Algerian in-fighting

The killing of Ali Tounsi, chief of the Algerian police, has been reported briefly in the international media. He is officially said to have been shot dead in his office by a colleague in a fit of madness.

His alleged assailant – named in the Algerian press as Choaïb Oultache – had worked with Tounsi for years and the two men were neighbours. At one stage, Oultache had been responsible for overseeing Tounsi's personal safety.

On Thursday, Oultache was apparently surprised to read in a newspaper that he was being suspended pending a corruption investigation. He went to see Tounsi and a confrontation ensued. Oultache was also wounded and is now in hospital.

Two blogs, Algerian Review and The Moor Next Door, describe the affair in more detail and also explore some of the background.

Tounsi's killing may have been the result of a personal, self-contained quarrel – or possibly something bigger. There are several corruption investigations going on in Algeria at present involving high-ranking figures, most notably in connection with the state oil company, Sonatrach.

High-level corruption is rarely investigated in the Arab countries unless there are ulterior political motives for doing so. It is so widespread that corruption charges provide a convenient (and often easily provable) means for getting rid of those who have fallen out of favour for other reasons. Syria is one example: under the guise of fighting corruption, the incoming President Bashar managed to consolidate his position by clearing out various "unreliable" sections of his father's old guard.

The Algerian regime, like many in the Middle East, is not a monolith but a delicate balance of competing factional interests. Describing the current situation there, The Moor Next Door says:

"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 'privatised' industries."

Inevitably, as the number of old-time stalwarts dwindles, there is a re-balancing of the power structure and jockeying for position. Accusing rivals of corruption, or threatening to expose them, is one way of pursuing that.

"Given [President] Bouteflika’s age, health and the ambiguity about succession," The Moor Next Door writes, "there may be some who see now [as] a do or die period and others who see it as a season of opportunity."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 February 2010.