Origins of Military Power in Algeria

The political preponderance of the armed forces in Algeria emerged only after a long period of confrontation following the outbreak of the war of liberation in 1954. And after the sidelining of the political figures whose influence at the start of the uprising was decisive.

Oujda (Morocco), 23 March 1962. — FLN leaders Mohamed Boudiaf (2nd l., behind the soldier at attention), Rabah Bitat (3rd l.), Ahmed Ben Bella (4th l.) and Houari Boumediene (6th l., 1st rank, mustache) take part in a parade of NLA units) and gather in front of the flag of the wilaya 5.

Throughout the year-long series of weekly street protests, interrupted only by the coronavirus epidemic, one dominant motif was to be observed among the huge crowds marching through the streets: the army confiscated the power structure in the summer of 1962 and has held on to it ever since. The second assertion is correct, the first is not. It was in August 1957, in Cairo, that the National Council of the Algerian Revolution (CNRA in French) actually entrusted full power to three Wilaya commanders, assigning activists, political leaders and intellectuals to subordinate roles. How did this come about, just one year after the Congress of Soummam (August 1956) where a staunchly civil vision of the revolution had won the day?

No hierarchy

The nine “historic leaders who launched the uprising on 1 November 1954 did not establish a central leadership overseeing the five zones (Oranie, Algérois, Kabylie, Constantinois and Aurès) and their respective commanders. Everyone was master on his home ground and the nine agreed to meet again in January 1955 to take stock. This lack of any hierarchy, the fact that no central command was put in charge can no doubt be explained by the relative distrust which prevailed among the participants. Two of them (Krim Belkacem in Grande Kabylie and Mustapha Ben Boulaïd in the Aurès) exercised over their zones a quasi-familial control, while the three others had been brought in from outside and needed time to adapt.

Three months after the appointed date, the meeting still had not taken place and a vacuum emerged which was filled by Krim Belkacem. He recruited Abane Ramdame1, one of the leaders of Messali Hadj’s Mouvement pour le triomphe des libertés démocratiques (MTLD) and a veteran of its military wing, L’organisation spéciale (OS). His task was to organise the resistance in the capital which became the Zone autonome d’Alger (ZAA). The ZAA was hived off from the Zone IV, commanded by Rabah Bitat, who had neither the political stature nor the manpower to carry weight in Algiers. Sold out by a traitor, he was captured by the French police in March 1955.

At the same time, there existed an external delegation, based in Cairo, where Ahmed Ben Bella, Hocine Ait Ahmed and Mohamed Khider were in charge of relations with the newly republican Egypt, which provided weapons, propaganda—via the Voice of the Arabs radio station—and funding. On the West Coast of the continent, Mohamed Boudiaf was in charge of Spanish Morocco, the only area where Algerian guerilla fighters were out of reach of the French army, could train and establish an operating base. Boudiaf also acted as go-between with Madrid and the Spanish special services who collaborated with the FLN out of hostility to Paris, before he fell ill and was out of action for many long months.

Abane carried on negotiations with members of the existing national political forces: Fehrat Abbas’s middle of the road Union démocratique du manifeste algérien (UDMA), ulamas, and communists, trying to get them to rally the Front and leave their various organisations. Between the autumn of 1955 and the spring of 1956, all of them came around, willy-nilly.

It was on the strength of his political achievements that Abane organised the Soummam Congress with the support of two wilaya2 commanders, Krim Belkacen (zone III) and Larbi Ben Mhidi (zone V). Zone IV, actually an offshoot of zone II, also went along with the movement. Thus, the new organisation had the support of three out of the five wilayas.

The temporary victory of the political leaders

Wilaya II was more cautious on account of its disagreement with the general staff in Algiers concerning the 20 August 1955 offensive when its commander Zighoud Yussef had incited the population to rise up alongside his guerilla fighters. Some hundred Europeans were massacred and the fierce repression that followed claimed thousands of lives. Wilaya I, plagued by internal dissension and conflicts, was completely absent.

Quite unintentionally, Abane and his group became de facto the central leadership. Algiers had come to speak for all Algeria, The ZAA’s scope of jurisdiction was now far greater than initially intended. The national and central executive was now composed of three “political” figures: Ramdane Abane, Benyoussef Ben Khedda and Said Dahab, and two guerilla commanders, Larbi Ben Mhidi and Krim Belkacem. Ahmed Ben Bella immediately voiced his opposition to the decisions of the Soummam Congress, challenging the composition of the CNRA designated by the congress. It included too many “ralliés”—politicians whom Abane had won over to the cause of the FLN. From their base in Cairo, and with backing from the Cairo military, who were distrustful of the “Kabyls” whom they denounced as unauthentic Arabs. the CNRA drew its activists in Tunisia into a conspiracy aimed at cutting off Abane and his entourage from their rearguard.

More basically, the guerilla fighters were worried about their future. In Morocco and Tunisia, their Maghrebi comrades had been duped by the “politicos” who, after throwing them into the struggle, pushed them aside once independence had been granted—in March 1956—handing them at best low-level jobs as postmen or prison wardens when they weren’t actually repressed with the help of colonial troops. The Algerian fighters wanted a share in the power structure, wanted to make sure their sufferings were not repaid with a mess of pottage.

One month later, in October, Ben Bella and the external delegation were arrested when the French air force intercepted their plane. However, between the autumn of 1956 and the spring of 1957, the balance of power shifted to the detriment of Abane. The repression hardened in Algiers where Europeans were subjected to a bloody campaign of terrorism. The paratroopers back from the Suez expedition took the city in hand and brutally broke the week-long national strike called by the FLN in order to show the UN General Assembly, in session in New York, and the world at large, that the Algerian people were behind their organisation.

Krim, overshadowed by Abane’s verve and political culture, became openly sceptical. In particular, he refused to accept the latter’s criticisms of the massacres perpetrated in Soummam Valley by one of his lieutenants, the redoubtable Amirouche Aït Hamouda (known as “Amirouche). These were considered untimely when efforts were being made to alert world opinion to French atrocities in Algeria. At the end of February 1957, it was decided to leave Algiers. The five members of the Committee for coordination and execution (CCE) were to meet in Tunis, thus abandoning one of the main principles decided upon at the Soummam Congress, i.e. “the precedence of the interior over the exterior,” meant to sanctify the guerilla fighters as against the leadership abroad. But it was understood that this exile was to last only temporarily, while order was being restored among the fragmented remains of the external delegation.

Power struggles

Two groups were formed. Abane and Ben Mhidi (who was arrested by the paratroopers just before leaving and executed) were to go west, Krim, Ben Khedda and Dalhab went east. Krim, passing through wilaya 2, got in touch with Lakhdar Ben Tobbal, his new commander since 24 September 1956 and the death of Zighud Yussef, and persuaded him to come to Tunis with him. At the beginning of June 1957, after 4 months on the road, they finally reached Tunis. Abane had unpleasant memories of the time he spent in wilaya V, too military and not political enough to his taste. There was not really a sense that they were at war and the leaders, including Houari Boumedienne were selected arbitrarily. The men were no longer seen as activists but rather as subordinates, expected to obey orders and placed under arrest at the least misdemeanour.

That same month was held in Guenzet, near the Tunisian capital, the preparatory meeting of the CNRA, which had been called in Cairo in August. Abane sharply criticised wilaya 5, which he considered “feudal” and thereby earned the enmity of its new commander, Abdelhamid Boussof. Just before his departure, the CCE and the CNRA were reorganised: the executive was enlarged from five to twelve members, Abane and Krim were the only ones to keep their seats and the body now numbered only three political figures as against nine guerilla commanders. The CNRA now had 22 members instead of 17, with a much stronger presence of the military who were now in the majority, reversing the balance of power. This was now in the hands of Krim Belkacem (armed forces), Abdelahafid Bussuf (communications and intelligence), and Lakhdar Ben Tobbai (emigration control).

Abane was sidelined, put in charge of Moudjahid, the Front’s new weekly. He refused to keep is mouth shut and continued to criticise the trio in power who had evicted him and their orientations. This was just too much for the trio: they lured him to Morocco where he was liquidated at the end of December 1957.

For two years, the “three Bs” led the Algerian revolution. When the CCE became the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA) at the end of 1958, nothing changed, power was still at the end of a gun and the trio hung on to their key positions. They controlled the ministers, often men who were indebted to them, but soon revealed themselves incapable of coping with the challenges facing them: the construction of electrified fences on the country’s eastern and western borders which isolated the guerilla fighters, Charles de Gaulle’s rise to power in France and his efforts to diminish support for the FLN by promoting a moderate current, “Algérie algérienne,” discontent in the wilayas prompted by the difficulties of procuring weapons, and the increasing strength of the counter-insurrection with a multiplication of local rebellions.

The increasing power of the “colonels”

Krim was held responsible for the military setbacks of the revolution and the “three Bs” were obliged to accept the organisation of an interminable conference of “the ten colonels” (five wilaya commanders, two chiefs of staff plus the “trio”) which lasted from August to December 1959, ostensibly to prepare the next session of the CNRA. The height of insolence came when one of the ten challenged the trio’s presence: they weren’t even in command of wilayas!

In January 1969, Krim moved over to foreign affairs. His armed forces ministry was replaced by a new institution, the état-major général (general staff) headed by a new strong man, Huari Boumedienne, Boussouf’s successor in command of wilaya V, who supported him along with Ben Tobbal against Krim. These two, who both came from the same small town in the Constantinois, Mila, were determined to pry Krim away from the army for fear he would use it for a power grab.

The CNRA appointed by the ten colonels was renewed and political personalities now made up for only one third of it. The EMG was now fully in charge of military operations, since the Comité interministériel de guerre, which included the three Bs who theoretically controlled it, was deeply split and too far from the troops on the ground. Its influence was in decline while that of the EMG was on the rise as it took full advantage of its prerogatives:

The General Staff was in command of the Armée de libération nationale (ALN) and was respondisble for the conduct and coordination of military operations on a national scale. It was responsible for supplying the interior forces with ordnance, money and cadres. The wilaya commanders and frontier commanders were under its authority for all military matters. It was responsible for the military training of cadres and for the rest camps. On the proposal of the wilaya councils, it appointed all subaltern officers down to the rank of captain. In collaboration with the Inter-Ministerial War Committee, it was responsible for the military police in zones to be determined later. It had at its disposal an army medical corps, which operated in certain areas. It had to report regularly to the Inter-Ministerial-War Committee.3.

The EMG became more and more important, with the increasing power of the Border armies, stationed in Tunisia and Morocco, and which at the rime of the cease-fire in March 1962, numbered nearly 40,000 men. On the contrary, the guerilla fighters of the interior, hard hit by successive operations launched by General Maurice Challe, withered and languished. The few thousand survivors were forced to flee and hide. The grassroots base of the military power changed drastically: the volunteer guerilla fighters of the interior gave way to professional soldiers based outside the country.

The public disagreements between the GPRA and the commanders of the Border Army became increasingly frequent until the cease-fire on 19 March 1962. Governmental authority was often flouted and the ENG’s bouts of sulkiness became a political ritual. On 1 September 1962, the last fighters defending an isolated Wilaya no. IV, were crushed in just a few hours by Boumediene’s artillery. The die was cast. The Algerian armed forces entered the country and officially took over the power structure. They have kept it ever since.

1EDITOR’S NOTE: Ramdane Abane is often called “Abane Ramdame,” inverting first and last names. This is also the case with Yusef Zoughid or Belkacem Krim, cf. infra.

2The Soummam Congress renamed the six zones, which became wilayas.

3Government Bulletin of 31 January 1960 providing for the appointment of the chief of general staff of the ALN, quoted in Amar Mohand Amer, “Le Front de libération nationale à l’été 1962: le pourquoi d’une crise”, colloquium “Pour une histoire critique et citoyenne. Le cas de l’histoire franco-algérienne, Lyon, ENS-LSH, 20-22 June 2006.