Pouvoir and Agency

Reuters published an article on 20 June (‘Algeria’s elite at loggerheads over next president‘), describing fissures within Algeria’s elite and how these are believed to be influencing the (non-) selection of a successor to elderly and ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The article is quite good. Up front, the fact that Boutelfika, who is over 70-years-old, has not designated a successor and that this is being done by clans and camps speaks to the often mentions similarities between Bouteflika’s style of rule and that of Houari Boumediene, who ruled the country from 1965-1978, when he died of an obscure blood disease (Boutelfika was a key player as Boumediene’s foreign minister). When Boumediene died suddenly (his illness was kept secret while he received medical care in the Soviet Union), Algeria’s military and civilian elites began bickering over who would succeed him, men from the party, the Foreign Ministry and the military had their views, ultimately the military torpedoed the prospects for the civilian candidates, including Bouteflika by various means, and installed Colonel Chadhli Bendjedid.¹ The Reuters piece makes good reading with Le Soir‘s 20 June interview with Chafik Mesbah, a DRS officer cum political commentator. Take both with a grain of salt. According to the Reuters piece, Algerians suspect five possibilities for a Bouteflika successor:

- Abdelaziz Belkhadem. A Bouteflika ally and the head of the National Liberation Front, traditionally the ruling party. It won last month’s parliamentary election. He would open up the economy to investors and reach out to Islamists, an influential group. Some in the secularist elite think his closeness to Islamists makes him suspect, and they would prefer a cleaner break from Bouteflika. He could though emerge as a compromise candidate because he straddles the Islamist and secularist camps.

- Said Bouteflika. The president’s younger brother. If he became president it would be a continuation of the incumbent’s rule. That is resisted by many in the elite, who think a family dynasty is wrong and that, anyway, it is time for a change.

- Amar Ghoul. A moderate Islamist who until last month was minister of public works. He is close to the Bouteflika camp. His selection would signal Algeria is coming into line with the trend in the region for Islamists to gain power. For many in the elite, choosing an Islamist though would be too much to stomach.

- Ahmed Ouyahia. Many in “le pouvoir” believe the serving prime minister’s push for economic nationalism has failed to create jobs, and it is time for him to go. He hinted at the debate going on behind the scenes when he said on July 2: “I know I annoy people, that’s the way it is.”

- An outsider. At times, the elite drafts in a presidential candidate from outside the mainstream to show it is ready to embrace reform. This could be Ahmed Benbitour, a technocrat who resigned as prime minister in 2000 after clashing with Bouteflika. Another option could be Mouloud Hamrouche, also a former prime minister who, his supporters say, was fired in 1991 because he wanted to reform the economy. Both are secularists.

This is a good overview of the personalities and attitudes involved as far as most people can tell. The description of Belkhadem is somewhat optimistic, in that he is a polarising figure coming out of the FLN; his ability to straddle camps will likely be dependent on the results of struggles over his leadership within the FLN. Ouyahia was until about two years ago a favoured candidate for succession among many, including this blogger. He attached himself too closely to the economic reform platform and thus became too controversial. Ghoul is also controversial, coming from the establish Islamist MSP (the Algerian Muslim Brotherhood) which under performed in the May legislative election. When thinking about MSP men in terms of Islamism, though, it is important recognise that this is a minority movement within Algerian Islamism and that its leaders, Ghoul in particular, have been in governing roles for most of the Bouteflika period. On the younger Bouteflika, there was strong resistance to the suggestion of him becoming the president’s successor early on and it would speak strongly about the depth of unseen forces if the Algerian political class came round to the idea of him as president. Those convinced of Algeria’s ‘exceptionalism’ or insulation from Tunisian or Egyptian style revolts and instability should consider the influence of succession crises and uncertainties on events in those countries in the 2010-2011 period; those not convinced on these lines should consider the longterm triumph of the Algerian regime’s agility in surfing over spontaneity and instability. The situation as of now puts Algeria in its usual posture, at any point some unforeseen event could upend years worth of assumptions. Such is life.

Still, the Reuters piece also offers an opportunity to think about some of the habitual problems in even the best reporting on Algerian politics in English (and frequently on this blog). Nothing is perfect and even things widely regard as sound today will eventually become passé. 

The 20 June article includes a substantial discussion of le pouvoir, the powerful and shadowy ‘consortium of senior officials who meet behind closed doors’, and make up the real decision-makers in Algeria. The will, wrath and motivations of le pouvoir are the subject of endless discussion in Algerian politics. The term itself is extremely useful in understanding how Algerians view the state and its elites, and the psychological and political environment in which ordinary people as well as political activists operate. But analytically it is not very helpful in trying to get at complex problems in an aggressive way. This is recurrent problem at the practical level for Algerian political actors and at the analytical level for outsiders attempting to understand what elements drive Algerian politics. Miriam Lowi’s book, Oil Wealth and the Poverty of Politics: Algeria Compared (2009) is probably one of the better recent books that helps push back at some of the deterministic or passive voice narratives about Algerian politics (a review will go up on this blog sometime this summer). Others in academia have also set up a situation that removes many of the excuses for simplistic explanations of Algerian political life, at least for English-speaking analysts. Anglophone analysts face many practical burdens and obstacles in studying Algeria (which are better discussed elsewhere later); still, there are conceptual ones that are worth thinking about not in terms of critical thinking as oppose criticism or belittlement.

It should be noted that Algerian politics both in fact and in the popular perception of many Algerians (and students of Algeria) highly conspiratorial and paranoid. Political analysis is a paranoid field to begin with, largely because politics in all cases involves conspiracy, duplicity and bad faith models. Political paranoia is strong in authoritarian states and wartime environments. It should not be surprising then that analysis of Algerian politics involves many conspiracies and conspiracy theories, some of which are more reasonable than others. The role of conspiracy theories in Algerian politics has been discussed by Paul Silverstein in his essays ‘Regimes of (Un)Truth’ (MERIP, No. 214, Spring 2000) and ‘An Excess of Truth: Violence, Conspiracy Theorizing and the Algerian Civil War’ (Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 75, No. 4, 2002). Silverstein describes how the Algerian state and its agents have used conspiracy theories to ‘underwrite its authority’, while by the 1980s Algerians, as a result of the steep decline in living standards and disillusionment with the state’s grandiose rhetoric, ‘were no longer simply suspicious of the government’s motives, but had also become convinced that it was working against them.’

The civil war had the affect of increasing the state’s efforts to promote perceptions of its power as omnipresent and shameless by means of psychological warfare and various other means as part of its counter insurgency campaign against the Islamist insurgency and assert control over the general population. During the civil war, conspiracies came from all directions; the Islamist militias were the result of a plot hatched by the CIA and the Gulf Arabs to weaken Algeria and pillage its resources, or were the pure creation of the Algerian intelligence services together with other outsiders to undermine Islam or accomplish some other purpose. The military’s campaign to infiltrate the armed groups, possibly including false flag and other black operations, provides a starting to point to many such theories, which continue on today. When these theories enter into third party analysis they become problematic for obvious reasons and they cloud clear assessments of political events and evaluations of actors’ ranges of influence and action because they contaminate the field with notions of unitary actors and all powerful over men in a political environment fraught with fragmentation and diversity.

In practical terms, the immediate proving ground and backdrop of post-independence Algerian politics was the FLN’s war for independence against France. The French developed sophisticated techniques in the dark arts, infiltrating, manipulating, deceiving the guerrilla movement, sewing confusion and distrust in its ranks. This experience was reflected in what observers of the early Algerian political scene under Ben Bella (1962-1965) and Boumediene (1965-1978) called boulitique – a conspiratorial style of elite politics, politique politicienne  (Mohamed Farid Azzi describes its as ‘dirty politics’ or ‘trickery’ used by elites to maintain power; Quandt put it as ‘I try to get you to do something stupid so that I can take your place’; see ‘Maghrebi Youth: Between Alienation and Integration’ in Zoubir, North Africa in Transition, 1999 and Quadndt, Revolution and Political Leadership, 1954-1968, 1969, pp. 264-267; also, see Malek Bennabi’s Islam in History and Society, 1954 and Entelis, Algeria: The Revolution Insititutionalized, 1986, pp. 156-158). The Algerian army’s infiltration, manipulation, deployment of provocateurs and splintering of the Islamist insurgency in the 1990s borrowed heavily from lessons learned during and after the war of independence and intensified popular and elite political paranoia in Algeria. But an objective of such activities – or the rumour of such activities – is usually to increase distrust and paranoia among the target community thereby setting members upon one another, making cooperation and the formation and projection of counterforce more difficult if not impossible. The fact of infiltration is never denied, in fact it is established deliberately and rumours and fear spreads, potentially increasing the power of the infiltrating authority over his adversaries or subjects. This, with the application of force and material incentives and other means, contributes to the collapse the rebel movement, the fragmentation of the opposition trends into strands the size of hairs.

The sense that nothing is what it is seems and that higher powers exercise infinite control over even the smallest things can be seen in both Algerian and external analysis; the discussion of le pouvoir, les decideurs, le militiare, les generaux reflect the depths of political paranoia in Algeria. These terms are generalities because specificity is either impossible or undesirable (due to ignorance, uncertainty, fear or some other emotion). Use of these generalities empowers conspiracy theories for obvious reasons and contribute to political apathy and alienation because they encourage the user to give up agency and responsibility to higher powers, reinforcing the political power of the authorities (it thus plays into the exploitation of pre-existing superstitions as well). They also discourage the analyst from producing specific analyses of power structures, events and trends; in popular explanations of political events analysts and authors too often accept these categories as units of analysis and action. Le pouvoir as a category of analysis is problematic because it encourages the neglect of specific institutions and individuals. And as such it possibly empowers certain actors and elements and hamstrings the analyst, be he disinterested or partisan.

Algeria’s political class is sometimes described as being a collection of ‘clans’ and overlapping, mutually dependent and competitive networks of patronage, kinship, regionalism, rent and corruption (that system itself is likely the result of coping mechanisms developed under the French occupation and probably follows a model similar to those of marabouts instrumentalised during the colonial period).  Various links in these chains have varying degrees of agency and authority and a district boss in rural Algeria may be as likely to say he has been overruled by le pouvoir on promise he has failed to deliver to his clientele as he is to say the same when he has merely neglected to follow through because he never had any intention of giving something in return for some transaction. These power relationships are highly informal and decision-making frequently occurs outside of official, institutional processes. This description of political behavior is similarly simplistic and essentialising. Werenfels has described well problems of submitting to occasionally useful short hand (pouvoir, le militaire) to describe tendencies in Algerian politics.  Werenfels summarises the deficiencies of taking these terms at face value well in her epic study of Algerian elites, noting that

The impact on elite corridors of action of such notions of power was thus [. . . ] that [. . .] the frequent use of the term le pouvoir by both elites and non-elites was that it contributed to thickening the fog from the lack of transparency that lay over the Algerian system. Speaking of le pouvoir precluded the need for closer examination of structures and actors. Moreover, and extremely importantly, it blocked the view of change. Not surprisingly, answers to who constituted the pouvoir at the end of Boutelfika’s first term still primarily circled around certain generals, even though it had become evident that the president had also become one of the prime decision-makers. Perceptions of politics being run by an obscure force thus conditioned non-elite expectations of elected representatives and of the government’s range of manoeuvre as well as of the rationality of politics: if delegates of the Kabyle coordinations verbally attacked the Berberophone political parties, there was no need for these parties to self-critically pose the question of whether they could indeed have done better; it was much easier to state that the Kabyle protest movement was manipulated by the pouvoir or even a creation of the latter.  Elite corridors of action thus were also influenced by the — for elites comforting — possibility declaring a higher force, the pouvoir, responsible for one’s inconsistent or unpopular actions. (Werenfels, Managing Instability in Algeria, 2007, pp. 133-134)

The analyst is thus exposed to a number of traps when attempting to make sense of events of Algerian politics. Occasionally analysts who are pressed for time or upended by word counts or deadlines have trouble making out the specific contours of specific decisions, events or statements. The obvious lack of clarity and reliable reporting makes analytical penetration a common trend in writing on Algeria’s polities; sometimes this is done well other times not. Other times there is a political, or even economic incentive to depict the situation as if it were more complex or more obscure than it may actually be. One finds this in much of the analysis that was done of Algeria’s Libya policy; he also finds in the majority of the recent writing by one Jeremy Keenan on Algeria’s internal politics and foreign policy. If given more time or more space some answers about Algerian political behaviour can be answered in terms of actors and agency as opposed to mere lists of forces or inevitabilities, but unfortunately the reality and power of Algeria’s internal politics is that they are somewhat opaque and analysis of them tends to lend itself to a kind of Kremlinology, which lends itself to a host of analytical traps like mirror imaging, the echo chamber and layering (especially in popular, and to a lesser extent academic, writing about Algeria’s foreign policy the result of there being a relatively small number of authors working on Algeria consistently or writing on it publicly; this is part of why Keenan’s narratives receive so much attention — the number of his essays and articles sometimes substitutes for analytical rigor or proofing, especially in popular media), and so on. There is a better way.

1. Bendjedid was not considered ambitious or especially cunning at the time; in one of the appendixes of the Ottaways’ book, Algeria: The Politics of a Socialist Revolution (1970), he is described as a unambitious but loyal officer as the commander of a military region. He was a consensus candidate from within the military, a man who officers like Larbi Belkheir believed was easily controlled, manipulated and could stand in public for stronger men and cliques within the armed forces. His presidency coincided with an oil shock and the deterioration of living standards, the rise of political Islam in Algeria and a number of other trends that had him forced out of office as thins turned bloody. The decline of the prestige and centrality of the presidency began with Bendjedid, hit its low during the 1990s under the direct junta during the Civil War. Bouteflika moved the initiative back to the presidency from the generals, quite deliberately and more speedily than many anticipated, even subordinating much of the military to his will through promotions and forced retirements (of course he was also aided by the poor health of certain men), causing friction it the intelligence services which remain a key pillar of Algeria’s political and economic order. But Algeria retains many of the many of the same structural problems in 2012 as were evident and ultimately disastrous in 1978: a regime centred around personalities and informal decision-making processes rather than institutional ones, the rentier economy, a fragmented elite and so on. If Bouteflika has been credited with restoring stability to Algeria in the wake of the Civil War, the order he arranged must also be credited with setting the country up for still more fluctuation and uncertainty. The Reuters piece mentions that the price of oil has slipped to under $100 a barrel lately and while it is unclear as to whether prices will continue to fall, or if they do fall that they will fall substantially enough to destabilise Algeria’s oil-dependent economic, this recalls a similar scenario roughly thirty years ago. But today is never yesterday and this narrative may be missing specific or other …

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11 comments

  1. Excellent post. A couple of questions though:
    1. Is reporting on Algeria better in other languages (French or Arabic)? They seem to fall into the same traps that you describe here.
    2. Is it possible to do much better when accurate factual information about “le pouvoir” is not always available or reliable (at least that’s my impression)?

    1. 1. The same conceptual problems exist in French and Arabic; the quality of reporting is, in general, superior to that in English (more gets out in French and Arabic than English because the news in Algeria “happens” in French and Arab (and the Berber dialects, Darija, etc.). By the time news gets into English it’s often watered down. The reporting in those languages comes with distinct limitations though and is in general not optimal, but is superior to what comes out in English for the most part.

      2. This is the heart of the problem: so little comes out that it becomes almost futile to use ‘le pouvoir’ as a category of analysis; at the same time the lack of information means that generalisations are necessary. So aggressive research, more humble and careful reporting, analysis and conclusions are key. One sometimes feels that ‘le pouvoir,’ and the ‘décideurs’ could literally evaporate into thin air and Algerians and observers would still believe they were running the game somehow. We have to manage our expectations about how much of ‘le pouvoir’ power is real and how much comes from perception.

      1. the “pouvoir” run things here, and everywhere. Perhaps you’re naive at to how gov’t works, but money moves the world. I guess it’s important to get more specific, though I’m not sure that really changes anything either. There’s not a writ passed that isn’t lobbied by some interest in any legislature of any size. Sadly, that’s the only way anything gets done.

      2. Scottindallas,

        I don’t fundamentally disagree with you re: the power of elites or the influence of money. This is what we talk about when we talk about politics.

  2. Perhaps a little off-topic, but what are really the arguments for Belkhadem’s credentials as an free-marketeer? It’s not exactly as if his period in power saw much liberalization. Has there been some big argument about this that I’ve missed – I don’t follow Algerian politics very closely these days?

    I’m asking because I’m interested, but also because I think this is something many foreign decision-makers are looking for in a future president.

  3. very paranoid post
    you could have easily related this post to american politics two twin parties the republicans created a dynasty with the Bushs and the democrats created a dynasty with the Kennedys and the Clintons
    most of the super pac money comes mostly from the rich and for every dollar they spend they get about 5 to 10 back.
    one thing is certain Jeb bush and hillary clinton are going to be running in 2016 and will win their party nomination
    no one can predict the future of politics of any country
    by the way algeria has a better economic track record then tunisia or morocco it has 200 billion dollars reserve and it can get loans for cheap and also algeria also has gas and has the twentieth largest gold reserves and unlike the gulf states it does have a population that is big enough to matter it is big enough to create its own industry

  4. Great post, thanks Kal.

    As an Anglophone analyst I’m all too familiar with the challenges you outline. Algeria is an often frustrating but always fascinating country to study.

  5. I wonder about Amar Ghoul. It’s hard to ignore the infrastructure development in the country, though certainly much more needs to be done. You make no note of this, and that seems lacking. Are others to be credited for these achievements, or are the Algerians forever negative about their condition? (despite the many wonder aspects of life there, and the corruption and problems that they ignore everywhere else)

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