Houari Boumediene was born on Aug. 23, 1932, into a poor peasant family in Clauzel near Guelma in eastern Algeria. His real name was Mohammed Ben Brahim Bou Kharouba, but in 1957 he adopted the name he later used as a nom de guerre. He derived it from the names of two western Algerian patron saints venerated by the population of Tlemcen and Oran, whom he helped organize for the revolutionary war.
Until the age of 14, Boumediene attended French and Koranic schools in Guelma, then went on to a conservative Moslem religious school in Constantine. When the French called him to serve in the colonial army in 1952, he fled to Tunis and then moved to Cairo, where he studied at al-Azhar University. His early formation and the years spent in the Middle East provided him with a solid Arabic background rarely to be found in other Algerians.
He discontinued his studies when the Algerian revolution broke out in November 1954 and trained as a commando at a military camp near Cairo. Passing through Morocco, he joined the underground resistance in western Algeria. In 1956 Boumediene became the military assistant of Abdelhafid Boussef, the revolutionary chief of Oran Province. After reaching the rank of colonel, Boumediene replaced him in October 1957. In September 1958 Boumediene was promoted to coordinator of military operations and head of the general staff in the west. In February 1960, probably on Boussef's recommendation, he became the head of a strengthened army general staff and made Gardimaou, Tunisia, his headquarters.
From that point on, Boumediene turned his attention to organizing a modern standing army in Tunisia and Morocco, indoctrinating his troops in revolutionary principles and the importance of Islam and demanding total loyalty from them. His success worried civilian leaders of the revolution, and in May 1962 at Tripoli differences between civilians and officers broke out into the open. Backed by the frontier army and aided by Ahmed Ben Bella, Boumediene decided to take over power. On June 30 the provisional government revoked Boumediene's command, but the majority of the military supported their chief, who, together with Ben Bella and a group centered in Tlemcen, marched on Algiers and crushed their opponents.
In the first Ben Bella government, formed Sept. 28, 1962, Boumediene served as the minister of national defense and became first vice president on May 17, 1963. In these posts he consolidated his hold over the army. Gradually Boumediene became disillusioned with Ben Bella's moves toward a Castro-styled Algeria and deplored government inefficiency. As Ben Bella succeeded in strengthening the party and labor unions, army officers feared that their influence on decisions would decline. Boumediene, in a series of well-planned maneuvers during the night of June 18/19, 1965, led the coup which brought him to power.
A Strong Personality
Boumediene had none of the charisma which his predecessor possessed, but gradually, as success marked his regime, this gaunt, red-haired ascetic developed into a self-confident head of state and gained popularity. Basically a moralist, he prided himself on his simple tastes and austerity. He was quiet and reserved, yet passionate when calling for sacrifice, discipline, and purity from his fellow Algerians.
In public he seldom smiled, spoke infrequently, and appeared dispassionate. Because of his authoritarian temperament, he picked the men he trusted and gave them his confidence, often disregarding the advice of others. Benevolent in his dictatorship, he understood the necessity of strengthening the country's institutions. Besides holding elections for a series of regional assemblies, he began to forge a solid administration and state institutions.
Once he assumed the presidency, he established plans for Algerian development and adhered to his programs. Benefiting from mounting oil and natural gas export revenues and hoping to exploit large deposits of iron ore, he supported technocrats in his government who developed a national petroleum industry. Then he embarked on a program of industrial diversification, earmarking nearly half of the 4-year (1970-1973) development investments (set at $5 billion) for industrialization. In a typically quiet manner he forced Algerians to participate in converting their country into one of the stronger powers of the "third world."
Recognizing the need for a positive relationship with the United States, Boumediene had Algeria exchange ambassadors with the U.S. in 1974 (the first time in seven years). In 1976, in another effort to improve global relationships, Algerians approved a constitution and held national elections to choose a president. Voters overwhelmingly elected Boumediene. He continued to focus on the industralization of Algeria as a major Arab leader until his death in 1978.
At the time of his death, Boumediene had ruled Algeria for 13 of its 16 years of independence. Although he was responsible for developing the oil and gas industries in Algeria, most Algerians lived in poverty. His last months were spent in a coma, as a result of Waldemstrom's disease (a rare blood and bone marrow disorder).
The most up-to-date biography of Boumediene is in David and Marina Ottaway, Algeria: The Politics of a Socialist Revolution (1970). It clears up many mysteries of his past and makes earlier accounts of his life outdated. See also William B. Quandt, Revolution and Political Leadership: Algeria 1954-1968 (1969), and Newsweek, January 8, 1979.