ALGÉRIE : RAPPORT DE SITUATION MENSUEL #137
18 juillet 2014
Les Tendances Politiques
· La vie politique, et même et la prise de décision de base dans le secteur public, semblent être en grande partie sur le verrouillage en attendant l’achèvement du processus de révision de la Constitution en automne.
· Avec le président Bouteflika affaibli par l’âge et la mauvaise santé, le pouvoir exécutif est apparemment géré par ses courtisans, dont les intrigues ont abouti au licenciement d’une partie des aides les plus anciens de Bouteflika. Les Sources divergent en ce qui concerne qui a la haute main à la présidence – s’il est le chef du cabinet du Président Ahmed Ouyahia ou son frère et conseiller Saïd.
· Le secteur du pétrole et du gaz est signalé à être sous l’autorité d’un triumvirat composé de M. Ouyahia, Ministre adjoint de la Défense et CoS Gaïd Saleh, et Ministre de l’Énergie Yousfi.
· Le cycle annuel de promotions militaires pourrait vu l’onction des futurs chefs de la gendarmerie et, éventuellement, la DRS.
Les Relations Etrangères
· Les événements au Mali, en Tunisie et, en particulier, la Libye ce mois-ci confirment que l’objectif principal de la politique régionale de l’Algérie doit rester pour l’avenir prévisible, la « arc de crise » à l’est et au sud.
· Le rôle de premier plan pris par l’Algérie et l’Egypte à une réunion récente des voisins de la Libye, et la visite du Président égyptien Al-Sisi à Alger, semblent pointer vers l’émergence d’un axe algéro-égyptienne.
· Dans le même temps, il y a eu une nouvelle poussée dans la guerre des mots entre Alger et Rabat, après la décision de l’Union Africaine de nommer un envoyé spécial pour le Sahara Occidental.
· La dernière prise de bec entre l’Algérie et le Maroc est une nouvelle manifestation de la longue guerre d’usure entre les deux pays pour l’influence en Afrique.
· Les niveaux d’activité djihadiste enregistrés ont été exceptionnellement faibles au cours du mois passé. Même si cela peut être dû en partie à un black-out médiatique sur les nouvelles liées à la sécurité au long des frontières orientales et méridionales, il semble également de refléter un véritable recul de l’activité dans ce qui a été longtemps considéré comme le cœur de l’AQMI en Kabylie et les approches orientales à Alger.
· La baisse de l’activité en Kabylie pourrait être liée à une scission qui s’est ouvert entre la direction nationale de l’AQMI et la Région Centrale de l’organisation sur l’attitude à adopter « le califat » proclamé au début du Ramadan par l’Etat Islamique en Irak et Syrie.
· Il y a des petits signes que la controverse agitée par le nouveau «Califat» peut également provoquer des divisions au sein de l’organisation Al-Mourabitoun de Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
· Le petit groupe Fils du Sud pour le Mouvement Justice Islamique a annoncé un cessez-le-feu, qui semble présager sa dissolution et une amnistie pour ses membres.
· Les nouveaux bouleversements pourraient être à venir dans le cadre des enquêtes de corruption à Sonatrach, cette fois affectant les sociétés de sécurité privées qui servent l’industrie du pétrole et du gaz.
After a brief spurt of political activity following the April 17 presidential election, Algeria appears to be back in the doldrums once again. With a scant few exceptions – the new Minister for Religious Affair’s controversial decision to allow the re-opening of synagogues in Algeria, for example – cabinet ministers appear to be reduced to sitting on their hands, unable to take any decisions of major importance or even, it has been claimed, reshuffle the heads of the departments or state-owned companies that fall under their remit. There have also been reports that Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal has been refused permission to make limited changes to his cabinet line-up (which, it is true, only dates from early May). The stock response from the Presidency, according to Algerian press reports, is that everything must wait until after the constitutional amendment process has been completed – which could take another three or four months.
This state of affairs is strongly reminiscent of the gridlock that prevailed in the year prior to April 17, when decision-making throughout much of the administration was effectively put on hold pending the presidential election, against a background of sharp differences between members of the ruling elite over the wisdom of having Bouteflika run for a fourth term of office despite his stroke. We argued in May that while the re-election of Bouteflika may have settled the immediate question of the succession, it was likely to be posed anew relatively quickly, and that the rifts between the various factions, and within them, would be likely to come increasingly into the open.
Recent reports of the surprise dismissal of several long-standing presidential aides may not amount to open factional warfare, but they do suggest that the situation created by the re-election of a severely weakened president is already generating some unseemly palace intrigues. Bouteflika advisors Mohamed Meguedem, Mohamed Touati and Rachid Aïssat have all been given their marching orders, along with the President’s private secretary Mohamed Rougab. Meguedem had held a variety of positions at the Presidency since the Chadli era, Aïssat and Rougab have been part of Bouteflika’s innner circle since the early days of his first term of office, while Touati (a former general, once known as “the brains” of the army) rapidly became a permanent fixture at El Mouradia palace after retiring from the military and being appointed security advisor to the President in the early 2000s. In the case of Meguedem, El Watan (15/07/14) attributes his dismissal to the influence of national police chief (DGSN) Maj-Gen. Abdelghani Hamel, and while the daily’s claim that Hamel feared Meguedem was after his job scarcely rings true, it is known that there had been deep suspicion between the two for several months. Sources at the Presidency to whom we have been able to talk, meanwhile, give contrasting explanations of the sudden cull. One mid-ranking civil servant assured us:
The decision had been on the way ever since the presidential election campaign, when Bouteflika’s chief of staff (directeur de cabinet) Ahmed Ouyahia became infuriated by repeated interference from Mohamed Meguedem, who claimed to be acting on behalf of the President and Saïd Bouteflika. Meguedem had – or at least said he had – the support of Mohamed Touati and the President’s private secretary Mohamed Rougab, and dragged other officials at the Presidency in as well: he even took the initiative of contacting the rival candidate, Ali Benflis, using Rachid Aïssat as an intermediary, without informing Ahmed Ouyahia. All through the election campaign, Meguedem insinuated that he was acting in complete harmony with Tewfik, and on occasion even claimed to be speaking in his name, in Ouyahia’s presence. Ouyahia at one point threatened to resign if “this nonsense”, as he put it, didn’t stop. After the campaign, it was actually Tewfik who carried out the operation that culminated in the decision to dismiss all those who had had a hand in this interference, notably Rougab, Meguedem, Touati and Aïssat. As a consequence, Ahmed Ouyahia is now in command, with the blessing of Tewfik and also of Saïd Bouteflika, who had no choice because Tewfik had prepared a solid dossier (including photos, witness statements and wire taps) against Meguedem’s friends.
A presidential staffer, on the other hand, dismisses the idea that Maj-Gen. Hamel or Ahmed Ouyahia could have had the clout to drive out Bouteflika’s longest serving advisors, arguing emphatically that only Saïd Bouteflika had both the power and the motive to organise such a cull. This would indeed be coherent with reports we received on more than one occasion earlier this year to the effect that Saïd was acting as grand chamberlain to his brother, filtering all information the President receives, and even growing into the role of regent – a situation, we were given to understand, that was viewed with resentment and suspicion by at least some of the President’s advisors.
Whether the dismissals were the work of Saïd or Ouyahia, however, the one thing that both accounts have in common is the lack of agency of Bouteflika himself, suggesting that the executive branch is now being run not by the President but by his courtiers. Hence, according to an executive at Sonatrach’s legal department, the crucial oil and gas sector is now being overseen by a triumvirate:
Over the past few weeks, three leading figures have been holding regular meetings to discuss matters relating to Sonatrach: Ahmed Ouyahia, Deputy Defence Minister Lt-Gen. Gaïd Saleh, and Energy Minister Youcef Yousfi. Sonatrach CEO Abdelhamid Zerguine also attends sometimes, but only when he is invited to do so by the others. A rumour that Zerguine is on the way out, which started at the end of June, is still doing the rounds.
Meanwhile, the annual round of military promotions took place as usual at the beginning of July. Curiously, the full list of promoted officers has not yet been made public, but it has been possible to glean some details from partial press reports and online discussion forums for Algerian military personnel. In all, some 89 officers are reported to have received promotions, 22 of them from the Gendarmerie and 67 from the army (although the latter figure may also cover the DRS). Of these, five Gendarmerie colonels and 51 Army colonels were promoted to the rank of general. No fewer than 16 Army generals were promoted to major-general, while the Gendarmerie saw just one officer, its chief of staff Menad Nouba elevated to this rank, the second highest rank in the Algerian armed forces. Menad Nouba appers to be in line to take over from Maj-Gen. Ahmed Boustila as Gendarmerie Commander. At the same time, according to postings by Algerian military personnel in specialist online forums, the other 16 new major generals include at least three DRS officers: former DSI (internal security) chief Abdelkader Kherfi, a.k.a. “General Ahmed” (who was reported in early June to have begun working with Ahmed Ouyahia at the Presidency); Gen. Mokri, identified as the head of the DREC (the intelligence service’s foreign liaison bureau); and current DSI chief Ali Bendaoud. The latter is particularly noteworthy in light of what we were told in May by a souce close to the DRS, who suggested that the annual round of promotions should be watched closely for indications of who is being groomed for the top positions, adding that the promotion of Bendaoud to major general might be taken as a sign that he is on course to replace Tewfik at the head of the DRS.
Events across the region in mid-July – the outbreak of fighting between rival factions in Tripoli on July 13 that rendered the Libyan capital’s international airport unusable; the killing of a French soldier in the Al-Moustarat area north of Gao by a suicide bomber belonging to Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Al-Mourabitoun organisation on July 14; the deaths of at least 14 Tunisian soldiers in a clash with armed islamists in the Djebel Chaambi area near the border with Algeria on July 16 – have provided further confirmation that the principal focus of concern for Algiers must remain, for the foreseeable future, the “arc of crisis” to the east and south, opened up by the fall of the Qaddafi regime in Libya.
Having unilaterally opted to take military action across the border in southern Libya as of late May, Algiers has over the last few weeks also been devoting at least some effort to the quest for a multilateral response to Libya’s slow-motion collapse into a failed state. On July 14, Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra led an Algerian delegation to the 3rd ministerial conference of Libya’s neighbouring countries in the Tunisian resort town of Hammamet, with Chad, Egypt, Niger, Sudan and Tunisia also attending the two-day event. The meeting set up two commissions, the first of which was tasked with « examining military and security issues, including border surveillance » and is to be chaired by Algeria, while Egypt will be in charge of the second commission tasked with « contacting the political class and members of civil society in Libya » to facilitate the launching of a national dialogue. The two commissions are supposed to report back to the Tunisian foreign minister in the last week of July, ahead of the next meeting of Libya’s neighbours during the first half of August. This initiative – together with Egyptian President Abdulfattah Al-Sisi’s visit to Algiers on June 25, his first foreign trip since his election in May – seems to establish the premises for an Algerian-Egyptian axis of sorts. It might ultimately also provide the basis for an ex post facto legitimisation of Algeria’s unannounced military intervention on Libyan territory, especially in light of a Libyan government statement issued on the eve of the Hammamet meeting in which it said it was “looking into the possibility of making an appeal for international forces on the ground to re-establish security and help the government impose its authority”.
At the same time, there has been a renewed flare-up in tension between Algeria and its western neighbour and traditional rival, Morocco. Speaking at a public hearing before a parliamentary committee in Rabat on July 10, Moroccan Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar condemned Algeria’s attitude on the question of Western Sahara as “pathetic”, causing howls of outrage in Algiers. Referring to a decision by the African Union’s Peace and Security Council in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, at the end of June to appoint former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano as the AU’s special envoy for Western Sahara, Mezouar blustered:
Algeria uses all financial and logistical means to thwart the efforts of Morocco to find a resolution [to the Western Sahara question]. The latest thing was [the appointment of] the special envoy of the African Union. […] When we see attempts by the Algerian regime to counter our efforts, we find that the methods used are really pathetic. Our conflict today is not with Polisario but with Algeria.
The Algerian ambassador to Rabat signalled his dissatisfaction by boycotting a meeting of Arab ambassadors convened by Mezouar the next day, while Algerian Foreign Ministry spokesman Benali Cherif made a long statement (dutifully reproduced by the government news agency APS) condemning the Moroccan Foreign Minister’s “outrageously insulting declarations”:
The irresponsible remarks against Algeria made by senior Moroccan government officials mark a return to the Moroccan party’s well-known lemming-like habits, which it revives whenever there is a step forward in the process of completing the decolonization of Western Sahara. […] Morocco’s setbacks and disappointments, which are the direct cause of these verbal excesses, obviously derive from its unilateral and unjustified demands with regard to the handling of the question of Western Sahara both at the African level and internationally. […] Algeria, whose position on the question of Western Sahara sticks to the international consensus and the doctrine of the United Nations, can but firmly reject the false accusations made by the said Moroccan officials, and deeply regret such behavior which is in direct contradition with the values shared by the brotherly Moroccan and Algerian peoples.
This exchange of brickbats between Rabat and Algiers is of course just the latest episode in an on-off series, against a backdrop of a diplomatic war of attrition between the two countries for influence in Africa. Perhaps the clearest manifestation of this over the past few months has been the Moroccan-Algerian rivalry in Mali, where Rabat has been striving to carve out a role for itself as a mediator between the central government and the rebel groups in the north, to the detriment of Algeria, which has traditionally treated Mali as its backyard. Although Morocco did seem to be having some success in pulling the rug from under the Algerians’ feet earlier this year, hosting a couple of exploratory meetings, Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra appears to have taken back the initiative of late, embarking on another mini-African tour taking in Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana, in early July before chairing the initial phase of the “Malian inclusive dialogue”, bringing together Mali’s central government and northern rebel movements, in Algiers as of July 16. At the same time, however, there are signs of increasing activity on another front in this diplomatic war: the African Union itself. Although Morocco is not a member of the AU, having withdrawn from its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, in 1984 after Polisario’s Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) was admitted as a member, it has of late been showing increasing interest in the organisation, for example sending Assistant Foreign Minister Mbarka Bouaida (who happens to be of Saharawi origin) to Addis Abeba in January of this year to lobby delegations attending the 22nd AU summit – the aim seeming to be to chip away at African support for the SADR and ultimately, perhaps, pave the way for its derecognition by the AU. Such is the background to Foreign Minister Mezouar’s rather undiplomatic outburst in parliament over the AU Peace and Security Council’s decision to appoint a special envoy for the Western Sahara – a decision that was adopted, according to a senior Polisario official, in spite of very active efforts by a “pro-Moroccan lobby” at the Malabo meeting to prevent it going through.
The level of recorded jihadist activity in June was unusually low, with only three minor incidents reported, and this appearance of calm has continued into July, with two incidents reported so far. None of these incidents were around the country’s borders.
While it is likely that an unannounced media blackout is keeping some incidents, especially along the eastern and southern borders, out of the news, the apparent lack of activity on the part of AQMI in the north of the country cannot be attributed solely to government censorship, insofar as AQMI is present on social media and regularly claims responsibility for operations it carries out. The fact that AQMI has signalled only two operations over the past couple of months leads us to believe the organisation has indeed scaled back its operations.
ALGIERS remained quiet over the past month. The only event of note was an alert issued by the US embassy on July 4, warning American citizens to stay away from American-owned hotels for July 4-5 since “an unspecified terrorist group may have been considering attacks in Algiers, possibly in the vicinity of a US branded hotel”. No such attacks transpired, however, and the alert appears to have been essentially a rote warning ahead of the United States’ and Algeria’s respective Independence Days.
KABYLIA was also quiet this past month, with no incidents reported at all. The last AQMI operation reported in Kabylia – generally held to be the jihadist group’s heartland – dates back to May 28, and the last security forces operation took place on June 4. Further to the EAST, the army was reported by L’Expression to be conducting a “major search and destroy mission” in the wilayas of Skikda, Jijel and Annaba around July 15, including bombardment of sites where jihadists were believed to be hiding. Unusually, the bloodiest incident of the past month was in the WEST of the country: according to an official statement from the Defence Ministry, a roadside bomb killed three soldiers and four members of the Garde communale on July 12 near Sidi Chaïb, wilaya of Sidi Bel Abbès (a region that has seen only sporadic jihadist activity over recent years). The army launched a search and destroy mission in the area. On July 17, the army ambushed and killed two jihadists in Beni Mileuk, wilaya of Tipaza.
With the oil and gas producing SOUTH (ostensibly) quiet throughout the month, an executive at Sonatrach’s legal department, speaking to us in mid-July, has shed new light on the lack of progress in the much talked about plans to forge a new security structure for the oil and gas sector out of the myriad private security companies that currently exist:
The signs are that there will soon be new developments in the Sonatrach corruption cases soon. The Gendarmerie has taken over from the DRS in running the investigations. In the past few weeks there have been investigations concerning the Skikda LNG complex and one of Sonatrach Downstream’s departments in Oran. The Gendarmerie has also been running checks on oilfield service companies and security companies in Ghardaia, Hassi Messaoud and Illizi, and we are now expecting there to be arrests, transfers of Sonatrach managers away from their present jobs and cancellations of the licences of a number of oilfield services companies and security outfits.
Meanwhile, in a video communiqué dated June 3 (but posted to YouTube on June 20) Abdessalam Tarmoune, leader of the Sons of the Sahara for Islamic Justice, announced a ceasefire. In the communiqué – in reality more of a long and rambling sermon than a structured statement – Tarmoune, after what seems to be a pro forma promise to continue the “jihad” against the corrupt regime, explicitly thanks Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal for his role in negotiating the ceasefire, and for standing up to opposition from the « eradicator wing » (his words) to including the Sons of the Sahara in the national reconciliation process – implying that the group’s members are likely to be amnestied in the near future. Filmed in the Tassili n’Ajjer mountains of the far south-east, where Tarmoune’s group, believed to be about one hundred strong, has been holed up for months, the rest of the video is essentially a homily encouraging the youth of the south to devote themselves to education, marriage and work.
Leading Arabic-language daily Al Khabar (24/06) subsequently reported that negotiations with the Sons of the South began in February 2013 and were conducted initially in the greatest secret, with only PM Sellal, President Bouteflika and « a few top military and security officials » informed. According to Al-Khabar, Sellal delegated responsibility for conducting the negotiations, which had been dragging on fruitlessly, to DGSN chief Abdelghani Hamel and “certain Army officers”, among them the commander of the 4th Military Region. The delay in reaching an agreement prior to that is said to have been due to the “lack of trust between Abdeslam Tarmoune and the negotiators from the DRS”, Tarmoune being considered “treacherous” by many members of the security services for having taken advantage of the national reconciliation pact and then going on to join MUJAO alongside Lamine Bencheneb; Al-Khabar goes on to suggest that the negotiations with the Sons of the Sahara may have made it possible to collect a wealth of intelligence on MUJAO.
In principle, of course, MUJAO no longer exists as an independent group, having merged with Belmokhtar’s group in August 2013 to form a new organisation named Al-Mourabitoun. Strikingly, one of MUJAO’s founders, Hamad bin Mohamed al-Chenguiti, who is believed to be a member of the leadership council of Al-Mourabitoun, issued a statement from northern Mali on July 13 stating his full support for the so-called “Caliphate” proclaimed on June 29 by the Al-Qaeda breakaway group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Chenguiti seemed however to be speaking in his own name rather than representing any specific group, signing simply as “the former head of Islamic courts in Gao” and making no reference to either MUJAO or Al-Mourabitoun. It may be recalled that Mokhtar Belmokhtar himself issued a statement reaffirming and renewing his allegiance to Ayman Zawahiri, the emir of Al-Qaeda’s international leadership, on April 30, at a time when the worldwide jihadist movement was becoming embroiled in controversy after Zawahiri had disavowed the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria due to its repeated clashes with another Al-Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front, in Syria. This apparent divergence between Al-Chenguiti and Belmokhtar’s statements suggests that the successes in the field of ISIS (or the Islamic State as it is now calling itself) and it proclamation of the “Caliphate” may have opened up rifts in Al-Mourabitoun.
If so, Al-Mourabitoun would by no means be alone. While the Islamic State’s call on Muslims everywhere to swear allegiance to the new “Caliph”, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, may have been greeted with bewilderment by most ordinary Muslims, to jihadist groups — which take the notion of caliphate seriously and claim to be fighting to unite the “Muslim nation” into a single Islamic state — this is an extremely serious matter. ISIS’ stunning breakthrough in western Iraq in late June and Al-Baghdadi’s claim of universal dominion over Muslims have forced other jihadist groups to take position for or against the “Caliphate”, and by extension for or against Zawahiri. Al-Baghdadi’s declaration has drawn sharp criticism from some of the most respected international theorists of jihad, including Jordanian ideologues Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada, who have argued that a unilateral declaration of caliphate is meaningless and that only a “council of elders” may appoint a caliph. But this has not stopped several fighting groups on the ground declaring allegiance to ISIS and its leader.
These include a group presenting itself as AQMI’s Central Region, which on June 30, just hours after the proclamation of the Caliphate by Al-Baghdadi’s group, issued a short written communiqué, signed by all the members of its Shura Council, formally declaring the group’s allegiance to “the venerable sheikh and servant of God, Ibrahim Bin Awad Al-Quraishi Al-Baghdadi Abu Bakr, the Caliph of the Muslims”. This was the latest and most explicit in a series of statements from the group this year stating its admiration and support for ISIS – in apparent contradiction with the line of AQMI’s national leadership, which has been more inclined to restate its allegiance to Zawahiri.
The national leadership effectively replied to the Central Region in a statement posted online around July 15 (though dated July 4):
We have kept quiet so far for fear of adding more fuel to the fire of discord, but now we feel the need to make our position clear. The caliphate is the goal of all true mujahidin. […] But declaring an Islamic caliphate is a momentous decision that requires broad consultation. How can you declare a caliphate without consulting with other jihad groups and [leading jihad theorists]? And what about Molla Omar of the Taliban? What about Sheikh Ayman Zawahiri? What about all the other branches of Al-Qaeda?… AQMI invites leading emirs and sheikhs — including Abu Mohamed al-Maqdisi, Abu al-Walid al-Ghazzi, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Molla Omar, Ayman Zawahiri, Sheikh Nasser al-Wuhaishi, Abu al-Zubeir, Abu Mohamed al-Joulani, and others — to discuss the issue among themselves and come to terms; and AQMI will be the first to submit to their decision. […] Meanwhile we maintain our allegiance to Sheikh Ayman Zawahiri, for it is legally binding and we have seen nothing that would lead us to change that.
Thus the split between the national leadership and the units active in Kabylia and the eastern approaches of Algiers appears to have been consumated, after months of incipient tension – a development which may help to explain AQMI’s declining effectiveness in what was long considered its heartland.