Ahmed Ben Bella dies at 95; Algeria’s first president

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.

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 Algeria 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. He was present when the current president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was sworn in for his third term in April 2009.

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.

Ben Bella was born on Christmas Day, 1916, to a peasant family in Marnia, on Algeria’s border with Morocco. He joined the French army in his late teens.

He fought with distinction with the Free French Forces in Italy during World War II. But returning home after the allied victory in Europe, he quickly found that a war hero of Muslim origin had little future in an Algeria ruled by French settlers.

The disillusioned Ben Bella became a leader in the anti-colonialist “Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties” but went underground when it was declared illegal. Arrested in May 1951, he was interned near Blida but staged a dramatic escape two years later.

He fled to Cairo and began planning the Nov. 1, 1954, uprising that spelled the end for colonial rule in Algeria.

On Oct. 22, 1956, while on a flight from Rabat to Tunis, Ben Bella’s Moroccan plane was hijacked by its own French crew. Ben Bella was held prisoner in France until the Evian treaty ended the war nearly seven years later.

Throughout the first two years of independence, Algeria was disrupted by internal conflict between the guerrilla forces who had fought the French and the “exterior forces” based in neighboring Tunisia and Morocco under Boumedienne’s command. On June 19, 1965, the army seized power in an almost bloodless coup.