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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.

Conventional wisdom in Algeria would tell you that there is a serious brain drain problem in the country, as it is elsewhere in the world. Several people however, are challenging this view. AidWatch posted research by William Easterly arguing  four reasons why the Brain Drain is actually a good thing (His book on the pitfalls of the Aid industry is heartily recommended). This was preceded by an FP article a few months ago arguing about many misconceptions of the brain drain. However, speaking of Algeria where the brain drain is such a large phenomenon (15% of the population lives abroad), the question is complex and not as black and white as the debate would condition one to think.

Easterly argues that the greatest benefit is to the migrants themselves, who are often forgotten in the debate. This is true for the cream of Algerian skilled labour but the picture is very different for a large section of migrants. Most skilled Algerians with degrees fail to find skilled jobs in western countries [PDF UN Report]. Perceived racism and classism keeps a lot of Algerians in ghettos in France, inevitably many get forced to reside illegally in their target countries. This poses serious problems as it restricts their movement and often forces them underground.

A powerful argument for brain drain skeptics is remittances. Skilled labour sends large amounts of money back to their families. This, however, falls largely flat in the Algerian context because it is harmful in many more ways that it is beneficial.

First, oil rich Algeria is literally awash with foreign currency reserves. In fact, the country can’t spend the money fast enough to spur development precisely because there is not enough skilled labour and managerial acumen to conduct development. Multi billion projects are given to foreign consortiums such that hardly any transfer of skill or know-how occurs and labour is quickly imported to implement the projects.

Second, Algeria can be considered as a middle way country that is not on par with the poorest countries in the developing world. Remittances are spent either on properties or on imported products (The Algerian dream being the car and the house). In properties, remittances are spent on buying land, apartments, villas and commercial enterprises creating an inflation bubble that effectively forces the whole property market beyond the reach of the local population and places it at the hands of migrants and wealthy businessmen. The foreign currency monies get recycled in the black market for ever-increasing property prices or back abroad to get consumer goods. In the end, remittances push prices up and are spent on imported (often luxurious) products with little benefit to the local economy.

Easterly also argues that the brain drain phenomenon inevitably leads to “brain circulation”, where skilled labour and intellectuals often return to their host countries or act as role models for their compatriots back home. The second point is substantial as many Algerians look up to high achievers in western countries, but the result is the belief that it is by leaving the country that anyone attains any success. The first point is a noble long term goal, but it has never materialised in countries like Algeria. The immigration flow of skilled labour has never been reversed at any point in the last century. After the first few years in immigration, very few first generation migrants return and the return of second generation and above migrants is simply unheard of.

The simple reason that gets ignored is that conditions in the source country are not appealing enough for skilled labour, a chicken and egg cyclic problem that is extremely intractable. More brain drain leads to worse conditions at home leading to more drain brain and so on. In the end, very few skilled people are left to have a good development vision for the country.  Labour movement (not unlike goods, a tasteless comparison I know) strictly follows a free market system despite the occasional lip service to nationalism. Emigrants naturally look for their own well-being and their career prospects.

Simplistic measures such as blocking immigration are simply inhumane and border on the criminal. The problem should be tackled right at the source country to create an atmosphere that is encouraging. This, indeed, is seemingly impossibly difficult despite its apparent simplicity. Source and target countries should work together to encourage knowledge transfer. A possible solution is temporary assignments. Skilled labour in private and public bodies can be encouraged to take temporary multi month or multi year assignments in the source country. Immigration rules should be changed to make this possible because working Visa rules make the choice of the country of work a life long commitment for a lot of migrants.

In the end, the problem of brain drain is real and harmful in Algeria. Less work should be made to vilify emigrants and coerce them into feelings of guilt but more, internationally, should be done to encourage true brain circulation.

I’m not in a position to comment on football (that’s soccer for you emerekans) tactics and strategies, and I wouldn’t like to rehash the (by now beaten to death) history and politics of Algeria-Egypt football matches. But what bothered me when I went over a summary of the last semi final African cup game between the two countries is not only the excessive use of violence by some Algerian players, but the Algerian media attitude towards this violence.

Violence is no new-comer to football, one may accept that occasionally a player short circuits his brain at the heat of the moment. Famous hot shots like Beckam, Zidane, Drogba, Rooney and Ronaldo all had their moments of anger that ended in red cards. In the last Algeria-Egypt game one player (Halliche) could be said to have been red carded wrongly, but the other two were well deserved by Chaouchi and Belhadj. Not only were they well deserved, CAF thinks the referee was rather too lenient on Chaouchi after he head butted him and have started procedures for disciplining him for not being harsh enough.

Surveying the post match Algerian media though, there is something to be said about a weird tendency to view such anger and  violence in a favourable light. As in one is being tough defending their “right” and standing up for one’s “honour”. After the day of the match, one popular newspaper carried the main title to the tune of “It’s OK, you’ve shown you were men “, the other carried the title “The champions are returning home”. There is no hint of criticism for the violent conduct whatsoever, and all reports concentrated on the referee’s mistakes. On the contrary, they were rather showing some disguised praise for “standing up” as in this is the proper way to act!. Only a week after a game did any newspaper bother to report that Assad, the former national team player, opined that the team had serious trouble maintaining its discipline.

More troublesome to me is the fact that this view is shared with quite a number of Algerians. In a couple of discussions with fellow Algerian citizens I just couldn’t put across the idea that referee mistakes are no excuse for going ballistic. In both cases I won the argument by stating the Ivorian attitude when their goal was mistakenly outlawed in the last 10 minutes of the extended 120 minutes game. Had it been a mistakenly outlawed Algerian goal in the same situation, I would’ve expected blood to flow.

In the Algeria-Egypt match, Halliche may have been wrongly red carded. Chaouchi though should be punished by the Algerian FAF for headbutting the referee, and I’m more leaning towards also punishing Belhadj. This is not just a matter of nationalism or football pride. The team is being watched by millions of Algerians. It’s an opportunity to send the signal that violence is by no means acceptable at all. Granted we’re proud of having given France the boot by the strength of the arm (and a big helping of diplomacy and political acumen in the actions of the Algerian Government in exile and people like Chanderli in New York), but we’ve got to confess that violence has been our nightmare ever since. We’re barely able to sit down and communicate thoughts and share opinions in a civilised way – most major reforms happened after much blood spilling.

We could do well by following the advice of what Algerians consider the finest human being:

The strong man is not the one who wrestles well but the strong man is the one who controls himself when he is in a fit of rage

as is reported from the prophet Muhammad.

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Commentary and views of an Algerian about the Middle East and Algeria, Democracy and Human Rights, Islam and Reform, as well as whatever pair of topics the author wishes to write about.

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February 2010
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