Algeria's first president dies at 95

Associated Press Modified: April 11, 2012 at 3:31 pm •  Published: April 11, 2012
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ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Ahmed Ben Bella, Algeria's first president and a historic leader of its bloody independence struggle from France, died at his family home in Algiers on Wednesday. He was 95.

Family members and the state news agency did not give the cause of death, but twice in the last month Ben Bella had been treated at the military hospital of Ain Naadja for discomfort.

The charismatic Ben Bella, a symbol of pan-Arabist ideology as well as the global anti-colonial movement, was president of Algeria from 1963 until he was overthrown in a military coup in 1965 by the army chief of staff, Col. Houari Boumedienne.

Ben Bella was under house arrest until 1980, and he went into self exile in Switzerland until returning to the country in 1990 as part of the opposition to the ruling political party he helped found.

A giant of Algeria's independence struggle and the country's first few years, he played only a symbolic role in the latter years of his life, heading the opposition Movement for the Democracy in Algeria Party, which competed in the aborted 1991 elections, winning just 2 percent of the vote.

His party was banned in 1997, but he continued to live in Algeria, often condemning government policies. He was present when the current president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was sworn in for his third term in April 2009.

Two years earlier, Ben Bella became head of the African Union's "Group of Elders."

Aside from Bouteflika, Ben Bella was the country's sole civilian leader and was followed by a string of generals.

One of the six "historic leaders" of Algeria's revolt against French colonial rule, Ben Bella spent 23 years of his life in French and Algerian prisons.

Through most of the eight-year war of independence, Ben Bella was held in a French fortress. His liberation was one of the main Algerian demands in the drawn-out peace talks that led to the 1962 Evian agreements for Algeria's independence.

Elected president of the newly-independent nation virtually without opposition, he enjoyed less than three years of an extravagant and erratic leadership before being overthrown in an army coup and imprisoned by Boumedienne, then army chief of staff.

Until Boumedienne's death 13 years later, Ben Bella became a "non person" in Algeria. No public mention of his name was allowed in Algerian media — all state-controlled.

Even the official attacks on Ben Bella's allegedly "arbitrary and wasteful" regime avoided mentioning his name.

Boumedienne died in 1978. His pragmatic and moderate successor, Chadli Bendjedid, freed Ben Bella from more than a decade of detention without trial, ultimately allowing him to go abroad with his wife Zora and their two adopted daughters.

It was Ben Bella's misfortune that he was very much a product of the colonial regime that France imposed on Algeria for 130 years. He spoke better French than Arabic, and the Arabic he spoke was colloquial rather than literary.

As a result, he had difficulty conversing with the leaders of other Arab nations. His often rousing and emotion-charged speeches as president were delivered in Algerian Arabic — which few citizens of other Arab nations fully understand — and when he wanted to stress a particular argument, he broke into French.



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