Battle of Algiers: The West's first 'war on terror'
The War on Terror film festival, presented by the Coalition for Civil Freedoms (CCF) and sponsored by ten human rights and advocacy organizations, recently concluded with a discussion on Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers.
The event left much to reflect on, especially in terms of the themes covered by the film that so powerfully captured the start of the Algerian war of independence. The CCF's Executive Director, Leena Al-Arian, who organised the festival on the 20th anniversary since the US announced its "war on terror", explained that The Battle of Algiers had been specifically selected "because of the continued significance of this film as it relates to the War on Terror".
The trans-Atlantic panel, which was made up of renowned US-based academic Sohail Daulatzai, UK-based Hip Hop artist, Lowkey, and myself, drew out several strands of the movie that appeared relevant to us to this day, such as state repression, colonial violence, racism, policing and the gendered forms that all the above have taken, and continue to take.
"The continuities between French repression in Algeria and global repression under the cover of the War Terror struck all of the participants throughout the discussion"
The continuities between French repression in Algeria and global repression under the cover of the War Terror struck all of the participants throughout the discussion.
In the film, Colonel Mathieu, who leads the French operation of counterinsurgency, famously says, "To know them is to eliminate them. Consequently, the purely military aspect of the problem is secondary. More important is the policing aspect."
This quote captured for the panellists something powerful of our current reality, in which a very similar narrative about fighting terrorism and eliminating its threat is mobilised to justify increased state repression, surveillance, and control.
The continued relevance of the movie is an important aspect of its appeal and importance. In a sense, the history of The Battle of Algiers captures the global political shifts between the period of its making and the present; from the revolutionary, anti-colonial movements in the global south and the mass progressive movements in the global north of the 1960s and 1970s, to the contemporary worldwide assault on the global south and primarily Muslim communities of colour in the global north under the guise of the war on terror.
As Daulatzai points out in his book, Fifty Years of "The Battle of Algiers": Past as Prologue, the film went from being a celebration of anti-colonial struggle and a mobilising tool for revolutionary movements across the world to being used as a training manual by the pentagon in counter-insurgency. The Algerian freedom fighters became terrorists, and the French soldiers breaking through the doors of each house in the casbah of Algiers became the "good guys", an example to be emulated by US and UK troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The history of Algeria captures this global transformation too. From the heady days of independence and victory, of Algiers as the Mecca of Revolutionaries in the words of Amilcar Cabral, during which the movie was made; the period up until the present has been marked by growing authoritarianism, repression, and the defeat of the progressive off-shoots of that revolution.
In many ways, the War on Terror has its roots – at least in part – in Algeria's long civil war, throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. In this period, the left was beheaded by attacks –carried out, we were told, by the Algerian Salvation Front (FIS) – while the state (both in Algeria and in France) used each terror attack to further roll back civil liberties, repress social movements, and shrink the space for contestation. A logic that was later globalised in the post-2001 era.
In the same way that the movie's meaning was being warped, so was the country and the institutions, like the National Liberation Front (FLN), which is also depicted in the film.
However, if we take these changes seriously, there is also an ongoing red thread of hope. In the last decade, the Middle East and North Africa have been rocked by mass uprisings that have and continue to challenge local regimes and ruling classes as well as Western imperialism. The case of Algeria is no different, where the revolutionary process is ongoing and where the demand of the movement – Yetnahawga3/They all have to go – remains the organising principle of the struggle.
In this context, the social meaning of the movie can shift again, representing a struggle for freedom that is unfinished, and which the mass movements in the region are mobilising to bring to their conclusion.
"It can therefore only continue to shift and transform, with the ebbs and tides of that very struggle, and embody, in every generation, a new meaning"
The life of Saadi Yacef, who recently passed away, and who was instrumental in the actual Battle of Algiers – the movie is in fact based on his memoirs – captures these changes also. Yacef went from being a key figure of the liberation movement to an official in the independent state. As a party official, he was, at best, a silent bystander during the growth of authoritarian rule and the civil war. However, when the people took back to the streets in recent years, he came out with them and told the youth, literally, that they had to "get all the bastards out".
The Battle of Algiers was a film made with a political purpose, not an abstraction high above the historic reality it depicted, but instead in the trenches alongside the people and their struggle. It can therefore only continue to shift and transform, with the ebbs and tides of that very struggle, and embody, in every generation, a new meaning.
In Algeria, many participants of the Hirak have pointed out that their fight is not only for civil rule, social justice, and redistribution of wealth. It is also a struggle to reclaim the memory of the revolution, stolen by the regime and turned upside down. Much like, in the period of the War on Terror, the film has been also been distorted.
Ultimately, the Battle of Algiers is, on the screen and on the streets, ongoing.
Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.
Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia
Have questions or comments? Email us at: email@example.com
Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.