Some sections worth highlighting from ‘From Revolution to Domestication: The Foreign Policy of Algeira,’ in Bahgat Korany and Dessouki, Ali E. Hillal, The Foreign Policies of Arab States: The Challenges of Change, Second Edition, Westview, 1991, pp. 125. Today many conversations about Abdelaziz Bouteflika re about his age, his health, his expressions, and other features of the bizarre period since his departure for and return from medical treatment in France after strokes nearly a year ago. Some Algerians complain of becoming a laughing stock, falling behind the curve in a region with major changes occurring while their president, clearly ill moves for a fourth term. As most know, Bouteflika was not always this way.
It is worth noting historical depictions and studies of Bouteflika prior to his return to public life and rise to the Presidency, as well as patterns of decision-making during his most formative years, the Boumedienne era. Prior to the time when Bouteflika broke the record for longest-serving President of Algeria, and others broke their own bureaucratic records, he was among the youngest ministers of his generation and the longest-serving Foreign Minister under Boumedienne. Even on his taking office he was an aggressive public personality, spritely and dynamic. The ‘hyper-presidential’ model that developed under Bouteflika after 1999 — which brought stability to the regime in general and reestablished the Presidency as the center of power as such – after years of the Presidency acting as a proxy or extension of the military core especially after 1992. Bouteflika’s return to prominence caused tensions in the military among those fearing his ambition and ‘authoritarian’ tendencies and forced elites to take sides in the emergent order. The construction of what has sometimes been called a ‘neo-Boumediennist’ order is what has set Bouteflika a part from his predecessor, Zeroual: returning with the support of key military decision-makers, a country moving out of conflict rather than in the midst of it and political lifetime lived exclusively at the center or attempting to move toward the center of power. Bouteflika poses features of a common personality in political life: the political animal seeking power as an end in and of itself, not a mere means to an end, not a dirty ‘must do’ or ‘without which not,’ but as the driving force in his life tied up in transcendent visions intimately linked to their own self image and identity. These people seize opportunities during crises or as crises terminate, when they believe they can make a mark on the world around them. They attach themselves to causes and identify themselves with them publicly, if not privately. Such people are likely to make enemies as well as to win supporters because their ambition is often bolstered by charisma and attention to details even in small things that attracts the confidence others. They proceed deliberately, planning and plotting their way ahead over months, years and even decades. They often have personal visions that are bounded by a sense of realism or cynicism. They make no pretense or effort to please everyone and their accomplishments are often somewhat exaggerated. Bouteflika was first asked to act as a ‘fresh face’ for the military in the mid-1990s and refused, willing to wait for a wider opening for himself to take control and define the political direction of the country. Such people are often confronted by similarly ambitious and resolute personalities fearful of their ascent; they face the risk of backstabbing and counter mechanizations. Bouteflika is not an exception here a many readers will know. But those who know the land survive and Bouteflika knows the political culture and terrain as well as any: the expectations leaders are held to, the animating cues to rile up a crowd, the contours and borderlands between generations. He is also lucky: he returned to politics amid high and rising hydrocarbon prices, and a world campaign on terrorism that made allies from otherwise ambivalent powers. If order and prestige on the international stage came with Bouteflika, a rebooted style of rule appears to not to have removed the opacity, malaise and ‘vision problem’ that has confronted the Algerian state since the departure of Boumedienne and the death of the infitah.
Three, and now four terms, of Bouteflika seem to have left the country with similar or the same contradictions and troubles that led to past crises. Since 2011, Algeria has appeared as a symbol of the old order, a reactionary regime hunkering down to avoid the catastrophes of its basket-case neighbors and paranoid of the success of its less dysfunctional ones. And the inertia in foreign-policy that seemed to have kept Algeria’s ‘playing its role’ in Mali looks to have been bound up in rivalries and internal conditions. Algeria has gotten bad press on this front, some of it fair, some of it less so.
Common apprehension about change aside, the risk of repeating past transition traumas is real and leaders of the quality or type of Bouteflika are not easy to find or create. Risk aversion is often a symptom of some other sickness. As many Algerian leaders, some more frequently than others, have urged in recent months and years, there is a an urge for ‘revitalization’ and ‘renaissance’ and desire for substantive reform. Changes in the security services leadership and structure and earlier reforms in 2011 appear to have been meant to appease some of this and to boost the spectacle of presidential power in times of crisis. Much of what has been done in the last two years seems to be meant to buy time for broader, harder decisions. Even more of it, though, seems to be the result of delays owing to conflict at hight levels and an inability to reach decisions because of glitches at the very heart of a hyper-presidential regime, structured around a number of interest groups and clans but reliant on some of those in particular for affirmative movement.