The Colonist of Good Will: On Albert Camus
But in an important sense, Camus’s equal condemnations of the torture and violence practiced on both sides of the Algerian War concealed an undeniably imbalanced perspective. The violence of the French military was simply of a different order of magnitude than that of the FLN: 150,000 Algerians were killed by French forces, compared with 2,700 French citizens killed by the FLN and its military wing, the ALN (both directed more firepower at their fellow Algerians, killing more than 15,000). The war was thus as dramatic a victory for the French militarily as it was a loss for France politically. Fanon was often wrong: violence was not self-actualizing; burqa-clad women were not vessels of national liberation; peasants did not make very good revolutionaries; the fashion of using daggers instead of “European” guns to carry out post-independence vendettas only lasted so long. But about the guiding principle of decolonization, Fanon was right: to receive independence is not the same as to take it. The quality of Algerian independence was markedly different from the kind secured by other anti-colonial movements in Africa, and its radiant pride and apparent success vaulted the nation into the vanguard of the Third World movement. In the 1960s, Algeria became a school for revolution, welcoming to its training camps everyone from Che Guevara to Eldridge Cleaver to Nelson Mandela.
The great drama of Algerian independence has overshadowed nearly everything that followed it. Yet in many ways the most significant parts of the story are what happened afterward, when the FLN retraced the steps of the original French revolutionaries with uncanny precision. Directly after he came to power in 1962, the new president, Ahmed Ben Bella, began a series of purges of the FLN leadership to purify it of elements he thought had been prepared to concede demands to the French in the negotiations over independence. This weakened the central government at a time when Morocco and Tunisia were attempting to wrest territory from the fledgling state. In the summer of 1965, the Napoleonic figure of Houari Boumediène, an ALN commander guarding the Algerian-Morocco border, swept into the capital and conducted a relatively bloodless coup. Bystanders on the scene mistook his tanks as props for the film The Battle of Algiers, which Gillo Pontecorvo was shooting in the city at the time.
For the next decade, Boumediène and his nomenklatura in effect ruled Algeria as a military oligarchy. Oil had been discovered in the Sahara in 1956, and Boumediène seized the opportunity to turn Algeria into the largest redistributive welfare state in Africa. He further solidified Algerian identity among the disparate ethnic groups—Kabyles, Tuaregs, Mozabites—by institutionalizing Arabic as the national language and carrying out the sort of development projects for schools and housing that Camus had called for thirty years before (Kabylia, then as now, continued to be the most recalcitrant territory for these efforts). By the 1970s, when much of the world was succumbing to the pressures of globalization, Algeria powered ahead with an economic program caught in amber: a 1930s-style protectionist national economy in a country whose bountiful natural resources allowed it to turn its back on foreign investment. But Boumediène preferred to buy what he needed from abroad instead of building up an industrial economy. The Algerian medical sector still shows the traces of Third World solidarity, with Cuban doctors stationed in the country. In the international arena, Boumediène challenged the West to rebalance global trade in favor of the Third World; he became one of the chief architects behind the 1973 OPEC oil price hikes that destabilized the Western monetary system. “If politics can divide [the Third World],” he declared, “then economics can unite us.” Boumediène’s regime was corrupt and many of his international efforts ended in failure, but for many years Algeria was a vital political laboratory for those wishing to study viable alternatives to liberal capitalist democracy. At a time when other countries in Africa are struggling to maintain or create state-run services, the idea of a national welfare state that guarantees a basic income remains in Algeria a visible, if vanishing, ideal.
* * *
Today, Algeria is a ghost of its former self. At a time when poorer countries in Africa are experimenting with new social programs and distributive politics, Algeria is no longer a guiding light. The country that was once the West’s most vituperative critic has become an ally. The nation that once fomented revolution in the region is now an enforcer of the status quo—going so far as to sign off on the recent French intervention in Mali, something unthinkable for Algeria even a few years ago. An unexpected twist of history accounts for this turn. In the 1990s, a large segment of the Algerian population, feeling disenfranchised and dispossessed by the FLN pouvoir, found a voice for its frustrations in an Islamist party that was so popular, so successful and so threatening that the military couldn’t resist cracking down on it, to the point of dragging the country into civil war. This proto–Algerian Spring transformed the military into formidable counterterrorism experts—which, when the time was ripe, made it seem an indispensable ally for Washington and London in the global “war on terror.”
At the same time, Algeria slowly opened itself to international markets, though this mostly benefited the oligarchy. Real improvements and reforms take place through a byzantine process whereby Algerians protest enough to get their demands—for medical supplies, for new parking lots—into the newspapers, after which government officials attempt to placate them. As for the formal political process, the FLN has permitted the proliferation of new political parties on the condition that they serve mainly as democratic cover. (The Algerian blogger Patriots on Fire has joked that the party names seem to have been created simply by combining words like “freedom,” “front,” “youth” and “new” in different variations.) Meanwhile, the people’s aspirations for justice continued to mount. In 2011, Algeria started buying off its second Arab Spring à la bahreïnien, increasing police pay and boosting housing development and small-business loans. But protests still break out sporadically every month in cities across the country. No one knows who will take the helm when Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the ailing president, finally exits the stage.
Camus would hardly know his way around Algiers today. His old neighborhood of Belcourt is, among other things, a former Salafist enclave. The wide avenues of the city teem with cars that run on some of the cheapest gas in the world. Indigents in downtown Algiers are either too proud or too inexperienced to ask what few tourists there are for money. A black market in currency flourishes directly outside the Palace of Justice. The memory of Camus himself has been appropriated in unusual ways. His books outsell Fanon’s at the Librairie Tiers Monde on Abdel Kader Square. Jean Daniel recounts that President Bouteflika once told him: “You know how I can tell Camus was a child of Algeria? Because he said if his mother was attacked, he would prefer to defend her to justice. Well, that’s exactly what I would do, and I don’t see why he couldn’t say it.”
The strongman remembers as he pleases, but Daniel, himself a French-Algerian, also sees a tribal stubbornness in Camus that he attributes, impressionistically, to the Algerian people in general. He reminds us that in the 2006 World Cup, the great Kabyle footballer Zinedine Zidane preferred to avenge an insult to his sister’s honor by head-butting an opponent and getting ejected from the game rather than leading the French team in the final minutes of a hard-fought championship match. It might be a sign of hope for Algeria if this sort of pride were directed back at the pouvoir, who still rest on their 1960s laurels. But people are tired of unrest. The scenes from Libya, Syria and Egypt on television are reasons to stay home. Members of the younger generation tend to turn their gaze elsewhere: to Europe, to Turkey, to the prospect that Algeria will soon fully enter the global economy and never look back. Having declined the invitation to participate in Algeria’s political theater, the Algerians of this new generation echo Madame Camus rather than her son: “It’s not for us!”