Hocine Aït Ahmed: Algeria buries a hero in its struggle for independence from France

Hocine Aït Ahmed, in exile since 1966, is laid to rest in his birthplace

Thousands of Algerians made their way to a tiny hill-top village today to pay their final respects to a man who played a crucial role in their nation’s road to freedom.

The road from the capital Algiers to Aït Ahmed was lined with people standing by the roadside, on bridges or leaning from their balconies, to catch a glimpse of the funeral cortège of the man after whom the village was named: former revolutionary leader Hocine Aït Ahmed, who died last week in Swiss exile. aged 89.

“It’s an honour for me to be here,” said Zine Aït Hadda, a 21-year-old from a neighbouring village. “He fought against this corrupt, lawless regime, even when the generals threatened him.”

People came from across the North African country, spending the night in the village, to pay homage to a man who, after independence, founded the first major opposition party, the progressive Socialist Forces Front, and become a leading advocate of democracy. There was sporadic chanting of “pouvoir assassin”, which loosely translates as “murderous rulers”, a decades-old favourite of Algerian protesters.

The previous night, his coffin was at the headquarters of the party he founded: it was visited during the night by a stream of people, including the leaders of most other opposition parties and former prime ministers. Dignitaries came from Morocco and Tunisia.

For the ruling élite, it was an awkward homecoming. The regime has long claimed that its legitimacy lies in the revolutionary past of the National Liberation Front. Mr Aït Ahmed may have been a leading opposition figure, but because of his historic role, many who had ostracised him during his lifetime wanted to claim him as one of their own in his death.

mourners in the village of Aït Ahmed

Amar Saadani, secretary-general of the currently ruling FLN, drew outrage from Mr Aït Ahmed’s supporters, after he said on national television that “we have been unfair and ungrateful” to the opposition leader. Many asked why such an apology hadn’t come while he was still alive.

Mr Aït Ahmed, the last surviving member of the original nine founders of the FLN, spent nearly 50 years in exile after denouncing what he argued was the hijacking of the ideals of the revolution by the shadowy generals who have long held the real power in the country. 

Today the Algerian economy is suffering as global oil and gas prices drop, and the aging President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is in such bad health that he has not been seen for months.

Mr Aït Ahmed’s last wish was to refuse the trappings of a state funeral or a burial in the El Alia Cemetery in the capital alongside other top officials. He requested a simple funeral in his birthplace. 

Despite this wish, the entire government showed up at the airport on Thursday when his body arrived. It was a tense greeting, with none of the ministers daring to approach the opposition figure’s family. After the cameras had gone, General Mohamed Mediène, the former head of the Algerian secret services – a symbol of the regime Mr Aït Ahmed opposed – paid his respects.

In the end, it was a funeral of the people. Rachid Halet, a member of Mr Aït Ahmed’s party since 1979, said Algerians understood the role he had played.

“He was a leading figure of the 20th century at every turn, yet the history books only mention him in passing,” said Mr Halet. “But there are not many other Algerian politicians who can draw such a reaction in ordinary areas, from the youth.”