The Middle East Channel

The paranoid style in Algerian politics

The paranoid style in Algerian politics

Why was Algeria’s chief of police killed? The assassination of Ali Tounsi is sending political shockwaves through Algeria. Tounsi had been having a public tiff with the minister of interior, Yazid Zerhouni.  The killer, Chouaib Oultache – a close friend and colleague of Tounsi’s, and former Air Force colonel who headed the police airborne unit – is reported to have been alone with Tounsi.   Eyewitnesses to the murder have disappeared. Oultache is said to have shot himself, or been shot by others, or to have fallen down stairs as he made his escape. He was hospitalized at a military facility and is recovering from his wounds, or he fell into a coma, or he may have woken up and confessed, or he may be dead. His immediate family has disappeared, and his house is now encircled by police whose main job is dissuading journalists from asking too many questions.

Was the murder purely a personal affair, or is Oultache being set up as part of a shadow war carried out through corruption investigations – not only against Oultache, but also the national oil company Sonatrach and the ministry of public works? Do these investigations mean much when they steer clear of the really high-level stuff, such as the long-term oil and gas deals with Spain, France or the United States? Or are they simply warning shots to Bouteflika after he threatened to re-open investigations into the assassination of high-ranking security officials in the 1990s as a way to go after the last remaining generals in positions of influence? Some see it as a harbinger of more trouble to come, particularly as they came as rumors that Bouteflika – who is said to have stomach cancer – is dying. You can take your pick of what actually happened.

Something strange is taking place in Algeria, a country where little information is verifiable, conspiracy theories abound and foreign journalists and researchers rarely get to venture freely. Since 2006 at least, a slow-motion power struggle has been underway between Bouteflika and his entourage against Le Pouvoir, the clan of generals that has controlled the country indirectly since the military coup of January 1992, if not earlier. The impetus for this crisis is that Bouteflika has grown from figurehead president, like his predecessors, to a power in his own right. It has also helped that leading members of the military junta, such as Smain Lamari or Larbi Belkheir, have passed away. Over time, not only was he able to amend the constitution to run for a third term, but he has consolidated his influence and that of what is dubbed "the presidential clan" across Algeria’s major state institutions, placing loyalists in key positions.

In the last three months, this power struggle has become more overt – perhaps a sign that Bouteflika has over-reached and is getting pushback from the generals. The struggle went public when the DRS – an intelligence agency run by the military – launched investigations into procurement fraud at Sonatrach, the state oil company that brings in 98 percent of Algeria’s income, hitting close Bouteflika allies and threatening a bid for control of the national cash cow. And at the end of February, it escalated with the murder of Tounsi.  But all of this may pale against the grinding economic realities below the surface.

Algeria is a bit of an oddity in the Arab world. While most Arab republics tended to be led by strongmen firmly in control of their regime (think Egypt, Syria or Iraq), since the late 1970s the presidency in Algeria is only one power center among many: the last populist, Nasser-type president of Algeria was Houari Boumedienne, who died in 1979. A tension between the generals and the presidency (and other state institutions) persisted through the small democratic opening of the late 1980s, under President Chadli Benjedid, who was forced to resign and cancel the 1991 election results after an Islamist victory. Throughout the civil war presidents have been minority partners at best to the junta.

Bouteflika’s arrival (or rather return – he had been foreign minister under Boumedienne) on the scene in 1999 began to change things. Throughout the past decade, Bouteflika was able to raise his stature and consolidate power around himself by taking the credit for bringing a brutal civil war to an end. He has created a presidential "clan" to rival the fabled "Oujda Clan" of generals that have long held the strings behind the stage. It helped that several of the key members of the army clan became ill over this period, with key players like Larbi Belkheir gradually pushed away from decision-making centers. Between 2006 and today, in particular, Bouteflika appeared to consolidate his power, driving through constitutional amendments to allow himself a third term. Since Bouteflika himself has been sick there has been some degree of acceptance of his presidency-for-life, particularly if he is able to maintain the peace at home and consolidate the role of the normal institutions of the state rather than the generals’ shadow government.

Bouteflika’s bid for power had its downsides. He has damaged the judiciary by bringing it under the control of the Ministry of Interior, and is said to be mulling over the creation of a new political party that would be headed by his brother Said. His economic policy has been an unmitigated disaster, as he appears intent on reviving the nationalist protectionism of the Boumedienne era without doing much to diversify away from the oil revenues that amount to 98 percent of the country’s income. The political economy of the Algerian regime has long been linked to an economic clientelism that favors the importation of consumer goods (with import licenses bringing nice commissions for the powerful) rather than their manufacture. There exists an Algerian version of the oil curse that compounds all the problem of over-reliance on oil with a political culture traumatized by a brutal war of independence, as well as the very typically North African phenomenon of post-colonial elites usurping the parasitical, exploitative role of the former colonial elites.

In 2008, Algeria was awash in oil income as oil markets went through the roof, and Bouteflika directed much of that cash towards infrastructure projects and other forms of public spending ahead of the presidential elections. The scuttlebutt in Algiers is that Bouteflika saw 2008 as the new baseline for the trade balance, and in 2009, when oil income declined by about half, he decided to artificially maintain the level of the trade balance. The result is that since last June, import restrictions make it substantially more difficult to find certain consumer goods, to the extent that some middle class Algerians are now smuggling in food products. Algeria is a wealthy petro-state, but its citizens have few of the advantages of that wealth, and even if people have cash they usually prefer to go abroad to spend it.

The damage done by Bouteflika’s protectionism is reaching absurd proportions. Last November, as Europeans and North Africans were mulling over the half-trillion Desertec project, which plans to use parts of the Sahara as a vast solar panel array, Khelil amazingly declared: "We don’t want foreign companies exploiting solar energy from our land." As if there was a foreign plot to steal Algerian sunlight.

In the end, this kind of dysfunction in the way the country operates may be more damaging than elite rivalries. For a broad spectrum of Algerians, there is a real desire for normalcy – for being part of a globalized consumer culture, for Algeria to have access to necessities such as decent health care as well as the accoutrements of modern living – the latest electronics, nice places to dine out, access to the outside world, freedom to travel without constant checkpoints, etc. As travelers to Algiers will tell you, these are rarely available in this dour and depressed country. The British writer AA Gill put it elegantly in a recent dispatch from Algiers describing an ambience of fear, nostalgia and immobilism – as if the country was in a state of suspended animation, in wait of better times and better leaders.

Issandr El Amrani is a journalist based in Cairo. He blogs regularly http://arabist.net.