Tebboune resists Turkish drive to push influence through presidency

As silent clash of interests rages on between Ankara and Paris
Wednesday 24/06/2020
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune (R) as they sign bilateral agreements in Algiers, last January. (AFP)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune (R) as they sign bilateral agreements in Algiers, last January. (AFP)

ALGIERS –Conflicting French-Turkish interests have taken on dangerous dimensions in Algeria. There are signs of significant inroads by both sides into Algeria’s power hierarchy. While the French have opted for more traditional mechanisms to boost their influence in Algeria, the Turks have moved to employ their own version of lobbies,  reportedly employing Mohamed Tebboune, President Abdelmajid Tebboune’s son.

Tension inside the Algerian presidential palace was at an unprecedented level as Tebboune had to intervene to reprimand some of his close aides and a member of his family, against the backdrop of suspicious contacts aimed at reproducing the experience of influence peddling that was rife during the rule of the former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The influence network was run in the shadows at the time by Bouteflika’s advisor and younger brother, Said Bouteflika. Now, reports say, President Tebboune’s son, Mohamed, is being groomed to be a strong link inside Algeria’s decision-making centres.

The digital magazine Maghreb Intelligence reported on its website that there was serious tension last weekend inside the El-Mouradia Palace after Tebboune intervened to reprimand his son Mohamed, as well as punish his Turkish friend, Ahmet Demirel, on the latter’s use of their close ties to communicate with his son.

The site stated that the mysterious advisor inside the presidential palace, Boualem Boualem, was the one who alerted Tebboune to his son’s “controversial relations” with Demirel, a notorious Turkish lobbyist in Algeria, and warned him that the connection had become a real concern, especially as the two men started to catch the attention of local media.

Demirel is one of the prominent Turkish figures who have good relations with Tebboune. He is said to be responsible for managing and promoting Turkish interests in Algeria, especially in the field of trade and investment, and which experienced a remarkable boost during the last few years of the former Bouteflika government.

The confessions of detained former Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia Tuesday revealed the significant extent of Turkish influence in the country, through construction and building companies. “God only knows the amount of bread eaten by foreigners in Algeria, especially in the field of construction,” Ouyahia told the judge. He was of course euphemistically referring to the profits reaped by Turkish companies.

The Turks have practically monopolised the building and construction projects in Algeria during the last two decades. Backed by a strong and very active lobby, they have completed projects comprising the construction of tens of thousands of apartment units, plus important infrastructure projects. They are still active in Algeria despite the economic crisis the country has experienced since 2014.

An informed source told The Arab Weekly that “during the past two decades, Algeria has become open territory for Turkish lobbies,” and that there were two distinct waves of Turkish penetration. At first, there was the remarkable encroachment by the lobby loyal to Abdullah Gulen, through economic, commercial, charitable and information activities for years. Then came the wave of the lobby loyal to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime, and this was when Ahmet Demirel was able to weave a network of strong relationships inside Algeria’s decision-making circles since 2016.

“Algeria has opened its doors to an official Turkish influence that carries Ottoman ambitions, and which has become a real competitor to the French historical influence in Algeria,” the source added

However, the recent incident at El-Mouradia Palace could reveal some of the hidden facts to the public, and could provoke strong reactions from the French, who now feel that their interests are threatened in one of the capitals that have been loyal to them for ages. They see the threat with more urgency as the Turkish lobby has now resorted to employing family relations in order to lay its hand on important projects that were previously within France’s protected turf.

Demirel’s close relation with the current Algerian president date back to 2016, when Tebboune was Minister of Housing under Bouteflika. But his son’s involvement with Turkish financial and business interests might open up a new front of political challenges to the president — which is why he rushed to contain his son’s influence and stop his Turkish friend in his tracks.

Tebboune is said to have told Demirel: “You are my friend and not my son’s friend, and there is no need to slip in through narrow angles.” It is very likely, however, that the incident will raise questions about the relationship between the two men, especially when it is linked to Tebboune’s time as Minister of Housing when he had oversight over housing projects in Algeria. Such projects, which swallowed billions of dollars in public funds, are still clouded in suspicion.

Maghreb Intelligence said that the Turkish lobby tried to employ Mohamed Tebboune to persuade his father to award Turkish companies a government petrochemical project estimated at about $6 billion. For that specific reason, the Turks initiated a campaign to influence the president’s son to be the godfather of Turkish interests in the presidential palace only to find their interests challenged.