Messaoud Zeghar was, until his death in 1987, the wealthiest businessman in post independence Algeria. He was also a longtime personal friend of President Houari Boumediene and a key player in Algeria's dealings abroad during the latter's years in power (1965-78). Zeghar enjoyed a particularly close relationship with the United States, spent much of his time there, and had numerous high-level friends and contacts in successive American administrations of the period, as well as on Capitol Hill and in the business world. This was during Algeria's years of revolutionary rhetoric, of leadership in non-aligned and Third World forums, and when the United States was the privileged whipping boy of antiimperialists the world over. During this difficult period in U.S.-Algerian relations, Zeghar served as the indispensable intermediary between the two governments. Unabashedly pro-American, Zeghar was Washington's man in Algiers.
Zeghar never held an official position, however, and was never once mentioned in the state controlled Algerian press during his years of influence. He was known to the Algerian public only through the gossip and rumor mills. He did gain brief notoriety in the West in 1978, when he had a younger sister - who had eloped with a Frenchman - abducted in Montreal and spirited back to Algeria. Zeghar did not make the papers again until early 1983, when the Algerian news agency announced his arrest for treason, espionage and corruption. Zeghar spent close to three years in prison, where he was held in degrading conditions, before being absolved of the charges against him and freed.
Hanafi Taguemout, a well-known journalist in the Algiers francophone press of the 1980s and early 1990s (and currently the editor of the Geneva-based newsletter Algerie Confidentiel), has written the first-ever account of Zeghar' s life and inquisition by the regime of Boumediene' s successor, Chadli Benjedid. Zeghar, who hailed from a small-town petit-bourgeois family, was a born entrepreneur, having gone into business for himself by his mid-teens. He joined the National Liberation Front (FLN) soon after the outbreak of Algeria's war of independence in 1954. An operative in the FLN's intelligence service headed by Abdelhafid Boussouf, Zeghar was charged with procuring and producing war materiel for the independence struggle. His activities brought him into contact with numerous Western arms merchants and, it seems, American military personnel stationed in Morocco. It was during the war years that Zeghar forged his close relationship with Colonel Boumediene.
After independence in 1962, Zeghar went into business full-time. The book does not specify the precise sources of Zeghar's fortune, which Taguemout claims was around $2 billion, though it seems to have come from numerous investments and real-estate holdings in Algeria and throughout the world, not to mention generous commissions from Western companies landing lucrative contracts in oil- and gas-rich Algeria. Following Boumediene's death in 1978, Zeghar backed the long-serving foreign minister, Abdelaziz Boutetlika, for the succession. With the designation of Chadli, the senior officer in the army, Zeghar lost his access to the summit of power. He strived to win it back, but Chadli's entourage, who never liked Zeghar in the first place, was determined to eliminate him from the scene.
Taguemout describes in detail the flimsy legal case the security services fabricated against Zeghar. This is, in itself, a good micro-description of the internal workings of Algeria's single party, authoritarian regime - and which works the same way today under a multiparty facade - where the power was exercised arbitrarily and the rule of law was nonexistent. Despite conventional wisdom at the time, the Chadli regime was as politically illiberal during its first ten years in power as was that of Boumediene.
Taguemout speculates on why the regime sought to do Zeghar in. Four possible reasons, none mutually exclusive, are advanced. The first places Zeghar's arrest in the context of Chadli's supposed campaign of"de-Boumedienization." This is the least probable explanation, as the FLN's purges at the time, contrary to popular belief, did not target individuals based on their political or personal relationship with Boumediene.
A second theory has it that Zeghar was arrested due to pressure from France, whose relations with Algeria had improved considerably following Chadli's arrival in power. France, it is suggested, had a score to settle with the pro-American and viscerally anti-French Zeghar. Paris may indeed have viewed Zeghar with a jaundiced eye, though the two parties often did business together. The notion of a French-inspired plot is a little farfetched, even paranoid.
A third supposition involves Israel, which, it seems, was alarmed by Zeghar's apparent influence with Washington and with rejectionist Middle Eastern regimes. Perhaps, though the idea that the Mossad may have manipulated the Algerian presidency into arresting Zeghar stretches credulity to the limit.
The fourth and most likely hypothesis involves money. The newly installed Chadli regime, which was building up its power base by distributing stipends and rendering services, viewed Zeghar's privileged relationship with commission-paying foreign suppliers and contractors as an obstacle. Removing him from the scene enabled others to get their hands on the goodies, as it were. Furthermore, Zeghar's fortune was the object of much envy and desire. Shaking him down through imprisonment was one way for the new men at the top to effortlessly increase their wealth. Taguemout writes that Zeghar was indeed released after hefty sums of money changed hands. He also contends, quite plausibly, that the Americans pressured the Algerian authorities to free Zeghar. Washington was annoyed by the persecution of its longtime friend and did not appreciated regime-inspired rumors that Zeghar had been in the employ of the CIA. At a time of improving US-Algerian relations, the continued detention of Zeghar had become a liability for the Chadli regime.
Taguemout's story is heavily based on court documents and on what was recounted to him by his sources in Algiers. The latter are not named, however, and we cannot know how reliable or objective they are. The account is incomplete, perhaps partial, contains many undocumented assertions, and gives a little too much credence to conspiracy theories. It is still fascinating and informative, however, and is well worth reading for those interested in Algerian politics and U.S.Algerian relations. It is too bad Taguemout did not conduct research in the United States, where he could have consulted available documents and interviewed those who knew Zeghar. Perhaps he will do so for a revised and enlarged edition of his book.