Making the Pilgrimage to the “Mecca of Revolution”: A Conversation with Jeffrey James Byrne on Algerian Internationalism and the Third World

Revolution, what revolution? In the spring of 2011, protests and revolutions rocked much of North Africa and the Middle East. Improbably, the immolation of a Tunisian fruit vendor triggered the collapse of regimes not only in Tunis but also in Cairo, the heart of the Arab World. Whether the cause was Twitter or deeper-seated socioeconomic dysfunction, protests cascaded throughout the region, leading to regime collapse in Sana’a, a civil war and eventual regime overthrow in Tripoli, and Armageddon in Syria.

Against this gruesome background, Algeria—Africa’s largest country since the partition of Sudan in 2011—remained relatively calm. Anti-regime protests forced an end to a state of emergency that had existed since 1992. But President Abdelaziz Bouteflika not only stayed in power but managed to establish, in 2012, a record as the longest-serving head of state in Algerian history. The stability was all the more surprising given that Algeria had descended into civil war in 1991 once the ruling FLN (from the French Front de Libération Nationale) effectively cancelled elections that would have delivered Islamist parties to power.

Yet Algeria’s position as a stable authoritarian regime in a region rocked by the mutual learning processes of one “Arab Street” from the other is ironic, since, as University of British Columbia historian Jeffrey Byrne shows in his recent book, Mecca of Revolution: Algeria, Decolonization & The Third World Order, the country’s identity was from its founding deeply tied up with its identity as a “pilot state” for anti-colonial revolution. After all, Algeria gained its independence from France in the first place through combination of guerrilla warfare against the French military and the deft diplomacy of twenty- and thirty-something diplomats-cum-revolutionaries operating between Peking, Moscow, and the United Nations. From 1962–1965, when revolutionary Ahmed Ben Bella served as President of the young republic, Algiers was on the itinerary of every self-respecting revolutionary group out there, from Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress to Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization to European Trotskyists. No less than Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born Afro-Caribbean intellectual who was the psychologist of colonization and decolonization par excellence, used Algeria as the basis for his works like The Wretched of the Earth.

Mecca of Revolution cover

What happened? How did an avowedly revolutionary state and champion of Third World solidarity become one of the Arab World’s most entrenched authoritarian regimes post-2011—all the while never officially disavowing its revolutionary credentials? In Mecca of Revolution, Byrne argues that the trajectory of the Algerian cause was symptomatic of bigger shifts within the Third World more broadly. Originally, he explains, anti-colonial movements like the FLN were forced by virtue of their colonial oppressors to operate within an “open” international society of liberation movements liaising with one another, as well as their (often stubborn) patrons in Peking, Cairo, and Moscow.

Paradoxically, however, once these movements gained power through the vehicle of the post-colonial nation-state, they turned toward a “closed” vision of international society centered around states, not transnational movements like the FLN, ANC, or PLO. Even the post-colonial or anti-colonial forms of internationalism that self-proclaimed revolutionary states embraced, moreover, like the Organization for African Unity or the G-77, took the nation-state for granted as the default form of political organization. Byrne’s, in short, is a rich and demanding story constructed on the basis of painstaking work in Algerian, Yugoslav, and European and American archives. The Toynbee Prize Foundation’s Executive Director Timothy Nunan recently sat down with Professor Byrne to discuss it, beginning with Byrne’s own personal journey to writing Mecca of Revolution.…

Of Nation-States and the United States: An Interview with Ryan Irwin

It’s hard to escape the conclusion today that writing about American decline is a growth industry. For at least the last decade, pundits have spoken of a “post-American century” in which, China, the BRICS, or the “Next Eleven” will constitute an alternative power center to Washington. Scanning global headlines, whether it’s the recently published The Governance of China (a collection of speeches on global governance by Chinese General Secretary Xi Jiping), Vladimir Putin’s assertion of a “Russian world” or the inauguration of the Eurasian Union, or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s pretensions to lead the Muslim World against an alleged upswell in anti-Islamic attitudes launched by Europe, the world does not lack today for leaders of global and regional powers claiming to articulate a post-American moment. Conversely, in the United States itself, neoconservatives like Robert Kagan argue that “superpowers don’t get to retire“–that the United States must re-assert itself globally around the world to respond to challengers like China, Russia, or Turkey.

Lost, however, in all of the debates about new powers or the reinvention of old ones is what exactly the American project stood for in the first place. What do we mean when we talk about a “post-American world”? About an international system of rules and practices anchored by Washington? True, look to the writings of pundits like Walter Russell Mead or Thomas Friedman, and you can find some articulation of this vision. Even then, however, it’s difficult to understand the roots of our current global system of economic and financial globalization secured by overwhelming American military might and the embedding of American power into alliance systems in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East. How did America, “the most belated of all nations” (Theodore Roosevelt), come to occupy such a dominating position in the international system? Why did American élites come to favor this style of internationalism, as opposed to flat-out imperialism and annexation of territory? Assuming this system is actually coming to an end today, challenged by the emergence of a multipolar world system, why didn’t the whole house come crashing down when faced with the Soviet challenge, the explosion in the number of sovereign nation-states through decolonization, or the collapse of Bretton Woods?

In short, understanding the present and future of American internationalism requires understanding its past–not only through the lens of America, moreover, but understanding how the American project interacted with exogenous shifts and shocks to the international system, too–the ebb and flow of German, then Russian power, or decolonization, for example.

Ryan Irwin, our latest guest to the Global History Forum

It’s for this reason that the work of Ryan Irwin, our latest guest to the Global History Forum, is so valuable. Irwin, an Assistant Professor of History at SUNY-Albany, writes on the United States in the world, but from an international perspective that makes his work unusual. As comfortable in U.S. national archives as in those of the United Nations–or South Africa, Irwin seeks to understand the trajectory of American power as it interacted with an international order of its making, but not always under its control. We were delighted, then, to sit down with him this winter to discuss his evolution as a historian, his early work, and his ongoing projects.