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North Africa.. The ousting of a powerful intelligence chief is a signal of possible upheaval.

Unease leads to repression in Algeria

Nineteen leading figures from the Algerian political arena took pen and paper and publicly expressed their strong doubts over the capacity of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to govern.

The background to the letter, which was made public only a few days ago, is the severe stroke that hit Bouteflika in the spring of 2013, when the president returned to Algiers in a wheelchair, after spending nearly three months in France for treatment. Despite this, the former foreign minister was re-elected in 2014 for a fourth consecutive term. On that occasion, as well as in the months that would follow, the opposition raised doubts and concerns with respect to Bouteflika’s physical and mental capacities.

The tragedy would be a farce if it not for two things that indicate caution. First, except for Louisa Hanoune, secretary general of the Workers Party, of Trotskyist inspiration, the other 18 signatories are members of Bouteflika’s circle of loyalists.

The whole gesture could be interpreted as a defensive maneuver toward the president, to protect his precarious position by directly involving the country, just at a stage where the saber rattling has reached new heights. In addition to the similarities with what happened in Tunisia in 1987, when President Bourguiba was dismissed by “a legal-medical coup.”

The second important factor to consider was the dismissal of the powerful Algerian intelligence chief Mohamed Mediene, also known as Toufik, which occurred in early September. Trained in the ‘60s by the KGB, and known by the nickname “god of Algeria,” he remained at the head of the secret service for over 25 years, one of the most powerful and influential secret services in the world. His departure from the scene has unmasked the joint successful attack by the chief of staff, Ahmed Gaid Salah, and Athmane Tartag, known as Bashir, a former No. 2 of Algerian intelligence. Ahmed Gaid Salah has been the archenemy of Mediene since 2004, when his predecessor, Mohamed Lamari, was ousted by an agreement between Toufik and Bouteflika.

Mediene’s ousting was prepared for months with the gradual expulsion of many of his loyalists; therefore, this is part of the often invisible and violent struggle between clans for control of power that has characterized the Algeria since independence.

All this is part of very complicated macro-economic dynamics. Even with heavy budget deficits, the Algerian government has been forced to cut public spending and even to drastically reduce subsidies on basic necessities. In addition to the limited political legitimacy of the regime and the growing malaise of the population, more and more repression has been displayed to prevent social upheaval.

The narrowing of the spaces of political freedom for the opposition also affects the work of some independent journalists. Last week, Hassan Bouras was arrested. He is a member of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights and an activist against the use of hydraulic fracturing techniques for extracting oil and gas from shale in the south of the country. In short, Algeria looks like a volcano on the verge of erupting.