PolEcReMo. My Take

Movie Review: The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Posted in Movies by Ali Athar on April 9, 2008

It’s difficult to start a revolution, even more difficult to sustain one, and still more difficult to win one.

These were the words that defined the epic struggle of Algeria against the French occupation; captured meticulously on celluloid by Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo in his docudrama The Battle of Algiers. This 1966 black-and-white narrative was shot around the neighborhood of Casbah, in downtown Algiers, couple of years after Algeria gained independence from France in 1962. The gruesome recreation of French persecution of the Algerian populace to sustain control appalled the world and the film stayed banned in France for many years.

Many watchers will perceive Algiers’ vintage documentary style and finely crafted battle scenes to be actual war footage. In fact the realism of its skirmish settings became synonymous with guerrilla tactics of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The kidnapping and torture occurrences of Argentinean Dirty Wars were highly reminiscent of Colonel Mathieu’s methods of information extraction. Parallels were even drawn with the conduct of insurgents in the current Iraq War with FLN, the Algerian revolutionary group that fought the French. There was an official State Department screening of the film in 2004 to educate policymakers and intelligence officials about the urban warfare and stakes involved in it.

Based on the memoirs of Saadi Yacef, one of the military commanders of FLN or National Liberation Front, Battle of Algiers portrayed the resentment of the masses against the French colonialists that grew each day. The plot revolved around Ali La Pointe, an uneducated and unemployed youth, who became the symbol of revolution. His struggle inspired three women who stopped at nothing to emancipate Maghreb from the scourge of the west. Even the general public shared the mood of resistance, as women performed the traditional “ululation” after each tactical or moral victory against the invaders.

“Should France remain in Algeria? If your answer is ‘yes,’ then you must accept all the consequences.” This was the question Col. Mathieu asked the French people: Either we could glorify our colonial possessions or vindicate ourselves by ‘doing unto others (Algeria, et al) as we would have them (read Nazi Germany) do onto us.’ Sadly, the French chose the former and unleashed terror to tame dissent. Thus began the tit-for-tat; one force would launch attack on the other, which provoked revenge of greater intensity. But, the causalities of the deadly game were civilians: French and Algerian alike. State terror proved fatal and the French won the battle, but not the war. The seeds of discontentment were sowed, which eventually led to the expulsion of the French in 1962. Hail to FLN!

Alas, the euphoria didn’t last long. Three decades of FLN rule harbored corruption and obstructed democratic progress, which brewed antipathy towards the government. Casbah, the site of anti-colonialist forces now became the site of anti-establishment activities. However, this time the movement didn’t materialize in another form of Marxist-socialist revolutionary, but a religio-political entity called Islamic Salvation Front or FIS. Such was the popularity of the party that it won the 1992 general elections, but was denied to form a government by the military-FLN nexus. Thus, FIS resorted to guerrilla warfare; a period we now call the Algerian Civil War.

Gillo Pontecorvo visited Algeria in 1992 after three decades, and to his dismay the public vented anger on him for the European states indifference for Algerian military government’s suppression of political freedom and west’s mocking of the religion Islam. He had to clarify that he was a friend of Algeria and the director of one of the most important films about Algerian War of Independence; they say only an Italian could have made.

The Analysis of General Zia-ul-Haq in 1988

Posted in Military, Politics by Ali Athar on April 2, 2008

There isn’t much to discuss about the legacy of General Zia-ul-Haq’s brutal regime. The menace of sectarian violence, sacrilege of democracy, curtailing of political freedom, and embarking of Army into every spheres of life, are all attributed to eleven years of direct military rule. But such a scathing review didn’t come when the general died in a plane crash (or sabotage) on August 17, 1988.

Shahid Javed Burki, the former VP of World Bank and finance minister of Pakistan, had a softer opinion about Zia, when he wrote “Pakistan Under Zia 1977-1988” in the Asian Survey of October 1988. The Economist on August 20, 1988 also shared his constructive approach; “Zia the soldier has a decent place in the momentous recent history of the region.”

Burki’s analysis focuses on Zia’s economic achievement, his alliance with America to defend Pakistan from the scourge of communism, and his popularity amongst the “shurafaa” or the middle class, who were being sidelined by Bhutto’s socialism, and to whom Zia’s policies were directed. Burki doesn’t even criticize the regime’s Islamization policies and accredits them to Zia’s religious background and his true belief in Islamic reformation (these policies were later on debunked by General K.M. Arif, the deputy of Zia, as mere policy ploy by Zia to keep him in power). The author believes that if Zia started a political party, he would have surely won.

Being born in a poor Arain family that were historically farmers and not characterized as martial races by the British, Zia’s rise through the Sandhurst-educated Army echelons was characterized by the author as remarkable. His adherence to Islam throughout this ordeal and his avoidance of all worldly evils shows Zia’s aversion to not only the moral corruption but also the political corruption that plagued the nation from its birth. Thus, Zia worked or intended to work in the best interests of the country.

Burki contends that Zia’s political longetivity was not only the result of West’s support, as it is believed now, but due to his statesmanship and vision. Zia’s siding with the Americans in the heat of Cold War was his political genius and earned him respect from all over the world, with massive aid flowing in the country. Zia’s brilliant handling of the Army’s senior command did not lead to a single instance of coup within the Army, his main source of power. Unlike Ayub Khan, who made Yahya the military chief and was later overthrown by him, Zia made it a policy to keep the Army leadership in rotation, thus minimizing their chances of officers to create a following of their own. Even Bhutto’s hanging was a momentous decision; there was no political backlash, in fact none whatsoever during the eleven years of power, as long as middle class interests were protected.

It is ironic that the policies one leader sets into motion do not bear effect even during a decade-long government. Zia’s overt support of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to be the leader of Afghanistan after the communists was supplanted by Zia’s successors to support the Taliban, once Hetmatyar was out of the picture. The destruction it brought to Pakistan in terms of influx of millions of Afghan refugees and infiltration of drugs and weapons cannot be denied. The acceleration of Pakistani nuclear program by the Zia’s regime did bring us the bomb, but only at the cost of slapping Pakistan with economic and military sanctions, once the Afghan operation was over. These policies nearly declared our country to be a rogue state.