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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.

Many have tried to read into the recent Sonatrach and Ministry of Construction arrests.  Rumours range from a supposed power struggle between the military (or DRS) and Bouteflika, the desire to bring down the menacingly popular Amar Ghoul (minister for public construction), to supposedly Bouteflika’s desire to shake up the corrupt political and economic system. The first two rumours will be dealt with in future posts. On the last point though, Bouteflika knows that corruption in the country is a very tough nut to crack.

Bouteflika must be aware of his limits here. Although he tried to strip away political power from the military with some success at the top owing largely to the ageing and death of many of the army’s figureheads (and failing at delegating this political power back to democratic institutions I might add), he completely failed at challenging the grip of the ruling class on the socio-economic realms of Algeria.  The country is run by a self-perpetuating system whose members are informally formed by a number of people in power, wealthy individuals, army officials in the various provinces as well as historical figures.

This class (henceforth called the ruling class) carefully keeps itself in power by only accepting loyal people to command its sphere of influece. To regenerate itself and keep outsiders away, this ruling class carefully relies on loyalty and other constructs such as hereditary ascension, historical status and language. Sons of people in power are routinely sent abroad to study in prestigious western universities on state funds and come back to rule the country. Some sons of veterans are often catapulted into positions of responsibility using their historical credentials after testing their loyalty. There is very little in this system for someone who doesn’t fully communicate in French (a mostly élite language nowadays that serves to perpetuate this political divide). Networking opportunities occur at some of the numerous veteran organisations and party activities (FLN/RND) where new blood is found, groomed and trained in various positions up the power ladder.

Furthermore, this system keeps away potential knowledgeable people who may have claim to positions of responsibility based on merit*. Endless hoops of bureaucracy and corruption keep those pesty knowledgeable people away by forcing them into wasting hours of productive time ferrying papers and applications back and forth various inefficient bureaucratic state institutions (banks, universities, government offices, the judicial system, etc). The result is a frustrated worn down citizen who can’t get anything done without resorting to pleading for help from the powers that be. Combined with further discouraging facts, such as the abnormally low wages for positions of intellect (University positions for example), and the impossibility of exploiting one’s entrepreneurial spirits (endless barriers and state controls), the tired worn down citizen just cannot wait before a Visa for a foreign western country is stamped on his passport to get out of the country, thereby enabling him to pursue his ambitions and fulfilling the desire of the regime to get rid of him.

As to the masses of ordinary Amar and Khadidja Algerians, there will be a glass ceiling that they just can’t break. They are always busy trying to solve the primitive problems of their daily lives such as getting an apartment (from the government), a car (loan helped by the government) or a job (over 50% state), thus kept in perpetual need of the government. Their rights are all but taken away (no demonstrations, no freedom of speech, endless trials against dissidents and journalists, a self censured cultural scene, etc).

With this brilliant system, the ruling class keeps itself in power, sends potential challengers away (intellectuals), and keeps an oppressed population from whose votes they continuously claim legitimacy. At the top of the food chain powerful regional officials and wealthy people hide behind façades of national and private organisations  (with names of the form “Houwari and Company Ltd”). These companies often gain exclusive licenses to operate activities of importation, transportation and safe investments to exclusive markets of that nature.

The last president who truly wanted to confront this powerful self perpetuating system was gunned down and bombed by his own bodyguard 5 months into his presidential term. In various memorable speeches, Mohamed Boudiaf expressed his dismay and frustration at the way positions of responsibility are offered based on shabby deals rather than on merit. Owing to his disconnect from the ruling class since the Algerian independence, he spoke in simple terms without grandiose statements or hollow visionary ideas, and with the same street language and words that ordinary Algerians use daily to vent their angst at their government. He fully understood the frustration of Algerians and often spoke with emotion at the state of a country he helped liberate from the shackles of colonialism. The consequence for him was sadly the coffin.

Before him and after his death nobody could really confront this corrupt system. Instead, successive governments have pledged to combat corruption and have done mostly smoke screen measures. This last wave of arrests from Sonatrach falls under this habit of fighting the symptom of the problem (corrupt officials) and not the actual problem (a largely non transparent ruling class). Algerians remember that every few years (or months) serious scandals of that sort erupt. Only recently arrests were made at the ministry of construction concerning the multi billion highway project. A few years ago the Khalifa scandal shook the country with its magnitude: a complete conglomerate formed of a bank, an airline, car renting, insurance etc turned out to be a hot air operation to rob the country of billions of funds. Did anything change after that? no.

Beyond the political readings and the supposed power struggles between the DRS and Bouteflika/Amar Ghoul on the one hand, or the sincerity of the desire of the country to rid itself of corruption on the other hand, the fact is that the corrupt system will always breed more corrupt people and scandals of this sort will always happen.

[*The tactic was best described by the Egyptian Nobel prize winner Ahmed Zewail when describing the political class of his country (the two countries, Algeria and Egypt, are evidently alike in many ways): positions of responsibility are offered to people of “Wala'” (loyalty) as opposed to people of “Ma’rifa” (Knowledge and merit).]

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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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