Two days ago Algeria has celebrated the 40th anniversary of the hydrocarbons’ nationalisations. Last year’s celebrations coincided with Sonatrach’s latest known of financial scandal which led, among other things, to the dismissal of one of Bouteflika’s best friends, Chakib Khelil. Things are different this year. Khelil’s successor, Youcef Yousfi, held the celebrations in Hassi Messaoud; and the city’s youths also celebrated the event by blocking the access to the oil plants. They demanded a share in the jobs that are created by the oil exploitation activity. Though the problem is more complex, it cannot be denied that the people of Southern Algeria are not the biggest beneficiaries of the hydrocarbons industry.
This anniversary triggered the idea of this post. A review of a book which talks of this very special and unique period of independent Algeria which witnessed this great achievement.
Ahmed Taleb-Ibrahimi‘s last political appearance in Algeria was in 1999 as a candidate to the presidential elections. He was then portrayed by some of his opponents as a retrograde Islamist who would gather former FIS sympathisers and replace the dissolved party (his party, WAFA, was never approved by the system). This accusation was backed by at least three points: he was supported by Mohand Said, he was Bachir Ibrahimi‘s son and he was Boumediene‘s minister of education when the Arabization process had started. Then Taleb, along all the other candidates opposing Bouteflika, withdrew his candidacy because it became clear that the system had already chosen Algeria’s current president. This withdrawal led Bouteflika’s supporters and many observers to accuse him and the other candidates of executing the DRS’s plan, the aim of which being to reduce Bouteflika’s influence after his plebiscite. Another attempt to candidacy in the 2004 elections wasn’t approved by Zerhouni’s services. Since then, Taleb decided to put an end to his political activities and dedicate his time to writing his memoirs.
I do not know Taleb but we have a common acquaintance who talked a lot about him, and I kind of like him after all I heard from my friend. I liked him even more after he had decided to offer his (and his father’s) huge personal library to the Algerian National Library.
Ahmed Taleb-Ibrahimi published already two volumes of his memoirs. The first one in 2006 dealing with the 1932-1965 period and the second published in 2008 and dealing with the 1965-1978 period. I must say these memoirs are among the best I’ve ever read and I can’t wait to read the remaining volumes.
I have read the first volume in 2006 and I will not review it here. I will however mention two points which he reported and which I found interesting.
Taleb was in jail in France because of his activities in the General Union of the Algerian Muslim Students (UGEMA), and by coincidence the Algerian leaders who were kidnapped in 1957 by the French were put in the same prison. He relates how these Algerian leaders (Benbella, Ait-Ahmed, Boudiaf, etc.) were not even talking to each other and how he had to do mediations between them in vain. I now think the French did us a favour by hijacking them as they were useless while in Cairo and their animosities could have led to more divides within the revolution leadership (in Tunis). It might also explain why Benbella had asked Boumediene to kill (and not arrest) Ait-Ahmed after his rebellion in 1963 (this is reported in Taleb’s second volume).
The second point was about Benbella’s regime. Bachir Ibrahimi had criticised the Algerian zaim (as in the Egyptian model) who didn’t like it. So he put Taleb in jail and tortured him during 8 months. Taleb wrote that he was jailed and tortured in the same places where the French had tortured the Algerians, by the same tools/methods as the French ones, and even by the same men! I never liked Benbella because of his blind Nasserism, and this story does only confirm my feelings. Taleb writes in the second volume that he had asked Boumediene to free Benbella but the former had always replied: “you will have to ask the next president”.
I said above that these memoirs’ second volume were the best I had ever read because of 1) the period it’s dealing with and which was rich of many important events and achievements, 2) the positions Taleb held in the government which allow him today to give an insider’s account, and 3) the fact that unlike many recent Algerians’ memoirs, I didn’t feel that he had aimed at taking revenge from his former or present opponents. At the same time, I was disappointed by the lack of analysis on his, Algeria’s and Boumediene’s actions. I mean there was too little self-criticism in his book which made almost all his (and Boumediene’s) actions look positive, but perhaps all he wanted was to share the past facts and leave the analysis to the readers!
The second volume is divided into three parts: his “minister of education” period, his “minister of culture and information” period, and his “personal advisor to the president” period. I will leave the latter part to a second post.
Taleb, aged only 33, became Boumediene’s minister of education after the June 19, 1965 coup. He explains the conditions he had put before accepting (releasing all political opponents and banning torture) and that Boumediene said ok for the latter but that it was too soon for the former. Taleb then learnt that torture was still practiced in Algeria despite Boumediene’s orders. As a minister of education, he had to lead the Arabization process and he explained it thoroughly in the book and how he did his best to achieve it along with making free education available to the biggest numbers while keeping the education standards high. This raises the “education for everyone vs. elitist education” issue and whether both are compatible – a topic deserving a separate post. He said that Algeria was able to produce only 100 medical doctors a year, but after he had left the ministry, his successor made it up to a 1000/year and that’s the policy that brought the Algerian educational system down (Benbouzid is obviously the best heir of Taleb’s successor). Dr. Khaldi wrote an article to explain why quantity should not be the goal. When I look at many of our medical doctors today I pray I will never need their help. Taleb also mentions the sensitive issues of the foreign cooperants and their selection, the removal of Mouloud Maameri‘s Amazigh faculty (he explains that Maameri himself admitted that he had only a few students, half of whom being foreigners and a quarter SM agents, so to say nobody was interested in studying the language/culture) and the reasons behind Malek Bennabi’s resignation (he says it was because the thinker was bored in an administrative job). He however doesn’t tell why Bennabi was left with no job/revenue after he had left the ministry. On the Amazigh issue again, he says that the regime has made a mistake by ignoring it after our independence. About this and Arabism, Taleb relates how he and Boumediene talked to Baath leaders, Akram Hourani and Michel Aflak, and explained to them that Algeria cannot be Baathist because Algeria’s Arab belonging is there only because of Islam, and that if you remove Islam from the equation, the Algerians wouldn’t feel Arab anymore. Needless to say that the Baath envoys didn’t agree.
What I found most thrilling in this part was all those challenges faced by Algeria, and how the country with its young and inexperienced men and women had to build almost everything from scratch. France had left only one university (Algiers) in Algeria, but soon were opened Oran’s and Constantine’s. For the latter he relates an anecdote: Kuwait wanted to show (off) its generosity and promised before the press that it would pay for Constantine’s university. But Taleb received a cheque with only 1/4 of the total amount. He sent back the cheque without even informing Boumediene and Algeria paid for everything. He had never mentioned this before and many think that Kuwait did really pay for this university. The ENP with the first Algerian engineers was also a big achievement. Remember that French had never allowed the Algerians to become engineers (because they said we didn’t have the brains for it), Malek Bennabi tried but he was never given his degree, and Bensai (I think) succeeded in getting the degree but he was then given a stupid job. Another challenge (and headache) was about being able to receive the increasing number of pupils and convince the parents to let their daughters go to school even after they are 10yo.
I cannot finish with this first part without mentioning another anecdote. Taleb met with Taha Hussein, an admirer of French culture, who asked only one question: “Did France really do all those horrible things we hear about?”. He couldn’t believe it because he thought great humanistic France could never do such awful things. It always strikes me to see brilliant men having unlimited admiration for a foreign culture which makes them go blind, while at the same time being very critical of their own culture.
As a minister of culture and information, Taleb had to get accustomed to a new activity. He relied on many men (including Malek Haddad) for the culture side. There’s a list with all the plays, movies, exhibitions, etc. which were made during his command. On the information side, he noted that very often he wrote articles in many Algerian newspapers using pen names. I wonder if our ministers do this today (rolling eyes). He then talked on how he reviewed the 8pm information journal on TV before airing it, how Boumediene complained when he saw something on TV that he didn’t like, etc. All those aspects which I mentioned here and which could be understood in a one-party system but certainly not in today’s Algeria. Back then, the media were used to transmit the party’s messages, to explain things to the people and convince them that the party’s working for them :), etc.
Taleb says while at these two positions, he had never felt any pressure from security services or the army. He added “when Boumediene was the president, the government was a real government”. For those who didn’t understand, think of somebody named Bouteflika.
I know I said the memoirs were not there to take revenge, but at some occasions, he criticised Bouteflika’s today rule and also Bouteflika’s behaviour back in the 70s. The latter was done through facts. He mentions that Bouteflika got sometimes angry when the TV didn’t talk of him (while he says that Boumediene himself asked him to reduce the TV coverage of Bouteflika’s activities). He also mentioned the Oujda clan (Bouteflika, Medeghri, etc.) who were surrounding the president and who prevented him from seeing the problems ahead (he explains that Zbiri’s coup attempt was partly due to Oujda clan’s influence on Boumediene). He also adds that Boumediene was aware of it and wanted to have more information sources, through Taleb for e.g. When Taleb mentioned this clan to Boumediene, the president’s comment was like he couldn’t do otherwise. I wonder if what happened in 1999 and Zerhouni’s declaration that Taleb’s party would never be approved so long as he was in charge are not remnants of that period.
I will come back to this in the next post which will deal with the period during which Taleb was personal advisor to president Boumediene.
Title: Mémoires d’un Algérien
Author: Ahmed Taleb-Ibrahimi
Publisher: Casbah Editions, 2008