The death anniversary of one of Algeria’s most revered revolutionaries, Larbi Ben M’Hidi, coincides with massive protests across the country. Has Algeria’s elite forgotten the resilience of the spirit that gave them power in the first place?
“Throw the revolution into the street, and the people will embrace it,” Algeria’s most revered, revolutionary figures, Larbi Ben M’Hidi, once famously said.
In recent days, unprecedented numbers of frustrated Algerians, from students and academics to lawyers and ordinary citizens, have maintained peaceful protests in their thousands against ailing president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term.
The peaceful protests, not seen in years, has ignited the type of fighting spirit that defined Ben M’Hidi’s legacy, immortalised in the schools and streets he is named after and within the national conscience now seeking the kind of change he fought against.
This week marks 62 years since the murder of Ben M’Hidi between 3rd and 4th March 1957, just three years after the war of independence that freed Algerians from the shackles of 132 years of French colonial rule.
An author, playwright and military officer, Ben M’Hidi was one of the founding members of the National Liberation Front, which has maintained power since independence in 1962.
Born in 1923, in Ain Mlila in eastern Algeria, young Ben M’Hidi’s first experience in politics came during World War II through his involvement in the Algerian People’s Party (PPA). As the world celebrated Victory Day on 8 May 1945, Algerians began to protest their lack of rights and to call explicitly for an independent Algeria.
The protests, in which Ben M’Hidi was arrested, soon turned into the massacres of thousands of Algerians in Setif, Guelma and surrounding areas. Two years after the massacres, the secret paramilitary Special Organisation (OS) was set up by Mohamed Belouizdad to prepare for guerilla warfare against the French.
However, the organisation was dismantled in 1951 by the French and many of its members killed or imprisoned, including M’Hidi, who was sentenced to ten years of imprisonment in absentia.
On March 1954 in Algiers, Ben M’Hidi along with 21 former OS members held an assembly to create the Revolutionary Committee of Unity and Action (CRUA) following which the FLN and its armed wing, the National Liberation Army (ALN) was formed a few months later.
The most recognisable names in Algeria’s history books will come to be known as the ‘Men of November’ who would eventually ignite the war after midnight on November 1st 1954 and weaken the foundations of the weak and unstable fourth French Republic: Ben M’Hidi, Mohamed Boudiaf, Mostefa Ben Boulaid, Didouche Mourad and Rabah Bitat.
Algiers was selected to be under the revolutionary control of Ben M’Hidi, who was able to successfully evade the French and oversee an urban bombing campaign through his coordination in the intricate, interconnected networks of the Casbah.
His words, “for each FLN soldier guillotined, 100 Frenchmen will be cut down,” ignited the Battle of Algiers, a battle immortalised through film and would decades later be cited to strategise counterterrorism initiatives adopted by the US.
In 1956, following the Soummam Congress where the state of Algeria as a social and democratic republic is founded, Ben M’Hidi took up secondary leadership within the FLN.
Considered as one of the theoreticians of the war of independence, Ben M’hidi drew the socio-political blueprint for an independent Algeria. Ben M’hidi was a firm believer that the revolution should be directed by internal rather than external revolutionaries who would provoke his differences with Ahmed Ben Bella, who would become Algeria’s first president.
Ben Mhidi attempted to end the French occupation through his writing, plays and then ultimately as a fighter. But he would not live long enough to see a free Algeria. Five years before the Fifth Republic of France relinquished control of its last African colony, Ben M’Hidi was arrested on February 23, 1957, by a unit led by Lieutenant Colonel Marcel Bigeard.
Pictured smiling defiantly, with his head held high, his military intelligence and lessons in military ethics and international laws impressed his captors. Despite the interrogation he faced for two weeks, he never revealed any information and continuously insisted that Algeria would be victorious and her people liberated – a resolve which provoked Bigeard’s respect.
Bigeard would later comment, “If I had ten men like him amongst my troops, I would have conquered the world.” However, French generals were growing impatient with the lack of progress with Ben M’Hidi, and he was later placed under the control of Major Paul Aussaresses who had an aptitude for torture and killings.
Driven to an isolated location in Mitidja outside the capital, between the 3rd and 4th of March, Ben M’Hidi was tortured and killed, and his death made to look like suicide by hanging.
An interview in December 2000, by an unrepentant Aussaresse on the degree of torture rife under his command, revealed how Ben M’Hidi was killed with the French government’s approval.
Speaking to TRT World, Donal Hassett, a Colonial Historian at the University of College Cork, explained how “it would be a grave error to reduce Ben M’Hidi to the status of martyr or victim. He was a key strategic thinker within the FLN from its earliest days and played a central role in shaping its political and military tactics.”
Ben Mhidi’s is a name most recalled by Algerians when remembering the war as a figure who personified bravery and might against injustice – a spirit that will no doubt inspire Algerians in their struggles for justice, and concern authorities.
A film created by filmmaker Bachir Derrais in tribute to Ben M’Hidi was censored by Algerian authorities last year, under the guise that it did not include enough scenes of French brutality. However the suspected real reason was due to its depiction of the tensions between Ben Bella and Ben M’Hidi, and the disagreements between the historical leaders, perceived as contradictory to the carefully moulded national memory of the country’s history by the FLN to legitimise its power hold.
The post-independence and post-90’s civil war generation no longer remain convinced by the legitimacy of their war-experienced leaders who now risk having their legacies defined by their contemporary incompetencies. The history books are filled with heroic examples of Algerian women and men who sacrificed themselves in life and death to the liberation of their nation.
Now that Algerians feel shackles upon them once again, it is time to replace reverence with revolutionary action and to create the next chapter of change. “The protesters themselves should draw inspiration from Ben M’Hidi’s unshakeable confidence, even in the face of the most brutal torture, that the Algerian people would rally to cause and win the struggle,” Hassett adds.
“The situation of Algeria will change if the entire system that exists now is changed because they destroyed the country,” one Algerian told me.
“There needs to be a common goal between the people and the government.” If the power elite’s legitimacy stems from their status as war veterans, then they would do well to remember the principles for which they once stood for or risk being remembered as the enemies of progress.