Ouyahia ‘cemetery scandal’ exposes Algeria rifts

The rules of engagement are unlikely to change any time soon as the regime tries before anything else to reckon with a weakened street movement that could run out of control any time again.
Monday 29/06/2020
Former Algerian Prime Minister and currently imprisoned Ahmed Ouyahia is escorted by police as he attends the funeral of his brother in the capital Algiers on June 22. (AFP)
Former Algerian Prime Minister and currently imprisoned Ahmed Ouyahia is escorted by police as he attends the funeral of his brother in the capital Algiers on June 22. (AFP)

PARIS--Reactions in Algeria and beyond to the shocking images of 67-year old former Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia handcuffed and surrounded by a swarm of security officers have included denunciation of the humiliating spectacle and fuelled speculation about internal feuding within the regime of President Abdelmajid Tebboune.

Ahmed Ouyahia was allowed on June 21 to attend the burial of his brother and lawyer, Laifa Ouyahia, who had died the day before after having a heart attack in court. The pictures and video images of a haggard-looking Ahmed Ouyahia overwhelmed by the show of force surrounding him were carried by domestic and foreign media outlets.

The images were also widely shared and commented on on social media. The events, which unfolded in Algiers' Garidi cemetery, became known as "the cemetery scandal.”

Not many in Algeria see Ouyahia and co-defendants as innocent of all the charges levelled again them. Most Algerians are convinced that their oil and gas-rich country was kept at a third-world level by corruption and ineptitude. They want to hold former senior officials and businessmen who illegally profited from the previous regime accountable.

In cases involving the car assembly sector during the Bouteflika era, Ouyahia was charged with graft and illegally financing the former president’s election campaign.

Last Wednesday, he received a 12-year prison sentence on top of a previous 15-year term. He stood before court along with 71-year old former Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal and a number of businessmen close to the regime, such as Ali Haddad, who was arrested when trying to flee to Tunisia.

Ouyahia served four times as prime minister and was one of the longest serving government and ruling party officials during the rule of Bouteflika, who was eventually toppled by the Hirak protest movement.

Demonstrators clamoured since February 2019 for the removal of a ruling class accused of pillaging the state coffers. Hardline leaders of the Hirak are not moved by the endless procession of former officials appearing before court. They even believe members of the Tebboune regime include some of the Bouteflika-era stalwarts who still have to be removed and held accountable.

But the treatment of Ouyahia was seen by many as going too far. It was a reminder of the score settling and vindictiveness overshadowing many of the post-Bouteflika trials conducted by a judiciary system that is not convincingly independent. The excesses witnessed in the last burial episode were embarrassing for the regime. Tebboune, who had promised since his election last December to usher a "new system" of government, was said to have been upset by the scene at Algiers' Garidi cemetery.

The controversy also led to public sniping between members of the government. Communication Minister and government spokesman Ammar Belhimer denounced the media coverage to which the former prime minister was subjected at the funeral. "This does not honour the journalistic profession nor the people that we are supposed to serve. Our people are known for their deeply-anchored values of compassion and tolerance," he said.

"Besides consecrating the unworthy recourse to humiliation, the image of a former head of government in shackles, deeply affected and stricken by the death of his brother is a degrading spectacle that is morally reprehensible," he added.

Feeling indirectly accused by Belhimer's words, the ministry of justice issued a statement denying its responsibility for any actions "outside prison walls.”

But opposition Algerian newspaper Algerie Patriotique alleged the whole scenario of Ouyahia's humiliating appearance was the brainchild of Justice Minister Belkacem Zeghmati, whom it described as a holdover from "the Gaied Salah clan,” in reference to the former army chief of staff and the country's former de facto ruler who died last December.

Accusing Zeghmati of interference with the work of judges, Algerie Patriotique, which is suspected of links to members of the old regime, predicted "difficult days ahead" for the minister of justice as the judiciary awaits its moment to settle scores with him, too. "Belgacem Zeghmati,” it said, "is likely to be subjected to the same treatment than Ouyahia, if not worse."

Algerian analysts saw in the Zeghmati-Belhimer clash a reflection of the "lack of cohesion" within the Tebboune regime as conflicting forces inside the political-military establishment continue to jockey for power. To end or at least curtail the public skirmishes between cabinet members, the Algerian president is said to be contemplating a new government reshuffle after having just introduced one earlier this month.

The regime, which continues its crackdown on Hirak activists and social media activists, faces accusations of "instrumentalisation" of the judicial system to tighten its grip on power. It is hopeful that COVID-19 and political pressures will eventually lead the protest movement to run out of steam.

In the meanwhile, the same judicial system continues to hold trials of key members of the old regime. Some of the defendants and their lawyers see the trials as politically-motivated and are accusing the media of collusion with the judicial system.

During a recent court session, businessman Ali Haddad protested the media indictment of the defendants, which he says only "served to lay the ground for penal sanctions."

Since the days of strongman Gaied Salah, members of Bouteflika's entourage have been referred to as "the gang.”

Arabic language newspaper Al Wassat called them the "financial cartel of the Bouteflika regime.”

Demonised by the political establishment and loathed by a large segment of the public, former officials seem destined to play the role of sacrificial lambs for a while.

The rules of engagement are unlikely to change any time soon as the regime tries before anything else to reckon with a weakened street movement that could again run out of control at any point.