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The Story of African Independence – Tunisia and Morocco

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We dealt with Algeria in our last look at the Maghreb. Now we’ll look at Tunisia and Morocco – the 2 other countries in the region –  before rejoining Algeria’s tumultuous independence story in our conclusion.

Both Tunisia and Morocco were run as protectorates and were not as important to the French government who would always consider Algeria a part of France.

Muhammad VIII al-Amin, The Bey of Tunisia
Muhammad VIII al-Amin, The Bey of Tunisia

Under International treaty the French still kept the Bey of Tunisia and the Sultan of Morocco. Technically the French had resident generals (and not governors general) who were supposed to be attached to the courts of these leaders at their pleasure. In reality though the French ruled and these leaders were more of figureheads.

The Sultan of Morocco came into power when he was 17 and the French assumed he would be easy to control. But contrary to their expectations he was actually a devoted follower of Islam and incurred the wrath of the colonists when he voiced support for the nationalists. Furthermore, he would refuse to sign French decrees, which then put the government in deadlock, because his signature was still needed before anything could be done.

Sultan of Morocco, TIME cover April 1957
Sultan of Morocco, Mohammed V, TIME cover April 1957

The French then stirred dissension among his rivals and encouraged them to protest the Sultan. Under pretext of all the upheaval caused the Sultan was exiled and his uncle put in his place. But this only granted him cult-status among his people and united everyone against the pieds noirs.

Meanwhile in Tunisia, the Bey was a very eccentric figure, and rather than get involved with politics and the nationalists’ call for independence he would spend time with his clocks and with alchemy sets in his lab. A revolution of ideas was thus never going to come from him. Instead it came from a powerful middle class movement led by Habib Bourguiba, a lawyer who trained in Paris and who was married to a Frenchwoman.

Bourguiba and JFK
Bourguiba and JFK

So struggle in both Tunisia and Morocco was on 2 fronts – the nationalists wanted independence, but the white pieds noirs wanted representation in government, which their Algerian counterparts enjoyed. The numbers of the colons were also growing, though in no way as large as in Algeria.

By the 50’s internal struggle from militant nationalists prompted the French to cut their losses in favour of concentrating efforts to keep Algeria at all costs.

Morocco and Tunisia were granted independence in March 1956 and the Sultan reinstated and formally recognised as His Majesty Mohammed V.

For Algeria the country was to endure 6 more years of civil war, as the French would be ever reluctant to abandon all their investment in the country.

The pieds noirs in Algeria pressured the French government into increasing the troops in Algeria to 500,000. Also, in a breach of international law, they captured Ben Bella.

Ben Bella had been getting support from Mohammed V but was also open to negotiations. He was supposed to get a ride back to Cairo in the Sultan’s private plane but in the end had to take a commercial plane because there was no space in the Sultan’s jet. The French got wind of this and forced his plane down and arrested him. He would spend 5 years without trial in French jails.

The Sultan was infuriated and this pushed both he and Bourguiba of Tunisia more towards helping and arming the FLN.

In 1957 the FLN changed its focus of rural warfare to an urban war in the city of Algiers. Many died in assassinations and bombings and the pied noirs then retaliated in kind killing many Muslims.

Acknowledging the deteriorating state of affairs in his country the governor-general, Robert Lacoste, effectively handed over power to the military.

Now under the command of one General Jacques Massu, a veteran combat officer, new regiments of paratroops were moved in from France, and Algeria effectively became a police state.

General Massu
General Massu

Muslim areas were cordoned off with barbed wire and subjected to searchlights, and became more like a prisoner of war camp – the kind reminiscent during Nazi Germany’s occupation of France.

In his letter of resignation the Algiers police secretary-general, Paul Teitgen, condemned the torture used by the military, comparing it to the methods he’d suffered as a prisoner of the Gestapo during World War 2.

The gégène became a favoured method of torture with the military and referred to generators that delivered electric shocks to prisoners. Another much used method of torture was mock drowning. It is estimated that more than 3,000 Muslims went missing during that time.

International outcry on the situation grew steadily but the French now had yet another reason to remain in Algeria: oil, and by 1958 the first exports started to head for France.

Meanwhile the FLN effectively had been driven out of Algeria and made their new base in Bourguiba’s Tunisia. But the military set up a system of barrages – electrified wire fences, minefields, and radar that covered the border and made infiltration impossible. The FLN duly reported loses of over 6,000 men to the barrages.

While the military may have been successful in Algeria in mainland France there was so much suspicion, which led in the end to the fall of Guy Mollet’s government in May 1957. France went without a government for 22 days. In October and November there was again no government for 35 days.

As the politicians struggled to get their act together a leading candidate for leadership, Pierre Pflimlin, announced that if elected he would open up talks with the FLN.

In Algeria General Raoul Salan, the commander-in-chief in Algeria heard of this and was quick to criticize and threaten that the army wouldn’t stand for it. The army was at this stage getting more and more disenfranchised by the French politicians and were still angry about humiliating defeats in Indo-China and the Suez Canal backtrack from international pressure. They were determined then that Algeria remain a part of France.

General Raoul Salan
General Raoul Salan

The FLN then announced it had captured 3 French soldiers and would execute them in retaliation for executed FLN officers.

Outraged the pieds noirs, led by students, staged riots and took over the government offices in Algiers and demanded the military take over. Appearing in the balcony, Salan and Massu agreed to form a committee of public safety with pieds noirs representatives.

Finally forced into action by all the riots Pflimlin was voted into office and imposed a blockade of Algeria

In Algiers, the new Committee of Public Safety now demanded a return to power of the legendary wartime leader of the Free French, General Charles de Gaulle.

By 1 June, after 2 weeks of coup plots and tense negotiations, de Gaulle became French Minister. By 4 June he’d visited Algeria where he told the pieds noirs, “I have understood you!”

Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill
Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill

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