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Who rules Algeria? Part 2: A ‘Revolution of the Hungry’ and the fall of Bouazza Ouassini

Gaid Salah's funeral

by Jeremy H. Keenan [*]

12 April 2020

Explaining the result of Algeria’s 12 December 2019 presidential election

The first of these two articles (Who rules Algeria? The manoeuvres of General Bouazza Ouassini and other ‘strong men’) was written two days before Algeria’s 12 December presidential election. At that time, it was known that General Gaïd Salah, army Chief of Staff, Deputy Defence Minister and Algeria’s strongman, had favoured Abdelmadjid Tebboune to win the election. However, it was also known that General Bouazza Ouassini, head of the Directorate General of Internal Security (DGSI), hitherto known as the Directorate of Internal Security (DSI)[1], did not welcome the idea of a Tebboune presidency. Tebboune was a close friend of Gaïd Salah’s, too powerful and well-connected within the regime for Ouassini’s liking: Tebboune would have impeded Ouassini’s scheming to replace Gaïd Salah as Algeria’s ‘strongman’. Ouassini had therefore spent much of the election campaign period turning his fire on Tebboune, largely by using Mohamed Mokeddem (a.k.a. Anis Rahmani), the director of the Ennahar media group, to publish and broadcast scurrilous disinformation about Tebboune that would undermine his electoral chances.

Thus, while Tebboune was the initial front-runner at the start of the election campaign, it was clear towards the end of the campaign that Tebboune’s chances of winning had been badly damaged and that Azzedine Mihoubi had become the clear favourite.[2] Indeed, on the morning of the election, Mihoubi was the hot favourite. At midday, Ennahar was reporting that Mihoubi appeared to be well ahead in the polling. Yet, at scarcely an hour after the polls had closed at 7.0 pm., Tebboune’s campaign manager, Mohamed Laagab, told Tout sur l’Algérie (TSA) that there would be no second round as Tebboune had won with 64% of the votes. Laagab was not far out. A few hours later, the authorities announced the official results. They were that Tebboune had received 58.13% of the votes cast; Abdelkader Bengrina 17.37%; Ali Benflis 10.55%; Azzedine Mihoubi 7.28% and Abdelaziz Belaïd 6.67%. The participation rate of the national community abroad was 8.69%, while that at the national level was 41.14%, an overall rate of 39.93%.

Algerians and Algeria-watchers know that Algerian elections are rigged.  As the first of these two articles explained, the authorities tend to exaggerate the real turnout figure about threefold. In other words, an official participate rate of 45% indicates a real turnout of about 15%, while the winner is not determined by the near-empty ballot boxes but by the choice of the army high command.

So, what happened on 12 December 2019? What does it mean to have an official turnout figure of 39.93%, when the election was boycotted by almost all Algerians? More significantly, how did Mihoubi, the supposedly hot favourite, receive only 7.28% of the official votes while the outsider, Abdelmadjid Tebboune took over 58% of the vote?

Before explaining how and why the election was rigged, it is worth appreciating how Algerians deported themselves on election day.  Having demonstrated their strong opposition to the election since it was announced in September, through both the regular Friday hirak marches and the Tuesday students’ demonstrations, election day itself was marked by massive demonstrations against the election in almost all parts of the country. Voting stations in Kabylia (Tizi Ouzou and Béjaïa) were either destroyed or closed by the public, while unrest was extensive in neighbouring wilayas and many other parts of the country. Night-time demonstrations were held in many of these cities, including Algiers itself. There were at least 300 arrests.

During election day, there were skirmishes in many towns and cities, with several polling stations being ransacked, as in Bouïra, Boumerdès, Sétif, Tizi Ouzou and elsewhere. Although protest marches were large in numbers and imposing, as in Algiers and Constantine and the cities in and around Kabylia, and mostly peaceful, the police were overzealous in their use of tear gas and batons in dispersing them.  The police made dozens of arrests in Algiers, Bouïra, Tizi Ouzou, Béjaïa, Tlemcen and Oran. In Oran, the police used considerable violence in repressing demonstrators. In Algiers, notably in Belcourt, heavy skirmishes between police and demonstrators continued after the polling stations had closed. Although no deaths were reported, several hospitals reported injuries, as in Béjaïa where six were admitted after clashes with police. There were also reports from Béjaïa of police firing rubber bullets directly into the faces of protestors, with at least one youth losing an eye.[3]

The election was doubly rigged, as is normal with Algerian elections: firstly, to produce an acceptable participation rate and confer a veneer of legitimacy; secondly to affirm the candidate that the army command had pre-selected.

First, with regard to the participation rate, there were no official observers at the polling stations, other than security and government officials, which included the not very independent officials of the Autorité nationale indépendante des élections (ANIE). Only a few local journalists were able to record what was going on at some of the polls, while foreign journalists were absent, having been denied visas.

Reports, mostly in the form of anecdotal and photographic evidence, that have been gathered together from civil society movements, opposition parties, various human rights groups, other NGOs, journalists and others, including, of course, the millions of Algerians who compose the ‘hirak’ – the weekly peaceful protest against the regime, make it very clear that more than 90% of registered voters did not cast their ballots. After conducting their own detailed analyses of what happened on 12 December, these many parties and individuals concluded that the real participation rate was 8%. This explains why many polling stations contained more officials than voters; why queues were rare, being both short and short-lived, and why even the ENTV, the state’s official broadcasting organisation, had difficulty in showing people rushing to vote, as the regime was claiming. In Kabylia and many of the surrounding areas, the vote was virtually zero, less than 1%, or very small, as was evidenced by the photographs of the electoral rolls discretely taken by some polling station staff, as well as and reports from local activists who ensured that many of these polling station remained effectively closed.

If there had been observers at polling stations, they would have seen a bare trickle of voters and a few polling stations being ransacked, but little else untoward, as not much of the vote-rigging actually takes place at the polling stations. Rather, it is conducted at the Ministry of the Interior, or, in the case of this election, almost certainly at Gaïd Salah’s chosen office, where the data is adjusted to meet the army’s preferred result. At the level of the wilaya, only the wali has access to the actual polls in their wilaya. When the results have been fixed, they are then passed to the Constitutional Council for announcement.

In previous elections, even though such fraud was ‘normal’, the press would at least have commented on the anomalies at polling stations and the allegations of ballot stuffing, multiple voting and other such practices. Moreover, the candidates themselves would almost certainly have lodged complaints about voting irregularities. Indeed, Ali Benflis was invariably at the forefront of such complaints, claiming that the election – whether presidential or legislative – was fraudulent. However, on this occasion, the press was muzzled, and the five puppet candidates dutifully remained silent.

For this reason alone, namely the fabricated voter participation rate, the hirak and almost all other Algerians (some 92%) regard Tebboune and his ‘election’, which they have opposed since it was foisted on them by Gaïd Salah in September, as illegitimate. They call Tebboune a puppet of the army.

The second fraud in this electoral farce concerns the ‘election’ or, to be more accurate, the ‘selection’ of Tebboune. As explained in Part I, Bouazza Ouassini was actively plotting to discredit Tebboune and promote Mihoubi, so that when Mihoubi was elected he would dismiss Gaïd Salah and replace him with Ouassini.

The way Ouassini carried out his plot was to use his control over the DGSI and his knowledge of Gaïd Salah’s inner circle to convince key administrators, state officials, such as Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui and Interior Minister Salah Eddine Dahmoune, along with walis and key generals outside Gaïd Salah’s inner circle, to believe that the army high command – specifically Gaïd Salah – wanted Mihoubi as president. Ouassini was able to spread this falsity through two mechanisms. One was that none of these people – Bedoui, Dahmoune, walis and other generals – had direct access to Gaïd Salah. That direct access, Gaïd Salah’s inner circle, was limited perhaps to no more than half a dozen generals, such as Generals Abdelkader Lachkhem and Saïd Chengriha, and probably the regional commanders. They would all have known Gaïd Salah’s plans for the presidency, as they would almost certainly have discussed it together. In fact, as explained further on, Gaïd Salah was very ill during the run-up to the election and may not have had much personal contact with even his inner circle.  However, outside that inner circle, Ouassini was able to use his powerful position as head of the DGSI to spread his own plan in support of Mihoubi. Indeed, it has now become clear that the reason why Abdallah Baali, the highly experienced Algerian diplomat appointed by Gaïd Salah as Tebboune’s campaign director, resigned on the eve of the official launch of the campaign was because he had become aware of the negative media coverage being given to Tebboune, especially by the Ennahar media group, and did not want to be associated with a losing campaign.[4]

What happened on election day?

So, what happened on election day? How, between midday and the closing of the polls at 7.0 pm., did Mihoubi fall from supposedly leading the polling while Tebboune emerged to sweep the board?

The answer to that question will probably always remain a little cloudy and no doubt open to each participant’s interpretation and memory of events. There seems no doubt that a fight took place amongst the generals, or at least amongst those who were in Gaïd Salah’s presence during election day. Whether it was a ‘fight’ or, more likely, a misunderstanding, is not entirely clear. There are two versions of what took place. One is that at some point during the day, some sources say around 4.0 pm., three hours before the polls closed, the two groups of generals – (those around Gaïd Salah who knew that he favoured Tebboune and those without access to Gaïd Salah who had been led to believe that Gaïd Salah wanted Mihoubi) –  realised that they were at cross-purposes. Whether they all became aware of Ouassini’s plotting at that stage is not clear. What does seem clear is that Ouassini began arguing for a second round of voting (as required unless one candidate has more than 50% of the vote). Gaïd Salah, however, is believed to have stepped in, saying that he did not want a second round and ordered Tebboune to be declared the winner with a clear majority of the votes.

The reason why Gaïd Salah did not want a second round is because it had become evident to the army command for several weeks that a second round of voting would be impossible. Containing the hirak for the 12 December polling had been hard enough; being able to do it for a second round of voting would be extremely difficult and risked triggering levels of unrest and likely violence that could threaten the regime.  It was therefore important to Gaïd Salah that the declared winner was allocated more than 50% of the vote, thus eliminating the need for a second round.

This goes a long way to explaining the above-mentioned newsflash on TSA at 20h27, just over one hour after the closure of the polls. TSA’s newsflash read:

20h27. Le candidat Abdelmadjid Tebboune serait élu dès ce soir au premier tour de la présidentielle, a indiqué à TSA sa direction de campagne. “Nos représentants dans les bureaux nous transmettent les résultats des opérations de dépouillement et c’est notre candidat qui est élu” a précisé cette source.

At 10.34 pm., Tebboune’s campaign director, Mohamed Laagab, told TSA that Tebboune had won 64% of the vote. This was later readjusted to the official 58.13%.

The second version of what took place is similar to the first, except for the difference that Gaïd Salah was told about Ouassini’s plot by Major-General Abdelkader Lachkhem, head of the communications, information systems and electronic warfare, generally referred to as ‘cyberwarfare’, who was one of the top generals close to Gaïd Salah. Lachkhem told Gaïd Salah of Ouassini’s plot at around midday, or possibly an hour or two later, in response to Gaïd Salah’s puzzlement over Ennahar’s midday report that Mihoubi was winning the vote. Having decided and arranged at the outset of the campaign that Tebboune would win the election, Gaïd Salah was puzzled by Ennahar’s reports that Mihoubi was winning.  On being told by Lachkhem of Ouassini’s plot, Gaïd Salah stepped in and ordered Tebboune to be declared the winner with a clear majority of the votes.

This raises the question of why it was Lachkhem who blew the whistle to Gaïd Salah about Ouassini’s plot. The answer, it seems, was to save his own skin. After Ouassini’s Machiavellian campaign against his colleagues during 2019, as described in Part I, he was left with only two more powerful generals between him and Gaïd Salah: Generals Lachkhem and Chengriha.[5] There is no information about how Ouassini may have been planning to oust Chengriha, although it may well have had something to do with Chengriha’s alleged medical problems. In Lachkhem’s case, however, Ouassini was using his standard ploy.  This was to persuade Gaïd Salah that Lachkhem was not doing a good job in stopping the cyberwarfare against him, in particular the estimated 20,000 malicious Twitter accounts  that had targeted Gaïd Salah and which had been fed by supporters of General Mohamed ‘Toufik’ Mediène, the former boss (now imprisoned) of the Département du renseignement et de la sécurité (DRS). High on this list of ‘enemies’ was the propagandist Said Bensedira (Bensdira), a former ex-DRS aide who is now a refugee in London.  At some time in November, when we now know that Gaïd Said was unwell and suffering serious hypertension (see below), Gaïd Salah lost his temper with Lachkhem over this issue and dismissed eight of his men. Lachkhem knew that Ouassini, having poisoned the atmosphere against him, was opening an investigation into him that would no doubt see him following the same path as Generals Ghali Belkecir, Othman Miloud, Cherif Zerrad and Mohamed Kaïdi.[6]  For his own self-protection, Lachkhem blew the whistle on Ouassini’s plot when the opportunity arose on election day.

Gaïd Salah’s reaction on learning about Ouassini’s election plot was to order that Tebboune be proclaimed President, with a sufficient percentage vote to ensure no second round. He also ordered Ouassini to be placed under house arrest and for Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui and Interior Minister Salah Eddine Dahmoune, both of whom were involved in Ouassini’s plot, to be dismissed.

Gaïd Salah’s health and the Bahaeddine Tliba affair

The role of General Lachkhem opens up another dimension to the election that has so far remained unpublished and therefore largely unknown to the wider public and which has a considerable bearing on these events. It concerns Gaïd Salah’s health from around late September or perhaps early October, throughout the period of the election campaign, up to his unexpected death on 23 December 2019.

The onset of Gaïd Salah’s serious health problem coincided with and was most likely triggered by the Tliba affair. Bahaeddine (Baha Eddine) Tliba is a massively overweight billionaire businessman and Deputy (MP) in the Assemblée populaire nationale (APN) from Annaba, who is widely known to have been closely involved with Gaïd Salah’s family, especially his seven children[7] in many alleged corrupt practices: notably property and land racketeering, bribery, drug dealing, money laundering, illegal mining, misuse of army resources, peddling of influence and much more.

As early as May 2019, questions were being raised in some of the more marginal media as to why Tliba was not being arrested with the other corrupt businessmen associated with the Bouteflika presidency. The answer was that he was part of Gaïd Salah’s ‘Annaba clan’, as it became known, and protected by Gaïd Salah.

However, in September, possibly a little earlier, reports began to emerge that the Justice Ministry, headed by Belkacem Zegmati since August 2019, was probing into Tliba’s affairs. Tliba tried to counter this by using his privilege of parliamentary immunity to avoid being summonsed. However, on 25 September, Zegmati ordered Tliba’s immunity to be lifted and summoned him to appear in Algiers’ Sidi M’Hamed court on 3 October to face questioning over alleged corruption. At the time, it was being suggested that Gaïd Salah had perhaps abandoned Tliba. However, it now appears that Bouazza Ouassini, who had Zegmati’s ear on this and many other such matters, was behind the moves to investigate Tliba, almost certainly as part of his longer-term plan to undermine and ultimately oust Gaïd Salah.

Realising that the noose was tightening, Tliba fled Algeria in late September and crossed into Tunisia, while arranging for London-based Saïd Bensedira to act as his spokesman. From Tunisia, Tliba then crossed to Malta and acquired an EU passport[8] and made arrangements to travel to Ireland. From there, through the good offices of Bensedira, who is alleged to have been co-opted by Britain’s intelligence services, Tliba was planning to approach the UK for asylum, on the grounds that he had been persecuted in Algeria because of his opposition to the Bouteflika and Gaïd Salah regimes.

In the meantime, and as early as the end of September, Bensedira started talking and threatening to issue files compiled by Tliba that detailed much of the corruption and crimes of the Gaïd Salah family.  Bensedira let it be known that Tliba was prepared to testify to the involvement of Gaïd Salah’s sons in the case of the mysterious death – murder – in November 2014 of Mohamed Mounib Sendid, the wali of Annaba who had stood in the way of the ‘Annaba clan’, as well as the involvement of Gaïd Salah’s children in many other crimes, such as: drugs trafficking and money laundering; the use of army labour and resources on many of their construction and other projects.; bribery and illegal use of influence over state officials; as well as widespread racketeering and mafia activities in both the Annaba region and further afield.

Bensedira also issued a video on Tliba’s behalf that appeared to be blackmailing the Algerian authorities. In it, Bensedira demanded  the release of what he called the ‘hostages’,  namely the Moudjahid Lakhdar Bouregâa, as well as the retired generals Ali Ghediri and Hocine Benhadid, along with Karim Tabbou, the spokesperson for the Democratic and Social Union, journalist Fodil Boumala and activist Samir Benlarbi, as well as all prisoners of conscience arrested in the wake of the hirak demonstrations. Otherwise, Bensedira warned, he would make explosive revelations from the compromising documents that Tliba had handed to him.

The Tliba files, if exposed publicly as Bensedira was threatening, would be hugely damaging to both the army and Algeria. They would reveal, as Bensedira had himself pointed out, that Algeria’s top generals were even more corrupt, if that were possible, than its oligarchs and the Bouteflika clan. The regime’s most senior officials, whom we know to have included Zegmati, Ouassini and almost certainly Gaïd Salah, realised that Tliba had to be silenced. Algeria’s intelligence services, headed by Ouassini, thus planned to trap Tliba. They did so by arresting his 80-year-old bedridden mother and letting it be known to Tliba that some sort of deal could be done whereby he could also take her out of the country. He was therefore tricked into returning from Malta to Tunisia. With the complicity of the Tunisian authorities, Algerian intelligence agents kidnapped Tliba in the resort of Nabeul, some 60 kms south of Tunis, on 16 October. With an escort from their Tunisian counterparts, Tliba was brought back to Algeria. To avoid the Tunisian authorities having to explain themselves, Algeria’s intelligence services ordered the Algerian media to report that Tliba had been arrested at Oued Souf, an Algerian border post. Tliba was taken straight to the Centre territorial de recherches et d’investigation (CTRI) at Annaba, before being despatched to El Harrach prison in Algiers, where the public prosecutor served him with an arrest warrant and ordered that he be held in pre-trial detention.

As the first news of Tliba’s flight and Bensedira’s threats broke, Gaïd Salah was on an official visit to Oran, where his son-in-law, General Souab Meftah, was the regional commander. The continual ‘drip-drip’ of the Tliba-Bensedira news, through late September and the first week of October created massive anxiety for Gaïd Salah, who, like his army colleagues, could no doubt envisage the implications of such revelations. Thus, it was no surprise when reports began to emerge from Oran that Gaïd Salah had been taken ill and was hospitalised. There was speculation that he might have suffered a slight stroke or heart attack and was under the care of doctors, who had told him to rest and stop travelling. On 15 October, the Defence Ministry had no choice but to explain Gaïd Salah’s ‘disappearance’ for some 10 days: the ministry issued a communiqué saying that Gaïd Salah had been suffering from ‘hypertension’, but had returned to work on 15 October.

Although press reports from the defence ministry gave the impression that Gaïd Salah was undertaking his normal duties through the remainder of October, November and early December, it was becoming apparent to those who saw or met him that he was unwell and losing weight. At Tebboune’s inauguration on 19 December, 3-4 days before his death, standing up and breathing were visibly difficult for him.

In fact, it must have been clear to Gaïd Salah that he had been undone by Tliba’s revelations and that the game was up. He had survived, and made a vast fortune, as the most corrupt person in the entire Algerian system, for some 15 years.[9] According to our sources, those generals close to him, which we presume would have included both Ouassini and Chengriha, as well as General Abdelhamid Ghriss, secretary-general to the Defence Ministry, were also aware of the damage that the revelations would cause to both the army and Algeria. Accordingly, they realised that Gaïd Salah would have to leave office and apparently began preparing the documentation for his retirement.

With the benefit of hindsight, it now seems clear from sources close to the army command that Chengriha and perhaps other generals at the top of the army command, in addition to Lachkhem, were aware of Ouassini’s plot to rig the presidential election in favour of Mihoubi. While also aware that they might now be able to push Gaïd Salah into retirement because of the Tliba revelations, they could not have known that he was about to die. Chengriha, and possibly other top generals who may have known of Ouassini’s plot, went along with it as it was to their own personal benefit. Gaïd Salah’s ousting by Mihoubi would also have eased the question of his retirement and the damage to the army from the possible Tliba revelations. Moreover, in Chengriha’s case, he could reasonably assume that he would replace Gaïd Salah as army chief of staff, although almost certainly being unaware of Ouassini’s ultimate designs.

Was Gaïd Salah murdered?

Gaïd Salah’s unexpected death threw into disarray whatever plans these top generals were making.  Indeed, while it might be supposed that Ouassini would have welcomed Gaïd Salah’s death, it is probably also true to say that the entire army command, as well as other senior members of the regime, breathed a sigh of relief in knowing that the huge scandal that threatened to embrace the army and the country, may well have died along with Gaïd Salah and the silencing by imprisonment of Bahaeddine Tliba. Whether legal action will be taken against Tliba and Gaïd Salah’s family remains to be seen.

As for Gaïd Salah himself, we have learnt from reliable sources that just after the election, his ‘house servant’, Mourad, often referred to as Gaïd Salah’s ‘wife’ by the corps of selected army drivers who regularly visited his apartment in Algiers, either requested leave, or was ordered to take leave, and was replaced by another military servant. As the responsibility for the protection of Gaïd Salah and his family had been transferred from the gendarmerie to Ouassini’s DGSI during the summer of 2019, it is reasonable to assume that the replacement was arranged through Ouassini’s DGSI.

The DGSI would therefore have been well-placed to murder Gaïd Salah, if it had so decided. Indeed, in Ouassini’s case, Gaïd Salah’s death meant that he was no longer in a position to bring charges against Ouassini. It also appears that Ouassini’s house arrest ended with Gaïd Salah’s death. There was, as might be expected, some short-lived chatter on social media networks about Gaïd Salah being assassinated. However, it gained little or no traction and soon died down.

We understand that no autopsy was undertaken on Gaïd Salah. There is therefore no certainty as to whether he did die of a heart attack, as officially stated. However, given what we now know about the stress he was under in the three months prior to his death and the toll it had already taken on his health, a heart attack was certainly a very plausible cause of death.

The situation, it seems, is that an agreement was reached between Tebboune and Generals Chengriha, Ouassini, Ghriss and Benali Benali[10] (and perhaps others)  that Ouassini would stay in position, at least for the time being, provided that he was supportive of Tebboune and didn’t do ‘anything silly’, with that phrase being taken to mean that he desisted from his plotting of the previous year.

One name that should not be forgotten is that of the ‘muck-raker’ in chief, Anis Rahmani.  Having undertaken most of the dirty work for Ouassini by publishing scurrilous articles on Tebboune, he is believed to have left Algeria very quickly for the UAE, as soon as the election result was announced. However, he clearly felt confident enough to return to Algeria. But, his apparent optimism was short-lived, as he was arrested on12 February by gendarmes from the Bab Jdid brigade and transferred to the Koléa prison (Tipaza wilaya), where he is in pre-trial detention facing prosecution on several counts supposedly unrelated to his activity as a journalist: trading in influence, obtaining improper benefits, non-compliance with the law on the movement of capital to and from abroad.

Algeria after Gaïd Salah: Tebboune and the generals versus the hirak.

Abdelmadjid Tebboune has now been in office as the country’s president, albeit considered illegitimate by the hirak, for a little less than four months. Throughout most of that time, at least until the last week of February, the signals being sent out by his regime regarding its policy towards the hirak and reform in general were distinctly ambivalent. Indeed, any casual observer of the Algerian scene, especially one who has relied on only a cursory reading of the mainstream Algerian press, especially the government’s own print and broadcast media, might be excused from thinking that these first three months of Tebboune’s presidency were characterised by a dwindling in the strength and unity of the hirak and moves by the government towards many of the reforms that the hirak has been demanding. Amongst the few foreign newspapers that have given any great attention to Algeria, there has been a tendency to suggest that the hirak has already accomplished much of what it set out to achieve.[11]

The hirak , whose first demonstrations began on 22 February 2019, has indeed achieved many of its aims, having forced the abandonment of a Bouteflika fifth term and the resignation of Bouteflika himself; the abandonment of both the 22 April (2019) and 4 July (2019) presidential elections; the removal from office of the three ‘B’s — Tayeb Belaïz, Noureddine Bedoui and Abdelkader Bensalah — and much else besides.

However, the picture portrayed in some of the international media of an exhausted, divided and diminishing hirak and a reformist President aligning himself with the people to meet their demands is quite false. It is nothing more than government propaganda and disinformation. Indeed, since around 21-22 February, the reality of what is happening inside Algeria under the Tebboune regime has become much clearer. It is very different from the summary picture outlined above.

The remainder of this article looks at: (i) The image of the ‘new Algeria’ being created by the Tebboune regime, but which is merely one made up of disinformation and propaganda; (ii) Increased state repression and a reinvigorated hirak; (iii) The ‘triple’ trials facing Tebboune of an invigorated hirak, coronavirus and the collapse in world oil prices;  and (iv) The return of Mediène and the éradicateurs.

(i) Algerian state disinformation and propaganda

For the first half dozen or so weeks of Tebboune’s presidency, perhaps a little longer, he was able to enjoy something of a honeymoon period. To put it another way, a lot of mainstream journalists were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, especially over his alleged willingness to open dialogue with all political groups and his assumed willingness to make concessions, or offer ‘appeasement’, as it had become widely known to the hirak and other opposition groups.

During the first few weeks of Tebboune’s presidency, he gave the impression of attempting to develop some form of dialogue with some of the key political personalities and civil society leaders that were held in some degree of trust by the hirak. By mid-January, Tebboune had held meetings with: former heads of government Mouloud Hamrouche and Ahmed Benbitour; the former diplomat and minister Abdelaziz Rahabi; the former Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi; Karim Younes, who chaired the dialogue body that allowed the creation of the Election Control Authority during the Bensalah-Gaïd Salah period; Sofiane Djilali, president of the Jil Jadid party; Abderrezak Guessoum, president of the Association of Algerian Muslim Ulemas, and several others.

Although no details of any of these discussions were released, the strong impression was being given that Tebboune was trying to assess the state of Algerian society, the nature and demands of the hirak, possibly even to the extent of opening back channels with it, in order to gauge what sort of room for manoeuvre he had. That was an optimistic outlook. A more realistic and pessimistic one was that Tebboune was looking for ways of working around the hirak and trying to deal instead with the opposition parties, which has always been the regime’s fundamental strategy. However, if these were Tebboune’s attempts at some sort of dialogue, they came to an effective end when Mohcine Belabbas, president of the Rassemblement pour la culture et la démocratie (RCD), a predominantly Berber secularist opposition party whose power base is in Kabylie, said in a press interview that he would not meet with Tebboune, even if invited to do so, on the grounds that such meetings were merely formal exchanges, in closed rooms, on a one-to-one basis and far from the media.  The meetings, said Belabbas, were not ‘real dialogue’, which, he said, should be broadcast live on TV with no one excluded.

Moreover, Tebboune knew full well that all the opposition parties and personalities, as well as the hirak itself, had set prerequisites – moves of appeasement – for dialogue. These included: the opening of the private and public media to everyone, the lifting of the embargo on the holding of political demonstrations and public meetings, the guarantee of free movement throughout Algeria, and above all else, the release of all political prisoners, or prisoners of opinion and conscience, as they are generally known.

However, the release of prisoners of conscience by the Tebboune regime has always been a case, at its most optimistic, of mixed signals. On 24 December, Kaci Tansaout, coordinator of the National Committee for the Release of Prisoners (CNLD), said that the number of arrests had increased since the 12 December election. Many people had been summoned daily by the courts for allegedly obstructing the electoral campaign, while requests to the courts for the provisional release of prominent detainees Karim Tabbou and Fodil Boumala had been rejected. As the CNLD stated, there was no sign of appeasement on the part of the regime. Then, in the next week or more, possibly as many as 120 detainees were released. At least 35 were released in the week starting 23 December, while a further 76 were released on 2 January. The latter included the aged and iconic figures of the mujahid Lakhdar Bouregâa and the retired general Hocine Benhadid, both of whom had had the temerity to speak out against the regime on a number of occasions.

On face value, this looked like a gesture of appeasement. However, on closer examination most of these releases were people who had finished serving their sentences and were therefore due for release. Several others were people who had been held in prison on pre-trial detention, but whom the courts had released provisionally pending their trial at a later date. For example, General Hocine Benhadid was imprisoned in May 2019 on trumped up charges. He was released provisionally pending his trial in March. Similarly, Bouregâa’s trial was set for 12 March. However, in the case of all these pending trials, the defendants were later to be found guilty of ‘something’ and given a prison sentence commensurate with the time they had already spent in pre-trial detention. In most cases, many of the defendants who were to be released in the next couple of months were found guilty on one trumped up charge or another and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment with six months suspended. However, as they had already served six months in pre-trial detention, they were therefore freed. Indeed, this has been the dominant pattern of how the court system has been used throughout the Tebboune period.

Thus, while these and many other ‘releases’ like them during the Tebboune period have been interpreted in much of the mainstream  media as gestures of appeasement by the government, they have, for the most part, either been the release of detainees who have already served their sentences or placed on provisional release after having already served many months in prison on trumped up, meaningless charges, such as ‘undermining the morale of the army’.

Neither was it lost on Algerians that both Benhadid and Bouregâa were extremely ill old men, who could easily have died in prison if detained much longer, and that their provisional release was merely a way for the government to save itself from what would have been certain riots.

In short, there is no evidence to suggest that the arrest and detention of hirak demonstrators, journalists and political activists is any less under the Tebboune regime than it was under Gaïd Salah’s rule. Indeed, in the first week of March (2020), the CNLD reported that there were still 142 political and opinion detainees and 1,345 pending lawsuits all related to the hirak.

During his election campaign, Tebboune said repeatedly that he supported the aims and values of the hirak. He made similar assertions in an address on 13 December, the day after his election, notably that he wanted dialogue with the hirak. However, for the next two months, until 16 February, Tebboune made no further public reference to the hirak. It was as if the hirak no longer existed. For instance, at his first Council of Ministers meeting on 5 January, when Tebboune was expected to set out key elements of his roadmap, perhaps even his hopes, for a ‘new Algeria’, there was no mention of the hirak, let alone detainees and appeasement. Speaking the following day, the new prime minister, Abdelaziz Djerad, said the new government “wanted dialogue with all the social partners, without exclusion.” He said the government intended to start a new era based on dialogue with all political, social and economic actors, in a spirit of participation and partnership. But, what did Djerad mean when he talked about “social partners”? Following Tebboune, he too made no reference to the hirak. It was presumably not deemed a “social partner’” Indeed, the word ‘hirak’ appeared to have been removed entirely from the Tebboune-Djerad lexicon.

There were two reasons for this extraordinary silence. One, which will be explained shortly, was because Tebboune almost certainly never had any intention of opening any sort of dialogue, let alone negotiations, with the hirak. The other, is that the Tebboune presidency set out from the outset to create the impression that the hirak was weakening in both number and political resolve and that, as far as Tebboune was concerned, there was no need to consider it a significant political force.

While the state’s print and broadcast media gave top priority to creating this image of a weakening hirak, the Tebboune regime was helped in no small manner by a number of key foreign-based publications. Two in particular stand out: one by France 24 on 27 December (2019) and one published in Le Point on 12 January (2020).

The article written by an unnamed Agence France Presse (AFP) journalist for France 24 said that the hirak mobilisation on Friday 27 December was not only less than in recent weeks, but seemed to be one of the weakest Friday demonstrations since the start of the hirak and contrasted with the impressive crowd who had paid tribute at Gaïd Salah’s two days earlier.[12]

The regime’s portrayal of a ‘new Algeria’, in which the strength of the hirak, as well as the accompanying student protests on Tuesdays, were dissipating, received a major boost from an article written by Kamel Daoud, a well-known Algerian journalist, previously deemed supportive of the hirak, who wrote a bombshell of an article in the French weekly Le Point in which he decreed that the hirak “had provisionally failed”.[13] While his article was met by vociferous objections from within Algeria and the supporters of the hirak, it was music to the ears of the Tebboune regime.

These images of a dissipating hirak, reinforced by the state’s own disinformative media and its considerable diplomatic resources, have been central in Tebboune’s largely successful attempts to persuade the UN, EU and Western governments especially that Algeria has a new, more open and reformist government, and that the Bouteflika presidency, with its many shortcomings, was a thing of the past.

For example, in Geneva on 20 January, Rachid Belkali, Algeria’s Ambassador to the UN, chaired the opening session of the UN’s Conference on Disarmament, which sits in Geneva. By good fortune, it was Algeria’s turn to take over the rotating presidency of the 65-state body. Geneva’s La Tribune newspaper spoke of ‘Algeria’s return to the diplomatic game’.[14] The Libyan crisis has also given the Tebboune regime the opportunity to shed the strait jacket that his predecessor imposed over Algerian diplomacy and turn his country into an active, respected player in regional and global politics.[15]

In addition to several world leaders or their delegates visiting Algiers in the context of the Libyan crisis, some, notably Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s Foreign Minister, took the opportunity of his visit to Algiers on 21 January to start major reparations to Franco-Algerian relations and made strong statements appearing to endorse the Tebboune regime. Two days later, representatives of the United States Agency for Trade and Development (USTDA) visited Algeria as part of a mission to expand bilateral cooperation and explore new opportunities offered by the new Algerian government. In London, as in several other European capitals, Algerian embassies and trade missions engaged in a new ‘hard sell’ campaign to try and entice foreign investment into the ‘new Algeria’. They made little mention of the country’s political crisis which was brushed aside and portrayed as nothing more than an ‘historical blip’.[16]

(ii) Increased state repression and a reinvigorated hirak

The reality of what was happening in Algeria during the initial months of Tebboune’s presidency was very different from the image portrayed by the new government’s propaganda arm – the state broadcasting services – and many of its allies.

If the unnamed AFP journalist who wrote the above-mentioned 27 December article for France 24 had been a little more observant, or had even paid attention to some of the local media, he/she might have concluded that the reason why the hirak demonstration of 27 December was less in numbers than in previous weeks, was not because of people’s acceptance of the new presidency, as was implied, but because the regime moved strongly with force against that Friday’s march. Both local and social media carried multiple reports of state violence against demonstrators in several wilayas, notably Tiaret, Oran, Annaba, Constantine and especially Bordj Bou Arréridj. In all of these wilayas, knives were reportedly used against women, children, and the elderly. The attackers, described as ‘white-hot youths’, shouted racist, anti-Berber, slogans, as had been encouraged by the late Gaïd Salah in his unsuccessful attempt to instigate an Arab-Berber race war in the country, and other hateful slogans against the peaceful demonstrators. The number of injured is not known. However, the attacks were confirmed by Said Salhi, vice-president of the Ligue Algérienne pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme (LADDH).[17]

The LADDH and other civil society movements believed that these attacks marked a turning point. The fact that the attacks all took place at the same time across several wilayas suggest that it was a planned, coordinated action, with the attackers being identified as ‘baltagiyas’ (sate-organised thugs). The fact that the attacks took place in front of the security services who made no attempts to intervene, suggests that they were part of a coordinated state-backed attempt to break the hirak.

The AFP/France24 article made no mention of these attacks, nor the fact that the security forces put a complete stop to some demonstrations, as, for example, in Blida: a fact, which undoubtedly goes some way to explaining the article’s assessment that the 27 December mobilisations were less than usual.

Similarly, if Kamel Daoud, had also been a little more observant, he might have appreciated that one reason why the hirak mobilisation appeared to have weakened during the first few weeks of the Tebboune presidency was because the state’s security services had been operating a concerted campaign in many of the more rural and provincial parts of the country to ‘break’ the hirak. Indeed, it is much easier for the security services to physically break up hirak demonstrations in provincial towns than it is in big urban centres, such as Algiers, Oran and Constantine. Indeed, since Tebboune took office, many of the provincial towns, such as Mostaganem, Sidi Bel Abbès and several others, were literally flooded with security forces with the specific purpose of putting an end to hirak demonstrations.  Because most of these towns tend to have one main square and only one or two main access streets in which to assemble and march, it is relatively easy for the police to close the town down. This is why there were no hirak demonstrations in many such places since the 12 December elections. Citizens who wished to protest were forced into nearby cafés and side streets where they were more easily arrested by police. Once arrested, they were invariably threatened with withdrawal of state services, such as passports, housing, job access, and the such like, before being released. This state-wide repressive strategy was intended to cut off such towns from the support that they received from political activists from the bigger urban centres, place these towns in lock-down and thereby literally squeeze the hirak out of the rural and provincial areas.

Such action, largely out of sight of the press, was partially successful in that it enabled the state media, and journalists such as those mentioned above, to show pictures of smaller and more fragmented groups, with an overlay of commentary saying that the numbers of hirak protestors were dwindling. On the other hand, despite the intensification of state repression and the muzzling of the local media, it was becoming apparent by the second week of February that there had been a major upsurge in civil protests movements against the authorities in many parts of what is sometimes known as ‘deep Algeria’. This was particularly pronounced in the east where civil protests over the endless problems of housing, living conditions and unemployment resulted in the occupation of the streets of many towns and communes in the wilayas of Skikda, Constantine, Jijel, Oum El Bouaghi and elsewhere. Encouraged by the dynamics of the hirak revolution, these interior regions were now demanding their rights. Since the start of 2020, at least until the coronavirus ban on gatherings (see below), previously sporadic protest movements were becoming an almost daily activity in many of the communes in eastern Algeria, with the result that many national roads were being closed by burning tyres and other makeshift barricades.

Although there was some evidence of a ‘wait and see’ attitude during the first few weeks of the Tebboune presidency, this did not explain the lower number of students in some of the student (Tuesday) demonstrations in January. For instance, the state media gave considerable coverage to the smaller numbers of students demonstrating on Tuesday 21 January, saying that it was evidence that student support for the hirak had declined and was reduced to a few extremist activists. What the state media failed to report, was that 21 January coincided with university exams, and that the decision to prioritise exams was a decision widely taken by much of the student body. In fact, a closer look at what happened on that Tuesday revealed two key facts. One was that demonstrations did take place in almost every university city, despite the attempts by the police to fragment them, and that they were well organised with very clear messages to the authorities. The second was that the students were strongly supported by ordinary citizens who appeared to join them in what may have been even greater numbers than usual. Later investigations suggested that citizens, realising that the number of student demonstrators might be lower because of exams, came onto the streets to make up their numbers. Indeed, reports from Algiers, Oran, Constantine, Béjaïa and Constantine revealed that demonstrations on that day, contrary to the state’s propaganda, were probably even stronger than usual.

By mid-January, a month after Tebboune had taken office, it had become clear to most of the more radical political parties comprising the Pacte de l’Alternative Démocratique (PAD)[18] and most of the prominent personalities associated with the hirak, that Tebboune’s manoeuvrings were aimed at trying to rescue and preserve the authoritarian ‘system’ that had run Algeria since independence, but which the majority of Algerians had been vehemently rejecting over the previous 11 months, while promoting to the outside world the impression that a degree of democratic reform was underway.[19]

On 13 January, the Front des Forces Socialistes (FFS), the country’s oldest opposition party, said it did not believe that the regime would give up power of its own free will. The FFS said that Tebboune’s manoeuvres were aimed at stifling the demands of the Algerian people’s peaceful revolution.[20] The FFS stressed that the Algerian people wanted a radical change of the system, not merely a facelift. The FFS also underlined “the continuation of repressive measures and arbitrary arrests, the refusal of any unconditional release of political and opinion prisoners and the non-abandonment of legal proceedings.” The party insisted that the legitimate demands of the people could only be satisfied by the election of a National Constituent Assembly whose mission was the elaboration of a new consensual Constitution adopted by a popular referendum. It saw such a process as the prelude to the advent of the second republic, which, it believes, is the only way out of the country’s deep-rooted political crisis.

The RCD took a very similar line, saying that the ‘reforms’ so far proposed by the Tebboune presidency, notably the amendment of the Constitution, were “ridiculous”.[21] It said that any attempt at “re-plastering” as it described Tebboune’s moves, to keep the system in place, could not be viable and durable. It argued that any “fragmented dialogue, as Tebboune appeared to be proposing, was merely an attempt to circumvent the only true and long-term solution to the country’s crisis, namely the restoration[22] of the Algerian people’s rights to build institutions that they would have freely chosen.

Whatever hopes may still have prevailed amongst opposition elements that the Tebboune regime was open to dialogue and democratic freedoms were dispelled entirely on 20 February. The PAD had scheduled a national conference at the Harcha-Hassan hall in Algiers for Thursday 20 February to discuss a possible roadmap for the country’s political future.  They had also arranged for a press conference to be held in a private room at the El Biar hotel on 16 February to brief the press about the details of the Thursday conference.

The PAD had received the necessary permissions from both venues for holding such meetings, which were not illegal and were protected by the country’s Constitution. Indeed, earlier in the week, Prime Minister Djerad had promised in an address to the National Assembly that his government would respect all freedoms, while Tebboune had spoken to foreign journalists of ‘the blessed hirak’ and his claim to have removed all obstacles to associative and political activity.

However, when the PAD organisers and press arrived at the El Biar hotel, they found their way barred by the security services, who demanded that the organisers showed them that they had authorisation from the administration to hold the meeting. As the organisers pointed out, Article 14 of the law on demonstrations and public meetings does not require such authorisation for meetings held in private places. Nevertheless, the security forces blocked the meeting, an action which, in itself, was illegal. The conference organisers then received notification from Algiers’ Directorate of Regulation and General Affairs (DRAG) that the 20 February conference was also banned.

It was now clear to anyone still inclined to give the Tebboune regime the benefit of the doubt that, in spite of all the presidency’s and government’s claims and promises about the virtues of democratic freedoms and open public dialogue, the regime was remaining faithful to its totalitarian practices of preventing Algerians from exercising both their right of assembly and the use of public halls. It was now apparent, especially after the security forces’ intensified crackdown against the student march of 18 February, that Tebboune had no intention of engaging in any meaningful dialogue with the Algerian people, least of all the hirak, but was intent on remaining faithful to the authoritarian and dictatorial practices of his predecessors.

The banning of the PAD’s 20 February conference came at the end of a week in which Tebboune’s hypocrisy and double standards had been displayed for all to see. Having studiously managed to ignore and make no reference to the hirak since the day after his election, Tebboune spent much of the week heaping praise on the hirak in a spate of excessively hypocritical statements and ‘double-speak that incensed the Hirak, the PAD and many other Algerians.

Tebboune’s excesses began on Sunday 16 February in his address to the nation’s walis at the Palais des Nations in Club des Pins. “A year ago,” said Tebboune, “The [country’s] citizens came out in a blessed and peaceful hirak, under the protection of the National People’s Army … to demand change”. He then added audaciously that the people, “to avoid falling back into the tragedy experienced in the 1990s had provided the impetus for a transparent and fair election”.

The speech angered the hirak. Referring to the hirak as “blessed” was the ultimate in hypocrisy, considering that Tebboune had been following Gaïd Salah’s attempts at trying to diminish the resolution of the hirak, if not break it entirely. To then suggest that it was the people that pushed for an election, as Gaïd Salah’s had also been saying in the run-up to the election, was a total perversion of the truth.

On Wednesday 19 February, Tebboune went further. On the eve of the celebration of the hirak’s first anniversary, he decreed that 22 February of each year would be a “National Day of brotherhood and cohesion between the people and their army for democracy”. The decree, which appearing on TV channels on Thursday evening, more or less synchronously with the banning of the PAD’s conference, stated that  the day of 22 February would “immortalise the historic leap of the people that began on 22 February, 2019 and will be celebrated throughout the national territory, through demonstrations and activities capable of strengthening the bonds of brotherhood and national cohesion and of anchoring the spirit of solidarity between the people and their army for democracy.”

Linking the hirak to the “spirit of solidarity between the people and army”, was a calculated insult to the Algerian people, as the army, under the command of the late Gaïd Salah (d. 23.12.19), had devoted most of 2019 to trying to break the hirak and enforcing an election that was opposed and rejected by the vast majority (c. 92%) of Algerians.

Later in the week, in an interview with Russia’s RT Channel aired on 21 February, Tebboune angered the hirak even more with his patronising and dissembling speeches. “The Algerian people,” he said, “Saved their country.” He went on to say: “It was the people who saved their country. The hirak saved the Algerian state from collapse. There have been a lot of slippages, and political dramas …. [but] Algerians have the right to continue to demonstrate. It is their right, and democracy demands it.”

Then, in an interview with France’s Le Figaro newspaper, Tebboune played down the scale and significance of the hirak, suggesting strongly that it was diminishing in scale and strength. “Although there is still a civic presence in the street every Friday, things are starting to calm down,” he said.

According to Tebboune, almost all of the Hirak’s requests have been met. He elaborated, saying: “There was no fifth term, and there was no extension of the fourth term, then the president resigned. The most visible heads of the old system have also left, and the fight has been waged against those who brought the economy to its knees. The political reforms remain [to be enacted]. I have made them my priority, and I am determined to go far in radical change to break with bad practices, moralise political life and change the mode of governance.” He added, referring to his brief time in office: “Many Algerians understand that you cannot reform, repair or restore what has been destroyed for a decade in two months.’

When questioned about the Hirak’s demand for a ‘civil not a military state’ and whether Tebboune (who was proclaimed president by the army command, not the electorate) felt indebted to the army, Tebboune replied flippantly: “The slogan ‘a civil state, not a military one’ dates from 19 June, 1965!” Tebboune then insisted that the army was not involved in politics, investment or economics. “It is there,” he said, “to safeguard national unity, protect the Constitution and the Algerians against any terrorist infiltration and any attempt to destabilise the country.” He told his interviewer that no trace of the army’s interference could be found in the life of any citizen, except during their national service.

As for his indebtedness to the army, Tebboune maintained that he only felt indebted to the people who elected him – freely and transparently. He went on to say that the military had supported and accompanied the electoral process but had never determined who would be the president.

Needless to say, such brazen lies, a grotesque distortion of the truth, angered the hirak and other Algerians intensely. Algerians know that: the army has been running the country since April 2019; that the army enforced the unwanted 12 December election; that the army command [Gaïd Salah] put Tebboune in office as their ‘puppet president’; that the repression which people, especially those associated with the Hirak, have suffered over the last year has been inflicted by the security and intelligence services, which have been and still are effectively under the army’s command. These lies removed any lingering doubts about Tebboune’s (or the army command’s) real intentions with regard to the Hirak and the limitations his administration would impose on its demands for political reform.

(iii) The ‘triple’ crisis facing Tebboune: a reinvigorated hirak, coronavirus and the collapse in world oil prices

A combination of difficulties – political, economic and social – began to engulf Tebboune and his government, during March. Indeed, with no end in sight for the multiple crises now confronting the regime, we might well come to look back on March (2020) as a transformatory time for the country.

The reinvigorated hirak

If we are looking for a starting date to this transformatory period, we could do no better than single out 22 February 2020, the beginning of the second year of the hirak. Between that date and the students’ demonstration on Tuesday 17 March, when the hirak effectively said ‘goodbye’ before suspending further demonstrations for fear of coronavirus, the strong reinvigoration of the hirak clearly rattled the regime and, in so doing, forced it to reveal its true colours: an almost knee-jerk resort to violence and repression.

The hirak’s Friday demonstrations over the three-week period from the hirak’s ‘jubilee’ demonstration[23] on 31 January to Friday 21 February had already shown a marked increase in both numbers and determination of political resistance. This reinvigorated hirak was further angered by Tebboune’s patronising declaration of 22 February as a ‘national day’, and especially by his provocative linking of the hirak to the army.  Thus, when the people took to the streets on the Saturday, the message to the government was: ‘We are not here to party: we are here to get rid of you’.

More worrying for the government was that the Saturday demonstration, if allowed to become a weekly occurrence, would mean that three days of each week would now be given over to anti-regime demonstrations.[24] More worrying for the regime was that the Saturday demonstration was being, encouraged by organisations such as the exiled Rachad movement, which not only embraced tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Algerians abroad, but had millions of followers on Facebook and other social media platforms within Algeria.

As far as the regime was concerned, the Saturday demonstration, with its more directly threatening political message, which had the potential to fuel and further mobilise a reinvigorated hirak, had to be stopped. The State, not unexpectedly, reverted to its well-honed use of repression and violence. The police were limited in their use of violence on 22 February, as it was a ‘national day’. However, on the following Saturday, 29 February, they were out in force in Algiers to prevent any repetition. With the city in the firm grip of the police, and after a display of excessive violence, at least 56 demonstrators were arrested and prosecuted for ‘incitement to gather’.  Although the Algiers crackdown resulted in the highest number of arrests in a single day since the hirak demonstrations began, the security forces failed to contain demonstrations in most other major towns and cities.

The regime’s exasperation in not being able to destroy the hirak was being felt in the courts. By late February, it was also becoming clear that the State’s use of the courts to intimidate and repress the hirak was back-firing on the State, as defendants and their lawyers increasingly turned the court hearings into trials of the State. Their speeches from the dock were immediately being relayed on social media to the crowds of delighted hirakists gathered outside the courts. By placing activists on trial on such absurd charges as ‘undermining the morale of the army’ and ‘threatening the unity of the national territory’, the regime was merely creating a new generation of revolutionary martyrs, who instantly became the inspiration of the next Friday and Tuesday – and now Saturday – demonstrations.  The trial of the political activist Karim Tabbou on 11 March, which is discussed below, was just such a case. Tabbou and his lawyers simply reduced the State and its judicial system to ridicule. This is why late February and March saw an increasing number of trials being postponed.[25]

However, on Monday 2 March, the State was determined to use the full weight of the courts to punish Saturday’s miscreants.  Unfortunately for the judge, the public gallery was full of hirak supporters, who burst into prolonged and sustained applause when they saw the appearance in court of two detainees who had successfully pulled a policeman off the roof of a police van.[26] The start of the hearing was delayed by 90 minutes, as the judge, angered  by this display of mockery for the ‘system’, refused to start proceedings until the applause had ceased. It was one more, albeit small, victory for the hirak.[27]

The regime, angered and frustrated by this invigorated wave of hirak resistance, undertook revenge attacks against some of the most obvious centres of resistance, such as Kabylia and the opposition RCD party, which had been in the forefront of support for the hirak.

In Kabylia, the gendarmerie’s riot squads launched a vicious attack on the small village of Snadla,[28] whose inhabitants had closed a drinking water pumping station in protest at the authorities’ broken promises to connect them to the country’s natural gas network. At dawn on 26 February, hundreds of gendarmes were trucked in from the neighbouring wilaya of Sétif to teach the villagers a lesson.[29] Using tear gas and batons to disperse the villagers, the gendarmes rampaged through the village, even entering private houses to beat up young and old alike. The president of the local commune, speaking from the Kherrata hospital, said that about 50 villagers had been injured.[30]

The regime’s punishment of the RCD involved the Algiers’s city authorities sending it a tax demand for 10,943,000 dinars (US$91,234.06) on the grounds that the RCD’s room in Algiers was now being used for commercial use. which was completely untrue.[31] The regime also used the privately-owned, but ‘regime-backed’, Al Hayet TV channel to launch a raft of scurrilous and wholly libellous allegations about the RCD’s leader, Mohcine Belabbas.

Having partially succeeded, at least in Algiers, in blocking the Saturday demonstration of 29 February, the question was how much more force might the regime be prepared to use in the following week. There was also the question of whether the hirak would heed the emerging presence in Algeria of coronavirus: the first case had been announced on 24 February.

The hirak demonstration of Friday 6 March, was one of the largest ever held. From the reaction of the police, it was clear that the regime had lost patience and was prepared to ramp up the use of force. As the first protestors began to gather, the police moved in, making seemingly arbitrary arrests, but clearly targeting known activists and journalists. However, after 2.0 pm, as the mosques emptied after the weekly prayer, waves of protestors, paying little or no attention to the coronavirus threat, drove the police back. The crowd carried banners reading: “The system that governs us is worse than the coronavirus”. The demonstration was noticeably more defiant and more determinedly political than many of the Friday demonstrations of the previous year. The portrait of Karim Tabbou, whose trial had begun earlier in the week, stared down from hundreds of placards as the crowd chanted defiantly: “It is you or us, and we are not leaving”.

This was a message that the regime was now beginning to grasp, perhaps only too well, as the Saturday demonstration was met with brutal repression, both in Algiers and other cities. Several well-known activists, as well as journalists were arrested. Neither the number of arrests nor the number of injured was revealed by either side, although several protestors are believed to have suffered broken limbs. Surprisingly, there were no reported fatalities.

This increased repression, especially since 22 February, has coincided with the regime’s realisation that the hirak was increasingly determined to continue its peaceful demonstrations into a second year. Indeed, for the regime, things were only to get worse, as the Saturday demonstration of 7 March was followed (8 March) by International Women’s Rights Day. President Tebboune, clearly increasingly out of touch with the mood of the Algerian people, gave another patronising and provocative speech in which he hailed: “the precious contributions of Algerian women, throughout the different stages [of Algeria’s history], from the popular resistance during abject French colonialism to the glorious National Revolution, through the years of national tragedy[32] to the blessed popular hirak”, which he had the audacity to describe, albeit perhaps truthfully,  as “a decisive turning point towards the expected democratic change.”

After Tebboune’s speech, Algeria’s women were to make another “precious contribution” to Algeria’s long history of resistance. They came onto the streets of Algiers and the other towns and cities of the country in their thousands in defiance of Tebboune and his regime and in support for the hirak. Their mood was insurrectionary, with many of their placards urging revolt and revolution. And, their message to Tebboune was very clear: “We did not come to party. We have come to make you leave.”

The police, clearly afraid of repeating their actions of the previous day, made the foolish mistake of trying to cordon off the advance of thousands of women. The outcome was that the police, unable to wield their batons so freely on women, found themselves being swept aside by an advancing horde, as it made its way to the infamous Sidi M’hamed court[33] and then to Cavaignac police station, where several demonstrators from the previous two days were being held.

By the time Algeria’s women had finished their day’s work, it was clear that both the political momentum and the moral high ground were in the hands of the hirak. However, if Tebboune felt he was losing the political initiative, much worse was to follow on the Monday (9 March), as world oil prices plummeted from around the US$50 level into the mid-US$30s range. Since then, as explained below, they have fallen even lower, pulling the rug even further from underneath Tebboune’s feet. Ironically, the cause of the oil price crash – the coronavirus – was also to become the regime’s saviour. Or, at least, that was how some commentators, and perhaps also the regime, were beginning to look at it by the end of March.

The coronavirus pandemic

Algeria’s first case of coronavirus was confirmed officially on 24 February. At the time of the women’s demonstration on 8 March, that number had risen officially to 24. By end-March, the Ministry of Health announced that there were 847 confirmed cases and 58 deaths.[34]

Initially, at least up until around mid-March, many Algerians, especially those in the hirak, believed that the government was ramping up the threat of coronavirus in order to justify banning all public gatherings, including the hirak demonstrations. Even so, there had already been much debate within the hirak as to whether it was responsible to continue with the demonstrations, especially as many Algerians, perhaps the majority, were beginning to doubt the government’s statistics and believe that the real situation was far more serious than the government was revealing and that the country’s decrepit health system would not be able to cope. By the beginning of April, few Algerians seemed prepared to believe the government’s statistics on either the number of cases or the number of deaths. Anecdotal evidence from workplaces, health centres and communities strongly suggest that the numbers of cases and deaths is very much higher. There is also growing evidence that Tebboune, his government and the generals are in another world and in denial. An example of how out of touch they are was given when Tebboune spoke of Blida’s 500,000 inhabitants.[35] Blida’s population is, in fact, around 1.4 million.

During the third week of March, the government introduced a number of emergency measures to fight coronavirus, such as restricting flights and shipping in and out of the country and closing schools and universities, as well as mosques. However, on 15-16 March, Prime Minster Djerad made it clear that the government was not yet banning marches for fear the public would see it as the government taking advantage of the pandemic to crush the hirak. However, by Thursday 19 March, that had changed: such gatherings and demonstrations were banned. However, by then the hirak had already decided to suspend its demonstrations to safeguard their own health and that of fellow citizens. Significantly, Karim Tabbou sent a message from prison, through his brother’s Facebook page, imploring citizens not to come and welcome his release from prison, as such a gathering would place their health at risk. The hirak’s decision was also an attempt to demonstrate its civic responsibility, compared to that of the government, and thus gain the moral high ground.

The developing crisis was exacerbated on 17 March by a speech by President Tebboune, which many analysts, albeit off the record, described as ‘stupid’. Its purpose was to reassure Algerians that the country was on top of the situation, that everything was being done to fight the coronavirus and that people should not panic. Neither Tebboune nor his government have much credibility. So, if he says that the situation is in hand, it clearly is not. Algerians know that hospitals are dilapidated, under-equipped and short of trained staff. Tebboune’s speech was interpreted as indicating that everything was ‘not OK’, thus triggering a wave of panic buying that resulted in a dramatic hike in the prices of many basic foodstuffs.[36]

Although the government introduced more stringent and seemingly sensible emergency measures through late March, their implementation has been largely chaotic: hamstrung by bureaucracy, general inefficiency and the lack of joined up thinking between government departments. Most Algerians simply do not believe the official statistics about such things as the amount of ‘resuscitation’ (intensive care) beds, test kits, preventative equipment and the like. In addition, of course, there is the overwhelming problem of a lack of both medicines and trained nurses. Lack of confidence in the government’s ability to cope with the crisis has been exacerbated by the health ministry’s advocacy of the use of chloroquine. President Donald Trump’s claims about the efficacy of this anti-malaria drug, which is untested against coronavirus has led to some countries, such as Indonesia and Algeria, to stockpile it.

By the end of March, coronavirus was seriously exposing the government’s incompetence and the health system’s dangerous state of dilapidation.  Many health professionals, deploring the lack of resources and the poor working conditions and patient care, expressed their fears over the coming peak of the epidemic in both the mainstream and social media. The paramedical staff of the resuscitation service at Frantz Fanon hospital in Blida even went on strike because they had no means of protection: no masks, gloves, gel or disposable gowns. Khedidja Bessedik, head of one of hospital’s services, denounced the appalling state of affairs on Facebook: “Where is the Algerian state? Where is the Ministry of Health? Where are the 50 million bibs (masks)? She was indignant, calling for a “citizen’s collection” of material.[37]

By early April, there were increasing reports of many medical staff going off sick, even when they were not, because they had seen colleagues dying and they had no protective gear. Also, many hospitals had little food for their own medical staff, which was being brought to them by volunteers in the local community.

With the State demonstrably unable to cope with the crisis, the hirak, forced to mutate while waiting to return to the street, began taking on a new supportive role to make up for the weakness of the health system.[38] Working with citizen and student groups, the hirak mobilised to form a chain of solidarity, helping in the collection and distribution of protective equipment for hospitals: gowns, gloves, masks and cleaning materials.  In Tizi Ouzou, pharmacy and chemistry students from Mouloud-Mammeri University started making hydroalcoholic solutions, an initiative quickly imitated by other institutions. Volunteers also began collecting and delivering food supplies. Charities, sometimes in coordination with the authorities, started delivering meals to hospitals. In cities where the transport system had been closed down, volunteer drivers provided a free service for doctors, nurses, nursing assistants, cleaners and other hospital staff. However, in some cities, notably Algiers the police have intervened to block such charitable assistance to the health system.[39]

A real danger for the regime is the parallel with what happened with the Front islamique du salut (FIS) in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the municipal and provincial elections of June 1990, the FIS took 55 percent of the popular vote.[40] The government let the results stand, drawing some comfort from the fact that many voted for the FIS as a protest against a hated regime and 30 years of misgovernment and corruption by the Front de libération nationale (FLN). However, when it came to the legislative elections in December 1991, the people voted for the FIS in seemingly even greater numbers.[41] One reason for the popularity of the FIS was that in the 18 months since their June 1990 victories, they had shown they could  meet citizens’ demands and provide the basic needs that the FLN had failed to do. If the coronavirus pandemic becomes the crisis that many Algerians anticipate, citizens may start likening the hirak and associated civil society movements with the FIS of 1990-1991 and turn to the hirak in even greater numbers when it eventually returns to the street.

The collapse of world oil prices

The greatest threat to President Abdelmadjid Tebboune and his government, especially in the longer term, could be the decline of world oil prices associated with the global recession, which, in turn has been triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.

Algeria is a classic rentier state, almost wholly dependent on revenues from its hydrocarbons industry.  Hydrocarbons account for some 95% of the country’s exports, at least 60% of government revenues and over 30% of GDP.

Even before the latest collapse in world oil prices, on which Algeria depends so heavily, President Tebboune’s remarks on the economy were not inspiring confidence. His first comments on the economy, made some three weeks into his presidency, were little more than a list of ‘grand designs’. Although unrealistic in the context of the country’s current financial situation, they were not entirely without merit. However, they lacked both detail and how much they would take from or add to the country’s financial resources. Two weeks later, at his next Council of Ministers on 17 January, he came down to earth, with his grandiose plans being replaced by ‘emergency measures’. He explained, at a meeting with the national media on 22 January, that government action, at least for the next few months, would be directed at the ‘economic emergencies’.[42]

Tebboune also gave strong hints as to the government’s policy towards the management of public finances. He admitted there would have to be a supplementary Finance Law (budget) in five- or six-months’ time. However, this sounded as if it would not be a budget of financial rigour, but one of seemingly wanton expansion. For example, he said that he was committed, “As soon as we get to the supplementary finance law, to the exemption of taxation on all wages of less than DA 30,000 in order to increase purchasing power while controlling the prices of essential products.” According to Tebboune, this would add DA90 billion (approximately US$1 billion) to the State budget. He gave no clear indication as to how this would be financed, other than by a vague reference to “tax adjustments”.

From then on, Tebboune began quickly to lose credibility.  He told journalists that although the economy was “not normal”, it “was not critical”. He also gave a surprising and unrealistic view of both the dinar exchange rate and the state of the foreign exchange (FOREX) reserves, although without giving any evidential basis for his optimism, which seemed to contradict the official estimates of the Finance Ministry. He also gave wild, some might say absurd, predictions about the country’s economic growth for the next year or so, by talking about growth of some 6% in some sectors. This contradicted the World Bank’s, IMF’s and most other forecasts, which at that time were around the 2% level. He also spoke extravagantly about getting rid of unemployment, but without saying how that might be done, other than through his seemingly naïve faith in “start-ups”.

To damage his economic credibility even further, Tebboune went on to say, in the context of the major economic reforms[43] that most professional economists had been identifying as urgent since at least the start of 2015, that nothing would be decided in the next year or two. That, he explained, would enable time for reflection and dialogue, something that the economy had run out of a long time before Tebboune came into office.

On 17 February, some three days before the start of the current collapse in world oil prices, an article in the London Financial Times (FT), referring more to the country’s economic than political situation, called for radical change and active support from the EU to prevent Algeria from becoming the next ‘failed state’.[44]

World oil prices began to slide on 20 February. Brent Crude oil[45] started that day a shade under US$60 per barrel (pb). By 6 March, it had drifted down to a few cents under US$50 pb. Then, on Monday 9 March, following President Donald Trump’s closure of flights into the USA, it crashed by some 35% to around almost US$31 pb before recovering slightly to average around US$35 pb for that week. However, the last two weeks of March saw the price hovering in the US$22-US$30 range, with a slight but seemingly short-lived recovery to around US$33 on 2 April following talk of a production agreement between Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Algeria’s average oil price for 2019 was US$64 pb. The International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) estimate for this year’s average oil price is US$43. If the IEA’s estimate turns out to be correct, Algeria’s oil revenues for 2020 will be around US$23-24 billion, some US$10 billion less than what had been forecast in the 2020 Finance law.[46] That would be extremely damaging to the country’s finances.

On 22 March, the Council of Ministers’ meeting was briefed on the prevailing financial situation by Finance Minister Abderahmane Raouya, who explained that such a low oil price held the prospect of a huge possible drain of nearly US$30 billion on the FOREX reserves.[47] Tebboune resolved  that everything should be done to avoid such a depletion of the reserves. He therefore announced new drastic measures, which involved setting very unrealistic targets to reduce the import of goods by US$10 billion and services by US$7 billion, along with a drastic 30% reduction in expenditure in the state’s operating budget, but without affecting salaries. However, as salaries comprise two thirds of the state’s operating budget, many believe such a reduction is impossible: it would require the country’s three million civil servants to incur no expenses at all during 2020. Similarly, numerous attempts to reduce the country’s imports bill over the last five years have all failed abysmally.[48]

If the IEA’s estimate for this year’s oil price is anywhere near correct, it will have a devastating impact on the economy, increasing unemployment and poverty to intolerable levels. Moreover, if such a huge ‘hit’ on the economy coincides with a continuation of the speculation and hoarding of basic foodstuffs that was triggered by the coronavirus scare, the suggestion being made on social media by some local commentators that Algeria could face a “Revolution of the Hungry”[49], analogous to the French Revolution, might not be that far-fetched after all.

The Karim Tabbou affair

Despite Tebboune’s praise for the ‘blessed hirak’ and Djerad’s assertions that the government had no intention of using the ban on marches and gatherings to break the hirak, it was clear that no sooner had the ban been introduced than the regime would use the opportunity it provided to move even more repressively against its opponents.

This was made evident in what has become known as the ‘Karim Tabbou affair’, or what Tabbou’s parents have called “the most abject and scandalous trial in the history of Algerian justice.”[50] Although the ‘affair’ is still unfolding, with many questions yet unanswered, it is likely to have profound implications for the way in which the country’s current political crisis develops over the next year or so – and perhaps longer. In short, the regime would almost certainly not have dared to perpetrate the illegalities and human rights abuses that it did in Algiers’s Ruisseau court on 24 March if the Hirakists had not been prohibited by the coronavirus emergency measures from demonstrating outside the court and elsewhere across the country.

Tabbou, a political activist and coordinator of the Union démocratique et sociale (UDS), and iconic figure in the hirak, was arrested on trumped up charges after being kidnapped by plain clothes policemen on 11 September (2019). He was released a few days later but rearrested almost immediately and held in pre-trial detention in Koléa prison (Tipaza). His trial, which began in the first week of March, resulted in him being sentenced on 11 March to one year’s imprisonment, with six months suspended. However, as he had already served almost six months in pre-trial detention, he was due for release on 26 March.  Hirakists, along with his wife and family were waiting to greet him.

However, on or around 20 March, the State appealed the 11 March sentence. On 24 March, apparently without any warning and, we understand, no notification to his lawyers, Tabbou was brought from Koléa prison to the Ruisseau court. What happened in the next hour or two is still not entirely clear. However, it is understood that Tabbou’s lawyers only heard about what was going on at the last minute and only arrived at the court in time to ask for a postponement, which was denied. Tabbou, who was in visible discomfort, did not speak, but was taken by the court for medical inspection at the Mustapha Pacha University Hospital. In the meantime, the judge ruled that he was upholding the State’s appeal and that Tabbou would serve a full year in prison, with no part of the sentence suspended.

Tabbou’s team of lawyers are appealing the case to the Supreme Court on the grounds that the whole procedure was wholly illegal on numerous counts. Perhaps the most significant illegality was that the appeal file that the state prosecutor submitted to the court did not contain the written judgement of the 11 March trial. Apparently, it contained only police statements, which are irrelevant in that the appeal can only be based on legal errors in the original judgement. The reason why the judgement was not in the file was simply because it had not yet been written up and printed. This suggests that the intelligence services, which control the Justice Ministry and the courts, had decided at the last minute, perhaps knowing, in view of the ban on gatherings, that there would be no hirak demonstrators either inside or outside the court, to take the opportunity to keep Tabbou in prison for another six months.

The issue of Tabbou’s state of health is still being disputed. While witnesses state that he was visibly in a state of distress, his legal team has suggested that he may have suffered a stroke, with partial and temporary paralysis of parts of his right side. The prosecutor, judge and the medical team that examined him, while almost certainly working under the instructions of Bouazza Ouassini’s DGSI, denied that he had suffered a stroke or, for that matter, showed any medical signs of being unwell. Either way, he was clearly incapable of addressing the court, let alone managing his trial.

The court proceedings, which were an abhorrent abuse of human rights and the legal system, were met with uproar throughout most of Algeria and by many international NGOs, such as the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and Amnesty International. Within Algeria, almost all the political parties[51] as well as many NGOs, such as the Algerian League for Human Rights (LADDH), and many prominent personalities expressed their shock and condemnation at what took place, calling the  trial “appalling”, “shocking” and “neither comprehensible in substance nor acceptable in form.”[52] [53]

On 1 April, with the Karim Tabbou scandal at its height, President Tebboune appeared to step in, issuing a pardon to just over 5,000 prisoners. For a moment, some people believed the decree might be an attempt to rectify the damage done to the reputation of Algeria’s justice system by the Karim Tabbou affair. Some believed it was his long-awaited act of appeasement towards the hirak. However, it quickly transpired to be neither. The pardon does not apply to either Tabbou or hirak detainees. Its real purpose is to ease the overcrowding in Algeria’s prisoners. The precise number of prisoners is a State secret. The official figure of around some 60-65,000 is thought to be too low, with the real number being around 80,000. The decree seems to have been a callous move to mollify international human rights organisations, such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), which have long been critical of Algeria’s prisons, and possibly also the World Health Organisation (WHO), which is concerned about the spread of coronavirus within prisons.

Far from any reform or liberalisation of the penal system, repression is increasing. As France Info commented on 8 April, “The judicial machine is running at full speed.”[54] The regime is using the ban on gatherings and the consequent absence of hirak protestors to bring more hirak activists to court and serve them with longer prison sentences. The Karim Tabbou affair of 24 March is just one case in point. Unbeknown to most Algerians, a further case has now been brought against Tabbou. Having had his prison sentence extended on 24 March, he is now being tried on a further charge of ‘damaging the morale of the army’, something which the late Gaïd Salah and most of the army’s other top-ranking generals have been doing for years. This additional trial, which was to have been held on 6 April, has been postponed to 27 April. It is a blatant move by the regime to keep Tabbou, an iconic political activist, in prison on a series of trumped up charges for as long as possible.

Aside from this further news of how the regime is determined to keep Karim Tabbou off the streets, the first week of April has seen a spate of other court rulings that have clearly taken advantage of the coronavirus ban on gatherings. Another iconic case is that of Abdelouahab Fersaoui, a 39-year-old academic, president of the Rassemblement-Actions-Jeunesse (RAJ) and a key activist within the hirak movement. Fersaoui, has been in pre-trial detention since his arrest on 10 October while participating in a rally to support prisoners of conscience, an act which, in itself, is not illegal. He was prosecuted on the trumped-up charge of ‘undermining the integrity of the national territory’, a charge used against many hirak activists. Since then, the justice system has rejected all requests for his release and after each request has extended his detention. Fersaoui’s trial was held in camera, officially because of the coronavirus, but also to keep hirak protestors out of the court. His supporters expected him to be given a six months sentence and therefore to be released on or around 10 April. However, he was brought back to court on 6 April for sentencing and served with a 12 months sentence. The prosecutor, who had asked for a two-year sentence, is appealing the case in the hope of having the sentence extended, as in the case of Karim Tabbou. Saïd Salhi, vice-president of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH) said that Fersaoui’s case was an illustration of how repression was escalating.

On 5 April, the journalist Sofiane Merakchi who is correspondent for the Lebanese television channel Al Mayadeen, was sentenced by an Algiers court to eight months in prison.  Journalist and correspondent for the Lebanese television channel Al Mayadeen, Merakchi was accused of “concealing equipment” and “providing images of the demonstrations on Friday September 20 (2019) to Al Jazeera and other foreign media”.

Another journalist, Brahim Drareni, the Algerian correspondent for Reporters sans frontières (RSF) was imprisoned on 29 March in pretrial detention. While Prime Minister Djerad has told the world that no journalists have been arrested or imprisoned because they are journalists, the truth is very different. Being a reporter in Algeria is now an extremely hazardous occupation.

Since the suspension of the hirak and the ban on all gatherings, the court system has been used with maximum rigour as a form of political control and repression. The system is effectively under the control of General Bouazza Ouassini, head of the DGSI. Ouassini instructs the Justice Minister, Belkacem Zegmati, who, in turn, instructs the courts on how to act.  A key player in this transmission belt is Mohamed Bouchiouane, one of the most infamous judges in the pocket of the intelligence services. Bouchiouane, was appointed on 22 March to take over as prosecutor general at the court of Algiers. He is effectively in charge of penal affairs and pardons. Bouchiouane came to public attention in the early 2000s when he oversaw the trial of the murder of Kabyle musician, poet, intellectual and activist Lounès Matoub, who was assassinated in a hail of some 80 bullets on the orders of the DRS. In June 1998.  However, the judge’s verdict stated that he was gunned down by terrorists.

(iv) The return of Mediène and the éradicateurs[55]

The Karim Tabbou affair, perhaps more than any other issue discussed so far, takes us back to the question: Who rules Algeria? The Tabbou affair bears all the most ruthless hallmarks of Algeria’s intelligences services, especially those of the former DRS of General Mohamed ‘Toufik’ Mediène. Indeed, since late February, there have been a number of interrelated and potentially transformational changes at the top of both the army and the intelligence services. One such change has seen the return to influence of many éradicateurs: the group of generals who effectively ran the country during the Dirty War of the 1990s.[56] The second sees the return to influence of General Mohamed ‘Toufik’ Mediène, one of the most powerful of the éradicateurs.

Observers of the Algerian political scene will have been surprised at the appointment in early March of General Ammar Athamnia[57] as General Saïd Chengriha’s successor as commander of the Land Forces.[58] Many thought the appointment would go to either General Mostefa Smaâli, commander of the 3rd military region (Béchar), or remain in the hands of the interim incumbent, General Omar Tlemsani. Most commentators believed that Athamnia’s appointment stemmed from his experience and knowledge of the security situation in the extreme south of the country: he was second in command and then commander of the 6th military region (Tamanrasset) from 2004 to 2016.[59] However, a more likely reason relates to his role as a key éradicateur in the Dirty War and his relationship with another even more surprising appointment, that of retired General Abdelaziz Medjahed as a special advisor to President Tebboune on military and security issues.

Today, few people remember the name of Medjahed, as he retired in 2003. However, those who remember the army’s worst excesses in the 1990s will recall that Medjahed was not only a fellow éradicateur with Athamnia, but, more significantly, he was General Chengriha’s (then colonel) commanding officer in one of the worst episodes of the Dirty War: the ‘eradication’ of suspected Islamists in the Bouïra-Lakhdaria operational sector around 2004-2005. Medjahed and Chengriha committed serious war crimes, murdering many innocent civilians,[60] in their establishment of an ‘operational anti-subversive centre’ (COLAS), a ‘terrorist elimination’ operation, in the Lakhdaria region. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately for Chengriha, who seems to have been directly responsible for bringing Medjahed out of retirement, their crimes were documented by one of their junior officers: second lieutenant Habib Souaïdia, the author of La Sale Guerre (The Dirty War).[61]

One local commentator, who requested anonymity, described Medjahed’s appointment as a “well-oiled transmission belt between President Tebboune and Chengriha, the army Chief of Staff.” But why would both Tebboune and Chengriha want Medjahed, a very senior general, in such a role? The answer, it would seem, is that Chengriha is surrounding himself with powerful generals from the Dirty War, such as Athamnia and Medjahed, whom he can trust. In Medjahed’s case, he also wants a powerful figure within the presidency whom, if needs be, he can set against General Bouazza Ouassini, the powerful, dangerous and untrusted head of the DGSI

The promotion of Athamnia and the return of Medjahed are related to the almost synchronous return to influence of General Mediène, head of the DRS from 1990 until his dismissal (‘retirement’) at the beginning of 2016. Mediène’s return to the fold comes as part of an apparent restructuring of the intelligence services, the objectives of which, are to destroy the hirak and, we suspect, to isolate and then remove Bouazza Ouassini.

Other parts of this restructuring package include the dismissal of General Boubekeur Nabil as head of the direction centrale de la sécurité de l’armée (DCSA) on 18 March and his replacement by General Sid-Ali Benzemirli, and the return of General Mohamed Kaïdi. On face value, the appointment of Benzemirli might seem a strange move, as Benzemirli had been appointed as head of the DCSA in November 2018 before being dismissed in April 2019. However, Benzemirli’s dismissal and Nabil’s appointment were all part of Bouazza Ouassini’s scheming to ultimately replace Gaïd Salah himself. Nabil was close to Ouassini’s, having formerly been Ouassini’s chief of staff. Nabil’s dismissal was therefore part of Chengriha’s and Tebboune’s plans to weaken and ultimately side-line Ouassini.

The return of Mohamed Kaïdi follows a similar explanation. Kaïdi, as described in Part I, effectively took over the role of DGSI from Athman Tartag in the security-intelligence apparatus., thus making him the effective coordinator of the intelligence services, although he was never formally appointed to that position. To all intents and purposes, Kaïdi was Bouazza Ouassini’s boss and therefore one of the generals whose removal was engineered by Ouassini as part of his plotting, described in Part I, to eventually take over from Gaïd Salah. Kaïdi has now been brought back and appointed to General Cherif Zerrad’s old job as the head of the Head of the army’s Employment-Preparation Department.[62] Zerrad was dismissed by presidential decree on 13 October 2019, another of Ouassini’s many scalps, and replaced by General Mohamed Bachar, who has now been replaced by Mohamed Kaïdi. The implication of Kaïdi’s appointment is that although his post is not directly within the intelligence services, he is nevertheless a senior general who is likely to be supportive of General Chengriha and President Tebboune and most unlikely to side with Ouassini in any new round of fighting amongst the top generals, especially if that involves the removal, or worse, of Ouassini.

Far more significant, however, than these two changes has been Mediène’s covert return to influence.[63]  Officially, Mediène remains in prison, having recently been served with a 15-year prison sentence as part of the late Gaïd Salah’s purge of the so-called Bouteflika gang. However, according to reliable sources,[64] he has been removed to “a better place”. However, it is unlikely that he will ever be pardoned or given a formal position, as he is hated by the Algerian people. Rather, his return to influence, has come through the recall, also unannounced, of General Mansour Lamari (a.k.a. Hadj Amara Redouane), Mediène’s chef de cabinet and right-hand man for 19 years, as some sort of advisor to the Presidency.

Apart from Mediène himself, ‘Hadj Redouane’, as he is generally known, probably has more knowledge of what has been going on within the country over the last two or more decades than anyone else. He is likely, according to these sources, to be appointed in the near future as the overall coordinator of all the intelligence services, a position that would place him over Bouazza Ouassini, head of the DGSI, who is currently the most senior and powerful of the intelligence generals.

There are two likely reasons for this extraordinary set of moves. One is that ‘Le pouvoir’ – the regime – sees the hirak as a threat similar to that of the FIS in 1991. The generals, now led by Said Chengriha, having failed to destroy the hirak through 2019 and then seeing it’s determined rejuvenation through February and early March, have reverted to the same eradicateurs who protected the regime in the 1990s: Medjahed, Athamnia, Chengriha, Mediène, Hadj Redouane, Ghriss and perhaps others. Chengriha has more confidence in the ‘old school’, of which he is a part, than the new ‘kids on the block’, such as the dangerous and untrustworthy Bouazza Ouassini.

The second concerns the future of Bouazza Ouassini. After his plotting of last year, he is clearly not trusted by either Tebboune or many other senior generals. He also made a lot of enemies, especially amongst those generals whose dismissal he had engineered. But now, with some of them, such as Benzemirli and Kaïdi, back in harness, Ouassini will be aware that the knives will be out for him. However, the most dangerous development for Ouassini may well be the renewed influence of Mediène and Hadj Redouane. Mediène will not be unaware of the fact that Ouassini encouraged Gaïd Salah to have him arrested in 2019[65] on the grounds that it would raise Gaïd Salah’s popularity with the public.  With an enemy as dangerous as Mediène, Ouassini’s ultimate fate could well be worse than mere dismissal. Also, it could come quicker than many people might suspect.


After three months of Tebboune’s presidency, it had become increasingly evident that the Generals are determined to dismantle the hirak. Having failed to destroy the hirak during 2019, and then seen it becoming stronger, more determined and more invigorated as it entered its second year, the generals are now more determined than ever to ‘eradicate’ it.

Similarities have been drawn by the threat posed to the then regime by the FIS in 1991 and the hirak today. However, the hirak of today is a far greater danger to the present regime – to ‘le pouvoir’ – than the FIS was in its day. When the FIS came to the brink of power, and especially soon afterwards, it had many enemies amongst the secularists, the newspapers, academic and intellectuals and many others who were opposed to its overly religious and extremist ideology. Today, the hirak is supported by almost everyone. Algeria is being reduced to a fight, so far peaceful as far as the people are concerned, between the Algerian people and a military state. The latest slogan, “When the Generals are in the dustbin, then Algeria will be independent”, captures the national mood. The FIS never had such universal support.

Neither the coronavirus pandemic nor the related oil price fall could have been predicted. The oil price fall, unless retraced very quickly,  will cause the regime untold economic and financial difficulties, not the least of which will be increasing unemployment and poverty, which may well lead to increasing social unrest and even what some commentators have called ‘The Revolution of the Hungry”.

The consequences of the coronavirus are unknown but becoming foreseeable. If the Algerian people come to believe, as they are already beginning to do, that the regime has not only proven itself incapable of managing the crisis but also lied to them over the number of cases and deaths, they are likely to become very angry. If that anger coincides with the difficulties arising from the oil price fall, then the regime could find itself facing a very difficult and dangerous situation. If, on top of that, the Algerian people come to believe, as they are already beginning to do, that the regime is using the coronavirus to dismantle and destroy the hirak, then the regime could find itself facing the perfect storm.

EPILOGUE. The fall of Bouazza Ouassini

This article was completed and sent for publication online on 12 April 2020. Less than two days later, on 14 April, General Bouazza Ouassini was arrested, reportedly by the DCSA. The author has thus been able to add this brief Epilogue. Details of Ouassini’s arrest and the many charges he might possibly face have yet to emerge. It is understood that he may already have been taken before the Blida military court. Contrary to rumours, he appears not to have fled the country, but is being held in a military centre.

However, his dismissal, or something worse, has long been anticipated, as this article has been suggesting throughout. Indeed, after his extraordinary rise to power, documented in Part I (“Who rules Algeria? The manoeuvres of General Bouazza Ouassini and other ‘strong men’), and the way in which he accomplished it, his fall was hardly surprising. His departure will lead to major changes within the security and intelligence services, details of which will be published on this website in due course.



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

[1] Following the dismantlement of the old DRS by General Ahmed Gaïd Salah in late 2015 and early 2016, the various branches of the intelligence service were split between the army and the presidency, with several being renamed.  The DRS’ Directorate of Internal Security (DSI) was placed within the ambit of the Presidency under the control of General Athman Tartag and renamed as the Directorate General of Internal Security (DGSI). When General Bouazza Ouassini was appointed Directorate of Internal Security (DSI) and Director of Counterintelligence on 21 April 2019, his proper title and post was that of head of the DGSI. There has been confusion as to the difference between the DSI and DGSI. Effectively, they are the same thing, but with the DGSI having a ‘more important’ name and thus a seemingly higher ranking.

[2] This was picture presented in multiple press articles during the period of the election campaign, particularly during its latter stages.

[3] Yacine Babouche, “Le RCD condamne les violences policières enregistrées à Béjaïa.” Tout sur l’Algérie, 18 Decembre 2019:

[4] It is understood that Gaïd Salah had promised Baali the ambassadorship to Paris after the election.

[5] In fact, the most senior general in the army at the time, along with Gaïd Salah, was Benali Benali, the head of the Republican Guard. However, Benali Benali was rumoured to have been in poor health.  He has also been keeping an extremely low political profile. Whether this was because of his health or because he had been close to the Bouteflika family is not known.

[6] As explained in Part I, these generals were all ousted in one way or another during 2019 as a result of Bouazza Ouassini’s manoeuvrings.

[7] See, Keenan, J. “The Death of Gaïd Salah – Algeria’s most corrupt general,” ISCI (forthcoming)

[8] EU passports are easily bought in Malta.

[9] See note 7.

[10] The one name in this group that might seem surprising is that of Benali Benali. Benali Benali was previously close to the Bouteflika family and head of the Presidential Guard. However, with Gaïd Salah’s death, he is now Algeria’s most senior ranking army office. It would not be surprising, despite his health, if he were to make some sort of comeback in the near future.

[11] For example: “Tebboune au Figaro: ‘Les choses commencent à s’apaiser’”. Le Figaro, 19 Février 2020.

[12] “En Algérie, des milliers de manifestants dans la rue pour le 45e vendredi de contestation”. France 24, 27 Décembre 2019. Accessed at:

[13] Kamel Daoud – Où en est le rêve algérien? Le Point, 12.01.20. Accessed at:

[14] “À Genève, l’Algérie fait son retour dans le jeu diplomatique.” Tribune de Genève,

19 January 2020. Accessed at:

[15] Abdelkader Cheref, “Can Tebboune turn Algeria into a diplomatic heavyweight?” The National 03.03.20. Accessed at:

[16] A participant at the ‘UK-Algeria High Level Business briefing’, held in London on 21 December 2019, told the author that one of the Algerian delegates had used the expression ‘historical blip’ in describing to him the prevailing political situation in Algeria.

[17] “Agression des manifestants : ‘C’est le résultat de la banalisation du discours de haine’”. Tout sur l’Algérie, 29 Décembre 2019. Accessed at:

[18] The PAD consists of the more radical oppositions parties, such as the Front des forces socialistes (FFS) led by Ali Laskri; the Rassemblement pour la culture et la démocratie (RCD) led by Mohcine Belabbas; the Parti Travailiste (PT), led by Ramdane Tazibt following the imprisonment of former leader Louisa Hanoune: Fethi Ghares of the Mouvement démocratique et social (MDS); Zoubida Assoul of the Union pour le changement et le progrès (UCP); Mahmoud Rachedi of the Parti Socialiste des Travailleurs (PST); the Ligue Algérienne pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme (LADDH); and numerous prominent personalities well-known to and trusted by the Hirak.

[19] This was the essence of a statement issued by the PAD on 14 January 2020.

[20] The FFS said that proof of this intent by the regime was the undemocratic process set in train by Tebboune to amend the constitution, with drafting by experts appointed by the regime, followed by its adoption by an illegitimate and unpopular National Assembly (parliament)  and its consecration in a referendum under the control of the same regime, in which the participation rate, as in the rigged presidential election of 12 December, would again be close to zero.

[21] By ‘’ridiculous”, the RCD meant that it was ridiculous for the government to amend the constitution when the hirak was calling for a completely new constitution.

[22] The RCD’s use of the word ‘restoration’ is interesting, as many would argue that the Algerian people never had these rights in the first place: they were hijacked by the military even before the final declaration of Independence in 1962.

[23] This was the 50th hirak demonstration since 22 February 2019.

[24] Weekly demonstrations were already being held on Fridays and Tuesdays.

[25] By the first week of March, according to the Comité National pour la Libération des Détenus (CNLD), there were still 142 political and opinion detainees and 1,345 lawsuits pending, all of which related to participation in hirak demonstrations.

[26] This achievement, in full view of the crowds, had been achieved in the Place de la Grande Poste. The two ‘heroes’ were Saeddedine Youcef Islam and Zohir Houari.

[27] On the same day, 2 March, Algiers’s police also blocked a rally of primary school teachers, whose many professional complaints had been ignored since October. Multiple arrests were undertaken amidst excessive verbal and physical police abuse. Teachers went on strike the next day in protest at the police action.

[28] Snadla is in the rural commune of Draâ El Gaïd, which falls within the daïra of Kherrata in Béjaïa wilaya.

[29] In his failed attempt to break the hirak, the late General Gaïd Salah, had tried to instigate a ‘hate war’ between Arabs and Berbers (the indigenous Amazigh people) to justify the regime’s forceful crackdown on the hirak. While the strategy led to much discrimination against Kabyles over such things as employment and housing allocations, the overall strategy failed. Algerians, both Arabs and Berbers, were aware of the State’s strategy and, with a few exceptional incidents, had resisted it.

[30] “Le RCD dénonce la ‘répression’ d’une manifestation à Kherrata.” Tout sur l’Algérie, 26 Février 2020. Accessed at:

Kamal Ouhnia, “Béjaïa : matinée d’enfer à Snadla”. Liberté, 26 Février 2020. Accessed at:

[31] The RCD had allowed its conveniently located room in downtown Algiers to be used by hirak demonstrators to congregate before the start of demonstrations and for other opposition parties to meet in. It was not used for commercial purposes.

[32] A reference to the ‘Dirty War’ of the 1990s.

[33] Most of the hirak demonstrators had been sentenced by the Sidi M’Hamed court.

[34]  The epicentre was Blida with 40% of the cases, followed by Algiers (16%), Oran (6%), Tizi-Ouzou (4%), Béjaïa (3%), Sétif (3%), Tipaza and Médéa (2.5% each). Only 9 of the 48 wilayas had zero confirmed cases.

[35] Blida is at the epicentre of the epidemic. At the last census in 2008, its population was 1,009,000.

[36] Many basic foodstuffs, such as potatoes, milk and semolina, became hard to get. The shortages of semolina wheat, the basis of cous cous and many pastas, has become something of a national scandal. See: “L’Algérie confrontée à la crise de la semoule.” Courrier International, 07.04.20. Accessed at:

[37] “Coronavirus: en Algérie, la solidarité s’organise pour pallier aux faiblesses du système de santé.” Jeune Afrique 31 Mars 2020. Accessed at:

[38] The message from the hirak has been: “Our health first. Protect ourselves so that the Revolution has a future.”

[39] “Coronavirus: en Algérie, la solidarité s’organise face à l’épidémie”. Le Monde, 06 Avril 2020. Accessed at:

[40] The FIS won 853 of the 1539 municipalities and 32 of the 48 wilayas.

[41] The first round of voting on 26 December, 1991 gave the FIS 188 of the 231 parliamentary seats decided outright in the first round. It needed only 28 of the 199 seats being taken to the second round on January 16 – a certainty – to become the world’s first ever democratically elected Islamist government. Faced with its greatest political crisis, the regime annulled the second round of voting, thereby triggering the ‘Dirty War’ of the 1990s.

[42] These were identified as: the automotive assembly industry, which was in a state of chaos following several years of massive corruption; the companies belonging to several businessmen – the so-called ‘oligarchs’ – who had been close to Bouteflika and were now serving prison sentences for a number of corruption charges; and the construction companies, which were mostly in dire straits.

[43] These included such things as the reform of state subsidies and the diversification of the economy to reduce dependence on hydrocarbons revenues.

[44] Nick Butler, “New head of Sonatrach is an opportunity for Algeria.” Financial Times, 17 February 2020.

[45] The benchmark for the price of Algeria’s Sahara Blend is Brent crude oil.

[46] This compares to US$35 billion in 2019 and US$41 billion in 2018.

[47] In 2014, prior to the last major oil price crash, Algeria’s FOREX reserves stood at an all-time high of US$194 billion. Since then, they have diminished by approximately US$20 billion a year. In December 2019 they stood at around US$60 billion. A fall of US$30 in 2020 would reduce them to US$30 billion, taking the country to a position of technical bankruptcy around end 2021, assuming, of course, no further improvement in oil prices in the meantime.

[48] Cutting US$17 billion off the country’s goods and services import bill is impossible. A little might be trimmed off the imports of goods, but there is little or no fat on the services bill, which covers mostly maritime transport, construction and public works and technical assistance. Nothing much can be done to reduce the maritime transport bill, simply because Algeria is dependent almost entirely on foreign flag carriers. Similarly, in the hydrocarbons sector, there are practically no national alternatives to the large, specialised international groups. Furthermore, most contracts are already signed and in operation.

[49] The original source of this comment was a member of the Rachad Movement, who requested anonymity for his own safety.

[50] “Affaire Tabbou: sa famille réclame une enquête ‘indépendante’”. Tout sur l’Algérie, 31 Mars 2020. Accessed at:

[51] Except – unsurprisingly – the two main government parties, the Front de libération nationale (FLN) and the Rassemblement national démocratique (RND), which remained silent on the matter,

[52] The RCD, for example, condemned the trial as “a terrible and unprecedented abuse of a system” and demanded that the “perpetrators of this crime against the people and Algeria be prosecuted.”

[53] The Algiers bar froze all coordination with juridical and administrative bodies and called on other organisations nationwide to do the same. It also called on President Tebboune to set up a commission of inquiry to determine the responsibilities in what happened. The bar also prohibited its members from having any dealings with Judge Hamzaoui Mohamed Sabaâ, who presided over Tabbou’s appeal trial.

[54] “En Algérie, inquiétude sanitaire et répression politique à l’heure du coronavirus.” France Info 08 Avril 2020. Accessed at:

[55] It might be argued that the éradicateurs could not have returned as they never went away. The point is that that many who been retired for several years and whose names had been almost forgotten were brought back into influential positions.

[56] The éradicateurs believed that the Islamists were a threat to the country and should be ‘eradicated’.

[57] Athamnia was previously commander of the 5th military region (Constantine).

[58] Chengriha, formerly commander of the Land Forces, replaced Ahmed Gaïd Salah as chief of the general staff after the latter’s death on 23 December.

[59] Athamnia also displayed a measure of pragmatic competence in managing the negotiations that ended the shale gas unrest around In Salah in 2015.

[60] The army’s code for these murders was: “take them to the river”.

[61] Habib Souaïdia, La Sale Guerre (The Dirty War) (La Découverte, 2001).

[62] Appointment by presidential decree, gazetted on 7 April 2020.

[63] There have been no announcements in the Official Journal nor even hints in the media about Mediène’s position.

[64] Who have requested anonymity for their safety.

[65] On 4 May 2019.