On April 27, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was airlifted to the Val de Grâce military hospital in Paris after suffering a « transient ischemia » – a temporary blockage of a blood vessel often called a mini-stroke. “The President is in very good health,” his doctor Rachid Bougherbal told the press after the news was announced, adding that the President would return to Algiers “in not more than seven days.” Almost four weeks later, there has still been no sign of Bouteflika and only the scantest of official communications about his condition, and speculation about his real state of health and its political consequences is mounting to fever pitch.
One of the earliest rumours had to do with the causes of the President’s cerbrovascular accident. On the very day of his evacuation to Paris, Le Quotidien d’Oran ran a report, widely taken up by other Algerian media, quoting “certain sources close to the presidential circle” as claiming that the stroke occurred after Bouteflika learnt that his influential brother Saïd had been implicated in corruption scandals currently being investigated by the DRS intelligence and security service, forcing the President to dismiss him as an advisor. This story may well be apocryphal – we have had no confirmation from sources at the Presidency that Saïd Bouteflika has been sacked, and an Algerian businessman with family ties to the nomenklatura has expressed doubt that the President would even be capable of such a move, such is the “fusional” relationship between the two brothers – but it is symptomatic of the tense climate generated by the corruption investigations and of the uncertainty that they are generating.
In our last report, we noted claims in specialist newsletter Maghreb Confidentiel to the effect that Maj-Gen. Bachir Tartag, head of internal security at the DRS, had deliberately orchestrated the corruption investigations in order to “smash the fragile peace between his boss Tewfik and the head of state, cause the Bouteflika clan to implode and prevent the President from running for a fourth term in 2014”. In the absence of confirmation from other sources, we suggested that such claims were nonetheless worth monitoring and testing against the facts as they unfolded. Evidence has since been mounting that the corruption investigations are indeed closely linked to the succession question.
At least two sources have, over the past month, suggested that – contrary to the 2009-10 crackdown on graft, which appears to have been driven by Bouteflika himself – this time the anti-corruption campaign is very much driven by the DRS. According to a project manager at Sonatrach who has had contact with current and former DRS officers involved in the corruption investigations:
The DRS says it is concerned about foreign investigations into Algerian affairs: the FBI has opened a preliminary investigation, the British suspect a BVI-registered subsidiary of Sonatrach of tax fraud, the Canadians have begun proceedings against SNC-Lavalin for corruption in its contracts with Sonatrach. But the DRS’ concern is only a pretext, the aim of which is to demonstrate to Bouteflika and his entourage the need to launch a wide-ranging inquiry targeting people close to the President, which could affect him personally. The DRS has been piling on the pressure, instrumentalising this inquiry and the fight against corruption in general to settle two fast-approaching successions: Bouteflika’s and Tewfik’s. For this reason, the inquiry has become a major issue for the DRS.
An official at El Mouradia presidential palace adds further detail to the picture:
Contrary to what has been said in some quarters, Tartag has been chosen by Tewfik, against Bouteflika’s will, as his successor at the head of the DRS.
The Presidency is mobilising all its resources to keep track of the investigation into corruption at Sonatrach. The DRS has been putting out some worrying signals, and the Presidency is not being kept informed of how the investigation is proceeding. The President is being kept out of the loop, supposedly so as to “spare” him. Aside from the President himself, the DRS is eavesdropping on everybody at the Presidency, where the atmosphere has been toxic since December.
Given the prevailing mood in relations between the Presidency and the DRS due to the tug-of-war over the succesion, corruption investigations could go on for months. Tewfik has put people who are close to him in charge of these investigations: aside from Tartag, you also have Generals Gobrini and Djebbar. Virtually all the top brass of the DRS are taken up with the succession question, and the corruption investigations are one symptom of this amongst others. Tewfik’s men want to use these investigations to raise the pressure and force Bouteflika to submit to their will: no fourth term. Tewfik has said that “we’ll settle Bouteflika’s succession first”, implying that he himself will also go once he has taken care of Bouteflika’s succesion.
There are at least four points that are worth drawing out of this. Firstly, it would appear that, while he is certainly involved in overseeing the corruption investigations as head of the Directorate of Internal Security, Gen. Tartag is neither the sole driver of the campaign nor acting against Tewfik, but with him. Secondly, the sources seem to believe that Tewfik, who is now 72 and whose health may no longer be what it was, is contemplating his own departure at some point in the future. Thirdly, for the first time in years, it is seriously suggested that Tewfik is not acting in tandem with Bouteflika. And finally, the corruption investigations have a clear political objective: to make it impossible for Bouteflika to stand for a fourth successive term of office.
In mid-April, it will be recalled, a source with access to both Bouteflika and Tewfik suggested guardedly that Bouteflika had, after months of hesitation, finally made up his mind to stand for a fourth term, while remaining coy as to other players’ stances on this decision. The matter may now have been settled by Bouteflika’s health issues, however. Over the past week, press reports have been increasingly pessimistic: on May 17, French newsmagazine Le Point quoted “concordant” Algerian and French sources as suggesting that the President’s condition when he was admitted to Val-de-Grâce was far worse than stated in the official announcement and that “certain vital functions are badly affected”, and on May 19, Algerian French-language daily Mon Journal and its Arabic-language sister publication Jaridati claimed that Boutflika, suffering from cancer as well as immunodeficiency and metabolic problems, had been secretly flown back to Algeria in a coma four days previously. On May 21, French daily Le Parisien quoted a member of the French government as saying that Bouteflika had been transferred from Val-de-Grâce to the Institution Nationale des Invalides, another French military hospital that specialises in treating the war-wounded and the severely handicapped, for “convalescence” (which was later partially confirmed by the French Defence Ministry).
To be sure, the official version – as expressed by Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal and presidential advisor Farouk Ksentini – remains that Bouteflika the President, “whose life was never in danger and whose health is improving day by day” is resting at his doctors’ insistence but nonetheless “continues to follow the daily operations of government, pending his return to continue his mission in the service of Algeria and the nation”. This is essentially the same line as we had been given, in private, by a staffer at El Mouradia presidential palace since the beginning of Bouteflika’s hospitalisation: the President had suffered a very minor stroke which was by no means life-threatening and had been promptly dealt with, and had been told to rest by his doctors; speaking to us again on May 15, the same source claimed that Bouteflika had made a full recovery and had been due to return that very day, but had postponed “for 24 hours” (the source ventured no explanation for this). But the longer Bouteflika’s return is postponed, the less convincing such reassurances sound.
Thus, even if Bouteflika is not physically dying, his political death seems increasingly probable. It is telling that – in contrast with his previous hospitalisation at Val-de-Grâce in November 2005 (for a bleeding ulcer), when gushing messages wishing him a speedy recovery and a swift return to his position at the helm of the state were de rigueur for almost all mainstream politicians and parties – Algeria’s political class, and in particular the two main government parties, the RND and the FLN, have this time remained entirely silent throughout his hospitalisation. As if uncertain of what is expected of them, party leaders have been refusing to make the slightest comment on the matter to the press. This is far from the reaction one might have expected had the fourth term been a ‘done deal’ within the ruling establishment. Even more explicitly, former Navy Commander Gen. Mohand Tahar Yala, who last year founded a political grouping he calls the Citizenship Movement, on May 19 penned a violent attack on Bouteflika that was published by Algerian daily El Watan and news portal Algérie Focus, in which he accuses the President of “high treason” for his role in establishing a “predatory” system of corruption that has wasted and pillaged Algeria’s wealth and calls for him to be removed from office immediately.
If, on the other hand, Bouteflika’s condition really is as bad as has been suggested, the ruling establishment – and in particular Tewfik and the other senior officers of the DRS, together perhaps with the tops of the military – will have had time to prepare for his disappearance and deal with its consequences. Indeed, if our sources are correct when they suggest that the DRS top brass have been actively striving to prevent Bouteflika running for a fourth term, the most awkward scenario for Tewfik et al might, paradoxically, be for Bouteflika to make a full recovery as promised and return in fighting form.