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Is Algeria’s Military Making Its Move on Aging President Bouteflika?

The story of Algeria is supposed to be about “reforms”. Most dictatorships are. Restrict presidential terms – unless, of course, the people demand the same old fogey as president yet again – and encourage the country’s minority to believe its status is respected. In Algeria’s case, Abdelaziz Bouteflika presents his country with a president – now in his fourth term of office – who has undergone so many medical operations (in Europe, of course) that he stares into the camera like a dead man.

There’s no point in being over-polite about it. When he was elected for a fourth time two years ago – after a lot of constitutional jiggery-pokery –  Bouteflika was regarded by cartoonists and satirists in Algeria as a man already in his coffin. How could he impose such an indignity on brave Algeria, they asked? Could it not be ruled by a living man? Take a look at poor old Bouteflika’s recent photo portraits and you’ll see what they mean. He can hardly speak – and although his brain is active, his acolytes assure us, they find it hard to explain how they can be so certain of his competency if His Excellency the President cannot actually talk to them.

The reforms which Bouteflika trundled out a couple of weeks ago must therefore be seen in context. A president who’s allowed only two terms of office, an enlarged parliament, an “independent” to run the elections and an official presidential imprimatur on Tamazight, the language of Algeria’s Berber minority – all these may look good on paper. But in a country which is still recovering from the death of 250,000 of its citizens and soldiers in a ferocious 1990s civil war whose participants sometimes outdid Isis in their barbarity – the throat-cutting of babies was a speciality in mountain villages – the length of a president’s rule and the rights of an indigenous language aren’t quite as important as they seem.

Here’s the problem. During the war, the Islamists – who morphed from being the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) into al-Qaeda – were confronted by an army and intelligence service whose use of torture was about as brutal as any in the Middle East. The smashing of teeth and fingernails was minor stuff. To make prisoners talk, the cops would truss them up, stick a rubber hose in their mouth and fill them up with water until they, quite literally, burst asunder. “If you started talking, you are dead,” a GIA men told me at the time. “Because if you start giving information, they’ll go on to the end.” They often did.

Some soldiers sought asylum in Europe and spilled the beans. They were given drugs, they said, and ordered to torture and murder suspects, especially if they had beards. One very senior officer sought libel damages in France against a soldier who’d detailed his experiences in this dirty war in a book – but the officer fled Paris the moment the court ruled against him. An amnesty upheld by our friend President Bouteflika insured not only that reformed “terrorists” would be free but that the army goons would never be punished.

Indeed, so terrible was the military’s behaviour that Algerian authors found it safer to write fiction about the war in order to tell readers the truth. One short story that actually went on sale in Algeria told of a lieutenant in the army who betrayed his comrades to the Islamists. His wife and children were brought to the scene by helicopter to find his officers had tied him to a tree with barbed wire. They were forced to watch as petrol was poured over the “traitor” and he was burned alive. Everyone knew the story was true.

So here we must turn to Mohamed Mediène, who was head of Algeria’s secret service for all those dark years, known – and referred to in the press – as one of the “eradicateurs”. He finally turned against Bouteflika when the latter (at great personal “sacrifice”, according to his flunkies) gained a fourth term in 2014. And then, last September, Mediène met his comeuppance. He was suddenly “retired” from service, apparently at the instigation of the defence minister and several leading generals who wanted to “clean up” the army.

To the shock of Algerians, “Toufik”, as he is known, suddenly appeared in the Algerian press – in sunglasses, I might add – to complain about the “unjust” jail sentence passed on his former chum General Abdelkader Ait Ourabi, who was head of “counter-terrorism”, the Algerian chaps who “dealt” with the civil war insurgents in so efficient a manner. Ourabi’s imprisonment was for “destruction of military records” and “disobeying military orders”. Mediène said that his subordinate had operated with “passion” – we can imagine what that means – and complied with his duties as an officer.

The whole affair prompted two questions. The first was obvious: just what was in those military records? The second – more opaque – was just how deep do the army’s roots lie in the body politic of Algeria, a country that was always controlled by the military? Is Bouteflika being edged out at the wish of Army veterans who are clipping his wings while ensuring that they have no trouble with the Berber people? Or – more likely if I read local journalist Nicholas Noe correctly – is the military “tearing itself apart”?

Crashing oil prices – and 60 per cent of Algeria’s budget is dependent on oil and gas – is not going to endear the “coffin president” to his people. Ten million Algrians live on the poverty line. And with Isis-thronged Libya, Niger and Mali as neighbours, a firm but new military hand may be in the offing. The French will be there to sell more weapons. And the Americans would of course welcome more allies in the “global war on terror”.

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Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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