opinion | H.D.S. Greenway

Can Algeria escape a vicious, violent past?

Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika attends a graduation ceremony in 2012.
Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika attends a graduation ceremony in 2012.


ALGERIA DID not have a happy childhood. Its North African neighbors, Tunisia and Morocco, got their independence from France comparatively easily in the 1950s. But Algeria, which the French had made an integral part of the republic, had to fight for seven years to wrench free from colonialism. Then, while other former colonies were gathering speed, Algeria went through the trauma of a civil war against Islamists in the 1990s. In a move disturbingly familiar to Egypt today, the army denied Islamists a victory they had won at the polls. In Algeria, civil war ensued.

More than half a century ago Algeria’s famous son, Nobel laureate Albert Camus presciently predicted that “Algeria will be reduced to ruin and littered with corpses. No force or power on earth will be capable of putting the country back together in this [the 20th] century.” Camus was one of those lost peoples, the French colonialists known as the “Pieds Noirs,” or black feet, perhaps because of their attachment to the rich black soil. After independence in 1962 most of them, as many as one million, fled the country that was their lifelong home along with the Algerians who fought for France.


Now in the 21st century a still somewhat traumatized Algeria is pulling itself together. The upheavals of the Arab Spring never got much traction here, perhaps because, having survived the twin upheavals, Algerians had had enough strife. Today five men and one woman are campaigning for the presidential elections that will take place on Thursday. The betting is that, despite ill health, the aging Abdelaziz Bouteflika will be reelected for a fourth five-year term by hook or by crook. Bouteflika has presided over a period of national reconciliation in which all but a few of the Islamist extremists have given up the armed struggle. But gathering in the shadows is a power struggle between military intelligence and the army.

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This shining white city spilling down the hills to the Mediterranean is a bit shabbier now then when Camus lived in the working class district of Belcourt. It was once a mixed neighborhood of Arabs and Europeans but there are very few Europeans to be seen on the streets today. The Roman ruins of Tipasa, which Camus loved to visit near “the sea in its silver armor” with “bubbles of light among the stones,” is now visited almost exclusively by local Arabs and Berbers.

Camus ran afoul of his fellow French intellectuals in the 1950s when he argued for an Algeria where French and Muslims could live together in peace. He was against colonialism, but held that his own Pied Noir community was large enough and had lived in the country long enough to be considered “an indigenous population in the full sense of the word.” He argued passionately that the Muslim population be given full equality with the French, but he could not envision an independent Algeria separated from France and devoid of its European population. He wanted a solution not unlike South Africa’s today where white settlers could stay, but Algeria never had a Nelson Mandela nor a F.W. de Klerk.

Camus ended up hated by the Pieds Noirs for being a traitor and by Algerians as a colonial apologist. Atrocities committed by both sides were so horrendous that, in the end, there was no way the two sides could live together. Camus died in 1960. He did not live to see Algeria free, nor his grim prediction come true, and today’s Algerian youth know little about Camus or his writings.

However, after the dark decade of the 1990s when Islamists made secular Algerians seem like foreigners in their own country, Camus’s once naïve-sounding pleas for tolerance are being reconsidered. “I remember how we felt threatened in our own Algerian identity . . .” an Algerian intellectual told Yale’s Alice Kaplan. “We are as much Algerians [as the Islamists] are.”


In the 1950s Camus wrote: “Both now and in the future we will always have to live together on the same soil.” It didn’t prove true for the Pieds Noirs, but it is beginning to resonate among secular Algerians today trying to reconcile with their more religious brethren.

H.D.S. Greenway is a former editorial page editor of the Globe.