This May, the French-German channel Arte produced and featured the documentary, Algiers: The Mecca of Revolutionaries. The title riffed on Amilcar Cabral, who led the war of independence against the Portuguese in Guinea-Bissau, and understood Algiers as the hub of national liberation movements. The regimes of Ahmed Ben Bella (1962-1965) and Houari Boumediene (1965-1978) provided financial, diplomatic, and ideological support to many leaders of the Third World.
Among the pilgrims in the film is Yasser Arafat in his signature kufiyah and sunglasses. He states, “We cannot say that Algeria is liberated as long as Palestinian land is occupied.” In 1967, the future Palestinian revolution was imagined in Algerian terms. Indeed, the FLN newspaper, El-Moudjahid, synchronized the Algerian revolution (putatively beginning on 1 November 1954) with the 1967 defeat: “The 5th of June is the 1st of November for the Arab World.”[iv] After all, a proud Algerian army had deployed to Egypt to fight in 1967. Shortly after their arrival, the soldiers returned to Algiers on the heels of a cease-fire that Algiers opposed.
The film moves us to the announcement of the 1967 defeat. Thousands of Algerians crowd the streets, militate for war, denounce Anglo-American imperialism, and sack the American cultural center. A dashing Abdelaziz Bouteflika (Algeria’s current president) laments the defeat. Seven years later, as President of the General Assembly of the United Nations, Bouteflika would recognize Arafat as an official head of state. Bouteflika would invite Arafat to deliver the historic speech in which he offered “an olive branch in one hand, and a gun in the other.” It was also under Bouteflika’s tenure that apartheid South Africa would be banished from the General Assembly. Algeria’s revolutionary credentials appeared impeccable.
The symbolism of 1967 reveals the parallels between two revolutions and their (frustrated) trajectories in Algeria and Palestine. Yet even though Algeria has been a synecdoche for so many liberation movements and Third World countries, the Algerian historiography continues to emphasize exceptionality. The problem is that historians know how the story ended. Bitter internal struggles, the emergence of a military elite, and a slide into corruption position historical writing in the shadows of the revolution’s failure. This is why the Algerian satirical website, Al-Manchar, posted a mock promo for the Arte film’s sequel, titled Alger: the Zawiya of the Corrupt, 1999-2017. The theme was a familiar one: a revolution betrayed and a rhetoric in tatters.
For historians of Algeria, it is 1968 rather than 1967 that draws the most attention. The role of the Algerian War has emerged as an important theme of histories of the “new left” that 1968 epitomized. Yet, European Marxists, or the pieds-rouges, who fought in Algeria in the 1960s mostly sought a blank canvas for their “scientific” socialism. And those Parisian students who chanted in solidarity with Algerian liberation turned a blind eye to North African immigrants relegated to the city of light’s shantytowns.[v] But here too we see a parallel. As Olivia Harrison has shown, the North African diaspora played a crucial role in constructing dreams of revolution.[vi] Thus, the years following 1967 saw two diasporas, Algerian and Palestinian, emerge as crucial sites for imagining the nation. In the Algerian case, it was the aftermath of revolution, in Palestine, it was the hope of revolution-to-come.
The question of the “wandering Jew” is also a main character in both Palestinian and Algerian narratives and imaginings. The influence of Zionism was less direct for Jewish Algerians, who largely left for France, than it was for Jewish Moroccans. Algerian Jews were suspended between the two poles of the settler colony. They occupied a position beneath the Christian pieds-noirs but above the Muslims. The paradigmatic colony of Algeria has been a crucial site for philosophers and scholars to ponder Palestine and the processes that unties both places: settler colonialism.
Finally, 1967 signaled the demise of Nasserism and the rise of an auto-critique that led to new thinking about “crisis” in the Arab world. Shortly after the Six Day War, the Algerian intellectual Malek Bennabi, expanded on his earlier notion of “colonizability” (colonisabilité). He wrote:
The hour of truth rings for the Arab world, as it rang for Europe in June 1940… this is an exceptional opportunity in the tragic situation that the Arab world finds itself in, which is to settle accounts with itself and to get to the base of the problem. If the Arab world did a moral inventory, if it searched in the far reaches of itself, if it examined its consciousness without indulgence, a miracle would follow its mea-culpa and astonish the entire world, as well as the Arab world itself.[vii]
Putting Algeria and Palestine back in conversation can help us recover revolutionary time. It allows us to retrieve the radical potential buried under the hegemony of pessimism. We might recognize that hunger is a tool of radical politics and not just a state of physical want. We might see that want, dismissed as economic “unrest,” is rooted in conceptions of justice. Historians of Algeria know full well that present hopes are conditioned by past struggles. Much like in 1967, then, the past revolution in Algeria can still shed light on the revolution-to-come in Palestine, and beyond.