Chadli Benjedid (born 1929) was elected president of the Algerian Republic and was a compromise candidate in 1979. Representing a so-called middle of the road faction, Chadli steered Algerians on a moderate path in foreign and domestic matters until he was deposed by a junta in 1991.
On April 14, 1929, Chadli Benjedid was born in Boutelda in the Annaba area. The son of a small landowner, he attended school near his home. Chadli was deeply moved by the Setif massacre of May 1945 when French police fired into crowds of Muslim Algerians. He became caught up in the rise of revolutionary nationalism in eastern Algeria, and, after fighting broke out in November 1954, he joined the FLN (National Liberation Front) and the ALN (Army of National Liberation).
His career during the war of liberation was a steady one, marked by efficiency and dedication. His competency attracted the then chief of staff Col. Houari Boumediene, who appointed Chadli to command of the Northern Military Zone in 1961. After the war Chadli was promoted to the rank of major, and at the end of 1962 he took command of Algeria's Fifth Military District. In June 1964 Chadli Benjedid was transferred to the important Second Military District headquartered in the city of Oran. Five years later Chadli achieved the rank of colonel at the age of 40.
As an indication of the esteem in which Chadli was held, he was selected to head Algeria's first mission to the Peoples' Republic of China in 1963. Chadli was also selected at that time to head the Algerian army's military tribunal. In 1965 he supported Boumediene's coup which toppled Ahmed Ben Bella from power, and when Boumediene organized the Council of the Revolution Chadli, as commander of the Second District, sat on the council with the other four regional commanders.
During the Boumediene years (1965-1978) Chadli remained a mainstay of the army supporting Boumediene's policies. When it was officially announced that President Boumediene was seriously ill, rule over Algeria was transferred to the Defense Ministry on November 22, 1978. Two influential colonels—Chadli and Abd-Allah Belhouchet, who was commander of the First District with headquarters at Blida—assumed legal control of the Algerian Republic. On December 27, 1978, Boumediene died of a rare blood disease and, according to the constitution, the powers of the executive were passed to the president of the National Assembly (ANP), Rabah Bitat, the last remaining member of the Nine Historic Chiefs of the Algerian Revolution. Bitat held the reigns of power until the FLN could convene a congress in late January 1979. The FLN, as the single party of Algeria, had a number of ideological factions, but on the last day of the congress, January 31, moderates succeeded in nominating Chadli Benjedid as the single candidate to stand for election to replace Boumediene as president. On February 9, 1979, Chadli Benjedid was elected as Algeria's third chief of state, with over 94 percent of the vote, representing moderate and army interests.
Chadli inherited a nation which was highly respected in the Third World, with a vigorous economy and a history of political stability. On the other hand, Algeria had some problems which the new chief executive spent considerable time coming to grips with. While Chadli consolidated his power by weakening the politburo by reducing its membership from 17 to nine, by weakening the position of the prime minister, and by recreating the army general staff, he remained, on the whole, committed to being accommodating, pragmatic, moderate, and outward looking. Chadli, unafraid of dealing with pressing social issues, in 1981 appointed Zhor Ounissi, an Egyptian educated writer, to be Algeria's first woman cabinet minister. As minister of social affairs, Ounissi, with Chadli's support, continually called for the passage of a liberalized personal status law for Algerian women. Chadli gave his blessing to a personal status law, but in June 1984 the ANP passed a Code de la Famille which was conservative and Islamic in nature. Not even the president's support could alter the rising tide of Islamic revivalism, another area Chadli had to face.
In July 1979 Chadli ordered the release of former President Ahmed Ben Bella from his long term house arrest. Ben Bella, who ruled Algeria from 1962 to 1965, was forbidden to engage in politics or grant interviews to the press. The release of Ben Bella was seen as an example of Chadli's willingness to be a leader bent on healing old wounds. In the area of education Chadli continued Boumediene's policies of Arabization, and he maintained Algeria's ties with the remainder of the Arab world in their support of the Palestinian cause. In foreign affairs, Chadli continued a policy of non-alignment and reconciliation. The Algerian government assisted the United States in obtaining the 1981 release of U.S. embassy personnel held in Teheran, Iran. Hoping to see a better era in U.S.-Algerian relations, the Chadli government found itself disappointed in rather cool receptions in Washington over a number of issues. Algeria refused to take sides in the Iran-Iraq War and tried several times to act as a mediator between the two Muslim states.
When Chadli Benjedid had been in power only a short time the strong tone of his administration reflected his background. His consolidation of power had to take into consideration trends in Algeria. Chadli had to deal with the West, but at the same time take note of the devotion of his people to Islam. When oil revenues fell due to a surplus of oil, Algeria remained a vital force within the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Algeria, however, under Chadli had to find ways to diversify its economy. Most important of all was Chadli Benjedid's desire to maintain Algeria's position as one of the most stable and influential nations in the Third World with a strong voice in Arab and in international councils.
Benjedid's good intentions in these areas of reform met with slow progress. He was seriously hampered by a lack of bona fide presidential power. As a result Algeria was wrought by heavy rioting in 1985. Renewed fervor among Islamic fundamentalists billowed widely throughout the populace. Benjedid's sluggish implementation of desperately needed democratic principles resulted in a new outbreak of violence in 1988. The FLN government responded with the passage of a new constitution early in 1989. Islamic activists were not appeased however, and the local and provincial elections in 1990 resulted in widespread victories for the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). In December of 1991 the FIS secured 188 Assembly seats. The reigning FLN party meanwhile, able to secure only 15 seats in the first round of elections, was toppled before the second round ever took place. A junta took power and forced Benjedid to resign. Parliament was suspended, and a Higher Council of State was instituted in its stead. The FIS was banned, and turmoil ensued.
Further Reading on Chadli Benjedid
Most of the works on the Chadli period in Algerian history deal extensively with the Boumediene period and slightly with the Chadli transition. David and Marina Ottaway, Algeria: The Politics of a Socialist Revolution (1970) and William B. Quandt, Revolution and Political Leadership: Algeria, 1954-1968 (1969) are informative. I. William Zartman, et al., Political Elites in Arab North Africa (1982) offers a good view of Algerian leadership in a comparative framework. Alf Andrew Heggoy's Historical Dictionary of Algeria (1981) is a must for those seeking a handy reference for names, terms, and events.
Information on the government of Algeria can be accessed through the Internet on the "Arabnet Home Directory" at <http://www.arab.net/algeria/govt> (July 1997).