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Harbi, Mohamed (1933–) - PERSONAL HISTORY, BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS, PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:, INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS, THE WORLD’S PERSPECTIVE, LEGACY

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Mohamed (also Muhammad, Mohammed) Harbi is an Algerian historian who was a prominent member of the National Liberation Front of Algeria (Jabhat al-Tahrir al-Watani), often referred to by its French title Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). After Algeria achieved its independence in 1962, Harbi served at the cabinet of the Algerian president Ahmad Ben Bella. In 1965 when army strongman Houari Boumédienne overthrew Ben Bella and seized the power in Algeria, Harbi was first placed under arrest and then transferred to jail. Having managed to escape in 1973, Harbi made his way to France where he started teaching political science and history at the University of Paris. In 1975, he published a fundamental book on the history of the Algerian independence movement and the history of the FLN.

PERSONAL HISTORY

Harbi was born on 16 June 1933 into a wealthy family in el-Arraouch, Algeria. His father Brahimi Harbi was a secular-minded person who stood up against religious traditionalism and embraced liberal values. His father’s character, as well his high school teacher Pierre Souyri, an anti-Stalinist Marxist who participated in the anti-Nazi French Resistance movement, played a great role in the formation of Harbi’s vision of the world. For the rest of his life, Harbi was a libertarian socialist, which put him at odds with the majority of the Algerian political elite, either secular authoritarians or religious traditionalists. Moha-med’s father Brahimi was wealthy enough to pay attention to the education of all seven of his children and shortly after reaching school age Mohamed was put into a French-speaking school in Skikda, a city in the northeastern part of Algeria.

In his memoirs Mohamed Harbi notes that his childhood coincided with the years of national awakening and even though he did not attend the mosques and madrasa (a religious Muslim school) on a regular basis, he felt a clear distinction of his identity.

The French colonized Algeria starting in 1830. Although the massacres of 1945, carried out by the French army in Setif and Guelma against anti-French Algerian rebels, had little resonance in Skikda and el-Arrauch, these events contributed to the formation of a distinct Algerian identity all over the country. In the first volume of his memoirs, Harbi wrote, “I was an Arab and Muslim. I became also an Algerian. And from now on, the lessons of history taught at the French school were to slip on me as the water slips on a swan.”

In 1948, at the age of fifteen, Harbi joined the anti-French Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) and got involved in its underground activities in France, gathering support for the independence movement in Algeria. In 1953 Harbi entered the university of the Sorbonne in France and started studying history. While a student, he was elected to the position of the chairman of the North African Muslim Students (AEMNA). During his years at the university Harbi established contacts with various leftist youth organizations and some of his friends—notably Daniel Guerin—heavily influenced his thoughts, engraving Marxist and libertarian orientation in his ideological outlook. As time passed Harbi grew disillusioned with his Marxist friends in France. He later wrote in his memoirs: “I became one of the commercial travelers of the Algerian nationalism near the French left. I realized then what a little place the anti-colonialism occupied in their minds.”

While studying in France and participating in clandestine activities of the FLN, Harbi became acquainted with his first wife Gilberte Paignon, and fathered a child with her.

BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS

Name: Mohamed (Muhammad, Mohammed) Harbi

Birth: 1933, el-Arraouch, Algeria

Nationality: Algerian

Education: Sorbonne University, History Department

PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:

  • 1954–1962: Member of FLN, participates in different underground activities in France to support the national independence movement in Algeria
  • 1956: Starts working at the propaganda department of the FLN
  • 1957: Becomes the chief of the Information Service of the FLN in France
  • 1958: Leaves for Egypt in order to assume a cabinet position at the Provisional Government of the Republic of Algeria (GPRA)
  • 1961: Participates in the Evian negotiations between Algeria and France; Tours Africa in order to rally a support for the Algerian independence
  • 1962–1965: Serves as adviser to President Ahmad Ben Bella of independent Algeria
  • 1963–1964: Works as the editor of the magazine Revolution Africaine
  • 1965: Placed under arrest after Ben Bella’s overthrow and two months later transferred to jail
  • 1971: Released from jail, but placed under house arrest. Begins writing The History of the FLN , which he would publish after his escape from captivity
  • 1973: Escapes to Tunisia, and from there moves to France
  • 1974: Starts teaching political science at the University of Paris
  • 1975: Publishes The History of the FLN
  • 1975–present: Coauthors a number of books and articles; provides numerous comments and lectures regarding Algerian history and politics

The Algerian community was strong and influential in France, and its support for the independence movement was so significant that the FLN had to compete with another Algerian nationalist movement, called the Algerian People’s Party (better known with its French abbreviation PPN, Parti du Peuple Algerien). The PPN was established in France with the help of the French Communist Party, led by Messali Hadj, and was supported mainly by the Algerians living in France, rather than the Algerians living in Algeria. Harbi’s career at the FLN coincided with the period when it bitterly competed with the PPN, which led to café wars in France, accompanied by gang-style assassinations of each other’s supporters and street fights between members of the two organizations, causing about five thousand deaths across France.

INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS

Harbi made a rapid career in the structures of the FLN. He held different leadership positions in the FLN between 1954 and 1962. In 1956 he was forced to go underground and the same year started working in the propaganda department of the FLN. In 1957 he became the head of the Information Service of the FLN in France. He attempted to resume the dialogue with the French leftists of anti-Stalinist (Trotskyist) Marxist orientation. At a later period Harbi amusingly noted that the Trotskyists were confused whether they should support the PPA or FLN, trying to determine which party leader looked more like Leon Trotsky.

In 1958 Harbi left France in order to take a cabinet position with the provisional government of Algeria. Harbi settled down in Egypt and started working from there. He participated in a number of negotiations on the independence of Algeria during this period, beginning with the first round of French-Algerian negotiations in Evian in 1961. The same year he undertook a tour of African countries as a part of the rallying efforts for the independence of Algeria.

In July 1962, when Algeria finally gained its independence, Harbi became one of the close aides and associates of the Algerian leader Ahmad Ben Bella, holding the position of the adviser to the president of Algeria. In 1963 Harbi also took the position of editor at the magazine Revolution Africaine , which he kept until 1964. During the initial years of Algerian independence Harbi advocated strongly for internal democracy in the ruling political force and in the political system of the whole country in general.

In 1965, when the emerging military coup became a major issue of concern for the Algerian government, Harbi boldly suggested to the Algerian president Ben Bella that he arm the citizens of the country and stand up against the growing influence of the military. In June of that year Colonel Boumédienne overthrew Ben Bella. Directly thereafter, Harbi was placed under house arrest, and two months later, he was put in jail. The Algerian government kept Harbi in jail for six years without holding any formal trial of his case. In 1971 Harbi was again placed under the house arrest in his hometown of Skikda. During his years under house arrest, he started writing a memoir on the history of the FLN and the Algerian independence movement. Harbi managed to escape in 1973 to Tunisia, using a false Turkish passport. He then moved from Tunisia to France where he started teaching first political science and later history at the University of Paris.

The History of the FLN , Harbi’s first book, was published in 1975. His insider story about the Algerian independence movement and the history of the FLN widely differed from the official Algerian version of the events. Famously, he commented on the Algerian political system that “The Algerian government is not a state with an army, but an army with a state.” Harbi’s book turned him into one of the major enemies of the Algerian government. After the publication of his book, Harbi started receiving death threats from the Algerian secret services, the Algerian Islamic Militants, and the French ultranationalists, who were also dissatisfied with Harbi’s interpretation of the political events between 1954 and 1962. Different sources reported multiple attempts on Harbi’s life during 1970s. Despite this, Harbi was a successful academician in Paris.

Harbi continues living in France, publishing articles and coauthoring books with French scholars on the political life of Algeria.

THE WORLD’S PERSPECTIVE

Mohamed Harbi had a significant contribution to analyzing the formation and transformation of the Algerian political system since the time of its establishment. The divide between secularism and religious fundamentalism has been under the focus of his research, illuminating the recent political processes in the end of 1980s and early 1990s. Unlike many scholars of Middle Eastern politics, Harbi maintained the view that the authoritarian secular regime and the opposing religious fundamentalism were as much allies to each other as they were antagonistic enemies. According to Harbi, authoritarian secularism—namely, the Algerian army—and religious fundamentalism managed to squeeze the liberal political forces out of the scene, leaving Algeria with two equally unpleasant options: either follow the secular, but authoritarian, government, or help the fundamentalist opposition acquire political power, which would again result in having an authoritarian government.

LEGACY

Shortly after his arrival in France, Harbi established a reputation as a serious expert in Algerian colonial and postcolonial affairs. The interest shown by French academic circles in Harbi and his works could only partially be explained by his insider views of the Algerian independence movement and the FLN. Harbi’s adherence to the idea of establishing a secular democratic system in Algeria and his analyses testing the crisis in the Algerian political system in the late 1980s and early 1990s against the litmus test of the liberal democratic values made his works interesting to many contemporary historians and political scientists dealing with the Middle East and Africa.

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