Those who know Algeria need no introduction. For those who don’t know that country too well—its modern history and politics at least—Hocine Aït Ahmed was a major figure in the Algerian national movement of the 1940s and ’50s, one of the nine founding members of the Front de Libération Nationale in 1954, and an actor in the country’s politics in the decades that followed independence in 1962. He was, until his death last Wednesday, the last surviving member of those 1954 chefs historiques and the sole one of the six who survived the war who never held a position of institutional power, even for a day. Aït Ahmed was an opponent of the post-1962 authoritarian regime from the outset, inside Algeria—partly from prison—to 1966, then from exile—in Switzerland and France—until his return in 1989. He was a genuine democrat, advocating and agitating for political and cultural pluralism—and with not a hint of religion in his discourse—well before anyone else issuing from the wartime FLN. And democracy was not a mere slogan for Aït Ahmed; every non-Islamist political or civil society actor wrapped him or herself in the mantle of democracy from 1989 onward, which did not prevent many among them from supporting various dictatorial regimes (e.g. Saddam Hussein)—or the Algerian regime itself when it decided to crack down on legal political parties from 1992 on. Never Aït Ahmed. His Front des Forces Socialistes (FFS)—the party he founded in 1963 (illegal until the advent of multipartyism in 1989)—has long been Algeria’s constituent member of the Socialist International, thereby aligning it with European social democracy, for which liberal democracy is the core value.
I felt a particular affinity for the FFS during my Algeria years (1989-90 and beyond). I interviewed Aït Ahmed in June 1990, spending an hour with him at his office (in El Biar). I was deeply impressed being in his presence—more so than with any other dignitary I’ve ever met, in Algeria or elsewhere—in view of his historical stature. The FFS’s boycott of the June ’90 municipal elections—Algeria’s first-ever free and fair, multiparty contest—didn’t make a lot of sense—Aït Ahmed’s frequent politique de la chaise vide was his principal political shortcoming—but the party did participate in the 1991 legislative elections, winning 7.4% of the national vote and arriving in third place, behind the Islamist FIS (47%) and ruling FLN (23%), confirming its stature as the country’s leading democratic party and preeminent voice of Algeria’s Kabyle Berber population (the FFS’s frère ennemi Berberist party, the RCD, received but 2% of the vote).
Aït Ahmed’s political base was almost exclusively Kabyle (who constitute perhaps 12% of the Algerian population) but Berberism was not central to his public discourse—he rarely made reference to specifically Berber issues—and he was widely respected beyond his Kabyle base. And, to his great credit, he condemned the January 12th 1992 military-dictated cancellation of the 2nd round of the legislative elections, which ended Algeria’s brief period of political liberalization and set in motion the Islamist insurgency—and army counterinsurgency—and wave of terrorism that ravaged the country for the rest of the decade. The FIS was headed for a landslide victory in January ’92, causing the RCD and other self-proclaimed “democrats” to take fright and support the military intervention. But Aït Ahmed, sure of his legitimacy and unwavering base among Kabyles, was ready to live with a FIS-led government—which he didn’t think would be permanent (for my detailed view on this, go here)—with him leading the opposition in the national assembly. The watchword of the big January 2nd ’92 demo in the center of Algiers that he organized, “Neither a police state nor fundamentalist state” (ni Etat policier, ni Etat intégriste), summed up his position. In view of the nightmare Algeria lived through after the fateful cancellation, Aït Ahmed’s stance was vindicated IMHO.
Algiers-based journalist Mélanie Matarese has an obituary of Aït Ahmed in Middle East Eye, “Algeria: the difficult legacy of Hocine Ait Ahmed,” which is a translation of the original French article (link at the end), and journalist Saïd Djaafer has a tribute in Al Huffington Post, “Hocine Aït Ahmed: l’homme qui aimait les militants et les Algériens.” And here’s a seven-minute video interview by Mohammed Harbi, Aït Ahmed’s contemporary in the independence movement and who knew him well.
UPDATE: Le Monde’s issue dated December 26-28 consecrated its entire page 3 to Aït Ahmed, with an obituary, “Hocine Aït Ahmed, l’âme du résistant,” co-written by Paul Balta, the paper’s Algiers correspondent in the 1970s and well-known MENA commentator about town in Paris since then. See also LM’s back page editorial, “Les illusions perdues de la démocratie algérienne.” N.B. President Bouteflika decreed eight days of official mourning for Aït Ahmed, despite the latter’s permanent opposition to Algeria’s post-1962 political order.
2nd UPDATE: Here’s a photo of Aït Ahmed looking over the Jan. 2nd ’92 demo.
3rd UPDATE: Two moments from the December 29th memorial service for Aït Ahmed in Lausanne: The hommage of Kabyle singer Idir and the traditional Kabyle acewiq (chant, by women, at a wake) by Nna Aldjia, the mother of Lounès Matoub.
4th UPDATE: Libération has a tribute, “Aït-Ahmed, ‘un long rêve de liberté et de démocratie n’est plus’,” by José Garçon, the paper’s longtime Algeria reporter and who was personally close to Aït Ahmed.