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The States of the Earth Today: The War in Iraq and the Independence of Algeria

Twenty-one years ago, on March 19, 2003, the United States invaded Iraq. Forty-one years earlier, on March 19, 1962, France withdrew from Algeria. In this essay Mohamed Amer Meziane, author of The States of the Earth, explores what we can learn from these intertwined temporalities.

Mohamed Amer Meziane19 March 2024

Credit: Saudi Arabian Oil Co.

Twenty-one years ago, on March 19, 2003, the United States invaded Iraq. Forty-one years earlier, on March 19, 1962, France withdrew from Algeria and a ceasefire was declared after eight bloody years of conflict between the colonial army and Algerian revolutionaries. On this day, March 19, I would like to highlight the coincidence between a war that is ending and one that is beginning, by showing that the former carried a hope that is perhaps still ours today: that of the full and complete liberation of the Third World and the Arab world with it. The war in Iraq and the war in Algeria are the histories of two failures which we might learn from today.

Why link these two dates and these countries? It is well known that the American army used Pontecorvo’s classic film The Battle of Algiers as a model for what its soldiers should and shouldn’t do in Iraq. What Iraq and Algeria had in common was simple: how to invade a country whose population was defined as Arab and Muslim. The counter-insurrectional techniques invented by the French military during the Algerian liberation war were used by the US army in different places, including Iraq. To understand why, one needs to delve into history. Algeria is not a colony like any other. It was the first province of the Ottoman Empire to be colonized by a European power. Because the Middle East was born of the disintegration of this same Empire, something of the history of the contemporary Arab world began being written in Algeria, from 1830 onwards.

Napoleon in Egypt

This story of colonial Algeria started in Egypt. In 1798, the governor of the first French Republic, Barras, sent a young general who once was his protégé, but was threatening to become his worst rival, to Egypt. Napoleon Bonaparte arrived in Egypt and famously proclaimed: “We are true Muslims”. Claiming to protect Muslims, Napoleon murdered thousands of people, in Egypt and in Jaffa, where people were shot and massacred by the French. The Napoleonic army invented many of the technologies that served afterwards in the Arab world. The very idea that one would liberate the people from a dictatorial regime – a central theme in the justification of Iraq’s invasion – was already deployed. It was not Saddam Hussein who was the target, but the Mamluks, an army of the Ottomans who ruled over Egypt. Before Bush, Napoleon claimed that he would bring freedom to the people by overthrowing oppressive masters. And this is how and why he oppressed Arabs: by claiming to act in their name and their own benefit, forcing them to convert to a new religion of liberty. When it comes to invading a country in the Arab world, armies are not the most innovative. They are haunted by histories they sometimes know of, as if they were deliberately speaking to their own ghosts. But somethings did of course change in the meantime. While Napoleon was hoping that he could turn the Arabs against the Ottomans to destabilize the latter and rule over the East, the United States overthrew a secular dictator who was the heir of Arab nationalism to protect themselves against… Islamic terrorism. And both failed.

The Barbarian as Threat

Once Napoleon was dead, some generals of his army were mobilized to colonize Algeria. The French State did not have to justify their war as the US did. But the legitimacy of their invasion of Algiers for most other European powers was inseparable from the idea that they would liberate the Mediterranean from the threat of North African piracy. Even Marx and Engels agreed with this very Christian divide between good and evil, as Bush would say decades later. The pirates were known as Barbary pirates and North African regencies as Barbary States. The very word “Barbarian” – though invented by the Greeks in Antiquity – was used as a way of separating the Christian civilized nations of the West from the hordes of pirates. And North Africa – from Algeria to Libya – was then the epitome of Barbarity because it posed a direct threat to Western ships at a time when the very idea of an “Arab world” did not yet exist. It would be impossible to bring history to the table without mentioning the British Mandate in Iraq, or what was then called Mesopotamia. But here too, Algeria is not far away. The British blamed Arab nomadism for being unproductive, as the French did decades before them. This justified dispossession, oppression, and apartheid. But the British did what the French have always been incapable of doing in Algeria: establishing a form of Arab Kingdom that seemed independent but nevertheless served their interests. 

Fossil-States and Energy

Nobody could tell the whole story of March 19, of both Iraq’s invasion and Algeria’s independence if one was not to mention fossil fuels. Indeed, a decisive feature of the British Empire’s action in Mesopotamia was oil. There was oil in what would later become Iraq and this energy would later determine the shape of the region. In contrast, there was no coal in Algeria. Phosphate was used as fertilizer in an economy that was predominantly agrarian. However, gas and oil were discovered in the Sahara, precisely as the colonial regime was about to be dismantled, during the Algerian war. Algeria was liberated only when the French States ensured that it would have access to the exploitation of gas and oil in the Sahara. It would also conduct nuclear tests in the area with dramatic consequences on the neighboring populations. Tensions were high when the Algerian State decided to nationalize oil production with the creation of the Sonatrach. In Iraq, before the invasion, oil companies were also national. After the invasion by the US, companies such as Chevron and BP were now in charge. It was not primarily about liberating women from Islamic oppression or fighting Terror but about the exploiting of oil. 

What do we learn from these intertwined temporalities? First, the ongoing presence of what I would call the military-fossil complex whereby the army of a State ensures that concessions to exploit fossil fuels will be given to private companies. States are fossil, as much as capital. While they protect our rights, they also pollute the air and threaten our lives. Secondly, that what we think of as religious conflicts or clashes between civilizations are often fueled by oil and gas. When politicians in the West talk about Islam, make sure to know what they think about oil companies. And if many Gulf States are leaders in the oil economy, it’s mostly because of the imperial history we just told, not because of Islam or “the Arabs”. Thirdly, we can draw a conclusion: there will be no coherent criticism of our catastrophic dependence to fossil-fuels without a strong antiwar strategy that refuses to murder innocent civilians in the name of either a nation or a God. We therefore need to explore the racial and ecological strata of our time by showing how the history of freedom in the so-called West in connected with the history of oppression in the Middle East and North Africa. We need to delve deeper into the States of the Earth, and analyze how the militarization of power and the securitization of society pollute the air we breathe and the water we drink. Violence is the midwife of the Anthropocene, both secular and religious.

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The States of the Earth

The States of the Earth

While industrial states competed to colonize Asia and Africa in the nineteenth century, conversion to Christianity was replaced by a civilizing mission. This new secular impetus strode hand in hand...