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ALGERIA: Boumedienne’s Mixed Legacy

3 minute read

The question now: who will carry on the revolution?

For 13 years, Houari Boumedienne ran Algeria like the battlefront commander he had been in the war for independence from France. He was not only his country’s President but also its Minister of Defense, President of the Council of the Revolution and chief of the ruling National Liberation Front (F.L.N.) party. When a 1976 constitution enabled him to name a Vice President and Premier, he left both posts vacant. Wielding his influence shrewdly, he built Algeria into a political force to be reckoned with and was determined to make it an industrial power as well. When he died last week at 53, he left a gap that no one countryman of his could hope to fill.

For the moment, the mantle of interim President fell to President of the National Assembly Rabah Bitat, 53, a member of the eight-man Council of the Revolution and one of the firebrands who played a pivotal role in ousting the French in 1962. Three years later, Bitat joined Boumedienne’s government after the bloodless overthrow of Ahmed ben Bella. The constitution limits Bitat to a 45-day term of office, during which the F.L.N. is supposed to choose a candidate and present him to the people for election.

There is no front-running candidate, however, and any of the eight on the Council of the Revolution, or even an outsider, could finally emerge as Algeria’s new leader. Still, Western experts were focusing on several possible contenders, and Bitat was not among them. The leaders: Foreign Minister Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 41, an agile, Westernized diplomat; Colonel Ahmed Bencherif, 51, former commandant of the national gendarmerie and now Water Resources Minister, and Colonel Mohammed Salah Yahiaoui, 46, a devout Muslim and pro-Soviet politician who is currently running the F.L.N. Outside the council, the name most often mentioned is that of Colonel Benjedid Chadli, 52, military commander of the Oran region, who took over as “coordinator” of the armed forces during Boumedienne’s long illness. Virtually no chance at all is given to the long deposed Ben Bella. At 62, he is living in comfortable house arrest.

Whoever the winner turns out to be, he will need all the help he can get. Though Algeria was able to float $1 billion in loans during the six weeks that Boumedienne lay dying, its foreign debt now totals a staggering $14.7 billion. The President’s ambitious program of industrialization, especially the largely automated natural gas plants, provided too few jobs for a population that has grown from 12 million to 18 million since he took over. In foreign affairs, Boumedienne lost some prestige in the Arab world by backing and providing bases for the Polisario rebels, who seek to wrest the former Spanish Sahara from neighboring Morocco and Mauritania. His successor must decide whether to continue that fight.

Despite those problems, Boumedienne left Algeria a considerable legacy of pride and hope. Though he was not exactly charismatic—his first address to the nation after the 1965 coup came from a faceless voice on television while the camera focused on an empty lectern—he did become an aggressive international leader. He was among the first of the Arabs to nationalize precious natural resources. He acquired wide respect among nonaligned nations with his 1973 call for a new economic order, more equitably sharing the riches of the industrial nations with the Third World. That world, as well as Algeria, will especially miss him.

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