Obituary: Kasdi Merbah
'1993 WILL be the worst year for Algeria since independence,' declared Kasdi Merbah, the country's former Prime Minister, summing up the situation in Algeria in a recent interview. He could hardly have anticipated that a few weeks later he would be assassinated by his own fellow-countrymen.
Kasdi Merbah, a nom de guerre during the Algerian war of liberation, was born Abdallah Khalef in 1938 at Beni- Yeni, Great Kabylia. Despite limited education he quickly rose in the National Liberation Front (FLN) hierarchy and acquired great influence among the Algerian ruling classes. After military experience in the struggle against French rule, from 1962 to 1979 he was the Security Chief, and the strongest man in Algeria after the President. Many Algerians still remember those years of espionage and repression - few with affection.
Merbah was among the first Algerian army officers to be trained in the Soviet Union, and played an important role in both the 19 June 1965 coup d'etat that brought Houari Boumedienne to power, and in the nomination and election that took Chadli Bendjedid to the presidency in 1979.
Just after the election, Chadli Bendjedid nominated him Secretary General of the Ministry of Defence; in 1982 he moved to the Ministry of Heavy Industries, and in 1984 to that of Agriculture.
In March 1988 he was asked by President Chadli to try and put the Ministry of Health, which many Algerians believed to be corrupt, in order. He organised some reforms, but the October 1988 revolt which forced Chadli to call in the army to end it and to nominate a strong man halted such developments. On 5 November 1988 the President nominated Kasdi Merbah as prime minister, but in September 1989 Chadli sacked him. Merbah refused to go, saying that this decision was unconstitutional.
Nevertheless, after several days of argument, he agreed to give up his job and a year later he resigned his FLN membership after 33 years. Immediately after abandoning the FLN, he founded his own political party Mouvement algerien pour la justice et le developpement (the Algerian Movement for Justice and Development). But it did not attract many members, and indeed it was a one-man show.
Since he left the Ministry of Defence he had become a 'moderate' and had been calling for direct dialogue with all political parties, including the Islamists, so often mistakenly called 'fundamentalists'. His view was that it was better to legalise Le Front islamique du Salut (FIS) once more so that the people would find out if it had a consistent ideology. He had also recently criticised the present regime, which all political parties in Algeria believe has no legitimacy. Indeed there is a growing belief that the 'Islamic fundamentalists' are becoming more popular.
The Western states, prepared to turn a blind eye to the current abuse of human rights so long as Islamists are kept under control and economic reforms are pursued, do not understand that Algeria is in a vicious circle of violence and in a civil war. Kasdi Merbah was a victim of this same cycle of killing. His widow, Fatima, who survives him together with a daughter and a son - another son was killed with him - has accused the former President Chadli Bendjedid of the assassination of her husband as well as of the recent killings of outspoken academics, journalists and novelists.
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