Algeria detains top generals, power struggle intensifies

Despite cracking down on “corrupt” military figures, Bouteflika has spent more than any other leader on defence.
Sunday 21/10/2018
Algerian republican forces stand guard in front of the Presidential Palace in Algiers. (Reuters)
Raising the stakes. Algerian republican forces stand guard in front of the Presidential Palace in Algiers. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika ramped up his battle against alleged corruption in the military, detaining five top generals and a colonel on graft charges after firing a dozen high-ranking officers.

Politicians saw the unprecedented crackdown as part of a power struggle ahead of presidential elections next April, when Bouteflika’s fourth term expires.

Bouteflika had vowed to address corruption in the military, which has been a powerful political force in Algeria since the country’s independence in 1962.

In September 1999, weeks before he became president, Bouteflika said at a campaign rally: “You want me to make a revolution alone… Tell me more about army generals. Tell me about the gang of 15, 20 or perhaps 30 army generals.”

Bouteflika has steadily strengthened the office of the presidency to curb the military’s political influence.

In September 2015, Bouteflika sacked Algeria’s secretive intelligence chief, Mohamed Mediene, in one of the country’s biggest political shake-ups. Known in Algeria as “Rab Dzayer” (“Algeria’s God”), Mediene had been one of the world’s longest-serving intelligence service chiefs, heading Algeria’s Intelligence and Security Directorate for 25 years.

This year, Bouteflika oversaw a purge of the country’s military command, firing or transferring a dozen top generals in the largest military restructuring in 56 years. The heads of most military districts, who exert significant influence on the presidential nomination process, were replaced.

Bouteflika, 81, has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013 but his backers have urged him to seek a fifth 5-year term as president. He has yet to announce whether he will run.

Despite cracking down on “corrupt” military figures, Bouteflika has spent more than any other leader on defence. He aims to “make Algeria’s military one of the 20 strongest military powers in the world by 2035.” To do so, the country plans to spend $30 billion from 2019-23 on defence systems and weaponry from the United States and Europe. It has spent $10 billion annually on the military since 1999.

The high-profile detentions of military chiefs on charges of “corruption and ill-got gains” and “embezzlement of public funds” shook up the country’s military establishment.

It was the first-time high-profile military figures faced such charges since former Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Mustafa Beloucif was jailed on corruption charges more than two decades ago.

“The detention of the five generals and the colonel who was responsible for the military security in the western region of Oran has the effect of an earthquake within the military,” said security expert Salima Tlemcani. “It is the main debate topic within the ranks of the armed forces. It causes worry and apprehension within the military at a time when the armed forces are called for more mobilisation to face security challenges and danger on the borders.”

Outside the military, analysts said the military shake-up was reflective of infighting among rival ruling factions ahead of next year’s elections.

“The detention of the generals echoes the fierce fighting among the factions in power,” said Mohcine Belabbas, head of the secularist opposition party Rally for Culture and Democracy. “It means simply that the after-Bouteflika [period] is being prepared now. Even if Bouteflika decides to run for a fifth mandate, his health condition will not allow him to end that term in office.”

“Each one of the forces inside the ruling system is trying to weaken the other to dominate the decision-making process to decide the future direction after Bouteflika,” Belabbas added.

Soufiane Djilali, president of Mouwatana, a civic movement trying to stop Bouteflika from securing another term in office, said: “The fact that such powerful top officers are detained for corruption is unusual and extraordinary but it has nothing to do with the fight against corruption. Bouteflika worked to spread corruption.

“What is certain is that this move is linked to the presidential elections. We know that the decision about the next president comes from the military.”

Constitutional law expert Zoubida Assoul warned that the moves could weaken the military.

“For me, the decision to detain these men appears to be part of a Machiavellian plan to undermine the stability of the country’s last rampart against chaos — the military institution. I think there is an unhealthy atmosphere being stirred up,” she said.

Hamid Ferhi, a leader of the leftist Social Democratic Movement, said: “The detention of the generals gives the perception that the army is led by a mafia but the reality is different. The military is deeply organised and structured as a modern institution and most of its cadres and chiefs are young university graduates. Such a purge will not change the fundamental nature of the armed forces.”