by Aly Jonas

The pen and the sword: Emir Abdelkader

La plume et l’épée : l’Emir Abdelkader

We often talk about Emir Abdelkader as we talk about a mythological hero. And yet, Abdelkader was much more than that: politician, scholar, military leader and symbol of Algerian resistance to French colonialism.

Abdelkader was born in 1808 in what is now Mascara, which was still only part of the “Iyela” (region) of Algiers under the Ottoman Empire. He is the son of a leader of a Sufi brotherhood and descendant of the Alawite lineage. His father, Mouhidine el Hasani, personally ensured Abdelkader's education.

The young Algerian prince was a gifted child. Between philosophy, Koranic legislation, literature and calligraphy, he early reached the rank of Taleb reserved for imams at 14 years old. Three years later, he had already toured the Arab-Muslim world and met the greatest scholars of the time. Abdelkader returned to Algeria towards the end of 1829, just a few months before the French invasion.

Abdelkader the Algerian

First, the resentment that Algerian villagers bore towards the Ottoman Empire dated back to the 16th century. The Ottomans had abandoned the Barbarossa brothers, who faced the Sultan of Fez and the Italian-Spanish invasion without reinforcements. These old resentments and the drift of the empire from the precepts of Islam had contributed to the division of Algerian territory. When Mouhidine and his son Abdelkader called for war against the French invasion, Algeria responded. Abdelkader distinguished himself by his military genius. The most notable victories at the start of the war were those of Oran in 1831 and Mostaganem in 1833. After a few successful offensives led by Abdelkader, the entire region named him Emir, prince of believers.

It was at this very moment that he proclaimed: “We have shouldered this heavy burden. Hoping to be the means to unite the greater community of Muslims. But also to put an end to their internal quarrels, to bring security to all the inhabitants of this land. And to put an end to all illegal acts perpetrated against honest people. We will repel and defeat the enemy who invades our homeland in the hope of bringing us under his yoke.” Having no other choice, General Louis Desmichels, commander of French forces in Algeria, negotiated peace with Abdelkader in 1834.

However, this peace was a political springboard for Emir Abdelkader. He took advantage of the truce with the French to unify the country. The new Emir rallied the tribes who had helped the French in the north, notably those of Miliana and Médéa. Then, with the tribes of western Oued-Chelif who had sworn allegiance to him, Abdelkader cut the French supply lines. Thus, he declared a new beginning of the fight for freedom.

Victory, to build a country

So, unhappy with Desmichels, who underestimated Abdelkader, France replaced him with General Trézel. The latter sent his troops into the marshes of the eastern banks of the Macta in 1835, in the middle of summer. Abdelkader dodged French troops for an entire day. And in a maneuver worthy of an experienced army, the Algerians took the French from the rear. The French troops retreated towards Arzew. This is where Abdelkader already had a garrison in ambush, the defeat of Trézel's troops was bitter and unexpected.

Then, Abdelkader continued his strategy of attrition against Trézel. For two years, the war of attrition began to displease Paris. The French government replaced General Trézel with Thomas Robert Bugeaud. However, Abdelkader was not inherently warlike, being a scholar first and foremost. His military power came from his ability to rally his troops and inspire them. Also, his image as a pious and modern man intrigued the French who thought they were dealing with some sort of tribal chief.

When General Bugeaud encouraged Abdelkader to accept a peaceful solution, the latter did not hesitate for a second. Certainly, the treaty recognized French domination, but only in French. In its Arabic version, the Tafna Treaty recognized the sovereignty of the State of Abdelkader. And this, on all Mascara to the center of Algeria, from Badis to Algiers excluding the latter. Nevertheless, this period of peace allowed Abdelkader to realize his political project. It constituted a united state under spiritual authority, instead of a conventional nation. Furthermore, the Kabyles, Christians and Jews from the south, and even the few animists from eastern Algeria, joined his cause. Even the French deserters decided to join the Emir.

Furthermore, Abdelkader educated these populations in volunteerism and unconditional patriotism. Most state projects were carried out by residents independently. The army was half made up of Bedouin volunteers, who were formidable fighters.

A homeland that survives

Abdelkader's nation was being built at a pace that was too fast for the French. In 1839, the Duke of Orléans decided to break the Tafna pact. He led a large force from Algiers towards Mitidja, where Abdelkader was well located and had defeated French expansionist efforts. After several raids on French forward positions, in the context of the impending European peace of 1840, Abdelkader found himself facing an increasingly important colonial power. General Bugeaud had then become the very bloodthirsty governor of Algiers that history describes.

Abdelkader's letter to Bugeaud is enough to explain the new nature of the Algerian struggle for independence in 1841: "We will fight when we deem it convenient, you know that we are not cowards. », writes Abdelkader. And he adds: “To oppose all the forces that you have behind you would be madness. But we will tire them, we will harass them, we will destroy them in detail; the climate will do the rest.” He then finished with this sentence which marked his legend: “Do you see the wave rising when the bird touches it with its wing? It’s the image of your time in Africa.”

Indeed, Abdelkader held his ground, since the Bibans expedition and until 1846 he fought a force literally a hundred times greater than his own. After the betrayal of Sultan Abderrahmane of Morocco, which dealt the final blow to Abdelkader's army, the latter accepted the surrender towards the end of 1847.

Epilogue to the legend of the holy warrior

Abdelkader was imprisoned in France and moved from residence to residence, until Napoleon III became Emperor of the French. Napoleon released Abdelkader, under international pressure. Emir Abdelkader spent the rest of his life traveling, devoting himself to the study of Islam. From Constantinople in Syria, he wrote a number of theological, social and philosophical studies. His essays have been translated into twelve languages ​​from his experience, and still remain references today in terms of Sufi thought, philosophy and history.

Like an Arab knight from the dawn of Islam, he alone prevented the Christian pogrom in Damascus in 1860. His mere presence was enough to calm the bloodthirsty Druze. The nobility of Emir Abdelkader has earned him worldwide respect and timeless recognition. Like Saladin, he still remains a model of the rebellious man and the independence fighter. A man who mastered the pen and the sword.