After two years of erratic command, Mr. Ben Bella was ousted by his defense minister, Houari Boumediene, and spent nearly 15 years under house arrest before a long self-exile in Switzerland.
Tall and charismatic, with a powerful physique developed from his youthful infatuation with soccer, Mr. Ben Bella made an energetic return to Algeria in 1990 as leader of an opposition party he started while abroad.
His own aspirations for a comeback were crushed in the 1991 election. But he urged reconciliation during the civil war that erupted after the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) party canceled elections to prevent Islamists from coming to power.
Although long sidelined from power, Mr. Ben Bella retained clout. He was a devout Muslim, a founding father of the FLN and a rousing voice against imperialism dating from his years as an insurrection leader against the French colonists who had ruled Algeria for more than a century.
A combat veteran of the French army in World War II, he returned home increasingly radicalized by the humiliations suffered by Algerian Muslims under the colonial system. He became attracted to nationalism, guerilla warfare and socialist politics in the 1950s.
After escaping from prison for his role in a robbery, he fled to Cairo and founded the FLN. He enjoyed the protection of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, a Pan-Arab nationalist.
Mr. Ben Bella became the chief conduit for Egyptian arms flowing into Algeria. “Every Algerian is a potential guerilla if he could get a gun,” he said at the time. He said he could accept arms from anyone who would offer them, “even the Devil himself.”
In 1956, Mr. Ben Bella and four associates were flying from Morocco to Tunisia when the plane made a forced landing in Algiers and he was taken into custody. Mr. Ben Bella spent the next six years in French prisons as the Battle for Algiers was becoming bloody and protracted.
On March 18, 1962, French and Algerian leaders settled on a cease-fire that also led to Mr. Ben Bella’s release.
Back in Algeria, the economy was unraveling as Europeans fled the country. There were fractures in the provisional government and the military, and a leadership struggle broke out.
William B. Quandt, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia and author of “Revolution and Political Leadership: Algeria, 1954-1968,” called Mr. Ben Bella a “compromise” candidate among the various factions. He had the “prestige” of being in prison, and his populist touch gained him support during the post-independence surge in nationalist fervor.
He was elected premier in late 1962 and then president the next year. He sidelined moderates and declared his intention to follow a Marxist economic path that included agrarian cooperatives.