The Battle of Algiers is a 1966 film that documents the violent Algerian uprising (1954-1962) against French colonial rule in the city of Algiers. The main Algerian character of the film is Ali La Pointe, a wayward and pugnacious youth who is politically and religiously radicalized in prison, eventually becoming among the leaders of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). On the French side, the dominating character is Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu, the paratroop commander whose hawkish principles lead him to adopt extreme counter-insurgency tactics. The film shows how despite being overwhelmed by the might and methods of the French military, the FLN was able to unite and mobilize a people towards self-rule and independence. The following (short) essay will analyze the conflict in The Battle of Algiers from a justice and escalation dynamics model.
The cause of the conflict in the film is the persistent injustice (i.e. oppression) experienced by the native Arab Algerians through colonialism and occupation. While this injustice is not always made explicit to the viewer, its reality is apparent in a number of ways:
1) Physical living space inhabited by the Arabs and by the Europeans. The populations are separated into two locations. The Arabs live compressed and impoverished in the “dark” Casbah – an old walled-in citadel. The Europeans, on the other hand, are living in a modern city by the sea: full of light, stores, buildings, automobiles and bustling with “civilized” excitement.
2) The type of occupations the populations are engaged in. The Arabs are mainly engaged in manual labor. When they work with the Europeans they work under them – as in the case of the Police Commissioner’s servant. The Europeans, on the other hand, have a monopoly over municipal and civil affairs. They also seem to have developed a strong middle class.
3) The condescending and arrogant perceptions/attitudes the Europeans have towards the Arabs. The French try to dissuade the Arab population from rebelling by reminding them that France has given them “civilization and prosperity”. Throughout the film, the French refer to the Algerians as “dirty Arabs” and “rats”. [Footnote:The dehumanization of the Arab Algerians is also apparent in the tapeworm metaphor in which Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu uses when explaining how one must defeat the FLN. Since the only way to kill a tapeworm is through decapitation, so too, his reasoning went, the only way to destroy the FLN is through killing their leadership. The image of decapitation alludes back to harrowing and radicalizing experience Ali had when he witness the beheading of an FLN activist in prison. In the end, both decapitations failed to deter the movement.] The insensitivity of the French settlers is also made apparent in the hedonistic and modern lifestyle they have imported into the country. [Footnote: The most salient example of this insensitivity was Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu’s naming of his counter-insurgency activities “operation champagne” (not only alcohol [forbidden to Muslims] but French alcohol.)]
Of course there is also blatant and widespread injustice throughout the uprising itself: e.g. selective suspension of legal rights and procedures and extensive use of torture.
All in all, before and during the uprising, we have a situation in which a group of people does not have equal access to the resources of the state and the inequality is strengthened through an ideology of entitlement and superiority. This leads to violent conflict which itself perpetuates and exacerbates the injustice that is already inherit in the structure of the relationship between the native Arabs and the Europeans settlers. As Morton Deutsch has written, “Injustice breeds conflict, and destructive conflict gives rise to injustice.”(67)
The problem with the injustice model, however, becomes apparent if we ask the question: Why did the uprising take place in 1954 and not earlier? According to the FLN the injustice of colonialism was felt for 130 years, so why did the rebellion take so long to manifest itself? Was it a matter of the straw finally breaking the camel’s back, or was there something more?
Part of the answer may be illuminated by the theory of relative deprivation. According to the theory, it’s not simply the objective reality of being deprived which determines how one (individual or group) is going to respond, but also the perception that one entitled to more than one gets. The comparison for the native Arabs is not only with the relatively affluent European society but also with other groups who gained freedom and independence (e.g. 1922 Republic of Ireland, India 1947, Indonesia 1954, Morocco and Tunisia 1956). Another part of the answer can be found in a change in the political opportunity structure that made itself apparent with the rise of the United Nations (which is referenced in the movie) and with the widespread process of decolonization across the globe.
Turning now to the dynamics of the conflict itself. It’s apparent that in the Battle of Algiers we have what Pruitt and Kim called an escalation brought forth by a “conflict spiral that is part of a larger contender-defender dynamic”(100). A contender-defender model is one in which escalation is traced to one party’s effort to change the status quo – if party A does not reach its goal through mild means it’s likely to intensify its efforts. Party B may respond by being passive or by escalating defensively. In the conflict in question, the Algerian Arabs wanted to throw off the yoke of colonialism and establish self-rule. When the French government did not reciprocate their calls for negotiations, the Algerians turned to violent tactics.
The conflict spiral model sees escalation as a consequence of increasingly heavier retaliation between the two parties. A vicious cycle was created when the Arab Algerians (as a consequence of the status quo) began attacking police and army personnel, in response, the French authorities engaged in collective punishment by blockading the entire Casbah and bombing a residential building; as a consequence, the FLN began bombing civilian concentrated areas, in response, the French suspended the legal rights and procedures of Algerian Arabs and called in the paratroopers, an elite counter-insurgency unit who tortured, terrorized (and tried to manipulate) the Casbah population as a whole.
Returning to the question of justice. The film ends with the elimination of the FLN leadership. The general and Colonels, satisfied with their work, myopically reflect: “At heart they are good people. We’ve had good relations with them for a hundred and thirty years … I don’t see why we shouldn’t continue that way.” Yet within two years hundreds of people rise again, and take to the streets stronger than ever. When asked by a French officer, trying to mollify and disperse the agitated crowds, “What is it that you want?“, a voice shouts back, “We want our freedom!” By 1962, after much bloodshed, the French realized that it’s no longer their interest to continue and deny the Algerian Arabs their freedom.