Strange as it seems, Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika and most of his high-level entourage these days must focus attention (and hopes) on the Algerian national soccer team. The “Greens” of Algeria last week defeated the heavily-favored “Elephants” team from Ivory Coast in a quarter-final match for the African Cup, a competition this year held in Angola. On Thursday (1/28), the Algerian team confronted the “Pharoahs” of Egypt, present and several times champions, and the team that underdog Algeria outmatched in a tight three-game series from June to November last year to qualify as one of six African representatives to World Cup championships in South Africa this June.
The match began as a highly-anticipated, especially intense showdown after the last two 2009 games led to riots and violence by fans in Algiers, Cairo and Khartoum (scene of the last match). By the end it was farce, with three key Algerian players ejected along the way. Afterwards, the coach and president of the Algerian team claimed that the Benin referee (as well as the African Soccer Federation itself) was in the pocket of Egypt.[i] (Even outside observers criticized the nervous and arbitrary behavior of the referee which clearly affected the outcome.[ii]) Despite what happened, Algerian fans reportedly poured into the streets at home, demonstrating their ardent support of the team.[iii]
Much of the population and all the media were geared up for the new round of intense competition this week and, over the longer range, for Algeria’s performance in the prestigious stage of World Cup action. The intensity of this week’s and longer-range focus on the arenas of soccer instead of politics is the essential point. Anything is welcome, in the eyes of the regime, which can strongly divert Algerians’ attention from the presently-breaking large-scale political corruption news enveloping the Bouteflika administration.
The immediate unfolding scandal concerns Algeria’s (and Africa’s) largest company, Sonatrach, the huge petrochemical public enterprise (12th largest petroleum company in the world) responsible for managing oil and natural gas exports which provide 98% of all Algerian export revenues. It accounts for 30% of Algeria’s gross national product, gained a net profit of $9 billion in 2008 and employs 126,000.[iv] Needless to say, the revenues provide a huge resource for Algeria’s national budget and for whatever stability remains in Algeria’s weak and unbalanced economy.
As well, however, Sonatrach income and illegal secret deal-making have also provided for years major opportunities for personal revenues, through corrupt dealings, for the company’s administration and many at the highest level of the Algerian regime. There is natural concern that the multiple Sonatrach-related fallouts might disrupt the ongoing flow of commercial relations. In a statement which could be read in several ways in the present context, an unnamed Western oil executive told the Wall Street Journal that the removal of Sonatrach’s top official was a “big blow. . . . This will seriously destabilize Sonatrach and make it much harder to push decisions through. It certainly increases the political risk of working in Algeria.”[v]
The current investigation, led by one of the most critical pillars of the regime, the military security force (DRS), has already led to the arrest of Sonatrach’s CEO, Mohamed Meziane, and to the resignation of three Sonatrach vice-presidents, now themselves under criminal review. Apparently, these four officials have now testified that Bouteflika’s long-time Minister of Energy, Chekib Khelil, was fully aware of and implicated in their own wheeling-dealing.[vi] And Khelil is regarded as one of the closest political intimates of Bouteflika, part of a group of “untouchable” high officials from the president’s own geographical home area in western Algeria.[vii] Overall, it is estimated that the top Sonatrach and Energy Ministry officials (including one now “retired” in Switzerland, the ex-cabinet chief of Meziane and the nephew of Khelil) filtered dozens of millions of dollars for their own pockets.[viii]
The breaking Sonatrach scandal comes at the same time as a growing investigation into large-scale corruption as well by the Minister of Public Works over construction of a major east-west highway. Other more recent revelations of flagrant government corruption have involved the Agriculture, Transportation and Fisheries Ministries, the former head of the National Assembly, the top government official in Blida and the president’s own brother Saîd, as well as earlier vastly inflated contracts on the part of a Sonatrach-Halliburton joint venture.[ix]
Though top-level regime officials for nearly five decades of independence have been accused of significant levels of graft, especially related to oil and gas revenues, some observers see the level of corruption in the decade of Bouteflika’s presidency as exceeding anything that went on before.[x] A still-lingering gigantic corruption scandal from his early years, involving a loss to Algeria of $3-5 billion, thousands of jobs, and the bank savings of hundreds of thousands, centered on Rafik Khalifa, a well-connected wheeler-dealer tycoon now exiled in England.[xi] That scandal, among others, also underlined the lack of independence of Algeria’s judiciary.
While such matters are usually settled by the regime protecting its own favorites, by slaps on the wrist or by imprisonment of lower-level scapegoats, as in the Khalifa case, the present corruption scandals are especially unusual because of the energetic investigative efforts being pursued and publicized by the DRS (Algeria’s FBI-CIA equivalent). General Mediene (“Tewfik”), the feared head of this force for the past two decades (since the military intervention against elections and existing president Chadli in 1992), has been part and parcel of the top-level military ranks controlling Algeria and thus long aware of and tolerating large-scale graft.
Many speculate that Mediene may now be pursuing the current investigations into Bouteflika’s own inner circle as either a direct effort to enhance further his own political power or to get rid of Bouteflika completely.[xii] Others care far less about what they see as internal war between regime clans and more about the overall continuing dictatorship itself, regardless of which clan wins out at a given moment.
Despite winning a third presidential term last April after a constitutional amendment allowed him to run again, the election was essentially a farce, given the boycott by major potential rival candidates and voter disinterest, and Bouteflika continues to search for an effective and reliable political base. His strength to date relies primarily on military leaders’ apparent support and the lack of clear acceptable alternatives for presenting the “civilian” face of the military regime.
Popular discontent from ongoing massive poverty, a huge lack of housing and jobs, nearly 10% official inflation and a virtually total absence of meaningful political outlets continues to seethe at the grassroots. Numerous violent demonstrations against the government have occurred during the past year throughout the country, including in Tizi Ouzou, Oran, Algiers, Skikda, Mostaganem, Blida, Eucalyptus, Annaba, Ouargla and at least nine other locales reported in the press.[xiii] Autonomous trade unions of teachers and health workers have carried out prolonged strikes against an unyielding administration. More recently, a large militant strike of autoworkers at Rouiba, an industrial suburb of Algiers, directly challenged anti-riot police.
This was reminiscent of a similar trade-union confrontation at the same location in late 1988, immediately preceding “Black October,” the gigantic street confrontation of young people against regime forces, ending with the massacre of hundreds and arrests and torture of thousands. In turn, the ensuing brief period of “political liberalization” helped to greatly strengthen the radical political Islamist movement which, in the 90s, led to the massive wave of Islamist and military violence resulting in some 200,000 deaths.
The most spectacular display of spontaneous nationwide grassroots fervor came this past November immediately following the Algerian soccer team’s victory over longtime arch-rival Egypt, thereby sending the “Greens” to the World Cup playoffs in South Africa—only the third such occasion since independence.
Observers described the wild and enthusiastic street scenes as the most joyous mass demonstrations of Algerians since the French departure in 1962 and the government obviously welcomed this cheap escape valve for releasing tension in the much-repressed population. As well, with the proliferation of Algerian flags and vociferous anti-Egypt expression to celebrate the victory, the country became for several days a hotbed of patriotic pride not seen for decades.
For Bouteflika and his close cohorts, besieged by the growing scale and publicity of corruption scandals at high levels, grassroots diversion by “patriotic” attention to the ongoing fate of Algeria’s national soccer team is quite welcome. No wonder that the regime arranged planes for thousands of fans to attend the match in Khartoum and offered similar support this week. Various factors are at play, mostly behind the scenes as usual in Algerian politics, but the ongoing effect of Algeria’s “Greens” on the nature and timing of how Bouteflika’s fate is resolved is an interesting and whole new dimension.
Meanwhile, of course, the longer-range empowerment of Algeria’s population is a challenge far more serious and potentially far more deadly than anything occurring on a soccer field.
David Porter researched and wrote on the large workers’ self-management experience in Algeria forty-five years ago. He is a political science emeritus professor SUNY/Empire State College where he taught numerous courses including modern Algerian history. He is the editor of Vision on Fire: Emma Goldman on the Spanish Revolution (rev. ed., AK Press, 2006) and currently is preparing a book concerning French anarchist perspectives on Algeria. He can be contacted at [email protected].
[i] Outoudert Abrous, “Le pouvoir d’un sifflet,” Liberté (Algiers), 1/29/2010; Mustapha Kessous, “Le rêve algérien d’une final s’évanouit,” Le Monde, 1/30/2010; “L’Egypte brise le rêve algérien,” Le Nouvel Observateur web site, 1/28/2010; “Algérie-Egypte: les Verts victims d’un arbitrage scandaleux,” Algérie Presse Service web site, 1/29/2010.
[ii] Mustapha Kessous, op. cit.; “Algérie-Egypte . . . ,” op. cit.
[iii] Bachir-Cherif Hassen, “Bravo les Verts . . . L’Algérie fière de ses guerriers,” La Tribune (Algiers), 1/30/2010.
[iv] Adlène Meddi, Chawki Amari, Mélanie Matarese, S. Ousy Ali., and Zouheir AîtMouhoub, “Sonatrach: Les cadres brisent le silence, El Watan (Algiers), 1/22/2010; Sonatrach web site.
[v] Benoit Faucon and Spencer Swartz, “Algeria Investigates Sonatrach Officials in Corruption Probe,” Wall Street Journal website, 1/12/2010.
[vi] Yahia Bounouar, “Exclusif: Le PDG Meziane a tout avoué et l’enquête se resserre autour de Chakib Khelil,” Le Matin (Algiers), 1/23/2010.
[vii] “Chakib Khelil: ‘l’innocent ignorant’,” Le Matin, 1/19/2010; A. Rahabi, ”La corruption absolue produit du pouvoir absolu,” Le Matin, 1/23/2010.
[viii] Yahia Bounouar, op. cit.
[ix] A. Rahabi, op. cit.; “Bouteflika: le regne de la corruption,” Le Matin, 1/19/2010; Ahmed Djezairi, “Luttes d’influence autour de Sonatrach,” Le Monde Diplomatique (Paris) web site, 1/29/2010.
[x] “Bouteflika: le regne de la corruption,” op. cit.
[xi] Salima Tlemçani, “La justice brittanique autorise l’extradition de Khalifa,” El Watan, 6/26/2009.
[xii] Abed Charef, “Le soldat Kheli en peril,” Liberté, 1/21/2010; Ahmed Djezairi, op. cit.; Yahia Bounouar, op. cit.