Saadi Yacef Fought for Algeria’s Freedom — Then Immortalized It on Film

Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film The Battle of Algiers immortalized Algeria’s fight against French colonial rule. But Saadi Yacef, who died last month at age 93, stood out among the movie’s stars, for he had also been a key leader of the armed struggle in real life.

National Liberation Front leader Yacef Saadi in May 2007. (Antoine Antoniol / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“It’s hard to start a revolution. Even harder to continue it. And hardest of all to win it. But, it’s only afterward, when we have won, that the true difficulties begin.” Former Algerian independence fighter Saadi Yacef wrote these words for Larbi Ben M’hidi’s character in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film The Battle of Algiers.

Like Ben M’Hidi, Yacef had been a key leader of the National Liberation Front (FLN) in real life. And when news arrived of Yacef’s passing on September 10, it was impossible not to think about how these lines captured all that he had lived through in his ninety-three years. They summarized the historical moments, transitions, transformations, and even defeats this revolutionary had faced — but also the difficulties the Algerian people continue to fight through today.

Serving the People

Saadi Yacef was born to a poor Kabyle family on January 20, 1928, in the Casbah of Algiers. He was one of fourteen children.

When he was just fourteen years old, Yacef left school and worked as an apprentice with his father in a bakery. A few years later, in 1945, the massacres of thousands of Algerians by French settlers and military forces across multiple towns and cities incensed the young man — and drove him to support the fight for national liberation. “While people were celebrating victory over the Nazis, the French killed more than 45,000,” he recounted.

These events motivated the seventeen-year-old Yacef to join the Algerian People’s Party (PPA), led by the father of Algerian nationalism, Messali Hadj. Fighting against a colonization process which had begun all the way back in 1830, the PPA was eventually banned by French authorities. However, its members, including Yacef, continued the struggle through Hadj’s reformed Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties (MTLD). Yacef joined the Organisation Spéciale (OS) — a clandestine paramilitary group within the MTLD — upon its foundation in 1947, before it was in turn disbanded by the French military in 1949.

Seeking to avoid the repression targeted against OS members, in 1952, Yacef moved to France itself. There, he was exposed to harsh discrimination against North Africans at the hands of French bosses and state officials, who benefited from the same racist practices and systems of social control that had been used to occupy and subdue his homeland. These experiences only radicalized him further, and by the time he returned to Algeria in 1952, his commitment to the resistance against French rule had intensified even further. Two years later, he joined the newly formed FLN, and, as an experienced former OS fighter, he became its military chief in Algiers.

In an interview late in his life, Saadi Yacef was asked why it was that Algerians chose to rise up in the early 1950s. He explained that following the failure of the French colonial government to reward Algerians with independence for fighting in the World War II as it had promised when recruiting them, “the time came for the people to make a choice and I was among a small group that decided it was time to declare war against France.” He asserted that “after one hundred and thirty-two years of colonization of Algeria we decided this was our time to move. So, we did.”

Battle of the Casbah

Once the armed struggle was launched, the Casbah — the capital’s old city, where Yacef grew up — became a key frontline of the resistance against French rule, now conducted under his own leadership. In 1956, following the assassination of FLN freedom fighters by the colonial state, as well as the killing of dozens of Algerians by settlers and police officers who set off a bomb in the Casbah, Yacef coordinated a series of counterattacks.

One of his most well-known strategies during the Battle of the Casbah was the recruitment of women, including Zohra Drif and Djamila Bouhired, both of whom became heroes of the revolution. These women were able to masquerade as Europeans and pass French checkpoints unchecked with handbags and baskets filled with explosives. The bombs were detonated in several public places in the segregated French Quarter — and raised the pressure on both the settler population and the French authorities to surrender. It was clear to everyone that this was only beginning.

Largely aided by his intimate knowledge of the Casbah’s narrow streets, Yacef established multiple secret passages between houses throughout the area — used for escape during attacks both on and by French forces. This also provided him with the perfect hiding places to facilitate visits to the capital by FLN leaders like Krim Belkacem and Abane Ramdane.

Following this period of heightened FLN activity, paratrooper commander Jacques Massu was sent to Algiers by the colonial government to deploy considerable violence, “win back” the Casbah, and reassert French control over the capital. In the months that followed, the battle turned to the advantage of the French as they systematically broke into homes across the Casbah and turned it into a military controlled zone. The 1957 bombing of a particular house, during which Ali La Pointe — a key FLN figure in Algiers — was killed along with other militants, including a child, marked the final defeat of the uprising in the Casbah. Saadi Yacef was arrested and sentenced to death.

Saadi Yacef as revolutionary leader El-hadi Jaffar (second from left) and Brahim Haggiag as revolutionary leader Ali La Pointe (right) in a scene from The Battle Of Algiers. (Rialto Pictures)

However, while this battle was lost for Algerians, the war for liberation continued, with eventual victory achieved in 1962 with the winning of national independence. The Battle for the Casbah was, and remains, a key symbolic event throughout the liberation struggle, which showed that it was possible to rise up, even in the heart of French power. As Yacef recounted decades later, as he reflected on the early days of the FLN:

We had a handful of people to start but then people began to join us. Old people, young people, women, all of these people joined us because they realized it was the time to do it. It’s almost like a war horse. It’s something that’s very quiet and calm until something incites it into taking action.

The eventual victory also delivered personal relief to the revolutionary. He escaped the guillotine due to a pardon of all political prisoners issued by Charles de Gaulle in the context of the independence negotiations.

From Revolutionary to Film Producer

It was during his imprisonment that Saadi Yacef wrote his memoirs on the Battle of the Casbah. While they were published in France, his recollections received no interest from filmmakers there. Yet they did capture the attention of Italian communist director Gillo Pontecorvo who, along with screenwriter Franco Solinas, translated his accounts into the internationally renowned film The Battle of Algiers.

Saadi Yacef produced the film and even played himself — though he gave his character the pseudonym Djafar. Often overlooked in mentions of the film is Yacef’s considerable contribution to every element of its production. During a commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of The Battle of Algiers, Yacef discussed how he had actually paid both Pontecorvo and Solinas to make the film:

I paid them half in advance and the balance when the film was done. They spent eighteen months in Algiers at my expense and they scouted the locations and really got to know the people.

Like Algeria’s independence movement and the ultimate French defeat, the film continues to resonate with many still struggling for liberation and justice around the world. The political impact of the cinematic masterpiece was clearly understood very early on — indeed, it was banned in France for five years following its release.

Over time The Battle of Algiers also gained the attention from the very enemies of popular freedom it was designed to undermine. In 2003, the Pentagon organized a screening in the context of the intensification of the so-called war on terror. It promoted the projection with a leaflet that read:

How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.

Saadi Yacef also understood the significance of putting together a film that has symbolized so much and inspired so many. When he was asked by a journalist whether making a film or winning a revolution was more difficult, he answered making “a good film” was harder. But he also emphasized the difficulties of building a new Algeria, adding: “You can kill someone but to educate him . . . that’s something else. And during the war we destroyed. There was an enemy and we killed him. Creating something is very difficult.”

Post-Independence Algeria

While lauded for his commitment to the Algerian struggle for liberation and the subsequent work he did in preserving its history, Yacef was not free of controversies following his release from prison in the early 1960s. Suspicion expressed by some of his fellow former FLN militants, including Zohra Drif, surround his escape from torture during incarceration, and then from his death sentence issued by the French.

Some have suggested that this was payment from the French colonial government after he had divulged information about Ali La Pointe’s whereabouts. Yacef denied the claims on multiple occasions, and made similar accusations against Drif.

In 1962, Yacef was appointed senator in the Council of the Nation, a position he held throughout the turbulent decades that followed as the military regime took power and set in, consolidating its authority and control over Algeria’s resources. This scramble for power and wealth was also paid for with the freedoms, and the lives, of the very revolutionaries that fought for the country’s liberation.

From Houari Boumédiène’s coup against President Ben Bella in 1965 to the bloody decade-long civil war, all the way through to Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s almost twenty-year presidential rule, the freedom that the FLN fought for with such determination was crushed under the weight of its own military power and its generals’ desire for more personal wealth. In these circumstances, it is difficult to know how to feel toward a figure who remained peripheral but nonetheless within the corridors of power. Unlike Djamila Bouhired, who suffered decades of ostracism and was written out of official histories because of her criticisms of the regime, Yacef appears to have made his peace with the new order quietly, in the shadows.

However, what many accounts of Yacef’s life and achievements published since his death have failed to mention is that he was removed from his post as senator sometime after President Bouteflika’s stroke in 2013. It appears that in this period, he became a potential threat to a regime that struggled to reproduce itself, or maintain a semblance of authority. Yacef’s revolutionary achievements made a mockery of the current ruling clique’s claims about their roles in the independence struggle. Even his silence was effectively a challenge to them.

Moreover, later developments appear to point to a more fundamental critique of the regime, which might have led to his removal. For example, protesters have documented Yacef’s presence during the early Hirak uprisings in 2019, which demanded the end of the regime. Mostly speaking in Darija (Algerian dialect) during a lively discussion with a group of men from multiple generations, Yacef — clearly highly revered by them — was asked what his message was to young people. “Cleanse your country, remove those people!” he passionately instructed them, referring to the regime. After one of the protesters inquired whether he was “with them,” he answered, “I was with you from the first day, before you even started these protests.”

He proceeded to tell them about how Bouteflika had aggressively thrown him out of the Council, removing his status as senator just days after he had spoken out against him maintaining power following his stroke. The clip went on for less than five minutes but somehow captured everything there was to say about Saadi Yacef. Nearing the end, following a short collective prayer, he starts to cry and urges the Hirak members, “Don’t let them take the country.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, Yacef fought to reclaim the country from the grip of French colonialism. That legacy and tradition of struggle lives on with the millions of Algerians who have been doing the same thing since February 2019, again fighting to reclaim Algeria — this time from the claws of a corrupt military regime.

Larbi Ben M’hidi told Yacef that he hoped not to live to see Algeria’s independence, having already predicted the power struggle that ensued among FLN leaders over who would lead the country. Such a sentiment makes a lot of sense, especially considering what has played out politically in Algeria since 1962. But the scene of an old Yacef debating among the participants in the Hirak highlights that while the “true difficulties” his character mentions in The Battle of Algiers did indeed come after independence, Algerians continue to confront them head-on.

Today, with the Hirak uprisings, Algerians are gathered, united in the hundreds of thousands, reclaiming their streets, their rights, and their dignity. To witness that desire, that drive, and that struggle is something that the ninety-three-year-old former FLN militant and commander undoubtedly felt was worth living long enough for.

The revolutionary legacy that Yacef helped teach us through his commitment to struggle, forever captured in his film, is best honored today by the chants of the Algerian people. For they are still demanding the fall of an oppressive system — and defying all those who maintain it.