Amid turmoil, Algeria remains a riddle wrapped in mystery

The challenge of maintaining a minimum of consensus will be difficult, all the more if Gaid Salah continues to play a spoiling game.

The powerful Algerian veterans’ association has added its voice to the many NGOs, professional bodies and respected political figures who insist that the transition period in Algeria towards free and fair elections must be managed by someone who has universal respect and the capacity to build a national consensus.

Hirak, the umbrella organisation that speaks for Algerians who want the system of government recast, agreed at the first National Conference of Social Society on June 15 on a text stating similar aims.

The meeting marked the first time since 1962 so many NGOs and trades unions met to freely discuss the future of Algeria.

The conference said a transition period of 6-12 months was appropriate for such a momentous change. The National Mujahideen Organisation (ONM), the Algerian veterans’ association, insisted that a “democratic transition was not just a choice, it was a necessity… (and that) the narrow reading of the constitution” by Algerian Army Chief-of-Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah and the army high command suggested they were misreading the situation.

The ONM was referring to the maintenance of an interim president and government leaders who are deeply distrusted by many Algerians because they are viewed as being straw men of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The ONM concluded that senior military officers were trying to manipulate the situation.

That said, unity on all issues will be difficult to achieve. Differences will no doubt arise between a more conservative hinterland and a more outward-looking coast, between those for whom religion must play an important role in society and those who wish to separate state and religion. The challenge of maintaining a minimum of consensus will be difficult, all the more if Gaid Salah continues to play a spoiling game.

More Algerians seem to agree with former Prime Minister Mouloud Hamrouche, who pointed out more than a month ago that the Algerian Constitution did not provide the tools for a workable transition.

Hirak, ONM and other civilian groups want to see a government that includes people whose names carry weight, credibility and experience to replace those in the administration.

It is now entirely at the beck and call of Gaid Salah. He knows, as do other senior commanders and thousands of Algerians whose careers have been characterised by honesty and competence in the face of a corrupt system, that forming a government that commands respect is not difficult. Anyone acquainted with Algeria can name 20 people who would want to build a consensus and work as a team to deliver a more modern and less corrupt system.

Hirak and the ONM are working to ensure that demonstrations planned for July 5 draw more people than ever. That date marks Algeria’s independence from France, in 1962. The liberation of the country will be 57 years old but, as sociologist Fatma Oussedik argued: “Its people, today, aspire to become actors of their own history, to become citizens.”

More private entrepreneurs and others are being arrested by police under orders of the Ministry of Defence, headed by Gaid Salah. The gendarmerie refers those it has arrested to judges who decide whether to order the prisoners kept in jail.

The files used by the judicial system have usually been compiled by security forces over the years. Both of their former heads are behind bars but no one denies that the files are thorough and include people close to Bouteflika.

Many lawyers are deeply concerned at what they argue is an arbitrary process open to abuse. Maitre Abdelmajid Sellini, president of Algiers bar association, said: “It is impossible to provide justice under pressure from the street and the media.”

Me Miloud Brahimi, the former president of the Algerian League of Human Rights, dismissed the clean-up campaign as akin to “a settling of scores.”

Many Algerians ask whether any of the senior officers behind the campaign have been the beneficiaries of kickbacks in the arms contracts that the Algerian Army signed over the years with Russia, Italy, the United States and Germany. Algeria is Russia’s second biggest purchaser of weapons after India.

Any sense of relief honest businessmen might feel as they watch notoriously corrupt peers end up behind bars is balanced by the knowledge that leaks to the media about the arrest of well-known businessmen are arbitrary, illegal and calculated to spread fear. As he manipulates the fight against corruption, Gaid Salah forfeits the trust ordinary people might once have had in him.

A further mystery haunts Algeria. No one knows the fate or whereabouts of Bouteflika since the presidential election was cancelled. His brother Said is behind bars but where is Abdelaziz Bouteflika? Will he stand trial for corruption? Is he even in physical condition to stand trial? No credible medical bulletin was issued during the illness that incapacitated him since 2013. Algeria remains an opaque country.

Francis Ghiles is an associate fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.