On this 5 July Algeria celebrated its 58th Independence Day, which was exceptionally important and grandiose in celebration, regardless of the current Corona crisis. President ‘Abd al-Mağīd Tabbūn and Commander Chief of Staff Sa‘īd Šanqrīḥa both had their fair share in the celebrations and commemorations, posing as the faces of the still not stabilized new leadership after the Bū Ṭaflīqa decades.

            Algeria is still witnessing protests by the same movement, which toppled the previous leadership, and it is only curbed by health safety measures by the Corona crisis. Regardless the best attempts to confront the epidemic it spread and accelerated in recent weeks. That already caused widespread accusations against Minister of Health ‘Abd ar-Raḥmān ibn Bū Zīd, whose post is seriously shaken, and the erosion of the government might not even stop here.

            Though it is reasoned with the safety measures, the drafting and the referendum of a new constitution, which was one of the cornerstone promises of President Tabbūn in the election campaign, was postponed indefinitely for after the epidemic. Which for many Algerians sounds as “to never”. The President held his first great interview with the state press on 13 June explaining his views from local to all regional matter, yet that failed to convince the majority.

            He, just like the state in such grim conditions and threatening regional crises, like that in Libya, needed something to unite the nation and raise moral. The celebration of this year’s Independence Day could indeed do this. As the most important guests arrived two days earlier, on 3 July.


Who was Sheikh Bū Ziyān?

            It was still in 2011 when Algerian historian and researcher ‘Alī Farīd bil-Qāḍī reported that the skulls exhibited in the Museum of Man (Musée de l’Homme – the museum of anthropology) in Paris were, in fact, the remains of Sheikh Bū Ziyān and his companions. Sheikh Bū Ziyān leads a revolt against the French occupation in 1849, only two years after the famous struggle of ‘Abd al-Qādir came to an end. Originally the uprising was caused by harsh French tax policies, it soon spiraled out to be an all-out war, and Bū Ziyān claimed himself to the Mahdī, the promised savior in Islam coming at the end of time. Such claims were not especially rare in North Africa with the example of 1881 in Sudan becoming the most famous and successful. That one for a short time managed to build an independent state. Such claim transformed Bū Ziyān from a local chieftain to a national figure, though his revolt confined to his home region, the walled oasis of az-Za‘āṭiša in the province of Biskra, where he held out for months before the French army managed to overcome them.

            The fury of the French, especially their leader General Emile Herbillion was so great that the oasis was leveled completely, and was never rebuilt. But the faith of Bū Ziyān and his companions was the most repulsive, as they, though were apprehended alive, were shot immediately, their heads severed and put into the display to terrorize the local population never to resist again. The process of gradual subduing of Algeria, which in 1849 was still not final, was sought to be eased this way. The remains of Bū Ziyān and many other local resistance leaders were taken to France after Algeria was incorporated into France as war trophies. Such gruesome details were the brutal reminiscent of medieval war, and for long was remembered as a sign of savagery by the French. Because at the end of the revolt not only Bū Ziyān but his whole family, including his 15 years old son suffered the same faith.

            These skulls were put into the display for the sake of anthropology between animal remains in the Museum of Man in Paris. Altogether they waited for more than 170 years to return. After long debates with the French authorities, thought the matter was close to the solution and was a scandal already in 2017, the end came this year. These were the war heroes, who returned to this year’s Independence Day. They were honored in the Martyrs Square and later buried there amongst the biggest heroes of Algeria. 24 martyrs were returned, but by all estimates, this is just a fraction of the remains still held in France.


A long process

            The state television made the best of the event to raise the national spirit, and emotions were understandably high. As one martyr’s descendant put it: “I was dead and returned to life”. And of course, Algerian leaders make their best to use this card once again with great effect. As Tabbūn put it directly to France 24: “We have already had half-apologies. The next step is needed … we await it”.

            Macron already promised a new relationship with former colonies in his election campaign, and in 2018 was ready to agree with Algeria as a sign of goodwill. It was due to the French authorities still reluctance to admit their actions that the process took so long. Though it is very hard to imagine that putting the remains of war prisoners in display in a museum would not have been followed by frequent apologies in many other cases. It is somewhat easier for Macron, as he is the first French President who was born after the Algerian independence, but for many, a full apology for the crimes of the occupation is still too soon. Much demanded, however, as the recent French activity in the Sahel brings back very dark memories.


It is not just about Algeria

            Not much attention was expected to this gesture outside Algeria, thought undoubtedly the details have shocked many and brought sympathy to the Algerians. Especially knowing how committed they were to many common Arab matters, like Palestine for example. But soon it turned out that not all these martyrs were Algerians. One skull, which was for long-only knows only as exhibit 5942, was of Mūsā ibn al-Ḥasan al-Madanī ad-Darqāwī. He was an Egyptian from the city of Dumyāṭ, who moved to Algeria, became a known scholar with a significant following, and joined Sheikh Bū Ziyān to be one of his close associates. He was one of the first ones to be executed and decapitated by the French, and his head was also in the display, before being transported to France.

Mūsā ibn al-Ḥasan ad-Darqāwī, one of the aids of Sheikh Bū Ziyān

            Though he became practically forgotten in Egypt, and even to a large extent in Algeria, his return now forms a new bond. In wake of the common threat of the Libyan crisis that is a strong reminder of the times were the boundaries between the modern Arab state and their inhabitants were far less rigid and many struggles were common. And he is not the only example of such kind.

            Possibly the biggest name of the Algerian resistance against the French is Emir ‘Abd al-Qādir Muhī ad-Dīn, who after several victories and peace accords broken by the French eventually lost his quest and had to surrender. Though he was promised to be allowed to leave to Egypt, only long years later could he leave to Syria, and he spent the rest of his life in Damascus. He served as an inspiration for the Druze revolt between 1925-27, known in Syria as the Great Syrian Revolution. Which was also fought against the French, and where the French had the learn the lessons of stiff Arab resistance once again. Much like ‘Abd al-Qādir, leader of the Syrian Revolution Sulṭān al-Aṭraš learned to appeal to a much larger audience as his own tribe or local community, and thus became one of the forerunners of the national spirit.

Sulṭān al-Aṭraš, leader of the Great Syrian Revolution 1925-27, who also fought against the French.

            Upon such memories, it is hardly surprising that Syrians and Egyptians were particularly active to support the Moroccan and Algerian wars for independence, and in return, these states sent their detachments in 1973 for the common war efforts.

            In our time, when Arab national spirit is the lowest for decades, much due to the “Arab Spring” in which certain Arab states were the most active to topple the government of others, these memories are important. They have special echo for the future, though strangely it is seldom capitalized on.


Not healing wounds

            Naturally, all this parade and military fanfare surrounding the burial of these martyrs have much to do with Algerian politics these days. Along with the continuous trials of the most prominent members of the “old guard” of the Bū Ṭaflīqa era, like former PMs ‘Abd al-Malik Sallāl, or Aḥmad Ūyaḥyā, such nationalistic gestures are all part of an attempt to consolidate President Tabbūn, as a leader of something new and a person to clearly break with the “corrupt” last decades. These are the themes, which indeed can unite the nation, at least to a certain limit. And Tabbūn clearly needs these gestures, as the Corona epidemic regardless all attempt has spread, even accelerated in the summer, there are pressing complications in Libya, which have very serious implications for Algeria, because of the Corona epidemic the referendum on a new constitution was postponed indefinitely, and the current leadership never managed to convince the protesters, who brought down Bū Ṭaflīqa, as the protests are still ongoing. In these context, Tabbūn very obviously needs such grand gestures to pose as a national leader. But that would be a mistake to brush off the significance of that event as a cheap political show.

            All notions of colonialism with all its lesser-known devastating implications are usually disregarded by in the West, as something of the past. A simple page in history that should have been stepped over by now. But rarely anywhere the memories of the past burned into the national consciousness as in Algeria, where the national anthem still says:

            “Oh, France, this is the day of accounting! Be ready to take the answer from us!”

            This has been for long an obsession in Algeria with France even peculiar amongst North African nations, which have their bad memories but managed to rid themselves from France in far better terms. Anyone who goes to the National Museum of the Muğāhid in Algiers can clearly witness the magnitude of the war of independence and French colonialism has in the Algerian national spirit. And it surely served its political purposes always with every new president proving his national commitment. But when we see that skulls of war martyrs still held in French museums and held in the display as unnamed anthropological samples that is a very gruesome reminder that this is still not the past. Many even in North Africa mock the Algerians as they cannot move on. But with such new revelations from time to time, and still ongoing French insistence not to apologize for war atrocities that are somewhat understandable.

            And Algeria is not the only place, where colonialism and occupation have very vivid memories. In many places of the Middle East, such memories echo painfully clear with the spread of American and Turkish military presence all over, like in Syria, or Iraq. And the severe economic sanctions, like the Caesar Act, is nothing new to many Arab nations. They are painfully familiar.

            It should not be forgotten that the last Arab countries gained their independence only in 1971, which well in our age. These were the Gulf states, which by now became the fastest developing countries and are on the best terms with the West. Given they never really had to fight for their independence, and they never really rearranged their relations to it that should not be a surprise that the rift is growing within the Arab world.