Struggles Continue in Algeria: What to think?

Since the start of the year, political discussions among Algerians have been dominated by one question: What next, after Bouteflika? News from Algeria in the last quarter has added drama to a sweaty political stalemate in high politics widely seen as a struggle between clans around the President and the chief of the DRS, Mohamed ‘Toufik’ Mediene. Struggles within the FLN and RND were seen to reflect this to some degree, as the party apparatuses struggled to find consensus over internal leadership (party committees and secretary-generalships) and external leadership – parliamentary group leaderships and even party congress meetings (and meeting places) all through the year. The crisis in the FLN was resolved with Amar Saaidani taking the Secretary-Generalship; but no reporting or rumour suggests this man poses any challenge to Boueflika or that he represents successor material. Rumours about the motives of clans and sub-clans, cliques and former party leaders’ ambitions and agency were rife. Investigations into corruption in SONATRACH, including foreign partners, ripped into Bouteflika’s entourage again (after the fiascos of 2009 and 2010).  Bouteflika’s deep convalescence in France is rumoured to have been what now seems like a tremendous series of rearrangements at the heart of the state: Algerian news outlets reported that on his return the president moved to dismiss one ‘Colonel Fawzi,’ the chief of the Centre de la Communication et de la Diffusion (CCD) DRS’s media unit since 2001 – responsible for information operations and media relations – and replaced him with a ‘Colonel Okba.’ This was followed by a series of public appearances in which Bouteflika received the military Chief of Staff, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister each time sporting the clothes of old age – blankets and quite casual attire. Though he was clearly reduced in strength he seems to have lost no interest in being an active president – this was not a man looking to be seen as a three quarters president.

Not long after, reports emerged on Tout Sur d’Algerie that the president had initiated a massive organisation of Algeria’s military intelligence apparatus. First the Direction central de la sécurité de l’armée (DCSA), the DRS department responsible for military counterintelligence and military security, as well as the CCD would be transferred to the authority of the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces. This would mean that rather than reporting to DRS chief General Mohamed Mediene, these services would report to General Ahmed Gaid Saleh, well known as a Bouteflika ally with his own lines of influence. The next day brought news (also from TSA) that the DRS’s Service central de la police judiciaire de l’armée (SCJP-DRS) would also be brought under Gaid Saleh’s authorities. If this reporting is accurate it means that Bouteflika’s key rival has been deprived of several main instruments of political influence used to influence the Algerian public, elites and military. The story was followed up with news of imminent shifts in government coming for November and an imminent reshuffle on 11 September. (The Prime Minister has promised an administrative shake up publicly since mid-summer and rumours about such changes have circulated widely since June.) On 13 September, TSA went on to report that the DSCA’s chief, Mhenna Djebbar, in place since 2005, was being dismissed at the president’s initiative. It did not name a successor. In this corner of the press the battle rhythm in Bouteflika’s camp keeps on moving.

According to the early TSA version of the restructuring things have happened something like this (and they do look differently depending on sources):

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The reshuffle looks like another power play. (See the list posted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website site here. Others were published in advance with varying levels of completeness.) Unlike the first Sellal cabinet – which looked so heavily technocratic as to be almost deliberately transitional – the September cabinet features key changes in the most sensitive ministries: Defence, Interior, Foreign Affairs, Justice. There is also continuity, and in some cases the replacements are not obviously political. Significant shifts in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are worth noting, especially at the top and in the section responsible for Maghreb and African Affairs – Mourad Medelci is replaced by the well known former Ministry Secretary-General and AU diplomat Ramtane Lamamra and Abdelkader Messahel has moved to Communications and been replaced by Abdelmajid Bougerra. Tayeb Belaiz, a Bouteflika ally and a former Justice minister (and Constitutional Council member), took the Interior Ministry.  Continuity in the forms of men like Ghoul, Louh, Yousfi and several others  (though above all Sellal who remains Prime Minister and with a high public profile) suggests a limited ‘strike’; so does the fact that many of the technocrats in the new government are relative unknowns compared to members of the past cabinet. Only four in the new cabinet are women.

Of note is that the notice that General Gaid Saleh would take on the role of the vice minister of Defence (which makes him effectively the Minister of Defence, though the President remains the official Ministry of Defence) did not come with one stating that he also would move there from his role as the Chief of Staff of the armed forces; instead he now holds both offices. He replaces Abdelmalek Guenazia in this this role, whose position as being at the centre of one of Algeria’s most powerful clans is well established. Why he left is unclear; Algerie Patriotique, supposedly close to Khaled Nezzar’s camp, reported that he had been considering leaving government for some time anyway. On paper, then, Gaid Saleh’s rank as one of Algeria’s most powerful military men increases to a landmark role as one man has not held both posts since the Civil War. Will he be replaced as Chief of Staff of the Armed Services? So the 11 September reshuffle is not any reshuffle, it is a reshuffle that is likely to be of some consequence in the clan wars of Algeria’s high politics going forward.

Bouteflika is Algeria’s longest-serving president since independence. His presidency is of historic consequence: he is credited with ending the civil war – though AQIM operates in the country and has expanded in the region, the group is of little political consequence and poses no existential threat to the political stability of the county. And he has progressively weakened the position of the military leaders who so thoroughly dominated Algerian politics through the 1980s and 1990s, reestablishing the presidency as a credible centre of political gravity unto itself in a way unseen since the days of Boumediene. All this was boosted by high hydrocarbon prices on the world market and the biological decline of Bouteflika’s own generation, which has run Algeria since independence – allowing him to establish and revive patronage networks around himself and his allies in the military and bureaucracy. He has – like leaders in other Arab countries and Russia – set himself up for a lifetime presidency, abolishing term limits so that the constitution allows him the option to run for office as many times as he pleases, instead of only two terms as specified by the constitution when he to office. Indeed, the Bouteflika era is a distinct period in Algerian history that will be remembered for its relative stability as much as for its reform-oriented authoritarianism, no longer taken as seriously in the region and the west as it was before 2011. And much of this owes to personal manoeuvring by Bouteflika and to the structural resiliency of Algeria’s special form of neo-patrimonialism.

But if Bouteflika was able to establish himself and his people by promoting his own generals and setting up his relatives in lucrative import monopolies, he was still troubled by resistance in the DRS and among its leaders’ clients. His own set, as corrupt as any in Algeria, faced accusations in the press, threats of investigation and prosecution, and eventually investigations and prosecutions in phases. It is widely believed that revolts in the FLN during his first term were the result of mechanisations by the security services, though his opponents lost support at critical junctures for obscure and still unknown reasons. And the DRS remains by most accounts the single most powerful state institution, and the most well known component of the armed forces that remains obviously politicised – even as high level promotions in the rest of the military have allegedly been influenced Bouteflika’s regionalism, by most accounts the ‘professionalisation’ project has gone forward and the military today is at least somewhat less political than it was ten years ago.

It is probably too soon to say that Bouteflika has seized the momentum, though. The press stories on the ‘reorgansiation’ and reshuffle may have been intended to produce this impression but things are more complex and former officers have pushed back on this in the major dailies. Certainly there are those who want the public to believe this is a false start. For example, one piece in El Watan explains that the early descriptions of the supposed reorganisation of the DRS are misleading: The article’s anonymous military sources argue that the DRS, ‘is an organ of ANP, like aviation, infantry, navy or the police’ and is attached to the military command in the same way these other services are; ‘this logically means that the department, which overseas several directorates is logically under the control of the [ANP] staff.’  (See the [dated] chart on the military and paramilitary forces of Algeria on the Charts and Graphic page of this blog for a very general outline of what that looks like. )These officers also highlight that the soldiers who serve in the DSCA (which has counterintelligence and physical security (military police) responsibilities) ‘carry out their duties in the same barracks and units as the AN. It is organically linked to the [ANP] staff even if its soldiers come from the DRS.’ The El Watan piece further states that the transfer of the CCD would only be ‘partial,’ with functions related to monitoring local and foreign media and press would remain within the DRS while  investigations, vetting and monitoring of foreign journalists in Algeria would move to the Chief of Staff. It mentions confusion about the transfer of DRS judicial police authorities and how these relate to components of the DCSA, suggesting this ambiguity may be ‘deliberate.’

The article also quotes a ‘cadre des services’ as stating even though the DRS ‘no longer has authorities to investigate civilians [. . .] this changes nothing.’ The article asks whether these rumours about dismantling the DRS are meant as bluff to boost the presidential clan and add weight to the cabinet reshuffle. It quotes ‘a former senior official’ as saying with the all powerful ‘we’ ‘do not believe that the director of the DRS is weaken, forced to accept the return of a flamboyant president already laying the groundwork for a fourth term. In fact, this reflects an agreement between the two sides for the 2014 presidential election.’ It then quotes additional sources saying that recent events reflect an agreement between the president’s and Tewfik’s clans by ‘putting the president in the saddle in the medium term’ but paving the way for a vice presidency or some other means to allow the president’s opponents leverage; the source disparages Bouteflika’s ‘regionalism’ (the new cabinet like past ones has a large number of people form western Algeria; both the Interior Ministry and the Justice Ministry are headed by Tlemcen men), arguing that this weakens the presidency and his entourage. The presidential clan remains weak, and the source points to Bouteflika’s recent public appearances as evidence ‘Look how Bouteflika’s servants concoct this story about his mediation between Tunisian leaders to have him reappear less comatose, for neither the President nor Said [Bouteflika] could organise such an operation.’

The tone of the quotes in the pushback piece mentioned above is defensive. And it suggests the struggles with the security services and military that have defined so much of Bouteflika’s presidency remain salient going toward 2014; it is almost unbelievable that the solution the president’s camp has chosen is to forge ahead with a fourth term at any price. Based on the president’s physical health one might interpret these moves as efforts to save face and time more than a manoeuvre with decisive intentions. But he might also interpret it as an effort to reinforce the president’s camp for 2014 by stacking the administration with leaders he trusts while he continues to hunt for a successor or prepares to push forward candidates. Attacks on the personal integrity of Said Bouteflika — always a point of speculation as successor to the president —   (the wildest accusing him of drug addiction and homosexuality) have been common in recent months, which suggest that he is seen as a potential threat in some quarters. It hard to believe moves such as these will not provoke some response, passive or active, from the president’s rivals, especially if they are as deep-cutting  as they have made out to be in the media this week — and it does not seem to be known how deep or how relevant the changes reported really can be in a country where state authorities have clients, agents and allies all across ostensibly private society.

[NB: One should also consider the role of Ali Benflis, long out of the public eye but not without a loquacious streak and allies in the FLN engaged in the struggle over the party leadership — who ran against Bouteflika with the backing of the military and DRS (allegedly) in 2004. It lead to his being ostracised  from the party and a purge of his largely eastern clan from the upper ranks of the party. He is believed to been a factor in recent quarrels. And of course, what can be said about Ahmed Ouyahia, former Prime Minister (on many occasions) and ex-RND secretary general, often seen as a potential Bouteflika successor for Toufik’s camp.]

Is Algeria heading for ever more clan competition? Is the country already in the midst of an epic fight now that will only be resolved later? Or has September started with a major set of moves that have broken a political deadlock now years old?

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