Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
10 - 16 May 2001
Issue No.533
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Ahmed Ben Bella:

Plus ça change

For the first president of independent Algeria the freedoms worth fighting for then are still worth fighting for now

Profile by Gamal Nkrumah

In the 1950s Ahmed Ben Bella -- a zeitgeist warrior of at least seven decades' standing -- was instrumental in placing Algeria in the vanguard of Third World Revolution. It was almost inevitable that he should then become something of an icon, and he still is revered by many in the Arab world, Africa and beyond.

"Everything has changed and nothing has changed." His broad brow furrows. "Fifty million people die of starvation annually. One quarter of the world's population suffers from curable tropical diseases. Three quarters of the world's population owe $4,000 billion in debt and cannot possibly pay interest let alone pay the debt back. We struggle against imperialism, against the men who are the symbols of this barbaric system. We must continue to fight," he explained in the airport lounge as we waited to board a plane to take us to the seaside desert town of Sirte, Libya, to witness the signing of the Constitutive Act of African Union, better known as the "Sirte Declaration," by African heads of state.

Ben Bella sees the quest for African unity as a step towards the elimination of hunger, poverty and the continent's indebtedness. "This is what is unfair and so wrong about the present situation -- the new world order," he says, punching his palm. "But the tide is turning. Witness the anti-globalisation movement worldwide, the demonstrators who ruined the World Trade Organisation summit in Seattle and disrupted the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund meeting in Prague and elsewhere. Something's afoot. These are changing times."

Ben Bella, now based in Switzerland, was born in 1916 in the small town of Maghnia, perched high in the rugged mountains in the far west of Algeria, a stone's throw away from the Moroccan border. He half jokingly ascribes his longevity and good health to the crisp and clean mountain air of his adolescence and youth. He speaks fondly of dramatically steep mountain backdrops and snow-capped peaks blanketed in fog and clouds. His roots, he proudly acknowledges, are with the shepherd and peasant stock of the wild mountains of western Algeria. He recalls, and with obvious nostalgia, the rugged beauty of the remote mountain region of his youth. The people of western Algeria are noted for their zestful passion for life -- they are called, half pejoratively, half admiringly, "hot-blooded" by other Algerians. The region is the home of the much celebrated and sensual rai music, now popular around the world.

After what sounds like an idyllic early childhood the adolescent Ben Bella quickly came face to face with the brutal realities of French settler colonialism. He was raised in a religious environment. His father was the sheikh of a Sufi order and at a tender age he was introduced to the teachings of Sufi Islam. Indigenous Algerians held tenaciously to their religion, a receptacle of their cultural heritage in face of the vicious French cultural onslaught.

Inexorably he was drifting away from his family and the traditional setting of rural Algeria towards direct political involvement and ultimately, the armed struggle.

"I entered politics at 15," he says. "And, I was thrown in at the deep end."

Institutionalised racism and colonial oppression remain at the core of his memories of those early years. Now an octogenarian, Ben Bella continues to loom large, a figure of great influence on a new generation of North Africans determined to introduce a more just economic order. Ben Bella is leader of the Movement for Democracy in Algeria (MDA) and heads a number of non-governmental organisations, including the Democratic Revolutionary Arab Dialogue Forum, a leftist pan-Arab group. His active membership of several regional and international NGOs evinces a continued passion for change.

"The first Suez Canal proceeds after nationalisation were presented to us, the FLN leaders, by Gamal Abdel-Nasser. How can I not be a Nasserist?"
Politically it remains difficult to pigeon-hole Ben Bella. "I am Muslim first, Arab second and then Algerian. I am also proud to be an African." He is also an internationalist, these days showing up frequently at anti-globalisation gatherings, travelling most recently from his lakeside home in Lausanne to Porto Allegre, Brazil, to participate in the alternative WEF. "The progressive forces in Africa, in the Arab world and in the South must link up and work closely with like-minded people in Europe, in the West," he says. If the ideology and emotion that underpin his remarks recall a bygone era there remains a freshness and innocence that has withstood the travails of a lifetime of struggle.

Ben Bella is not averse to playing the savant to a younger audience. None of his contemporaries are around. His eye dart quickly, scanning the opulent Ougadougou Halls, Sirte, where the OAU summit was held. He scanned the premises to pick out old acquaintances, friends, comrades in arms. A hug here, a wave there. He throws a kiss here, a smile there. His face breaks into a seemingly spontaneous, sunny smile. He is a politician at heart.

Twenty years of imprisonment only served to strengthen his political resolve. Prison helped Ben Bella concentrate his mind and compelled him to become a whirlwind of activity in the struggle against injustice.

Ben Bella participated in the Algerian opposition parties, including the Islamic Front for Salvation (FIS), meeting at the Community of Sant'Egidio in Rome in January, 1992, but he shies away from making public statements about his beloved Algeria. He is far more vocal on issues of African, Arab and international concern, and is highly critical of the United States in the post-Cold War era, particularly the manner in which it "has made a war council of the UN Security Council."

He denounces UN sanctions as a declaration of war on the defenceless civilians of Cuba, Iraq and Libya. "Sanctions must be outlawed and eliminated just like small pox and polio. The US controls the UN. Five countries have the right to vote against the rest. Is this democracy?"

The international dimensions of Ben Bella's political struggle were recognised first in Egypt. He was one of the nine members of the revolutionary committee first convened in March 1954 in Cairo under the auspices of the late President Gamal Abdel-Nasser that evolved into the National Liberation Front, better known by its French acronym FLN. Few other acronyms of liberation movements became as universally recognisable in the 1950s as the FLN, and Ben Bella came to symbolise the movement.

He remembers the headquarters of North African liberation movements on Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat street in downtown Cairo, a city that was, for a time, the hub of revolutionary and anti-colonial activity.

"In those days I was the target of many assassination attempts. I never stayed long in one place. I was always on the move. It was a hectic time but I loved Cairo all the same and it was there that I polished my Arabic."

The first time Nasser introduced Ben Bella to an Egyptian audience, the Algerian leader could not hold back his tears as he took to the podium. He could not speak Arabic and apologised profusely. Subsequently he refused to teach his eldest daughter, Mahdiya, French, and she only learned the language when studying in Europe. He is proud that his daughters speak Arabic fluently. Yet to this day, and notwithstanding the fact that he is fluent in Arabic, Ben Bella remains more at home in French, the language of the nation that had historically covetted Algeria.

It began on 4 July 1830, when a French occupation army led by Louis Auguste Victor de Boumont captured the fortress of Algiers, the centre of a scavenging pirate principality nominally under Ottoman Turkish suzerainty, and then proceeded to conquer the city's hinterland. The ruler was deposed on the pretext that his pirate warships constituted an unacceptable menace in the Mediterranean. French settlers followed the French Army, plundering the countryside and grabbing the most fertile land. They had soon colonised the coastal strip and later moved into the mountainous hinterland and the Sahara Desert.

Algeria's indigenous population was decimated in the early years of French settler colonial rule, falling from over four million in 1830 to less than 2.5 million by 1890. Systematic genocide was coupled with the brutal suppression of Algerian cultural identity. Indigenous Algerians were French subjects, but could only become French citizens if they renounced Islam and Arab culture. A ruthless policy of acculturation followed, and the remaining Algerians were forced to cease speaking their native Arabic and use the French of their colonial masters instead. The indigenous Muslim population of Algeria was not permitted to hold political meetings or bear arms. They were subjected to strict pass laws that required indigenous Muslim Algerians to seek permission from the colonial authorities to leave their hometowns or villages.

Ironically, Ben Bella served in the French Army during World War II and was decorated for bravery.

"The Algerian people have lived with blood. We brought De Gaulle to his knees. We struggled against French rule for 15 years under the leadership of Emir Abdel-Kader Al-Jazairi. The Algerian population was then four million. French repression cost us two million lives. It was genocide. We survived as a people. Barbaric French atrocities did not subdue our fighting spirit."

The French dispatched 400,000 troops to pacify the anti-colonial uprising. But the revolt soon turned into a fully-fledged war of liberation in which Ben Bella played a decisive role. In 1956 he was arrested by the French aboard a Moroccan airplane en route to Casablanca and charged with procuring arms for the FLN. Ben Bella spent the next five years in French jails. When, following a referendum held in Algeria on 1 July 1962 France declared Algeria independent, an estimated one million French settlers fled the country and Ben Bella became Algeria's first prime minister. A year later, in 1963, he was elected president.

As Ben Bella stepped out of the aircraft that brought him to Sirte, birthplace of Libyan leader Muamar Gaddhafi, he paused and gazed at the desolate landscape. He had not set eyes on it for over five decades. Back then he was a gun-runner, not any procurer of arms but a freedom fighter who smuggled arms to those fighting against French settler colonialism in Algeria. Now, though, he was in Sirte to participate in the extraordinary summit of the Organisation of African Unity during which the idea of African Union was officially launched.

Ben Bella reminisced about other OAU summits he had attended, remembering those of his peers -- Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah, Guinea's Ahmed Sekou Toure, Congo's Patrice Lumumba and, above all, Egypt's Gamal Abdel-Nasser -- to whom he owed most.

"The first Suez Canal proceeds after nationalisation were presented to us, the FLN leaders, by Gamal Abdel-Nasser. How can I not be a Nasserist?"

Ben Bella places himself firmly in the Nasserist tradition, holding Nasser in the greatest esteem. However, his unconventional views on what constitutes Nasserism often confound critics and sympathisers alike.

"The essence of Nasserism is to struggle against imperialism and for social justice. I fear that some of those who claim to be Nasserists today might inadvertently mummify Nasserism the way the communists mummified Lenin. We must not speak as if it was still 1956. I believe that the Hizbullah in Lebanon have incorporated many aspects of the Nasserist philosophy. Times have changed."

Ben Bella makes a compelling case for keeping the vision of the OAU's founding fathers alive. Asked if national interest can indeed give way to common continental interest, he is unequivocal: "We have no alternative to continental unity. This is why I am here today, to lend this venture my support. I am all for Maghrebi unity, but only on condition that it forms part of a wider Arab unity. I support African unity, and I am acutely aware of the strategic importance of African-Arab solidarity."

Nowadays, with the advent of a new millennium, Ben Bella rubs shoulders with a different set of post-independence African and Arab heads of state, many half his age, some not even born when he was overthrown in a palace coup in 1965 engineered by his Defence Minister Houari Boumedienne. Yet contrary to what was commonly predicted after his ouster from power, following which he spent 15 years in prison, Ben Bella is not a spent force. He remains an unabashed idealist and, as he grows older, hangs ever more tenaciously to his ideals.

At conferences and international symposiums Ben Bella speaks easily and often without notes. He pauses occasionally, emphasising concepts, lending weight to phrases. He is passionate about what he believes and articulates his vision with vigour. He moves and inspires his audience.

On recent events in Algeria Ben Bella takes a clear stand: "I am against military interference in politics. Military intervention in the political arena is a grave threat to democracy."

Ben Bella's own removal by the military ushered in a new chapter in Algeria's history, one in which the military dominated the political arena. His successors, he laments, ran regimes notable only for their corruption and incompetence.

"For the first time I took in what it meant to have failed my people's expectations. We who had liberated Algeria from French colonialism let our people down. The masses were betrayed."

Che Guevara's murder, Lumumba's assassination and the abrupt end of the progressive regimes of Africa and Asia -- Nkrumah's Ghana, Nasser's Egypt and Sukarno's Indonesia, all occurred when he was in solitary confinement.

"Che was a courageous fighter who had to struggle unremittingly with a body wracked by asthma. Once, when I climbed with him to the Chrea Heights overlooking the town of Blida, I saw him suffer an attack that turned him green in the face. I first met him in autumn 1962 on the eve of the Cuban missile crisis and the blockade decreed by the US. I was due to attend the September session of the UN in New York at the first Algerian flag-raising ceremony."

If politics was Ben Bella's first love, it was a love difficult to purge. "For long I refused to get married, thinking that I had married the liberation struggle. My mother visited me in prison and pleaded with me to get married before she died. I laughed and said, 'How can I get married while I am in jail?'. She was brokenhearted and died four months later."

Yet it was, ironically, in the stultifying prison that he met and married the woman who has played no small part in his political comeback. His wife, Zahra, he says, "is my kindred spirit, my soul mate. I cannot stay away from her for over a week."

Zahra visited him in prison and they were married after three visits. She came to live with him in prison, leaving every couple of months to visit her family and then returning. Their daughter, Mahdiya, spent the first seven years of her life in jail.

"She grew up surrounded by 600 prison guards and wardens. They watched our every move."

A Trotskyite Marxist and one of his staunchest critics when he was in power, Zahra is today a devout Muslim. She was associated with the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), created in 1963 to oppose Ben Bella's one-party rule. Back then, as an ultra-leftist journalist, she was immediately struck by his strength of character and personality. After three visits he proposed and she accepted.

Before Zahra prison was a desolate, forbidding and at times terribly frustrating place. For Ben Bella is not an arm-chair intellectual but a revolutionary at heart who even in his 80s hates to sit around "doing nothing."

photos: Mohamed Mos'ad

Following his release from prison Ben Bella was placed under house arrest until 1980 when he eventually left Algeria for exile only to return, albeit briefly, in 1990.

In prison the Qur'an was the only book permitted, something, Ben Bella says, that led to him becoming "a stronger and more spiritual man" during his incarceration. And if, over the years Ben Bella has held tenaciously to his leftist, progressive ideals, in later years an infusion of Islam -- what he terms the spiritual element sadly lacking in doctrinaire Marxism -- has seeped into his own brand of socialism.

"I am an Islamist. And I am an Islamist Pan-Arabist before I am an Algerian. The West tried hard and long to obliterate our Arab and Islamic culture. We Algerians are only too aware of this historical fact. That is why being a Muslim is an essential, a sacrosanct component of our identity."

He does not, though, espouse the militant Islamism of some of his compatriots. "I condemn violence because it does harm only to Algeria and Algerians," the former guerrilla fighter is keen to make clear.

"We were fighting against French colonial rule. We took up arms to liberate our country, not to settle old scores. Yet we imported Western culture piecemeal, and still do."

Islamist militancy, he believes, is the inevitable backlash. Economic woes and social discontent were, he insists, the spark that ignited the violence in Algeria. "Yet at the height of the tensions the Islamists were responsible for just 20 per cent of the violence in Algeria. State security forces committed 80 per cent of the atrocities," he believes.

"Islamist militancy is a result of a faulty interpretation of Islam and perhaps governments are to blame for not enlightening the youth about the true spiritual dimensions of Islam."

Be that as it may, Ben Bella also sees a hidden foreign hand in the current crisis.

"France pours oil on Algeria's flames."

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