Ahmed Ben Bella became the first president of independent Algeria, after leading the struggle against the brutal rule of French colonialism.
He provided a concrete example of how revolutionary forces could humiliate an imperialist superpower even in the face of the most violent repression.
He said of himself, ‘I am not a Marxist, but I stand firmly on the left. I am an Arab Muslim, very oriented to the left in my actions and my convictions.’
After the revolution in 1963, Ben Bella was president for two years. When he was deposed in a military coup, the new regime banned the media from even mentioning his name.
But in later life he returned to political activity and inspired a new generation of activists as a leading light in the anti-war and anti-globalisation movements.
He told Socialist Review, ‘It is not difficult to envisage solutions to the problem of poverty, yet despite this people still live in absolute misery. Poverty and oppression create immense anger. If someone is starving to death what is he supposed to do?’
Ben Bella was born in 1918 to a family of farmers and traders.
Officially Algeria was an integrated part of France. But Algerians were excluded from politics and many jobs. The country was ruled by and for more than a million French settlers.
Ben Bella fought for France in the Second World War, receiving a medal for bravery from Charles De Gaulle himself. But his attitude changed when he heard of a massacre back in Algeria in May 1945.
The French settler authorities brutally repressed protests in the town of Setif. They slaughtered thousands of people.
Ben Bella turned down a promotion and returned to Algeria.
He later explained, ‘I felt that I owed it to the people of my own community to return home, and that I must endeavour by all the means in my power to improve their lot and rectify the injustice from which they had suffered.’
At first he worked as a councillor in his home town Marnia, but quickly became involved in underground revolutionary work.
He was arrested and imprisoned. He escaped in 1952 by sawing through his cell bars.
He lived in exile, and set up a new Algerian resistance movement, the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) in Egypt—at that time the centre of a new Arab nationalism based around Gamal Abdel Nasser.
The war for independence included a strategy of spectacular attacks against targets across Algeria, aimed at drawing the world’s attention.
Ben Bella moved around the Middle East organising the resistance. He was captured by the French and imprisoned from 1956 to 1962.
He made use of his time in prison to learn Arabic. Ironically, Ben Bella had been brought up speaking French. When Nasser had asked him to address a rally, he had been embarrassed that he couldn’t speak the language of the masses.
By 1962 the FLN had fought the French to a standstill. Ben Bella was released and addressed the United Nations, laying out his plans for independence.
‘The credo of Algeria’s political and diplomatic action will be the liquidation of colonialism in both its classic and disguised forms,’ he said.
In 1963 he was elected president in an uncontested election. He talked of socialism, and introduced a series of popular land reforms to help the poor and landless farmers.
‘Autogestion’, or self-management, was adopted after the peasants seized former French lands.
He was convinced to help fund the Battle of Algiers film when ex-guerrilla leader Saadi Yacif said that the revolution belonged not just to the people of Algiers but to the oppressed and exploited of the world.
But unfortunately Ben Bella failed to take the revolutionary process forward. His government tried to balance between the newly radicalised workers and peasants and the forces that wanted Algeria to make peace with imperialism and fit in with the capitalist global economy.
This proved to be an impossible task. In 1965 Ben Bella was deposed in a coup and placed under house arrest until 1980, when he was allowed to leave the country. He was only allowed to return home in 1990.
He came out of retirement to work with the anti-globalisation and anti-war movements. He presided over the 2002 Cairo conference, and in February 2003 addressed a rally of 2 million in London’s Hyde Park against the invasion of Iraq.
On his 88th birthday he spoke at a screening of The Battle of Algiers in London. He said, ‘The fight then was for the liberation of Algeria from the French. Now it is for the liberation of the world from globalisation.’
Ben Bella devoted his life to the struggle for freedom and against imperialism and his death is a great loss.
Anwar Ditta, a heroic anti-racist campaigner, died last week.