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Who rules Algeria? The manoeuvres of General Bouazza Ouassini and other ‘strong men’

Ryad Kramdi - AFP

by Jeremy H. Keenan [1]

Algeria is scheduled to hold a presidential election on 12 December. The slight note of hesitancy is because it might yet be cancelled, as were the regime’s two former attempts to hold such an election earlier in the year.[2]  However, with only a few days to go, a last-minute cancellation is now looking unlikely, despite millions of citizens pouring on to the streets of every major city and town in the country every Friday after midday prayers to demonstrate against the regime and its enforced election.[3] In addition to the Friday demonstrations, students hold their own demonstrations every Tuesday; while since the official start of the election campaign on 17 November, citizens have intensified their pressure on the regime by also protesting their rejection of the election with both night-time demonstrations and on a daily basis in towns and cities around the country where candidates have tried to present themselves. This huge, on-going protest, now into its tenth month, is known by the Arab word hirak.[4]

The hirak is demanding a new democratic republic: a ‘second revolution’ as the Algerian people call it. The first revolution saw the departure of French colonialists after the War of Liberation (1954-62); the second revolution, yet to happen, but perhaps on its way, is to remove a corrupt, repressive military dictatorship which over the years has increasingly repressed all but the elites of the country’s 43 million citizens, while robbing the country of its wealth. Algeria’s people are young. 50% of the population is under the age of 30. Under the prevailing authoritarian regime, they see no future other than rising rates of unemployment, repression and despair. Unsurprisingly, many of them are prepared to leave the country by whatever means they can.

Algeria is a rentier oil state, its income derived almost entirely from hydrocarbons sales: oil and gas. Some measure of the regime’s corruption is that of the one trillion or so dollars of hydrocarbons rent earned over the last 20 years, that is since the end of the civil war of the 1990s[5] and the commencement of Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s presidency in 1999,[6]  some US$300 billions of this revenue is unaccounted for.[7] It has been filched by the regime – the political, military and business elites – and stashed away in real estate and bank accounts in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), France, Switzerland and other safe havens. Statistics show that some 90% of these elites – ministers, generals and senior state apparatchiks – leave the country on retirement, but only after they have plundered their perceived share of the country’s wealth and siphoned it abroad. During the last five or so years of Bouteflika’s presidency (1999-April 2019) the extent of this corruption had reached such a gigantic scale that Algeria had earned the sobriquet of a ‘mafia state’,[8] and, like most mafia states, had more than a few fingers in the global drugs trade.

If the ballot is held on 12 December, as now seems likely, the victor will be one of the regime’s five validated candidates: two are former prime ministers, two are former ministers and the fifth is a former senior executive of the ruling party, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). No candidate represents ‘the people’. In some parts of the country, notably Kabylia, there will be a zero vote: so great is the disdain for the regime. Across the country as a whole, the real percentage turnout is unlikely to be much above 10%. The official turnout figure, however, when recalibrated by the authorities, will be around 30-40%. Anything above that will lack credibility. In the last half dozen or so elections, both presidential and legislative, the pattern has been for the authorities to exaggerate the real turnout figure about threefold. In other words, an official participate rate of 45% indicates a real turnout of about 15%.

The winner from amongst the five candidates will not be determined by the near-empty ballet boxes, but by the choice of the army high command, as has been the case since independence. Ahmed Ben Bella (1963-1965), Houari Boumediene (1965-1978), Rabah Bitat (1978-1979) Chadli Benjedid (1979-1992), Mohamed Boudiaf (1992), Ali Kafi (1992-1994), Liamine Zeroual (1994-99) and Abdelaziz Bouteflika (1999-2019) have all been the preferred choice of the army.

Algerian elections, however, should not be compared with those of democracies. Algeria is not a democracy and to try to compare its elections to a Western democratic process is to misunderstand the role of the electoral process, which is a charade, in perpetuating the rule of those who control the Algerian state. As Hugh Roberts wrote: “What Algerian officialdom calls presidential elections are not elections at all. There is no question of the ‘candidate of consensus’ failing to win and no possibility of the other people allowed to pose as candidates getting anywhere near his tally of votes.” (Roberts 2019). He went on to explain: “The real election is conducted well in advance of polling day by the high command of the Popular National Army (ANP), the source of political power.  The decision is then tacitly proclaimed by the president-elect himself in announcing his ‘candidacy’, which is promptly supported by the state-controlled Party of the National Liberation Front (FLN) and Democratic National Rally (RND), and the fix is on.” (Ibid).

It is precisely because the elections are a ‘fix’, to use Roberts’ word for them, that the hirak is not prepared to go along with the army’s latest election gambit. In the past, and it is not very clear when the past became the present in this context, the function of the election, as Roberts, explained, was to dignify the decision already taken in secret conclave. The fiction of the ‘election campaign’, as Roberts explained is “to stimulate the political reflexes of the people to motivate them to vote and, by voting, ‘adhere to’ the army’s decision and so reaffirm their allegiance to the state and the men who control it.” (Ibid).

Roberts claims “this system proved acceptable to public opinion in the past most notably in 1995, when millions willingly voted for Liamine Zeroual, but also in 2004, when Bouteflika’s second term was strongly supported.” That, however, is debatable. Zeroual’s election in the midst of the ‘Dirty War’ may have had some short-lived popularity, but the 1999 election, which Roberts does not mention, was a complete fraud. So much so that all the other six candidates withdrew on the eve of the election, leaving Bouteflika as the sole candidate and with an official 73.8% of the vote. As for the 2004 election, one can only say that Bouteflika was less unpopular in 2004 than he became in his later years. Even so, the hand of the secret intelligence service, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS), was clearly visible in manipulating that election in Bouteflika’s favour.

Roberts, writing in March 2019, said that this vaguely acceptable system “has now broken down, to the army’s acute embarrassment”. (Ibid). The implication of this remark is that the system broke down with the start of the hirak demonstrations a month or so before he wrote that article. Few would disagree with that. If there is to be a ‘Second Revolution’, its start date will be recorded as February 22, 2019, the date of the first hirak march. While the significance of February 22, 2019 is not in doubt, many Algerian’s would argue that the acceptability of the electoral system that Roberts describes broke down many years before the hirak took to the streets.

There is broad acceptance in much commentary and academic literature on the Algerian political system that real political power was and still is exercised by this conclave of generals described by Roberts. However, while this was clearly applicable in the 1990s, the notion of a secret military conclave, suggesting unanimity amongst the army high command, has become less able to explain the dynamics of power relations during the Bouteflika era (1999-April 2019) and today

The use of the concept of conclave in Algeria politics relates directly to the perennial question: who rules Algeria? It is not a question that is answered easily, or at least briefly. Stephen Cook (2007) for instance talked of the ‘military conclave’ as ”the supreme decision-making body” in Algeria.” Lahouari Addi Addi (2001), writing about the selection of Bouteflika as the army’s choice of presidential candidate, spoke of “the usual ‘conclave’ of generals”. Isabelle Werenfels (2007), introduced a more dynamic understanding of Algeria’s “prime decision-makers” or the “core elite”, as she called them, by describing them as “les décideurs.” This ‘core elite’ or ‘deciders’, as Werenfels called them, were “still generals without exception”. Describing the situation at the time of Bouteflika’s ‘election’ in 1999, she listed them as: Mohamed Lamari, the head of the army’s general command since 1993 (see box); Mohamed ‘Toufik’ Mediène, the head of the DRS since 1990 (see box); Smaïl (Smaïn) Lamari, the number two man in the DRS (d. 2007); Mohamed Touati, nicknamed ‘El Mokh’ (the brain), the president’s adviser for defence issues and the generals’ unofficial spokesman; and the retired general Larbi Belkheir (see box), who had been the main power behind Chadli Benjedid’s presidency and in 2000 returned to the presidency as the powerful director of the presidential cabinet, an appointment seen as imposed on Bouteflika by the military. (Werenfels 2007: 56) Khaled Nezzar (see box), possibly the most powerful man in the country for much of the 1990s, no longer appeared to belong to the core elite towards the end of Bouteflika’s first term. (Ibid).

A particularly good insight into the working of this army conclave and the relationship between the president and the army, was given by Addi (2001) at that time. “It is worth pointing out,” he said, “that the usual ‘conclave’ of generals did not meet in order to select Bouteflika as presidential candidate. Instead, General Mohamed Lamari, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, decided against such a meeting, leaving the Head of Military Security, General Tewfik Mediène, free to oversee the security operation known as ‘presidential election’, which was to replace the outgoing [President] Zeroual. Military Security was in charge of organizing the elections and ruled out any candidates who could not be controlled or were thought capable of winning the election and using their power against the Army and Military Security. However, for the elections to be credible, opposition candidates had to be encouraged to present themselves. A non-violent and loyal opposition, which, whilst not necessarily accepting the supremacy of the Army, did not wish to take over power itself, was essential to the regime. This loyal opposition would be rewarded by being allocated a few ministerial positions.” (Addi 2001)

From this brief description of the roles of the military, its conclave and the presidency at around the turn of this millennium, we can at least arrive at a good understanding of what Algeria’s famous historian Mohamed Harbi (1975) meant when he wrote that “states have armies but the Algerian army has its state”.[9] That much-quoted quip sums up precisely the situation that the hirak is trying to overthrow today: it wants Algeria to be a civil not a military state.


Major General Khaled Nezzar (1937 – ) Chief of General Staff (1988-1990) and defence Minister (1990-1993). Main architect of the 1992 military coup d’état and one of the five members of the High State Committee (HCE)(1992-1994). Currently awaiting trial in Switzerland on war crimes and crimes against humanity, Nezzar remained a powerful figure behind the scenes for the remainder of the 1990s. In 2019, he opposed Algeria’s new military ‘strongman’, General Ahmed Gaïd Salah. He fled the country and was sentenced in absentia by a military court in Blida to 20 years imprisonment. He is believed to be in France

Lieut. General Mohamed Lamari (1939-2012). A key General in the 1992 coup d’état, he was appointed army chief of staff in 1993, a post in which he remained until he resigned in 2004, ostensibly for health reasons. In fact, his dismissal was engineered by DRS chief, General Mediène, who, in the absence of Lamari, would become Algeria’s ‘strong man’.

Larbi Belkheir (1938-2010). A general in the ANP. France’s le Figaro newspaper considered Belkheir “the godfather of the Algerian regime since the 1980s”. Other sources nicknamed him ‘The Cardinal’. He was a long-serving chef du cabinet to Presidents Chadli Benjedid and Bouteflika and also Interior Minister at the time of 1992 military coup d’état. It is alleged that he gave the green light to the plot to assassinate Mohamed Boudiaf in 1992. He was side-lined from office in 2005 under pressure from Bouteflika and DRS chief Mohamed ‘Toufik’ Mediène and sent to Morocco as Minister of State and Ambassador. Until that time, he was regarded by many as possibly the most influential member of the so-called ‘conclave’.

Lieut. General Mohamed Mediène, also known as ‘Toufik’ (or ‘Tewfik’), was head of Algeria’s secret services, the Département du renseignement et de la sécurité, (DRS), from 1990 to 2015. He was described as the world’s longest serving “intelligence chief”. (Keenan 2010). He also described himself as “The God of Algeria”. He was born in 1939 to a Kabyle family from Guenzet in Sétif wilaya but grew up near Algiers. For much of his ‘reign’, he was the most powerful man in Algeria. Mediène was avidly ‘pro-American’ and played a key role in the global war on terror, being responsible for the DRS’ infiltration of all Islamist and ‘terrorist’ groups in the region and also for the organisation of many false-flag terrorist operations on behalf of the US and other Western allies. His downfall in 2015 came about because of one such major false-flag terrorist operation, at In Amenas in 2013, that went disastrously wrong. He is currently in prison awaiting trial.

Lieut. General Ahmed Gaïd Salah is Chief of Staff of the People’s National Army and its most senior commander. According to his official file, he was born in 1940 in Batna, but is believed by many to be four of five years older. He joined the army in 1958, but was allegedly dismissed in the 1980s for inappropriate sexual behaviour, only to be reinstated as a result of his friendship with a close kinsman of President Chadli Benjedid. He was promoted to the rank of General in 1993, chief of staff in 2004 and Deputy Defence Minister in 2013. US Ambassador Robert Ford, described him “as perhaps the most corrupt official in the military apparatus”. He is currently Algeria’s ‘strong man’ and its effective dictator. He is known by the people as ‘Traitor’ Salah.


From strong men to strong man syndrome: The ‘God of Algeria’

The ‘thesis’ of this brief article is that the conclave system of governance held sway through the ‘Dirty War’ of the 1990s. Faced with the possibility of an almost infinite number of serious war crimes and crimes against humanity, Algeria’s décideurs – Mohamed Lamari, Mediène, Smaïn Lamari, Touati, Belkheir, Nezzar and others – stood together as a largely anonymous and faceless force controlling the direction of the country. They were watching each other’s back, tied together by complicity in war crimes and the fear of the possibility of having to face the consequences, perhaps before international tribunals.[10] However, by 2004, the end of the first term of the Bouteflika presidency, this situation was beginning to change.

By the start of Bouteflika’s second term in 2004, the number of ‘strong men’ had been whittled away. Nezzar had been tied up in court cases in France and politically marginalised; Mohamed Lamari had been outmanoeuvred and effectively knifed in the back by Mediène in 2004 and ‘retired’;[11] Belkheir was being side-lined to an ambassadorship in Morocco, while Touati resigned from all his responsibilities in August 2005, notably as advisor to the Presidency on security matters and adviser to the high command of the army. Of the original ‘conclave’ listed above, only Mediène and his number two, Smaïn Lamari, although already an ill man and soon to die (2007), remained in office.

So, where now was the power behind the throne? Since early in his presidency, Bouteflika, had been making it clear that he was not going to be a ‘three-quarters’ president and that he wanted an executive presidency, with the army confined, at least politically, to barracks. However, from 2004-2005 onwards, with Nezzar, Belkheir, Touati and Mohamed Lamari effectively ‘out of the way’, we see Mediène’s establishment of a ‘state within a state’,[12]  as he accelerated his accumulation and concentration of power within the DRS. It is worth mentioning that by this time, Mediène had already been head of the DRS for 14 years, since 1990, and was more than accomplished in removing rivals – and anyone else – from power. Not only had he engineered the removal of powerful people above him in the military-political hierarchy, such as General Mohamed Betchine, his former boss in the intelligence service, President Zeroual and army chief Mohamed Lamari, but also his conduct of the 1990s war had been ruthless. He was already referring to himself as ‘The God of Algeria’. (Keenan 2010).

Equally ruthless, although cunning may be a more appropriate word, was his role in overseeing the replacement to Mohamed Lamari as chief of the army staff. The appointment of Lamari’s successor, General Gaïd Salah, was made by President Bouteflika in 2004, but with the advice and backing of Mediène as head of the DRS and, by now, following the dismissal of Mohamed Lamari, the most powerful of Algeria’s generals.

Gaïd Salah was a most unexpected appointment as chief of the army staff.[13] He was generally regarded as perhaps third or fourth, or perhaps even lower in the military hierarchy. He was, to put it bluntly, over-promoted. But why? As far as the presidency was concerned, Bouteflika could always count on the loyalty of such an over-promoted general. Gaïd Salah would also most likely be more agreeable to Bouteflika’s executive-type presidency and the army’s abstention from politics. As far as Mediène was concerned, Gaïd Salah was the perfect choice. He had been dismissed from the army in the 1980s for inappropriate sexual behaviour but reinstated as a result of his ties to members of Chadli Benjedid’s family. He was also notoriously corrupt. Robert Ford, the US Ambassador to Algiers, described Gaïd Salah in a secret cable to the State Department in December 2007 “as perhaps the most corrupt official in the military apparatus”.[14] Sexual proclivities and corruption were just the qualities that Mediène sought, making Gaïd Salah open to blackmail and hence under Mediène’s control. From then on, until 2013, even though the DRS was technically only a branch of the army, Mediène had effective control of the army.[15]

This does not imply that Mediène’s control was unchallenged. On the contrary, from around 2009 onwards, there was growing tension between Mediène and the Bouteflika presidency.[16] Increasingly, the regime began to be divided between two poles of political power: on the one side the Bouteflika presidency and the army under the command of Gaïd Salah and on the other, Mediène and his DRS, but with an unknown number of generals within the army thought to have greater loyalty to Mediène than Gaïd Salah. Nevertheless, despite this tension, Mediène – the ‘God of Algeria’ – was the country’s undisputed ‘strong man’, to the extent that during the years 2004-2013, there appear to be few if any references in the academic literature, or mention in the media, to the conclave. Indeed, it is difficult to name who, other than Mediène, might have comprised the conclave at that time.

However, in 2013, Mediène’s control over the Algerian state began to erode. The start of Mediène’s fall from power in January 2013 was dramatic. It was triggered by a single event: the terrorist attack on the Tiguentourine gas facility near In Amenas. The attack and ensuing four-day siege resulted in some 80 fatalities.

The key point about the In Amenas attack, at least for the purposes of this article, is that the official version of events has been kept secret. The reason for this veil of secrecy, maintained to this day by the Algerian authorities and their Western allies, was because the attack was a DRS-managed false-flag terrorist operation that went disastrously wrong. Indeed. It was not until the end of 2016 that a detailed report, entitled Report on In Amenas, on what really happened was published. (Keenan 2016).

The essence of the attack was that it was arranged by the DRS for reasons detailed in the above-mentioned report. The 32 ‘terrorists’ were recruited and armed by the DRS. During the four-day siege of the facility, three ‘terrorists’ escaped and were caught by surrounding army units. Under army interrogation, they explained that they had been armed and directed by General Abdelkader Aït Ouarabi (a.k.a. General Hassan), head of the DRS’ Special Intervention Forces (Groupement d’Intervention Spécial – GIS). Gaïd Salah, chief of the general staff, therefore knew at a very early stage that his arch-enemy, Mediène, had instigated the operation. Obviously, the Algerian authorities could not admit to this situation. Amongst many other reasons, Algeria would have been legally liable to compensation for the families of the 39 foreign nationals killed.

Gaïd Salah, because of the regime’s need for secrecy, could not act immediately against Mediène. Moreover, if Gaïd Salah had attempted to dismiss him at that time, it is conceivable that Mediène might have mounted a coup against him. It therefore took almost three years, until December 2015, for Gaïd Salah to have sufficiently undermined Mediène’s authority and support to have the Presidency dismiss him. The DRS was officially dissolved,[17] at least in name, in January 2016, with most of its units and powers being transferred to the army command and some, such as the DSI, being placed under the authority of the Presidency. Thus, by early 2016, Gaïd Salah had effectively taken over from Mediène as Algeria’s new ‘strong man’. Since then, as explained below, Gaïd Salah has been further expanding and consolidating his powers.

For the Algerian public and media, even though unaware of the machinations behind the In Amenas attack, it was becoming clear by early 2014 that all was not well in the Mediène camp. For instance, on February 3, 2014, Amar Saâdani, the Presidency’s recently appointed head of the FLN, made an unprecedented public attack on Mediène, accusing him of going against the directives of the Head of State and not respecting Rule of Law and suggesting he resign. In an interview in the electronic newspaper Tout sur l’Algérie (TSA), Saâdani stated: “I lobby for the separation of powers. I tell you, if something happens to me, it will be the work of Tewfik Mediène. General Tewfik Mediène should have resigned…”[18] Lahouari Addi (2015), for example, saw Saâdani’s attack as evidence that “a more powerful clan than that of General Tewfik Mediène had commissioned Saâdani, promising him protection. Saâdani’s statements had the effect of a bomb in a country where no-one dares mention the head of the political police, let alone criticise him.”

It was clear for all to see, although for reasons not yet revealed, that Mediène was being undermined and politically weakened. It is interesting that Addi (2015) a highly respected observer of the Algerian state, although clearly unaware at that time of what lay behind the In Amenas attack, tried to explain Mediène’s difficulties in the context of the upcoming 2014 presidential election, saying that he had to succumb to the majority view within what Addi referred to as “a conclave of generals”. The reality, as we now know, is that there was probably no such meeting of a conclave, but that Mediène, already in Gaïd Salah’s crosshairs, had no choice but to obey Gaïd Salah’s orders.

The situation surrounding the April 17, 2014 presidential election was that Bouteflika had suffered a major stroke in April 2013 and had been hospitalised in France until July. On his return to Algeria, it was evident that he was medically unable to fulfil his role as President. However, his clan, comprising his younger brother Saïd Bouteflika, other kinsmen, generals, ministers and business oligarchs, saw the opportunity of effectively taking over the presidency through the ’gate-keeping’ role of Saïd Bouteflika and thereby furthering their corrupt access to state resources and self-enrichment. It merely required their endorsement of Bouteflika’s candidacy for a fourth term. Mediène, however, aware of these intentions, tried to oppose them. However, by that time, power had effectively drained from Mediène and his DRS to the Bouteflika presidency and Gaïd Salah.

Gaïd Salah continued his consolidation of power through 2016 and 2017 by ‘retiring’ (i.e. dismissing) a few more generals known or suspected of being loyal to Mediène and transferring much of the DRS’ former powers to his own army command. Some of the intelligence service, notably internal security and counterintelligence, was transferred to the Presidency under the command of General Athman Tartag, Mediène’s former second-in-command and immediate replacement on the latter’s ‘retirement’ at the end of 2015. This arrangement gave the semblance of a balance of power between the Presidency, effectively being run by Saïd Bouteflika, and Gaïd Salah’s army high command.

However, political tensions re-emerged again and intensified through 2018. The main issue this time was whether the infirm President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had not even addressed the Algerian people in person since 2013, would stand for a fifth term in the presidential election scheduled for the spring of 2019 (the date was later set for 18 April). Indeed, amidst the frequent rumours of his death, it was debatable whether he would even stay alive until election day. The tension centred increasingly around a struggle between the Bouteflika clan, headed by Saïd Bouteflika, and Gaïd Salah. Although Gaïd Salah remained loyal to the President, he did not approve of Saïd Bouteflika, whom he regarded as having taken advantage of his relationship to the President to usurp the presidency and further the corrupt interests of the Bouteflika clan, whom Gaïd Salah was later to refer to as the Issaba – criminal gang. They are now mostly all incarcerated in prison through Algeria’s much-abused system of pre-trial detention. Despite these many dozens of arrests on the grounds of alleged corruption, it should not be presumed that Gaïd Salah is innocent of such crimes. Indeed, he is amongst the most corrupt of the senior figures in the regime.

Through 2018, from late May onwards, as the conflict between Saïd Bouteflika and Gaïd Salah intensified, Gaïd Salah undertook an unprecedented purge of military personnel, replacing literally dozens of the top commands with generals he knew to be loyal to him rather than the Bouteflika clan.

As 2019 started, the key question was whether President Bouteflika would stand for a fifth term, or whether the Bouteflika clan could find a suitable replacement candidate who would protect their interests. In the meantime, most Algerians had long been expressing their opposition to a Bouteflika fifth term. Thus, when the Presidency announced on February 10 that Bouteflika would be standing for a fifth term, the people – the hirak – took to the streets on February 22 in their millions, peacefully protesting their outrage.

March and April were frenetic months. The hirak marches of early March were enormous: that of March 8 being estimated at 15 possibly 20 million people, demanding the end of the system. The Bouteflika clan tried to buy time. After the March 8 demonstration, the Presidency proposed that Bouteflika would not stand for a fifth term, but would remain in office, while overseeing political reform. This was totally unacceptable and merely infuriated the hirak further. Gaïd Salah, giving the impression at this stage of supporting the hirak and seeing the writing on the wall, called on 26 March for the application of the Constitutions’ Article 102, which enables the replacement of a President on the grounds of ill health or other such disabilities.

With Gaïd Salah calling for Article 102, it was clear to Saïd Bouteflika that he had only days, perhaps hours, to find some sort of transitional solution that would keep both the hirak and Gaïd Salah at bay. Saïd Bouteflika’s scheme, conjured up in alliance with Mediène, and possibly also Athman Tartag, was for Mediène to approach the long-retired former President, Liamine Zeroual, to propose that he head some sort of transitional government. Mediène put the proposal to Zeroual on30 March. Zeroual, however, blew the whistle, immediately publicising the existence and nature of the meeting. There is also strong evidence that Saïd Bouteflika was planning to dismiss Gaïd Salah (through a falsified Presidential decree). However, Gaïd Salah, who is believed to have bugged the meetings, was aware of Saïd Bouteflika’s scheming.

Gaïd Salah moved quickly. On 2 April, he demanded the immediate application of Article 102. Bouteflika resigned the presidency later that day. On April 4, Tartag was dismissed as head of security, while several major oligarchs, whom Gaïd Salah, now called the ‘Bouteflika gang’, were arrested on a raft of corruption charges. On May 4, Gaïd Salah had Saïd Bouteflika, Mohamed ‘Toufik’ Mediène and Athman Tartag arrested. The following day, they were charged with ‘undermining the authority of the army’ and ‘conspiracy against the authority of the state’ and ordered to be incarcerated in El Harrach prison, where they remain today, awaiting trial.

Gaïd Salah was now Algeria’s undisputed ruler, with Abdelkader Bensalah, the Acting head of State, serving merely as a rubber stamp for his orders, and with the Bouteflika clan – the ‘gang’ – almost all now behind bars. ‘The struggle now appeared to be one between Gaïd Salah, the country’s dictatorial ruler, and the hirak. However, such a seemingly simple and straightforward analysis, overlooked the one constant in Algerian political life: the almost interminable rivalry and infighting between the country’s top generals.

Infighting[19] amongst the generals

The latest bout of infighting amongst Algeria’s top generals could have a crucial impact on the future of the country. The key generals involved, in addition to Gaïd Salah, the army chief of staff are: Bouazza Ouassini, Ghali Belkecir, Othman (Athmane) Miloud (nick-named ‘Caniche’ – poodle, because of his dog that always accompanied him), Mohamed Kaïdi, Athman Tartag,[20] Cherif Zerrad, Abdelkader Lachkhem, Saïd Chengriha and Nabil Benhamza. Two key civilians are Abdelmadjid Tebboune, the presidential candidate, and Mohamed Mokeddem (a.k.a. Anis Rahmani), director and general manager of the Ennahar Group, which owns Ennahar TV.

The key player amongst these seeming to threaten Gaïd Salah is General Bouazza Ouassini. He was born in the small village of Beni Snous in Tlemcen wilaya. As Tlemcen was a Bouteflika stronghold, Bouazza soon came to the attention of Saïd Bouteflika, (now awaiting trial in El Harrach prison), who ensured his fast-track promotion. However, at some point during the course of the conflict between Gaïd Salah and Saïd Bouteflika during 2018, Ouassini switched his loyalty to Gaïd Salah and worked for Gaïd Salah against the Bouteflika clan. According to those who knew him, it was Ouassini’s rudeness, toughness and reputation for brutality that brought him to Gaïd Salah’s attention. Ouassini had acquired infamy for his saying that a military exercise that did not result in some dead soldiers was not a good exercise.

Bouazza Ouassini was appointed to the crucially important job (the reasons for which we explain presently) of Central Director of Military Infrastructure at the Department of National Defense on January 17, 2019. Then, on April 21, 2019, Gaïd Salah appointed him to replace General Abdelkader as head of the Directorate of Internal Security (DSI) and Director of Counter-intelligence. Ouassini’s appointment to this powerful position came just after Gaïd Salah had appointed General Mohamed Kaïdi on 4 April to replace the sacked General Athman Tartag. Kaïdi’s position was coordinator of all the security services, thus making him, at least theoretically, Ouassini’s immediate boss.

At this time (April-May 2019), Gaïd Salah’s two most powerful lieutenants were General Ghali Belkcir, who had replaced General Menad Nouba as head of the National Gendarmerie in October 2018, and General Mohamed Kaïdi.

During his very fast rise to power, Ouassini was a virtually unknown name to most Algerians, although a number of ‘Algeria watchers’ noticed during the summer that Gaïd Salah had made unusual changes to his personal security and that it was now the Direction générale de la sécurité intérieure DGSI (another name for the DSI), under Ouassini, and not the Gendarmerie, that had taken over providing the security for Gaïd Salah’s homes and family. This was evidence that Ouassini had managed, in a very short space of time, to further ingratiate himself into Gaïd Salah’s confidence.

By mid-to-late summer, possibly earlier, a powerful and dangerous clan had emerged within the security services, centred around generals Ghali Belkecir Othman Miloud (‘Caniche’) and Bouazza Ouassini. Othman Miloud (‘Caniche’) had replaced Mohamed Lakhdar Tirèche as head of the Direction centrale de la sécurité de l’armée (DCSA) in August 2018, but had then been dismissed in November, less than three months later. According to sources, Belkecir and Ouassini managed to convince Othman Miloud that his removal as head of the DCSA was only a temporary move.  It was not, and the reason for that was because Gaïd Salah had found out that Othman Miloud had earlier spied on Gaïd Salah’s children, notably Adel Gaïd Salah, and provided information on Adel’s illegalities and business racketeering, especially in the Annaba region, to Saïd Bouteflika.

The three men (Ouassini, Belkecir and Othman Miloud), notwithstanding Miloud’s demise, used blackmail, disinformation and all the other dirty tricks which have long been the tradecraft of Algeria’s DRS, to weaken, undermine or remove those who stood between them and absolute power.

However, it was not long before this trio had been reduced to a single man: Bouazza Ouassini. Since taking over the DSI, Ouassini had been able to put his Machiavellian plans into practice.  He carefully plotted the downfall of all those around him, including Belkecir, the ‘Caniche’ and his immediate superior, Kaïdi, and all the others who might stand in his way to becoming Algeria’s new strongman, with the rumoured aim of replacing or removing Gaïd Salah.

During the summer, Ouassini pushed aside Mohamed Kaïdi, by undermining and discrediting his plans to weaken and destroy the hirak during the course of the summer. These included Kaïdi’s use of ‘zouavism’[21] against hirak activists and attempts to set Arabs against Kabyles, East against West, salafists close to Saudi Arabia against those close to the US, and so forth. Thanks to Ouassini’s undermining of his boss and the strength of the hirak, Kaïdi’s plans did not achieve their intended aim. Kaïdi’s reputation was left in tatters.

Ouassini then set to work on the downfall of both Othman Miloud and Belkecir. Othman Miloud’s downfall was straightforward because Gaïd Salah no longer trusted him after discovering how he had spied on his children and clan. The precise mechanism of how Ouassini managed to undermine Belkecir and achieve his dismissal as head of the gendarmerie on 24 July (2019) and his replacement by the little known General Abderrahmane Arrar is not yet known.

In the meantime, Ouassini had also played a major part in influencing the changes at the head of the DCSA. Again, it is not clear precisely what happened at the top of the DCSA after Othman Miloud’s dismissal in November 2018, except that by early 2019 it was under the command of Colonel Boubakeur Nabil (Aka Bob), who held damaging information on Belkecir (probably of a financial nature) and that Ouassini helped Belkecir effect ‘Bob’s’ removal on 26 May (2019). ‘Bob’ was replaced by Colonel Abdelouahab, who, in turn was replaced in October by the little-known Nabil Benhamza, another of Gaïd Salah’s supposed rising stars, who had been head of the Gaïd Salah’s judicial police since July.

This narrative, at least so far, deals only with those rivals to Ouassini within the intelligence section of the army. There were and still are other powerful generals, close to Gaïd Salah, standing between Ouassini and whatever ambitions he may have to take over from or replace Gaïd Salah. Three of these generals are: Major-General Cherif Zerrad, Head of the Employment-Preparation Department; Major-General Abdelkader Lachkhem, head of the communications, information systems and electronic warfare; and Major General Said Chengriha, the commander (since September 2018) of the Forces terrestres algériennes (land forces).

Zerrad was probably the third of fourth most powerful general in the military hierarchy. He was responsible for liaison with NATO and the overall coordination of the army. Ouassini, in his role as head of the DSI, was able to persuade Gaïd Salah that Zerrad was planning a coup against him. Zerrad was placed under investigation and removed from office through a presidential decree on 13 October. This came to public attention on 1 November with publication in the Official Journal.

Ouassini is now left fighting a battle at the top of the army command against Generals Lachkhem and Chengriha, both of whom are very powerful and very close to Gaïd Salah. How he will move against either or both men, or whether he will be removed first by Gaïd Salah remains to be seen.

This extraordinary narrative begs the question of how a little-known general, Bouazza Ouassini, within the military has managed to exert so much influence in what appears to have been a meteoric rise to power within the army.  The answer to that question comes through understanding the nature of his power base, which is rooted in his previous job as Director of Military Infrastructure and then his control over ‘intelligence;’ as head of the DSI. From within this power base, two relationships have been crucial in his rise to becoming the most powerful man in the army after Gaïd Salah. The first of these has been his relationship with the Chinese. The second, which has a major bearing on the current election, is his relationship with Mohamed Mokeddem (a.k.a. Anis Rahmani), a freelance journalist, generally regarded over the last decade or two as the ‘muckraker in chief’ within the Algerian firmament.

Bouazza Ouassini’s power base

Like most of Algeria’s top generals, Ouassini’s two main interests are power and money. In his job as Central Director of Military Infrastructure at the Department of National Defense, albeit for only three months, he had more than just his snout in the trough. Military infrastructure – building and maintaining barracks, training centres, military hospitals and the such like – has an enormous, effectively ‘secret’ (from the public) budget that is probably more open to corruption than any other state budget. Ouassini was not only issuing the tenders and allocating the contracts but writing the cheques as well. And many of these contracts and much of the money were being allocated by Ouassini to Chinese interests, enabling him to possibly rival Gaïd Salah as Algeria’s most corrupt general.

It is rumoured that Ouassini’s relationship and involvement with the Chinese was ‘massive’. In short, not only was Ouassini  bringing a lot of Chinese money into the army, which clearly pleased Gaïd Salah, but it is also believed that China, as a result of this relationship, might be willing to provide money to the Algerian state to help it out of its current financial and economic crisis.[22]

When Ouassini  was promoted in April 2019 to take control of the DSI service and counter-espionage services, he was able to use the power that went with that position to not only maintain the deals with the Chinese, but also use the DSI’s secret files and all that these implied, to frighten and undermine almost anyone in the military or political hierarchy, such as Generals Zerrad and Belkecir, that Ouassini wanted investigated and removed.  Parallels can be made between Ouassini’s way of working and rise to power and that of the former (now imprisoned) DRS boss, Mohamed ‘Toufik’ Mediène.

Mohamed Mokeddem (a.k.a. Anis Rahma) has been peddling scurrilous stories, invariably untrue, character assassinations and disinformation for the best part of 20 years. He worked closely for Mediène until the latter’s demise, before switching his services to Saïd Bouteflika and now, since the latter’s ousting earlier this year, to Ouassini. There is now evidence that Rahmani is working for Ouassini. This became clear when an opponent of the regime, who knows Ouassini’s Machiavellian story, published a photograph of him on Facebook, so that Algerians would be able to identity who they were now dealing with in the intelligence services. Almost immediately, a number of false pictures of Ouassini were published on-line in an attempt to sow confusion about Ouassini’s identity. These false pictures have been traced back to Rahmani.

How Ouassini might affect the presidential election

Abdelmadjid Tebboune was almost certainly the regime’s and Gaïd Salah’s favoured candidate for the presidency, and therefore the probable front-runner in the December 12 election campaign. However, Ouassini does not want Tebboune as president: he is too powerful and well connected within the regime, not least to Gaïd Salah who is a personal friend. Ouassini has therefore been turning his fire on Tebboune. Rahmani has been issuing complaints about Tebboune on Ennahar and writing ‘muckraking’ stories about him, saying that he was close to the Bouteflika clan – the Issaba (‘gang’) – and involved in their drug dealing and corruption. He has also said that Tebboune’s main election financier is a ‘thief’, who has now been imprisoned. It is understood that as a result of these allegations, several of Tebboune’s campaign staff have resigned, as, for example, in Blida. Tebboune’s chances of ‘winning’ the election have been badly damaged and there is speculation that that the army might now be favouring either Abdelaziz Belaïd or Azzedine Mihoubi.

Will Bouazza Ouassini become Algeria’s next ‘strong man’?

The chances of Bouazza Ouassini ousting Gaïd Salah and becoming Algeria’s next strong man depend on the election. If the election is perceived as a ‘failure’ by the army high command, other generals and the regime as a whole, Gaïd Salah’s position will be extremely insecure. ‘Failure’ would be considered as the last-minute cancellation of the election, which is possible but unlikely, or an extremely low voter turnout and increased demonstrations against the regime, both of which look highly likely.

Such perceived ‘failure’, would leave Gaïd Salah in a vulnerable position, allowing rivals such as Ouassini to move against him. However, it is more likely, in the event of such failure, that moves to oust Gaid Salah will come from amongst Algeria’s lesser known generals outside the army top command, some of whom, it is understood, have been in communication with members of the ‘democratic opposition’. If some sort of putsch is mounted from within this outer of circle of generals and senior officers, Bouazza Ouassini is more than likely to find himself being ousted along with Gaïd Salah.

References cited

Addi, Lahouari (2001). “Army, State and Nation in Algeria.” in The Military and Nation Building in the Age of Democracy. Zed books, New-York, USA, 2001: pp.159-178.

Addi, Lahouari (2015). “Algeria and its Permanent Political Crisis”. IEMed. Mediterranean Yearbook 2015, pp. 180-83. https://www.iemed.org/observatori/arees-danalisi/arxius-adjunts/anuari/med.2015/IEMed%20Yearbook%202015_Panorama_Algeria_LahouariAddi.pdf

Cook, Stephen (2007). Ruling but not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey. John Hopkins University Press.

Harbi, Hassan (1975). Aux origines du Front de libération nationale (History of the FLN). Paris: C. Bourgois, 1975;

Harbi, Hassan (1980). Le F.L.N.: mirage et réalité (The FLN: mirage and reality). Paris: Éditions Jeune Afrique, 1980. Quoted by Lahouari Addi (2015)

Keenan, Jeremy (2010). “General Toufik: ‘God of Algeria’.” Al Jazeera. September 29, 2010. http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/briefings/2010/09/201092582648347537.html

Keenan, Jeremy (2016). Report on In Amenas: inquest cover-up and Western involvement in Algerian state crimes. International State Crime Initiative (ISCI), School of Law. Queen Mary University of London, p. 283, October 2016. Accessed at: http://statecrime.org/data/2016/11/KEENAN-IN-AMENAS-REPORT-FINAL-November-2016.pdf

Roberts, Hugh (2019). “Algeria is a Republic.” London Review of Books Blog 11 Match 2019. https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2019/march/algeria-is-a-republic

Werenfels, Isabelle (2007). Managing Instability in Algeria: Elites and political change since 1995. Routledge 2007.

Footnotes

[1] Jeremy Keenan is Visiting Professor in the School of Law, Queen Mary University London.

[2] On April 18 and July 4.

[3] Local media have estimated that some of the biggest hirak demonstrations numbered as many as 15 million people nationwide. With a national population of around 43 million, that would suggest that the majority of Algerians, aside from the old, infirm and very young, who are unable to march, are opposed to the regime

[4] Hirak, in Arabic, means a large popular uprising or movement.

[5] In January 1992, the military annulled the country’s first ever democratic, free elections, as they were on the brink of bringing to power the world’s first ever democratically elected Islamist government. This move led to a brutal ‘Dirty War’, as it is known, in which an estimated 200,000 perished, many at the hands of the army and its secret intelligence service, the DRS, which not only encouraged many Islamist groups to massacre innocent civilians, but who themselves masqueraded as Islamists in such killings. Several of the generals named in this article were amongst those involved in these war crimes and crimes against humanity.

[6] Abdelaziz Bouteflika was brought to power by the army in a fraudulent election in 1999. In 2013, he suffered a stroke and was effectively incapable of fulfilling his role of president. He remained in office, wholly incapacitated, until forced to resign by public demonstrations – the hirak – on 2 April 2019.

[7][7] Algeria Politics & Security, Menas Associates, London. 17 April 2017.

[8] Ibid. 18 March 2019.

[9] Hassan Harbi’s history of the independence movement was not cherished by the FLN and he began to receive death threats from the Algerian secret police, Algerian Islamic militants and French ultra-nationalists. He was forced into exile in France, where he published his History of the FLN in 1975.

[10] Khaled Nezzar, for one, still faces possible prosecution in Switzerland. Others, such as Mediène face the possibility of arrest if they venture abroad. Belkheir, for example, chose hospitalisation in Algiers before his death in 2010 in preference to France, for fear of prosecution.

[11] Mediène had managed to persuade Bouteflika that Mohamed Lamari had been supporting Ali Benflis, Bouteflika’s main rival in the 2004 presidential election.

[12] Mediène had established a ‘kitchen’ cabinet, reputed to meet weekly, in which every state ministry, portfolio and file of importance was shadowed by a DRS general. Senior DRS officers, mostly colonels, were placed in every ministry, institution and state-owned owned entreprise to monitor – and perhaps intercede – in their activities.

[13] In addition to being chief of the army staff, Gaïd Salah was also appointed as deputy defence minister in September 2013.

[14] Wikileaks Cable ID: 135031. Date 2007-12-19 12:06:00. Source: [US] Embassy Algiers (Ambassador Robert Ford).

[15] Mediène exercised this control mainly through the Direction Centrale de la Sécurité de L’Armée (DCSA), a key branch of the DRS.

[16] There were multiple reasons for this tension. One was Mediène’s belief that Saïd Bouteflika may have been planning to have his brother, the President, remove him as the DRS chief.  Another was the DRS’ investigations into major corruption scandals, especially involving Sonatrach, the national oil company, and many close associates of the president, such as oil minister Chakib Khelil.

[17] The DRS was officially renamed the Direction des services de Sécurité (DSS). However, this is sometimes called the Département de surveillance et de Sécurité (DSS) and even the Coordination des services de Sécurité (CSS). However, irrespective of the new name(s), the organisation is still known to almost all Algerians and the media as the DRS.

[18] See: Tout sur l’Algerie (TSA) “Amar Saâdani dégaine une violente charge contre le général Toufik”, 03 février 2014; TSA Exclusif: Amar Saâdani: “Toufik aurait dû démissionner…” 03 février 2014; “Algeria Party Head Slams Powerful Spy Chief.” New York Times 03 February 2014; “Head of Algeria ruling party attacks powerful intel chief.” AFP. 03 February 2014.

[19] The term infighting is used widely by Algerians to explain the political manoeuvrings of the generals and how the state is run.

[20] At least prior to his imprisonment on May 5, 2019

[21] The concept of ‘zouavism’ derives from the French word ‘zouave’, which was commonly used in the colonial period to denote a ‘French military unit composed of native Muslim Algerians’. Accusing someone of being a ’zouave’ or a ‘zouavist’ is highly divisive and derogatory, with the connation of being unpatriotic, perhaps even ‘traitorous’. It is currently being used widely by the regime and its supporters to sow lies about people’s identities, activities, beliefs and associations by hacking into and creating false Facebook pages with the aim of driving wedges between individuals and communities supportive of the hirak.

[22] There is speculation that this relationship may have something to do with the sudden appointment of Aymen Ben Abderrahmane as governor of the Bank of Algeria in November.

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