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(Rome) Decades ago I, a young reporter, interviewed the legendary Ahmed Ben Bella (1916-2012), the man who ignited the Algerian War of Liberation against French colonial rule in 1954 and was chairman and animator of the FLN (Front de Liberation Nationale). In the interview Ben Bella repeatedly described himself as a revolutionary, not a theoretician, a man of action, not an intellectual, an internationalist, an Islamic progressive fundamentalist, an Arab Moslem and man of the Third World. Arrested by the French occupiers in 1952, he managed to escape. Once again arrested in 1956 he was held in the la Santé prison until 1962. After the signing of the Evian Accord, he became the first elected post-colonial President of liberated and independent Algeria (1962-1965) and initiated a Socialist program.
The clandestine interview took place in 1983 in a small hotel in the countryside outside Geneva where Ben Bella was in hiding from both the French and the Algerian governments. I was excited about this interview because Ben Bella had long been one of my heroes: a true revolutionary internationalist. He seemed to have a powerful mystique about him which he himself however denied. Nonetheless it was the opinion of his friends and comrades that he was a charismatic leader who dreamed of changing the world in which he lived.
After his revolutionary government was overthrown in a coup d’ètat organized by his former Interior Minister, Houari Boumedienne, he was held in secret arrest in Algeria until 1980 when he was granted full freedom. Fearful for his life he fled to Paris in 1981, like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. There he promptly irritated the French government when through his Committees For Democracy in Algeria and his magazine, El Badil –The Alternative, he agitated among Algerian workers in the Renault factory, distributing fiery magazines and pamphlets in favor of what he called “real democracy in Algeria”. His program was based on political pluralism, Islamic fundamentalism and a call for retour, the return home of the one million Algerians in France at the time. In general, he stirred up trouble among Algerians in France and between a France dreaming of huge economic contracts with a more stable Algeria, its ex-colony, without the presence of troublemaker, Ben Bella. Add to that mixing pot rumors that Gadaffi and/or Khomeni (the latter also in exile at the time) were financing Ben Bella (which he did not deny), then interweave the ire of various occult powers eager to exploit the situation in Algeria for other ends, and the usual machinations of the CIA and French secret services, rogue or not, and you get the picture: Ben Bella was a general pain in the ass. French police organs raided his home in Montmorency near Paris, arrested his body guards and effectively expelled him from France.
In the interview he told me candidly that he felt threatened by the French government. “There are too many similarities with Ben Barka. North African progressives do not forget the Moroccan Socialist leader assassinated by King Hassan’s henchmen in 1965 in France.”
Ben Barka had organized Tricontinentale, a worldwide organization of liberation movements, and was scheduled to preside over its first global conference in Havana in January, 1966. On October 29, 1965, three months before the conference, on his way to a lunch meeting in the Paris Left Bank Brasserie Lipp he was picked up by police and intelligence agents and disappeared, assassinated it was assumed, even though responsibility was never established.
Vivid in Ben Bella’s memory also were two assassinations attempts against him in 1956 and in the same year his daring mid-air abduction by the French, and another six years in prisons. This was a tragic irony because he had served in the French army in World War II and was decorated with the Croix de Guerre by General DeGaulle after the battle of Cassino in Italy. After the war he militated in the Parti Populaire Algerien and chief of the O.S. the Organisation Speciale. Arrested and imprisoned by the French the first time in 1949, he escaped and ended up in Cairo where he became one the nine historic chiefs of CHUA, the Comité revolutionnaire d’unité et d’action. As such, he organized the uprisings in Algeria of Novemeber 1, 1954, All Saints Day, for which he acquired the sobriquet, Le fils de la Toutsaints. In the year 1956 the French army arrested him again when the Moroccan plane carrying him from Rabat to Tunis was intercepted by French planes in international skies. He was freed six years later after the signing of the Evian Accords of March 18, 1962. He returned to Algeria and that August became President of the new government and Secretary General of the FLN. On September 15, 1962 he was elected first president of the Republic of Algeria. During his presidency he pushed through education and agricultural reforms and in 1964 he was named Hero of the Soviet Union, although he was not a Communist.
After I made contact with Ben Bella’s group, a telephone caller instructed me to wait at a certain time in front of a hotel opposite the Geneva rail station. A BMW with Paris plates arrived and an Algerian driver and an ex-Algerian chief of police escorted me to a secret meeting place deep in the Geneva countryside; a maze of narrow roads, many turns and back-tracking, to a small village and the hotel, Auberge Guillaume Tell, and three flights up to a small room on the top floor. Shortly after, he arrived: Monsieur le President, tall, dark, crisp black hair, elegant, the movements of the ex-soccer player, of a man of action, a man capable of exciting the masses and swaying minds. Surprisingly, despite twenty-two years in prisons, Ben Bella was not a bitter man. On the contrary. He said that “prisons are important in the life of a militant, not a setback, but a test. A time to mature and to forge a political will and a militant personality. Prison is nearly a necessity.”
In reconstructing these notes today, I find points of relevance to the situation among Leftists in the USA where the word revolution is no longer taboo. I find especially enlightening his explanation of how and why he, among other militants, came to assume power in post-colonial Algeria. “Well, first someone had to do it, and I was ready. Revolutions are very complex. Nothing is easy. Few people want to risk their necks. In 1962, Algeria was on its knees, a country that had lost 1,600,000 of its sons, masses of wounded and sick, 300,000 widows, 250,000 orphans, 120,000 returnees from Morocco and 500,000 persons from prisons, plus four million people who had fought against us and lost. People everywhere were armed and accustomed to fighting. At the same time, there was little money, chiefly a small amount donated by de Gaulle. There were few volunteers for this job and my friends were happy when I took it.”
(One of the most influential political films in history, The Battle of Algiers, La Battaglia di Algeri, by Gillo Pontecorvo and released in 1966, vividly re-creates a key year -1956-57- in the tumultuous Algerian struggle for independence from the occupying French in the 1950s. As violence escalates on both sides, children shoot soldiers at point-blank range, women plant bombs in cafés, and French soldiers resort to torture to break the will of the insurgents. Shot on the streets of Algiers in documentary style, the film is a case study in modern warfare, with its terrorist attacks and the brutal techniques used to combat them. Pontecorvo’s tour de force has astonishing relevance today.)
Ben Bella formed a one-party state, an error which he attributed to the times and to his lack of government experience. The FLN, he recalled was an instrument of struggle during the war. “The one-party state is a marvelous instrument for a war of liberation but as a government system, in every country at every latitude, it has revealed the same defects; it represents only one point of view.”
He noted that he had no real models to go by. Neither Cuba nor Yugoslavia, he said, could be models for Islamic Algeria. “Yet we tried to correct the defects of the one-party system by the introduction of Yugoslavia’s self-management system thus becoming the only Third World country to adopt that system. Still, Libya has something similar in its ‘people’s power’, an interesting experience which has produced some interesting ideas, as has Algeria’s self-management. In fact, Communist Yugoslavia was of great import in our history. I loved Tito, that great revolutionary leader, and he loved me. Tito was not a leader installed by the Red Army after WWII, but a great man who crystallized popular will. I was young when he was doing those great things but I realized he was special. I was attracted to Yugoslavia also because of the similarity of the guerilla wars we fought. I assure you that ours was a people’s regime.”
Decades ago, Ben Bella was still crying ‘Nous sommes des Arabes, nous sommes des Arabes,’ we are Arabs, to stress the explosion of Islam in the world and the desire of Arabs for independence. His words of then are echoed by growing numbers of Arabs today demanding change as one has seen in Tunisia and Egypt and Syria—despite America’s role—and which can now can spill over into Algeria, a country of over 35 million people and landwise the biggest country of Africa.
“Islam as an idea,” he stressed then, in 1983 in a small hotel in Switzerland, “has exploded on the world scene. Islam will soon be the world’s biggest religion. The demographic aspect alone is impressive. Moslems want to lead a Moslem way of life. Youth too wants to express its own vision of life within its day-to-day life, where every act is important, where dress is important, for Islam is a totality. Our orientation today toward a consumer society with Western ways is dangerous for us because it does not correspond to our philosophy that teaches us less consumption. Less consumption does not have to mean unhappiness. Since, the reality is that there is not enough to go around; consumption must be limited in the whole world. Algeria, for example, has the potential of escaping consumer society. Once it was an extraordinary agricultural country, with the best wheat and the best cereals in the world. Now the fields have not only been abandoned; they have been assassinated by heavy industry. One wonders why we have heavy industry. We have it because of corruption, because of the lucrative contracts it offered. Our return to agriculture would help not only Algeria but also Europe. Our society in North Africa must be able to say ‘no’ to certain projects from the north.” (I see now in my notes how he often referred to Europe simply as ‘the north’) Of course we need also industry and it has brought some advantages to Algeria. However the West has paid an enormous price for industrialization, and I would like to see it thrive in a more sane way in the Third World. Though we in Algeria do not want to retreat into the Arab world, we oppose capitalism that demands and takes over everything. It was a great error to abandon our agriculture. Our peasants who made our revolution were the first victims of industrialization; they were betrayed.”
Ben Bella no longer believed in Pan Arab solutions such as the creation of a market of 300,000 people of the Arab world. “The world,” he insisted, “is one great whole. The world is one. Enough of ‘this is mine’ and ‘that is yours.’ Private property must end. The world must change. We need world solidarity. The enormous amounts of petroleum money in the banks must be used for the world, without interest. The mission of Islam is to break the capitalist logic and end the subordination to the power of money. In that respect, Islam can help overcome differences, for Islam is tolerant. I propose that we immediately eliminate borders and passports in the Maghreb. I oppose closed borders. Nationalism is contrary to Islam. Islam unites.
“I was always religious but I feel it more today because our epoch demands it. Keep in mind that Islam played a big role in the liberation of Algeria. I’m no Mullah, but I am a progressive Moslem. In that respect I am two times of the Left. Progressive Moslem culture offers a solution to many problems of the Third World. For example, it forbids usury and the hoarding of supplies and favors the circulation of surplus. That basic aspect of Islamic economics responds to the situation in the Third World. Even reactionary Islamic countries give much aid to needy countries. Europe does not understand this. Kuwait, the Emirates, Iraq, Algeria, give more aid than the West. Moslem aid reaches the corners of the Islamic world. Islam is the reason.”
Ben Bella’s analysis of that Islamic world of the 1980s rings quite contemporary. He noted that “Iran is no flower garden; but Western evaluation of Saudi Arabia is hardly disinterested. Iran is aggressive because of the retrograde part of the Arab world, because of the USA and the USSR. A revolution is defensive but a revolution that spills too much blood is dangerous. Still, the West judges Iran more harshly than it does Saudi Arabia. For obvious reasons.”
During the years since I met him I forgot revolutionary, leftwing, Ben Bella’s emphasis on Islamic fundamentalism. He seemed to foresee that fundamentalism was destined to become a major factor governing relations between Islam and the West. His leftist background, his progressive stance and close relations with Cuba and Communist Yugoslavia, his love for Che Guevara would seem to belie his evaluations of fundamentalism. He instead found the fact that fundamentalism worries some Arab governments was positive. He said proudly that fundamentalism was a hard expression of Islam, of an Islam without complexes, often a fanatic expression.
“Youth at first rejected fundamentalism but now has begun to understand and accept it. In Algeria people witnessed the breakdown of agriculture, decades of bad habits, habits of egoism that have infected our society. People are now saying ‘no’. Sometimes they speak with violence.
“Still, I don’t share fears of fundamentalism. It is youth’s search for purity.
One problem has been our inability to create a post-colonial culture of our own. Technology has meanwhile installed a new order. Our schools and universities teach a culture and a vision of life that is foreign to ours. Our culture is still a dominated and shattered culture.
“With a renewed Islam the Arab world would exist immediately. We could then communicate better with France, with the world.
“Nationalism was useful during the liberation struggle but from the moment we voted freely, nationalism was no longer necessary. Unfortunately other forms of nationalism have been born there creating many disorders.
“Islam, I believe, can replace both capitalism and Socialism in the Islamic world. Both are cultural expressions. They are not even contradictory. They are like a drop of water, Socialism emerging from capitalism. I know the Socialist world. I knew Khruschev, Brezhnev, I knew and loved Che Guevara, a real revolutionary leader, finally broken by that form of Socialism.
“Yes, Islam can replace both. That is Islam’s mission in the Moslem world. I am always searching for a program to express that mission. Though I am a man of action, events have forced me to become also a theoretician. I am developing my ideas for a social-political program.”
Ben Bella summed up by stressing the necessity of change in the Islamic world but he stressed that one thing was clear: he did not want that world to depend on the United States of America.
AHMED BEN BELLA was born to a Sufi Moslem farmer family on December 25, 1916 in Maghnia near Oran. His first language was French in this French-oriented colony; he learned Arabic much later, in prison. In 1936 he joined the French army for purposes of social advancement as did many poor people, during which time he played mid-field for the Olympique Marseille and could have played professional soccer. Ben Bella was allowed to return to Algeria in 1990 after ten years in exile.. He then formed the Movement For Democracy which he led.
Ben Bella was elected President of the International Campaign Against Aggression on Iraq at its Cairo Conference. Ben Bella has described himself numerous times in interviews as an Islamist of a mild and peace loving flavour. Despite his former one party state he now vocally advocates democracy in Algeria. He has described the militant voice rising in the Islamic world as having developed from an incorrect and faulty interpretation of Islam. He is a controversial figure, but widely respected for his role in the anti-colonial struggle, and seen by many Arab intellectuals as one of the last original Arab nationalists.
Ahmed Ben Bella died in Algiers in 2012.
Gaither Stewart is a reporter, novelist, and essayist on historical and cultural topics. His observations, often controversial, are published on many venues across the web. He’s based in Rome.
- When the Revolution Comes by Gaither Stewart (dandelionsalad.wordpress.com)