Monday, October 8, 2012

Chadli Benjedid, president of Algeria during a fateful period, dies at 83

L’ancien président Chadli Bendjedid est décédé samedi à Alger à l’âge de 83 ans des suites d’un cancer. Il avait été admis, il y a plus d’une semaine, à l’hôpital militaire de Aïn Naâdja. 

Updated. Former president of Algeria, Chadli Benjedid died on Saturday, 83 years old of cancer.  Benjedid, who succeeded Houari Boumedienne in 1979, was the president who after widespread unrest in 1988 liberalized the constitution, and transformed the system from a one party to a multi-party system with a free press.  However, he got in trouble after the islamist party Front islamique du salut (FIS) in December 1991 won the first round of the general elections.  Benjedid declared that he was ready to adopt the  'cohabitation' model of government, after the example of France where a leftist president (Mitterrand) was forced to cooperate with a rightist government under Prime Minister Chirac. After all the president in Algeria was powerful enough, as he, according to the Constitution, was personally in charge of the key portfolios of the Interior, Foreign Affairs and Defense. Also Benjedid may have considered two other things: 1) that the FIS already during local elections two years earlier got a majority in most municipalities and had proven to be a responsible factor, and 2) that the majority for the FIS was not, according to many,  so much a sign of a massive shift towards islamism of the Algerian people, as more a clear protest against years of mismanagement by the governing FLN-party, which had led to a huge shortage of jobs, general poverty and an immense housing problem.      
Benjedid's declaration that he was willing to 'cohabitate', however, was unexpectedly followed by a announcement, made by himself on television a few days later, that he stepped down. Although this was never openly stated, it was clear that Benjedid, himself a general, was forced to do so by his military colleagues, who were (and still are in a way) the real Algerian rulers, albeit off stage.
After Benjedid left, the second round of the elections to be held in January 1992 was annulled, the FIS was declared illegal, and  Benjedid's liberalisation was effectively frozen. I was in Algiers and I'll never forget the immense tension that was felt universally in the city after Benjedid's resignation. The veiled military coup was the beginning of a bloody conflict between islamists and the military which lasted about a decade and during which hundreds of thousands of militants, military and civilians lost their lives. In a way I'm still proud that I had warned that exactly this - a bloodbath of immense magnitude - was going to happen, in the reports I wrote for the Dutch newspaper Het Parool, for which I was reporting at the time. Most  of my colleagues wrote exactly the opposite: that leaving the way open for a electoral victory of the FIS was a sure way to disaster and that there was no alternative than to  put a halt to the electoral process.      

Benjedid himself  lived a life far from microphones and camera's ever since his departure from the scene. He has never given his own record of the eventful years 1988-1990, nor has he uttered a word about the quiet coup d'état that was behind his dramatic decision to leave his post. In fact the exact course of events is still largely unknown. In present day Algeria it's still all but a taboo.
The newspaper Al Watan (French) carries a more detailed in memoriam and biography.      

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