A wave of arrests amid Algeria’s game of thrones

As they march again, Algerians are keeping their fingers crossed.
Sunday 28/04/2019
Police officers wait near a prisoner transport vehicle by the gate of a court, after businessmen suspected of corruption were driven into the building in Algiers, Algeria April 23, 2019. (Reuters)
Police officers wait near a prisoner transport vehicle by the gate of a court, after businessmen suspected of corruption were driven into the building in Algiers, Algeria April 23, 2019. (Reuters)

A swirling wave of arrests has mesmerised Algiers. It swept up senior military officers, leading businessmen, a former prime minister, a few former ministers and a head of the oil monopoly Sonatrach.

Those arrested were deferred to the courts or detained on charges of corruption.

This could be the beginning of what can only be described as the cleaning of the Augean stables of the corruption that characterised the 20 years of rule of former Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Former Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia was caught in the dragnet as were the four Kouninef brothers but also bona fide businessmen, including Issad Rebrab, whose companies employ thousands of people, and the former head of Sonatrach, Abdelmoumen Ould Kaddour. Other people are expected to be deferred to the courts, if not arrested in the days ahead.

This wave would appear to meet the demands of demonstrators who for weeks chanted slogans such as “Down with the System” or “You ate the country, bunch of thieves.”

They now ask, “Where is Said?” a reference to the most influential of the former president’s brothers who, until Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s ousting, was arguably, with Chief-of-Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah, one of the two most powerful people in the country.

Pandering to the masses carries dangers, however. It is extremely dangerous to treat Rebrab, who may have blemishes but is a genuine businessman whose acumen is unquestioned, the same way as the Kouninef brothers, who are best described as proto-mafiosos.

Ouyahia has been one of the pivots of power for two decades and knows every state secret.

Ould Kaddour was convicted on charges of passing information to the enemy by the military court of Blida more than a decade ago after he was demoted from running an oil services company that was a subsidiary of Halliburton, a US firm once led by Dick Cheney before he was US vice-president. After Ould Kaddour’s arrest, documents were taken from his home by police.

Four cases of alleged corruption against his former mentor, the once all-powerful Minister of Energy Chakib Khelil, who was very close to Cheney, have been reopened by the Algerian Supreme Court.

All those cases are very different from one another. Throwing red meat to the wolves is no substitute for serious in-depth investigations that take time, an honest criminal investigation system and professional magistrates.

There is no guarantee of a fair trial in the political game of thrones that characterises Algerian politics today. The cheerleader for this mop-up operation is Gaid Salah but his own family members are not beyond reproach. All of which begs the question of whether this is not a game of liar’s poker.

The lawyer who runs the Algerian League for Human Rights, Mustapha Bouchachi, lost no time in expressing reservations about recent events. He argued that, while people suspected of corruption and fraud — and their wealth — should be prevented from leaving the country, any attempt to set up “an independent system of justice” was fraught with danger.

It might be used to distract the people from their fundamental aim, which is to change the political system. Those responsible for the corruption must be held to account, not “secondary characters,” notably businessmen whose fault was to operate in a culture of corruption and opacity.

Bouchachi also laughed out of court the prime minister’s attempt to convene a conference of national reconciliation on the orders of Gaid Salah. Virtually none of the opposition parties showed up, a sure sign that the chief-of-staff’s power of conviction is waning.

Bouchachi argued that 43 million Algerians want to see a “true transition towards a democratic regime. Today, everybody agrees that the military should accompany this transition but no one wants that institution to impose an agenda which maintains the system.”

Who would make a credible transition team? The answer is obvious: former President Liamine Zeroual, former Prime Minister Mouloud Hamrouche are respected for their competence and absence of any corruption suspicion. They could lead a team — an interim administration — that might include Bouchachi and other professionals respected for their honesty, competence, professionalism and lack of corruption.

Such a government could agree to push back the date of the presidential election from early July to later in the year to revise the electoral roll seriously and allow new political groupings and leaders time to organise. Amending the constitution is necessary and probably wiser than rewriting a new one.

The wave of demonstrations has not affected oil and gas production and the interim appointment of the professional head of production, Rachid Hachichi, to run Sonatrach is good news.

Although that appointment was made by the acting head of state, no one in Algiers pays any attention to interim President Abdelkader Bensalah and his prime minister because they are considered mere straw men of Gaid Salah.

As they march again, Algerians are keeping their fingers crossed. A political debate of sorts is under way that needs consolidating.