These Corruption Cases That Are Splashing Algerian Power

From Abdesslam Bouchouareb to Chakib Khelil · As strikes by doctors and teachers spread, the Algerian government doesn’t seem capable of overcoming the protest. Its rhetoric is all the more inaudible as the proliferation of corruption cases is splashing through the top circles.

12 Feb. 2018. — Doctors defy the ban on demonstrations in Algiers.
Casbah Tribune.

In the face of the current social movements (postgraduate medical trainees, striking teachers) the Algerian government wants to put a halt to the “train of anarchy,” the widely criticized expression used by Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia. He has fired 581 teaching staff members and 19,000 others have received a second written warning. One of the teachers’ unions, the Conseil national autonome des professeurs de l’enseignement secondaire et technique (Cnapeste), on indefinite general strike since last 30 January, is now threatened with dissolution.

Five other teachers’ unions, which organized a second two-day strike on the 21 and 22 February 2018, warned of the “disastrous” consequences of the dismissal of 19,000 teachers. In several towns, the pupils organized protest marches, refusing to let their teachers be replaced by part-timers.

When the conflict spilled over into the streets, with new participants, it was enough to prompt the president to call a halt by “ordering” the minister of education to “strengthen the dialogue.” The problem was temporarily solved with the decision to reinstate the discharged personnel while the Cnapeste decided to suspend their strike on 28 february.

The movement of resident physicians was also sharply criticized by Ahmed Ouyahia, but it has continued unabated and negotiations have been broken off completely. On 12 February, the physicians enraged the authorities by organizing — and filming live on the social networks — a series of demonstrations in various parts of the capital. The strong-arm tactics designed to forestall any demonstration were successfully circumvented which encouraged the resident physicians in their movement, demanding a revision of the system of civilian service.

The “train of anarchy”

Premier Ahmed Ouyahia went on the offensive, declaring that it was “time to stop the train of anarchy. If we give way to it, there will be serious consequences. We must tell the strikers ‘Barakat! [Enough!], go back to your classrooms, look after your patients’.”

The authorities’ intentions are obvious enough: with the falling oil prices, and with the protest movement spreading throughout the civil service, there is no question of giving into the demands. They are trying to discredit the strikes by harping on the very real inconveniences caused. The pro-governmental media strive to depict the Cnapeste as a “fundamentalist” entity, conspiring against Nouria Benghabrit, a “modernist minister.”

Official Rhetoric Undermined by the Scandals

Sociologist Nacer Djabi observed in a Facebook post that this outbreak of social protest in 2018 was expected, even in governmental circles, but they seem unable to come up with a strategy. And the situation could grow even more dramatic in 2019, he insisted.

Official rhetoric, already felt to lack credibility in general, has been completely undermined by the repeated corruption scandals and the inaction of the judiciary system, always prompt to outlaw strikes. The publication on Thursday 22 February of the Transparency International (TI) index which measures the perception of corruption in the public sector, ranks Algeria well behind the other two major Maghreb countries. Algeria occupies the 112th place worldwide (as against 108th in 2016) whereas Tunisia (74th) and Morocco (81st) fare much better. True, Algeria ranks above the other two countries in the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU): Mauritania is 143rd and Libya 171st but this is cold comfort. Besides these Transparency International reports which regularly remind Algerians of the opacity of the economic governance of their country, two scandals involving two very prominent former ministers have shown public opinion that corruption is far more endemic in their society than strikes in the public service.

Bouchouareb and the “Predators”

The first case was brought to light by a businessman who accused the former Minister of Industry Abdeslam Bouchouareb of having driven him into bankruptcy because he refused to bribe him. In a statement to Radio M he accused the minister of having “indirectly” asked him for money in order to “keep his hands off” his activities. “Why do I say ‘indirectly?’ You know how predators operate these days! It may well be that they [the go-betweens who approached him] were self-appointed. Maybe he didn’t send them, how is one to know!”

Even though Algerians have no great confidence in businessmen who are shielded from competition in a system of crony capitalism and political complicities, this accusation against former minister Bouchouareb seems to them plausible enough. Closely involved with Ouyahia and the presidential entrourage, his name had already been mentioned in connection with the “Panama papers” as possessing an offshore company, but the revelation had no judicial consequences. The Minister even lashed out with the hackneyed argument of a plot concocted by foreigners in cahoots with their Algerian allies: “Algeria is the object of a vast conspiracy led by domestic and foreign elements. Some people want to get rid of me.” But Bouchouareb had become a liability and was ousted from the cabinet on 25 May 2017. Since then he has kept a low profile.

Abderrahmane Achaibou was auditioned by the police in connection with an “administrative inquiry,” but his lawyer Khaled Bourayou thought it best to backpedal. He declared via the website TSA that his client “had specified that he had not accused Abdesselam Bouchouareb of corruption when he declared he had been contacted by persons claiming to be sent by the Minister.” After which, many people are now betting the case will be closed without further action, in keeping with the custom of covering up of cases like this one.

Italian Courts Disrupt the Whitewashing of Khelil

Another very sensitive case, emblematic of the Bouteflika years, involves a former Minister of Energy, Chakib Khelil, a powerful figure who is a close friend of the president. He was implicated in a vast system of money-laundering and was the object of an international arrest warrant issued by the Algerian courts in 2013, when it was revealed in Italy that he had received bribes to the tune of 197 million euros from SAIPEM, a subsidiary of the Italian petroleum company, Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi (ENI), in exchange for the award of contracts. Once again “foreign interference” is accused of being at work. . .

After escaping to the US for three years, the former minister returned to Algeria on 17 March 2017 and undertook, with the support of the government, a vast rehabilitation campaign which was greeted with skepticism by ordinary Algerians. It was claimed he was a victim of the Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS), but his name also came up in connection with the Panama Papers which showed he had offshore accounts in his wife’s name with the Fonseca law firm1.

To widespread surprise, in November 2017, Premier Ahmed Ouyahia announced on the TV channel Dzair News (which belongs to Ali Haddad, a businessman close to Said Bouteflika) that the case involving Chakib Khelil, his wife and two sons had been closed. Asserting that the former minister of energy had been the victim of an injustice, he declared: “I’m going to give you a scoop: did you know that the Chakib Khelil case has been dealt with by the Algerian legal system? It has been dismissed, and is definitely closed!” The Head of government even went so far as to claim that the Italian side of the case was evolving in Khelil’s favor.

“Evidence” in Milan

A reckless statement, to say the least. On 20 February, as reported by Reuters Italy the Milanese public prosecutor, Isidoro Palma, declared he had proof that the Italian company ENI had paid bribes via its subsidiary Saipem to secure contracts in Algeria. The presentation of charges read in court on the first day of the Italian company’s trial for corruption stated that it had paid bribes “to undermine its competitors” and “curry favor with the Minister of Energy,” Chakib Khelil.

The prosecutor confirmed accusations of the payment of bribes amounting to 19 million euros in return for Saipem’s obtention of 8 billion euros worth of contracts. He also referred to a kickback paid to allow the ENI to purchase the Canadian company Firs Calgary Petroleum, owner of the development rights on an oil deposit in the Algerian Sahara.

Concerning this matter, “we are dealing with an organized criminal group involving a Franco-Algerian component, on the one hand, and on the other an organizational structure inside ENI and Saipem,” the prosecutor opined. In the end, he demanded over six years in prison for the former ENI head, Paolo Scaroni, “and eight years for Farid Nourredine Bedjaoui, former minister Khelil’s close confidant, four years and six months for Samir Ouraied, a close friend of Mr. Bedjaoui and six years for Omar Habour, for his role in the money-laundering.”

“Algerian justice must act” was the headline on the front page of El Khabar on last 22 February, along with statements from law experts and former magistrates. But here, even less than with the Bouchouareb case, nobody is betting that Algerian justice will act on its own initiative. Faced with the social unrest, the Algerian government has nothing to say. It knows only repression.

1Editor’ s note. The Mossack Fonseca law firm was founded in Panama in 1986. It was implicated in the Panama papers affair for its role in money laundering and tax fraud on a worldwide scale.