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Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle – 2 – on Algerian Political Figure Ahmed Ben Bella.

August 18, 2014
Algiers - 2014, photo credit Michael Busch

Algiers – 2014, photo credit Michael Busch

1.

The University of Denver’s Library – oh yes, it is not called a library anymore, but the “Anderson Academic Commons” – I assume named after the largest contributor to the facility’s remodeling, a vulgar, if now common place way to name a facility – does have a few of Robert Merle’s works, some in French, a few in English. Among the English translations is Merle’s “Ben Bella”. In some ways more of a hagiography than a biography – not surprising when the protagonist is given the opportunity to comment on his own life – but still in many ways timely and of historical interest.

Ahmed Ben Bella was one of the more prominent leaders, organizers of the Algerian revolt for independence against France. One of the original founders and leaders of Algeria’s national liberation front (“front de la liberation nationale” in French, hence known as the FLN), he emerged shortly after Algeria’s independence in July, 1962 as his country’s first president. This was only achieved as the result of a harsh, mean-spirited factional struggle among the FLN’s leadership, that would soon bring down Ben Bella as well, as the revolution “ate its children.”

Robert Merle’s Ben Bella – transcribed (and edited) interviews with Ben Bella during that short period when he served as Algeria’s president – was first published in 1965 by Éditions Gallimard, a prominent French publishing house, suggesting that it would receive a broad readership in France. An English translation appeared soon thereafter, in 1967 by Walker & Company, a subdivision of Publications Development Corporations in Great Britain. The fifteen taped interviews Merle conducted with Ben Bella that make up the book’s content were done in the spring of 1964. As he explains in his preface, the book is not a Merle commentary on Ben Bella’s life, so much as giving Ben Bella his own voice essentially to speak to the people of France far more than to an Algerian reading public. Merle might have edited out some materials – he admits to having done so – but it is clear that the author wants to humanize the Algerian president, by letting him share some of his personal history.

Although the book was undoubtedly motivated by certain political considerations, for a French author to even attempt to draw what is essentially a friendly personal portrait of one of the key leaders in Algeria’s eight year armed struggle against France in the mid-1960s took a certain amount of political courage. It would be akin today to an Israeli author publishing a biography of Khaled Meshal, Hamas’ titular leader or of an American writer writing sympathetically of Ho Chi Minh in the aftermath of the Vietnam War or Ayatollah Khomeini following the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Possible but unlikely. Although France and Algeria had formally made their peace with France granting Algeria its independence, still, it stirred a great wave of anti-Arab, anti-Islamic bigotry and outright hatred in France itself, especially among the country’s more militarist and conservative Catholic circles. That strain of bigotry never died in France; if anything these past decades it has strengthened considerably today taking the form of the country’s anti-immigration movement led by the Le Pens.

Having been born in Tebessa and spent his earliest years in Constantine, Lagouart and Algiers, Algeria was a place with which Robert Merle had a certain connection , although it was admittedly through the lens of French colonialism, in which his father served as an officer. That France survived what was easily the greatest threat to its democracy in the post-World War II period was far from a sure thing and the bitterness and horrific anti-Algerian, anti-Arab and anti-Islamic racism was nowhere near dissipated in 1964 when Robert Merle interviewed Ben Bella, nor a few months afterwards, when with a group of some 25 fellow college students from St. Lawrence University, I came to France for a year of study and travel (although I would argue that most of were oblivious to all this at the time).

In 1964, France was still licking its wounds from the Algerian War, wounds which had far from healed. Indeed, much like the period of United States involvement in Vietnam a decade later, the Algerian War split France right down the middle. On the one hand a powerful peace and anti-war movement developed calling for an end to French barbarism and torture in Algeria. A great (to my mind) French bard, the anarchist, Boris Vian, made the song “Le Deserteur” famous; it called for French soldiers to desert the army rather than serve in Algeria – and many did. Behind that song was a broad-based peace movement. Later, Peter, Paul and Mary would pick up the song, translate it into English (softening some of Vian’s, let us say, more hard-hitting verses) and it would enjoy some popularity in the United States during the Vietnam War years.

On the other hand, a powerful ultra-right wing movement spearheaded took hold as well and very nearly overthrew the French government of the time. Spearheaded by French settlers in Algeria (similar to the movement of right-wing Israeli settlers in the Palestinian occupied territories) and elements of French military serving there, it was referred to as the Organization de l’armée sècrete, or the O.A.S. It’s main goal was to prevent France from leaving Algeria. In Algeria, particularly during the last years of French rule in an effort to eliminate both French and Algerian moderates, it engaged in a campaign of terror targeting those “colons” who were sympathetic to the Algerian independence cause.

The O.A.S. also killed many Algerians hoping to trigger revenge strikes by Algerians in an effort to further polarize the communities. Their efforts did produce a certain result: it made it virtually impossible for the French to remain in Algeria after independence. The O.A.S. did not limit their activities to Algeria, but extended them to metropolitan France where they carried out a series of terrorist bombings that killed hundreds. On October 17, 1961, Maurice Papon, the very same one who would crush the skulls of Paris students seven years later, ordered the French police to attack a large demonstration of some 30,000 Algerians living in France calling for an end to France’s war against Algeria and supporting Algerian independence. The police attacked the demonstration, at least 200 demonstrators were killed, many of their bodies simply dumped into the Seine. Thousands were then herded in the basement of a Paris sports stadium where they were kept for weeks, beaten, tortured until they were finally released. It is referred to as “The Paris Massacre of 1961.” (1)

Long after this police orgy of violence against Paris Algerians a banner hung on a bridge over the Seine which read “Ici on noie les Algerians” (here in Paris, we drown Algerians).” It took half a century for the French authorities to admit these crimes. There were also several failed attempts to assassinate French President Charles De Gaulle and to overthrow his government through military coups. In response to these death threats, De Gaulle is claimed to have commented simply “ah, it would be a glorious way to die.”

2.

In the Preface, Merle relates that while teaching in Algiers in 1963 he had met Ben Bella at a boys’ orphanage. Ben Bella obviously wished to continue the relationship and a few months afterwards invited Merle, whom he knew as both a writer and a figure on France’s non-Communist left, to lunch. Merle used the occasion to ask if Ben Bella might be willing to grant him a series of interviews for a biographical book which would introduce French readers to both the man and his ideas (which I would guess is precisely why Merle got the lunch invitation in the first place.) A few months later, Ben Bella accepted.

No doubt the arrangement served both well. For Merle, who had just returned from Cuba and written a book about the attack on the Moncada barracks, it was an opportunity for “a scoop”, another big story. After Castro, Ben Bella! It suggested that Merle was influential and respected enough to have access to one of the most left-minded of a new crop of Third World post-colonial leaders – the guerrilla-turned-statesman committed to building socialism in Algeria. At the time, in spite of the fact that the Algerian war of independence was exceedingly cruel and messy, it was clear that France and Algeria would remain in close contact with one another for the foreseeable future, and their fates – as well as their economies – were joined at the hip. Yet post-1962 France, including its circles of power, knew little to nothing about post 1962 Algeria. Where was this newly independent country heading? How could it affect French-Algerian relations? Merle could, through this book, provide a useful sketch. It would be Robert Merle who would introduce Ben Bella’s early life as well as his time in the maquis and some of his ideas of building a socialist economy in Algeria to French readers, and shortly thereafter, to an English speaking audience as well. That the book was so quickly translated and printed in English as well, suggests that both British and American political decision makers were also interested.

There were serious ideological questions at hand. What precisely did Ben Bella mean by Algerian socialism? Just how “socialist” was post-independence Algeria going to become? How would the relations between market and state be organized? How would Algerian socialism resemble “existing socialism” – ie, the form it took in the Eastern European communist countries and the USSR? How would it differ?  Would the “voice of the people” be heard? Algeria was not, it turns out, the only newly independent country in Africa that tried, at least at the outset, to create a “socialist society.” (2) No doubt the term was very popular throughout the Third World in the 1950s and 1960s, both because the role the USSR had played in defeating the Nazis in World War II, and increasingly, as well, as a result of the Chinese Revolution of 1949 which swept Mao Tse Tung and the Chinese Communists to power.

In the case of Algeria there was virtually no theoretical work done concerning the country’s fate “after the revolution.” The main goal had been to win independence through armed struggle; but little thought had been given to what to do once the reins of power had shifted from French to Algerian hands. This is not at all unusual for the Third World revolutions of this period. Beyond overthrowing their colonial oppressors, more often than not, their leaders lacked a vision, even in the broadest sense, a blueprint for the new society. And those who had – or seemed to have had a vision – Nasser, Nkrumah, Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral – didn’t live very long to see it come to fruition. This absence of a plan was to have profound – and unfortunately mostly – negative consequences, including in Algeria (but that is another story).

As for Ben Bella, he had little to lose and much to gain from his interviews with Merle. Of course, such ventures are always a bit of a gamble. It was certainly possible that Merle would have written a more critical history than was produced. But no doubt, Ben Bella knew exactly what he was doing by accepting Merle’s invitation. The fact of the matter was that at the time Ben Bella and Merle sat down together, Ahmed Ben Bella was already in political trouble, his domestic base of support in the process of shrinking – it would shrink further still – and he was badly in need to counter his flagging domestic position with international support, which he hoped would come from primarily from France. He was looking for international credibility wherever he could get it – from other Third World leaders from the Movement of Non-Aligned Movement, from the Soviet Union (which hesitated), and even from France and the United States. He had put out feelers in all these directions in hopes of strengthen his position internationally as it eroded domestically. In the end, these attempts failed miserably.

On June 19, 1965, Ahmed Ben Bella was arrested and removed from power in a coup d’etat organized by his former Minister of Defense, Houari Boumedienne. He would never again play a major role in Algerian politics. The release of Merle’s book did little to shed light on the internecine struggles which had flared up essentially since the outset of Ben Bella’s rise to power. The `disconnect’ between the portrait Merle paints of Ben Bella, and the reality of what was transpiring in Algiers could not have been greater. Some fundamental insights were missing from the narrative, easier to note a half century later, I admit, but still…

3.

By letting Ben Bella “speak in his own words” Merle avoided the internecine power struggles in which Ben Bella was intimately involved – and as a result of which he too would be victimized. He must have known about them, informed as Merle was on Algerian realities. These power struggles which are glossed over, really not explored at all, would, unfortunately shape the Algerian political scene from that time until today. Merle was living in Algiers at the time and must have been aware to one degree or another of what was happening there. It is rare that oral histories are anything but self-serving and “Ben Bella” is case in point. If there is any self-criticism involved, I missed it. Perhaps such a positive impression was created because Ben Bella represented, if you like, what might be referred to as “the left option” of the Algerian Revolution, that included the nationalization of private property and the beginning of a program of Yugoslav-style self-management.

Merle’s sympathies at the time were clearly with the more left models of development in the newly independent countries of the Third World development.

Unfortunately, Ben Bella’s approach to his politics was typically factional and, frankly, undemocratic, added to the fact that the social base for his plans to build Algerian socialism was quite narrow. Merle ignores Ben Bella’s intense factionalism and in so doing, fails to give a more comprehensive, honest, sober portrait of the man.

Once in power, Ben Bella is essentially an Algerian Stalinist, his support for a left, Marxist orientation, little more than a cover for a power grab, one that would from the outset, undermine if not destroy, the democratic hopes of his countrymen. He was unwilling to make the strategic alliances necessary to share power. He wanted it all and was not above engaging in an extraordinary level of ruthlessness to achieve his goal, despite the supposed “nobility” of his intentions. The means justified the end and the means were very rough stuff. Robert Merle could not have been unaware of all this. Of course, Ben Bella was not alone in this – his domestic opposition, Boumedienne, was in every way his match, in what would become a power struggle over who would control the country’s rich oil and gas resources. Of course, one can say that Boumedienne and his faction “won” and that Ben Bella “lost” the contest, but the fact of the matter is that the real losers were the Algerian people and Algerian democracy, which has yet, 52 years and a horrible civil war in the 1990s later, yet to recover.

Looking back from the vantage point of a half century of the country’s turbulent history, it is not so difficult to understand the difficulties in “building Algerian socialism.” The Algerian industrial working class, the key social force on which such a program could be built, hardly existed in Algeria in 1962. The “peasantry” – more accurately put the displaced rural proletariat or agricultural working class was not yet an organized force politically. Add to that the Algerian entrepreneurial and intelligentsia class, weakened but still alive was generally hostile to programs of radical nationalization. Besides, the entire country was in a state of trauma as a result of the independence war. As in Afghanistan fifteen years later (1979), in Algeria, mechanical attempts to impose a foreign economic model regardless how “progressive” it might seem in social and political terms, had to take into consideration the powerful role of religion in the country’s life.

Failing to have an adequate organized social base to support his rise to political power and implement his socialist ideals, Ben Bella did the next best thing: he allied himself with the only organized social force in Algeria at independent that was organized and armed: the Algerian military led by Colonel Houari Boumedienne. At independence, it could be fairly argued that this army, which spent a good part of the independence war outside of the fighting in Algeria in military bases in Tunisia and Morocco, was the only organized and armed social force in the country that had not been battered all to hell by the intense conflict going on within the country.

Immediately a polarization – a full blown power struggle – developed between those who had lead the rebellion on the interior – and whose ranks were shattered by the war’s end and whose leadership was largely exterminated by the French on the one hand, and Boumedienne’s army “on the exterior” which had sat on the sidelines. The “interior” elements formed a provisional revolutionary government, the Gouvernement Provisoire de la République Algèrienne (Provisional Algerian Revolutionary Government) whose French acronym was the GPRA. Boumedienne’s exterior military became known as the Armée de Libération Nationale or ALN. Ultimately – ultimately being by 1965, Boumedienne and the ALN would win the power struggle.

The forces “of the interior” would lose this power struggle, with most of the leadership either being assassinated arrested or forced into exile. Yet they retained – and retain to this day – the status of nothing short of revolutionary saints among the Algerian people; they were les historiques (metaphorically – “the founding fathers”) of the Algerian Revolution. The key player of the “forces of the interior”, who shifted alliances from the GPRA to the ALN, was Ahmed Ben Bella. He had survived the war years having had, it turns out, “the good fortune” of having been kidnaped by the French in an air hijacking; as a result, he spent most oof the war years safely in a French prison.

The struggle for power between the GPRA – which included the main leadership of the national liberation movement inside Algeria – and the ALN led by Boumedienne with the support of the military trained and armed outside the country would unfold over the next few years and culminate in Boumedienne’s successful coup against Ben Bella. It proceeded in two phases. In the first phase Ben Bella and Boumedienne worked together to neutralize the GPRA leadership by hook or crook (mostly the latter). His alliance with Boumedienne gave the ALN an aura of legitimacy as one of the historiques was now on his side. Once the GPRA leadership had been politically neutralized, the political power struggle erupted between the two former allies, Ben Bella and Boumedienne. Ahmed Ben Bella was chosen to be Algeria’s first president.

Phase Two of this power struggle sees the former allies, Ben Bella and Boumedienne, turning on one another. To strengthen his position early in his presidency, Ben Bella has “resurrected” Boumedienne who had been “fired” by the faction of the “historiques” in Libya. Ben Bella gave Boumedienne the powerful position of minster of defense. As the power struggle intensifies, virtually all of the “historiques” lose their influential position; some form organized opposition parties, trying to stop the drift towards authoritarian rule. In the midst of this, in August, 1963, a mere year after formal independence had been declared, the prestigious and moderate Ferhat Abbas, quits his post as president, complaining that he has no power and is little more than a figurehead played by both sides.

Then, having eliminated their potential rivals Ben Bella and Boumedienne now turn on each other in the ultimate grab for complete control of the country. They engage in a power struggle organized through the personal intelligence-security apparatuses that both created. The batten of the intelligence agencies follows. Shortly after having been named defense minister, Boumedienne, who was as adept at all this infighting as anyone – and it turns out more adept – wasted no time; soon thereafter he proceeded to fire his own administrative director, Abdelhafid Bousseff, the founder of the Algerian secret political police. With Bousseff thus neutralized, Boumedienne created his own secret police, Securité Militaire, or as it would come to be known as, simple, the SM. He put Kasdi Merbah, a KGB trained military officer in charge.

Not to be outflanked, now Ben Bella created his own personal intelligence-security force, “les brigades spéciales” Both security forces then proceed to engage in mass arrests, mostly of their real or perceived political opponents. Done with no due process, many – the actual number is unknown – people were simply picked up off the street, arrested, tortured, imprisoned, killed, undermining what little remained of Algerian democracy. Although this struggle would not end until the June, 1965 coup, it went on for three years. There really wasn’t much doubt as to the eventual outcome. Boumedienne retained control of the military and its own security force, the SM; Ben Bella’s political base was much narrower. Ben Bella tried to broaden his base by re-integrating some of the purged “historiques” back into positions of influence, legalizing Hocine Aït Ahmed’s opposition “Socialist Forces Front” or FFS.

The struggle between Ben Bella and Boumedienne intensified. In early 1964 Boumedienne went to Moscow; Ben Bella took advantage of his absence to remove him as commander and chief of the military. In his place Ben Bella named Ghiel Zbiri. Mistakenly thinking that he had now gained full control of the situation, Ben Bella called for a congress of the FLN (the national movement) for which he conveniently personally chose all the delegates. There he launched an ideological attack against what he referred to as “The Ourgla Clan” (or faction), the military-security network that Boumedienne had put in place during the independence war.

Knowing that it was one thing to purge the man, Boumedienne, and entirely something else to eliminate the organizational structures that Boumedienne had carefully put in place, Ben Bella then went ahead to purge many of those tied to Boumedienne, among those removed in a sweeping purge on May 25, 1965 were Ahmed Medeghri, Minister of Interior, Ahmed Kaïd, Tourism Minister and Abdelazis Bouteflika, then foreign minister. Bouteflika whose checkered career would bounce up and down like a yo-yo, is currently (2014) Algeria’s president, a position he has held since 1999. If it appeared that Ben Bella had the upper hand, then, once again, surface impressions can be misleading. On June 19, 1965, in a carefully planned and orchestrated coup, Boumedienne struck back with full force. Using his still many supporters in the military, Boumedienne launched a successful coup against Ben Bella, just prior to the opening of an Afro-Asian summit in Algiers that would never take place.

4.

In a fascinating biography of his father, Robert Merle, in several pages, son Pierre Merle elaborates on  the social environment in which Ben Bella was written. Pierre Merle’s comments/insights are of interest. The book’s intended title was Le Président Ben Bella. To that effect, a contract was signed with Gallimard on June 18, 1965. The next day, Ben Bella was overthrown by Boumedienne’s coup and the title was simply changed to Ben Bella. The new realities gave the book a different meaning. Now its publication would give French readers a glimpse into Algeria’s first ex-president, whose whereabouts would remain unknown for years.

Because of the official silence concerning Ben Bella’s fate, there was much speculation in France that as a part of the coup, Boumedienne had executed him, not unrealistic musings at the time. But this proved not to be the case. He remained in prison until 1981 when he was pardoned by Boumedienne’s successor, Chadli Bendjedid. He spent the next decade living in the more politically safe environment of France, returning to Algeria in 1999 at which point he no longer engaged in politics. He died in 2007.

To his credit, Robert Merle’s interest in Ben Bella and concern for the fate of the Algerian Revolution did not end with publication of Ben Bella. If Merle failed to appreciate the degree to which Ben Bella himself came to power in what amounts to a 1962 coup d’état and proceed to engage in his own factional struggles to maintain power, still Ben Bella’s 1965 arrest and subsequent disappearance troubled Merle deeply. The French government’s public indifference to Ben Bella’s fate, invoking the non-interference in a sovereign state’s domestic affairs appalled him, as well it should have. When is it that France, then and now, would not intervene in the affairs of others, most specifically its former colonies, when it saw its interests threatened? While Boumedienne did move to nationalize the French owned oil industry in Algeria, very possibly Paris still considered Boumedienne “the lesser of two evils”, the greater being Ben Bella, who had, however clumsily, moved to nationalize private enterprise in the newly independent country.

In any case, Merle swung into action after the coup.

He had been impressed – and here rightly so – with the contribution that Ben Bella had made to France’s fight against the Nazis (he had fought in the French army during the war and had been awarded medals for his bravery). Almost immediately after Ben Bella’s downfall, Merle sent a telegram to Boumedienne protesting the arrest. “Deeply concerned about Ben Bella’s fate; I ask you to give the international press proof that he is alive. Distinguished saluations. Robert Merle.” (4) This telegram was republished both in L’Humanité and Le Monde, giving the case some initial publicity in France.

Shortly thereafter the Committee To Defend Ahmed Ben Bella (le Comité pour la defense d’Ahmed Ben Bella) took shape in which Merle played a leading role. It submitted a complaint on Ben Bella’s behalf before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights signed by, among others, Jacques Berques, Simone de Beauvoir, André Breton, François Mauriac, Yves Montand, Françoise Sagan, Jean-Paul Sartre as well as important British, Italian, Dutch, West German and Australian public figures.

The campaign did not stop there and it very well might have saved Ben Bella’s life, nothing short. Boumedienne, sensitive to international opinion, despite a public posture suggesting otherwise, feared a more generalized political and economic isolation. While Ben Bella’s situation remained a mystery for some time, his life was spared, a rather unusual result to the victims of Algerian post-independence power struggles.

Endnotes.

  1. As usual it is impossible to determine a precise number of victims. Today the French government admits to having killed 200; Algerian sources claim the dead victims to have been in the thousands.
  2. The exceptions to this rule were Vietnam and China, both led by Communist Parties. I am aware of no other until the 1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran.
  3. For much of his life, especially after World War 2, until the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which he opposed, Merle was a non-Communist French leftist. Although it has been asserted that he had close ties to the French Communist Party, this is somewhat overstated and inaccurate. Critic of U.S. foreign policy – who wasn’t/isn’t these days? – he had little use for the alternative of “actually existing socialism.” True, for a short period of time, he was a member of the French Communist Party, but found that the organization, based on democratic centralism, was less democratic and more centralized then he had hoped. The connection was brief and the parting of the ways decisive. That said, there is the dictum that “there is no such thing as `an ex-Communist'” and the connection haunted him afterwards, despite its brevity. There are some suggestions that his brief flirtation with the French CP cost him a nomination to the prestigious Academie Goncourt.
  4. Pierre Merle. Robert Merle: Une vie de passions. Ėditons de Fallois. Paris: 2008. p. 216.

—————

Links:

Rouen Chronicles: Amsterdam – 1965

Rouen Chronicles: Arques La Bataille, Dieppe

Rouen Chronicles: Dieppe 2 – The Botched Dieppe Raid of August 17, 1942 (in two parts) – Part One

Rouen Chronicles: Dieppe 2 – The Botched Dieppe Raid of August 17, 1942 (in two parts) – Part Two

Rouen Chronicles: The Strange and Short Saga of Dominique Vergos

Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle – 1

Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle – 4 Fortunes de France translated into English

Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle – 5 City of Wisdom and Blood

Rouen Chronicles – The Literary Work of Robert Merle (in two sessions) – Notes

Rouen Chronicles: Ferid Boughedir

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