When the Black Panthers Came to Algeria

When the Black Panthers Came to Algeria

Building Another World

Elaine Mokhtefi and the dashed hopes of postcolonial Algeria.


In William Gardner Smith’s 1963 novel The Stone Face, we follow Simeon Brown, a black journalist who flees American racism by moving to Paris. At first, France feels like a color-blind sanctuary to him, until he inadvertently causes the police to harass several Algerian men. “We’re the niggers here!” one of the men later tells him. Troubled, Simeon seeks out other Algerians living in Paris, who relay harrowing tales of French military torture and other atrocities during the Algerian War of Independence. By the book’s end, Simeon realizes that the “stone face” of racism can never be escaped, that only the locales and the victims change, so he decides to return to the United States to fight for “America’s Algerians.”

Elaine Mokhtefi makes a similar comparison in her memoir, Algiers, Third World Capital. Born into an American Jewish family that moved around frequently, she witnessed racism and anti-Semitism throughout the country, and her strong early disdain for both led her to join a global anticolonial movement while in college. Several years later, she moved to Paris and was struck, like Smith’s protagonist, by the similarities in the treatment of black people in the United States and Algerian immigrants in France. “Something in me associated those gaunt olive-skinned men on the Faubourg Saint-Antoine with the darker wayfarers trailing along the dusty roads of the South,” she recalled, and she threw in her lot with those in France opposing the colonization of Algeria.

Mokhtefi’s activism eventually led her to work for the Office of the Provisional Government of Algeria. After Algeria won its independence in 1962, she moved to Algiers the same year and became a civil servant in the new government. During this period, a number of anticolonial organizations set up shop in Algiers as well, and Mokhtefi once again found herself involved in various national-liberation struggles. After stints in several branches of the new government, she became a trusted aide to Eldridge Cleaver and the growing number of Black Panthers who had moved to the city and established the International Section of the Black Panther Party there.

As an observer and participant, Mokhtefi occupied a unique position in the world of black and anticolonial liberation struggles of the 1950s and ’60s that enables her to offer a rare chronicle of the intersection of these movements. In Algiers, Third World Capital, she captures the camaraderie, shared ideals, and frequent miscommunication among the various struggles for liberation in these heady and ultimately frustrating years, and in particular the conflicts that emerged between the Panthers and the Algerian government in their competing visions of emancipation. The Panthers sought to run their organization in the city with as little official oversight as possible, and they struggled to reconcile this with their dependent position on the Algerian state. Meanwhile, the Algerian government sought to assert its sovereignty over the newly independent country and likewise struggled to come to terms with the tensions between its own nationalist and internationalist projects. Both groups also struggled to address contradictions within their movements, especially between their tendencies to reassert hierarchies and authority and their desire to be free of earlier forms of them. By focusing on these tensions, Mokhtefi tells several richly layered stories at once—her own and those of several intersecting groups of people who hoped to forge a new kind of internationalism out of the antiracist and anticolonial struggles of the 1960s.

Born in New York in 1928, Elaine Mokhtefi attributes her antiracism to her mother, who taught her early to treat people without prejudice. It was also spawned by personal experience. As the family moved around the country after her father went bankrupt, Mokhtefi frequently encountered anti-Semitism, including in the suburban town of Ridgefield, Connecticut, where they settled in the late 1930s and where she was often called the “little Jewish girl.”

In 1945, Mokhtefi matriculated at Wesleyan College in Georgia, where she struggled to fit in and found herself enraged by the brutal system of segregation all around her. After being expelled, she entered the Latin American Institute in Manhattan, where she found a home among the large, left-wing student body and faculty. In 1946, after a speaker from the United World Federalists gave an address at the college advocating for world government and an end to war, half of the institute’s students—Mokhtefi among them—joined the group. Later in the decade, she became the director of the United World Federalists’ student division, denouncing racism at home and abroad and calling for an end to empire.

In a climate of incipient McCarthyism, Mokhtefi and her peers found themselves under surveillance, but she was undeterred. If she’d stayed in the United States, she likely would have been blacklisted, like many others on the left, and if she’d persevered, she may have later joined the struggle against segregation. But in 1951, she moved to Paris, tempted by the romance of life in the City of Lights; once there, however, she was exposed to a “subclass and subculture of Algerian immigrant labor” that “was engag[ed] in an existential battle for recognition and freedom” in the streets of Paris and throughout Algeria. So she took up a new cause: the fight for Algeria’s freedom.

At the time, it was not a popular cause with everyone on the French left. Interior Minister François Mitterrand, a member of the ruling Socialist Party, insisted that “Algeria is France” and “the only negotiation is war.” Likewise, some unions were silent on the issue, if not downright hostile to Algerian independence. A few months after Mokhtefi arrived in Paris, she attended a May Day rally at which the General Confederation of Labor prohibited the Algerian Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties from marching, out of a fear that the French police would crack down on both groups.

The failure of the French left to support its Algerian comrades in their struggle shocked and enraged Mokhtefi. Tales of France welcoming African-American troops and artists with open arms had given her the impression that France was color-blind; the truth proved to be far different. In the years after World War II, the French government cracked down with a vengeance on Algerian anticolonialists living in both countries, and some on the left tacitly supported it. For Mokhtefi, the experience was radicalizing.

As the struggle for Algerian liberation intensified, Mokhtefi’s support for the cause brought her face to face with the French state’s atrocities. Meeting several leading Algerian organizers in the course of her work—including Mohamed Sahnoun, who later became Algeria’s representative to the United Nations—she learned of the French military’s use of torture in Algiers.

Throwing herself into anticolonial activism in Paris, Mokhtefi helped organize a publicity campaign against French rule in Algeria. In 1960, at the World Assembly of Youth International Congress in Accra, Ghana, she found herself working alongside Sahnoun and Frantz Fanon to persuade the organization’s delegations to adopt resolutions supporting Algerian independence. The same year, she returned to the United States, after Sahnoun helped her get a job with the Algerian provisional government’s office at the UN.

In New York, she and her colleagues wrote press releases, pamphlets, and other informational publications calling for Algerian independence. For them, Mokhtefi writes, the war was being fought in two places at once: in Algeria and “on the world’s playing field.” This two-pronged approach finally succeeded in 1962, when the French electorate and Algerian nationals voted overwhelmingly in support of Algerian independence. For Mokhtefi, the victory confirmed that oppressed racial groups could win anticolonial battles if they were waged on the international stage.

Healing the war’s wounds after independence turned out to be no easy feat, however, and approximately two-thirds of Mokhtefi’s narrative examines the many difficulties that followed Algerian liberation—both for the Algerians themselves and for people like her, who had moved to Algiers in the wake of the French withdrawal and hoped that the country would become a beacon for antiracist and anti-imperialist activism.

Algeria at the time had a population of roughly 10 million. French soldiers and police had killed hundreds of thousands of people, tortured tens of thousands, and incarcerated about 2.5 million in concentration camps. At the time of independence, approximately 2.5 million children had tuberculosis or rickets. Moreover, many of the French settlers had made up the skilled labor in the country, and with their departure, Algeria struggled to maintain a modern economy.

Dissension within the provisional government only made matters worse. In late August, Houari Boumédiène, formerly a colonel and at the time chief of staff of the FLN’s military, grew frustrated with the power allocated to his rival Benyoucef Benkhedda’s FLN flank and marched his troops from Tlemcen to Algiers, killing many political opponents along the way. A brief civil war raged as “men who had spent years battling the French military now faced their own kith and kin.” Even after the fighting ceased and Ahmed Ben Bella assumed the presidency, Algerians faced the tremendous task of creating an independent nation out of a war-torn colony. The economy was in shambles, nearly 90 percent of the population was illiterate, and there was a crying need for people able to build a new infrastructure.

To aid in the country’s recovery, Algeria’s wartime allies—including Cuba, Yugoslavia, and China—sent specialists and medical teams; at the same time, thousands of FLN supporters and activists in other countries moved to Algeria. Mokhtefi and some of her comrades from New York were among them: “idealists,” she writes, who wanted to “build a new world, visionaries whose consciences told them they had to come.” Reunited with Sahnoun, whom she began to see romantically, she found work as a translator in a variety of government-funded positions, beginning her career as an Algerian civil servant.

Despite this help, Algeria still struggled to rebuild. Aiming to utilize the resources that rightfully belonged to Algerians, Ben Bella initiated l’autogestion with his March 1963 decrees. This policy transferred 7 million to 8 million acres of land, 200,000 to 300,000 homes, and most industries from French to Algerian ownership. (Mokhtefi lived in one such apartment, still furnished with the belongings of the settlers who had fled.) Yet even after Algeria reclaimed its land and natural resources, there was no clear path forward; Ben Bella “launched new national projects every day,” she writes, “but neglected the measures to implement them.”

As a civil servant, she had a close-up view of these projects. At the National Office of Algerian Tourism, she helped organize receptions for foreign functionaries, an essential task for any nation formalizing its diplomatic relations with the rest of the world. At that office, she also saw the ways that civil service transformed revolutionaries into government employees: Many of her colleagues were the FLN’s former overseas activists or intelligence agents, deployed there “for the essential purpose of receiving a salary while waiting to be called to other posts.” Meanwhile, her visits to a hospital staffed largely with foreign medical specialists made it clear to Mokhtefi that multilingual speakers were in high demand.

But Ben Bella’s improvisations were not universally well regarded. He too often struggled to get his national projects off the ground—and even worse, in Boumédiène’s eyes, he had sequestered the military from the political realm. On June 19, 1965, Boumédiène organized a coup that ousted Ben Bella, dissolved the National Assembly, and put himself in control.

Mokhtefi carried on in the wake of Boumédiène’s coup, but she was now living in an Algeria that was becoming increasingly authoritarian. The breakdown of Ben Bella’s Algerian republic paralleled the turmoil in her private life: The previous year, she and Sahnoun broke up, and she found herself even more adrift within the country. Yet the thought of leaving Algeria never crossed her mind. “I had found a home,” she recalls, and new relationships and sources of comradeship were on the horizon.

In the early years of Algerian independence, activists and liberation groups from around the world flocked to Algiers. “We were fellow militants,” Mokhtefi writes, “and the future was ours.” A contingent from the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam arrived, as did one from the African National Congress (ANC). The Algerian government publicly welcomed them, with Ben Bella calling for an African popular front against colonialism in a 1963 speech and Boumédiène supporting the presence of liberation groups in the country even after he deposed Ben Bella. Algeria aspired to become a major hub for Third World freedom movements, and Mokhtefi was eager to participate in all of this activity.

The group she spent most of her time with in the years after the coup was the Black Panthers. After federal and local law-enforcement agencies in the United States repeatedly tried to incarcerate many of them, including Eldridge Cleaver, one of the Panthers’ most vocal and prominent figures, a cohort of Panthers decamped for Algeria. Cleaver and his wife, Kathleen Cleaver, were among the first, traveling to Algiers in June 1969 by way of Montreal and Cuba.

The day they arrived, a representative of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union called Mokhtefi and told her that the Cleavers needed her help. Mokhtefi met them and the journalist Robert Scheer at the Victoria Hotel, where the Panthers enlisted Mokhtefi as a translator and asked her to help them get settled. Advocating for the Panthers with Slimane Hoffman, who headed the FLN office overseeing liberation movements in Algiers, Mokhtefi helped them get a government residence and a phone line to organize a local headquarters. A month after his arrival in Algiers, Eldridge Cleaver held a press conference. “We are an integral part of Africa’s history,” he said. “White America teaches us that our history begins on the plantations, that we have no other past. We have to take back our culture.” Living in Algeria, the Panthers could continue this work, linking up with other revolutionary struggles, black and Arab alike.

Soon after the Cleavers and Scheer set up shop in Algiers, Donald “DC” Cox (the Panthers’ field marshal), Sekou Odinga and Larry Mack (of the Panther’s New York 21), and Pete and Charlotte O’Neal (heads of the Kansas City chapter) followed, helping solidify the Panthers’ presence there. As the city became more and more of an international hub for the Panthers, Mokhtefi became more and more important to the party’s International Section. Using her insider knowledge and connections to push for the Algerian government to recognize the Panthers, she became one of their main liaisons in Algiers.

At first, the Algerian government seemed fully inclined to support the Panthers, granting them a cash stipend as well as free rein to travel in and out of the country. The Panthers, in turn, used their increasing stability to cooperate with other liberation movements, helping, in their own modest way, to make Algiers the titular “Third World Capital” of Mokhtefi’s memoir. This cooperation helped internationalize them in several ways: The Panthers’ orientation, at least among those party members who were abroad, became increasingly internationalist, understanding the struggle against racism in America as one part of a broader struggle by colonized people against Western imperial powers.

The Panthers also became internationalists in practice, establishing close ties with many other national-liberation movements; serving as unofficial guards for Oliver Tambo, then head of the ANC, when he was in Algeria; traveling to North Korea and North Vietnam “to express their solidarity and condemn US imperialism”; and training in the use of arms with other movements.

But the Algiers Panthers in general and Cleaver in particular were not used to state support, and they were certainly not used to life in decolonizing Algeria. In the United States, they had created semiautonomous spaces under surveillance and persecution by a hostile federal government. In Algeria, however, the government’s position was much less clear. It provided aid to revolutionary organizations, proclaimed the country a refuge for people fleeing from racism, and turned a blind eye to some of the Panthers’ questionable activities, yet it was also at times unresponsive to their requests and occasionally intervened in affairs that the Panthers assumed were their own business.

Not that the Panthers made things easy—for themselves or the Algerian government. By the time Cleaver arrived in Algeria, he had publicly renounced his past, when he had committed heinous acts of rape and claimed that sexual violence was “an insurrectionary act.” But he continued to treat women terribly, and this led him to flout Algeria’s laws when he wanted to. In November 1969, he told Mokhtefi that a comrade of theirs, Rahim, had tried to run off with their money, so Cleaver and another comrade, Byron Booth, had killed Rahim and buried his body in the hills. Later, a friend told Mokhtefi that Rahim had been seen kissing Kathleen Cleaver, and Mokhtefi surmised that Eldridge Cleaver had murdered Rahim not for theft but for sleeping with his wife—a theory later confirmed by Cleaver himself, who justified the murder to Cox in a letter rife with misogyny, proclaiming, “What is mine is no one else’s.”

While the Algerian government never questioned the Panthers after Rahim’s body was found, the Panthers and the Algerian government did have a set of run-ins over other matters. In September 1970, Timothy Leary and his wife, Rosemary Leary, arrived in Algiers after his escape from prison in the United States, where he was serving a 20-year sentence for marijuana possession. Both Learys regularly used LSD, among other drugs, irritating the Panthers, who tried to get them sober. When the Panthers placed the Learys under arrest and confiscated over 20,000 doses of an undisclosed substance, the Algerian government was nonplussed. Though the authorities did not punish the Panthers then, the Panthers and the Algerian state began to grow wary of each other.

Two years later, two American radicals, Willie Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow, hijacked an airplane and, after securing a $500,000 ransom, flew to Algiers to donate it to the Panthers. The Algerian authorities confiscated the money upon their arrival, and soon tensions between the Panthers and the Algerian government came to a boil. “All was not well,” Mokhtefi notes laconically. Whatever patience the Boumédiène government still had for the Panthers was growing thin.

A schism between the American Panthers and the International Section made this situation even more precarious. The previous year, news had reached Algiers that Huey Newton had become increasingly authoritarian and was embezzling party funds. When Cleaver confronted him on a San Francisco radio show, Newton ended the broadcast and called Cleaver directly. In that conversation, each man expelled the other from the party. One month later, Cleaver attempted to reconcile with Newton, who threatened to kill Cleaver.

After the conversation, the International Section broke from the Panthers and renamed itself the Revolutionary People’s Communication Network. This splintering coincided with the decline of Black Panther chapters in the United States and growing fractures within the Algerian group. “I suddenly saw them as survivors,” Mokhtefi recalls of this increasingly bleak period for the international Panthers. “I imagine they felt the same.” Isolated from the organization that had helped radicalize them and facilitated their entry into the international liberation movement, they now had few people they could turn to—and their strained relations with the Algerian government only made matters worse.

Low on funds, the international Panthers tried to raise money in Europe. After that effort failed, they were elated to hear that another group of American radicals had hijacked an airplane and secured a second hefty ransom for the Panthers, but when the plane landed, the authorities once again seized the money. This time, the Panthers issued a public complaint, denouncing the actions of the Boumédiène government. Angered by the Panthers’ actions, the authorities soon cut off the Panthers’ communications lines and placed them under house arrest. “With a broken organization in the United States and international support sliding fast,” Mokhtefi recalls of this turning point, “the International Panthers were close to stateless.”

When the Algerian government finally released the Panthers six days later, Cox—who opposed publishing the complaint to begin with—resigned from the group. The following year, Eldridge Cleaver moved to France, his children returned to the United States, and Kathleen Cleaver set out on her own in Europe. The remaining Panthers dispersed elsewhere: The group’s time in Algiers had come to an end.

From the early ’70s on, Mokhtefi’s life in Algeria also began to come apart. Although she had started dating Mokhtar Mokhtefi, a writer and veteran of the independence war whom she would marry in 1991, nearly every other aspect of her life was uprooted. With the Panthers on their way out, she increasingly found herself at odds with the Algerian government. Matters were only made worse when one of her friends married Ben Bella, then under house arrest, and a pair of men showed up at her apartment, took her to the Ministry of Defense, and interrogated her, insisting that she now spy on Ben Bella. If she refused, they said, they would deport her. She declined to collaborate, but with the help of some friends in the government, she was able to stay, although “the evening’s message was clear. I was not free.”

Mokhtefi’s situation grew even more precarious in the months that followed. After going on a trip abroad, she had her passport confiscated by the Algerian government and then was deported to France. Six months later, with the aid of one of the architects of the coup that brought Boumédiène to power, she returned to Algeria. But on her arrival, officials once again deported her. “I was estranged from my own existence,” she writes, and she and Mokhtar Mokhtefi were forced to settle in France and later in the United States.

Elaine Mokhtefi does not offer much critique of Algeria in these years, even after she was expelled from the country. Her love for Algeria was in many ways too hard to break, but she does allow Mokhtar Mokhtefi, in a series of paraphrased conversations, to state his own growing ambivalence about the trajectory of national liberation in Algeria. Of his last days in the country, she writes:

He warned his friends that Algeria was racing at top speed toward total control by forces of darkness. Soutien critique, or constructive criticism, the watchword of the moment for progressives, was a compromise that would only provide fuel for the engines of reaction. For democratic thought and process to take hold required a progressive insurrectionary movement.

For Mokhtar Mokhtefi, the stifling regulation of public speech by the Algerian government paralleled the “total control” of French colonialism. What Algeria needed in its early years was a robust civil society, in which all could think and speak freely. For him, this project was never realized.

Elaine Mokhtefi doesn’t add much of her own perspective here; perhaps she feels that it should be he who does the criticizing, not a white American. But, late in the memoir, she does give us a clue concerning how she feels about her forced departure: “My story with Algeria has invaded and occupied my being like only one’s country and people can”—and she is now in exile.

Mokhtefi’s memoir claims to correct various accounts of the early years of Algerian independence, including those by Ben Bella and Cleaver. She wants to offer a more accurate statement of both the promise and the limits of what was, briefly, the “Third World Capital.” But the most significant portion of her memoir comes less from correcting the historical record than from her firsthand account of the kinds of tensions that arose among the different liberation movements of the 1950s and ’60s. As a beneficiary of the internationalist anticolonial struggle, Algeria was eager to help other countries gain sovereignty, but as a new nation itself, it struggled under Ben Bella and then Boumédiène to assert its authority over those anticolonial and antiracist movements that had made Algiers their home. Because the Panthers were a body of self-proclaimed revolutionaries also in pursuit of liberation, they represented an ally in both Algeria’s and the Third World’s anticolonial struggles, but as they spent more time in Algiers, it became clear that they were not always aligned with Algeria’s interests, nor were Algerian interests all that aligned with theirs.

Mokhtefi’s place in the country and these movements was equally ambiguous. Her dual roles in anticolonial activism and government bureaucracy often led her to move between the extraordinary and the mundane. For every story of sobering up Nina Simone for a performance in Algiers or trying to find lodging for the Panthers, there are others of her dealing with the authoritarianism of the Algerian government or the rank misogyny of Cleaver.

In the end, while the tensions between the Panthers and the Algerians stemmed from the strong personalities on either side, Mokhtefi’s experiences underscore the fragility of these different movements’ internationalisms and struggles for liberation. Besides the internal contradictions between their avowed commitments to liberation and egalitarianism and their tendency to fall back into authoritarian structures, both groups made the mistake that Stuart Hall cautions against in his article “Cultural Identity and Diaspora”: They assumed a superficial form of solidarity, one that doesn’t acknowledge the other group’s differences, and as a result failed to recognize that the work of internationalism, like the work of all political identity formation, is “a ‘production,’” as Hall put it, “which is never complete, always in process.”

Any international left organization with a hope of being successful today must continually build shared goals within its constituent groups as well as with their collaborators. These organizations must be more willing to confront their own contradictions and also be more honest about the tensions that occur across groups. Intersectional politics requires allowing others to guide the intersections between different groups’ understandings of liberation. One cannot merely assume that allies are united in goals and approaches.

This is an idea that feminists of color have long known. As Ann Russo points out in her recent study of black and brown feminism, feminists of color have built noncarceral forms of accountability precisely because intragroup harms have been borne disproportionately by women of color in political organizations that have, at the very same time, experienced hostile state persecution. For the sake of liberation, these feminists of color have insisted that groups must root out state harm as well as intragroup harm. In the case of the Panthers, Cleaver’s treatment of women at least foreshadowed, if not bolstered, the group’s conflict with the Algerian government. And when that conflict fractured the group, all that remained, as is the case in Mokhtefi’s memoir, was nostalgia: a rejuvenating feeling for the author, a hope for those of her comrades still alive and active in politics, but unfortunately inaccessible to the rest of us.

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