The reconstruction of a nation, the construction of a state: Algeria on the eve of independence (1962-1965)

5th July 1962: Algeria rejoices, independence is proclaimed. After eight years of war, and between 300,000 and 600,000 deaths – Algeria regained its freedom. But the independence process had begun a little earlier: the Évian Accords, signed on 16th March 1962, signalled a cease-fire (which would come into effect in Algeria on 19th March). The Accords would be approved by 90.7% of voters on 8th April, in a referendum in metropolitan France, and by 99.72% of voters on 1st July in an Algerian independence referendum. Algerian independence was accepted unanimously by both sides. But while the Algerian crowds delighted in crying “Long live independent Algeria”, while everything pointed towards a common happiness, a new issue arose: creating an Algerian state.

A new war, new opposition

And this is no mean feat, because in reality the war carried on. Two opposing sides vied for power in the newly independent Algeria: the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic, and Ahmed Ben Bella, backed by the Houari Boumédiène’s Algerian People’s People’s National Armed Forces. The provisional government, created during the war in 1958, had a more official and legitimate status; having organised and participated in the Évian Accords, in the name of the Algerian people, it had become the official voice of Algerian independence on the diplomatic stage. But faced with this provisional government, Ahmed Ben Bella decided, on 22nd July, to create a political office in Tlemcen. Support for Ben Bella came from the Oujda Group, a group that had come out of the National Liberation Front. Ben Bella would then ally himself with the People’s National Armed Forces (which gave him direct influence over the National Liberation Front), and take on revolutionary tendencies because he became, in some ways, the (indirect) representative of the National Liberation Front, and a symbol of independence and revolution. Confrontations and political uncertainties were to follow, during which Algeria had no stable political power – this was the crisis of the summer of 1962. Beyond military opposition to power, these two sides were ideological opposites; the provisional government wanted to impose conservative political power which was far from the revolutionary socialist ideal that Ahmed Ben Bella had.

One of the daily Alger Républicain which promotes democracy as the only solution to the civil war

This crisis came to a conclusion on 9th September with the entry of the People’s National Armed Forces into the capital Algiers, led by Boumédiène and encouraged by Ben Bella. The forces of the National Liberation Front took advantage of this by organising constituent assembly elections on 20th September, but only candidates from the National Liberation Front were put forward; they thus won all the seats. On the same day, a referendum was organised in order to legitimise the role of the Constituent Assembly, and the “yes” voters saw a victory of 99%. The People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria was therefore proclaimed on 25th September. Ahmed Ben Bella became President of the Constituent Assembly two days later, supported by 88% of the Constituent Assembly, before becoming the first head of an independent Algerian state.

New state, new constitution

A little over a year after independence was proclaimed, on 28th August 1963, the Algerian Constituent Assembly adopted a new constitution proposed in person by Ahmed Ben Bella. This proposition was subject to disagreement and misunderstanding within the National Liberation Front, provoking a schism in the party. But this didn’t in any way prevent the Assembly from approving the new constitution, 139 votes to 23. The Algerian people also largely approved of the idea of a new constitution. The referendum of 8th September 1963 – almost a year after the referendum for the Constituent Assembly – saw the approval of the new constitution by almost 98% of Algerian voters. On 15th September 1963, Ahmed Ben Bella became the President of the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria, with 99% of votes in an election where he was the only candidate. This was the beginning of a single-party regime, led by the National Liberation Front, where political opposition was forbidden. It is for this reason that parties like the Socialist Forces Front and the Party of the Socialist Revolution could exist only underground. The last elections of Ben Bella’s era were the legislative elections of 20th September 1964 in which, like in 1962, only candidates from his party could put themselves forward; they therefore won all the seats.

A failing democracy

In a little more than two years, Algeria had had three referendums and three elections. Often considered in themselves expressions of democracy, the referendums and elections here demonstrated a worrying ambivalence. Indeed, the regime of Ahmed Ben Bella had gone back and forth between elections and referendums, and authoritarian tendencies, because (with the exception of the independence referendum of 1st July 1962), most of the elections seemed false because of landslide results. Even though the “yes” votes in the independence referendum had been 99.72% of votes (a very high result), this was not very surprising given the revolutionary sentiment in Algeria, the fact that in metropolitan France, “yes” votes represented 90.7% of results (another very high result), and the fact that the referendums had been organised and approved by France. However, following this, all organised elections saw the absence of any opposition to the National Liberation Front, and brought in results way above 90%.

An ideological reconciliation

However, what we must not forget, is that this period of decolonisation was taking place in the middle of the Cold War. Therefore, the not only revolutionary, but socialist, aspect of the Algerian independence movement was not incidental. Most colonies belonged to European countries. In Africa, colonies were largely French and British – France and Britain having a large influence in the Western Bloc. The colonies were thus in themselves enemies of the USSR, and it is for this reason that the Soviet Union would encourage the desire for independence through advocating anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. Thus, many conflicts and negotiations were organised by different communist or socialist parties, which would, in coming to power, establish a socialist regime close to the Soviet model. This was the case in Algeria, but also in Southeast Asia, Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The USSR completed a double whammy, destroying western influence in Africa and Asia, while also benefiting by expanding its own influence in these regions, as well as that of its ideology.

The USSR extended its influence in Algeria, notably with the People’s National Armed Forces and Colonel Boumédiène, by supporting them materially and economically. The People’s National Armed Forces thus became a considerable military force, and a danger. Let us not forget that Boumédiène is the man who allowed Ben Bella to come to power, as he was able to militarily oppose the provisional government during the crisis of summer 1962. He wished therefore to take the place of the President of the Republic. Ahmed Ben Bella, sensing approaching danger, decided to dismiss the ministers in charge of the most important ministries (Interior Ministry, Education Ministry, Information Ministry). These ministers belonged the Oujda group which was led by none other than Houari Boumédiène. On 19th June 1965, he organised a coup d’état against his former ally, overthrew him, and became the new de facto leader of Algeria.

Ahmed Ben Bella met Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in Cuba in October 1962. The proximity between Cuba and Algeria is very strong. Che will make his last big speech in Algiers in February 1965.

Thus, Algerian Independence came about following a bloody war, but also in the wake of a crisis and internal conflicts. The reconstruction of the country in the years which followed was completed during political difficulties and instability. In reality, the semblance of democracy demonstrated the difficulty in putting one in place and constructing a state at the same time. This democracy became a failure from the moment when it became illusory; the independence was had been voted for by the people, but the subsequent reconstruction had in fact been undertaken without their real input. Therein lies the difficulty of reconstructing a country while constructing a state.

Scheid Léon

Translated by Jenny Frost