Over the past five years, protests and militant activity have shaken the Maghreb to its core. Algeria stands out as a striking anomaly. The regime of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, now 79, has been able to maintain itself and ensure relative stability. But with the wheelchair-bound president’s health now failing, uncertainty looms for Africa’s largest country. Meanwhile, previous speculations of an internal confrontation have gained substance. So: what’s cooking in Algeria?
Rumours of an ongoing power struggle made front page news in September 2015 when Mohamed “Toufiq” Mediène, who had led the country’s intelligent services for 25 years, was sacked. Led by the president’s brother, Said, his removal raised fears of an open confrontation. Commentators construed the event as a blatant power grab or a “soft coup” and pointed at a rivalry between Bouteflika’s allies and Mediène, the origins of which trace to the Algerian civil war that took hold of the country from 1991 to 2001.
Mediène’s sacking was followed by a number of remarkable events. In January, Algeria’s powerful secret service apparatus, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS), was dissolved and replaced by a new agency, now led by Gen. Bashir Tartag, a close ally of the president. The real effect of the dissolution of the DRS was to cement the power of Bouteflika’s entourage and midwife the emergence of a new business elite surrounding Said Bouteflika.
Together with the modernisation of the government and a set of constitutional amendments, which include the recognition of Tamazight as an official language, the disbanding of Algeria’s spy network was to add credence to the idea of change. Yet the state apparatus (otherwise known as le pouvoir, the power) has done little to advance consensual politics, and the chances of it bowing out soon are thin. According to Dalia GhanemYazbeck, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, the experience of civil war has allowed the armed forces in particular to entrench themselves at the heart of political power. “The army is not governing, but it is ruling”, she observes, in a reference to the authorities’ thinly layered civilian facade.
“The Black Decade, as the civil war is commonly referred to in Algeria, is deeply engrained in the collective memory of many Algerians. People certainly want change, but they have already paid a hefty price.”
Among the regime’s major victories is the co-optation of opposition parties as the Movement for the Society of Peace (MSP), the country’s answer to the Muslim Brotherhood, which it secured through the shrewd use of carrots and sticks. In a region where political Islam has often provided the single most important alternative to vested power, Islamist parties in Algeria remain strikingly docile. The MSP, for one, has become lethargic. “You could call it the result of a process of bourgeoisiement [loosely translated: political gentrification]”, says Ghanem-Yazbeck. “Algerians no longer see it as an alternative.”
In its place has come Da’wa Salafism. More concerned with preaching and moral probity, Da’wa Salafists in Algeria have adopted a politically quietist approach. “They are a network that offer guidance in all things, but they are apolitical”. Consequently, Islamists no longer wield the power to galvanise the populace as the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) did in the 1990s. And though unrest in the region has given way to a plethora of political movements, in Algeria few have managed to present a workable political agenda.
Bouteflika is often lauded for his role in leading the post-war transition. Aside from overseeing the peace deal, he ended Algeria’s political isolation and enabled the country to play a more assertive role in its dealings with neighbouring countries. In recent years, too, Algeria played a key role in helping resolve crises in, among other countries, Mali and Tunisia. Domestically, Bouteflika promulgated an amnesty law which allowed some of his former foes to take part in political life. Among opposition leaders who have been co-opted is Islamist leader, Abdelaziz Bel Khadem, who served as the minister of foreign affairs in 2000 and as premier in 2006.
Bouteflika’s relative successes are also reflected in the unpopularity of movements such as the selfstyled Islamic State (IS). While IS, al-Qaeda in the Maghreb and other militant Islamist movements have made inroads in neighbouring Libya and Tunisia, the Algerian authorities have largely managed to contain this threat. In January 2013, fighters linked to al-Qaeda killed over 30 foreign employees at a gas facility in the southern town of Ain Amanas. But despite some localised attacks, the crisis in Ain Amanas has remained something of an exception.
The reason for this, Ghanem-Yazbeck believes, lies in the painful memory of the civil war and the army’s experience in countering insurgencies. While IS’s activities inevitably led to an increase in weapons and drug traffic at the borders, there is yet no credible sign that the movement will expand into Algeria. The number of Algerians who have joined IS in Syria and Iraq, too, has remained relatively low. While estimates for Tunisian and Moroccan recruits stand at 3,000 and 1,500, respectively, the number of Algerian recruits are said to number only 250 fighters. In addition to the memory of the civil war and the popularity of Da’wa Salafism, the country’s relative economic prosperity helps to explain this trend.
In 2014, Bouteflika ran his presidential campaign under the slogan, “stability and continuity”. Those two elements are contingent on revenues from oil and gas, which provide the country with 97 per cent of its hard currency earnings. Algeria is a rentier state and oil rents have allowed the regime to stay in control through handouts, Ghanem-Yazbeck says. “But oil prices would need to reach 96 dollars per barrel for Algeria to keep up with expenditure… This is not likely to happen soon, nor are the authorities cutting down on subsidies”.
Bouteflika’s popularity plummeted following his decision to run for president beyond the constitutional two-term limit. But questions concerning his succession remain unanswered.
“Algeria has a culture of secrecy. No one knows what is happening in the corridors of power. But it is certain that the next leader will require the army’s backing,”
The Algerian state has steered a relatively stable course. Far from providing for a convivial atmosphere, however, it now stands at a critical juncture. Algerian human rights lawyer, Ali Yahia Abdennour, once said: “We liberated the land but not the people.” President Bouteflika played a key role in engineering that liberation.
More than 17 years after the war’s resolution, he has become its principle source of uncertainty. In an interview with El Watan newspaper, Abdennour added in 2013, “In the name of God, Mister President, go!” For now, it remains to be seen who will take his place.