Historians will tell you everything you need to know about Algeria’s first leader after its independence from French colonial rule, Ahmed Ben Balla.
Ahmed Ben Balla was a leading figure in the Algerian independence movement and served as Algeria’s first president.
During his short time as president, he passed many left-leaning reforms, such as nationalizing its hydrocarbons and advocating strongly for Pan-Arabism. In this article, we will explore the eventful life of Ahmed Ben Balla.
Who was Ahmed Ben Balla?
Ben Balla was raised by a Sufi Muslim peasant family that owned a small farm and went to a French school for his childhood education.
He also attended secondary school in the nearby city of Tlemcen. While in Tlemcen, he experienced his first encounters with racial discrimination and met people who introduced him to Algerian nationalism.
The French army drafted Ben Balla in 1937 at the age of 21 years old. Ahmed was a distinguished soldier in the French Moroccan 5th regiment of the French expeditionary army during World War 2, being awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1940 for combat in German-occupied France and the Médaille Militaire in 1944 for his bravery during the Battle of Monte Cassino. He would leave French military service as a master sergeant.
Though Ben Balla was tempted to stay in France to pursue playing soccer professionally, after the war, he returned to Maghnia, where he began to become more involved in nationalist activities.
In 1945, an Algerian independence movement swept throughout the country’s population, and French authorities began taking violent measures to quell the unrest.
In May of the same year, there was a bloody massacre in Setif after French security forces killed over one hundred anti-colonial demonstrators. Thousands of Algerian demonstrators would be killed in retaliatory shootings throughout the country during the ensuing weeks.
By the time of the allied victory in Europe in May 1945, around one hundred Europeans and thousands of Algerian citizens had been killed during the unrest.
Most Algerians, though growing up with many French influences, disdained French rule. The massacres of May 1945 strengthened anti-French sentiments among much of the Algerian population and especially for young men like Ben Balla. He had just returned from fighting for the French Army in Europe.
Involvement with the MTDL
Despite being commissioned to further serve with the French Army, Ben Balla instead left Maghnia and joined Ahmed Messali Hadj’s Party of the Algerian People. French authorities threatened to confiscate his family’s farm for his revolutionary involvement.
When the French colonial government banned the party, the Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties (MTDL) was created in 1946, which attracted Algerians like Ben Balla, who were growing increasingly critical of the lack of reform in French colonialism. He was elected as the municipal councilor of the organization for his hometown of Maghnia in 1947.
In 1948, Governor Marcel-Edmond Naegelen of the MTDL democratically won the election, but the voting was openly rigged by French colonial interference. This made the underground independence movement begin to plan a more militant approach, as this election interference showed that fundamental change in Algeria couldn’t occur democratically.
That year Ben Balla became the local chief of an underground organization within the MTDL, the Organisation Speciale (OS), a paramilitary organization that planned for armed resistance against French colonial authority. He rose to the national chief of the OS in 1949.
Arrest and Exile
After being arrested for his involvement in a post office robbery in Oran in 1950, he was sentenced to seven years imprisonment. He escaped two years later to Marseille and then Paris, and eventually to Cairo, Egypt, where he joined other exiled members of the Algerian resistance and supporters of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the newly founded Republic of Egypt. While in Egypt, Ben Balla was heavily inspired by the Pan-Arabic nationalist ideas of the Nasser regime.
However, the French government used Nasser’s relationship with Ben Balla and other Algerian exiles as an excuse for the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956. During the said crisis, French, Israeli, and British forces fought against Egyptian troops Suez Canal control after Nasser’s government nationalized it.
Deeming Ahmed Messali Hadj’s leadership of the independence movement back in Algeria ineffectual and too slow-moving, Ben Balla and other Algerian exiles founded the Revolutionary Committee for Unity and Action.
In 1954, Ben Balla and his fellow exiles met with their Algerian compatriots in Switzerland, established the National Liberation Front (NLF). The NLF and planned an organized armed insurrection against French colonial rule. In November 1954, the NLF’s armed resistance against French colonial rule officially began. The movement’s armed forces were split up into six different military regions in Algeria.
In contrast, Ben Balla and other revolutionaries outside of the country were split into six different groups that would seek foreign support and supplies for the movement in Algeria.
Despite not being invited to the 1956 Congress of Soumman, the meeting of the leaders of Morocco, Tunisia, and the Algerian independence movement, Ben Balla played a vital role in the NLF, overseeing much of the trafficking of weapons from Spain, Italy, Morocco and Egypt to the revolutionaries in Algeria.
Ben Balla escaped assassination twice in 1956 from bombs planted by the French Secret Service, once in Cairo, Egypt, and another Tripoli, Libya attempt.
In 1956 his flight from Morocco to Tunisia was forced down by French authorities in Algiers. He and four other NLF members were sent to the La Sente prison in Paris and imprisoned for six years. While in jail, he read extensively and further developed his political views, studying Arabic and Karl Marx’s teachings while in prison.
This time of reading would deepen his desire for a socialist Algeria and advocation for Pan-Arabism.
The March 1962 ceasefire between Algerian independence fighters and French colonial authorities led to Ben Bella’s prison release. In the following month, Algeria finally won its independence from French colonial rule.
During the immediate aftermath of Algerian independence, there was a power struggle between the FLN’s conservative provisional government and the socialist government that was elected in Libya, called the “Bureau Politique.” There was small-scale fighting between the elite’s different factions of the independence movement during a power struggle.
Ben Balla ran as the candidate for president of the newly independent Algeria for the left-leaning Bureau Politique. With the help of some intervention and intimidation by Colonel Houari Boumedienne, Chief of the Army of National Liberation, he won the October 1963 election by a landslide.
President of Algeria
Ben Balla officially became the first President of Algeria in September 1963 at the age of 44.
Upon taking power in 1963, Algeria was in disarray. The armed conflict both between the French authorities and amongst the revolutionary factions themselves, along with the French colonial power structures’ departure, had created mass instability across the country.
Ben Balla put aside one-quarter of the national budget for the state-run education of his citizens. His administration also began to implement agrarian reforms centered around nationalizing the large farms of the former French colonial elite, though without direct, powerful state controls.
Ben Balla, inspired by his time in Egypt, established Algeria as an anti-Zionist Arab country and advocated for revolutionary uprisings throughout the third world against European colonial rule. Ben Balla would follow Nasser’s lead and nationalize industries and promote Islamic and Arabic traditions throughout Algeria.
Despite the contentious, bloody history of French rule in the country, Ben Balla maintained warm economic and diplomatic relations with the French government. However, he vehemently opposed French colonial rule elsewhere in Africa.
Ben Balla created the Société the Nationale de Transport et Commercialisation des Hydrocarbures, which was designed to diminish European oil interests in oil-rich Southern Algeria by nationalizing the country’s hydrocarbons.
He also helped solve a contentious border dispute with Morocco after a brief, small-scale war in 1963.
Though Ben Balla was well-intentioned with much of his reform, his government lacked experience building and maintaining a country. Many of his daily decisions were mostly improvised. One prominent example was his bizarre declaration that all Algerian women should donate their jewelry to the state.
Though many supported Ben Balla’s policies and believed that he was pushing the newly independent country in the right direction, the lack of a socioeconomic transformation caused dissent among the Algerian military’s leadership.
Though he banned elections and made Algeria a one-party state, he was unable to fully consolidate his control of the country and restore the military power of the NLF. Taking advantage of Ben Balla’s administration’s instability, his defense minister, Houari Boumedienne, the same military leader who helped Ben Balla rise to power, conducted a coup in 1965 and installed himself as president.
Ben Balla was removed from power and jailed. He would spend the next 15 years in prison, almost completely closed off from the outside world.
After Boumedienne died in December 1978, his sentence was relaxed by the new President, Colonel Chadli Benjedid, and was put on house arrest.
Life after 1980
Ben Balla would finally be freed in 1980 and spent exile in France and Switzerland for the next decade, returning to Algeria in 1990 to lead the opposition to the regime at the time.
He led the Algerian Democratic Movement, an Islamic opposition party that he helped found during his exile. Ben Balla sought to be a negotiating force between the heavily polarized power struggle in the country between Islamist reformers and powerful military leaders.
Algeria was ravaged by civil war in January 1992 after a coup d’état conducted by military leaders, which ended any hope for peaceful negotiations or a democratic election.
Ben Balla faded to the background during the Civil War, reappearing in Rome as a part of the 1994 and 1995 meeting of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic organization focused on bringing an end to the bloody civil war.
The Algerian government would formally ban Ben Balla’s party in 1997.
While this would mark the end of Ben Balla’s political career, he would be distinguished by the Algerian people for his role in the country’s independence movement. In 2005 the Algerian president asked Ben Balla to help organize an amnesty plan to end the ongoing civil war.
Though Ben Balla advocated for strong Islamic values throughout the Arab world throughout his lifetime, Ben Balla would strongly condemn the rise of fundamentalist Islam extremism throughout Africa and the Middle East during the final years of his life.
Ben Balla died on April 11, 2012, in Algiers.
While Ben Balla’s time as President of Algeria was short-lived, he is remembered today as a leading figure of the Algerian independence movement and one of the most respected Algerian presidents.
We’ve explored the eventful life of Algerian independence leader Ahmed Ben Balla.
Let’s go over the main events of Ben Balla’s life:
- Ben Balla was born into a peasant farm family in Algeria when the country was a colonial possession of France.
- Ben Balla served in the French during World War 2, receiving honors for his bravery, and was promoted to Master sergeant.
- Upon returning to Algeria, Ben Balla and other Algerians were angered by the killing of thousands of anti-colonial demonstrators by French authorities in May 1945.
- Ben Balla declined further military service and joined the Algerian independence movement. He then became the leader of the movement’s paramilitary group.
- After being imprisoned by French authorities, Ben Balla escaped to Egypt, where he learned from Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Pan-Arabic ideals.
- Ben Balla helped the Algerian independence movement from abroad, helping traffic weapons into the country. He would eventually be imprisoned for 6 years by French authorities.
- When Algeria became independent in 1962, Ben Balla was released from prison and became the first President of Algeria.
- Ben Balla’s administration was Pan-Arabic and followed many of Nasser’s policies, such as nationalizing many of its industries.
- Ben Balla was deposed in a coup by the military and was jailed for 15 years. He would spend the 1980s exiled in France and Switzerland, where he attempted to help negotiate peace to the Algerian Civil War. His political party was officially banned in 1997.
Ahmed Ben Balla is remembered today as one of the most influential leaders of the Algerian independence movement. While he would not act in Algerian politics after his presidency, he spent much of his late life advocating for a peaceful, democratic Algeria.