March Algerie monthly report (2/4)

Political Trends

Lambasted in the press for failing to address the nation during or immediately after the In Amenas siege in January, President Bouteflika finally addressed the subject in a message to mark Algeria’s annual “martyr’s day” (commemorating those who died in the war of liberation) on Feb. 18. In his statement – which was published by the official media rather than being delivered as a speech – Bouteflika lauded 
the commitment that inspired our brave soldiers in the great battle of In Amenas against the forces of evil and destruction [which] is the epitome of the legacy inherited from our martyrs [of the liberation war]. The heroes of this battle proved by their efficiency, precision, professionalism and triumph that they are the undisputed and indisputable successors of our brave martyrs and that the National People’s Army is truly a worthy successor to the National Liberation Army and the standard-bearer of victory and triumph in every battle engaged by the nation to protect its security, stability and sovereignty.
In a clear allusion to the upheavals that have shaken the region since the outbreak of the Arab Spring, Bouteflika went on to call for “vigilance” and a reaffirmation of Algerian “love for the homeland and nationalism” in the face of 
the deplorable events and developments occurring here and there and all around us in more than one Arab country, [which] irrespective of their outer aspects, demonstrate the seriousness of what is happening behind the scenes.
A week later, another presidential statement – again, not delivered as a speech, but this time sent as a message to UGTA leader Abdelmadjid Sidi-Saïd on the occasion of the double anniversary of the founding of Algeria’s official trade union and the nationalisation of the oil and gas sector – was published in the official media. The President renewed his praise for the role played the army and other security forces at In Amenas, before neatly seguing into other issues of the day: 
Our security is jeopardized by the situation in Mali on our southern border and the sporadic outbreaks of terrorism that we are constantly fighting. What happened recently in Amenas is an instructive illustration, in that it highlighted the cruelty of the terrorist groups, but also the know-how of our army and our security services, who put an end to this attack against one of the most important facilities in our country.
I want to take this opportunity to pay a special tribute to the officers, soldiers and members of the security services and of the civil defence force, whose intervention earned our admiration and that of international public opinion.
I bow also to the memory of the Algerian and foreign workers who lost their lives in this cowardly attack and I express our admiration and gratitude to those among them who, by their cool-headedness and courageousness, made it possible to save the installations and production facilities.
In this connection, I cannot ignore the scandals that have recently been uncovered by the press concerning the management of Sonatrach. Such news can only inspire indignation and disapproval, but I have faith in our criminal justice system’s ability to unravel this tangled web, identify those responsible and mete out with thoroughness and firmness the punishments provided for under our legislation.
Their hackneyed phraseology notwithstanding, both presidential messages are in fact replete with signals not only to the population at large but also to other players in the Algerian power structure. This urgent political semaphore comes amid two political squalls that have blown up, seemingly independently of one another, over the past month: an upsurge in agitation across the vast southern wilayas where Algeria’s oil and gas resources are located on the one hand, and the surprise return to prominence in the Algerian media (and to a degree also internationally) of a number of high-level corruption scandals that had seemed to have been swept definitively under the carpet after being partially dealt with during Bouteflika’s second and third terms of office. It remains to be seen whether these squalls will blow over, or whether they augur heavier storms to come. 
Since the presidential election of 2004, in which a last-minute deal with DRS chief Lt-Gen. Mohamed ‘Tewfik’ Médiène enabled him to outmanoeuvre the army chiefs, it had been largely plain sailing for President Bouteflika. With the once powerful heads of the army marginalised as political players, Bouteflika and Tewfik in effect ruled as a duumvirate, proving to be masters at the game of manipulating, dividing, co-opting and suborning the political parties and able for the most part simply to ignore the many spontaneous and localised outbreaks of social unrest that flared regularly in towns and villages across the country without ever finding a political voice or, still less, coming together into a single, united movement. To be sure, the regime was rattled for a time by the protests and rioting over soaring food prices that broke out in late 2010, coinciding with the Tunisian revolution, and the following months of upheavals across the Arab world, prompting Bouteflika’s April 2011 promise of extensive political and constitutional reform, but it soon became apparent that the fires of the Arab Spring had not taken in Algeria, and the regime returned largely to business as usual (the constitutional reform process has limped on, but with less and less enthusiasm from all concerned: Prime Minister Sellal, confirming earlier this month that the draft reform would be submitted first to parliament and then to a referendum, was unable to say whether this would be during the spring or autumn session of parliament and dropped not the slightest hint as to what it might actually contain). 
Beneath the surface this otherwise tediously flat sea, however, hidden currents seem to have begun to move of late. Amid prolonged uncertainty as to whether or not Bouteflika intends to stand for a fourth term of office in 2014, one potential successor after another (former Prime Ministers Ahmed Ouyahia and Ali Benflis, Transport Minister
Amar Ghoul, the present PM Abdelmalek Sellal) has bobbed up to the surface only to sink again for the most part almost without trace – suggesting a state of indecision or deadlock behind the scenes. In our last report, we quoted a source at the Presidency as hinting that Tewfik (who is thought to have earlier backed first Ouyahia and then Benflis as possible regime candidates in 2014) might no longer be the pivotal figure he once was. This came on the heels of suggestions from a former DRS officer that Tewfik had been unsettled by the fact that the West’s main interlocutor with Algeria on the situation in northern Mali is not him but Chief of Staff Maj-Gen. Ahmed Gaïd-Saleh. 
Since then, there have been further suggestions – from private sources (notably an astute Algerian businessman close to sections of the military) and from the special envoy of Paris-based daily Le Monde – that the army has begun to re-emerge as a political player. The catalyst has been the French intervention against AQMI and its allies in northern Mali, which has thrust the Algerian military centre-stage – not only as the preferred interlocutor of the Western powers but also as the guardian of Algeria’s borders and, as seen at In Amenas, vital infrastructures. The Algerian businessman notes that, since France launched its ‘Operation Serval’ in northern Mali, members of the rising generation of officers in the Algerian military have begun to hold informal gatherings to discuss the situation (and no doubt other matters) – a practice that had ceased several years ago. A mid-ranking Spanish defence official, meanwhile, claims that the French intervention in Mali provoked a direct confrontation between President Bouteflika and the army: although the military chiefs were extremely reluctant to grant the French over-flight rights (insisting that permission to overfly Algerian territory be limited to logistical support aircraft rather than fighter aircraft, and that it be granted on a case-by-case basis) they were in the end overruled by the President who promptly granted the French what they wanted. 
At the same time, the sudden rush of media and government attention for conditions in southern Algeria following the In Amenas siege seems to have acted as a stimulus to the socio-economic agitation across the southern wilayas. Protest movements by the unemployed and others are of course nothing new in southern cities such as Ouargla and Laghouat. But the In Amenas attack, by drawing attention to the social and political context in which it took place (due notably to reports that the attackers had been able to recruit a number of disaffected locals as informants or accomplices), has provided southern Algerians with an opportunity to air their grievances. The opportunity has been seized with enthusiasm: unemployed workers attempted to march to the oil hub of Hassi Messaoud to make their voice heard on the February 24 anniversary of the nationalisation of the oil and gas sector (only to be beaten back by police and gendarmes), workers in the education sector in all the southern wilayas launched a three-day strike as of February 25 over pay and working conditions and called on other sectors to follow their lead, and the National Committee for the Defence of the Rights of the Unemployed (CNDDC) called for an all-south demonstration in Ouargla on March 14 (at least 10,000 attended the protest, which this time was allowed to pass of peacefully). Marking the anniversary of nationalisation with a visit to In Amenas on Feb. 24, Prime Minsiter Abdelmalek Sellal and his ministers were taken to task by speaker after speaker at a meeting with notables and representatives of the local population over the social and economic marginalisation of the south; Sellal’s remarks, in which he gave voice to the regime’s fears of a “criminal gang[1]” of wreckers seeking to split the south away from the rest of Algeria, seem to have served only to further fuel the indignation of the protesters[2]. The government has since responded with a reshuffle of provincial governors that has brought new heads to six out of ten southern wilayas (including, for the first time, the appointment of a local man as Wali of Illizi), a programme to encourage small businesses, job creation and local recruitment in the south, and pledges to establish Sonatrach and Algérie Télécom training academies in various southern towns to develop local talent. It remains to be seen whether this will be sufficient to quell a movement which for the time being seems to be growing in confidence. 
The attention to the south, and the protest movement there, appear also to have encouraged another former Prime Minister, Ahmed Benbitour, who hails from the southern wilaya of Ghardaia, to declare his intention of standing for President in 2014. Benbitour was the first prime minister appointed by Bouteflika after he came to power in 1999 but served for less than a year before falling out with the head of state over economic policy; somewhat later, at a time of tension between the President and the military chiefs, he seems briefly to have been considered by some within the army as a potential alternative to Bouteflika in the 2004 presidential election. Whether or not Benbitour is being actively encouraged this time round by elements within the establishment, he has latched on to the other political hot potato of the moment, namely the corruption scandals surrounding the Bouteflika presidency – a theme which was extensively used by Bouteflika’s opponents within the power structure in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, when compromising details were drip-fed to the press by insiders over a period of months.
Since the second week of February, when Milan prosecutors announced that they had put ENI head Paolo Scaroni under investigation in a probe into alleged bribes paid to win contracts in Algeria for ENI subsidiary Saipem SpA, the Algerian independent media has been publishing a seemingly endless stream of articles on corruption at Sonatrach, further fuelled by later reports in the Canadian and Italian press that Swiss magistrates are investigating possible corrupt practices on the part of Canada’s SNC-Lavalin in Algeria. While the initial trigger may have been provided by these external probes, there are signs that the media chatter has been deliberately kept going by elements within the establishment: new tidbits relating to middlemen involved in corruption at Sonatrach appear to have been leaked to reliable journalists (notably Salima Tlemçani of El Watan, who has close ties to the military), those who do not have anything new to add have been free to indulge in speculation, and other, unrelated cases have been dragged back into the open – including lurid claims that then Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni was seen leaving national police chief Col. Ali Tounsi’s office with a mysterious bundle of documents under his arm immediately after the latter was shot dead at his desk by a colleague in 2010). Time and again, the central figures in these scandals are individuals who are or were close associates of Bouteflika’s: Zerhouni, former Foreign Minister Mohamed Bedjaoui, and above all former Energy Minister Chakib Khelil (who according to certain press reports jetted briefly back to Algiers from his self-imposed exile in the midst of all this to consult with the President’s brother, Saïd Bouteflika, and seek assurances that he would be protected from prosec
ution). Furthermore, it has transpired that the Algerian courts themselves opened a second investigation into corruption at Sonatrach last October[3] that in part covers the same ground as the Milanese investigation into Saipem, and that a decision was taken in January of this year to allow both the defence and the prosecution in the long-buried El Khalifa Bank case[4] to have their appeals heard in a court of cassation, as of April 2. It would seem therefore that there is an internal, Algerian dynamic going on here, and there are grounds for thinking that it may be driven by parties within the establishment with an axe to grind with the President and his erstwhile ‘clan’. In this respect, it is worth noting that the Spanish defence official quoted above also alluded to a conflict between the Algerian top brass and Saïd Bouteflika, who is said to have cornered all the commissions generated by a contract signed with Germany for the supply of frigates to the navy, leaving the military out. 
Thus the signs seem to point to the emergence of a new, three-way game at the top, between Bouteflika, Tewfik and the generals, in place of the rather uneventful two-man game run by Bouteflika and Tewfik alone over the past eight years. This would seem to be the context of Bouteflika’s repeated hat-tipping to the army and the DRS in his recent messages, his warning about the continued risk of Arab Spring contagion, and his statement of “confidence in the ability of the criminal justice system” to deal appropriately with the resurgent corruption scandals. It is unclear at this stage how this game will play out, but it is certainly worth monitoring as Algeria enters the run-up to the spring 2014 presidential poll.

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