Al Jazeera World

The Algerian Revolutionary, Larbi Ben Mhidi

The Algerian is considered to be a national hero and symbol of the revolution that brought an end to French colonialism.

Filmmaker: Odai Alslaiti 

In 1962, Algeria proclaimed independence from France following eight years of war and over a century of colonial rule. Unlike the neighbouring protectorates of Tunisia or Morocco, Algeria was considered inalienable French territory, an extension of the mainland.

By the mid-20th century, over a million European settlers had the privilege of French citizenship in Algeria, while the Arab Muslim majority enjoyed few benefits from the French presence.

Larbi Ben Mhidi was a prominent revolutionary leader during the War of Independence. One of the six founding members of the National Liberation Front (FLN), Ben Mhidi expressed his desire to end the occupation through his writing, a stage production and ultimately military action, thereby bringing it to the wider world.

“Larbi said the moment of truth had arrived and that they had to take action,” recalls war veteran Abdelkader Lamoudi. So at midnight on November 1, 1954, the FLN declared an all-out war against the French.

Its armed wing, the Algerian National Army (ALN) had very few troops. But through underground networks and strategically targeted rebel operations against French military installations and economic interests, Ben Mhidi helped rally support across the country, demanding a free Algeria.

“Throw the revolution into the street,” he famously declared, “and the people will embrace it.” 

Throw the revolution into the street, and the people will embrace it.

by Larbi Ben Mhidi, Algerian revolutionary fighter

By 1956, Ben Mhidi had been made revolutionary commander in the capital, Algiers. He declared: “For each FLN soldier guillotined, 100 Frenchmen will be cut down,” and began the Battle of Algiers.

Based in the old city, the Casbah, Ben Mhidi continued successfully to evade the French and oversee an urban bombing campaign – until he was tracked down to an apartment in the European quarter on February 23, 1957, by a unit led by the Commander of the Third Colonial Parachute Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Marcel Bigeard.

According to journalist Montasser Oubetroune, when he was arrested, “his facial expression showed a determination that no one could destroy.” He lectured his captors with “a lesson in military ethics and international laws,” presenting himself as a military leader of the Algerian state.

Ben Mhidi was questioned by Bigeard for two weeks – but his refusal to crack under pressure earned him the respect of his interrogator. He was then handed over to Major Paul Aussaresses who took him to an isolated location outside Algiers where he was tortured and executed on the night of March 3, 1957.

At the time, the French claimed Ben Mhidi’s death was suicide – but Aussaresses (by then a retired general) revealed the true story of his death several decades later. In an interview with Le Monde in December 2000, Aussaresse said he had acted with the tacit approval of the French government. The following year he expanded on his account in his book, Special Services: Algeria 1955-57.

The book detailed his death squad’s beating of prisoners, use of electric shock on the genitals and waterboarding. He said he usually executed a prisoner whether they talked or not, often doing the job himself. He recalled rounding up 1,500 unarmed prisoners, almost all of them Muslims, then selecting “the die-hards” and having them shot, covering it up as suicide.

Aussaresses’ lack of remorse triggered a furore in both Algeria and France. Then-President Jacques Chirac said he was “horrified” and “the full truth must come out about these unjustifiable acts.”

“Nothing can justify them.”

Aussaresses was eventually stripped of his rank.  

The 1954-1962 War of Independence saw a death toll of 1.5 million Algerians. In the 1950s, the French deployed over half-a-million troops to Algeria – and, with the army left more or less to its own devices, torture and other abuses were common.

On September 13, 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged France’s role in the systematic torture of Algerian detainees and other atrocities during the Algerian War of Independence, as reported by Al Jazeera.

Larbi Ben Mhidi is still revered in Algeria today for his bravery and role in the resistance against French colonial rule, which resulted in independence five years after his murder.