A GOOD way to see the Algerian problem is from the air. A two-hour flight southward from Algiers covers geographically the whole range of difficulties. The good lands are filled with poverty, while the desert land in the neighboring Sahara is filled with riches. In three years of independence the Algerian government has made very limited progress in bringing the desert riches to the help of the poor in the cultivated green fields and in the cities along the coast.

Except for the oil and gas discovered in the desert, Algeria is not endowed with great resources. The cultivated land and small mines in the Mediterranean coastal belt would at best provide only a scanty living for the population of ten million. Instead of these oil resources coming into quick use in the country, they were held to a trickle by nearly two years of negotiations between Ahmed Ben Bella’s government and the big French, British, American, and Dutch companies which discovered the oil and have the means for developing it and selling it.

Meantime, production on the farms and in the small factories which the Algerians took over from the French is falling off steadily. Nearly half the working population is jobless, and foreign investors are steering clear of the place.

It would be easy to say that all these failings are the fault of Ben Bella, and that Colonel Houari Boumedienne, defense minister, was justified in staging the flash coup d’etat that threw the president out of office and into imprisonment, and at the same time smashed the Afro-Asian conference on which Ben Bella had set such store. A more basic explanation lies elsewhere.

Exodus of experts

It is not that Algerians cannot perform well. They can. Thousands of well-trained and intelligent Algerians are spotted throughout the economy and in the government. They cannot begin to make up, however, for the loss of expert personnel resulting from the departure of 300,000 or more trained Frenchmen — businessmen, government employees, bankers, mechanics, and experienced farmers — who left the country after independence in 1962 and during the harassment and disorder that followed. The loss of their experience affects almost every sector of Algerian life. It was perhaps in handling this problem that Ben Bella’s government appeared at its worst, for it discouraged people who were ready to come in and replace the departed French with capital and know-how.

Despite the economic and political difficulties in the country, a foreigner in Algiers gets an impression that things are not altogether bad. The city is clean. Sidewalk cafés are gay and as crowded as in Paris. Streets are washed regularly, and shop owners are required to sweep off the sidewalks in front of their stores at least twice a day. Boy scout troops carrying placards saying “a clean city, a symbol of Islam” periodically remove trash from neglected alleys. Radio and television announcers plead with housewives to stop hanging out their laundry on the front balcony because the festoons of panties and shirts give some of the French-built apartment houses the appearance of slum settlements.

The old Aletti Hotel, a favorite hangout for people making more or less regular trips to Algeria, has come out of a thorough face-lifting with two good dining rooms, a well-stocked bar, and a casino that brings in a surprising number of Algerians with money to play. Muslim girls and boys meet in coffeehouses, as free in spirit as in European or American cities. The number of women in Arab dress seen on the streets is decreasing. Under French influence, Algiers long ago became a near-Western city. Under independence it is even more Western, for the Algerians enjoy their newfound freedom.

Moreover, out in the Sahara, five hundred miles by air, the new oil city of Hassi Messaoud is a garden spot among the sand dunes. Water brought up along with the oil or in separate wells irrigates acres of flowering oleander bushes, palm and eucalyptus trees, orchards and grass. If every place in Algeria were as prosperous ais the oil cities, nobody would go hungry or jobless. Hassi Messaoud has become one of the most livable spots in North Africa for its five thousand engineers and technicians. There is one drawback, however — the city has only forty women.

Flaws beneath the skin

Behind these signs of moderate well-being are the grimmer marks of social and economic difficulty. There are many beggars, men and women, with ragged children. No ambitious hotel chains have promised to come in to build up the beautiful beaches into resort spots to compete with those in Europe; perhaps none will come until they know just what kind of socialist orother regime is likely to show up in the end. Boumedienne’s friendly gesture to the French and Americans, and his expulsion of the Communists after his coup, might invite some reconsideration by foreign investors. But many already there are losing money hand over fist, and are not excessively optimistic.

On the farms, wheat production dropped from the 1962-1963 crop of 1,600,000 tons to 1,100,000 tons in the following season. This year it promised to be a bit better, but not much. Production of wine, which is Algeria’s principal cash crop, has fallen from 12 million hectoliters (about 317 million gallons) a year under the French to a point where last year the country could not fill the quota which the French agreed to buy, about 8.6 million hectoliters. This year promises still less.

Heavy industry, such as automobile and truck assemblying, cement manufacture, and oil refining, remains in the hands of the French and is doing fairly well. By contrast, small industries which were taken over by the Algerians, sometimes by agreement, sometimes by nationalization, have gone downhill steadily.

In the face of the growing distress in the country, Ben Bella continued his somewhat expensive program of making Algeria a leading light in African politics. He set up military camps to train guerrilla fighters for rebellions in the Congo and Portuguese Africa. He talked big about sending troops to help the Arab states “liberate” Palestine and destroy Israel. These were heady projects for a man whose biggest job before the revolution had been that of a very efficient adjutant noncommissioned officer in the French Army. But he had charm, and ambition.

He told interviewers that he counted on getting the oil money flowing fast enough into the sluggish economy to provide fresh capital for equipping the farms, to rehabilitate the old factories and build new ones, and to look after the poor. But the economy had slipped for so long that something had to happen.

Boumedienne and the army struck June 19, ten days before the AfroAsian conference opening, when Ben Bella was rising to his showiest if not biggest hour. A few foreign delegations were already on the scene, and others were converging on Algiers with great fanfare, such men of prestige as Chou En-lai of China, Nasser of Egypt, and Mohammed Ayub Khan of Pakistan.

Conflicts in the cabinet

Despite the postmortem claims of many who said that they foresaw the take-over, virtually everybody was caught by surprise: diplomats, foreigners, Algerians — and Ben Bella. There had been grumbling about the hard times, but always there was the promise that oil money someday would fill up the national treasury.

In the weeks before the coup d’etat, Ben Bella appeared as relaxed and confident as was Khrushchev in Moscow before his fall. He even freed some of his former associates whom he had imprisoned for criticizing his regime. Only after the coup did the stories begin to come out about conflicts in the cabinet. Evidently there had been heated disputes over Ben Bella ‘s expansive dreams of African leadership, and there had been clashes between him and his agricultural specialists. The farm experts claimed that the ill-coordinated management committees which had been put in charge of the huge plantations taken over from French settlers were ruining the countryside.

While many of the leaders in and outside the government were socialists, like Ben Bella, some felt he was leaning further than they liked toward the Soviet Union — and perhaps toward Nasser’s Egypt. Also, Ben Bella was surrounded, especially in the areas of press and information, by Communist advisers from France and elsewhere. One of Boumedienne’s first acts was to sweep them out.

Boumediennc’s own army journal, El-Djeich, declared after the putsch that the country was destitute. It reported that farm production had fallen to half what it was under the French, that farmers were quitting the land for the cities in search of something to eat, that the ports were idle and the rail system little used.

The magazine also viewed with alarm the flow of workers abroad, although this matter certainly could be looked at from two sides. For years Algerian workmen have flocked to France for the higher wages there. Their remittances to their families have been an important contribution to the nation’s income, for since the revolution, some 600,000 Algerians have continued to find jobs in France.

Boumedienne, supported by Chou En-lai, tried to rescue the Afro-Asian conference, but his putsch did it in. The new Algerian leader gave assurance to the amazed delegations that the national policy was not changed, that only a traitorous and power-hungry leader had been deposed. But the score of foreign ministers who had been called to meet a few days before the conference voted to postpone the meeting until November 5, then hurried out of the unhappy capital. They could hardly have done otherwise. Not only had the atmosphere been poisoned by removal of the rather popular man who had invited the sixty-seven nations to come, but someone had affected a punctuation mark by exploding a bomb in the new auditorium. Algerians said Egyptians had done it out of sympathy for Ben Bella.

The army had organized the coup so expeditiously that it was over in a matter of hours, and Ben Bella was carted away to detention. Reacting to a wave of foreign indignation, Boumedienne gave personal assurance to such leaders as Egypt’s Nasser and Haile Selassie of Ethiopia that Ben Bella was unharmed and would be tried for crimes against the revolution. Promptly, a flood of denunciation of Ben Bella appeared in the Algerian press to justify the putsch.

Mystifying new leader

Having made the move, Boumedienne could not find any among his colleagues to take Ben Bella’s job as premier. Finally he took it on himself. An almost hermetically sealed personality, he dislikes life in the public eye. Where Ben Bella was easy and relatively relaxed in company, Boumedienne is stiff and reserved, a poor mixer. Once at a government reception in Algiers, it is related, he sat alone at a table for four hours, inviting no one to talk to him, occasionally signaling for a fresh cup of coffee.

On a visit to Moscow two years ago he greeted Soviet oilicials with a forced smile, made a routine speech, cold and uninspired. Boumedienne has none of Ben Bella’s magnetism; both Easterners and Westerners seem mystified by him. He rose to the top as a fighter in the revolution, which began in 1954. He fought viciously against a tough French Army, and when it was over, sent his own men to track down and kill Algerian sepoys who had fought with the French against the revolutionary forces. Yet this summer he launched a new campaign to enlist the sepoys in the army.

He started off well as a new leader by stating that all agreements with France, the country’s principal benefactor, would be fully respected. President de Gaulle reciprocated with equally strong guarantees of support. To American embassy officials in Algiers, many of whom had hardly seen him, he indicated that relations would continue normally. He sent a Fourth of July message to President Johnson phrased more warmly than any sent by Ben Bella in the past.

Evidently he recognized that whatever his own political leanings might be, he needed continued foreign help. Had it not been for largescale French aid, about $200 million to $250 million a year, and the lesser aid of the Soviet Union and the United States, the country would have suffered real hardship. As it is, nearly a third of the population lives in part on American surplus food.

The American presence

The surplus food is the principal direct American influence in Algeria. Part of it goes to feed Algerians working on a reforestation project that has covered tens of thousands of acres of barren hills with young trees. The Arabian armies, twelve hundred years ago, had brought goats with them, which in the following centuries have eaten the greenery down to rock level. The last shipment of American wheat for this operation comes in September, after which the Algerian government takes over.

Whatever limited influence the American Embassy and the USIS have in the country was largely offset under Ben Bella by an unrelenting press campaign against United States activities in Vietnam, Cuba, and Santo Domingo. Embassy officials could only get up in the morning and read ulcer-breeding articles in the newspapers while they hunted in vain for a tiny mention of the food deliveries.

Except for the French, other embassies have little better to report. The French, despite the truly atrocious seven years’ war they waged to forestall independence, have the best relations of any. Part of it is the old school tie; the French in the embassy and the Algerians in the government in many cases went to the same schools in Paris or worked in the same departments in Algeria before independence.

Boumedienne’s last coup left him all the slow-moving problems Ben Bella had not solved. This year’s budget of $840 million carried a built-in deficit of $83 million.

The dragging oil negotiations were bequeathed to him. The oil has been choked off out in the desert where it comes up under high pressure, boiling hot, but far from the refineries and tankers awaiting it along the Mediterranean coast. The wells at Hassi Messaoud could produce three times the amount the few available pipelines now haul. Haggling over terms for building them and over terms for continuing the leases has brought great loss to the country and frustration to the oil companies. Neighboring Libya to the east, with fewer ideological preoccupations, quickly came to profitable terms with the big world producers and now is selling more oil only two years after it was discovered there than Algeria delivers after seven years of development.

With the putsch over, Algeria, at least superficially, again took up its regular way of life. People streamed to the beaches on Sundays. Beggars were in the streets. The government continued to try by various methods to get Algerians to pay rent to the state for the thousands of French apartments they had crowded into, often as squatters.

Boumedienne has promised that the new government will look after Algerians first, the rest of the world later. Whatever long-term effect the sacking of Ben Bella and postponement of the Afro-Asian conference will have on Algeria’s relations with other countries will emerge only with time. The operation has undoubtedly chilled the once warm contacts between Algeria and the Soviet Union, and has created a rift between Algiers and Cairo, and other Middle Eastern capitals.

The colonel announced to a graduating class that he was building Algeria on Algerian socialist principles and did not need any coaching from socialist states on the outside. Algiers, he said, would no longer be a broadcasting center for Communist propaganda.

If the country truly settles down, though, many will be surprised. several of the leaders who made the revolution against the French still choose to remain in exile. Boumedienne alter the putsch called Ben Bella a despot. Nobody could be certain whether the epithet would come to fit Boumedienne.