Unprecedented infighting divides Algeria’s ruling class
TUNIS - The chief of Algeria’s ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) voiced hard-hitting criticism of the former head of the powerful military intelligence agency (DRS) and one of the country’s top political figures, causing a backlash that puts pressure on President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to intervene in the unprecedented infighting.
“The latest statements of [FLN Secretary-General] Amar Saadani in which he made dangerous accusations against Abdelaziz Belkhadem and General Mohamed Mediene undermine the country’s security and North African region stability,” said Abderrahmane Belayat, a top FLN official, following Saadani’s statements.
Saad Okba, lead political commentator in the main Arabic-language daily el Khabar, said: “If this situation remains the same… the ultimate loser will be President Bouteflika and not Saadani.”
“Heading to the polls with an FLN led by Saadani means real suicide for the political system on which Bouteflika is basing his policy,” Okba added.
Breaking a four-month silence, Saadani told a party leadership meeting that Mediene, the former chief of the military intelligence service, had “fomented deadly riots and ethnic strife in Ghardaia [during] popular protests against the government’s plan to develop shale gas”.
In the swipe against Mediene, commonly known as Toufik, and other top military officers known by the DAF acronym for Deserters from the French Army, Saadani said: “The DAF, upon whom France had bet to pursue control of Algeria, has been defeated.”
“They were the ones who masterminded plot against FLN in the 1990s. They were those who sowed the civil war, sidelined political cadres and caused the bankruptcy of state-owned enterprises,” Saadani added.
Many Algerian soldiers and officers deserted the French colonial army to join FLN guerrilla fighters in the late 1950s to fight alongside the nationalists in a bloody war that led to Algeria’s independence in 1962.
Among those were Algeria’s first president Ahmed Ben Bella and influential generals Khaled Nezzar and Mohamed Lamari, who led Algeria’s fight against a radical Islamist insurgency in the 1990s.
Dubbed kingmaker because of his 25-year tenure as head of DRS, Mediene saw five presidents and a dozen prime ministers come and go. He was known as “Rab Dzayer”, which means “God of Algeria”.
Bouteflika fired Mediene last year, ending the dominance of the shadowy and powerful DRS over politics and business affairs. That move solidified Bouteflika’s authority over Algeria’s armed forces.
Saadani accused Belkhadem of being “part of the network of France’s officers. He has been among those agents planted by France within our ranks. He is an agent of France within the FLN.”
Although Saadani verbally attacked Mediene three months ahead of presidential elections in 2014, his renewed attack on the retired general and on Belkhadem, a former FLN chief, prime minister and close aide to Bouteflika, is unprecedented in Algerian politics.
The cascading reactions to Saadani’s comments within and outside the FLN increased concerns about the country’s political stability as Algerians prepare for a major transition: Bouteflika’s leadership will end in 2019 after two decades in office.
Local and legislative elections in 2017 are seen as key milestone in the transition.
Top FLN officials, including members of parliament, rallied alongside rank-and-file activists against Saadani in the central city of Aflou on October 14th, while in the western city of Sebdou, FLN members staged a protest urging Bouteflika, who is the party’s honorary chairman, to fire Saadani.
Louisa Hanoune, leader of the leftist Workers Party and an ally of Bouteflika, said Saadani’s remarks were a “serious threat to the nation… because of the identity and profession of who made such statements”.
The leader of the National Front for Social Justice, Khaled Bounejmaa, said “Bouteflika shoulders the responsibility for Saadani’s latest political sortie” and warned that Saadani’s comments “might trigger strife that would be difficult to control”.
The most serious accusation Saadani made concerns the alleged role the DRS under Mediene played in the Ghardaia protests, which cast doubts about the ability of government bodies to handle political and economic challenges.
Ghardaia is home to two ethnic communities who share a history of rivalry. Chaamba Arabs, originally Bedouins, follow the Malikite Sunni sect of Islam, while Berber Mozabites are Ibadis, practising a form of the religion distinct from Sunni and Shia.
The two groups have often clashed over property, housing, land ownership and employment opportunities.
Protests against hydraulic fracturing for shale gas in southern Algeria turned violent in March last year when security forces clashed with demonstrators outside a facility run by the US-based firm Halliburton near the town of Ain Salah.
Commentators in newspapers and on social media speculated about why Saadani made his remarks at this time, and some blamed France for its alleged “influence” over Saadani.
Political analyst Mustapha Hammouche said: “Saadani’s statements raise the question of whether there is an authority, a pilot on the plane, ahead of the elections.”