the articulation of properly colonial narratives.

The accusations of cultural and economic hegemony against the ruling elite are also expressed in terms of the exercise of an “internal colonialism.” For example, during the fiftieth anniversary of the Algerian Revolution, Tahar Belabès of the Comité National pour la défense des droits des chômeurs (CNDDC) used the fiftieth anniversary of the Algerian Revolution to denounce the regime’s mismanagement and institutionalized contempt against its people. In so doing, he accused the regime of practicing “internal colonialism.”[6] It is important to highlight that the accusation of internal colonialism does very different work from that of neocolonialism; while neocolonialism implies that the former imperial power continues to dominate the country, internal colonialism illustrates the feeling of treason that emanates from the heart of the national community itself.[7] Rather than reproducing the paranoid dominant discourse that views every injustice as the result of a foreign influence, this line of critique focuses on the responsibilities that are expected from those the community.

Finally, both the claims of neo-colonialism and internal colonialism express a perceived breach in the post-colonial contract that underlines the inability of the ruling elite to offer a coherent vision of progress with which the population can make sense of their present world. This is at the heart of what I have been calling the epistemological crisis of the postcolonial order.

Making Sense of the World 

In conclusion, while invocations of colonialism serve to clarify a political present through identifying certain entities with colonial practices, they also make it difficult to understand the actual functioning of power that cannot be elucidated through a simple dichotomy – either between foreign and local or between colonizer and colonized. More simply stated, on the one hand the invocation of colonialism clarifies the sources of political discontent. But on the other hand, it furthers the mystification of power in the country.  Referencing the colonial past in Algeria appears to be another answer to an obsessive questioning regarding the “nature of the regime.” From this perspective, the reference to the colonial past offers the opportunity to make sense of the current domination by identifying its specific forms: spatial segregation, cultural contempt and the plunder of common wealth.

References to a colonial past also express the feeling that the current Algerian rulers are somehow literally “foreign,” as accusations of politicians being Moroccans, French, or Jewish abound. This accusation is logical in that the current ruling elite tends to live abroad, generally prefers to invest outside of Algeria, and relies on the health care systems of other countries when they fall ill. The identification of certain individuals as “foreign” underscores a parallel between the governed population and the formerly colonized population. In so doing, it also enacts a dis-identification with the dominant image of a people that is intrinsically linked with its liberators. Thus, this work of identification and dis-identification permits the constitution of the autonomous individual who is no longer interpellated by the ideological construction (“le peuple” in nationalist discourse) that was the basis for the purportedly emancipatory populist discourse of the State.

These discourses are highly fluid and often depend on the political orientation of the actor as well as the targeted audience. Certainly, the question of what defines “colonialism” carries high political stakes, especially since the ruling elite in Algeria is far from being coherent or homogenous. Yet the epistemological crisis of the postcolonial order not only means that the leadership suffers a crisis of legitimacy. It also results in certain essentialist – and highly negative - views of what defines “Algerienness,” an attitude that the population often interiorized. Indeed, one can often hears that Algerian are culturally violent,[8] incompatible with modernity, prone to feudal reflexes, or even that they are natural-born thieves or lazy. 

What is particularly interesting about the current political conjecture is that the divide between colonizer and colonized is no longer stable, either in geographic or in moral terms. While the memory of past oppression remains relevant in denouncing the current regime, the epistemological crisis not only expresses a desire to discredit the ruling coalition. More profoundly, it communicates the need to make sense of Algeria’s historical trajectory as well as the current political order – both of which are viewed through the lens of a series of treasons.

[1] Here one could point to the fact that the housing initiatives under the Constantine Plan later found echoes in the independent Algerian state’s attempts to build 1000 socialist villages. One might also point out predominantly French training of the technocrats and experts who took over the country in 1962.

[2] For example, according to the current constitution, candidates in the presidential election must produce a certificate attesting to their participation in the war of liberation. In the case that a candidate was too young to serve at the time, he must prove that his parents were not involved in actions considered hostile to the national revolution.

[3] Horizons, 8 January 2011.

[4] “Hier vous avez libéré la terre. Aujourd'hui nous libérons l'honneur et la religion. Vous avez libéré les plaines et le Sahara, nous libérons les consciences et les esprits. Vous avez déterminé les frontières à l'intérieur desquelles nous allons appliquer les lois. Notre djihad est la suite du vôtre.” Quoted from  Luiz Martinez, Les causes de l’islamisme en Algérie (Paris: CERI Science Po, 2000), 2.

[5] See Patricia Lorcin, Imperial Identities: Stereotyping, Prejudice and Race in Colonial Algeria (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995).

[6] El Watan, 5 July 2012. 

[7] It can also serve a more explicitly political purpose.  For example, when an ephemeral group self-proclaimed to be the Free Algerian Elite (l'Elite Algérienne Libre) released a statement to protest against the constitutional revision of 2008, this denouncement centered on the claim that local forces sought to preserve the privilege of the ruling caste as a form of “internal colonialism.” They explained: “since the nineties the military junta and its political takeover established an authentic colonial structure aiming to turn the people into illiterates, destroy the national identity and terrorize the population.” 

[8] Media coverage often insists on a generalized epidemic or culture of violence that affects the entire society, sometimes referred to as la maladie de la violence.  See, for example, Le Quotidien d'Oran, 13 September 2012.

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