By Ed Blanche
Algeria’s most infamous and politically explosive corruption scandal went to trial in Algiers on 15 March, five years after it burst wide open in a power struggle involving long-serving President Abdelaziz Boutelfika and the widely feared head of the security service, Gen. Mohamed “Toufik” Mediene.
The opening session of the long-awaited trial didn’t last long. The judge adjourned the proceedings to an unspecified date after he found that 38 of the 108 witnesses called to attend were nowhere to be found.
But the high-profile case, involving alleged corruption by Boutelfika allies in the state-owned energy giant Sonatrach uncovered by Mediene’s Departement du Renseignement et de la Security (DRS) in 2009, remain political dynamite at a time when Algeria’s political and economic future is clouded and facing growing social unrest. Bouteflika, 77, won an unprecedented fourth term on 17 April 2014 even though he was, and still is, recovering from a stroke he had a year earlier. He won with the blessing of the army and the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN), the party that led Algeria’s brutal war of independence from France in 1954-62.
He may have taken more than 81% of the vote, but as Middle East specialist Dario Cristiani, a PhD candidate in Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King’s College, London, observes, the old revolutionary’s victory was less impressive than it sounds. “The turnout was 57.7%, down from the 75% turnout in 2009. In Algiers, the turnout was only 37%, while in some areas historically resistant to central control – for instance, Tizi Ouzou in Kabylia – four out of five citizens did not vote.”
That reflects the growing apathy of Algeria’s 35 million people, desperate for political and economic reforms that have been denied by the deeply entrenched independence generation who led the war against the French.
So Bouteflika’s new term is likely to mark the end of the post-independence era, as the nation, the Maghreb’s military heavyweight, lurches into a period of uncertainty amid unprecedented regional turbulence. The popular demand for democratic reforms and a brighter economic future is sure to intensify – just as the traditional power brokers in the military, the much-feared DRS, and the old revolutionaries of the FLN, show no sign of making the changes that would undermine their power.
How all this will play out in energy-rich Algeria, Africa’s largest natural gas producer and second largest oil producer after Nigeria, will depend to a large degree on these highly privileged elites – collectively known as Le Pouvoir, The Power – who have long manipulated politics through backroom deal-making. Bouteflika won his fourth term with the clear acquiescence of the military, the FLN’s traditional ally. In part, this is because he appears to be engaged in a bitter struggle with the DRS and its long-time chief, Mediene, to sharply reduce its powers.
Bouteflika and Mediene (right) were once political allies. But they have been feuding since 2009, when the DRS chief sought to sabotage Bouteflika’s election for a third term. Since then Mediene has launched high-profile corruption investigations targeting the Boutelfika clan’s allies, particularly in Sonatrach, long the elites’ money machine that the president’s allies controlled. Several top executives, including the CEO, are now behind bars awaiting trial, their positions occupied by DRS appointees. Since his re-election, Bouteflika has stepped up his campaign against Mediene, even though they worked together in 2004 to remove Algeria’s undisputed strongman, military chief of staff General Mohamed Lamari, whose power, like theirs, had grown during the ferocious civil war against Islamist militants that raged throughout the 1990s after the generals cancelled parliamentary elections the Islamists were set to win.
Mediene is a formidable opponent and Bouteflika’s efforts to cripple his power would be difficult even if the president were not so frail. The KGB-trained Mediene, who once boasted he was “the God of Algeria”, has been head of the DRS since September 1990. During the conflict with the Islamists, in which up to 200,000 people perished, the DRS is widely believed to have thoroughly infiltrated the rebel groups, particularly the Armed Islamic Group, responsible for some of the worst excesses.
Insiders say Mediene’s agents were able to organise massacres of civilians, aimed at discrediting the rebels, and the DRS is even reported to have carried out some massacres itself so the Islamists would be blamed. Last year, Bouteflika signed a decree aimed at removing DRS officials from public institutions in a bid to edge the service out of politics. Several senior officers, including Mediene’s right-hand man, Maj. Gen. Mhenna Djebbar, were duly dismissed or retired. But all were replaced by other Mediene allies, essentially leaving the important operational structures in the DRS intact.
These meaningless shuffles simply reinforce what Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck of the Carnegie Middle East Centre, a Beirut think tank that monitors the Middle East, calls “the inextricable hold the military the DRS have over the civilian office of the president.” But there are those who believe that Bouteflika, ailing as he is, was returned to power primarily as a stopgap until a suitable replacement can be found. His declining health means he is rarely seen in public view.
“Despite appearances to the contrary, Mr Bouteflika never constituted a threat to the military’s strong grip on Algerian politics, and the DRS remains as strong as it ever was,” Ghanem-Yazbeck observed.
“In Bouteflika’s previous three mandates, few serious structural reforms threatened the country’s military and its security apparatus. Even the little restructuring of the country’s main security branch he did undertake was largely cosmetic and should not be misconstrued as significant change … Bouteflika in power gives them enough time to find the ‘appropriate’ replacement – because it is always … the FLN, the army and the bureaucracy they created together who are truly running the country.”
While Le Pouvoir “has postponed the inevitable” by extending Bouteflika’s presidency and avoiding major change, “it will find it extremely difficult to maintain this fragile balance of power when Mr Bouteflika’s health deteriorates further,” cautioned analyst Hamza Salahuddin in a recent analysis for Geopolitical Monitor. “Once that does occur, the cartel controlling the country will be forced to select a president that does not have the type of legacy that Bouteflika enjoys. With 30% of the country’s population below the age of 15, we can only expect the national unemployment situation to worsen in the near future.
“Once this generation comes of age and finds it extremely difficult to find jobs, fingers will once again be pointed at the government. This perhaps may become a tipping point in the country’s history and the government may once again buckle under pressure from the masses.” Despite Algeria’s energy wealth, its people remain largely marginalised, suffering from unemployment – officially pegged at 10%, but 30% is considered more realistic – inflation, widespread official corruption and economic stagnation.
With 300,000 university graduates entering the catatonic job market every year and the government gripped by paralysis, the government in Algiers (left) is “heading towards an explosion,” warns former Prime Minister Ahmed Benbitour. The regime managed to avoid the worst of the Arab Spring, mainly through buying off trouble through government handouts of oil money, but the recycling of Bouteflika has spawned a new non-partisan movement demanding democracy, social justice and an end to corruption and unemployment.
Trouble is brewing deep in the southern Sahara, where there are swelling protests against plans to start hydraulic fracturing, “fracking,” for shale gas by French energy multinationals, the old colonial power which forbids fracking on its own soil, but has no problem with doing so in the Sahara, where 50 years ago it carried out nuclear tests.
Major protest demonstrations have spread across the long-neglected region and “are looking more and more like a head-to-head confrontation between a well-organised and defiant population and the government, which continues to trivialise people’s expressed concern and dismiss them either as the product of ignorance or foreign manipulation,” says a report by Open Democracy.
There are also the long-running demands for Berber independence in the restive Kabylia region, a culturally distinct area in the mountains of northeast Algeria. Major revolts there in the 1980s and in early 2011, during the Arab Spring upheavals, were harshly put down, but tension remains high among people who feel alienated from the rest of the country.
Then there’s jihadist Islam, spearheaded by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, not only in Algeria but across North Africa and increasingly to the south. Algeria has long sought to stay out of regional conflicts, but the spread of radical Islam will likely draw it into the wider battle.
This article by Ed Blanche is Exclusive to The Middle East Online . . .