ALGIERS, like many another port city, has always been as much facade as reality. The French, when they were in control, used to point with pride to its stately waterfront arcades, its Provençal balconies and ten-story “skyscrapers,”and would condescendingly compare them to the crowded Casbah and the diminutive Turkish Admiralty, which the French Navy inherited from the Ottomans. The visitor, on alighting from the boat or the plane, was asked to forget about the poverty-stricken millions of the hinterland.
The new masters of Algeria seem bent on fostering the same illusion, though for somewhat different reasons. Last October, to prepare for the fourday celebrations commemorating the ninth anniversary of the start of the Algerian rebellion (November 1, 1954), local painters were put to work whitewashing the balconied houses in the vicinity of the Forum and the main government building. The thousands of guests-from Cuba, Egypt, Yugoslavia. Bulgaria, Red China, and other exotic lands—who were packed into specially requisitioned hotels and commandeered bedrooms, were offered an Algiers of dazzling whiteness.
The traffic crowding the streets, directed by policemen in new black uniforms; the shops, once belonging to Europeans and now run by Algerians. which still managed to display a tantalizing assortment of French and other goods; even the laundry lines hanging across the balconies of apartment buildings vacated by Europeans and now occupied by Muslim tenants —all conspired to create an impression of a thriving city.
Behind this bright Mediterranean decor the economic situation has been deteriorating steadily. The Algiers docks, which once bustled with transMediterranean traffic, have grown increasingly lethargic, and there have been times when dockers have been unable to work more than seven or eight hours a week. A large number of local enterprises-ranging from bakeries and butchers’ stalls to paint shops and department stores —are now operating in the red, simply because most of their best clients, the 300,000 Europeans once inhabiting Algiers, have left.
In 1961 Algeria, with a gross national product of $3.2 billion, had the second highest per capita income in Africa: $281 a year, as compared with $427 for South Africa, $120 for the United Arab Republic, and $40 for Rwanda, Dahomey, and the Chad. An inordinate proportion of this income was both owned and created by the Europeans who lived in Algeria.
All but 100,000 of them have now left, and quite a few of those remaining are only waiting to liquidate their properties before they also leave. The Europeans have exported with them vast sums of capital, transferred from Algerian banks to banks in Paris, Lyons, or Marseilles; an important reservoir of technical know-how, which it will cost the Algerians years of effort and substantial sums of money to replace; and a sizable fund of purchasing power.
The Algerian government has sought to stem the economic decline through reliance on foreign aid. The United States has contributed $50 million, most of it in the form of 350,000 tons of wheat, soybean oil. and powdered milk, which have saved hundreds of thousands from starvation. The Soviet Union and Red China have both pledged $100 million in long-term loans mainly destined to cover the importation of tractors, agricultural processing machinery, and technicians. Kuwait has offered $50 million, Yugoslavia $20 million. France, the biggest donor, continues to pump $300 million a year into an obviously sagging economy. None of these stopgap offerings has, however, been able to halt the downward drift.
There is a certain irony in the fact that it was the mass exodus of European settlers, even more than doctrinal or ideological motivations, which gave initial impetus to the helter-skelter socialism in Algeria. The first Comités de Gestion (“trusteeship committees”), formed to take over lands abandoned by European settlers, were more or less spontaneous creations, though they were quickly given official encouragement by an organization known as the BNASS (Bureau National pour 1’Animation du Secteur Socialiste), headed by a dynamic if somewhat starry-eyed Algerian named Maachou.
In the region of Oran, where the exodus of Europeans was particularly panicky, the recently rechristened National Popular Army of Houari Boumedienne took the lead in setting up cooperatives and Comités de Gestion staffed with djounoud (“Independence fighters”). The response supported Boumedienne’s thesis that the army, made up of those who had risked their lives in the struggle, was the logical instrument for the renovation of the country. It also revealed, on a less theoretical level, the widespread yearning of the warriors for a share in the spoils. Membership on a Comité de Gestion thus became a political plum to be given to anyone who was known or could prove himself to have been a sufficiently ardent supporter of the F.L.N., or, to use the language now in fashion, sufficiently “militant.”
The new land decrees
In March of last year this haphazard process of collectivization was codified in a series of sweeping decrees prepared by Maachou and his right-hand man, a Greek named Michael Raptis, who fought in the Spanish Civil War under the name of General Pablo. The decrees, aimed at preserving the larger European holdings from arbitrary peasant seizure and uneconomic fragmentation, provided that in any agricultural or industrial enterprise of a certain scale, a Workers’ Council of seven to eleven members was to be elected, which in turn would elect a fiveto seven-man Comité de Gestion. In this way democracy and socialism would simultaneously be brought into the lives of the peasants and workers of the “democratic and popular Algerian Republic.”
The decrees were extended not only to lands or enterprises which had been declared biens vacants (“vacant holdings”); they were also applied to holdings belonging to Europeans who had hung on in the hope that they could make the best of a bad thing in a radically new context. Fifteen hundred European properties, embracing more than two million acres, were thus “nationalized”; and the process was brought to a triumphant conclusion in October when, to meet the double threat of an incipient Kabyle rebellion and a frontier war with Morocco, Premier Ahmed Ben Bella nationalized another three thousand European properties, thus collectivizing all of the five million acres (or more than one third of Algeria’s tillable land) once owned by Europeans.
From the point of view of production, the results of these collectivizations have not been particularly brilliant. save for a bumper cereal crop of some twenty-five million bushels, which was mostly the result of unexpectedly heavy rainfall in May, June, and July. Many French settlers, of course, left behind them an abundance of sabotaged farm machinery which was difficult to replace; and often, where such machinery was available, the Sociétés Agricoles de Prévoyance, which inherited it, managed to misuse or wreck what was left.
Many collectivized peasants were dismayed to discover that these S.A.P. units, originally set up by the French to supply grain and help store the harvests, had been taken over by incompetents or sharks out to make a quick killing through the loan of agricultural machinery at fabulously inflated prices.
The Comités de Gestion quickly discovered that the type of intensive farming done by European settlers demanded sophisticated methods of accounting and precise merchandising schedules. When a group of foreign journalists visited the nationalized Domaine de la Trappe of exSenator Borgeaud, once the fervent advocate of a French Algeria, they found that its agricultural workers were not much better off than they had been before, and that the Domaine, mostly composed of vineyards which had hitherto been immensely profitable, was now running at a deficit — with an accountant who was only seventeen years old.
The Algerian state has, quite understandably, wished to do everything possible not to aggravate an already terrifying unemployment problem (roughly one out of every two able-bodied Algerians is unemployed). But by collectivizing at a precipitous pace, it has mostly succeeded in acquiring a whole string of unprofitable enterprises, and this is one reason why by the end of 1963, Algeria’s expenses were running more than 40 percent above its receipts.
There are other reasons for this, of course. One of them is that Algeria, in keeping with its socialistic ideals, is intent on eliminating illiteracy quickly. Fifteen thousand French teachers, supplemented by seven hundred Egyptians, are currently engaged in a staggeringly ambitious educational effort for a relatively poor country. Though the fifteen thousand French teachers are paid by the French government, most of their salaries must be reimbursed by the Algerian government, and this takes a hefty slice out of the “cooperation” budget.
Keeping the army busy
The original intention of the Algerian government was that the army, which swelled to a top-heavy 130,000 in the chaotic months following the signing of the Evian agreement of March, 1962, should eventually be pared down to 35,000 men. But since last autumn’s frontier flare-up with Morocco, the military, led by Defense Minister Houari Boumedienne, has had a convenient argument for insisting on maintaining a large regular army.
The brief war with Morocco did not, however, add any particular luster either to the army or its chief figure, the hysterical propaganda of the Algerian press, which spoke of thousands of combatants involved and stupendous desert victories, was unable to conceal the simple fact that the Moroccans had soundly trounced the Algerians, who proved to be as inept in tactics as they were weak in logistics.
Indeed, there has been no more spectacular failure in the brief history of the Ben Bella regime than the fiasco of his Forum speech in which the Premier called King Hassan a “tyrant” and a “criminal.” The speech was followed by the mass invasion of Algiers by volunteers spoiling for the fight. In the end the army was unable to conscript more than a thousand of these would-be warriors simply because it had no trucks available to carry them to the “front.”
Ben Bella on top
In spite of his errors, Ahmed Ben Bella has displayed a rustic canniness in playing his enemies off against one another which few suspected he possessed when he first made his bid for power in June of 1962. Last April his most dangerous opponent, Mohammed Kinder, formerly a sheepherder and a tramdriver, was forced out as Secretary General of the F.L.N. Like an Algerian Stalin, Kinder had been trying to pack the party with henchmen loyal to himself. In June, Ben Bella imprisoned Mohammed Boudiaf for outspoken criticism ol his “dictatorial” methods. In August, the multilingual and arrogantly intellectual Ait Ahmed was forced to beat a retreat.
To date, Ben Bella’s greatest achievement has undoubtedly been to secure the official supremacy of the civilian “prefects,” of which there are thirteen, in matters of administration over the often contradictory desires of local military bigwigs or party bosses. He thus put an end to a period of almost complete administrative anarchy in which administrators, party bosses, and army men were all writing reports violently hostile to each other.
Last September he further secured his supremacy by having a constitution written to his specifications and approved by a plebiscite. Most of the people did not have a clue as to the meaning of what they were voting for. Where voters proved to be too scarce, the ballot boxes were simply stuffed — with the notable exception of Kabylia, where the official boycott order was too patently obeyed to make this kind of electoral trickery possible. For Ben Bella’s subsequent election as President of the Algerian republic, the methods were just as dubious and no less effective. In many voting booths voters mysteriously discovered that only “yes” ballots were available.
Each Ben Bella victory has been won at a price. Each has created new enemies, quite a few of whom are now concentrated in Algiers, privately brooding and plotting his downfall. Not one of his opponents has so far managed to come up with a clear alternative program for extricating the country from its present predicament, and most of them are still stubbornly wedded to a militant socialism which is torn by its allegiances to Havana, Cairo, Belgrade, Peiping, and the left-wing Paris of the Sorbonne.
Ben Bella himself seems to retain a peasant distrust for hothouse intellectuals. He has eschewed the trappings of grandeur and lives and works on the fifth floor of a modest villa situated opposite the Moorish Palais d’Eté, where foreign dignitaries are ceremoniously housed. When the frontier squabble with Morocco broke out last October, he exchanged his Western clothes for a combat tunic reminiscent of Fidel Castro’s. All of his cabinet ministers followed his example, and for a month they went around Algiers looking like a platoon on the prowl.
One by one, thereafter, they began reverting to their former attire, with the notable exception of Ben Bella, who continued to go about in a field jacket, oddly offset by a pair of baggy brown corduroy trousers. This sartorial refinement seemed designed to suggest that the President of the Algerian republic remained one of the fellahin, whom he himself once ideally portrayed as carrying a gun in one hand and a spade in the other.
The “Algerian revolution” (as it is regularly referred to in the statecontrolled press, which is partly Communist-inspired) was the work of peasants and soldiers. Ben Bella knows it and intends to be one of them, even if it means having to assume a rather odd disguise or trumping up synthetic campaigns for eradicating illiteracy overnight, planting trees, unsilting dams, or cleaning up the capital. The important thing is to stir people up, to have them think that great things are being accomplished, even if nothing much is really going on and the administration is in a flurry about what to do next.