The rising tide of public corruption in Algeria – an issue that was never the centre of concern before – has now forced the regime to address it. The senior military officers who have really ruled the country since its independence in 1962, and the civilian politicians who have been a cloak for them, have focused their attention on fighting Islamic groups, rather than controlling a practice that they obviously benefit from. But now that a measure of uncertain stability has taken root, public attention is turning to the increasing corruption that is threatening Algeriamore alarmingly than ‘Islamic terrorism’, although public figures continue to portray the latter as the main enemy of the Algerian people.
Corruption has naturally been endemic in a country so despotically ruled as Algeria has been. It has also been made worse by the secrecy surrounding the conduct of public affairs for the dubious protection of the ‘public peace’. But now that the equally dubious democratic rule introduced in recent years has resulted in a limited measure of public discussion, the regime ofpresident Abdul-Aziz Bouteflika has been forced to address a problem that is seemingly out of control. In particular, the regime has decided to set up a supposedly independent agency to fight bribery. On April 14 the council of ministers, headed by the president, decided to establish “a national agency charged with fighting bribery and introducing protective measures against it.”
The agency – the first of its kind in Algeria – should be independent not only in the manner it is financed but also in the choice of its officials, in order to guarantee the independence of its decisions from public officials as well as businessmen. In Algeria, the payment of bribes is necessary and taken for granted for every public service, from issuing personal documents to granting trading licences. The phenomenon has led to the growth of a new class of businessmen who have become rich beyond their wildest dreams. As a result the World Bank has putAlgeria high on the list of “corrupt states”. This has dissuaded many companies from investing in an oil-rich country. Their reluctance to do so also explains the government’s decision to act.
Understandably the regime is keen to be seen to act, but bribery – or corruption in general – might be more effectively combatted if the system of government were more open than it is, more like what it claims to be, and if Islamic values were allowed into public life, rather than excluded. The government is committed to excluding Islamic groups or parties, such as the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). Bouteflika is, of course, not alone in opposing any role for FIS or other Islamic groups, as his predecessors and all the army generals share his antipathy to Islamic rule or values. But his position on this issue makes a nonsense of his boast – at the Islamic summit in Algiers in March – that the reforms the government claims to be introducing as “pioneering”, as it does of his campaign speeches in the last two presidential elections. In last April’s elections, in which he was re-elected president for the second time, he campaigned as the leader who since 1999 has brought peace and reconstruction to his country.
The new constitution agreed by referendum in 1988 put Algeria on the path towards ‘pluralism’, but the army was in no mood to allow Islamic parties to participate. When in 1991 FIS – which had campaigned on a radical Islamic platform – appeared to be about to win, the army cancelled the legislative elections, forcing president Benjadeed to resign and paving the way for a “higher committee of state” to assume power and a general to be elected as president later. General Liamine Zeroulal was elected president for a five-year term in 1995 but announced his intention to step down from office in September 1998. Bouteflika was then elected president in 1999. The widespread violence that began in 1992 as a result of the exclusion of FIS and the cancellation of the legislative elections has now been replaced by an uneasy peace, but there is no guarantee that Islamic groups will ever be admitted into the political process; even if Bouteflika dares to arrange such a concession the army generals are virtually certain to intervene.
It is true that the president has removed certain powers from the generals, but Algerian analysts, foreign journalists and diplomats say that he has invested them in his own office and that he is not above exploiting them to enhance his position. It is equally true that he has given the Algerian media greater leeway to comment on public policy, but “there is a red line when it comes to investigating corruption and other official abuses, beyond which lies the path to jail,” a Western newspaper wrote recently. Algerian journalists know this, of course, and appear to be heeding the possible consequences of defiance. This explains why the government is so vocal about the prevalence of corruption: it knows that the involvement of high officials and senior military officers will not be exposed.
Bouteflika is also fully aware that Western countries – particularly the US – will not criticise his government seriously for refusing to introduce political reforms. Part of the explanation for their silence is the government’s commitment to the US-led “war on terror”. A sign of this commitment appeared when the British government recently announced that Algerian intelligence had supplied the information that led to the trial of five young Muslim Algerians, of whom only one – Kamel Bourgas Bourgass – was convicted; the other four were set free for lack of evidence. Bourgas Bourgass was convicted of killing a policeman; the others, charged on the basis of information supplied by Algeria, were acquitted of charges of terrorism.
Despite his posturing to take advantage of western prejudices against overt and undisguised practices such as bribery, commissions, gifts and so on, it is clear that Bouteflika is not really a serious reformer. However, neither his removal nor that of his government will make much difference to conditions in Algeria unless and until a strong and credible Islamic movement arises in the area that can unite its people under its leadership and create a consensus about priorities and objectives, and a programme to achieve them. This is the sort of thing that every Muslim people in every Muslim country should be concentrating on, instead of being distracted by the red herrings provided by the West for the purpose of distracting the Ummah from its responsibilities and duties.