Some obituaries come as a surprise not because a death is sudden or unexpected, but just because one hadn’t realised that the person was still alive. So it was with the death this week at the age of 95 (some sources say 93) of Ahmed Ben Bella, the founding president of Algeria.
Ben Bella was famous around the world in the 1960s but later faded almost completely from view — which is a pity, because the story of Algeria’s early years is not only interesting in its own right (Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace recounts it vividly) but still relevant for understanding the complexities of today’s Middle East.
Algeria had been a French possession since the 1830s, and Ben Bella fought with distinction in the French army during World War II. But he then turned to nationalism, and in 1954 he was one of the founders of the National Liberation Front (FLN) that launched the eight-year war for Algerian independence.
The war of independence was a nasty affair: France tortured prisoners, the FLN bombed civilian targets, and something like a million people were killed. The French Fourth Republic fell, bringing General De Gaulle to power, and when he then proposed making peace with the nationalists he had to face down a putsch by his own generals in Algeria.
Ben Bella, however, spent most of this time on the sidelines: in 1956 the French intercepted his plane and he was interned for the duration of the war, returning to Algeria only when independence was finally granted in 1962. He then quickly outmanoeuvred his rivals in the FLN and seized power, becoming president of a socialist one-party state before in turn being ousted in a coup by his defence minister, Houari Boumédiènne.
There followed 15 years under house arrest and another 10 years in exile before he was pardoned and allowed to return to Algeria in 1990.
Despite his record, he then became a leading advocate for democracy and a respected voice of moderation in Algeria’s troubled politics.
Current president Abdelaziz Bouteflika has announced eight days of national mourning.
Ben Bella represented a type now largely extinct in the Middle East — the left-wing, authoritarian secular nationalist, of which Egypt’s General Nasser was the most influential. Nasserite leaders tried to steer an independent course that avoided the perils of (as they saw it) Western imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism. Believing that their people were not ready for democracy, they built up personality cults and police states, only to find themselves at the mercy of their own armed forces.
Much of the work of the Arab Spring has been about clearing away the remnants of this political establishment: Hosni Mubarak was one of its last degenerate examples. But when democratic institutions have been systematically hollowed out they do not recover easily, so it’s not surprising that elections have generally favoured the only well-organised opposition movements, the Islamists.
That’s what happened in Algeria 20 years ago, when Ben Bella’s successors finally allowed democratic elections, only to find that the Islamist forces were in line for a landslide victory. The military took fright, seized power (with Western support), and set off a civil war that killed another 150,000 or so and still poisons the country’s politics.
According to Wikipedia, Ben Bella in his later years described himself as a “mild and peace loving” Islamist; he was chair of an African Union panel on conflict resolution. His long and eventful life seems to have taught him lessons that the region as a whole still desperately needs to learn.