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De-dramatizing Algerian Politics

[Image of a map of Algeria. Image from Wikimedia Commons] [Image of a map of Algeria. Image from Wikimedia Commons]

Three weeks ago, Algeria’s long term Military Intelligence Agency (DRS) Chief, known as, “The God of Algeria,” was removed from his position. Coverage in the Western press has been emblematic of broader media trends. When it comes to reporting on Algeria, analysis is often superficial or framed by dominant narratives. These narratives, while originating from Algerian elites, find resonance with Western stereotypes of Arab politics as defined by a Manichean struggle between authoritarianism and democracy. Rather than addressing underlying social, economic and political issues, power struggles are over-simplified and depicted in a dramatic fashion. 

Some versions of this screenplay present the “sacking” of the villain (Mohamed Mediène) as a rupture with the past and the dawn of a new era. In this rendering, the protagonist is wheel-chair-ridden reformer, President Bouteflika, "exert[ing] more civilian control over the military" and making strides toward democratization and rule of law. For others, the story is about a domestic economic doomsday scenario combined with the looming threat of "Islamic radicalism.”   

Yet a reading that scratches beneath the surface shows that General Mohamed Mediène’s departure cannot merely be explained away as an effort to bring the military under civilian control. Evidence instead points to the triumph of one pole (L’Etat Major, led by General Ahmed Gaïd Salah in alliance with the Presidency) in an intra-elite battle unfolding primarily within the country’s military/security apparatuses. Although civilian actors (e.g. bureaucracy and business elite) play a part, their role is secondary as it is filtered through these poles via clientelist relationships.[1] Though perhaps less neat, this perspective puts into question the central role of Bouteflika in this struggle. For the last two years, Bouteflika has not been in a position to even perform the most basic human bodily functions without assistance, let alone run a country or engage in power struggles of this caliber.

Many of these mainstream analyses correctly point out that a clique of military and intelligence officials has run Algeria over several decades. This holds true since 1962 with the violent toppling of the civilian leadership (Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic or GPRA) by the army of the frontiers, with the active collusion of civilian leaders, such as Algeria’s first post-colonial president, Ahmed Ben Bella.[2] However, the portrayal of this clique as having forged their careers in the country’s fight for independence from France in the 1950s and 60s is perhaps more reflective of dominant elite narratives in Algeria than actual experiences. More critical narratives contest the central role in the anti-colonial struggle claimed by many of these generals, and the nature of their allegiances.[3]   

For many Algerians, this group is viewed as sharing ideological and material interests with the former colonial power. They are regarded as the flame bearers of continued French influence over the institutions of the nascent Algerian state. As such, this group of generals is often referred to as "Hizb França" (The Party of France) or the "DAF" officers (Deserters of the French Army).[4] Their influence skyrocketed after President Houari Boumediène's mysterious death in 1978. Boumediène (Bouteflika’s mentor) rationalized the integration of this group of officers into the Army of Liberation as part of his modernization project for the military. He himself, however, never trusted them and kept them at arms length during his thirteen years of rule. Confirming Algerian suspicions surrounding continued ideological and material connections between the former colonial power and these generals, an ex-DRS high cadre, Colonel Ali Benguedda, with close links to this group is reported to have stated: “We, republicans and progressives, are in a way the last pied-noirs, to the extent that we uphold societal values that represent henceforth those of a minority.”[5]

In a context of falling oil prices and an ascending neoliberal orthodoxy in the 1980s and 90s this ruling elite opted for the dismantling of the developmental program of the 1970s, and embarked the country on a process of de-industrialization and privatization. A course that entailed the break-up of state-owned companies, borrowing from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the initiation of the import-import bazar economy, not to mention the subjugation of the Algerian people to harsh austerity measures and further surrendering national sovereignty.

Western geostrategic interests at the time, including fear of another Iran in North Africa, secured tacit support for Algeria, even during some of the bloodiest years. Although party documented, the extent of state violence committed in the 1990’s in the context of “la salle guerre[6] will perhaps never be known, a reality secured through Boutflika’s “National Reconciliation” Law. Yet, by the end of the 90s, Algeria’s excesses led to its diplomatic isolation.

It was in this context that Bouteflika was scripted in, hoping that his diplomatic experience in the 1960s and 70s and his strong links to the United Arab Emirate’s ruling family could help polish the international image of the country and its rulers. The ruling elite pursued this scenario so long as Bouteflika did not jeopardize their entrenched interests and ensured their impunity. In exchange, the generals would turn a blind eye to the expanding economic fiefdom of the new president, his family and cronies.

In large part, this balance of power held for the duration of Bouteflika’s first term in office. This arrangement eventually crumbled, however, as a result of the disagreements between the then Commander of the Armed Forces (Gen. Mohammed Lamari) and the DRS’ Chief (Mediène) over Bouteflika’s reelection for a second term, with Lamari backing former Prime Minister Ali Benflis. Bouteflika’s reelection eventually led to Lamari’s replacement in the summer of 2004. With Gen. Ahmed Gaïd Salah now at the helm of the Armed forces, Bouteflika managed to break the generals’ united front, multiplying the centers of power and increasing his room for maneuver.  This new distribution of power fuelled his ambitions to stay in power for life as the end of his second term approached and put him at loggerheads with the DRS.

Bouteflika started laying down the groundwork for his ambitions since the early 2000s, and the “war on terror” provided a perfect opportunity for him to garner Western (especially American) backing. In a letter he wrote for the Washington Times in 2002, he pledged full intelligence cooperation and energy security to the United States. This support helped Bouteflika fortify his grip on power. In return for their backing, Bouteflika ensured that western governments and multinationals would receive unprecedented concessions.  Economically, multi-billion contracts were handed out to Halliburton,[7] Renault, SNC-Lavalin, Saipem, Alstom,[8] and General Electric[9] to name a few.[10] Politically, the opening of air space, unrestricted intelligence sharing, as well as keeping a low profile on causes considered just by a large part of the Algerian population (Palestine, Iran’s Nuclear program, Iraq invasion, etc.) was the price paid for this external support. 

Though its roots can be traced back to the early 2000s, many analysts are right in pointing out that the split between the DRS and the pole represented by the presidency and command of armed forces alliance became visible in 2008. This was in relation to the constitutional amendment allowing Bouteflika to run for a third term. These struggles were played out in the following years as reflected in the DRS “anti-corruption” campaign, involving a series of leaks related to corruption scandals within the National Oil Company (SONATRACH), the economic backbone of and main source of foreign currency for the country. These scandals implicated the Energy Minister, Chakib Khalil (former World Bank official), a close ally of Bouteflika and go-between for the US oil industry circles. This, coupled with the assassination of the Ali Tounsi (Director of the Police) in his own office in 2010 led to the departure of both Khalil and the Interior Minister, Noureddine Zerhouni, two pillars of the Bouteflika team.

This is the context in which these latest developments ought to be read. The counter attack to clip the DRS’ wings effectively started in January 2013 after their botching of the Aïn Amenas attack on a gas installation in the country’s southern desert region. Some have alleged the bloody debacle was retaliation against Bouteflika and Gaïd Salah for having failed to consult with Tewfik regarding the decision to open Algeria’s air space for France to bomb Mali.

This was the straw that broke the camel's back for the involved Western powers. With their backing, three directorates of the DRS were brought under the authority of either the Command of the Armed Forces or the Presidency. Scores of generals were sent to retirement and others put on the back burner, including Athman Tartag (Toufiq's ex-right-hand man and successor), who spent a few months in retirement before being called back as a presidential advisor in the autumn of 2014. It is the latter’s presumed selling out his long term boss, Toufiq, that will most likely seal his fate as a short-term replacement who cannot be trusted to take the reigns of such a powerful institution for the long-term.  

In Algeria, Tartag is widely known as the "Monster of Ben Aknoun" and "The guy with the drill," for having been personally involved in torturing political prisoners, many of whom have since disappeared, in the dungeons of Ben Aknoun's (Algiers neighborhood) Principal Center for Military Investigations (CPMI). According to US diplomatic cables revealed by Wikileaks, Gen. Gaid Salah was “perhaps the most corrupt official in the military apparatus.” Against this backdrop, the departure of Toufiq is hardly an indication that “nobody [is] above the law,” but rather that there has been a change in those who are. The fact that both Tartag’s and Gaïd Salah’s characters have been poorly developed in this latest installment of the Algerian drama, despite their equally histrionic personas, is perhaps indicative of the high stakes involved for internal and external actors in ensuring a Hollywood-esque silver lining.

[1] Amel Boubekeur, “Rolling Either Way? Algerian Entrepreneurs as Both Agents of Change and means of Preservation of the System,” The Journal of North African Studies 18 (3) (2013), 469 – 481.

[2] The army of the frontiers was composed of Algerian Liberation Army (ALN) units stationed in Tunisia and Morocco, along the Algerian borders. These units were initially meant to provide logistical support and supplies to the resistance on the interior front, but later came to play an important role. For a detailed account, see: Ferhat Abbas, L’Independence Confisquer (Paris: Flammarion, 1984).

[3] Abdelhamid Brahimi, Aux Origines de la Tragédie Algérienne (1958-2000): Témoignages sur hizb França (London: The Center for Maghreb Studies, 2000), 74, fn 46. See also. In his memoirs, Gen. Khaled Nezzar refers to the “letter of the 56.” Addressed to the president of the French republic in 1957, this letter signed by 56 Algerian officers serving in the French army asked for them to be absolved of the duty to shoot their Algerian brothers, read more. 

[4] Brahimi (2000). See also. It is noteworthy that not all Algerian deserters from the French army are ideologically and culturally linked to France. Due to forced conscription, many Algerians did not have a choice.

[5] Nicolas Beau, Papa Hollande au Mali: Chronique d’Un Fiasco Annoncé (Paris: Balland, 2013), 57 

[6] Habib Souaïdia, La salle Guerre (Paris: La découverte & Syros, 2001), 83 – 91.

See also: Hocine Malti, Histoire Secrète du Pétrole Algérien (Paris: La Découverte, 2010), 11. and also: Mohammed Samraoui, Chronique des années de Sang: Algérie: comment les services secrets ont manipulé les groupes islamistes (Paris: Editions Denoël, 2003).

[7] Kellog-Brown & Root (KBR) was a subsidiary of Halliburton until April 2007. KBR, together with a SONATRACH subsidiary Condor Engineering SPA, formed a mixed company called Brown & Root-Condor, Which received an estimated $13.5 billion in contracts. For more details, see: Hocine Malti (2010), 326-7.

[8] For possible involvment of Saïd Bouteflika (the president’s brother) in corruption, see: Alwatan, “Affaires de Corruption: Saïd Bouteflika est-il impliqué?” April 24, 2013, Actualités section. 

[9] For details about Hilary Clinton’s involvement in securing the deal, see here

[10] Following Francois Holland’s visit to Algeria in 2012, a number of deals were signed with French companies, see here.

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