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. He was aged 89.
Hocine Aït Ahmed 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”, 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 also came from Morocco and Tunisia.
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. His 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.
Born in the Kabylie town of Aït Yahya, east of Algiers, into a landowning family, Aït Ahmed joined the nationalist Parti du Peuple Algerien (PPA) as a 16-year-old schoolboy. Though immensely proud of his Berber heritage and Tamazight language (not recognized nationally until 2002), he did not get involved in ethnic separatism.
In 1947, aged 21, he became the youngest member of the PPA central committee, rejected the possibility of compromise with the colonialists, and co-founded and soon led the clandestine armed Special Organization (OS). In March 1949 he held up the post office in Oran before fleeing to Egypt to avoid arrest.
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,” he said. “But there are not many other Algerian politicians who can draw such a reaction in ordinary areas, from the youth.”