Revolution in Search of a Father: The Return of the Emir Abd el-Kader

By Mounira Keghida

In March of 1962, the French Republic and the provisional government of Algeria brought one hundred and thirty-two years of French colonialism to an end with the signing of a series of agreements, collectively known as the Évian Accords. The Algerian people claimed their long-awaited right to an independent state and to self-determination. As a new state emerged out of the ashes of French-Algeria, a clear path toward a political future was complicated by the lack of a political past. One of the remedies for this lack of clarity came in the form of a grand public, military-style ceremony. Algeria’s new position as an independent nation-state with its own history was amplified to its people on July 3, 1966 when the country welcomed the return of the remains of the Emir Abd el-Kader (1808-1883) from Damascus. This political event full of symbolic meaning was documented in the newsreel The Return of the Emir Abd el-Kader, a little over 9-minute short documentary film. Today an impressive audiovisual Algerian historical document, it masterly exceeded the constructs of its genre presenting not only the ceremony itself, but a patriotic biopic of the Emir as a heroic national figure whose legacy was significant in forging the nation.

The existence of the newsreel was very much a product of the political alignment between Algerian President Houri Boumédiene (1932-1978) and Syria’s Ba’ath Party. It served as a visual aid to explain to an overwhelmingly illiterate population the various objects displayed and the historical events that animated the Emir’s life: how a religious scholar came to lead a fifteen-year military resistance to the French invasion that began in 1830. It introduced him to the population as the founding father of the Algerian nation.  The ceremony was meant to fuse the legacy of the Emir Abd el-Kader to the governing leadership of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), the party which remains in power today.  In essence, it served to fuse the conclusion to the beginning of French colonization of Algeria. It bridged two crucial periods in Algerian history.

1827-1853: French Conquest of Algeria

As the newsreel explains, the French commercial blockade of all ports along the 600-mile coast of the Regency of Algiers began in the Spring of 1827. The military invasion began under the French Restoration of Charles X after three economically destabilizing years that weakened that society. Two years later, organized resistance to the invasion of western Algeria by the July Monarchy (1830-1848) centered around the son of an Islamic scholar.[1] The organized Algerian resistance to the French military campaigns brought to the fore a leader who would win the admiration of his adversaries and the world, Abd el-Kader.[2] As his father’s health declined, the religious figures of the tribes gave him the honorific Emir al-Mu’minin, or Commander of the Faithful. For the rest of his life, el-Kader was referred to as the Emir, or the Prince. 

French admirers of the Emir, both political and military figures, eventually secured a dignified surrender for him and his entourage, or smala (a word that would enter the French language). The July Monarchy promised him a home in the Ottoman empire and financial compensation for the loss of his lands under the condition he never return to Algeria. Instead, the group was caught up in the political turmoil of 1848 and were imprisoned by The Second Republic for four years at the royal chateau of Amboise, France. The local inhabitants of Amboise furnished them with all the material essentials like beds, blankets, and food out of a sincere concern for their welfare. On October 16, 1852, the new president, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, released the group in a ceremony captured in a now famous painting by Jean-Baptiste-Ange Tissier that hangs at Versailles. The Emir and his “smala” eventually settled in Damascus. The rest of his life was spent in a quiet contemplation as an Islamic scholar, but he continued his communication with European interlocutors.

The president of the Republic, prince Louis Napoleon (1808-1873) frees Abd el Kader, Amboise castle, October 16. (meisterdrucke.fr)

After 1954: Imaging an Algerian Nation

From its beginnings in 1954, the war between France and the Algerian people, given the atrocities committed on both sides, had the power to seize headlines throughout the world. Victorious at the war’s end, the FLN set about to harness the power of media in the service of building and defining a new nation-state. The government established Radio-Télévision Algérienne (RTA), which ran the country’s only national TV network until 1994; and the Office des Actualités Algériennes (OAA), which operated under the direction of the Ministry of Information to produce weekly newsreels.[3] In this era, the relationship between state organs was relatively fluid. Members of the government also hoped to capture the intensity of the independence conflict for an international public in the form of a feature film – seen as the true revolutionary medium of the age. Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo was invited to adapt a 1962 novel written in French prison by an FLN commander, Saadi Yacef, Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger. The result was The Battle of Algiers, or La Bataille d’Alger, an Italian-Algerian coproduction. From its first screening at the Venice Film Festival, on August 31, 1966, it was acclaimed for its hyper-realism and performances by non-professional actors and large crowds drawn from among those who directly experienced the events it recreates. It has been a fixture on critics’ greatest-film lists ever since.[4]  

As The Battle of Algiers was being prepared for its premiere, members of its film crew were released and dispatched by OAA to capture images from three days in July 1966, the country’s fourth anniversary of independence. Boumédiene had come to power through a coup d’état on June 19, 1965. Within the Cold War context, Boumédiene would steer the nation for the next twelve years through the labyrinth of post-colonial twentieth-century geo-politics. The Algerian state was a leading factor in the Pan-Arab and Afro-Asian movements, took on uneasy alignments with anti-colonial insurgencies and, most importantly, Boumédiene saw it as the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement .[5] As leader of the organization of the non-aligned nations, in 1974, Boumédiene called for a special session of the General Assembly of the United Nations where he spoke forcefully on the burden of the developed nations to aid the developing world. His address to the United Nations was the beginning of a program to address the lagging economic development of former European colonies by calling for fair prices on the raw materials. His strategy for Algeria had begun by the withdrawal from the constraints of the French-aid deals as stipulated in the Evian Accords.[6]

The newsreel opens with a dramatic view of a sizable military plane flanked by two smaller planes descending into Algiers’ airport. The narrator begins: 
‘Yes! It is a great day in our history,’ declares the Chairman of the Revolutionary Council[7] as the remains of our great hero Emir Abd el-Kader are being returned to Algeria. The Algeria he loved. The Algeria for which he struggled for seventeen continuous years. The Algeria which remained in his soul that shone with noble ideas and principles. He inspired its people and filled them with enthusiasm and determination to defend their land, to fight for their rights, to defend against aggression and fight against oppressors. 

It sounds almost as though el-Kader had fought with the FLN in the recent war. Boumédiene and other members of government are seen saluting the coffin draped in the new Algerian flag. The national anthem begins to play.[8] A cortege of thousands follows the coffin to the Cemetery of the Martyrs. There, it is placed between Larbi Ben M’hidi and Mourad Didouche, both prominent leaders within the FLN and early casualties of the French counterinsurgency war.

In the following months and years this newsreel appeared in movie theaters, on television and was shown at festivals throughout the Arabic speaking world, for it served an additional purpose. On the heels of the Boumédiene coup, the new state sought legitimacy through an extravagant display of the state-to-state cooperation that had allowed the return of the Emir. In Abd Al-Qadir and the Algerians: Resistance to the French and Internal Consolidation, historian Raphael Danziger emphasizes the two dimensions of the Emir’s struggle: an internal Algerian consolidation of power, even as he fought and negotiated resistance to French power. In 1966, Boumédiene found himself facing two analogous challenges. His fallen predecessor, the first president Ahmed Ben Bella, had been fortunate to have the political backing of Egyptian president Gamel Abdel Nasser, who had given the FLN significant material and political support. Nasser did not, however, support Boumédiene’s coup, and neither did many Algerian unions and university students. Internally, Boumédiene counted on the Algerian military. Externally, he had the support of the Syrian Ba’ath party, which reflected his own ideological mix of Pan-Arabism and Islamo-socialism. The theme of the 1966 independence celebration was the past and the future. The Ministry of Information announced the event in the national papers, radio, and television.[9] In recounting the life of Kader, the newsreel crew traveled to his birthplace in Mascara, then to Amboise, France and to Damascus, Syria. The military ceremony given in Damascus appears in the newsreel.

The Meaning of el-Kader

What did el-Kader represent to his contemporaries, a leader who had simply united the tribes or the “rightful leader of a nation,” as one French parliamentarian had proclaimed?  An initial string of victories catapulted the Emir to international headlines. As his adversaries interacted with him, French soldiers, priests, and generals, some captured and then freed by el-Kader, reported to Paris of the man’s great dignity, honesty, and humanitarianism, as well as his erudition and scholarship in multiple traditions. His French interlocutors recorded ardent attestations to his valor and intelligence. His negotiated peace treaties, first with General Desmichels in 1834 and then with General Bugeaud in 1837, are described by Danziger as opportunities to witness the political adroitness of the man. 

Some of the most powerful testimonials were published by the French deputy from the Seine-Inférieure, Amédée Desjobert (1797-1853), the leading anti-colonial parliamentarian of the July Monarchy. Desjobert incorporated the many letters he received from men in the field of war into his publications Question d’Alger: Politique, Colonisation, Commerce, 1837. Beginning in the eighteenth century, his study is an exhaustive account of failed and costly French colonial adventures, from John Law in Louisiana to Napoleon Bonaparte in Egypt. Desjobert concludes that the only honorable solution in Algeria would be for France to support what he called “Le système arabe,” recognizing el-Kader as the legitimate leader of the “Arab nationality.”[10]

Desjobert would publish three more books in the following ten years, as the July Monarchy repeatedly violated the terms in the peace treaties, choosing to escalate the war by applying the tools of scorched earth and massacre. Among Desjobert’s adversaries was the celebrated author of the Democracy in America, deputy Alexis de Tocqueville (1804-1859). As he prepared for his first visit to Algeria, as part of an official delegation sent to study the situation, he wrote to his friend Gustave de Beaumont, “[w]hile waiting, I am studying the large blue books on Algeria that the government has had distributed to the Chamber in the last three years. I am abstaining from reading any polemic that would confuse my mind; for this reason I put the books of Desjobert and company to one side. After having finished this study, I will try to [consider] the consequences of [our actions] since 1830.”[11]

Desjobert, unlike his adversary Tocqueville, was concerned with the moral dimensions of the conquest, as well as its effects on French society, politics, and economics. His arguments were especially bound in the greater moral question. When el-Kader surrendered, Desjobert published his final book and assessed the situation in the starkest terms by writing: 

we have physical force on our side. However, one cannot fight ideas, feelings and passion with soldiers… even after killing Kader, we will always remain the enemy of the religion and nationality of the Algerians and thieves of their property. They will always have the same interests, the same ideas, the same sentiments, and the same passions. After the death of Kader, another leader will emerge to represent those interests.[12]

Although forgotten in history, Desjobert’s words were prophetic. During the 1860 conflict between Christian Maronites and Druze in Damascus, el-Kader once again stepped into the fray by protecting thousands of Christians. The Second Empire recognized his bravery by bestowing upon him the Legion d’honneur, the highest French order of merit. He traveled back to France for the ceremony where it was clear he had reached the status of a global citizen and an advocate for peace. By the time Algeria sought to take the leadership role in the Non-Aligned Movement in the late-1960s, and the return of the Emir, el-Kader’s example of global citizenship appeared as a very worthy goal. Perhaps, the revolution had truly found its father.


Mounira Keghida is completing a doctoral dissertation at The Graduate Center, CUNY, and is a member of the Abdelkader Education Project (www.abdelkaderproject.org), an organization based in Elkader, Iowa, that seeks to teach global citizenship in classroom through the life of the Emir. Her research traces the physiocratic legacy in nineteenth-century France and its relation to anti-colonialism during the conquest of Algeria. It gives particular attention to the network of men surrounding deputy Amédée Desjobert. This article originated in the discovery of an archival newsreel directed by her father, Mahmoud Keghida, who, in 1966, was editor-in-chief of the OAA division within the Algerian Ministry of Information.

Title Image: Images from The Battle for Algiers. Credit: opendemocracy.net.

Video: Mahmoud Keghida. The Return of the Emir. Newsreel. OAA, Ministry of Information, Algeria, 1966. English subtitles provided by Blue Nile Translation Services.

Further Reading:

Byrne, Jeffrey James. Mecca of Revolution: Algeria, Decolonization, and the Third World Order. Oxford University Press, 2016.

Danziger, Raphael. Abd al-Qadir and the Algerians, Resistance to the French and Internal Consolidation. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1977.

Jansen, Jan C. “Creating National Heroes: Colonial Rule, Anticolonial Polities and Conflicting Memories of Emir Abd al-Qadir in Algeria, 1900-1960’s,” in History and Memory, 28, no. 2 (2016).

“Celebrating the ‘Nation’ in a Colonial Context: ‘Bastille Day’ and the Contested Public Space in Algeria, 1880-1939,” in The Journal of Modern History, 85, no.1 (2013).

Sessions, Jennifer E. By Sword and Plow: France and the Conquest of Algeria. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2011.

St. John, Peter. “Independent Algeria from Ben Bella to Boumédiene: I. The Counter-Revolution and Its Consequences,” in The World Today, 24, no. 7 (July 1968).

Endnotes:

[1]  In 1825, Abd el-Kader and his father had travelled to Mecca to complete the Haj.

[2] So great became Abdel Kader’s fame for resisting the French empire in his own time that to honor him, the founder of a town in Iowa named it Elkader, in 1846. This, as he was still leading the resistance to the French, and well before his later acclaim as a Muslim leader who saved Christians from a pogrom in Damascus.

[3] Roy Armes, African Filmmaking North and South of the Sahara (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2006), 39.

[4] The Battle of Algiers depicts the period between January and September 1957, when the French Army, led by General Jacques Massum, focused all of their efforts to halt the FLN on the city of Algiers. The government created the production company Casbah Films, headed by Yacef Saadi.

[5] A rich history, see Byrne, Mecca of Revolution.

[6] Jeffrey James Byrne, “Our Own Special Brand of Socialism: Algiers and the Contest of Modernities in the 1960’s,” Diplomatic History, 33, no. 3 (June 2009), 427-447. “The Evian Accords of March 12, 1962, were the culmination of years of arduous negotiations between the two sides, the crux being a grand bargain by which France agreed to provide very substantial economic assistance to the new state and to continue the Constantine Plan for a further three years. In exchange, the Algerians guaranteed the rights and property of one million pieds-noirs, agreed to lease to Paris certain key military installations (including atomic test sites in the Sahara), and granted French firms privileged access to the Sahara’s oil and gas” (p. 431).

[7] Boumédiene chaired the ruling council from June 19, 1965 to December 12, 1976. He died on December 27, 1978, aged 46.

[8] The refrain of the Algerian national anthem declares, “Algeria shall live! Be our witness, be our witness, be our witness!”

[9] Preparations described in detail by James McDougall, History and the Culture of Nationalism in Algeria(Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2006), 179-183.

[10] Amédée Desjobert, La Question d’Alger. Politique, Colonisation, Commerce (Paris: Chez P. Dufart, 1837), 307.

[11]Alexis de Tocqueville, Selected Letters on Politics and Society, ed. Roger Boesche, trans. James Toupin and Roger Boesche (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 142.

[12] Amédée Desjobert, L’Algérie en 1846 (Paris: Borrani Libraire, 1846), 13.

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