Houari Boumediene’s Algeria to the Rescue of Nasser’s Egypt

June 1967, an Endless Six-Day War · Algeria’s participation in the 1967 war on Egypt’s side came just in time to restore Houari Boumediene’s image in a period when he was bitterly contested. The regime was to take advantage of the situation to make it harder to leave the country and to strengthen its military capacities. And yet the Algerian leader was unable to prevent the attempts by some of his former brothers in arms to oust him from the presidency.

Houari Boumediene and Gamal Abdel Nasser, 1967.
Press photo (via IMSPIX Images).

September 1966 : a high-ranking Algerian delegation traveled to Cairo. The time was ripe to warm up diplomatic relations between the two countries. In June of 1965, Gamel Abdel Nasser had taken a dim view of Boumediene’s coup against Ahmed Ben Bella and made no secret of the fact. The quarrel lasted several months, but the Rays was soon reassured by the socialist orientations and third-world approach taken by the Council of Revolution, the name of the body that ruled Algeria at the time. In 1963 and 1964, Nasser had in fact warned the Algerian leader against the political ambitions of his austere commander in chief.

In Cairo, the early autumn of 1966 was marked by discussions dealing with economic cooperation between the two countries. An agreement was also reached as to the number of « aid workers » in health and education to be made available to Algeria over the next four years. Defense issues were also discussed. The Algerians assured their counterparts that they could count on the People’s National Army (PNA) in the event of a conflict with the “Zionist entity,” the term used officially to designate Israel in Algiers. During 1967, that war foretold was the object of several discussions, some by telephone, between Nasser and Boumediene.

Restoring the President’s Image

In June, when the fighting started, Algeria placed its troops in a maximum state of alert. A first contingent of 500 men was sent by road to Egypt. A thousand more would follow, as well as a squadron of MIG-17s. But contrary to the Yom Kippur war of 1973, the participation of these units in the war remained marginal, except for the violent fighting in the Sinai and around Port Said, in particular because the war lasted such a short time. In their memoirs - especially those of former general Khaled Nezza – many high-ranking Algerian officers expressed a degree of bitterness regarding the Arab defeat and the fact that Algeria could have played a much bigger part in the war had Egyptian authorities allowed it and had shown better foresight. Algerian troops remained stationed in Egypt until 1969 and several units were to be involved in the front line war of attrition. In the 1973 war, Algeria was to intervene sooner and with larger forces, the NPA being notably in charge of the defense of Cairo with an armored division (the 8th AD) and three flying squadrons.

When, in 1967, Houari Boumediene committed Algeria to the struggle against Israel, he knew he could count on the support of his general staff, but also on that of the population. It was an opportunity for him to improve his image, both on the domestic scene and in the Arab world. And yet the protests against his rule, especially from the Communist party and the Front of Socialist Forces (FFS), which were violently repressed, would not go away. Abroad, the assassination in Madrid on 3 January 1967, of a leading figure of the opposition, Mohamed Khider, a founding member of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) and a highly respected “revolutionary,” was a traumatizing moment and brought the Algerian government under fire.

For Colonel Boukharouba (Boumeiene’s real name), the 1967 war was a godsend. At the time, the Palestinian cause was already popular (Algiers was one of the first capitals to welcome a representation of El Fatah in 1965) and public opinion applauded their armed forces’ intervention.

Capitalizing on the Defeat in the Name of National Security

The despondency that spread through the Arab world following the 1967 defeat also affected Algeria, and the regime was going to take advantage of it with watchwords of vigilance and revenge against “ the Zionist enemy and its allies.” Many measures were taken, especially a ban on the works of Western artists or intellectuals who had publicly supported Israel. Thus hundreds of bookstores in Algiers and other big cities removed Sartre’s books1 from their shelves (they reappeared after May 1968). And the songs of Johnny Halliday were no longer broadcast on Algerian radio.

More significantly, in the name of national security, the government decided to introduce an authorization to leave the country, a document delivered at the discretion of the wilaya authorities, provided the applicant did not belong to the opposition. Supposedly meant to be temporary, this veritable exit visa was going to poison the lives of Algerians for over a decade. It was not until 1979, with the death of Boumediene and his replacement by colonel Chadi Benjedid that it was abolished.

The regime also drew strategic lessons from their participation in the war. The weakness of Arab air forces argued in favor of increasing their capacities. Several dozen student pilots were sent for training to the USSR, but also to France and even, for a few of them to the USA. The war against Israel but also the repeated military tensions with the Moroccan neighbor, gave Boumediene a pretext to establish in 1968 obligatory military service for young men of 19.

While this participation in the war against Israel somewhat improved Boumediene’s popularity, it certainly did not settle any of his problems within the power structure. On 14 December 1967, Colonel Tahar Zbiri, who had been involved in the coup that ousted Ben Bella, ordered his armored columns to Algiers with the intention of deposing Boudmediene. The air force bombed the would-be putschists near the town of El-Affroun causing sizable civilian casualties (the charred wreckage of tanks was still to be seen at the end of the seventies). Two days after the failed coup, colonel Said Abid, another influential actor in the regime “committed suicide”. In January 1968, Colonel Abbas died in a car crash near Zeralda, to the West of Algiers. Finally, in April of that same year, the Algerian president was the target of an assassination attempt in Algiers (to prove he was still alive, he appeared on television in his pajamas). Thus, while the 1967 war improved Boumediene’s reputation on the domestic front, this did not keep some of his comrades from trying to eliminate him.

1The philosopher adopted a more than ambiguous position during the conflict, praising what he described as Israel’s peaceful intentions. Frantz Fanon’s widow would even demand that Sartre’s preface to The Wretched of the Earth be removed.