A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Ahmed Ben Bella, 1918-2012

Ben Bella then ...
The first President of independent Algeria, Ahmed Ben Bella, has died at the age of 96.
...and recently. (El Watan)
(Though that's the age given in the Algerian media, I suspect it's in hijri years, as his birthdate is generally given as 1918.) He was one of the very last of the independence generation, who fought against colonialism, one of the last of the old Arab nationalists of the Nasser generation, and he missed by only a few months living to see the 50th anniversary of an independent Algeria this July. Yet,having been deposed in 1965, for most Algerians living today he was a name in the history books, or an old man now considered an elder statesman after returning from years in exile

Le Monde's obituary is here. The report in El Watan here. Both are in French, a language Ben Bella spoke better than Arabic. Born in a town near Tlemcen in western Algeria, of parents of Moroccan origin, Ben Bella was an early supporter of the National Liberation Front (FLN) and became one of its leaders in Cairo in the 1950s, where he forged a friendship with Gamal Abdel Nasser. With other FLN leaders,his plane was intercepted by the French in 1956 and he was taken prisoner, held until 1962. With independence he soon emerged as one of the key leaders, first replacing Prime Minister Benkhedda, and then being elected Algeria's first President.

Ben Bella was a key figure in the anticolonial movement, the Non-Aligned Movement, and the heyday of Arab nationalism. He was also an autocrat ruling the typical ideological one-party state of the time, and had established his control of the FLN in part through the support of the Army. But in 1965 his friend and ally, Army chief Houari Boumediene, deposed him and took the presidency.

Ben Bella was held under house arrest throughout Boumediene's Presidency (Boumediene died in 1978), but in 1980 was allowed to go into exile in Switzerland. A decade later he returned to Algeria, where he has periodically expressed his political views and otherwise played the role of an elder statesman. Though no democrat when he was in power, he has supported greater democracy in Algeria in his retirement. It's known that he had been hospitalized at least twice earlier this year.

While there may be a few aging second- or third-tier leaders from his generation still living, I believe he was the last of that generation of post-colonial heads of state. RIP, and with him an era from which the Middle East is still trying to emerge.

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