Mohsen Abdelmoumen: You are an economist and a former minister of the Algerian Treasury, what are, according to you, the economic prospects of Algeria?
Ali Benouari: They are extremely bad. Do not rely on the forecasts of official growth rates, or even those, slightly less optimistic, of the IMF or the World Bank. The Algerian model is indeed extremely extrovert. It is based on oil and gas, which weigh more than 50 pc in the GDP and 97 pc of the exports which finance directly or indirectly three quarters of the State budget. Yet, the oil and gas income does not stop diminishing, as a result of the reduction in the deposits of Hassi R’mel and Hassissi Messaoud, downward pressure on prices and rising domestic consumption, which is boosted by direct and indirect subsidies.
The mode of governance, largely based on clientelism and the purchase of social peace, will not allow the necessary and costly structural adjustments to be made, nor a significant adjustment of demand to the supply of available products. The regime knows that it would not survive a policy of serious austerity. It also lacks of necessary managers to modernize the country’s administration and economy. In addition to the brain drain that is continuing to bleed the country, there are also the deficiencies of a disaster-stricken training system.
This is where we have to place my warning in my election campaign: the 2014 presidential election is the one of the last chance!
You have been attacked by the daily Le Monde concerning the ‘Panama Papers’ in which you are quoted. Do not you think that this case of the newspaper Le Monde is like a crossfire came from the Algerian regime represented by Said Bouteflika and the French regime?
I’m convinced. Why? Because it is unimaginable that Le Monde can lie intentionally, for no reason.
During the last French presidential elections, you stated that Macron will be in the continuity of Holland in the French support to the Algerian regime. Your problems, notably by the instrumentalization of the newspaper Le Monde, which belongs to Pierre Bergé and Xavier Niel, unconditional supporters of Macron, do not they come from the fact that you said that Marine Le Pen could have reshaped relations with Algeria, unlike Macron?
This is a hypothesis I do not dismiss, especially since I sent a long paper for publication to Le Monde between the two rounds of the elections. I criticized the unfailing support of the French State to the power of Algiers since independence, and the detestable habit of the French candidates to go seeking Algiers’ support on the eve of each important election, citing the Macron’s trip shortly before the first round of the presidential election. On this subject, I mentioned the weight of lobbies that go through time. The one of Algiers, “corruptor to the extreme”, which ended up to ally with the French lobby of “scabrous business”. I accused these two lobbies of being responsible for the failure of the reconstruction relations between the two countries, announced by each new French President but never realized. « Should we, in our desperation, » I added, « wish a Marine Le Pen to come to power so that such a reconstruction can take place? »
The publication of this article was not accepted by Le Monde, which nevertheless admitted that it was very interesting. The abundance of content was advanced as a reason for rejection. Yes, maybe this was not foreign to the publication of the article about me, in view with the proximity of Macron with the owners of the newspaper.
We feel that there is manipulation in this affair that opposes you to Le Monde. We get the impression that those who set you this trap prevented you from defending yourself in a perfidious way, Because if you defend yourself, you will indirectly defend Ali Haddad, right arm of Said Bouteflika and leader of the oligarchs in Algeria, who is quoted at the same time as you in the Panama Papers. Now, you are a Swiss tax resident while Haddad and Bouchouareb, who had also been named, are Algerian tax residents. Can we say that you are the victim of a Machiavellian machination?
I think so. For in defending me, that is to say that by making a lawsuit to Le Monde (which will be condemned, do not doubt it a second), I will contribute to discrediting the work of the journalists international collective who carry out investigations from the Panama Papers. And if I do not react, it is myself who will be discredited and assimilated to the corrupt that I do not stop combating since longtime.
The confusion is in fact knowingly maintained by the perpetrators of this attack between the three advantages of offshore companies: anonymity (which is privileged by thieves of all kinds), tax exemption (sought by all kinds of companies, including multinationals and even our national Sonatrach), and the great flexibility in terms of their creation and closure, as well as very low creation and operating costs (which may be of interest to people like me).
Initially, I started to do this pedagogy so that the Algerians understand what is being talked about. To explain to them that the offshore companies are only reprehensible when they shelter sums subtracted from the tax of the country by Algerian tax residents. Moreover, these Algerian tax residents do not have the right to own accounts abroad. Even Israel has condemned some of its leaders for not having declared infinitely more modest amounts to the Israeli tax authorities, earned honestly, though.
As far as I’m concerned, I have the right to create an offshore company. And the few that I have been able to create have been declared to the Swiss tax, the jurisdiction on which I depend.
You announced in La Tribune de Genève that Algeria is a time bomb. Can you explain us what you meant?
I said that if economic chaos settles in Algeria, like the one that is striking in Venezuela, the centrifugal forces already at work in the country will be unleashed to burst it. I have also said that it will lead to the exodus of millions of Algerians to Europe, and particularly to France, where many Algerians have a relative or a friend.
Of course I do not want this to happen, but the message is political in nature. It is intended to bring the Europeans and the French to help our country succeed in its democratic transition in order to avert this danger. It also means that for lack of help it, it has to stop interacting with it in a neo-colonialist way, or at least, not to play the indifferent because we are all embarked in the same boat. The century in which we live makes us interdependent at a point unparalleled in the past.
You said that you spoke to European officials about Algeria. You blame the French for their short-term vision of Algeria and their unwavering support for the Algerian regime, which will be fatal to all. Can you explain that?
France has everything to gain by favoring the emergence of Democracy in Algeria and the Maghreb, which are its natural allies. History, even tumultuous, geography, language, culture, the presence of a large Algerian and Maghrebi diaspora on its soil, are the bases on which France should have built its relations with this region. Its cultural influence in the world would have been greater, its economic exchanges also, which would have been of a much higher level. The economy and the French companies would have benefited from a large market, which no one could have disputed with them. Instead, France has pursued a short-term policy that will be fatal to its interests. The consequence will be that within 10 years, it will have lost all influence and the French language will be superseded by English.
The new head of the French intelligence services, the DGSE, has just been appointed and it is the former ambassador of France in Algeria Bernard Emié, while the former head of DGSE Bernard Bajolet, has become ambassador in Algeria. How do you explain that each time, the French appoint their ambassador to Algeria as head of intelligence services? According to you, which seeks France with these maneuvers?
France seems to be at ease when it deals with authoritarian regimes, especially in Algeria. This is a big problem. Is it because of a lack of confidence in one’s abilities? Still, it never sought to support democracy in Algeria. It is therefore not surprising that France chooses her ambassadors in Algiers among cops rather than among professional diplomats, with skills and a long-term vision of interests of relations between the two countries. Unable to make the voice of the Algerian democrats heard, I was led to speak with personalities from other countries.
The Algerian-French tete-a-tete only lasted too long. It is no longer in the interest of the French, the Algerians, or even the other partners of Algeria. It is to these latter that I speak, more and more, to tell them: the time has come to free you from the passage forced by Paris to understand what is happening in our country. The interests of France in Algeria do not necessarily coincide with yours.
The president in Algeria is absent, would not there be a vacancy of power? His younger brother, Saïd Bouteflika, manages the country by proxy. Do you think that this situation is tenable in the face of the geopolitical stakes in the world today, including the crisis in the Gulf countries, and the terrorist threat that weighs on our borders?
The gradual collapse of this great country which is Algeria is precisely due to the crisis of regime in Algiers. The country is managed as a grocery, and I weigh my words. Not even as a normal grocery store. The military nature of the regime is behind this situation. It was the army that brought back Bouteflika, thinking he had the skills to save the country. The army made the same mistakes with Chadli and Zeroual. The difference is that Bouteflika and his siblings are of another temper. The army bitterly regretted the latter’s choice, but it is too late. Bouteflika phagocyted it. Hence the current impasse. The army is expected to correct its error, but it can not.
The country is therefore delivered to centrifugal forces, and the power of money has infected all habits. The people is aware of this, but it does not want to live, and we understand it, neither the dramatic events of the 1990s nor a situation like in Syria or in Libya. Power also knows it, and he uses these events as a scarecrow.
The great partners of Algeria observe with fear, undoubtedly, this situation, but they themselves are prisoners of their narrow view of the Arab-Muslim world. They have bet on dictatorships in these countries, then on political Islam as if it were the only alternative, disdaining, doing so, and the values that have made the prosperity of the whole world. Before realizing their mistake. It must be said that Europe, directly concerned, is not aided by the policy of the United States, which has since long abandoned the logic and ideals of their founding fathers. An imperialist and warlike logic, stifling, which prevents to see clearly and to understand the real stakes. To see that peace and security in the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa) condition peace and security around the world. This region reminds the situation of the Balkans in the last century. It has become in spite of itself the « soft underbelly » of Europe.
You have made some very interesting proposals that have even been taken up by Ali Benflis’ party. How do you envisage a possible exit from the crisis in Algeria?
With this power nothing is possible. Everything becomes possible, on the other hand, if there are free elections. The 2014 election campaign allowed me to see how receptive our people were to the ideas of progress and modernity. You just have to give it the opportunity to compare and the freedom to choose, and it will astonish the world by its maturity.
Ali Benflis also understood this, who had given me the opportunity to campaign alongside him, on the basis of my program of systematic and methodical reconstruction of the country, based on modernity and openness to the world.
Is not the threat of the Algeria collapse a danger for all, Africa, Europe and even the entire planet?
Yes. I keep repeating this message. I traveled to Washington in late 2013, where I met American Think Tanks that I warned against the risk of Algeria collapse. I also met officials of the Quai d’Orsay in France at the same time and for the same purpose. It was important for me to sensitize as many countries as possible on this issue. Because of its position, Algeria is able to blow up the entire southern and northern region of the Mediterranean. So it is not in anyone’s interest to let this ship go to the drift, as we see it now. A stabilized and prosperous Algeria is in the interest of everyone.
I’m not doing here Algerian-centrism. It is just the acute awareness of an objective phenomenon: history has placed Algeria in the center of the Maghreb of the three and of the five, having a border with each of the Maghreb countries. Including with Western Sahara. Our country is also located just in front of Western Europe and has its roots at the heart of the Sahel. It also possesses exceptional natural resources and its numerous community in France (more than five millions) is an indissoluble link with the West. It is also a double-edged sword.
Let us remember what the Ottoman Empire owes to the Algerian stronghold. Could it have asserted its dominion over a part of Europe if it had not conquered Algiers after having liberated all his ribs from the Spanish invasion after the Reconquista? In conquering Algeria in 1830, half a century before the conquest of Africa by the Europeans, France had understood this strategic role. With even wider borders today, Algeria is an even more important issue.
Another prank of history: the security issue. Does not the jihadist terrorist threat of today remind the one represented by pirates (or corsairs, according to the point of view) on the safety of European coasts and on traffic in the Mediterranean?
This means that if what happens in Algeria should not leave anyone indifferent. But be careful not to make the same mistakes as in the past. It is not a question here to conquering Algeria again, but to inserting it peacefully into a vast « zone of shared Co prosperity », irrigated by democratic values and a « common vision of the future ».
What about your case against the newspaper Le Monde? Do you maintain your complaint against this newspaper?
I am condemned to sue this newspaper before the French courts to defend my reputation. The trap is indeed there. Those who are behind have undoubtedly expected that since I know that the insinuations of Le Monde are unfounded, I would not feel the need to spend time and money to prove that I am innocent.
However, by not doing condemning Le Monde, I would make a political mistake because one will always be able to say and make it say, to hinder my actions, that I am like the rotten that I constantly denounce. « All are rotten, » that is the purpose.
You announced that you were leaving politics. Are you maintaining this decision or are you planning to continue the fight against the corrupt men who are leading Algeria right now?
I had indeed decided to give up all forms of political action. However, the perfidious attack of Mafia circles through the French newspaper led me back to fight. I wanted to leave behind me ideas and a program that could inspire younger generations. As well as an exemplary image of myself. But by attacking my image, the enemies of the country aimed at discrediting all the ideas and ideals that I defended. I could not accept that. So the fight continues. These enemies will have obtained the opposite result to the one they hoped for.
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Who is Ali Benouari?
Ali Benouari is an Algerian politician and former minister born in 1951 in Bougaà in the Wilaya of Setif. He holds a DES in Economics and is a graduate of the Institute of Political Studies of Algiers. He has held senior positions in various financial centers, such as the Central Bank of Algeria, Al Saudi Bank Group in Paris and Société Générale in Geneva. He also has a career as a teacher-researcher at the University of Algiers, as Assistant Professor at the Institute of Political Studies and at the Institute of Economic Sciences.
His professional stays abroad (1981-1988) allowed him to deepen his approach to the economic problems of Algeria. He held various positions of responsibility: Head of Department Studies and Planning in the DNC-ANP (1973*74); Deputy Director at the Central Bank of Algiers (1976-1981); Director of trading rooms at major international banks in Paris and Geneva (1981-88); return to Algeria in October 1988 at the request of the highest authorities; Expert on the National Debt Committee, chaired by Prime Minister Kasdi Mesbah (October 1988 to February 1989); Advisor to the Ministers of Finance and Economy, Sid Ahmed Ghozali and Ghazi Hidouci ((1989-1991); Minister of the Treasury in the transitional government commissioned by President Chadli to prepare for the democratic transition (1991-92).
When he left the government in February 1992, Ali Benouari maintained the ambition of serving his country by becoming involved in the debates that plagued the country while working in the private sector in Switzerland. He has participated in numerous conferences and has written numerous contributions in the media on the subject of economic and financial reforms. He has also presented a chronicle in the weekly « Ruptures » with the late Tahar Djaoui, Abdelkrim Djaad, etc.
From his Swiss firm Ecofinance, he founded the first foreign bank in Algeria (Société Générale Algérie). He ran for the 2014 presidential election in Algeria.
Published in American Herald Tribune, June 22, 2017: http://ahtribune.com/world/africa/1742-ali-benouari.html
In French in Palestine Solidarité: http://www.palestine-solidarite.org/analyses.mohsen_abdelmoumen.230617.htm