Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 April 2003
Issue No. 635
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An impossible equation

Marking the release of a new documentary, Kim Jensen recalls the contribution of the Moroccan left-wing leader Mehdi Ben Baraka

On Friday 29 October 1965, the Moroccan opposition leader Mehdi Ben Baraka had an appointment at the Brasserie Lipp, on Boulevard St Germain, in Paris. He was to meet with a journalist, a producer and a scriptwriter to discuss the making of a film about liberation movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America, to be screened at the opening of the Tri-Continental Conference in Havana, in January 1966. That afternoon Ben Baraka was abducted on a sidewalk in front of the café, and later murdered. His body was never found, nor have the culprits been brought to justice.

These events, which came to be known as L'affaire Ben Baraka, caused considerable political agitation in France as it became clear that French security agents had almost certainly collaborated with the Moroccan monarchy, the CIA and even the Mossad to assassinate this influential world figure.

A new documentary by Simone Bitton (The Bombing, Citizen Bishara, Mahmoud Darwish: the Land as Language), Ben Baraka: The Moroccan Equation, deftly portrays the life and times of Ben Baraka, expertly wielding a variety of documentary techniques to cover various aspects of his contribution and his fate. A highly polished film that is no less immediate for being so, it depicts the political and historical circumstances that led up to Ben Baraka's tragic exile and murder. It places the viewer in a direct confrontation with the disorienting and frightful particulars of the life of a tireless activist.

Born to a poor family in French-ruled Morocco in 1920, Ben Baraka grew up to be an exceptionally bright student, earning the then rare place in a high-brow French school. The first ever Moroccan to receive a university education (he earned a degree in mathematics), he quickly became embroiled in politics, developing a vision for the future of Morocco and devoting himself to implementing it. Before very long Ben Baraka became the leader of the largely influential Istiqlal (Independence) Party.

Pitting himself up against a French colonial force that had practiced torture and perpetrated massacres as well as implementing the principles of economic imperialism, Ben Baraka took it upon himself to organise political acts of resistance. He trained scores of Istiqlal cells, presided over the founding of a party newspaper, Al-Alam (The World), established the party archives and held underground meetings in his own home. Due to his tremendous energy and dedication he acquired the pseudonym of The Dynamo. In the course of the struggle he endured several years of prison and house arrest, eventually making an essential contribution to the negotiations that put an end to French rule, freeing the country once and for all.

The French offered Morocco independence on condition that Moroccans would stop providing the Algerian liberation movement with any kind of support, however. And abandoning the Algerian cause was one of many issues that fostered political strife in the newly independent state. Another contentious issue concerned the monarchy, which Ben Baraka and many others saw as an obstacle in the way of social progress, incompatible with visions of liberty and equity that independence implied.

Once King Mohamed V rose to the throne, in 1956, Ben Baraka grasped the workings of the new system of power in Morocco -- independence within the framework of interdependence. In other words Morocco was to be only nominally independent, while genuine economic and political power continued to be in the hands of its former colonisers.

For three years Ben Baraka attempted to work within this new framework in the formal capacity of head of the nascent National Assembly. In Ben Baraka: The Moroccan Equation the leader is described as a man passionately committed to improving the living conditions of the Moroccan poor. He visited socialist leaders all over the world, reviewing projects and mulling over schemes in an attempt to emulate those programmes that had been implemented successfully. Sadly, as time went by, Ben Baraka became increasingly frustrated with what he referred to as "the parody of democracy" that continued to be implemented in his country. Struggles that he had championed with a singular determination -- an end of feudalism, education for all, gender equality and economic justice -- were falling out of fashion among the ruling elite; and even members of the Istiqlal Party were divided on them.

With several allies, in 1959, Ben Baraka resorted to splitting with the Istiqlal Party, forming the by now even better known and rather more radical National Union of Popular Forces (UNFP). The film features interviews (with, among many others, Alegeria's first president, Ahmed Ben Bella, the communist leader, Abdulla Laaychi, the former prime minister, Abdel-Rahman Youssefi, the advisor to the prime minister, Mohamed Freji, the early nationalist leader, Abu-Baker Kadiri, Ben Baraka's own close friend M'hamed Aouad and his two sisters) that explain the precepts according to which the party was formed; its platform was built on several fundamental objectives: democracy, land reform and social equality. Three months after its formation, UNEP was banned, its paper outlawed and its members summarily arrested. Several of those interviewed in the film recall experiences of torture. It was at this point that Ben Baraka, disillusioned yet as determined as ever, went into exile.

The leader's expatriation, as indeed would be expected, could not deflate his energy, nor in any way reduce his organisational prowess. His international stature, by contrast, merely rose; and it was during this period that he found the time and relative peace of mind to write and lecture. He had sought refuge in the capital city of his old foes, where, due to his competence and consistency, he was unanimously elected to be a member of the important executive committee of the Non-Aligned Movement.

With the death of King Mohamed V in 1962 and the enthronement of Hassan II, Ben Baraka was sufficiently emboldened to return to Morocco. This turn of events was potentially transformative, he reasoned; and the time was ripe for an attempt to rekindle the driving forces of UNFP. In national assembly elections riddled with fraud and corruption, however, UNFP was systematically excluded despite its strong base of popular support. When he won a seat in the assembly, Ben Baraka rejected it on principle. Before too long, once again, UNFP leaders were being rounded up, tortured and otherwise persecuted; the cycle of struggle had come, perversely, full circle.

Ben Baraka: The Moroccan Equation follows Ben Baraka's consequent, second journey into exile -- this time to the newly liberated Algeria, where he sought refuge with Ahmed Ben Bella, who offered him a high-ranking government position. Before too long he had found his way back to Europe, however, where he became the chairman of the Tri-Continental Conference, the activity in which he was engaged when he died.

The film's value derives from the admirably comprehensive account it gives not only of Ben Baraka's struggle but of the entire history of the Moroccan resistance movement. Much of this history was expunged from history books under the Hassan II regime, and the film addresses this gap. "Most of our documents and records," testifies Mohamed Al-Yazghi, one of the socialist leaders interviewed in the course of the film, "are to be found in the national police files." And irrespective of her access to these files, Bitton manages to gather and present the information in a compelling way.

Relying on archival footage and photographs as well as the aforementioned interviews, the film affords a full picture of the milieu in which Ben Baraka lived and worked. Its maker, in her own words "a Jewish Arab", was born in Morocco, emigrated to Israel as a child and eventually settled in France. She has largely devoted her documentary film career to elucidating the Palestinian experience, bringing the roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict to light. And her many years of experience have paid off in the present film: an elegantly conceived documentary pulled along by a strong narrative thread, its director never loses sight of her essential objective in the middle of its numerous components; she tells an effective story, appropriately punctuating it with traditional North African music. While the film covers much of the previously uncharted territory of L'affaire Ben Baraka, to this day the Ben Baraka family, even despite the support of many human rights organisations, have not managed to secure the release of relevant documents by the CIA and the French secret intelligence; it is in the film's provocative spirit to state, finally, that the former alone is known to possess some 1,800 of these.

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