(Algiers) On Wednesday, June 12, a motorcade reportedly carrying Algeria’s former head of government, Ahmed Ouyahia, rushed through El Harrach in the suburbs of Algiers. Images of the escort were repeatedly broadcast on television that day, shared by thousands on social media, as the previous prime minister, yet again, broke the news.
But Ouyahia’s convoy was slightly altered now and appeared to be lacking in its usual governmental air. Rather, he was driven in a police van, bound for El Harrach Penal Institution.
A group of local residents, some cheering, clustered about the prison’s entryway in the meantime. They awaited the coming of the unprecedented escort and chanted almost in unison, “You have looted the country, you thieves!” It was the first time in Algerian history that a former prime minister was to be detained on accusation of corruption.
Ouyahia is, by all accounts, one of the most disdainful – and resented – politicians in Algeria. As the police van dashed through the prison gates, bystanders hurled yoghurt pots at it. The former five-time minister (thrice under President Bouteflika) once raised controversy when, in response to rising prices after initiating austerity measures, he had declared that Algerians were “not obliged to eat yoghurt”.
The following day, June 13, Abdelmalek Sellal (one of Ouyahia’s forerunning premiers) was in turn taken to El Harrach prison. Their provisional detention followed those of a number of other political and economic figures that had thrived during the Bouteflika era – all involved in cases of fraud or corruption.
“Operation clean hands”
In the beginning of May, the country’s most powerful troika, namely Said Bouteflika (the previous president’s youngest brother), Major General Toufik and Major General Tartag (both intelligence chiefs), were summoned in an extraordinary scenario before the Military Court. They were reportedly put in detention for “harming the army’s authority and plotting against state authority”.
Said, to whom the country’s substantial decisions were attributed, was often said to be “the shadow president”, having to fulfill his ailing brother’s job. General Toufik, once “god of Algeria”, was removed from power in 2015 after the dissolution of the D.R.S. (Algeria’s then intelligence agency), which he headed. General Tartag ran the new-founded D.S.S. (a consequent of the D.R.S.).
The unexampled wave of arrests, which has been propelled by the actual regime – represented by the Algerian army’s head Ahmed Gaid Salah, once Bouteflika’s acolyte – swept over the country’s economic élite as well.
Operation “clean hands”, inspired by Italy’s mani pulite purge of the 1990s, has also brought to heel magnates that were untouchable under Bouteflika – the country’s number-one fortune Issad Rebrab, Ali Haddad, “boss of bosses” and head of Algeria’s topmost construction company ETRHB, the automotive industry front man, Mahieddine Tahkout, and the Kouninef Brothers, among others. These businessmen are accused of having misappropriated public funds to enrich themselves at the expense of public sector, supported by oil rents during Bouteflika’s early presidency.
On April 10, Gaid Salah, who is also deputy minister of defense, declared, “The justice system, which has regained its independence, will now act in complete liberty, with no constraints and without yielding to pressure or orders, undertaking legal proceedings against the whole gang of those who engaged in the misappropriation of public funds and abused their power to illegally enrich themselves.”
Tints of doubt
Yet, critics have noted, it is this same justice system that had left political detainees die in custody. On May 28, an Algerian political dissident and human rights activist, Kamel Eddine Fekhar, died in detention. Other detainees from the Bouteflika era remain in custody for political cases – some, like Hadj Gharmoul, were arrested for having opposed the previous president’s run for a fifth term.
“With this crackdown, they are trying to make us think that the system is capable of being reformed,” declared the Secretary-General of the Workers Party, Louisa Hanoune, in late April, whereas “the same justice system closed its eyes to all of these abuses for decades”. Louisa Hanoune was arrested shortly afterward for “plotting against state authority”.
“We haven’t truly seen the arrests of Haddad and the rest,” said Alaa, a protester taking part in student demonstrations on Tuesday. “But we will not stop until they are all gone anyway, including Gaid Salah. He is just one of them,” added the 19-year-old student.
Alaa is a high-school student. He has just finished the third day of his Baccalaureate exams and hurriedly joined the student demonstrations that take place each Tuesday in downtown Algiers.
The weekly student protests are at their 17th happening, occurring in subsequence to those of Friday, which started on February 22 in response to Bouteflika’s run for a fifth term. Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned in early April, after pressure from the streets and the army that once supported the idea of a fifth term. Demonstrators now demand the departure of the remnant “system” – the current political élite – as a whole.
But as some back Gaid Salah in operation “clean hands”, which goes along with the overwhelming majority’s aspiration, others fear that the purge is but a tacit safeguard of the status quo – a sort of gambit in which, as the journalist and writer Akram Belkaid put it, the actual regime “pretends that things are changing in a sense so that they don’t truly change”.
Gaid Salah’s turanabout
Gaid Ahmed Salah, 79, was appointed as the army’s chief of staff by Bouteflika himself in 2004, and as deputy minister of defense in 2013. He became Bouteflika’s obligé and one of his closest allies. He even endorsed the idea of a fifth term.
On March 6, he had condemned the protests, deeming them menacing and alluding to a likely return of the Black Decade (Algeria’s 1990s civil war), in which the army was insidiously involved. But no more than four days later, as protesters still demanded the end of Bouteflika’s 20-year rule, he declared, “Algeria is lucky in its people, and the army is lucky in its people”.
Ten days later, Gaid Salah saluted the “deep popular consciousness of the protesters”, assuring that “for every problem, there is a solution, if not several”. On March 26, he finally called for the application of Article 102 of the Algerian Constitution, which stipulates the dismissal of the sitting president if proved unfit to continue exercising his duties. Bouteflika, who suffered a stroke in 2013 and had scarcely made any public appearances ever since, was compelled to resign on April 2.
“Gaid Saleh confirms in each of his speeches that justice is under his control,” said Mustapha Benfodil, a writer and journalist at the Algerian newspaper El Watan. “The incarceration of the opposition figure Louisa Hanoune under the false pretext that she was undermining state security shows that he is more bent on a settling of scores than on the desire for justice,” he added.
The Algerian National People’s Army has historically scarcely – if not never – been apolitical. In June 1965, Algeria’s first president, Ahmed Ben Bella, was toppled by Colonel Houari Boumediene (then minister of defense). In 1978, Boumediene died and the army intervened to replace him by Chadli. In 1992, the army forced Chadli to resign to break the parliamentary elections, following a large victory by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).
The army was also involved in the October 1988 killings and the Black Decade that followed. Opponents of the army’s current interference in politics today claim that the army is trying to befriend the people so that it will not have to do the “dirty work” again.
“As long as General Gaid Salah is in charge, which may unfortunately last a long time, Algerians are far from seeing the end of the tunnel,” said Benfodil. “The fight is just beginning,” he added.
This Friday marks the 18th week of protests. No new date has been set for the forthcoming presidential elections, following the postponement of those planned for July 4 due to a lack of candidates.