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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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The Story of African Independence – French Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia

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Our story on African independence continues with a look at the French colonies that make up the Maghreb: Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. You can see previous articles on Ghana and Egypt.

The Maghreb

France ruled Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia as part of their Maghreb, the Arabic name for North-West Africa and which means Land of the Setting Sun. But while Algerian territories (déparetments) were seen as a part of France, so that the northern territories of Algeria – Algiers, Constantine, and Oran – had equal standing with any city in mainland France, Tunisia and Morocco were instead governed as protectorates and were obliged by signed International treaties to actually act on behalf of indigenous rulers. So while the French Caucasian population of Tunisia and Morocco were just as vociferous as their Algerian counterparts they could not by law hold any real political power as the Algerian colons or, as they were also known, pieds noirs.

Inhabitants of the Maghreb are Maghrebis and are also known as Moors
Inhabitants of the Maghreb are Maghrebis and are also known as Moors

While France was proud of its Algerian colony and considered it a part of France the truth was that after 120 years of French occupation it was only a third of the population – the white pieds noirs class – who held all the power. They had a total grip on politics, agriculture, and employment and relegated the Muslim underclass, who made up a majority of the country, to extreme poverty. Of 864 senior administrative posts in the country only 8 were held by Muslims.

After World War 2 and during a grueling war in Indo-China with Vietnam the French government was unstable and prone to constant change between warring factions. No one wanted to risk alienating the support of the powerful Algerian colons and so little was done to bring political reform to Algeria. The polls were rigged constantly and for those seats that Muslims were allowed to win the colons made sure that the winners were always sympathetic to their causes.


The gulf between local indigenes and the pieds noirs was very large with the locals living in tin-can shantytowns called bidonvilles. The colons considered the local populace to be an inferior race and were extremely concerned at the way they grew in numbers with souring birth rates so that the population had nearly doubled in 50 years. There was mass unemployment and even those Algerians who could make it to France herself found that there were very little opportunities, and there they were mostly employed as unskilled labour.

A bidonville. Image from www.le-cartographe.net
A bidonville. Image from http://www.le-cartographe.net

With no economic and political power available to them the ground soon became ripe for political revolution:

Ahmed Ben Bella was a 29-year-old former warrant officer in the French army, and had received various awards for bravery in WW 2. He became a founding member of the militarist FLN (Front de Libération Nationale), and was dedicated to armed struggle.

Ahmed Ben Bella. Image from the Telegraph
Ahmed Ben Bella. Image from the Telegraph

In 1949 he would target the post office in a raid that would net his organisation up to 3 million Francs. But security within the FLN was lax and very soon the secret police infiltrated and tore them apart.

Ben Bella himself was captured and sentenced to 8 years in prison, but in 1952 he escaped by sawing off the prison bars on his window with a file that had been smuggled in a loaf of bread. He then escaped to Cairo under the protection of Nasser of Egypt.

Now free, he led the reorganization of the FLN. They formed a committee of 9 leaders, known as chefs historiques – 6 of these leaders were based in Algeria and 3, including Ben Bella, were based in Cairo.

Despite all the rhetoric coming out of Cairo radio about Nasser being a force for Arab struggle Nasser did very little before the war in arming the Algerians. They thus found themselves very ill-equipped in 1954 on All Saints day when they organised several raids on important government structures.

The raids were badly planned and very little damage was done, leaving the authorities to conclude the separate events were unrelated and not part of one big terrorist plot.

However, France’s reply was swift – troops were deployed from France and very soon the Muslim population was subjected to recriminations with Muslims being arrested indiscriminately.

French soldiers in Algeria during the civil war. Image from www.haaretz.com
French soldiers in Algeria during the civil war. Image from http://www.haaretz.com

Within a few weeks the FLN network had been broken up and many fled to a last stronghold in the mountains. With winter coming things soon cooled down and the colons went back to business as usual.

In the spring of 1955 the FLN renewed its offensive against the Algerian government, attacking what it called soft targets: Muslim collaborators. Hundreds were killed, tortured or mutilated, and again the French government sent in reinforcements so that the numbers of French soldiers swelled to 100,000, double their size at the start of the rebellion. The raids on Muslim areas became even more brutal.

In response the FLN announced a new rule of engagement – prior to the brutal recriminations in the bidonvilles (called ratissages) the FLN had opted not to hurt the white pieds noirs, electing instead to attack structures: buildings, installations, infrastructure – but now they would also attack the white populace.

Violence was now being carried out against whites: they were snatched from their motorcycles and slashed to death; in another incident grenades were thrown into a pieds noirs café; and in another FLN groups went from house to house killing everyone including women and children.

The pieds noirs themselves formed their own vigilante groups and went out killing Muslims. Official reports said over a thousand were killed by these groups though FLN figures give an even larger number: 12,000.

The middle ground was fast shrinking and even former moderates like Ferhat Abbas, known for advocating for peace and even married to a Frenchwoman, soon cast their lot with the FLN, believing that the French government was not listening to the plight of the average Algerian.

Ratissage is an exceptionally violent raid. Literally means to rake over
Ratissage is an exceptionally violent raid. Literally means to rake over

The unrest in Algeria forced the French to rethink their policy in the rest of the Maghreb – that is Tunisia and Morocco. Next time we’ll take a look at both countries and consider their fights for independence.

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