Ben Chadli
Ben Chadli; drawing by David Levine

Along the coast, some fifty miles westward from Algeria’s capital, Algiers, lie the Roman ruins of Tipasa. There are few more idyllic spots in the entire Mediterranean, and it provoked from Albert Camus one of his most eloquent and nostalgic essays. Writing almost exactly half a century ago in the tranquil prewar days of colonial Algeria, Camus described euphorically how he had experienced “the happy lassitude of a wedding day with the world.” Tipasa is an absinthe perfumed paradise of expressionist colors. A peacock-colored sea sensuously “sucks with the noises of kisses.” Vast ochre amphora, and columns made golden by the sun, contrast joyously with the silvery olives that spring from an iron-red soil. “Here the gods themselves serve as tryst-places, or beds,” Camus wrote. “Happy is he among the living who has seen such things.”

Today, on its sea-washed promontory, a small memorial to Camus still bears the now worn quotation from his works, in French: “Glory consists of the ability to love without measure.” Since Camus, the glory that colonial France once created in Algeria has largely passed into limbo, and the gently peaceful beauty of Tipasa casts a deceptive cloak over a ferocious past. It was on a sunny beach close to Tipasa that French women and children, as well as men, were machine-gunned as they bathed, by guerrillas in the Algerian FLN. This was during the Algerian war, some twenty-five years ago. Meanwhile, at Zeralda just a few miles to the east, Algerian suspects died in a French torture camp; and it was from barracks in this same Zeralda that in April 1961 rebel units of the elite French paras launched a nearly successful coup against General de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic.

Three decades have now passed since the FLN declared war on the French in Algeria, which is a long time in modern memory, and one tends to forget the passions stirred in France, as well as in the United States and the third world by this appallingly savage war. Lasting almost twice as long as the First World War, the war in Algeria cost the French Army 17,456 dead and 64,985 injured; while the Algerians put their own losses, mostly among civilians, at somewhere near a million out of a total population of not quite ten million. Though the French casualties were far less severe than those suffered by the US in Vietnam, the political consequences to France were incomparably graver. The seemingly unwinnable war toppled five French governments, and finally the Fourth Republic itself; it brought De Gaulle to power, and France twice to the brink of civil war.

Much of the bitterness stemmed from the fact that, during the 130 years of the presence française, France had declared Algeria to be an integral part of her territory—just like Provence or Normandy—and for many years no French government could risk abandoning it. François Mitterrand, then minister of the interior, took a hard line, grimly warning Frenchmen that if Algeria were lost the Russian Navy would be established at Oran. When, after nearly eight years of war, De Gaulle signed the Evian Peace Treaty in 1962, France had to absorb most of the one million pieds noirs (as the white colonists were called) who were chased out by the FLN.

For the Algerians, however, the bitterness and the killing did not stop with Evian. With parallels to what happened in Vietnam and elsewhere (and a similar pattern may well be developing in South Africa today), the military war against the French had also been accompanied internally by a fierce civil war. Moderate Algerians were slaughtered by extremists, and leaders of the FLN, like Ramdane Abbane, were liquidated by their peers. Civil strife continued well after 1962, poisoning the bloodstream of the newly independent Algeria.

Scores against those who had. “collaborated” with the French were among the first to be viciously settled. Out of a quarter of a million Algerian “Harkis” who fought in the French army, fewer than 15,000 managed to escape to France; of those who remained, somewhere between 30,000 and 150,000 were tortured, mutilated, or executed in atrocious circumstances. Some were made to swallow their French decorations.

Like Saturn, as Vergniaud wrote of the French Revolution, revolutionaries devour their own children, and among the earliest victims of independent Algeria was its first president, Ahmed Ben Bella. Hijacked by French intelligence operatives in 1956, Ben Bella spent six years of his life in French jails. After only three years of freedom, Ben Bella—a civilian—was deposed by the wartime military leader, Houari Boumedienne, in 1965, on the grounds of leaning too far toward the USSR and being too much attracted by the “cult of the individual.” Though spared his life, Ben Bella then suffered another fourteen years’ imprisonment, or varying degrees of house arrest, at the hands of his own countrymen.


During the Boumedienne era, other wartime leaders critical of the regime were hunted down in exile abroad; Mohamed Khider, one of the nine who launched the revolt in 1954, was shot down in a Madrid street; as late as 1970 Belkacem Krim, who led the Evian negotiations for Algeria, was found strangled in a Frankfurt hotel. At home, Boumedienne set up a repressive, authoritarian regime in which the military was preeminent. To forestall the likelihood of Boumedienne in his turn being removed by a coup, regional commanders were not permitted to communicate laterally with one another, but only through Boumedienne’s army headquarters—where all power ultimately resided.

The tone of this postwar Algeria was predominately austere, and Islamic. Every pressure was applied to replace the French language by Arabic. Where revolutionary Algerian women had come to expect a marked degree of emancipation, the clock was put back and the haik (veil) returned. Algerians looked nervously over their shoulders when speaking to strangers, and were inhibited in what they said.

In common with Russia after 1917 (and, indeed, not unlike France itself after 1793), Boumedienne’s Algeria emerged with the strident voice of the revolutionary victor. Abroad, it set itself up as the pacemaker of the third world. There were few issues concerning the Middle East or Africa in which Algeria did not take the lead; and it was no friend of the West. It was, for instance, during the Algiers Non-Aligned Conference of September 1973 that were adopted the essential economic strategies preliminary to the “Yom Kippur” War against Israel the following month. Under the rule of both Ben Bella and Boumedienne, Algeria sometimes looked as though, following a brutal revolution, it might well lapse permanently into some nasty dictatorship, if not an overtly Marxist regime—the course taken by Vietnam as well as by many other third-world countries that have gained independence from former colonial powers. Then, unexpectedly, Boumedienne died in December 1978 and was replaced by Ben Chadli. The manner of the coming of Ben Chadli in itself marked a break with the past; instead of succeeding a forcibly deposed incumbent, this relatively unknown wartime colonel was elected peaceably by the council of the FLN. Since then Algeria has tended to slip from the world headlines.

The first time I went to Algeria was in 1973, little more than ten years after the end of the war. I found it astonishingly beautiful, a country inhabited by a tough and often dour people whose rugged self-reliance one had also to admire. Although Algerians liked to say, with laudable magnanimity, “the page is turned,” the traces of war were still everywhere. Felled telephone pylons and burned-out farms littered the countryside; under Boumedienne’s ascetic rule the Algerians tended to surround themselves with barriers of silence, not unlike the high walls of stone that enclose the houses of Algiers. While reticence is the natural legacy of the longtime underground fighter, in Boumedienne’s Algeria it also reflected the anxieties of a one-party military state, and did not make life easy for the historian in quest of material.

Nevertheless, in 1973, I was able to travel extensively in what is now the world’s tenth largest country; from the sun-drenched Mediterranean coast that so strongly affected Albert Camus, up to the snow-covered Atlas Mountains where roads had alarmingly disappeared in landslides; through the ravishing broom-covered mountains of Kabylia, where the Berber douars sit atop razor-backed ridges to protect them from the foes of countless past wars; down into the hostile gorges of the Aurès where the first spark of FLN revolt ignited in 1954, and beyond into the endless sands of the Sahara.

Led by agile young Algerians, and stifling a terror of heights, I leaped from rooftop to rooftop across the narrow alleys of the Algiers Casbah, trying to study how Yacef’s “freedom fighters” had escaped from the deadly net thrown around them by General Massu’s paras in the Battle of Algiers, brilliantly captured by Pontecorvo’s movie. I was taken to places in the virtually impenetrable bled that had remained FLN strongholds throughout the war. Exploring this breathtaking country helped me to understand a few simple but extremely basic facts and questions about the war.

One almost self-evident fact was that, like Vietnam, most of Algeria is natural guerrilla terrain, a nightmare for a conventional army on the defensive. If the battle displayed the staggering endurance of the FLN warriors, equipped with primitive weapons and suffering under appalling conditions, it also showed the remarkable strength of the French Army which by 1960—in military though not in politicial terms—had virtually won the fighting war. The question was why the pieds noirs, the colonists, fought so stubbornly to hold onto this exigent demiparadise, the only homeland most of them knew, just as the Algerians fought with such ferocity to regain it.


In 1984, eleven years after my first visit, I was invited back to Algeria to participate in a historians’ conference on the war, marking the thirtieth anniversary of its opening shots. The fact that, for the first time, such a conference could take place at all immediately suggested a sharp divergence from the days of secrecy and reticence of Boumedienne—a kind of coming of age. I was intensely curious to find out how Algeria and the Algerians had changed since the demise of Boumedienne. Where did this little-known country stand now, in relation to the rest of the world?

A senior Algerian diplomat, who had fought against the French as a young lieutenant in the FLN, accompanied me on a sentimental journey to Tipasa. “Everything fades,” Camus wrote, “save memory.” Yet little had faded at Tipasa, and everywhere there remained the intangible influences of those 130 years of French suzerainty. This is largely owing to the remarkable staying power of the French language and culture—despite all Boumedienne’s efforts to “Arabize” the country. Each time my friend stopped on the road to Tipasa to ask directions in Arabic, chiefly of young men in their twenties, he was answered automatically in French.

On the way, he reproved me for my admiration of Camus: “A great writer, yes; but a typical pied noir—he looked upon us Algerians just as uncomfortable silhouettes on the horizon, and knew nothing about us really.” The point of his argument was made as we sat down to a lunch of delicious fresh sardines barbecued in an open-air restaurant near Tipasa. At the next table, a talkative French woman revealed that she had lived in Oran since 1946. “Then of course you remember the terrible famine of 1947?” asked the ambassador. “No, was there one?” He whispered to me, in triumph: “You see, just like Camus—thousands of Algerians starved that year, and this woman never even knew there had been a famine.”

At that lunch and elsewhere, I observed a kind of wary respect in the relations between Algerians and their former colonizers. That night a young French-woman, married to a businessman living in Algiers, commented to me how, in the shops, she invariably found herself treated with a particular deference not shown by Algerians to one another.

The largest portion of all Algeria’s trade is still with France; many French technicians have returned to jobs in Algeria; while 700,000 Algerian laborers continue to have to seek work in France. The Algerians speak of “the damned inheritance,” and often this enduring “special relationship” between the two former foes is a prickly one. Just how prickly, President Mitterrand discovered from the virulent nationalist protest in France when he despatched Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson to participate in Algeria’s celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the beginning of the war last November.

On our way back from Tipasa. I noted the disappearance of all the ornate bandstands that had once stood in the main squares of the townships, structures typical of pied noir times. At Zeralda, the barracks of the godlike but mutinous paras of the Foreign Legion have now disappeared too. In their place stands a glistening white tourist complex. But it is full of Algerians, and virtually no foreigners. The reason lies partly in the absurdly unbalanced rate of exchange, pegged at three to four times the realistic value of the dinar, with the result that hotel rooms cost more than $100 a night, a simple meal $40, and a bottle of beer $5.

But there is another reason. With its natural instinct toward self-enclosure, Algeria must be the only country of the Mediterranean which, after some unhappy, tentative efforts in the Seventies, makes no concession whatever to attract the international tourist industry. It is lucky not yet to have spoiled its ravishing coastline with Spanish-style concrete housing complexes—principally thanks to the rich endowment of Algeria’s natural gas resources, which makes dependence on foreign currency unnecessary. But thanks also to pride—as the ambassador to London remarked to me—“we are not a servile people.” What this means in practice is that service in an Algerian restaurant is about the slowest in the world, and it is seldom with a smile.

For the occasion of last year’s celebrations, Algiers itself was given a major face lift. Holes in the road were filled in and buildings repainted so that the city, set in a natural site as superb as that of Rio or San Francisco, now almost earns its former label of “Algiers-la-blanche.” It throbs with vast and apparently insoluble traffic jams, that Western index of prosperity. And, at least compared with most African countries, Algeria under President Chadli has achieved remarkable prosperity. The young in Algiers are well dressed, and I saw no signs of the terrible malnutrition rampant south of the Sahara.

In a nation with a population explosion where the average age is nineteen, economic problems remain immense. Handicapped by an unduly high price structure, where American and Canadian producers sell at one-third less, Algeria now has a struggle to sell all its natural gas in glutted world markets. As in so many emerging countries, a rich agriculture was nearly ruined during the early days of collectivization, and is only now improving as it is gradually being opened to private enterprise.

Even the most cursory visit, however, reveals that, since Chadli took over from Boumedienne, much has changed in Algeria, almost surreptitiously. Photographs of the two men seem symbolic of the change; the gaunt, austere, and unsmiling features of the wartime leader contrast with Chadli’s comfortable bourgeois face, a face you might almost expect to meet in an English golf club, perhaps of a retired colonel. Under Chadli, Algeria has ceased adopting extreme postures in the outside world (and particularly in Middle East politics) in favor of concentrating on domestic matters. The grandiose (and often disastrous) industrial projects launched under Boumedienne have given way to an emphasis on consumer goods.

To give credit where it is due, one of Boumedienne’s declared economic objectives was to lift Algeria out of the ranks of the underdeveloped nations by 1982. But for the devastating birthrate, he came close to achieving this. If he established Algeria on the world stage, he also laid the foundations of the political stability that endures today under Chadli.

Algeria’s new mood of benevolent moderation was exemplified when—to mark last November’s celebrations—Chadli granted some fifty posthumous amnesties. The men thus rehabilitated included not only leaders who had been liquidated during the war, but also fallen angels who had revolted against either Ben Bella or Boumedienne during the postwar years. Among those posthumously forgiven were the two leaders tracked down and murdered abroad: Krim and Khider. Ben Bella himself, after release from house arrest, now lives in voluntary exile in Geneva, but has been promised a return in freedom should he so desire it. In Algiers I discovered that FLN leaders and war veterans could now discuss the war with none of the inhibitions that I had encountered in 1973, during the Boumedienne era.

Algiers itself seemed a much more open society, more smiling and less dour, than I recalled it being eleven years previously. For Western wives of businessmen, though, it is evidently not an easy post. Apart from the artificially high cost of living, social life is limited by the strict Islamic interpretations of the role of women, still accepted by all but the elite and emancipated few. However, during the official visit of the king and queen of Spain in 1983, an extraordinary departure from traditional Algerian protocol took place when Mme. Chadli, an elegant woman hitherto not seen in public, was produced to dine next to King Juan Carlos.

This departure seemed indeed to typify the direction in which the Algerian compass points under Chadli. With many young Algerians trained in France or the US, the country looks increasingly northward and westward, and away from the East. Algeria has always been disillusioned at the lack of support given it by the Soviet Union during the war of liberation (“All Khrushchev ever did,” the wife of an Algerian diplomat remarked to me with vehemence, “was to shake Belkacem Krim by the hand at the United Nations when we got our independence”); and even Castro, the wartime moral hero, seems out of favor. In sharp contrast with Vietnam, where Camranh Bay has become a Soviet lagoon, Mitterrand’s dire predictions of the 1950s have not come to pass. Only 6 percent of Algeria’s commerce is currently with the Eastern bloc, which, its trade experts claim, cannot compete with the West.

Algeria would like closer relations with the US, would like the US to push on the door that was half-opened during the Iranian crisis of 1980, when Algerian diplomacy provided the invaluable mediation that led to the hostages’ release. (The extent of Algerian cooperation over the recent hijacking remains, at the time of writing, something of a question; but it is doubtful whether more could have been expected from the Algerian authorities, under the circumstances.) Israel still remains a stumbling block, but with relations cool between Algeria and the PLO, the Middle East no longer plays the important part in Algerian foreign policy that it did under Boumedienne. Algeria’s main external worry now lies with the interminable Polisario conflict. Although they continue to back the Polisario Front against Morocco, Algerian leaders are farsighted enough to dread the overthrow of King Hassan, because this might lead to a Khomeini-style revolution and Islamic fundamentalist anarchy on Algeria’s western flank. Only to a lesser degree is Algeria concerned about the succession to the aging Habib Bourguiba on its Tunisian flank.

Whether Algeria will continue along the road of moderation charted by Chadli or regress to a Boumedienne style of authoritarianism, must to a certain extent depend on its success in mastering its economic problems. There have been danger signals; this spring the overcrowded Casbah exploded briefly in protest against living conditions; last year there were riots at the University of Tizi-Ouzou by the strong Berber minority of Kabylia.

Yet, meanwhile, although still a oneparty state that is far from being a Western democracy, Algeria continues to be, politically, one of the most stable of all the Arab nations. This stability could provide a sound underpinning on which the US might construct a solid two column policy in North Africa, instead of—as it has under the Reagan administration—one balanced only on the single precarious column of Hassan’s Morocco.

I left Algeria to attend a summit meeting in France between Mrs. Thatcher and Mitterrand’s prime minister, Laurent Fabius. All the way from Marseille airport to Avignon, where the conference was to take place, the route bristled with armed gendarmes, and helicopters circled overhead. It was the greatest security display I have ever seen, and provided ironic contrast with the Algeria that I had just left. While France, in 1973, had basked in unconcerned tranquility, Boumedienne’s austere and repressive Algeria was a military state where armed men sprouted from every other crossroad. Now, at least temporarily, something of the repose that once affected Camus so powerfully at magical Tipasa seemed—under President Ben Chadli—to have descended again.

This Issue

December 5, 1985