Algerians Shed Few Tears for Deceased President Chadli Bendjedid

Chadli Bendjedid’s Funeral: The Hypocrite’s Ball

“Ils sont tous venus, aujourd’hui, célébrer celui qu’ils brocardaient hier. Il a été traîné dans la boue pendant 20 ans. C’est le bal des hypocrites” (1)

(Translation: Yes, today they all showed up to honor the person they had savaged yesterday and whose reputation they had dragged through the mud for twenty years. It was a hypocrite’s ball)

1.

Chadli Bendjedid and General Khaled Nezzar.

Chadli Bendjedid and General Khaled Nezzar.

In Algeria, presidents come and go; only the military and the security establishment remain, a platitude reflected by recent events. A state funeral was held for former Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid. He died of cancer in Algiers on October 6.

In contrast with the death of neighboring Tunisia’s founding president, Habib Bourguiba similarly removed from office in 1987, whose passing in 2000 provoked a genuine outpouring of national grief, the response to Bendjedid’s death in Algeria was, at best, muted.

If the broad masses of Algerians shed few tears still, much of the Algerian elite, past and present were in attendance at the funeral, including:

• Those who had essentially `drafted’ Chadli Bendjedid for the presidency at the outset in 1979 (and then ran him from the shadows);

• Those who, like Khaled Nezzar, in 1992 Algeria’s Defense Minister, (now facing charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in a Swiss Court) threatened Bendjedid’s life to pressure him to resign the presidency;

• Those who, like Abdulaziz Bouteflika, (since 1999 Algeria’s president) somehow wiggled out of a corruption scandal during Bendjedid’s time in power.

• Some of the ministers who served in his administration, among them the economic reformer, Mouloud Hamrouche, whose late 1980s market-oriented reforms threatened the Algeria’s military junta’s hold on power (and so they dumped him along with Bendjedid).

• High level delegations from Tunisia, Mauritania Egypt and Palestine were present as were a number of key figures from the Algerian trade union movement, political parties.

It was all rather formal – drum roll, kind words, burial with honors – feigned respect and an attempt to polish his image, to lend Bendjedid the dignity in death that often had been previously denied him. For in life, at least as president, he was used, abused and then basically discarded when his services were no longer needed. Now the crocodile tears flowed. Perhaps they were present to confirm that Bendjedid really was dead and gone, taking his secrets on all of them with him to the grave? Were they jittery about Bendjedid’s soon to be released memoires?

The eulogies contrasted with how he was viewed during his lifetime. Described by his associates in the military as `a trilingual illiterate’ (‘analphabète trilingue’), a bit of an exaggeration, Bendjedid was akin to `Algeria’s Ronald Reagan’; he was considered quite incompetent, a man whose main skill consisted of reading other people’s scripts. According to some, it was in fact hisabsence of credentials which `qualified’ him for the job making him a fine cover and fall guy for those manipulating the body politic ! (2)

2.

When late in his presidency, Bendjedid began to function under the illusion that as president he actually could wield some power, he was rather rudely reminded of the limits of his mandate…and in short order, unceremoniously dumped. Not unusual by the way for an Algerian president! It had happened a number of times in the past.

The Algerian military and security forces, that had stolen power early in the country’s post 1962 independence – and have clung to it until today – prefer to manage affairs and milk the country’s rich energy resources from behind the scenes, giving a democratic gloss to what for half a century has been little other than a military dictatorship. Such arrangements play well in Paris and Washington.

The years that Bendjedid presided – or thought he did – over the Algerian nation, 1979 – 1992 saw the country plunge into an economic and social tailspin that triggered an all-out political crisis in 1988. That was only the beginning of the country’s crisis. On January 11, 1992, just weeks before the second round of scheduled national elections, Bendjedid, now expendable, was pressured to resign `with honor’ by a military delegation headed by Minister of Defense, General Khaled Nezzar.

The elections were immediately suspended by the self-appointed military junta led by General Larbi Belkheir (d. 2007), who had spent the Bendjedid years consolidating his power behind the scenes, and with it control of the country’s rich oil and natural gas resources. A full scale domestic armed conflict erupted, lasting until 1999, that is today referred to as `the dirty war’ (la sale guerre).

It was during the decade of the 1980s when Bendjedid was present that Algeria’s relationship with the United States, which had been strained since the early 1960s, slightly improved. Bendjedid and the U.S. Vice President George H. W. Bush exchanged visits. U.S. investments into Algeria’s energy sector rose. Exchanges of military personnel were established with the presence of high level Algerian military officers at U.S. embassy parties in Algiers becoming a normal occurrence (although closet security relationships between the two countries’ military and security agencies would not fully blossom until after September 11, 2011).

Having quietly improved ties with Algiers in the 1980s probably helps explain why, in the 1990s, when the Algerian Civil War was in full swing, the mainstream media in the United States barely covered it – and when they did, it was almost always with the spin shaped by the Algerian generals – that the war was against a rising, almost unstoppable Islamic fundamentalism that had to be crushed.

3.

Chadli Bendjedid was in fact part and parcel of a long-standing post-independence tradition that placed a purposefully ineffectual people in the presidency to give cover to the country’s behind-the-scenes political masters: the military and the security apparatus.

So it was in 1965 with Ben Bella, removed from power in a naked coup d’etat, when Boumedienne no longer needed his guerilla image to rule. In 1992, Bendjedid was followed by Mohammed Boudiaf, a genuine hero and guerilla leader of the country’s 1954-1962 revolution against French colonialism, who tragically, was under the illusion he was being offered executive powers. Boudiaf was coaxed back from his Moroccan exile and promised by the military-security complex that he would be given executive powers.

Boudiaf appeared serious about curtailing rampant high level corruption, reigning in the power of the military-security `clans’ (3) and bringing Algeria’s rampant violence to an end through some sort of negotiated settlement, all of which threatened the status of the powers that be. After two unsuccessful attempts to poison him, Boudiaf was `publicly’ assassinated (ie – it was shown on Algeria television), most probably by the same people who `offered’ him the presidency in the first place.

Similarly, not long after assuming power, Liamine Zeroual, who followed Boudiaf to the presidency in 1994, made serious efforts to bring an end to Algeria’s cruel civil war of the 1990s by trying to negotiate with moderate Islamicists; this rankled his military-security handlers. Soon he too was discarded. Like Boudiaf, Zeroual’s problem was he took his job too seriously. In turn, in 1999, Zeroual was replaced by Abdulaziz Bouteflika, the current president, who has been more pliable.

Bendjedid served as Algeria’s president 1979 through the beginning of 1992 when he was forced from office by the country’s ruling military clique. Bendjedid returned briefly to the public eye in 2008 when he gave a controversial speech at a conference in el-Tarif suggesting that 16 years after his dismissal, or `resignation’, he remained bitter for how he was summarily dismissed. Bendjedid became Algeria’s president in 1979, just after the death of Houari Boumedienne. The latter had seized power from the country’s first post-independence president, Ahmad Ben Bella in 1965 in what amounted to a military coup.

(1) El Watan, 9 octobre 2012. “Obsèques nationales pour Chadli Bendjedid : L’adieu”

(2) Lounis Aggoun and Jean-Baptiste Rivoire. http://www.editionsladecouverte.fr/catalogue/index-Francalgerie__crimes_et_mensonges_d__tats-9782707147479.html. La Découverte. 2004-5. p.72

(3) The term is something of a misnomer as it does not refer to people who share blood relations as much as certain tightknit groupings vying for power within the military-security complex.

Rob Prince is a Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.