Ben Bella, Ahmed (b. 1916)

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BEN BELLA, AHMED (b. 1916)


Algerian political leader.

One of Algeria's "historic chiefs," who is still considered by many as the father of the nation, Mohamed Ahmed Ben Bella was born in 1916 to a Sufi Muslim family in Maghnia, a small village close to the Moroccan border, during the height of the French colonial period. He completed secondary school in Tlemcen, a center of conservative religious thought and influence in western Algeria. At twenty-one, Ben Bella was drafted into the army and, when World War II broke out and Germany occupied France, he served with the Free French forces as a master sergeant, earning the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille Militaire for his bravery.


Like many of his generation born and raised under French colonial rule (1830–1962), Ben Bella communicated in French but never felt fully French. His nationalist consciousness was aroused to action when he heard about the bloody massacres of May 1945 in Sétif that left an estimated forty-five thousand Algerian Muslims dead at the hands of French security forces retaliating for the murder of scores of French nationals in the region. He refused a commission in the French army and instead joined the Party of the Algerian People (Parti du Peuple Algérien, or PPA), led by the charismatic and militant nationalist hero, Messali Hadj (1898–1974). When the French authorities banned the PPA, Messali formed the Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties (Mouvement pour le Triomphe des Libertés Démocratiques, or MTLD), a group that attracted political activists like Ben Bella.

As French policies toward the incipient Algerian nationalist movement hardened, a clandestine, violence-prone group was created (Organisation Spéciale, or OS) within the MTLD. Ben Bella joined the OS and led a number of armed attacks against French territorial assets including the robbery of a post office in Oran in 1949. He was captured and imprisoned in 1950 but escaped two years later and reached Cairo. There he joined others of the "historic chiefs." It was in Egypt, led at the time by the young revolutionary leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970), that Ben Bella became inspired by pan-Arabist principles. It was also in Egypt that he finally learned to speak Arabic properly, thereby fusing his militant nationalism with its indigenous idiom and overcoming the sense of inferiority that French socialization had created in him. Like so many of his contemporaries in Algeria and elsewhere, Ben Bella was fascinated by and enthusiastic about pan-Arabism, Nasserism, and other forms of militant Arab nationalism, serving as an ideological template for Algeria's own struggle for national liberation. For his part, Nasser's close ties to Ben Bella and his extensive material, moral, and political support for Algeria's independence struggle was used as an excuse by France to join Britain and Israel in attacking and occupying the Suez Canal in 1956.

Dissatisfied with Messali's nationalist leadership and the slow pace of change, Ben Bella became one of the leading figures of the Revolutionary Committee for Unity and Action (ComitéRévolutionnaire pour l'Unité et l'Action, or CRUA), which organized the National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale, or FLN). The FLN launched the Algerian revolution against the French on 1 November 1954. Organizationally the CRUA split up into a group of "internals," involved in organizing Algeria into six separate military regions, and "externals," headed by Ben Bella and headquartered in Cairo, where they worked to gain foreign support for the rebellion. While in Egypt, Ben Bella was assigned the job of collecting funds and material for the newly established National Liberation Army (Armée de Libération Nationale, or ALN), the armed wing of the FLN. Ben Bella was not invited to the historic Soummam Conference of August 1956, when the primacy of the internals was declared over that of the externals. In October 1956 Ben Bella and five other "historic chiefs" (Hocine Ait Ahmed, Mohamed Boudiaf, Abdelkrim Khider, Rabih Bitat, and Mostefa Lacheraf), were skyjacked by the French while en route from Morocco to Tunisia. Ben Bella remained in a French prison until 1962, the year Algeria achieved its independence.


After the war Ben Bella returned to Algeria, where he teamed up with the powerful external military commander of the ALN, Houari Boumédienne (1927–1978), to form the Political Bureau (Bureau Politique) in opposition to the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (Gouvernement Provisoire de la République Algérienne, or GPRA). With the backing of Boumédienne, Ben Bella was able to overcome a brief intra-elite struggle for power and assert his dominance as the premier political figure in Algeria. He became the country's first prime minister, serving from 1962 to 1963, and then its first president in 1963. As president, Ben Bella assumed a militant posture promoting socialism at home and revolutionism abroad. He overtly supported numerous third world national liberation movements and aligned himself ideologically with Nasser's radical brand of Arab nationalism. Despite the heavy legacy of French colonialism and the recent armed conflict, Ben Bella managed to secure a certain bilateral "normalcy" with France while confronting continued French military presence in the Sahara. He also challenged French and Western petroleum interests in southern Algeria by establishing the Société Nationale de Transport et Commercialisation des Hydrocarbures (SONATRACH), a national oil and gas company that eventually assumed complete control of the country's hydrocarbon resources.

Yet these globally oriented efforts failed to secure the kind of political stability and socioeconomic development that the nation assumed would follow with the ousting of the much-hated French. As the country began to experience civil unrest in the Kabyle region, and a brief border war in 1963 with Morocco ended inconclusively, support for Ben Bella among high army officers began to dissipate rapidly. Thus, on 19 June 1965, Colonel Boumédienne overthrew Ben Bella in a military coup d'état and imposed himself as head of a newly formed Council of the Revolution. Ben Bella was placed under house arrest. Following Boumédienne's death in December 1978, Colonel Chadli Benjedid (b. 1929) became president of Algeria (1979). Benjedid ended Ben Bella's detention in July 1979, and all further restrictions were lifted in October 1980, when Ben Bella went into exile in Switzerland.

In May 1984 Ben Bella formed an opposition party called the Movement for Democracy in Algeria (Mouvement pour la Démocratie en Algérie, or MDA) that called for a pluralistic social order and a democratic form of government, yet one that incorporated Islamist religious and moral principles. In 1990 Ben Bella was allowed to return to Algeria when for a brief period it seemed he could serve as a bridge between the ideologically polarized forces that had emerged in the late 1980s between militant Islamists and radical military commanders. In 1991 Ben Bella declared himself a candidate for the presidency, but this came to naught as the country plunged into a violent civil war in the aftermath of a military coup d'état. Staged by high army officers on 11 January 1992, the coup ended all forms of competitive politics in the country.

Ben Bella retreated into the political background, reappearing momentarily as one of numerous opposition groups assembled in Rome in 1994 and 1995 under the sponsorship of the Catholic lay organization, Community of Sant'Egidio, to formulate an end to the civil war. These efforts proved futile. When the Algerian constitution was amended in 1996, it imposed tight restrictions on political parties that led the country's supreme court in 1997 to disband Ben Bella's MDA party.

While he never regained his former political prominence, Ben Bella was viewed as a distinguished figure in Algeria, one of the nine "historic chiefs." In 2004 he participated actively in the country's fiftieth-anniversary commemoration of the beginning of the war of national liberation. In 2005 President Abdelaziz Bouteflika asked Ben Bella to head the campaign to promote an amnesty plan that the Algerian president was advancing as a solution to the country's decade-long civil war.

In the moral, political, and globalized environment of the early twenty-first century, Ahmed Ben Bella defined himself as a mild and peace-loving Islamist. Despite the one-party state that he had once headed, Ben Bella advocated democracy in Algeria and elsewhere. He believed that the rise of militant Islamic fundamentalism was the result of a faulty interpretation of Islam, a topic on which he wrote numerous articles and monographs. He had long ago made peace with his former French enemies and considered France an important supporter of Algerian national interests. Ben Bella came to embody a conflictual mixture of Algeria's colonial and postcolonial legacies, fusing revolutionary idealism with one-party authoritarianism and democratic aspirations with religious principles.

See alsoAlgeria; Algerian War; Colonialism; Decolonization; French Empire; Partisan Warfare.


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John P. Entelis