Algeria: Turmoil And Churn At The Top
With president Bouteflika back from Switzerland (since September 1) the purge of senior military and police commanders accelerated. General Gaid Salah, the vice minister of defense and a longtime Bouteflika loyalist is apparently in charge of the purge and is now seen as a likely replacement for Bouteflika if the presidents; health problems get worse. This month Salah has dismissed and replaced the heads of the army ground forces and air force. In addition over a dozen lower ranking commanders have been replaced.
This latest round of firings was not sudden as in June and July a number of senior commanders were dismissed, including police general, Abdelghani Hamel, who has the head of the National Security Division and considered one of the few remaining potential rivals in the 2019 presidential elections. Hamel’s personal driver had been arrested on a cocaine trafficking charge but there was no apparent connection to Hamel. Since Hamel was seen a potential rival for Bouteflika any excuse would do to remove the rival candidate. Over the next two months there were indications that this was indeed another purge. This was made easier by the fact that the police had been corrupted by the drug gangs, who had the cash to offer bribes too large for many police officials to refuse. Even the military was aware of this and had become reluctant to work with police in many cases because they feared shared intelligence data would be for sale by corrupt cops. The firings and threats of more have led some senior officers to flee the country with their families. This sometimes happened even though these commanders had been forbidden from leaving the country. In one case airport security officials were arrested on suspicion of bribery.
Bouteflika has often eliminated potential rivals via crackdowns on corruption. There was a power struggle in 2013 that went public with the 2015 arrest of Abdelkader Ait Ouarab. This was the guy who led the counter-terror campaign in the 1990s that defeated the Islamic terrorists. Ouarab continued serving until he retired (apparently under pressure) in late 2013. All this internal strife has been going on, quietly, for over a decade. Things heated up in early 2013 when Bouteflika had his stroke and was disabled to the extent that he has not given a public speech since.
Pro-reform members of the senior leadership pushed for Bouteflika to resign followed by free elections. The Bouteflika clan and corrupt officials allied with the Bouteflikas got organized and resisted. No one wanted a civil war, but the two sides were sharply divided and compromise was not possible. By late 2013 it was clear that most Algerians wanted the government to clean up the rampant corruption and that there was support for that on the inside led by several senior Intelligence officers. Most of the corrupt officials and their civilian allies belong to the extended family of the elderly Bouteflika. The clans of several other families that led the country after freedom was achieved in the 1960s have dominated government and the economy ever since. The Bouteflikas were apparently slow to realize that their most dangerous political enemies were the senior people in the intelligence and security agencies who had decided that some fundamental changes (cleaning up the corruption) were needed. There were also a lot of military officers who favored anti-corruption reforms. Fortunately for Bouteflika many senior military commanders were corrupt, some because they felt refusing the economic perks offered when they achieved high rank would be seen as disloyal. Bouteflika always believed the loyalty of the military was essential to keeping his corrupt crew in power. Yet by late 2013 many Bouteflika loyalists noted the split within the military and began moving more of their assets out of the country, just in case. These people are among those now fleeing. That’s because if there’s another large-scale uprising and the military refuses to suppress it (or, worse, splits or falls apart because of disagreements among officers) the current government is done.
Bouteflika realized that most of the troops favored anti-corruption efforts. After 2013 the purged, and thus more loyal intelligence services will devote most of their efforts to ensuring the loyalty of the army and police. There had already been hints of trouble after the 2013 stroke. In late July 2015 local media revealed that the government had unexpectedly replaced three of the most powerful generals in the military (the heads of counter-intelligence, the Republican Guard and presidential security). This was immediately linked with two other odd events. First there was the large number of troops showing up at the presidential residence in July. Whatever was going on there was never made public. Finally there is the fact that president Bouteflika had not spoken publically since the stroke and appeared in public rarely. Algerians believe he is dying or at the very least not getting any better. In August 2015 general Ouarab was arrested and in mid-September came the news that general Mohammed Medien was retiring. In power since 1990 Medien headed the powerful DRS (intelligence and security department) and was always believed more powerful than the president. But he was only two years younger than Bouteflika and rarely seen. It is still unclear what his views on corruption and the current political situation was. Medien was mostly concerned with keeping tabs on Islamic terrorism and other threats to Algeria. There were still a lot of elderly commanders in the military.
The security forces have a lot of competent commanders and the forced retirements of so many senior commanders provides promotion opportunities for those who appear most loyal (to the ruling families). The security services continue to be effective, making Algeria one of the “safest” (according to international security firms that monitor that sort of thing) in North Africa and the Middle East. Yet the persistence of pro-reform officers in the security forces is a mixed blessing for the ruling families and a ray of hope for Algerians in general. The need for reform is also necessary to get the most out of being one of the “safest” nations in North Africa.
That designation does not mean being safe from the many corrupt practices that Algerian criminals (and local officials) impose on tourists and commercial visitors. One of the more visible examples of this is how many public beaches have been illegally taken over by criminal gangs that coerce tourists to pay illegal fees to park and be on the beach. Complaining to the police or local government often does not work because bribes are paid to ensure the gangsters are not interfered with. This sort of thing costs Algeria a lot of tourism income and efforts to clean up the corruption that makes it possible is still difficult.
September 25, 2018: France has agreed to honor and compensate the 8,000 remaining Algerian troops who joined the French forces during the 1954-62 war between French colonial government and Algerians fighting for independence. Some 150,000 Algerian Moslems joined the French forces during this period and only 40 percent accepted the French offer to move to France after Algeria became independent. The 90,000 “harkis” (as they were called in Algeria) who remained were reviled as traitors and France refused aid for those who would not move to France. Now the French government will pay the 8,000 surviving harkis (or their families) in Algeria $47 million over the next four years and provide other benefits as well. The current Algerian government will not interfere with this program.
September 24, 2018: In the east, just across the border in Tunisia (the Mount Chaambi region) a truck hit a mine planted by Islamic terrorists and killed two civilians. The Mount Chaambi are has long been a hideout for Islamic terrorists. Algeria and Tunisia cooperate in seeking to control the border in this area and that has made it difficult for Islamic terrorists to freely cross the border. That also means fewer of the Tunisian Islamic terrorists are seeking to hide out in Algeria and are staying in the Mount Chaambi region instead.
Thousands of former soldiers got past police efforts to block them and marched on the capital demanding higher pensions and better veterans’ benefits, particularly for those maimed during their service. Many of the protestors were veterans of the counter-terrorism campaign of the 1990s.
September 23, 2018: An Algerian diplomat, stationed in Algeria since 2015, was forced to leave the country after repeated complaints that he was a key operative in the recruitment of Algerian Shia Moslems to go fight as Iranian mercenaries in Syria. There are about 800,000 Shia in Algeria and the Iranian embassy encouraged Algerians to adopt the Shia form of Islam, but did do quietly.
September 22, 2018: In the capital police dispersed a large group of military retirees demanding higher pensions. The next day the police blocked and tried to disperse 20,000 former soldiers gathering outside the capital for a march into the capital.
September 19, 2018: The commander of the army ground forces, a 74 year old who had held the job since 2004 and is a veteran of the counter-terror campaigns of the 1990s, was forced to retire and replaced by a younger officer.
September 18, 2018: Algeria has agreed to take back Algerians found to be illegally in Germany. This means Germany will classify Algeria as a “safe” country. In addition to making it possible, under German law, to deport illegal Algerian migrants back to Algeria the “safe” classification means more tourism Europe and investment from Germany.
September 10, 2018: A football (soccer) match in Algeria between Algerians and Iraqis turned into a diplomatic crises when the Iraqi team withdrew from the game before it was over because Algerian fans were chanting in favor of deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and ISIL. Saddam is still seen as an Arab hero by many Arabs, especially in North Africa. Moreover most of the foreign ISIL fighters present in Iraq after 2014 were from Algeria.
September 4, 2018: In the far south (Tamanrasset province, 2,000 kilometers south of the capital) near the Niger border soldiers arrested nine men as suspected Islamic terrorists and seized weapons and bomb making materials.
In the east (Setif province, 300 kilometers from the capital) police arrested three people suspected of providing support to Islamic terror groups.
September 3, 2018: In Sidi Bel Abbès province (370 kilometers west of the capital) troops clashed with a group of Islamic terrorists, killing two of them, including their leader and wounding (and capturing) the other four. Three soldiers died and three were wounded.
September 1, 2018: President Bouteflika returned from Switzerland, apparently no better or worse than when he left. Opposition parties in parliament called for him to resign because of his health problems. The opposition parties do not have the votes to force this issue.
August 30, 2018: President Bouteflika flew to Switzerland for a medical checkup.
This article is copyrighted and republished with permission from our friends at Strategy Page.
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