Messali Hadj

Messali Hadj (1898-1974) is considered the founder of the Algerian nationalist movement, having first spoken the word "independence" at an anticolonial congress in Brussels in 1927. After leading the most radical wing of Algerian nationalism for more than a quarter century, he was left behind in 1954 by the new generation of men who actually launched the Algerian revolution.

Messali Hadj was born on March 16, 1898, in the western Algerian city of Tlemcen. He was the youngest of seven children in a traditional family whose economic circumstances were extremely marginal. He attended a Qur'anic (Koranic) school and also a local French primary school. But because his parents sent him out to work during his tenth and eleventh years, Messali was 18 years old before he completed the primary curriculum. That ended his formal education.

Just before his 20th birthday, Messali Hadj was drafted into the French army, where he served three years, mostly in the Bordeaux region. In France the young man was astonished at the vastly higher living standards of French peasants and working people. Army life exposed him to the order, discipline, and relatively higher status that went with military service, while at the same time embittering him at the institutionalized prejudice to which colonial troops were subjected. It was in Bordeaux, also, that he first became acquainted with Marxist writings and with the activities of the Communist-dominated French labor movement.

Upon his discharge in February 1921, Messali returned to Tlemcen at a time when Algeria was experiencing severe economic depression. Trying his hand at five different jobs in the commercial and manufacturing sectors, Messali was appalled at the conditions imposed upon him by each of these Muslim employers. After two and a half years in which his political sensibilities grew enormously, Messali moved to Paris, joining there the largest of the North African immigrant communities in France, which then totaled some 120,000.

The new immigrant tried several industrial and service jobs but finally went into business for himself, selling stockings at weekly markets in the environs of the capital. He married Emilie Busquant, a department store clerk and member of the French Communist Party, by whom he had two children, Ali and Djanina. His wife remained loyal to him until her death in 1953.

Culturally isolated and confronted with many material problems, the Algerian workers in France discovered that only the French far left demonstrated much interest in their issues and welfare. In June 1926, with Communist logistical and moral support, North Africans created the Etoile nordafricaine (ENA) as a political organization to battle for their rights and for amelioration of conditions in their homelands. Messali Hadj was secretary-general of the ENA from its inception and soon came to dominate it. In February 1927 he delivered the ENA's first list of "Algerian demands" to an anticolonial congress organized by the Communist International in Brussels. Most singular among those demands was a call for the independence of Algeria. At a time when French-educated middle-class Algerians were working for assimilation of their country into the French Republic, and when Muslim reformers were calling for educational and cultural renewal, Messali's call was truly revolutionary.

Membership in the ENA grew rapidly among the émigrécommunity. By 1928 the Communist Party terminated its financial support, partially because Messali and his colleagues demonstrated more independence than it was comfortable with and partially because the ENA's nationalistic agenda was not consistent with party priorities of the moment. When the courts outlawed the movement the next year, the ENA went underground. In 1930 Messali began publishing a newspaper, El Ouma, which achieved phenomenal readership and for the first time drew attention to his movement within Algeria itself. At the same time Messali was fine-tuning the rhetoric of his movement to include a blend of Marxist themes and popular Islamic themes that could resonate with the lower middle classes with whom he was most at home.

For illegally resurrecting the ENA in 1933, French courts sentenced Messali to six months in prison. When, in 1936, Islamic reformers and liberal assimilationists seemed on the point of reaching an accord with France's Popular Front government, Messali traveled back to Algeria for the first time in 13 years to register his objections. In a stirring speech delivered August 2 in the Algiers municipal stadium, Messali stunned and thrilled his audience by resoundingly rejecting assimilation. Thus he began the process of implanting the independence movement on Algerian soil. When the ENA was outlawed again in 1937, Messali founded the Party of the Algerian People (PPA). For this the authorities jailed him in August 1937, and he spent most of the next nine years in prison or under house arrest. As the 1930s advanced into the 1940s and France rejected one moderate reform initiative after another, Messali Hadj, even in prison, became the only alternative for the growing body of Algerians for whom the colonial status quo had become insupportable.

Freed in 1946, Messali founded the Mouvement pour le triomphe des libertés démocratiques (MTLD) as a successor to the outlawed PPA. Unusually tall, bearded, and always wearing the traditional jalaba with a tarbush or a red fez, Messali Hadj became the most potent symbol of Algerian nationalist aspirations. His organization, however, was soon riven by internal dissensions. These included divisions as to the relative merits of political as opposed to revolutionary strategies and arguments over the decision-making process and leadership, which in turn related to both ideological and generational differences. When, in 1952, Messali was ordered to house arrest in western France, intra-party communications worsened and differences between him and other party leaders grew. By 1954 disillusioned younger activists began deserting the squabbling MTLD, and by October they created the National Liberation Front (FLN), which launched the Algerian War of Independence on November 1, 1954.

The FLN called upon patriotic Algerians of all political groupings to rally to its banner. Most eventually did so, but Messali refused, going on to found his own Algerian National Movement (MNA). First in Algeria and then in France, MNA loyalists and the FLN entered into bloody, fratricidal battles, with the MNA gradually losing ground in both places. When Charles de Gaulle came to power in 1958, Messali Hadj for the first and only time in his life urged compromise between Algerians and the French. With his effectiveness waning, he was released from house arrest in January 1959 and settled in Gouvieux, north of Paris. There he lived until he died of cancer on June 3, 1974. Messali Hadj was buried in his hometown of Tlemcen four days later.


Further Reading on Messali Hadj

The most detailed study of Messali Hadj's life and career is Benjamin Stora's Messali Hadj, pionnier du nationalisme algérien, (1898-1974) (1982). His career is also discussed in John Ruedy, Modern Algeria. The Origins and Development of a Nation (1992); Charles-Robert Ageron, Histoire de l'Algérie contemporaine, Vol. II (1979); and Mahfoud Kaddache, Histoire du nationalisme algérien and Question nationale et politique algérienne, 1919-1951, 2 vols. (1981).