The most significant news of the last few weeks probably concerns the return to Algeria of Khaled Nezzar and the quashing of Mohamed ‘Toufik’ Mediène’s prison sentence.
Nezzar — the former Defence Minister who led the January 1992 military coup d’état — was brought back in a presidential jet on 11 December after almost 18 months in exile. He appeared as a witness in the investigation of Mohamed Mediène, Athmane ‘Bachir’ Tartag, Saïd Bouteflika and Louisa Hanoune. The four were sentenced in September 2019 to prison sentences — 15 years for the first three — for ‘conspiracy against the authority of the army’ and ‘breach of public order.’
A few weeks after the hearing, Khaled Nezzar, his son Lotfi Nezzar and an associate, Farid Belhamdine, left the country for Spain. He was fleeing from a summons for ‘conspiracy against the authority of the army’ and ‘breach of public order’, as well as the military court’s issuance of an arrest warrant which is not recognised internationally. Nezzar received a 20-year prison sentence in absentia.
The cases against these individuals was part of a personal vendettas by the then Chief of the Army Staff, the late General Ahmed Gaïd Salah, who believed he was about to be dismissed by Saïd Bouteflika acting in the name of his ailing brother.
On his return, Nezzar went to the Blida military tribunal with his lawyers to have his sentence quashed.
His return follows the Supreme Court’s overturning the judgments against Mediène, Tartag, Hanoune and Saïd Bouteflika and to reschedule the trial, but still to hold it at the military court in Blida. This was held on 2 January with all four defendants being acquitted. Bouteflika and Tartag will remain in prison as they await further trials on a number of corruption charges while Hanoune was released last year.
The net result of the retrial has been to release Mediène back on to the political stage but still well behind the scenes. As we have frequently reported, he has been living for most of the last year in well protected safe houses while acting informally as an advisor to the regime.
What lies behind these releases and Nezzar’s return?
Firstly, the military trials of Mediène and company were without legal foundation. Secondly, the current army chief of staff, General Saïd Chengriha, is aware that these trials and the regime’s almost constant infighting, especially amongst its generals, have exacerbated factional and clan cleavages within the army’s high command. This is particularly threatening to the regime and especially at a time when President Abdelmajid Tebboune is threatened by: his ill-health; the likely resurgence of the Hirak; and his own political weakness.
Chengriha, who is a conciliator by nature, wants to bring back retired senior generals, such as Mohamed Mediène, Khaled Nezzar, Hocine Benhadid, Ali Ghediri and others, who were all ousted by Gaïd Salah. He wants to shore up a strong and united army front so it can continue to effectively direct the presidency and government from behind the scenes. Chengriha also realises that he may well be effectively having to run the country if it continues to continue is downward slide into chaos.
The key figure in this scenario is Mohamed Mediène and his immediate clan who have now been brought back into position of control or influence.
The return and re-consolidation of the ‘old guard’ — which mostly consists of the ‘eradicators’ of the 1990s — may have significant implications for Algeria’s immediate future. On the one hand — with the rehabilitation of the 81-year-old Mediène who is allegedly in poor health — we are seeing what many Algerians have always regarded as the ‘deep state.’ It is ruthless and without fear of having blood on its hands which opens up fearful prospects.
At the same time, however, this ‘deep state’ is also pragmatic and intelligent and capable of developing strategies that extend beyond the short-termism of the country’s current rulers. There is a feeling that Mediène may be seeking ways of fragmenting the Hirak and bringing some elements of it into some sort of reconciliatory political framework, which would meet some of their demands while still safeguarding the regime’s ultimate interests.