The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

RIP Ahmed Ben Bella

Algeria's first president after a brutal war of national liberation passed away yesterday. That was an ugly war, full of rapes and murders, with France returning the FNL's strikes tenfold. From the NYT's obituary, a passage about his time in Cairo, in the 1950s the international refuge of national liberation leaders:

In 1949, Mr. Ben Bella helped rob a post office in Oran, Algeria. Tracked down, he was sentenced to a long stint in the Blida prison. In 1952, with the aid of a file hidden in a loaf of bread, he broke out and went to Cairo, where he became one of the liberation movement’s nine top leaders.Related

On Nov. 1, 1954, as the French celebrated All Saints’ Day, the rebels struck, beginning a war of massacre and mutilation, summary executions and rape. Terrorists exploded bombs in busy nightclubs and shot down passers-by on crowded streets. French officers who had fought the Nazis had Algerian prisoners tortured and shot.

Mr. Ben Bella spent most of the war outside Algeria, organizing clandestine arms shipments and coordinating political strategy. His life was in the shadows, but the French knew who he was.

In 1956, he refused to accept a package delivered to his Cairo hotel by a taxi driver. The bomb exploded as the taxi drove away, killing the driver. Later that year, in Tripoli, Libya, Mr. Ben Bella was waiting at his hotel when a French gunman entered his darkened room, fired and wounded him. The assailant, fleeing, was killed by guards at the Libyan border.

Ben Bella was no democrat, but in some respects his socialist policies were more those of the coup plotters who succeeded him, led by by Houari Boumedienne. I'm surprised that the obits do not mention that a major aide to Boumedienne at the time, and plotter against Ben Bella, was Algeria's current president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Bouteflika, himself rumored to be ill, has decreed an eight-day mourning period. One after another, the liberation-era figures of Algerian politics are dying — the question is whether their successors will ensure that the same claustrophobic political system will survive.