Ali Tounsi

Ali Tounsi, Courtesy of El Moudjahid

What to make of Ali Tounsi’s assassination? In keeping with their tradition of misunderstanding Algeria’s politics, several western news outlets are either overstating or misunderstanding the impact of this event, e.g with regards to the fight on terrorism and the causes of the murder.

The abnormal about Ali Tounsi’s assassination is that it appears to be normal so far. Assassinations are always suspicious in Algerian circles: Mohamed Boudiaf, Abdelhaq Benhamouda, Matoub Lounes, and countless other deaths have been shrouded in mystery and conspiracy theories for good reason and with good evidence.

Chouaib Oultache

Chouaib Oultache

Ali Tounsi, though (pictured right), got gunned down by a trusted colleague, Lt Colonel Oultache Chouaib (pictured below), who he knew for years. Tounsi apparently pleaded for Oultache to return from retirement and head the new aerial police force a few years ago. Tounsi wanted to clamp down on corruption and identified Oultache as one of the corrupt, dismissing him a day before the assassination as reported by Ennahar. An easy explanation is that Oultache went berserk as he could not comprehend how Tounsi returned him to the force only to send him to the prison cell. So he shot the guy after a verbal confrontation.

Reports conflict as to what happened afterwards. Several newspaper websites fluctuated between various stories: first claiming that Tounsi himself shot him (unlikely), then there were reports that Oultache asked the secretary to invite other high ranking officers in an attempt to cause a ‘bloodbath’, but he got shot by a third unknown person. Finally they rested on the story that the perpetrator shot his chest trying to commit suicide. These conflicting accounts are still described in Echorouk’s main story. These variations are unsettling. I really want to believe that Oultache acted alone: after all his dismissal story is real.

All of this is happening in a background that is not reassuring. Rumours are rampant about a power struggle between the DRS (the security service) headed by the last bastions of the Algerian army and Bouteflika. In the run up to Bouteflika’s third term, in an effort to concentrate power in the presidency, he was successful in neutralising several key figures of the  army who have been in power behind the scene for years. The list includes Mohamed Lamari and Larbi Belkheir (who died a month ago). Bouteflika knew that nothing could stop the momentum to claim a third term, and his power has been worrying the intelligence service. Bouteflika’s popularity soured as the country got turned intro a construction site for multi billion dollar projects, such as the promised million apartments and the enormous east-west highway project.

So it was no surprise to many that the army and the DRS turned the tables on the civilian government and the corruption charges by taking the fight to the government itself using the same charges: several figures of the ministry of construction were arrested in 2009, and the CEO of Sontrach (the state oil company) got arrested along with several other people in the company . The investigations are reportedly being unusually carried by the DRS itself.

Ali Tounsi is usually thought to be firmly in the DRS camp. He was in the service for several years, most recently under its current head. I really want to believe that nothing is going on with his death, I’m literally trembling over the possibility of a power fight that would have spilled to this level. There is an uneasy silence in Algeria at the moment and the societal front is heated up with weekly reports of riots, Harga (illegal immigration) and continuing strikes in the education sector.

On the assassination, nothing much is known about Oultache Chouaib. I dug up the picture above by searching through Google’s archives of the police website. He is quoted in a Microsoft Vista study (watch as it will evaporate) touting Microsoft solutions for the 120000 man strong police force. It has been reported that he was a trusted colleague of Tounsi.

Ali Tounsi, the Police Force and Terrorism

Ali Tounsi garnered a reputation as a disciplinarian and won the admiration of a lots of Algerians as a strict Kheddam (serious worker). Indeed, as the police force got expanded over the last decade many Algerians saw it as a convenient employer to escape rampant unemployment, especially amongst the youth, so people looked up to him and his force as a potential source of Khoubza (bread – income).

Tounsi vowed to match the policemen/population ratio of western countries. He sought to enforce professional standards, revamping uniforms and sending out communiqués that enforce discipline in dealing with the public. He famously lashed out at policemen who were not using their shiny new white gloves. Several policemen friends attest to how he is universally respected and feared in police academies – trainee policemen train for months to produce the perfect march at graduation. He wanted to restore the reputation of the police as a lawful force in contrast to the tarnished Gendarmerie and Army. He wanted the police to strictly adhere to laws requiring judicial oversight over arrests and home raids.

Tounsi’s murder though will have virtually no impact on the fight on terrorism. During the civil war, the police had a key if secondary role in fighting terrorism (many terrorists initially regarded police as illegitimate targets). The fight has been shouldered by the army and the Gendarmerie, a French style highly mobile force that operates both in civilian centres as well as rural areas where they excel. In recent years, as terrorists confined themselves to the mountains the army took most of the responsibility , with the intelligence service reportedly looking to untangle the civilian cells after the recent bombings in Algiers. Most importantly, the police is a huge force, the head will be replaced quickly and normal operations will resume without much interruption.

Ali Tounsi’s death is only going to bolster his image as a martyr. The country’s biggest problem now is rampant corruption, and the official story is that the murderer was about to get convicted of corruption. The war on corruption in the country continues to take unexpected turns every few months.

Update: Also read Kal’s post on the murder.

Assassinations are always shrouded in mystery in Algerian circles and this could prove to be no exception.