Ali Tounsi, head of the Algerian DGSN (national police), was shot dead in his office this morning by Oultache Chouaib, a commander of the helicopter unit (according to Ech-Chorouk). Chouaib, it is said, was in a “manic stupor” after a verbal spat with Tounsi. The killer is said to have been under investigation for corrupt business deals involving spare helicopter parts, according to El Khabar. Practically all reports, Arabic and French, of the murder are conflicting. One has the killer committing suicide (this is from the Interior Ministry). Another has Oultache killing Tounsi and exchanging fire with other police officers, being shot and hospitalized. Another has his him shot dead by the police on site. In any case, an ally of Gen. Mohamed Mediene (also known as General Toufiq/Tewfik) has been felled at a time when tensions between the military security establishment and the president are thought to be unusually high.
Read also: Khouya Houwari’s post on the murder at Algerian Review. He gives a good summary of inconsistencies in the media on the logistics of the killing.
Last month internal security opened corruption investigations into several Bouteflika allies in the Ministry of Energy and Mines as well as the state oil firm SONATRACH. Investigations into the office of the Minister of Transport, Amar Ghoul (of the MSP, which was supposed to lose some of its clout in the cabinet early this year) also began. Rumors that these were moves by the security apparatus headed by Mediene (at the DRS, domestic/foreign intelligence and counter-espionage) against the president in response to either his appointing his brother Said Bouteflika as a personal advisor (and possible successor) or the death of Larbi Belkheir — or both — have been in wide circulation for weeks. Viewing this as a power struggle makes sense to many Algerians because of how widespread and well-known corruption is — within the DRS and everywhere else. An open letter published in El Watan gives voice to this sentiment. Over the last ten years many of the key figures in the military hard-line – Mohamed Lamari, Smain Lamari, Khaled Nezzar, Larbi Belkheir, et al. — have died, retired or grown too ill to manipulate politics. What is left are the stalwarts of the praetorian order, especially the ones most well entrenched in the “privatized” industries. Belkheir had been an important presidential advisor until he was posted as ambassador to Morocco. Now dead, he has left a major hole in the system, that the hardline clan would like see filled by one of their own. This narrative of intra-elite competition, with the DRS faction feeling defensive and leaning on the president’s technocratic-military base is increasingly popular. Some believe the president had planned to sack Tounsi. That the killer is believed to have been under investigation for corruption adds to this sense of clan warfare within the regime.
The DGSN is the police force responsible for urban security, under the command of the Interior Ministry, currently headed by Bouteflika ally Nourediene Zerhouni. Tounsi was appointed to his post by then-president Lamine Zeroual in 1995, and he saw his role as restoring discipline to the DGSN and increasing public trust in the police, a part of the over all post-Civil War effort at “strengthening the authority of the state” as he often put it. Under Tounsi the DGSN grew in size and powers. His placement in the Interior Ministry, which also runs the Gendarmerie, was a way for Mediene and the DRS to balance Bouteflika’s people there. Tounsi was often at odds with Zerhouni. His death leaves a potential power vacuum in a key part of the security apparatus. His replacement will be a test for Bouteflika and will speak to the nature of any ruptures between the president and Mediene. It is likely that a moderate figure, one not seen as being especially close to the president, will fill the post. Were he to put in a character too close to him personally or ideologically it could upset the balance of forces that has made his presidency work. Keeping Tounsi in place was seen as a nod to Mediene when Bouteflika took power. Terrorists attempted to kill with a car bomb three years ago.
Tounsi was somewhat different from many others in his own camp; he was well respected by many Algerians. He increased the number of female police officers, pushed for more legal protections on citizens during arrests and made very public efforts to encourage police officers to project a clean, professional image. He was the tough, strict, martial police chief of lore. His own anti-corruption efforts within the police system were of a kind many Algerians looked on with admiration. His death is very likely linked to the struggle between rival clans; if it is not, it at least illustrates the massive power of corruption at every level of the state. The most powerful clans in Algeria are playing games of offense-defense, with the DRS set on the defensive and pushing back by using corruption investigations in hopes of gaining lost ground over the last decade. The most morbid analysis would have this as a show of force by an opposed faction, a dare to the investigators to continue and witness the consequences. That a member of the DRS’s pack has been murdered is potentially destabilizing and the president’s handling of it will be critical. Even if his death was not a “hit,” the reaction to it will be decisive in its wider impact.
The existing political order has survived by allowing the clan networks to take hold of economic sectors and dividing political power such that the two major poles in the regime — the presidency and the DRS — have been able to divide the state institutions between themselves in such a way as to make open competition both undesirable and unnecessary. In classic form, there is military intelligence with the allies of its chiefs in key posts in the Army by way of the various specialized units and commands; the president’s men have the major military regions, the Chief of Staff, the Ministry of the Interior and so on. In each case the most powerful actors have their men working under others; so Tounsi, a Mediene ally, was in control of a major office under Zerhouni, a Bouteflika hand. This balancing act is meant to prevent coups (as mentioned here earlier). It is also meant to entrench the power of the president, by allowing him to de-militarize the state bureaucracy and built a base of powerful civilian support. It has worked thus far, especially the result of the hardliners’ bad health and age. And because not much has power has really changed hands; the DRS and its military allies remain the strongest known factor in the country, a result of its far reaching powers. Yet it is one the wane, and while many still see Tewfiq, et al. as the key actors in Algerian politics, there is mounting evidence that the balance of power favors emergent cliques around the president. It is unclear how far the deep state and its allies will go to preserve its position; what is clear is that whatever struggles are taking place wheels are moving and the results of the investigation into the killing, and information revealed in coming weeks will likely give an indication of where factional politics is headed.
All this boils down to the most basic questions in political life: Who will rule and who will take what? Given Bouteflika’s age, health and the ambiguity about succession, there may be some who see now a do or die period and others who see it as a season of opportunity.