Middle East Studies

Andrew Bellisari

Founding Faulty Member, Fulbright University Vietnam
Research Associate, Harvard Kennedy School

Switching Tracks: Decolonizing Infrastructure and Constructing Sovereignty in Algeria

Decolonization precipitated profound transformations of state sovereignty, yet independence in its most basic form still required mastery of the state’s most fundamental tools of that sovereignty: infrastructure. In the case of Algeria, functioning railways, hospitals, schools, and power utilities were vital not only for the former colony’s successful transition to independence in 1962, but also for its legitimacy as a postcolonial regional leader. Most accounts of French decolonization in Algeria argue that after more than seven years of war and the bitter exodus of nearly 800,000 European settlers, a newly independent Algeria was left without the resources or the manpower to function adequately. This book chapter looks at the logistics of decolonization to challenge such assumptions and re-evaluate postcolonial state formation in Algeria.

By examining how infrastructure and other state property previously managed by French colonial expertise was devolved to Algerian control after independence, this chapter reveals a history in which Algerian and French policymakers formed a precarious working relationship to ensure that essential services were maintained despite tensions between the former colonizer and the formerly colonized. In particular, it examines the case of the French Algerian railway company, the SNCFA (Société Nationale de Chemins de Fer Français en Algérie), which until 1970 continued to operate under French oversight despite majority Algerian shareholder control. By tracing the history of how the railway, its personnel, and its immense assets were managed in the post-independence period, this chapter aims to give tangibility to the logistical intricacies of imperial disintegration and demonstrate that technical cooperation with France, rather than a mere Trojan horse of neocolonialism, was actively sought out by FLN officials as a means to solidify political authority and construct Algerian sovereignty in the wake of war.

Andrew Bellisari is a founding faculty member at Fulbright University Vietnam and a research associate at the Harvard Kennedy School. His work explores the political, social, and cultural history of decolonization in French North Africa and Indochina. His current book project, The Loose Ends of Empire: Cultures of Decolonization in France and Algeria, examines the logistics of decolonization in French Algeria to understand how transfers of power work in practice and postcolonial sovereignty is constructed on a local level—from negotiations over museum collections to debates over how to keep Algeria’s trains running after independence. His work has been published in the Journal of Contemporary History and the Journal of North African Studies.  In Vietnam, he has begun research for his next project which explores the trans-imperial networks, trajectories, and personal stories of French colonial subjects from across North Africa, West Africa, and Indochina who fought against the Việt Minh in the French Far East Expeditionary Corps during the First Indochina War (1946-1954).