Algeria: Scepticism on arrest campaign

Al-Ahram Weekly Editorial , Thursday 25 Apr 2019

The Algerian authorities arrested billionaires close to former president Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika this week and put two former officials on trial

Algerian Demonstrators
Demonstrators hold flags and banners during anti government protests in Algiers, Algeria April 23, 2019. The banner reads "Government go away - students take over" (Photo: Reuters)

 The Algerian authorities arrested the country’s richest man Issad Rebrab on Monday, hours after apprehending four business tycoons as part of an anti-corruption drive.

Rebrab, 77, was named by the US magazine Forbes as the ninth richest man in Africa with a net worth of $3.38 billion in 2019. His Cevital Group is Algeria’s largest private conglomerate and has significant stakes in France, making Rebrab one of the country’s most influential figures.

On Sunday, four members of the Kouninef family which is close to former Algerian president Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika who resigned earlier this month were also arrested.

Former prime minister Ahmed Ouyehia, dismissed from office earlier this year amid massive pro-democracy protests, and current finance minister Mohamed Loukal were also summoned by an Algerian court for questioning over charges related to the abuse of public funds and nepotism, according to state TV.

The events come days after army chief of staff and de facto ruler of Algeria Ahmed Gaid Saleh made fiery statements vowing to crackdown on corruption. He also accused former spy chief Mohamed Toufik of plotting to thwart efforts for a peaceful political transition in the country.

Saleh’s speech, delivered during a visit to a military base last Tuesday, only partially addressed the demands of the pro-democracy movement that has been protesting in massive numbers every week since 22 February.

Bouteflika, Algeria’s president for 20 years, was forced to step down on 3 April in response to an ultimatum from Saleh issued in an effort to contain the protests.

Saleh’s roadmap for the transitional period is based on Article 102 of the Constitution which has made speaker of parliament’s upper house Abdelkader Bensalah acting president for up to 90 days until presidential elections are held.

Bensalah, who earlier supported Bouteflika’s now-cancelled bid for a fifth presidential term despite his ailing health, has been a target of the weekly Friday protests. Last week, Tayeb Belaiz, head of the Algerian Constitutional Council and another of the officials named by the protesters, finally resigned.

Observers predict that the acting president’s days are numbered. He has remained largely invisible since assuming power in the presidential palace with Saleh’s photographs and statements continuing to dominate the front pages of the local press.

Fewer than two weeks since Bensalah announced that presidential elections would be held on 4 July, a campaign boycotting any polls under his watch has gained so much momentum that Algeria’s public radio reported on Monday that the elections might be postponed.

On Monday, the presidency hosted the first meeting of a national dialogue that was poorly attended and boycotted by main political groups and figures. Bensalah, who had called for the conference, did not show up.

Ali Binflis, a former prime minister, described the national dialogue as a “waste of time.” Bensalah’s legitimacy was being questioned by millions of Algerians, he said, adding that the interim president’s absence testified to the lack of seriousness of the event itself.

According to the Algerian Defence Ministry, Saleh is expected to visit a military unit in Bleida in the north of Algeria where he is expected to make statements on political developments.

Observers say that Rebrab’s arrest, meant to deliver a message on Saleh’s anti-corruption policy, has drawn mixed reactions and might backfire.

TSA Algérie, a daily news outlet, questioned the motives behind the incarceration of Algeria’s wealthiest man, accusing Saleh of settling political scores to the detriment of the economy.

Rebrab, though close to Bouteflika’s clique, had supported the pro-democracy protests, and TSA’s Hassan Haddouche described him as an “opponent” of Saleh.

Hailing from Tizi Ouzou in Algeria’s Kabylie region, Rebrab had earlier attacked Algeria’s ruling class in a 2015 interview, saying they were the “biggest danger to the country.”

He had been arrested and imprisoned in “opaque conditions” independent of the police or the Justice Ministry, Haddouche said.

“It is very significant that the main political actors of the system in place for more than 20 years have so far been spared,” he added.

According to Algeria expert Isabelle Werenfels, many Algerians are worried that the aim behind Rebrab’s arrest is to create divisions inside the protest movement between Kabyles and Arabs.

Cevital Group staff have called for a march in Bejaïa, the largest city in the Kabylie region, on Tuesday.

“We fear they will divide the popular movement,” said Mourad Bouzidi, a spokesman for Civital’s national workers’ committee. “For the first time in Algeria’s history, the people have taken to the streets demanding the departure of the regime. Everyone must understand they are sowing discord and we have to defeat them,” he said.

Hocine Djidel, an Algerian sociologist, said that Rebrab’s arrest was politically motivated.

“This is a manoeuvre to steer the protest movement towards selective instances of corruption, when the people have been demanding the departure of the entire ruling class, including Saleh,” he said

*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Scepticism on Algeria arrest campaign

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