Ahmed Ben Bella (born 1918) was one of the "historic chiefs" of the Algerian war of independence and the first president of the Algerian Republic.
Ahmed Ben Bella was born into a modest peasant family on December 25, 1918, at Marnia, a small town near the Algerian-Moroccan frontier. In 1937, a few years after completing primary school, he was drafted into the French army. He remained in Marseilles until 1940, reaching the rank of sergeant, and then returned to Algeria for three years to work on his family's farm. He had considered staying in France, however, to play professional soccer.
In 1943 he returned to military duty and won both the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille Militaire for his wartime service in Italy. Back in Algeria by 1946, Ben Bella had become discouraged by the failure of the French to liberalize the colonial regime and joined the nationalist party, the Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties (MTDL). In 1947 he was elected a municipal councilor for Marnia, and the next year he ran as an MTDL candidate for the Algerian Assembly. However, French interference in the elections impeded his ability to win.
In the same year he became the local chief of a secret, nationwide organization, the Special Organization (SO) within the MTDL. Composed of about 1,800 members, its goal was to prepare for an armed struggle against French rule. By 1949 Ben Bella had become the national chief of the SO. In May 1949 he was implicated as one of the masterminds behind a holdup that had been carried out by members of the SO. Jailed in 1950, he escaped two years later and arrived in Cairo in 1953, where he joined other exiled militants of the MTDL. In March 1954 Ben Bella promised to aid the promoters of the armed insurrection which broke out in Algeria on November 1, and thus he became one of the nine "historic chiefs" of the war and a member of the external delegation of the National Liberation Front. He spent the next two years traveling and gunrunning between Cairo, Tripoli, Rome, Madrid, and Tetuán.
After the Congress of Soumman on August 20, 1956, which gave the internal chiefs predominance over the external delegation, Ben Bella met with President Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia and King Mohammed V of Morocco in Tunis, in order to seek their aid in ending the Algerian war. The airplane taking him and some companions from Rabat to Tunis was forced down over Algiers on October 22, and Ben Bella was taken to a French prison, where he remained for six years. In prison he avoided the clashes and squabbles that marked the rest of the war and that seriously divided the Algerian elite.
During his years of imprisonment Ben Bella, an avid reader, had the leisure to complete his education and develop a coherent political ideology. His imprisonment also kept him above intra-elite dissensions, and he was named vice-president of the Algerian provisional government, an honorary post created in September 1958.
When peace negotiations opened, the Algerian prisoners participated indirectly but actively in the proceedings. After the failure of the first talks at Melun in 1960, the negotiations at Évian led, in March 1962, to a ceasefire and the liberation of Ben Bella and his companions. A referendum in April 1962 ushered in Algerian independence.
At that moment the latent crisis between Ben Bella and the Algerian leaders in the provisional government, who refused to recognize his preeminence, broke out into the open. Two groups competed for control of the country: the provisional government, a French-appointed but powerless custodial government, and the army (ALN). Ben Bella, backed by soldiers of the Frontier Army commanded by Colonel Houari Boumediene, outmaneuvered the provisional government. He formed the Political Bureau at Tlemcen, near the Moroccan frontier, and rallied more partisans than did his adversaries.
Conflicts within the army, divided into antagonistic Wilayas (provinces) and external and internal forces, put Algeria on the verge of civil war during the autumn of 1962. The victory of Ben Bella's partisans restored some calm and permitted the holding of elections in October 1962, which legitimized the victory of the Political Bureau. The National Constituent Assembly proclaimed the Algerian Democratic and Popular Republic, and Ben Bella was charged with forming the first government. On September 15, 1963, he was elected president of the republic, by virtue of which he became chief of state and the head of the government at the age of 44.
Massive in size and athletically strong, he looked somewhat like a Roman centurion. Having studied classical Arabic and the writings of Karl Marx while a prisoner in France, he surprised those who had known him before 1956 by his ability to tackle the problems of state. While imprisoned he had worked out a program which he presented at Tripoli once he was liberated. In it he stated his opposition to imperialism in all its forms and called for agrarian reform, nationalization of the means of production, abolition of privileges, and a return to Arab and Islamic traditions. To apply these principles, he began to construct powerful state structures once he assumed control.
After domesticating the labor unions and the single party, the National Liberation Front, Ben Bella attempted to strengthen these institutions. He succeeded so well in forging them into powerful organs that the army under Vice-President Houari Boumediene, fearing that it would be forced into a subservient role, ousted him from power on June 19, 1965. Thereafter he was kept in a secret prison without having had a trial.
Released to house arrest July 4, 1979, Ben Bella was formally freed October 30, 1980. He spent the next decade in exile in Switzerland and France, where he formed an opposition movement in the mid-1980s. He returned to Algeria in 1990. However, the country was plunged into civil war in 1992 when military leaders canceled elections and banned the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the political party which at the time was likely to win the election. In the mid-1990s Ben Bella headed the Algerian Democratic Movement and participated in talks held in Rome in late 1994 and early 1995 with other opposition leaders in an effort to bring an end to the civil war. He remained an outspoken critic of the Algiers regime.
An account of Ben Bella's life to the mid-1960s is Robert Merle, Ahmed Ben Bella (1965; trans. 1967). A historical consideration of the development of the FLN is provided in Henry F. Jackson, The FLN in Algeria: Party Development in a Revolutionary Society (1977). Two works, William B. Quandt, Revolution and Political Leadership: Algeria, 1954-1968 (1969) and David and Marina Ottaway, Algeria: The Politics of a Socialist Revolution (1970), assess Ben Bella's presidency.