Algeria steps up arrest campaign

Al-Ahram Weekly Editorial , Friday 17 May 2019

The authorities in Algeria have stepped up their arrest campaign against prominent politicians as the pro-democracy protests in the country rage on for a 12th week

Algeria demonstrators
A demonstrator holds a banner depicting Algeria's interim president Abdelkader Bensalah during a protest demanding the removal of Algeria's ruling elite in Algiers, Algeria May 10, 2019 (Photo: Reuters)

Tens of thousands of Algerians took to the streets for a 12th week of protests against the regime last week and on the first Friday of the fasting month of Ramadan, despite attempts by the authorities to appease them.

The largely leaderless hirak (protest movement) that began on 22 February in Algeria has been rocking the capital Algiers for almost three months, maintaining pressure on the country’s powerful military to remove the ruling elite from power.

This has resulted in the resignation of the country’s president for 20 years, Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika, early in April and the announcement of a transitional roadmap by the Army Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Saleh, which saw controversial head of the upper house of parliament Abdelkader Bensalah named as the country’s interim president for 90 days.

Hoping for a swift transitional period, Bensalah set a date for new presidential elections on 4 July and called for a national dialogue, though this was boycotted by Algeria’s main political forces.

Bensalah, who supported Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth presidential term and has advanced his career as a regime loyalist, was rejected by the hirak, which viewed his appointment as a continuation of Bouteflika-era forces in power.

They fear that no progress can be guaranteed to take place under his watch.

Gaid Saleh, viewed as Algeria’s de facto ruler, has so far refused to heed the hirak’s demands to remove the ruling elite and criticised calls to boycott the July elections and Bensalah’s national dialogue.

But he has vowed to fight corruption in Algeria and what he has described as “schemes and plots” to thwart efforts to bring about a peaceful transition in the country.

An anti-corruption drive has resulted in arrests targeting at least five prominent businessmen with ties to Bouteflika’s clique, including Issad Rebrab, the ninth-richest man in Africa.

Former prime minister Ahmed Ouyehia, dismissed from office earlier this year, and current Finance Minister Mohamed Loukal were also summoned by an Algerian court for questioning over charges relating to the misuse of public money and illegal privilege.

Last week, Bouteflika’s brother Said, said to have hijacked the presidency after the president suffered a stroke in 2003 which rendered him incapable of speech and most movement, was placed in custody by a military judge on charges of “harming the army’s authority and plotting against state authority.”

Algeria’s former top intelligence officer Mohamed Mediène was also arrested on the same charges, together with another former intelligence official.

Described by the US Brookings Institutions’s Bruce Riedel as “Algeria’s darkest figure,” Mediène, also known as the “Butcher of Algiers,” presided over the powerful Algerian Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS) for a quarter of a century during the country’s bloody civil war that claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people after the military cancelled elections that the Algerian Islamists looked set to win in 1992.

In the subsequent conflict, the DRS extended its sway over the country’s political parties, media and economy in the name of security.

“A thorough public investigation of his quarter-century in office would expose the ugly side of Algeria’s opaque police state,” wrote Riedel on the Brookings Institution’s blog on 13 May.

Mediène was a shadowy figure who avoided media exposure or public appearances. He was sacked by Bouteflika in 2015, who also dissolved the DRS and replaced it with the Direction of Security Services under the presidency’s control.

After Bouteflika’s resignation, Gaid Saleh reversed Bouteflika’s decision by moving the DRS back under the Defence Ministry.

Mediène was known as the leader of an army faction called Les Eradicateurs, which according to Riedel advocated a ruthless war against Political Islam and Islamist terrorists in the country leading to the decade-long civil war.

Born on 14 May 1939, Mediène joined the armed forces of the Algerian independence movement late in the war against French colonialism in 1960. After the country’s independence, he entered the new Algerian army intelligence service and was sent to the former Soviet Union for training by the KGB.

In 1990, he became the country’s spymaster just as Algeria descended into civil war after a military coup had disrupted elections dominated by the Islamists.

For the next quarter century, he was the power behind the scenes in the murky world of Algeria’s notorious pouvoir, the cabal of generals and oligarchs who have run the country.

“The DRS was said to have over 100,000 informants and to run ‘false flag’ terrorism (creating a fake terror threat to justify repression). It waged a largely successful war against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Osama bin Laden’s North African franchise,” Riedel wrote.

“It is far from clear what is next for Mediène and Algeria. The optimal outcome is a peaceful transition to a democratically elected government and the rule of law in Africa’s largest country. In this case, the ‘eradicator’ would be publicly held accountable for his actions. But that outcome is far from assured,” he added.

“Powerful forces in Algeria and in the Arab world are determined to maintain the predominance of dark police states in the region. Mediène may be turned into a scapegoat for the crimes of many others. Whatever the outcome, it is a spectacular fall for Mediène.”

While largely welcomed in Algeria, the present arrest campaign has drawn mixed reactions, including scepticism about its political motivations. This was evident after the surprise arrest of Louisa Hanoun, secretary-general of the left-wing Workers Party last week.

Hanoun was ordered to be held in custody on Thursday by a military court in Blida. According to a statement by her party, she is being questioned as a witness in the investigation of Said Bouteflika and Mediène, and her arrest was “counter to the Algerian people and their revolutionary mobilisation”.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Algeria steps up arrest campaign

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