By Robert Fisk
In Algeria, politics is theatre, blood is real. You may joke about Abdelaziz Bouteflikaâ€™s re-election for a fourth-term presidency â€“ sick, wheel-chaired, 77 years old â€“ with 81.5 per cent of the vote, but you cannot doubt the ambush and killing of 14 Algerian soldiers at Iboudarene in the Berber mountains not far from Tizi Ouzou. â€œAl-Qaâ€™ida in the Maghrebâ€ was blamed by the usual military â€œsourcesâ€. Thank heavens, was the government line that Bouteflika is back. But was it that simple?
For there lies as much cynicism, hypocrisy and sheer mendacity behind this latest election of a man who can scarcely understand what is said to him, as there is hopelessness on the part of Algerians. Take the visit to Algiers â€“ less than a fortnight before the 17 April â€œelectionâ€ â€“ of John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, who promised us all an Israeli-Palestinian agreement by the end of this month.
A passing fancy, I suppose, for Kerry the Peacemaker to drop by and give his apparent support for Bouteflika. Mark his words, then â€“ more important than the five more years of Bouteflika which Algerians must now endure. â€œWe look forward to elections that are transparent and in line with international standards [sic], and the US will work with the President that the people of Algeria choose,â€ Kerry said. â€œWe really want to work in a co-operative way, and we want to do this so that Algerian security services have the tools [sic again] and the training needed in order to defeat al-Qaâ€™ida and other terrorist groups.â€
Kerry surely knows that the â€œtoolsâ€ of the Algerian security services are electrodes, nail-extractors and water-torture not unlike that the American CIA has used on its enemies. This is one department where the Algerian â€œsecurity servicesâ€really donâ€™t need Mr Kerryâ€™s help. What the Algerian security regime wants from the Americans (and the Algerian Foreign Minister, Ramtane Lamamra, admitted this himself) is shared â€œelectronic intelligenceâ€, which only the US can provide. Thus it can join the cutting edge in the â€œwar on terrorâ€ of which Kerry spoke so blithely â€“ and which was the foundation of Bouteflikaâ€™s re-election.
All this talk of transparency and international standards, of course, is codswallop in the world of Algerian politics. After the election, the opposition â€“ namely Ali Benflis, the former lawyer and Justice Minister who resigned at the opening of desert detention camps in 1991 and who got a mere 12.8 per cent of the vote â€“ cried fraud at once. Most of the saner, smaller political parties boycotted the election. And not once did Mr Kerry dare to mention that back in 2008, Bouteflika massaged Article 74 of the Algerian constitution to allow a president more than two terms (five years each) in office. He took a third term and, after 15 desolate years, has now grabbed another. Like his former neighbour in Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali â€“ and the Emperor Nero, for that matter â€“ Bouteflika can be elected for all eternity.
And why not? It is the Algerian generals and security services, who run the presidency and who, in the usual whirlpool of corruption, define the â€œinternational standardsâ€ of elections. Hitherto, le pouvoir (the name given to the small group of unelected civilians and military figures who make key decisions in Algeria) has been led by General Mohamed MediÃ¨ne â€“ â€œToufikâ€ was the rather chilling nickname he enjoyed â€“ who was head of the intelligence service. But in an unprecedented series of smears amongst the countryâ€™s generals and politicians, â€œkingmakerâ€ MediÃ¨ne was humiliated. Amar Saadani was appointed the new secretary-general of the National Liberation Front â€“ the time-warped old men who have helped to destroy the lives of Algerians since they won independence from France in 1962 â€“ and ensured that a number of senior generals lost their jobs.
The problem started, according to Le Monde Diplomatique writer Jean-Pierre Sereni, when an Italian claimed to have handed a commission of $200m to Algerian officials in return for a hydrocarbon contract worth $11bn. suddenly, foreign judges would be involved in an international enquiry. In the past, Algerian courts never touched such scandals. Now the â€œbossesâ€ of Algeria are said to be Bouteflikaâ€™s brother Said, Abdulmalek Sellal, the director of the old manâ€™s election campaign, the aforesaid Saadani and Amar Ghalal, the Minister of Transport, who supposedly influences Algeriaâ€™s tamer Islamist movements. This Gang of Four â€“ with apologies to Maoâ€™s memory â€“ will have to suppress the Italian scandal as well as another corruption inquiry into the obscure circumstances under which Chinese and Japanese companies were awarded contracts to build the vast new east-west Algerian motorway.
During his third term as president, Bouteflika took the easy way out. He spent an estimated $10bn on new public housing, loans, salaries, parks and prettified boulevards. But there was a sick side to all this. When Lieutenant Colonel Mohamed Benaire, Bouteflikaâ€™s head of â€œnational securityâ€ employment, turned up to talk to young people at Ouargla University last year, he offered 16,000 new jobs â€“ for would-be cops!
But was Bouteflika not the man who brought an end to the pouvoir-Islamist civil war (the â€œBlack Decadeâ€, as they have to call it in Algeria) in which 250,000 men, women and children were shot, beheaded, garrotted, and throat-cut or tortured to death? Which is why the killing of 14 soldiers last week was so shocking. Was the civil war returning? Was al-Qaâ€™ida coming back? Or were â€“ heretical thought â€“ the old government â€œexterminatorsâ€ of the civil war, security agents who operated within the Islamist rebel movements, back at work. Could some dangerous, covert branch of the â€œdeep stateâ€ have slaughtered the countryâ€™s own soldiers to inject fear back into the heart of Algerians?
A theatre of the absurd, perhaps. But who could doubt the wisdom of a fourth term for Bouteflika now?