History is a powerful force pitting old comrades against each other, discovers Nosreddine Qassem
To this day, the Algerian revolution holds onto many of its secrets, including many strange events, unsung heroes, shifting alliances, even clashes between its protagonists. When one of these players breaks the silence to correct facts, reject claims, or settle scores, the world rises up and offers history-laden narratives of the events with the aim of settling old accounts or achieving self-serving goals.
The most recent instance of this took place when Chadli Bendjedid, former president of the republic (1979-1992), broke his silence for the first time since leaving Al-Muradiya Palace, the presidential headquarters, in January 1992. He gave a lecture at the university centre in Al-Tarif, his birthplace, that was part of a forum on Imara Buqlaz, the commander of the eastern base during the revolution. The lecture, however, moved on to many other topics that reflect the current situation and bring up controversial issues.
Chadli's talk, which lasted over three hours, whipped up a political storm, even though he stressed that he didn't intend to harm anyone or settle any scores. This is because he chose to discuss the sensitive issue of the eastern base, the revolutionary organisation that was established as a response to the Al-Sumam conference. It was formed following the death of the revolutionary leader Mustafa Bin Buleid, and in response to factors such as the absence of the foreign delegation at the conference, the marginalisation of the Suq Ahras area, the secular nature of the revolution, and the lack of Arab support.
The Al-Sumam conference prioritised the homeland over the diaspora, the political before the military. Commander Buqlaz was close to the foreign delegation led by Ahmed Ben Bella (who was close to Cairo). Chadli discussed the role of the Algerian officers of the French army who joined the revolution at a late stage. He spoke of how field commanders were against letting them into the liberation army because they might be spies serving the French army. Chadli said that among those who served under him in the eastern base was Khaled Nezar, the retired general. Nezar served as defence minister in Chadli Bendjedid's government in the 1980s, was one of the leaders of the January 1992 coup, and was a member of the supreme state council that ruled the country in the coup's wake.
The media reported Chadli's speech with some distortion, and several well-known writers attacked the former president and declared their support for his removal in January 1992, along with the halt of the democratic process and the cancellation of the election results, blaming him for the bloody events. Many are frightened by the former president speaking out and threatening their interests, exposing their exploitation of the revolution even though they had no real role in it.
General Nezar was incensed and wrote an article that Al-Watan published in French, claiming to speak on behalf of the generals. Al-Khabar did not print it, even though it also claims to be close to the generals, in particular Nezar. He responded to Chadli, who was his commander during the revolution and also following independence. It appears that after Chadli read the papers' reports and the ensuing commentary, he knew that the general's response would be explosive, and so he published his lecture in full in Al-Khabar, "to put an end to the current controversy through which some have tried to delude public opinion into thinking that Chadli Bendjedid wanted to mix up the papers, or that he was trying to affect the current political situation, or that he was proposing himself as a possible alternative for getting out of what some call a crisis." By coincidence, these two pieces were published on the same day.
General Nezar, who Algerians hold largely responsible for the country's current crisis, accused his former boss of mistakes, and questioned why Chadli was speaking out now, and why from Al-Tarif. He described his speech as hateful and as targeting his comrades-in-arms. Nezar wrote, "his saying that I was a spy for France ties him up in contradictions, for why did he accept me as a military aide in the area he commanded, from March 1959 to May 1960, and then under his direct leadership when he was a deputy to Abdel-Rahman Bin Salim from 1960 and until independence, and why did he continue to use my services afterwards and why was I promoted during his term if I was a traitor?"
The general admitted that he joined the revolution at a late stage, but he also stressed that he sought to place the experience he had gained in the French army at the service of the liberation army. He further denied that he had been among the officers that France wanted to stay on the other bank until the early 1960s. He even went as far as saying that Chadli's "accusations towards them" were part of an account-taking in response to what he had written between 1988 and 1992, in which he had placed responsibility on Chadli for the country's situation following his resignation or removal. Nezar said that this was an old account related to his lack of enthusiasm for Chadli Bendjedid becoming the president of the republic following the death of President Houari Boudmedienne in 1979.
In fact, Chadli didn't say anything against Nezar at all. On the contrary, the former president's speech remained balanced throughout. What confused journalists was that while speaking about the military commanders' rejection of officers from the French army, Chadli said that he was the only one to have accepted them despite knowing that they were spying on the eastern base for the benefit of the interim government. He didn't say that they were spying for France, for the eastern base was at odds with the government and was against Farahat Abbas leading it. Buqlaz and Chadli were among its opponents.
On the contrary, Chadli heaped praise on Nezar. He said, "I don't consider affiliation with the French army an insult or disgrace. I always distinguish between those who were forced, for one reason or another, to serve in the French army, and those who were known as French army "detractors" who joined the armed struggle at a late stage and who were a source of many differences during the revolution. General De Gaulle tried to infiltrate the revolution by any means possible. The Algerian agents for the French army were the culmination of attempts to infiltrate the national liberation army. Karim Belqasim brought officers from the French army into his government and entrusted them with implementing the Idir plan, but the mujahideen rejected them. Yet the leadership insisted on imposing these officers on the liberation army and several uprisings took place, such as the Jebel Al-Shaambi insurrection and the Huma Lulu rebellion. As for Nezar, he was sent by Mohamedi Al-Said to region one, which he was responsible for, as a military adviser. Yet he was rejected there at first, and had to convince them to comply with the leadership's decision. And he stayed with us even though we knew he was working in the interests of the interim government."
By losing his temper, Nezar simply confirmed doubts about him, and confirmed Chadli's credibility as an upright person. In his lecture, Chadli Bendjedid brought up controversial facts concerning the executions of Eian Ramadan, who organised the Al-Sumam conference, and Al-Amuri, both accused of having conspired against the interim government. He also spoke about the responsibility of president Ben Bella for executing Shabani, leader of the desert rebellion against the government during the early years of independence. Ammar Ben Awda, a revolution leader, rejected some details but otherwise praised Chadli. He said, "He is a kind and gentle person who wants good for all. And his history in the revolution is absolutely clean. Even his acceptance of the position of president was taken from the perspective of protecting Algeria."
Yet Ben Awda accused some of the leaders of the eastern base, especially Buqlaz and Al-Amuri, of having tried to implement the plan of Fathi Al-Dib, the head of Egyptian intelligence, to overthrow the interim government led by Ferhat Abbas in the interest of Ahmed Ben Bella. Ben Awda had refused this mission when the head of Egyptian intelligence had suggested that he undertake it, even though he was among the mujahideen who rejected Ferhat Abbas becoming leader of the interim government.