The Colonial Counter-Revolution: the People’s Revolution in Algeria (Hirak)

Brahim Rouabah challenges what is referred to as ‘the post-colonial’ era, instead he proposes a decolonial approach that refers to the ‘colonial counter-revolution’. In a detailed analysis of Algeria, Rouabah demonstrates the horizons such an approach unlocks and the new perspectives it allows to emerge.

By Brahim Rouabah

The 20th century was a century of revolutions. The process of decolonization, despite its imperfections, was undoubtedly one of the most significant turning points in recent history. The tide of peoples across the globe rising up to sweep away the structures of domination and subjugation to which they had been subjected for centuries constituted an unquestionably world altering force. This dynamic unlocked a wide range of new horizons and unleashed a plethora of emancipatory energies and liberatory political projects. Ranging from Pan-Africanism to Afro-Asianism, from Third Worldism to Muslim Internationalism, from Pan-Arabism to Tricontinentalism; peoples in the Global South rediscovered their voices and their power and were not afraid to use them.

A widespread conception of this history regards decolonization more as a point in time rather than a process. This misconception of historical time imagines categories such as colonial and postcolonial, colonized and independent, subjugated and sovereign as clear cut categories, and mistakes their analytical function for their actual empirical distinctiveness. An a priori commitment to thinking about history and historical time in terms of brakes, ruptures and discontinuities may do more to distort than to clarify. Approaching institutions, systems and structures of power that have been developed over centuries as phenomena that have lives as well as afterlives may help us to demystify the seeming incomprehensibility of the contemporary human condition.

It would be naive to think that the sovereignty of postcolonial states became absolute on the official day of their independence. It would be equally naive to believe that former colonial powers simply dragged their tails of defeat back to Europe and forever closed the colonial chapter of their history and opened a new page in which their former colonial subjects are now both perceived and treated as equals and deserving of equal rights.

The ‘Second World War’ and the process of decolonization blew the final whistle on the old colonial world in which the British and French empires reigned supreme. The United States was ushered in as the heir and torchbearer for this now centuries old racial capitalist colonial project.  In the context of the Cold War and the strong ideological and material competition presented by the Soviet Union, the survival of the colonial project depended upon the maintenance, and where possible, the restoration and improvement of the colonial infrastructures that had been erected and nurtured over, at least, the preceding four and a half centuries by Western European colonial powers.

The passing of this old colonial portfolio under new management and its integration into a neo-colonial and neo-imperialist conglomerate under US leadership – with the purpose of maintaining, and where possible, enhancing the supremacy of a transnational White European Christian aristocracy (Whiteness) over the world. As a process, this is what I refer to here as the ‘Colonial Counter-Revolution.

The Colonial Counter-Revolution 

Every revolution, as Sadri Khiari has observed, ‘is accompanied by a counter-revolution. It is almost a historical law.’ [1] The counter revolutionary calculus is almost always three-fold: 1) Counter-revolutionary forces, during times of political upheaval, ideally seek to enhance, deepen, and expand their control and advantages. This is considered the best-case outcome. 2) In the absence of the possibility for the former, the maintenance of status quo ante acquires the utmost importance and urgency. 3) Damage limitation is the counter revolutionary force’s last resort and least preferred outcome.

More often than not the first and third options tend to be the most likely outcomes. In the first case, not only does the counter-revolution seek to re-establish the status quo ante, but also to eradicate the capacity for revolutionary action. The opposite scenario is true in the third case. That is to say, revolutionary forces always seek to eliminate the conditions that lead to revolution in the first place.

The hostile takeover of old colonial architectures coupled with the newly created ones (e.g. the Zionist project) required a neo-colonial division of labor, in which the older European empires were to perform the functions of subsidiaries in their traditional spheres of influence (e.g. British Commonwealth, Françafrique, etc), while the US focused its energies on getting its ‘backyard’ (South and Latin America) in order. After relative success over a few decades, the colonial counter-revolution entered its second phase in the 1990s, triumphantly celebrating the fall of the Soviet Union whose rivalry had until then created the space for non-aligned politics.

The first half of the colonial counter revolution had a militaro-financial character. Stuck between the rock of odious debt traps and the hard-place of military/palace coups, the ‘formerly’ colonized world was to be governed through the carrot of ‘financial assistance’ and the stick of imperialist interventions and coups d’états. It would perhaps not be an exaggeration to assert that there have been more coups since the mid-twentieth century than in any other era of recorded human history.

On the ideological level, in addition to countering Soviet Communism, the colonial counter-revolution sought and continues to seek to crush, or at least discredit, any emancipatory political project and ideology, even when expressed in Westphalian term. The underpinning values common to all these global south projects – Tricontinentalism, Afro-Asianism, Pan-Africanism, Muslim Internationalism – included an awareness of a shared condition and common destiny, a sovereigntist/anti-colonial/anti-imperialist commitment to peoples’ self-determination, and a civilizational outlook anchored in an ethos of peace and justice rather than power as the only way to resist global imperial arrogance and exploitation and to create a better, more humane world.

The struggle to end settler-colonial rule in Palestine formed the basis of a strong ‘postcolonial’ consensus, and hence became the single most important target of the colonial counter-revolution. Normalization of the Zionist settler-colonial, racial capitalist project in some ways became the litmus test for assessing the progress of the colonial counter-revolution.

Algeria and the Colonial Counter-Revolution

The colonial transfer of power, in ‘post-colonial’ states, to minority groups or illegitimate royal dynasties and/or military juntas is hardly a point that needs to be demonstrated. Algeria’s anti-colonial revolution, despite its specificities, was no major exception to the general rule. Realizing it was swimming against the tide, the fifth republic in France opted for the strategy of infiltration as the most effective way to destroy the Algerian revolution from the inside.

On the eve of Algeria’s independence, De Gaulle, along with Nasser and Hassan II, propped up elements of the Algerian Liberation Army stationed in Tunisia and Morocco (the Frontier Army) with armaments and a group of highly trained Algerian ‘deserters’ from the French colonial army (DAF Officers), enabling them to be in the best position to take over the nascent Algerian state. At the helm of the frontier army, Col. Houari Boumediene who lacked in political capital and the revolutionary credentials and legitimacy that other historic figures held in the eyes of the struggle inside Algeria. The Colonel allied himself with Ben Bella and the DAF officers to make up for these short comings.[2]

The first post-independence act of this bloc was to crush a mostly unsuspecting interior army and to topple the then civilian provisional government of the Algerian Republic. This outside-backed coup, in the summer of 1962, was the foundational act of the ‘post-colonial’ Algerian state. The exiling of historic revolutionary figures such as Hussein Ait-Ahmed, Mohamed Boudiaf, Mohamed Khider and Krim Belkacem, to mention just a few, and the eventual assassination of the latter three provide a clear picture of the orientation of Boumediene’s regime. The execution of Col. Chaabani for opposing Boumediene’s favoring of DAF officers in the ‘The People’s National Army,’ the new appellation given to the ‘Liberation Army’, and his toppling of Ben Bella less than three years later, are also instances that demonstrate how Boumediene’s personal ambitions blinded him to the ways in which he played into De Gaulle’s hands and served, perhaps unintentionally, the colonial counter-revolution.

From the late 1980s onwards, a few years after Boumediene’s mysterious death, the top brass of the Algerian army mostly consisted of ex ‘deserters’ from the French colonial army, including those who fought tooth and nail for Algeria to remain a French settler-colony. For example, Gen. Khaled Nezzar, who joined the French colonial army two years after the start of the 1954 war of liberation, was made Army Chief of staff in 1988 in return for his leading role in the killing of over 500 Algerians in the massacre of 5 October  1988.[3] A post he would occupy for two years before being promoted to defense minister until July 1993.

Similarly, Gen. Mohamed Lamari who joined the liberation army in late 1961/early 1962 became Army Chief of Staff in 1994 and was to hold on to the post for an entire decade. Lamari admitted in an interview to the French Newspaper, Le Point, in 2003 that he participated in the Battle of Algiers. That is to say on the French side, fighting for Algeria to remain French.[4]

This sociology of elites is indispensable in understanding Algerian postcolonial history in general, and the last four decades in particular. It is all the more necessary when one takes into account the fact that seven out of the eight army generals responsible for the 11 January  1992 coup in Algeria were former officers in the French colonial army who had mostly joined the Algerian Liberation Army only in the eleventh hour.

The collapse of the Soviet bloc and the end of the Cold War annihilated the condition sine qua non for non-alignment politics. This ‘End of History’ moment and shift to global unipolarity also marked the beginning of the second phase of the colonial counter-revolution.

Within this context and with the ascendance to power of this officer class in Algeria, the 1992 coup against popular will marked a turning point for the Algerian state and army, as well as for their relationship to the Algerian people. The outward looking, anti-colonial and liberatory doctrine of the Algerian army was transformed into an inward-looking, sub-colonial, and repressive doctrine. The liberation army whose raison d’être was the defense of sovereignty and self-determination of the people was turned into an army whose function was to repress the people. The ‘enemy’ was no longer northern imperialist powers, but Algerians themselves.

Schooled in the French School of counter-insurgency, this officer class massacred a people it considered insurgent enemies, plundered and ransacked the country, mortgaged its natural resources, placed the noose of indebtedness around its neck and handed the other end of the rope to global colonial counter revolutionary forces in exchange for their support. In some ways a class of neo-colons came into being during this period. Having internalized a racialized hierarchy of humanity, these neo-colons have come to despise Algerians for constantly reminding them of who they are. In some ways, one can see both Malek Bennabi’s colonial co-efficient  at work here, and the deep psychological scars, identified by Frantz Fanon, that colonialism has carved into the colonized soul.[5]

Buying into a Hegelian master-slave dialectic and failing to realize that the game is rigged, this comprador class becomes unable to see the fact that, as house-slaves, their master’s recognition is a chimera and his reciprocity will forever outrun them. [6] The more a slave self-negates to please their master, the more disdain they solicit from them. As conveyor belts for northbound wealth and resource transfers, postcolonial comprador elites are stuck in a limbo between the popular hostility and lack of legitimacy they feel at ‘home’ and the insatiable appetite of their masters on whose political support and continued goodwill (jurisdiction over ill-gotten fortunes) they depend. As such they are condemned to an existence not dissimilar from that of laboratory mice running on wheels.

This state of alienation which comprador elites experience activates within them the defense mechanism of projection. The sensations of shame, self-hatred, nauseating revulsion that these elites feel lead them to violently project these pathologies onto the native nay-sayer. The constant accusations and defamation of revolutionary movements, opposition figures, and independent civil society actors as agents of foreign powers (la main étrangere) is a case in point.

Just like there is nothing juicier for a corrupt cop than evidence of an organized crime boss’ guilt, there is nothing more appealing to a global policeman than an illegitimate and corrupt comprador elite with blood on its hands, to blackmail. Except for its barefacedness, Donald Trump’s mob-like treatment of gulf monarchies is hardly a novelty. In fact, blackmail has been a key technology of global governance and a privileged weapon in the colonial counter-revolution’s arsenal all along.

Caption reads: The constitutional referendum is a trick to transform the Algeria of Martyrs into an Algeria of collaborators. 

Holding the crimes committed by this officer class, and its acolytes in Algeria,  in the 1990s over their heads, foreign powers twisted their arms and coerced them into making unprecedented compromises that, in some cases, can only be spoken of in a language of high treason.

Algeria Post-9/11

Since 2001, there has been the pledge of full intelligence sharing, guaranteed energy supply, opening up of the Algerian market for foreign capital,[7] cooperation with NATO, backing of the global ‘war on terror’, and allowing foreign intelligence agencies to operate in Algeria and rape Algerian women literally with impunity.[8] In addition, we have seen ever more concrete moves towards normalization with Zionism, resuscitating the French economy following the 2008 financial crisis, opening the air space for French neo-colonial wars in Africa and U.S. intelligence aerial gathering, providing logistical support for the French and American militaries in the Sahel.  Yet even these measures have not been enough to satisfy the voraciousness of the colonial counter-revolution.[9]

Dozens of accords, agreements and protocols of understanding have been signed with the US and France covering just about every sector, essentially rendering Algeria a neo-colony. Key to the military accords is the move beyond the already contested information sharing and exchange to actual joint operational arrangements. The Algerian military is being prepared to fight under the leadership of the French and American militaries in wars in which the military oligarchy, let alone the Algerian people, has no say over the determination of the designated ‘enemy’.

Under the banner of the ‘global war on terror’ and the US quest for ‘full-spectrum dominance’ as part of the ‘New American Century’ project, the colonial counter-revolution has intensified.[10]  It features a new Middle East and a new Scramble for Africa. For its current strategy, the US draw upon on a long tradition of colonial empires using native armies and regiments such as the East India Company’s Presidency Armies and the Algerian/Senegalese Tirailleurs, in the British and French empires respectively. Whether expressed in military language such as interoperability and multinational ops, the political rhetoric of ‘leading from behind’, or even the business lingo such as ‘outsourcing/subcontracting’, the reality remains the same. The colonial counter-revolution seeks to globally dominate and dispossess the natives by the natives.

A key target of the counter-revolution has been the dismantling of the liberatory political projects expressed from the mid twentieth century onwards. One of these core values is expressed in the doctrine of peoples’ self-determination and mutual non-intervention among Global South states. If, in the first decade of the twenty first century, the counter-revolution’s military engagement was accompanied with legislative interventions to ensure the introduction of counter-terror legislation in most Global South states, the second decade has been characterized by constitutional interventions, seeking to institutionally enshrine subservience to neo-colonial and imperialist designs. In Sudan, Egypt, and elsewhere constitutional amendments were introduced to allow their militaries to be deployed beyond their borders. Today, these militaries are used as cannon fodder in places as far apart as Mali and Yemen.

A new constitution

In Algeria, the currently proposed constitution does not deviate from this trend. Aside from the further concentration of powers to the executive[11] and the consecration of total impunity for state officials,[12] the most dangerous and widely contested provisions relate to the constitutionalization of the military’s supremacy over political life,[13] undermining the most central demand of the Hirak movement – for a civilian, not military state – and the placing of the Algerian military at the service of neocolonial powers.[14] Amending the constitution to allow the Algerian army to engage in ‘peace keeping’ missions beyond its borders, is the price required by the US and France for their continued support of the military oligarchy against its own people in revolt for over eighteen months. In the words of Mohamed Larbi Zitout, co-founder of the Rachad Movement, the junta’s new deal with its foreign backers can be summarized as follows: ‘Your army in exchange for international legitimacy.’

Having changed the Algerian military doctrine in 1992, the counter-revolution is pushing to change its fighting doctrine once again to perceive other Africans as the enemy. A hard feat to pull off considering that, over the last several centuries, objective threats have almost exclusively come from the North. The deluge of official visits, in recent weeks, by French and American officials (Secretary of Defense and head of AFRICOM) suggest that the results of the so-called referendum are a foregone conclusion and the deployment of Algerian troops, to start with, to places like Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso is only a matter of time.

French President Macron carrying Abdelmadjid Tebboune – currently serving as the President of Algeria – followed by the Algerian Army into Mali.

The intended humiliation baked into the symbolism of the choice of 1 November, the 66th anniversary of the start of the Algerian anti-colonial revolution, as the date for a ‘referendum’ on Algeria’s status as a neo-colony has not been lost on the collective consciousness of the people’s movement. The counter-revolution seeks to desacralize the foundational myth of the Algerian nation and destroy the symbolic value it has held in the eyes of the oppressed in the Global South.

Yet success of the colonial counter-revolution is not a foregone conclusion. The Algerian people are determined not to allow their army, which contributed to the liberation of the African continent more than half a century ago, to be used as a stick in the hands of neocolonial powers seeking to subjugate humanity all over again.

Algerians are aware of the burden and responsibility they carry. They are conscious of the fact that their ancestors, who brought an arrogant empire to its knees, were the authors of one of the glorious chapters in humanity’s struggle for freedom and justice. Algerians are cognizant that they were never forgiven for that and are confident that if their ancestors defeated global hubris at its peak, this generation, if needs be, is capable of doing the same against a fascism-ridden provincial state nostalgic for past glory and an empire in its twilight.

What the people’s movement has instilled in the Algerian collective psyche over the last 18 months is a self-determining attitude towards their future and destiny.  This renewed sense of ownership over their country, expressed through such slogans as ‘this is our country and our will shall reign supreme,’ carries a message of reassurance to the people’s ancestors: should the deluge strike again, the overwhelming majority of Algerians will reach for buckets and not life jackets. The military oligarchy and its foreign backers can be toppled once more by the mass movement.

Brahim Rouabah is an Algerian activist, co-founder and former head of the UK Algeria Solidarity campaign. He teaches politics at Brooklyn College (CUNY) in New York.

Featured Photograph: Image of Abdelkader ibn Muhieddine being held up during the streets days of Hirak. Abdelkader fought against the French invasion and occupation of Algeria in the 19th century (22 March 2019).


[1] Khiari, Sadri. “La Contre-Revolution Colonial en France : De de Gaulle à Sarkozy » Editions La Fabrique, Paris, 2009, p 206.

[2] The army of the frontiers was composed of Algerian Liberation Army (ALN) units stationed in Tunisia and Morocco, along the Algerian borders. These units were initially meant to provide logistical support and supplies to the resistance on the interior front, but later came to play a very different role. For a detailed account, see: Ferhat Abbas, L’Independence Confisquer (Paris: Flammarion, 1984). See also: Abdelhamid Brahimi, Aux Origines de la Tragédie Algérienne (1958-2000): Témoignages sur hizb França (London: The Center for Maghreb Studies, 2000).

[3] Nezzar, Khaled. « Mémoires du Général Khaled Nezzar, » Chihab Editions  1999.

[4]INTERVIEW: Le Général de corps d’armée Mohamed Lamari,” Le Point, Week of 15 January 2003 (n°1583), republished on on December 13th, 2009.

[5] See Bennabi, Malek, and Asma Rashid. “The Conditions of Renaissance.” Islamic Studies, vol. 40, no. 2, 2001, pp. 305–314; Fanon, Frantz. “Black Skins, White Masks”, 1952, and “The Wretched of the Earth”, 1961.

[6] Hegel, G.W.F. “The Phenomenology of Spirit,” Cambridge University Press, 2018.

[7] Rouabah, Brahim. « De-dramatizing Algerian Politics, » Jadaliyya, October 5th, 2015, , Last accessed on 10/27/2020 @ 4:20am.

[8] Ross, Brian et al. “Exclusive: CIA Station Chief in Algeria Accused of Rapes,” ABCNews, January 28th, 2009, Last accessed on 10/27/2020 @ 4:23am.

[9] Rouabah (2015).

[10] Joint Vision 2020. Last accessed on 10/27/2020 @ 4:29am.

[11] See, for example, Articles 91 and 92 of the proposed constitution. Journal Officiel de la Republique Algerienne Democratic et Populaire, (59th Year, n°54), September 19th, 2020.

[12] Ibid. See, for example, Articles 180 and 181 in conjunction with Article 92 .

[13] See Articles 30:4 and 31

[14] See Articles  31 and 91:2.


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