Ahmed Ben Bella, one of the key figures in the Algerian Revolution, came from humble origins. Yet he displayed an independent streak at an early age that gave indications of his future greatness in political and military affairs. He was born in 1916 in Maghnia, Algeria. In those days, all education was conducted in the French language, and Arabic was officially suppressed.
He did not do well in school, but this was not due to a lack of ability, but to an unwillingness to conform to the requirements of the apartheid regime then instituted by the French occupation authorities. He was also more of a man of action than diplomacy.
He entered the French Army in 1936, which was then one of the few ways that an ambitious Algerian man could advance in the world. His eldest brother had also served in the military, and had been killed during service in the First World War. He saw distinguished service during the Second World War, serving in both France and Italy. He received the Croix de guerre as well as the Medaille militarie at Monte Cassino in Italy; this last decoration was presented by Charles de Gaulle himself.
How strange fate is, and how tortuous are its twists and turns! De Gaulle could scarcely have imagined, in pinning Ben Bella’s medal on his chest, that he was awarding the architect of Algeria’s future revolutionary leader. He did not adapt well to life in postwar Algeria. It was clear by this time that the time had come for an end to French rule. All over the world, former European colonies in Asia and Africa were asserting their independence. There was a feeling that the old paradigms needed to go, and be replaced by new ones.
It was at this time that he began to be pulled into radical politics. His combat experience and natural independence marked him early on as a leader, and he was possessed of a natural charm and keen ruthlessness, both of which he made ample use of. He was a founding member of the so-called Organization Speciale, the precursor of the National Liberation Front (FLN). He was arrested in 1951 and sentenced to eight years in prison, but managed to escape to Egypt, which was then a haven for Arab nationalists.
My favorite photo of Ben Bella dates from this period. It is a photo taken of him and some comrades after an arrest by the French Army. Sometimes a photograph captures a personality perfectly; this is one of those times. His head is turned upward, in defiance, his lips pursed in anger. He almost seems set apart from the others, separate unto himself. This is a deeply independent–an almost combative–man; it is the face of a man who will not lie down, who will not submit.
Ben Bella was based in Cairo in the 1950s, during most of the Algerian War. Egyptian president Gamal abd-al Nasser took a liking to him and lavished material support on the Algerian rebels. Without his help, the revolution might not have succeeded. Nasser was considered the oracle of Arab nationalism at the time, and influenced the region to a degree that no other leader has been able to do since.
A poignant story is told of Ben Bella’s time in Egypt. Nasser once asked him to address a group, and Ben Bella (having been denied the ability to learn Arabic in Algeria growing up) was unable to do so effectively, since his mastery of standard Arabic at the time was incomplete. He privately wept after this incident. But he would eventually become completely fluent.
Some men must struggle to earn their identity. Some must actually earn it, and not have it bestowed on them as a birthright. And this is what makes me respect Ben Bella and Algeria even more. They really earned their independence. Some nations in the region had independence granted to them without a shot being fired. Not so Algeria.
Ben Bella, along with several others, was responsible for crafting the strategy that eventually led to Algerian independence. He was a hunted man for many years. He was forced to travel on a number of foreign passports (Pakistani, for example) to evade the reach of the French authorities.
After independence, he was elected president of Algeria in 1963. And here is where things began to go wrong for him. It is often seen that men who make good fighters and revolutionary leaders are not up to the tasks of managing the day-to-day affairs of a nation. So it seemed to be with Ben Bella.
He had spent so many years on the outside in opposition that he was perhaps temperamentally incapable of the more measured approaches required from a head of state. Some men, accomplished in the roles of agitator and revolutionary, are less so when compromise, diplomacy, and the finer points of statesmanship are needed. Hubris may have also have played some part in his downfall.
As I have said on other occasions, success can be fatal.
His land reform projects were not implemented smoothly; and his behavior was said to have alienated many of his former supporters. In 1965, he was removed from power in a bloodless coup instituted by a former comrade, Houari Boumedienne, and he was placed under a mild house arrest. This was lifted in 1979 after the death of Boumedienne, after which Ben Bella lived in France and Switzerland. He returned to Algeria in 1990.
He softened favorably with age. He recognized many of his earlier mistakes, and he was forgiven for them. He enjoyed great prestige, and was considered one of the last of the old-school Arab nationalist figures. His Arabization programs in Algeria were nothing short of remarkable.
The French language was deposed from its position of dominance and replaced by Arabic, which was an incredible achievement for a nation that had been under the French thumb for 130 years.
He had no patience for religious fundamentalism, and advocated the virtues of a multi-party democracy.
His importance lies in showing the power of the visionary will to shape external events. Not only did he exert his will on his environment, but he exerted it effectively over himself. He overcame the limitations of his background, and remade himself into what he wanted to be.
There is no better definition of a great man.
Read More: Civil War In Algeria