From the War of National Liberation to Gentrification

Conflicting Claims over Property in Algeria

by Robert P. Parks | published August 10, 2018

On December 22, 2013, 40 families living at 11 Boulevard de la Soummam -- the Champs Élysées of the western Algerian city of Oran -- took to the streets brandishing banners and shouting slogans against one of Algeria’s wealthiest businessmen, Djilali Mehri. Mehri had acquired the building when he purchased a Franco-Algerian real-estate holding company, Société Immobilière Française pour la France et l’Afrique du Nord (SIFFAN), nearly twenty years earlier. Having recently completed the renovation of the prestigious art nouveau Royal Hôtel, just up the street, Mehri planned to redevelop the historical boulevard into a high-end market. To those ends, he had begun taking tenants to court for unlawful detainer, winning several high-profile eviction cases. The banner slogans and chants at the loud and intense but relatively small demonstration, [1] however, hardly seemed congruent with a protest for tenant rights and against a gentrification project. One banner read, “Mehri, a colonial servant.” Another bore President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s portrait, imploring him to beware “the return of French colonialism.” Another read “Mehri out [dégage], Algeria is no longer France.”

Banner hung outside of 11 Boulevard de la Soummam on December 22, 2013. Photo by author.

Residents and Mehri have been in a protracted battle over the rightful ownership of the building at 11 Boulevard de la Soummam since Mehri purchased it in 1995. But this sort of loud public claims making -- invoking the struggle for national independence (1954-1962) over beautiful art deco properties framing Hausmannian boulevards in 2013 -- might surprise textbook real-estate brokers, economists or lawyers. To an outsider, such graceful properties may inspire the quaint nostalgia of a bygone era. But to many Algerians, they recall the collective memory of the brutality of colonial repression. This is not to say that Oranis reject their colonial patrimony; indeed, many Oranis jealously celebrate it, as they celebrate the sacrifices and martyrdom required to wrestle it from the French in 1962. It is theirs, they fought for it and after independence they appropriated it. The voices raised and claims made in the December 22, 2013 demonstration over the ownership of 11 Boulevard de la Soummam are part and parcel of longstanding and sometimes contentious debates in Algeria surrounding colonial-era property. These debates are linked to a broader tension over collective versus individual rights to colonial-era properties abandoned by the French, occupied by citizens, nationalized by the state and now subject to varying strategies of individual appropriation (and asymmetrical layers of law) in the wake of the broader gentrification of Algerian urban space since the 1990s.

Colonialism, Property and State Violence

State formation, like the sequestration of property or creation of colonial property markets, is a process embedded in violence which manifests itself and functions unevenly across space and time. State claims to space and territory are often incomplete, illegitimate or simply viewed as non-binding to local populations. The violence used to assert those claims are experienced, lived and recorded by individuals and groups. Sometimes memories of violence and sequestration dissipate in the longue durée, especially when processes that radically and violently change the status quo are set into place and are maintained over long periods of time, or where members of the wronged community come to profit from the new situation. Other times, those memories are perpetuated in local lore, resented as a tort against a community or conglomerated with wrongs done to other communities, becoming collective memories of state violations.

Such was certainly the case in French Algeria, where Algerian individuals, extended families and tribes endured 132 years of the violence of military conquest and land expropriation. In 1830, France began the slow and violent occupation of Algeria. [2] Official state-sponsored colonial settlement began in 1848, a year after the country was officially “pacified.” Between 1848 and 1900, the French passed a coterie of laws that laid the framework for the legal sequestration and transfer of close to 2.7 million hectares (around 6.7 million acres) of Muslim land into pied noir (settler) hands. Native smallholders whose land had been sequestered worked on colonial farms. Algerians unable to find sufficient rural employment migrated to cities like Algiers, Constantine and Oran where they lived in segregated neighborhoods engaging in low-skilled manual labor. Their labor built Oran’s colonial center, replete with art nouveau, art deco and modernist buildings, including 11 Boulevard de la Soummam (formerly Gallieni [3]), an art deco building constructed in 1930 and owned by the Cohen family, a prominent local household at the time.

Boulevard de la Soummam, looking north with the Oran Chamber of Commerce on the right. The first building on the left, 9 Boulevard de la Soummam, was purchased and renovated by Mehri. The second building on the left is 11 Boulevard de la Soummam. Photo by author (June 2, 2017).

Colonial administrators in French Algeria went to great pains to mark their sovereignty over that land. To Paris, Algeria was France and thus in addition to carefully demarcating territorial boundaries, the government sought to “perform” a continuity of institutions and market practices from Paris to Tamanrasset, 400 km north of the Malian border. [4] To draw a settler population to legitimize those claims, France needed land a land market and property laws. Customary and sharia law, on which antecedent property regimes were based, needed to be erased to transform land from a socially bounded communal good into a commodity, Henri Lefebvre’s chimerical “abstract space,” in order for Armen Alchian’s “contract” to be good. [5]

Yet French efforts to totally erase antecedent social and legal institutions (and collective memory of those institutions) were unsuccessful. France in Algeria was fragmentary and variegated across space; the state had neither the administration nor the settler population to evenly occupy and fully transform Algerian space into “abstract space.” Colonial law, particularly property law, was to many Algerians merely a technical way to justify land theft and the destruction of local communities. Similarly, urban properties built by underpaid Algerian labor were seen as illicit fruit from those gains. Condemnations of the immoral theft of labor and resources adjoined grievances against institutionalized discrimination, arbitrary detention and lack of democratic representation. Unsurprisingly, many of the Algerians who took up arms with the National Liberation Front (FLN) against the colonial state between 1954 and 1962 did so with the re-appropriation of property in mind. [6]

Founded in Algiers in 1929, SIFFAN -- the Franco-Algerian real-estate holding company -- would go on to purchase 22 buildings in Algiers, Annaba, Constantine and Oran. In 1957, midway through the Algerian struggle for independence, SIFFAN registered as a share company in Paris, with investments from the Compagnie Lebon, an Algeria-based gas and lighting company. That company had expanded into real estate following France’s nationalization of electricity and gas in 1947. Its Oran offices, now the local headquarters of SONELGAZ, the Algerian state-owned electricity and gas company, were located adjacent to the Cohen property it purchased the same year. While SIFFAN remained in Algeria throughout the War of Independence, its title deed to 11 Boulevard de la Soummam literally went up in smoke in 1962 shortly after France and the FLN signed the March 19 Evian Accords which set the framework for independence. On June 14 of that year, the Secret Army Organization (OAS), a pro-settler terrorist group, torched the Oran Land Registry. The fire destroyed all records of properties registered in Oran after 1913.

Plaque on the front entrance of 11 Boulevard de la Soummam, likely from the colonial period. Photo by author (May 13, 2017).

Collective Memory, State Ownership, Individual Occupation, 1962-1981

On July 5, 1962, Algeria gained its independence from France. In the months immediately preceding and following independence, the majority of French Algeria’s close to a million settlers fled to France, abandoning factories, farms and their homes. Large settler cities like Annaba and Oran were emptied of more than half their population seemingly overnight. While many Algerians moved into vacated apartments, in contravention to an ordinance banning the illegal occupation of housing, others, like the inhabitants of 11 Boulevard de la Soummam, entered into contractual renter agreements with French landlords who stayed behind, [7] especially after the government reduced nationwide rental rates in February 1963.

On March 18, 1963, President Ahmed Ben Bella (1962-1965) signed a law nationalizing companies, farms and properties identified as abandoned (biens vacants) by their owners for two consecutive months after June 1, 1962. In 1966, under the leadership of President Houari Boumediene (1965-1978) regional governors (walis) were charged with identifying the biens vacants which were to be placed into a special holding fund created the same year. While many were effectively registered as vacated property, others fell through the cracks. Protected from nationalization were the properties of French companies, like SIFFAN, that maintained a legal representative in Algeria. In November 1963, SIFFAN registered its paperwork with the new Algerian state. In 1979, the company set about reconstituting the title deeds it lost in the 1962 arson, receiving an attestation of ownership from an Algiers-based notary. Those documents in hand, it re-registered with the Algerian Commercial Registry in 1980 and again in 1985.

The initial post-independence Algerian residents of 11 Boulevard de la Soummam generally had professional backgrounds as doctors, lawyers and accountants. Although the government fixed a ceiling on private property rental rates, rent was still considerably higher than in the state-owned housing managed by the National Real Estate Promotion and Management Office (OPGI). Consolidated from a number of regional public housing companies in 1974, OPGI initially managed state-owned properties built after independence. In 1984, the state transferred management of biens vacants to the OPGI, which became the largest landlord in the country. Already in 1966, just under 70 percent of Algerians rented state property; by the mid-1980s, 73 percent of housing units belonged to the state. [8] During the same period, the Oran OPGI branch and city municipality together managed at least 4,000 colonial buildings abandoned by the French.

While nationalization legally transformed the Algerian state into the country’s largest landlord, it had a hard time collecting rent, underscoring the tensions between collective (state) ownership and individual occupation of Algeria’s colonial real estate patrimony. A 1966 Ministry of Housing report showed that the majority of families could not afford to spend more than 100 dinars per month on housing. More importantly, families who occupied those buildings had their own sets of claims. The war of independence, after all, was about reclaiming both political sovereignty and property: To many, the blood and sacrifices of a million Algerians killed during the war paid all rent in full. The state, it seems, was either unwilling or unable to enforce its de jure claims on property that was de facto occupied by the population. Ministry of Housing figures on rent evasion 17 years after independence are telling: In 1979, fewer than 40 percent of Algerians made regular rent payments to the government. [9]

Privatization and the Tension Between Possession and Individual Ownership, 1981-2000

Amid a housing shortage in the 1980s, President Chadli Bendjedid (1979-1992) signed a law relaxing controls on the real estate market, granting private-sector access to state-owned properties including nationalized biens vacants. A 1981 law allowed individuals to purchase their state-owned habitation for highly subsidized prices on the condition that they had maintained regularly scheduled rent payments. A law, passed five years later, expanded the scheme to private companies, establishing a veritable private property market running parallel to the public sector. The new legal framework considerably reconfigured the political economy of housing. The acute housing shortage maintained pressure on the demand side, while creating great wealth for individuals with access to supply. The number of private contractors increased by more than 300 percent between 1977 and 1983, [10] responding to the growing gap in the value of real estate prices between the public and private sector. Between 1979 and 1987, the difference between the state and market price of real estate per square meter increased from 1:4 to 1:7. [11] Beneficiaries of the privatization program capitalized. Colonial-era apartments purchased at state-subsidized rates could be flipped at seven times their value on the private market.

The real estate laws of the 1980s created the core of a new post-independence bourgeoisie, contradicting the national narrative of a socialist revolution and affecting the fate of 11 Boulevard de la Soummam. Although most families had lived in the building for the same amount of time and came from the same socioeconomic background, only those who had been able to make regular rent payments benefited from the wealth accumulation possibilities enabled by the new privatization law, thus creating a resented class divide between them.

These parallel public and private real estate markets were thrown into chaos in the 1990s. In 1986, the international price of hydrocarbons bottomed out, forcing the government to significantly cut back in spending. The devaluation of the dinar in the early 1990s, [12] on top of close to a decade of negative growth, limited the ability of the average Algerian to purchase property. A sharp decline in government investment in public housing further increased both demand and potential resale prices. As property became more expensive for the average consumer, it also became a lucrative investment for Algerians with access to cash and credit.

Politically, the country was in shambles. Violent anti-regime riots in October 1988 pushed President Bendjedid to open the political system in 1989. Unwilling to let the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) -- the victor in the first round of the 1991 legislative elections -- take power, the military annulled the contest and President Bendjedid resigned in January 1992. The aborted electoral process provoked a vicious civil war pitting the state against armed Islamist groups loosely affiliated with the FIS, claiming from 50,000 to 100,000 lives. [13] One of the jihadi groups, the Armed Islamic Group, issued a statement on October 31, 1994, warning all foreigners (including naturalized French Algerians) to leave the country or face death. Like thousands of foreign citizens and companies, SIFFAN announced its intentions to leave Algeria by June 1994.

Worried for the future of their building and acting on a long-held desire to become owners, residents of 11 Boulevard Soummam made an offer to purchase their apartments, on the understanding that SIFFAN had owned the building since 1957. They currently contend that SIFFAN responded positively in a letter addressed to all tenants on July 28, 1994. Signed by the general manager, the letter stated, “We immediately agree, in principal, to your offer. I hope to soon materialize this agreement in Oran.” [14] The company’s next letter, dated March 25, 1995, announced Mehri, who had maintained long-term lease on the building’s parking garage, as its new legal owner. Apparently, the deal had been long coming, preceding resident-SIFFAN discussions in the summer of 1994. According to SIFFAN, the Mehri purchase was cleared by both the wali and the National Office of State Lands on June 14. It was registered by the Parisian Commercial Court on February 2, 1995, with the purchase notarized in Algiers in June 1996 and valued at 9,858,200 DA (US $206,758).

11 Boulevard de la Soummam, with the parking garage where Mehri had a long-term lease. Photo by author (June 2, 2017).

All parties agree on what happened next: Mehri announced an increase in rent, which on average had been 500 DA (US $9.00) per month prior to the purchase. Although likely exaggerated to create public outrage, one resident claimed, “As we were readying our purchase from SIFFAN, from which we rented and believed to be the owner, the building was given to Mehri, who promptly increased rent by 1,000 percent.” In 2006 and 2007, Mehri won two court cases to evict families who refused to pay rent. [15] Residents argued that because Mehri could not prove he was the legal owner of the building, he could not justifiably sue residents for back rent. They claimed to have received a letter on June 23, 2007 from the Oran branch of the State Lands Office stating that it could find no official title deed for the property -- unsurprising, as the deeds were burned in 1962.

Gentrification and Pieds Noirs, 2000 to Present

The story of the building might have ended there, had another issue not arisen in the late 1990s and early 2000s further confusing questions concerning occupant rights and ownership of former colonial property. As foreigners fled the country in the mid-1990s, pieds noirs, who fled in the early 1960s, began making claims on the Algerian state to restitute some of the estimated 250,000 properties [16] nationalized in the 1960s. Having failed to win a positive judgement on multiple occasions -- in Algeria in 1963, in France in 1988 and 1999 and in the European Court of Justice in 2001 -- a group of 600 pieds noirs pushed their claims as far as to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in 2004. Two years later, their case was rejected. The plaintiffs had not proven that they were unfairly chased from Algeria as a minority in 1962; their property had been legally registered as a nationalized good in 1963; they had failed to comply with Algerian law at the time; and they had received indemnities from France in 1977. For such properties, the door of restitution had been formally closed.

While all abandoned property had been legally nationalized in 1963, not all of those settler-cum-state properties were officially registered as such. As noted above, that task was incumbent on regional walis and was never entirely completed, creating new forms of contention over property, law and contested memories of rightful ownership. In the early 2000s, a number of former settlers began asserting legal claims on properties they had left behind. As they had never been officially registered as biens vacants, Algerian courts were forced to rule in favor of the former settlers. In several cases that understandably shocked public opinion, state-owned companies and political parties -- symbols of national sovereignty -- were forced to pay rent for their national headquarters to pieds noirs, while in the countryside, peasants who had been given usufruct rights on land farmed since 1962 were evicted. One claim has it that the number of such cases docketed reached 17,500 by 2010. [17] Article 42 of the 2010 Complementary Finance Law closed that loophole and pushed the government to engage in a thorough audit of nationalized properties. [18] Although still ongoing, in 2012, the General Director of State Lands announced that 24,300 unregistered biens vacants had been added to the list of state properties. [19]

To ensure his property would not be subsumed into the category described above, in April 2011 Mehri had his documents re-notarized, formally re-constituting documents burned in 1962. Just as he sought to formalize his claims, families living in the building formally registered the Association of Residents of 11 Boulevard de la Soummam (ARBS) and in 2013 began a campaign of loud claim making that included street protests, press conferences, alliances with civic organizations (such as the Oran branch of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights) and court cases, asserting the claim that the building had been a bien vacant all along. SIFFAN, they now claimed, had been illegally collecting their rent for more than thirty years (1962-1995).

In April 2014, the Oran branch of the State Lands Office again reviewed the dossier, declaring the building to be a bien vacant that had not been properly registered, but the ruling was overturned by the National State Lands Office two months later. In November, the ARBS sued Mehri for wrongful eviction, arguing he lacked proof of ownership. The Real Estate Chamber of the Court of Oran ruled in its favor, arguing that Mehri’s notarized document, while establishing a genealogy of ownership of the building, could not serve as an official title deed. That ruling was appealed, and on May 5, 2015 the Oran Appellate Court ruled that as an association, ARBS could not legally participate in cases regarding individual property claims. The battle is ongoing.

The affair is complicated by a legal ruse used by former settlers to claim that their properties had been incorporated into building cooperatives (sociétés civiles immobilières) prior to independence and hence were not subject to nationalization. While Article 8 of Decree 66-88 nationalizing vacant properties excluded the expropriation of corporate real estate, this decree only applied to those corporations with a continuous legal representative physically in Algeria and who were registered as such prior to June 1, 1962. While this may indeed be the case with SIFFAN, a number of high-profile legal battles around similar issues have gathered great media attention and provoked Algerian feelings of indignation, triggering appeals to the injustice of colonialism and the rights of Algerians to own properties they occupied after independence. In Algiers, the current honorary president of the Algerian League of Human Rights, Abdennour Ali Yahia -- also a former independence war combatant and cabinet minister -- is contesting the claims of a former settler company, the Algerian Real Estate Union (UNIAL), to the ownership of the building in which he lives. Ali Yahia claims his building is a bien vacant, while UNIAL asserts its continued presence in Algeria, and the State Lands Office is uncomfortably investigating the issue. That a collective of close to 100 well-known Algerian artists, activists and professionals have signed an open letter supporting Ali Yahia highly charges what might normally be a simple legal question. While the government supports a legal assessment of the issue, a finding in favor of UNIAL would surely inflame popular opinion. In cases such as these, moral justice linked to the memory of the legitimate struggle for decolonization trumps the law in popular opinion.

Looking at the story from the outside, the sudden claim that SIFFAN was never the rightful owner of the building, which was a bien vacant all along, might appear as a cynical ploy of residents of 11 Boulevard de la Soummam to invoke collective memory for individual gain. Indeed, since Mehri’s 1994 purchase, the state has poured billions of dollars into housing construction, and in Oran, millions of public and private dollars have been allocated for renovation. Boulevard de la Soummam, a gray, run-down thoroughfare in the 1990s, had been given a new lease on life by the mid-2000s. In 2000, Mehri began the renovation of the Royal Hôtel, reopening this sumptuous living museum in 2006 just prior to his successful court cases to evict tenants who had refused to pay rent. Further down the boulevard, the historic Cintra restaurant, where Albert Camus wrote The Plague, was renovated in February 2014. And buildings in between, including the Oran Chamber of Commerce, have been given facelifts, all adding to the beauty and value of individual apartments and buildings along that axis. According to some estimates, 11 Boulevard de la Soummam, purchased for just over US $200,000 in 1994, is worth at least US $5,000,000 today. As most residents claim to have electricity and water bill receipts, as well as receipts for rent payments to SIFFAN, they would be entitled to purchase their apartments at subsidized state prices should it be found, however unlikely, that the building is indeed a bien vacant. The title would then shift from the public to the private sector, creating a highly lucrative profit opportunity for the new resident-cum-owners, who could then sell their property at real market prices.

Invoking collective ownership of former colonial property for individual gain is not an isolated incident in Algeria. The widespread occupation of colonial-era properties and refusal to pay state rent in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, in addition to more recent examples -- including SIFFAN, UNIAL, and several cases of former colonial agricultural land claimed by tribes in the High Plains [20] -- underscore a consistently held perception of colonial-era property. When Algerians invoke the colonial period to justify access to land and properties whose value has exponentially increased as Algeria has become increasingly embedded in the international economy, they are not mnemonically reciting tropes and slogans of the past, as French president Emmanuel Macron seemed to have hinted during a recent visit to Algiers. [21] Rather, they are making a very clear set of claims based on collective memory. They are invoking colonialism in order to appropriate and claim the spoils of the Algerian war of independence. Specifically, they are asserting their collective right to egalitarian, individual ownership of what should have always been theirs: Un seul héros, le peuple (A single hero: the people). Algerian cities like Oran remain preeminent sites for this long and ongoing process of decolonization.

1. For more on wildcat demonstrations, protesta and other forms of loud claims making in Algeria, see Robert P. Parks, “Voter Participation and Loud Claim Making in Algeria.” Middle East Report 281 (Winter 2016).

2. Anywhere between 500,000-800,000 Algerians died in combat or from combat-related injuries, disease or famine during the first 18 years of French occupation (1830-1848).

3. Named after Marshal Joseph Gallieni, a notable French military officer and colonial administrator renowned for his counter-insurgency campaigns in Madagascar, the boulevard was re-baptized after independence for the location where Algerian nationalist leaders met in 1956 to organize the anti-colonial struggle.

4. Brock Culter, “Believe in the Border, or How to Make Modernity in the Nineteenth-Century Maghrib,” Journal of Economic and Social History of the Orient 60 (2017).

5. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991); Armen Alchian, “Some Economics of Property Rights,” Il Politico 30/4 (1965).

6. On similar anticolonial motivations in neighboring Tunisia, see the ongoing research of Cornell sociologist Max Ajl.

7. An estimated 200,000 pieds noirs remained in Algeria after the summer of 1962, although few survive to this day.

8. Figures taken from: Madani Safar Zitoun, “Spatial and social mobilities in Algeria: the case of Algiers,” Journal of North African Studies 18/5 (2013), p. 681.

9. Association Algérienne pour la Recherche Démographique, Économique et Sociale, “Les conditions de logement à Alger,” unpublished report (1966), cited in Zitoun, “Spatial and Social Mobilities in Algeria,” p. 681.

10. Robert P. Parks, Local-National Relations and the Politics of Property Rights in Algeria and Tunisia, Ph.D. dissertation (University of Texas at Austin, 2011), pp. 243-251.

11. Madani Safar Zitoun, Stratégies patrimoniales et urbanisation: Alger 1962-1992 (Paris: Éditions Harmattan, 1996).

12. One US dollar was worth 5.03 dinars in 1985, 8.03 dinars in 1989, 12.02 dinars in 1990, and 47.68 dinars in 1995.

13. Jacob Mundy, Imaginative Geographies of Algerian Violence: Conflict Science, Conflict Management, Antipolitics (Stanford. Stanford University Press, 2015), pp. 39-44.

14. Interview with building residents, June 21-22, 2017; “Un immeuble, un litige et un scandale à l’horizon. Retour sur la ‘bataille de la Soummam (1ère partie)’,” Le Journal de l’Oranais, October 10, 2014.

15. Claims widely vary on when residents stopped paying rent, and whether this was an individual or collective action during this period. Only three families have been evicted to date, perhaps indicating that others are paying.

16. “Alors qu’ils sont places propriété de l’État: La France tient aux ‘biens’ des pieds noirs,” Le Temps d’Algérie, November 30, 2015. “250.000 biens vacants des pieds-noirs récupérés par l’État / La réponse de l’Algérie aux anciens ‘colons’,” Algérie Focus, June 16, 2016.

17. “Contentieux immobilier entre le groupe Mehdri et les locataires du 11, boulevard de la Soummam à Oran: L’affaire réexaminée le 20 janvier,” Reporters, January 18, 2015.

18. Journal Officiel de la République Algérienne, August 29, 2010. Ordonnance n˚ 10-01 du 26 août 2010 portant loi de finances complémentaires pour 2010.

19. Sihem Oubraham, “Le DG des domaines Mohamed Himour l’a affirmé: L’État récupérera les terrains où des investissements n’ont pas été faits,” El Moudjahid, April 25, 2013.

20. James McDougall and Robert P. Parks, “Locating social analysis in the Maghrib,” Journal of North African Studies 18/5 (2013); Brahim Benmoussa, “An effect of globalization? The individual appropriation of ‘arch lands in Algeria,” Journal of North African Studies 18/5 (2013); Zitoun, “Spatial and Social Mobilities in Algeria”.

21. See the YouTube video of Macron responding to a young Algerian’s comments on colonialism on December 7, 2017 and the video of the 26-year-old man’s reflective, commentary after the fact.

Filed under: