Mediene’s rearguard wars in Algeria

Navigating the treacherous waters of a political transition towards a more rule-bound, less corrupt future is a difficult task that is far from over.

The Algerian Constitution does not offer the legal and political tools necessary to guarantee a smooth transition towards a more democratic regime. That is the conclusion many Algerians have reached.

The government led by Noureddine Bedoui is not only lacking in talent but it includes people from the former regime who are notoriously corrupt. Most of them were close to the Bouteflika clan, which ruled Algeria for 20 years.

Together with the interim president, whose undistinguished career has for two decades been in the shadow of the former president, the interim rulers of Algeria fully deserve the nickname the street gives it — houkoumat Mickey, Mickey Mouse government.

Having prevented Abdelaziz Bouteflika from running for a fifth term, 43 million Algerians are clamouring their refusal to see such people manage the election of a new president.

How is it possible, they ask, for the electoral roll to be revised before the start of Ramadan in early May?

How can those who wish to stand as candidates in the election have time to organise their forces and prepare serious platforms for an election in July, bearing in mind that everything slows down during Ramadan?

Why should they take at his word army Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah, when he assures them that the army will protect the people he was threatening with a Syria scenario two months ago?

It is in this context that Gaid Salah on April 16 threatened to arrest the former head of security, Mohamed Mediene, if Mediene did not end his meddling in the situation by provoking divisions and spreading rumours, all time-honoured methods under authoritarian regimes.

Mediene has not been shy to throw groups of alleged Islamists into the crowds during the Friday demonstrations. In fact, they might have been drugged convicts thrown into the fray. So-called hooligans were filmed throwing stones at cars that turned out to belong to the police.

The Department of Intelligence and Security that Mediene ran for 25 years after 1990 contains many agents, infiltrated into every company and administration in Algeria that can sow discord and attempt to provoke violence.

A day before Gaid Salah’s intervention, the former and highly respected Mouloud Hamrouche, who led a government of bold reforms in 1989-91, issued a similar warning to Mediene in the columns of French-language newspaper El Watan.

Hamrouche went out of his way to praise the army for having listened to the clamour for reform and maintaining its unity. The institution remains the backbone of Algeria and draws its officers from every class and every region.

Hamrouche also pointed out that a narrow reading of the constitution, as made by Gaid Salah, could not produce an interim administration willing, let alone politically savvy enough, to organise democratic elections by July.

The current government and interim president might not be able to continue in office for long. The president of the constitutional court bowed out; others might follow suit.

The Algerian people may appreciate Mickey Mouse as a cartoon character but no longer tolerate it as a government during this crucial turning point in the country’s history.

As demonstrations enter their third month, the peacefulness of Algerian demonstrators, the savviness of their slogans, the restraint of the police and gendarmerie and their wariness in avoiding provocations are forcing the respect of their neighbours in North Africa and Europe.

Navigating the treacherous waters of a political transition towards a more rule-bound, less corrupt future is a difficult task that is far from over but it may be too late for the likes of Mediene or powerful outsiders to change the course of events.

The shadow war between the two old generals continues, however. When both depart the scene, Algeria’s transition towards a more rule-bound system is likely to be more assured.

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

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.