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Saadi, Yacef

By:
Jeremy Rich
Source:
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Saadi, Yacef

(20 January 1928–)

rebel leader and politician, was born in Algiers. His father was a baker of Kabyle descent, and Saadi was the seventh of fourteen children. Growing up he had no real opportunity—coming from a poor family—to obtain a formal Western education. By Saadi’s late adolescence he had become embittered by French colonial rule and supported Algerian independence. In 1945 he joined the banned Parti du Peuple Algérien (PPA) led by Messali Hadj. The massacre of tens of thousands of Algerian Muslims by the French at Sétif on 8 May 1945 horrified Saadi, and he swore revenge. His knowledge of the intricate narrow streets of the Casbah neighborhood of Algiers made him a valuable member of the PPA. In 1947 Saadi joined the Organisation Spèciale (OS), a faction of the PPA that launched robberies and attacks on behalf of Algerian independence. When the French military and police broke up the OS in 1949, Saadi moved to France. He stayed there and worked for three years, but by 1952 he had returned to Algiers. Once the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) launched the Algerian war of independence on 1 November 1954, Saadi joined the new guerilla movement. He hid top FLN leaders such as Rabah Bitat, Belkacem Krim, and Abane Ramdane when they visited Algiers. In June 1955 Saadi travelled to Switzerland on FLN diplomatic business and was arrested, while in transit, at Orly airport in Paris. He managed to persuade the French authorities that he would become a double agent and infiltrate the FLN. Though Saadi never intended to follow through on his offer, French officials fell for his ruse and freed him in September 1955. Saadi returned to action and became the head of FLN military operations in Algeria. Over the course of 1956 Saadi developed a very well-organized force of FLN soldiers and civilian sympathizers. He convinced masons to build a series of secret passages between houses in the Casbah neighborhood so FLN agents could attack and evade French forces. He also relied on force to kill or force out potentially disloyal Muslims from the neighborhood. Saadi sought out women as well as men to fight for the FLN, and his recruits included Zohra Drif and Djamila Bouhired.

When the French government had two FLN members executed in June 1956, FLN leader Ramdane ordered reprisal attacks. Within two weeks Saadi’s agents had killed forty-nine French male civilians. European settlers set off a bomb that left roughly seventy Muslims dead in retaliation. Larbi Ben M’Hidi, the FLN political supervisor of Algiers, encouraged Saadi to continue attacks on European civilians. Saadi ordered Drif and other women to slip into bars and restaurants to set off bombs. Ali La Pointe, a young agent, followed Saadi’s orders and killed a French settler mayor in December 1956. The French colonial government had paratrooper commander Jacques Massu sent to Algiers to crush Saadi’s effective campaign of terror in January 1957. When Saadi and Ben M’Hidi ordered a general strike in Algiers to back FLN efforts to discuss Algerian independence at the United Nations in January 1957, Massu used force to break the strike, and Saadi struck back through a series of bombings. The battle of Algiers between Saadi and Massu’s forces raged through February 1957, but French troops gained the upper hand—often by torturing FLN suspects. Saadi struck again by having a bomb set at the Casino beachside restaurant in June 1957, which killed nine and wounded eighty-five European settlers. Having barely dodged French capture in April 1957 he was finally taken prisoner, along with Drif, in September of the same year—shortly after meeting with French author Germaine Tillon. Saadi remained a prisoner until the Evian Accords of March 1962, which led to Algerian independence. Saadi was the main advisor to Italian film director Gillo Pontecorvo, who filmed The Battle of Algiers in 1966. The film immortalized the Algerian war around the world. Saadi remained an extremely controversial figure well into the early twenty-first century. Some critics claimed he exaggerated his own importance during the battle of Algiers, while he in turn denounced Drif and other former associates for betraying the original goals of the FLN. In 2001 Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika named Saadi a senator. He was one of the most well-known FLN military commanders in the war for independence.

Bibliography

  • Horne, Alistair. A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954–1962. 4th ed. New York: New York Review of Books, 2006.
  • Redouane, Kemel. “Yacef Saadi accuse Zohra Drif d’avoir ‘vendu’ Ali La Pointe.” Choufchouf.com. 22 January 2014. www.chouf-chouf.com/histoire/ yacef-saadi-accuse-zohra-drif-davoir-vendu-ali-la-pointe.
  • Yacef, Saadi. La bataille d’Alger. Paris: Publisud, 2002.
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