Since Abdelaziz Bouteflika returned from prolonged convalescence in France late this past summer, Algeria has seen three moves that have been seen in most public writing as representing a resurgence of the President’s clan over his rivals in the DRS. These changes are, generally: Continue reading
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. Continue reading
If left unaddressed, the social, economic, and political grievances festering beneath the surface in Algeria could rapidly escalate into popular revolts that threaten the regime’s stability. The government must begin enacting managed political reform or face the possibility of collapse.
[. . .]
Several factors have allowed the Algerian regime to avoid an uprising, including a cash surplus from oil and gas resources that funds direct handouts to the population; the protesters’ failure to unite around common grievances; the security forces’ success in managing protests without greatly inflaming tempers; and searing memories of the country’s civil war that make most Algerians shy away from potentially violent situations.
Lahcen Achy, ‘The Price of Stability in Algeria,’ 25 April 2013.
post-Arab uprisings one has to wonder: is “managed reform” ever a possibility, and if so what is its aim? Managed reform was what was being advocated in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and elsewhere before 2011. It invariably was carried out only superficially — but was nonetheless part of the rhetoric of these regimes. They were always on the road to reform, and often did implement some sort of changes, especially in economic policy, but never democratized. If anything, appearing to be engaged in a process of reform considerably increased the political risk for these regimes, creating a gap between the rhetoric of reform and the reality of autocratic rule. Autocratic regimes that never claimed to reform, like Saudi Arabia (indeed most monarchies) or Sudan, turned out to be safer.
The lesson for autocrats from the Arab Spring, indeed, may be “whatever you do, don’t reform.” Do not initiate a process that promises more than you can deliver. If, like me, you believe the central cause of the uprisings was not strictly political or economic, but moral — that the regimes had exhausted their capital of legitimacy and were proving unable to renew it — it’s not clear that Algeria has reached that point of collapse. The regime continues to have legitimacy, after all.
Isn’t the story elsewhere, at the heart of how power and legitimacy is constituted and understood in Algeria, and what will happen to the real power structures of Le Pouvoir once dominant personalities leave the scene?
SUMMARY: Thus far Algerian press coverage of France’s military intervention in northern Mali (Operation SERVAL), in reaction to additional thrusts south by Mali’s jihadist coalition, is divided. Scepticism that has been prevalent in Algerian media coverage of calls for the internationalisation of the Malian crisis remains a strong thread in opinion and editorial writing nonetheless. While significant strands of elite opinion (especially at the political level) appear to have somewhat rallied to support military intervention in northern Mali. At the same time, the Algerian government’s longstanding position in favour of ‘dialogue’ and a ‘political solution’ to the crisis remain evident in press reports, government statements and scepticism over the prospects the intervention will successfully resolve Mali’s troubles persists. Comments from Algerian intellectuals (depicting the campaign as a ‘proxy war’ of the United States or as destined for failure) and highlights given to the opinions of certain French voices suggest some level of discomfort over France’s intentions and the Algerian government’s role in the crisis; this is to be expected to some extent given the background of distrust between Paris and Algiers over Mali as well as the nature of Franco-Algerian relations in general. Outside of the major dailies, some confusion does appear to exist over Algiers’s position in the ongoing struggle – a result of the government’s stinginess with public comments.
The Algerian government’s decision to allow over flight rights to the French Air Force, along with troop and helicopter movements in southern Algeria suggest Algiers will likely play an enabling role by opening airspace, attempting to block off escape routes, and intelligence sharing (the targets and locations hit by the French suggest Algeria and other countries may be assisting in this manner). The Algerians may also seek to assist in negotiating post-war planning, despite the [apparent] failure of its diplomatic efforts vis-à-vis Ansar Ed-Dine and Bamako; the timing of Malian Prime Minister Diango Cissoko’s two-day visit to Algiers speaks to Algiers’s continuing desire to impact political conditions in Mali. France’s aggressive (speaking descriptively, not legally) moves in Mali appear to have given momentum to international and regional efforts to push forward an intervention in Mali and may be bringing along Algeria at the same time. The messages coming out in certain (especially French-language) Algerian press accounts, via anonymous security officials, is that Algeria decided to abandon dialogue with Ansar Ed-Dine and others in northern Mali in favour of an immediate armed campaign when its leaders renounced non-aggression pacts they signed at Algiers’s egging and participated in attacks in Konna and elsewhere with AQIM. This post only reviews French-language media, Arabic-language media will be covered in a separate post. It looks at perspectives through the beginning of the week of 13 January. Continue reading
Last year, this blog posted a selection of graphs and charts about the newly appointed cabinet led by Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal. Below is a PDF document with a listing of ministers and some biographic information, graphs and diagrams. This is mainly the same information as in previous posts, with some updates for accuracy and detail. The document can be viewed on the TMND Scribd account and referenced on the ‘Charts and Graphics‘ page on this blog.
SUMMARY. This post surveys some of the public discourse on American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Algiers on 29 October 2012, looking at official statements and Algerian press coverage of the visit. It is the base from which this blogger’s recent article in the CTC Sentinel (‘An Algerian Press Review: Determining Algiers’ Position on an Intervention in Mali‘; the title is perhaps somewhat misleading) was written. As such it was mostly written in early November. This post is primarily concerned with the press coverage of the visit than with Algeria’s Mali policy as such.
Some thoughts on recent appointments in Algeria. This is how things look from roughly 06/07 September to 11 September, to this observer at least. All impressions subject to change.
- There are superficial demographic similarities between this cabinet and previous ones, but Bouteflika’s ‘clan’s’ dominance specific is less emphatic than before. Boudjerra Soltani who heads the MSP (whose political fortunes have been in the dumps since the May election) describes the new ‘technocratic’ cabinet as ‘punishment for the FLN’. There Prime Minister belongs to no political party, which Soltani seems to take as evidence of the ‘breaking of all alliances’ with the political parties and Bouteflika. Certainly the new cabinet looks somewhat like an effort at fronting something newer, younger and actionable (see the two charts below comparing the last Ouyahia cabinet to the recently appointed Sellal cabinet, note that Sellal’s cabinet remains slightly smaller). If the rumours are true (which they well may not be), Bouteflika has been absent and sick and is preparing the ground for the end of his presidency. It is unlikely major changes will result from this cabinet, but it may increase confidence among some foreign investors and firms. Continuity is the more likely outcome of the appointments at the moment, though. As per usual, though, rumours about the President’s health over the summer and the last week point to physical incapacity and/or fatigue, including foreign travel for treatment, somewhat reminiscent of similar rumours in 2005 and 2006. The Foreign Ministry has officially denied these rumours and the press made a big to do when Bouteflika received foreign dignitaries, including the Prime Minister of Qatar, this week. (Each year rumours about Bouteflika’s health or death are taken more and more seriously inside and outside Algeria, for obvious reasons.) It is quite likely that the long period of indecision leading up to the appointments reflects elite deadlock, especially given the president’s ‘condition’ and the proximity to the municipal and 2014 presidential elections.
- Sellal represents basic consensus and continuity. Abdelmalek Sellal is a longtime high-level technocrat linked to the clans loyal to the president. Sellal’s credits include what some consider a successful stint at the Ministry of Water Resources, where TSA says he is ‘using billions of dollars, largely solved the problem of water distribution in the major cities,” without the scandals that rocked the other major industrial and infrastructure enterprises over the last decade (a reference to Public Works minister Amar Ghoul, who is still in the cabinet and recently broke with the MSP). Sellal is a heavyweight and a loyalist to Bouteflika, having run his 2004 reelection campaign and been long associated with the president’s cadre of technocrats, though unlike many of Bouteflika closest associates, Sellal is from Constantine and from a Kabyle background (note also that Sellal was Interior Minister in 1999 and responsible for organising the presidential election in that year, which brought Bouteflika to power). His resume includes times as a wilaya and daira official in Guelma, Tamanrasset, Arzew and the Ministry of the the Interior; Wali in Boumerdes, Adrar, Sidi Bel Abbes, Oran and Laghouat; director general for resources at the Foreign Ministry and Ambassador to Hungry; and as a minister of the Interior, Environment, Public Works, Youth and Sports, Transportation before heading the Ministry of Water Resources. Sellal, 64, has been around the system as much as any high official in Algeria’s recent past, superficially similar to Ouyahia (as a Kabyle alumni of the Ecole National d’Administration (ENA) though he is considered non-ideological and is less polarising). Nonetheless, Sellal’s appointment does appear to be the result of a negotiated process (taking as long as it did) between the ‘clans’ that run Algeria’s politics (Amar Ghoul was widely considered another candidate, likely rejected for any number of reasons) and he is likely represents the technocratic, transitional nature of the regime in Bouteflika’s twilight years.
- The departure of Ahmed Ouyahia, Boubekeur Benbouzid (education), Said Barakat (National Solidarity), Noureddine Zerhouni (advisor. former interior minister), Noureddine Moussa (environment), and Abdellah Khanafou (fisheries) are notable because these are big men with big roles; Ouyahia is obvious but nonetheless very important, and signals some change in direction given Ouyahia’s high profile and association with rather unpopular economic policies. On top of this, one might also look at this as his positioning himself to run a presidential campaign and expand (or rebuilt or fortify) his support base.
- The retention of Amar Ghoul at Public Works has him making money and friends and it will be interesting to see if perceptions of him as gunning over for a presidential run end up being true or if these rumours are true and the political environment actually facilitates some level of success. His new party, TAJ (which he has said is not an Islamist party has helped retain some of his fellow ex-MSP ministers, and it is likely their cabinet positions will help in any effort to build out their party over time.) The appointment of Belkacem Sahli (b. 1974) is also significant generationally speaking and points to elite circulation by bringing in people from later generations, something Algerians who care about cabinet appointments have sought for some time. The average birth year for ministers in the last cabinet was 1947; this cabinet will likely skew closer to 1950, with most ministers still having been born in the late 1940s and 1950s but with a few more born in the 1960s than in the past.
- There are fewer FLN men and people closely associated with the traditional inner circles than in the previous cabinet. The big names are gone: Belkhadem (personal representative of the president), Zerhouni (Interior Minister until 2010, now out of government), Ouyahia, and so on. Men close to Bouteflika, like Abdelhamid Temmar (Forecasting and Statistics) are basically in place and there appears to be space made for any range of constituencies within the regime. This is a negotiated cabinet and one might think this put the FLN and RND on the back foot somewhat, though Belkhadem’s own comments about the cabinet (“we support the government“) and that Ouyahia’s RND did not hold its usually summer school which is significant in both cases considering the November municipal elections are upcoming and will important in showing the strength of both parties’ networks of patronage and their ability to mobilise supporters; Belkhadem especially (and Ouyahia perhaps only slightly less so) is likely to still be thinking about running for president in 2014. The new cabinet also includes fewer men from Tlemcen and western Algeria (unlike previous cabinets which where this ratio was much higher).
- These appointments probably interest outside analysts and pouvoirologists (to steal the phrase recently invented by 7our) and the like more so than ordinary Algerians at the ground level, for whom they make only a minor difference.
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. Continue reading
Boosted by the success of peers in the region, a leading Algerian Islamist party plans to leave the ruling coalition before April’s parliamentary election to press for constitutional reforms to limit the powers of the president.
“We are for a parliamentary system, not a presidential system as is the case now, and we will campaign to change the constitution,” Bouguera Soltani, leader of the Islamist Movement for Society of Peace, told Reuters in an interview. “The final decision belongs to the shura (advisory council) which should take it by the end of this month. Personally I am with those who support the idea to leave the government and the majority is with me,” he said.
The MSP’s withdrawal from the coalition would not strip the government of its majority but the party has a big following among conservative Algerians – a large part of the population.[. . .]
Islamist parties have done well in elections this year after uprisings which overthrew leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. “The circumstances that have seen the birth of the government coalition in 2002 are over. We need to find new ways to do politics,” Soltani said.
‘Algerian Islamists set to quit government and push for reform,’ Reuters 27 December, 2011.
Some quick, disorganised thoughts on these public musings by the head of the Algerian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in the context of the 2012 parliamentary election and the evolving political climate in Algeria.
The MSP sees activity as an opposition party as more profitable than its formal association with the government/regime. The MSP is the largest legal Islamsit party in Algeria. The party’s internal struggles over Soltani’s leadership style and over the party’s role in the ruling coalition have been important in that the party lost seats in parliament as a result (because a group of MPs decided to split off from the party), and that they have called Soltani’s credibility as a leader into question in the last four years or so in particular. Soltani has become less popular with the RND and segments of the FLN in recent years, especially because he has had a tendency to criticise at inopportune times and because members of his party have disagreed with the other coalition parties during votes. In one incident in 2006 Soltani claimed to have dossiers on government corruption, which caused President Bouteflika to publicly rebuke him (the dossiers were not released, but a few years later some of the MSP ministers and their entourages were faced with threats of corruption investigations; Soltani himself has been accused of shady deals with Chinese firms when he was at the Ministry for Fisheries). Some members in parliament have wanted the MSP to have amore independent line than Soltani looked able to to maintain. Others felt the MSP’s views were drowned out by the much larger FLN and RND in policy discussions. That he is now talking to the press about leaving the coalition (for at least the second time with a major media outlet) suggests the MSP is more likely to actually make the split and that it will try to present itself as magnet for religious voters who will give it weight and negotiating power with the FLN and RND. And this kind of move could energise the party’s cadres and rally some support around Soltani. Soltani has said the government is not serious about reform and the coalition and other participatory Islamist parties have come out to point out their dissatisfaction with the last decade in politics, including Abdallah Djaballah (whose situation was written about in this space recently). These formal Islamist parties look to be trying to take the initiative in forming a new political context in a period when the dominant feeling is that reforms are needed and uncertainty and suspicion make it hard to point to credible or viable political leaders or trends as real alternatives. It is perhaps not unreasonable for the party calculate that the Islamist line will be a potent alternative, though the ‘freshness’ of the existing Islamist parties, especially in the MSP, is lacking and they will need to do work to distance themselves from almost a decade of as part of the system. Other parties like Djaballah’s can rely on their more distinctive conservatism and time in the opposition. It is unlikely Algerians will vote for Islamists simply for the sake of voting for Islamists and the fact that the FLN and RND both have considerable resources at the disposal of their party machines both as a function of their incumbency and patronage networks means they can offer and provide local notables and business elites benefits the Islamist parties can only promise. 2011 saw much discontent in Algeria but it remains unclear whether the Islamist tendencies can break the wall of voter apathy and necessarily capitalise on the current climate.
The move also points to the general disillusionment felt by the major legal Islamist parties, whose experience participating in the post-civil war regime has strengthened the regime more than the Islamist trend. While these parties have gain relevance and access to resources they would not otherwise have if the FIS were legal, their involvement in formal politics have kept the religious movements divided and competing with one another in a context of FLN/RND hegemony. The presidential system has the president forming governments and appointing a full third of the upper house of parliament (the Senate); the MSP seems to be calculating that a structural reform allowing parliament to form the government or to have an expanded role in that process could be among the government’s planned reforms (which is unlikely) or that it would able to negotiate such a reform if it won enough seats in the lower house on its own or in cooperation with some other Islamist party or parties. Voter turnout has been low in most elections since 1997 and in 2007 and 2002 saw boycotts by important parties, often secular parties. An enthusiastic Islamist constituency could capitalise on a lack of popular participation if it can be mustered by the parties and their informal leaders, which Djaballah has said he anticipates. Much of this depends on the electoral strategy of the FLN, RND and the non-Islamist opposition parties like the leftist Workers Party (PT) and Front of Socialist Forces (FFS) and right wing secular party the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD). If the FFS runs (it boycotted in 2007) it would likely take a significant part of the vote and pull votes from the RCD and PT currently the largest secular opposition parties in parliament. The MSP does not seem to anticipate the electoral law will be changed to allow the FIS to run, although the government approving a number of smaller Islamist parties as means of dividing the Islamist trend and diluting its performance relative to the historic mass parties and secular opposition parties is not inconceivable. A factor to watch is whether the remaining coalition parties look to pick up another partner party in the event the MSP does leave the coalition, and how the MSP leaving would impact voting and amendments to reforms going through parliament in the interval between a departure and the elections. Times change and the Algerian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood believes it is preparing to move to better political footing as the regional climate changes and the Algerian scene movs into a period where its past arrangements are perhaps less sustainable, especially as President Bouteflika’s era beings to fade. (Keep in mind these parties’ prominence and activity in formal politics very much depended on Bouteflika’s need for them in building the reconciliation narrative and a political segment to help dilute the power of the deep state in formal politics, so they are very much a product of Bouteflika’s rise to power as the general rise in Islamist politics over the last thirty years.) A French-language report on the this development can be seen at DNA, with some background on Soltani’s recent career and background as an imam and state minister and his corruption problems. Readers can search for a number of posts on the MSP and Soltani on this blog as well.
Some general thoughts on recent happenings in the Maghreb: the visits to Algiers and Nouakchott by Mauritanian, Algerian and European officials and Mauritania and signs of itching in the Morocco-Mauritania relationship. Continue reading
There are many rumours and whispers about what will happen in Algeria’s election next year; how the parliament will look, what parties will be allowed to run and which will not, which will perform well and which will not. The Islamist trend is generally assumed to do well, given regional trends, popular sentiments and the government’s effort to put on a show of piety which some say means even they know or believe Islamists inside Algeria may hope to turn out to do what other have in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco. A ‘well informed source’ (government) told the Francophone daily Le Soir D’Algerie about the Algerian government’s supposed strategy for managing the Islamist trend in the upcoming legislative election in either February or March 2012. The article outlines the regime’s perception of the situation generally, lays out how it sees the main Islamist trends emerging and their relationships to one another and to the regional Islamist trend in eastern Algeria and to the ex-FIS cadres and then drops some names from the ‘revolutionary family’ the article’s source says will appear in the campaign in 2012 as part of the Algerian regime’s effort to balance and control Islamist parties and trends. It also includes a reference to the possibility of the FFS participating in the election (it boycotted in 2007). In any case on is curious to find out why other reasonably prominent parties like Moussa Touati’s Algerian National Front (FNA) and so on are not mentioned in the grand scheme Le Soir lays out. This is of course but one report. The is an interesting piece in looking at the Algerian scene as some see it and should, of course, be taken with a grain of salt. This blogger’s comments are interspersed in the text of the summary below. Continue reading
A new Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik report on the Tunisian elections (‘Tunesien: Einmal mehr Vorreiter‘ (‘Tunisia: Once Again a Pioneer’), SWP-Comments 2011, No. 49, November 2011 by Isabelle Werenfels; in German) offers positive comments on Tunisia’s election results and notes some of the economic and structural problems facing the country. It argues for European support for the country’s continued democratization; and it represents a nice break from some of the (widespread) writing in French about the Islamist element. It is worth noting that optimism is easily dashed — even if nowadays Tunisia looks quite good compared to all of its neighbors and Egypt (where transitional problems are being dealt with differently). Certainly worth reading. Continue reading
Richard Phelps argues that Algeria has not seen a popular uprising this year on broad structural lines (‘An Algerian Exception?‘ CMEC Blog): ‘the Algerian regime does not have an identifiable leader with whom political power truly lies’.
In Algeria, the incumbent president Abdulaziz Bouteflika is not the ultimate repository of power in the country. Instead, the military and security forces are and always have been. Indeed, the generals have consistently worked to limit his authority and power, and as a result people know that protesting against his rule may uproot him but will not uproot a more shadowy architecture behind him. Municipal elections in 1990 and parliamentary elections in 1991 offered the Algerian people the prospect for a major overhaul, when they voted in the Islamist party the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) across the board, ejecting the long-incumbent National Liberation Front (FLN). But the military stepped in and took over, banned the FIS, and years of brutal civil war ensued after many took part in an uprising against the regime. The trauma of this experience formally confirmed to Algerians what many had always known – that it is the military that is in charge, not the politicians – and it instructed the regime that popular dissent can be successfully crushed through overwhelming and brutal force. Thus the overwhelming security presence at the demonstrations seen to date.
For all its dissimilarities with Algeria, Lebanon is also an Arab republic with a long history of brutal political violence, and it too has been relatively unaffected by the Arab spring. In neither case is there a single identifiable leader in charge: one hears not of ‘Bouteflika’s Algeria’ as one does of ‘Asad’s Syria’, ‘Gaddafi’s Libya’, or ‘Mubarak’s Egypt’. In both cases – Algeria and Lebanon – there is widespread recognition that power does not lie with Presidents and prime ministers. In Lebanon, power is devolved along sectarian lines rather than concentrated in central government. There would therefore, be little sense in protesting against the rule of the government or a particular leader’s regime, since ultimate power does not lie with them. Continue reading
Freedom House’s recently released its 2011 report on Algeria, authored by top Algeria analyst Amel Boubekeur. It offers a very fine summary of recent elections and how major electoral campaigns work in Algeria and is especially relevant for next year’s legislative elections and other elements of internal politics. Read the whole thing here.
It is often said that the Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is aging and suffering from a wide range of sicknesses. Algerians mock him as a Micky Mouse president; he is short and old and there are many videos and images on the Internet of his face pasted to a dancing baby or cartoon character. Some of his public comments have been put into satirical hip hop songs or techno jams. One is not surprised given the nature of Algerian humor and his popularity among young people (which is generally low). How has Bouteflika’s public persona as reflected in his speeches and rhetoric changed over the twelve years he has been in power? What is he like in public?
His speeches can have a goofy and demagogic feeling to them which can be amusing. Bouteflika used to complement his tiny voice with a wide range of gestures and fist pounding, which he occasionally uses nowadays. As a politician, Bouteflika was a very fine public speaker, particularly when compared to his predecessors with Colonel Chadhli Bendjedid being a good example of one of the sadder public speakers in the Maghreb (Bouteflika is not as eloquent as Morocco’s Hassan II, though, and their styles were/are drastically different for rather different audiences. He is easier to listen to in Arabic than General Gaid-Salah who sounds rather gruff and unpleasant even for a military man, no offense to military men.) He sometimes makes jokes for the camera or puts on an energetic and angry tone, waving his finger in the air, seeming to jump up and down in his seat if giving a speech form behind a desk rather than a podium.
After a decade in power and the deterioration of his health (kidney troubles, ulcers and so on) Bouteflika is far less exciting though he still makes a fair amount of public appearances for someone in his condition. Bouteflika has had a long political career. It has been generally consistent over time though there are marked changes in the last few years and these are the result of natural causes rather than rhetorical strategy per se). He does not bang his fist as much these days and he is not capable on most days it seems of raising or inflecting his voice to the extent he did even three or four years ago. Readers can judge this for themselves: compare his speech on reform from earlier this year to his early campaign speeches or the speeches he made in his earliest ones as president. Or even compare his speeches from 2009 to those from this past year. He has aged (he is 74) though he still seems to favor dark three-piece suits almost year round and over time looks like he has taken to less and less busy ties (he always favored darker, more modest colors and even more so nowadays it seems). On occasion one will see Bouteflika in public wearing traditional clothes of whatever region he is visiting, a bournous here a djabellah there and so on. He dresses like an old man and has always embraced a public presentation that made him look grandfatherly or avuncular and he does not attempt to look younger than he is by dying his hair (like Mubarak and Ben Ali did for example) or the like. He embraces his age linking it to his revolutionary credentials and his association with Houari Boumediene. Of Algeria’s presidents, Bouteflika has built the closest thing to a personality cult without quite getting there in the proper sense (as seen here) and nothing quite on the order of the Moroccan monarchy or the As’ad or Mubarak or Qadhafite sort (Algerians react poorly to such things) and in the Arab context is not especially exceptional in this way.
Below are eleven videos. Most have years with them but some do not and readers are welcome to give their estimates or clarifications. All are in Arabic and/or French, some include remarks in Kabyle (by people who are not Bouteflika). No translations but non-Arabophone and Francophone readers will be able to make observations based on body language and inflection and tone and so on. Some are long and one can get a sense of them by clicking through the video. Your blogger realizes that this is a lot of Bouteflika and it is not meant as an endorsement but these are worth looking through given his health issues and that he has been in power for twelve years and the regime he heads up has thus far withstood the Arab uprisings. What is this very short man like in public? See for yourself. Continue reading
[This post comes from notes taken down in the last week. It considers the aftermath of the 12 February protests and the challenges facing people looking for political change in Algeria. It also considers the dispositions of the opposition and their relationship to the people. It also looks, if superficially, at some issues in rural politics. More to come soon enough.]
The organizers of the 12 February demonstration have vowed to hold weekly demonstrations until the government meets their demands. The CNCD, the coalition of opposition forces organizing the protests, suffers numerous obstacles in mobilizing the critical mass needed to produce the political pressure seen in Tunisia and Egypt. It lacks a mass following and it has not been able to attract large numbers of followers from the lower classes and rural people into its ranks. (As the 12 February protests went on poor families squatting in abandoned public housing were being confronted by police attempting to evict them in parts of the capital.) Additionally, the most vocal personalities associated with it — Said Sadi of the RCD and Ali Belhadj for example — alienate other opposition groups and many mainstream Algerians, put off by Sadi’s aggressive secularism and links to the security services and Belhadj’s religious views and links to the historic FIS. The CNCD benefits from good links to student groups though these need to be expanded to a broader set of campuses. Algeria lacks the credible social intermediaries that help make popular mobilization possible and effective; part of this is the result of regime policy (the near total absorption of civil society into the FLN during the one-party phase for example which has hindered business and labor groups from building strong roots in society) and partly the result of the atomization caused by careless urbanization and the Civil War (and the colonial experience before that). Social and political fragmentation give way to many of the problems facing Algerian society today and empower the regime’s hand in politics significantly. Continue reading
The fall of Egypt’s long time dictator Husni Mubarak may have an impact on the demonstrations planned for 12 February in Algeria. Most assessments appraising the likelihood of a popular revolution in Algeria have been grim: Algeria’s civil society is too weak, its political parties too divided and unpopular to inspire or direct an Egyptian or Tunisian-style mass movement. Protests and uprisings are often localized and spontaneous rather than organized as previous Egypt’s 6 April and Kifaya movements were. Its urban geography, some wrote, is more restrictive than Cairo’s or Tunis’s, lacking large public squares where demonstrators might camp out or confront security forces. These are all valid points and reflect keen observations of Algeria’s political scene. One would be surprised if Said Sadi could turn out large masses of Algerians beyond Algiers and Kabylia. The other factions making up the Coordination nationale pour le changement et la démocratie (CNCD) are small, though each has its own constituency. The Algerian security services have been preparing to swallow up the 12 February protests over the last week (if not more), particularly since the state denied the organizers’ application for a permit to assemble. Because the protests have been associated with the RCD, many doubted the legitimacy of the protests and their intentions; in particular the FFS, the RCD socialist rival in Kabylia, refused to participate as well as have other opposition parties. Some have speculated as to the motivations behind the protests given Said’s links to the DRS. That the demonstration permit was denied lends the demonstrations additional credibility. (the CNCD also includes groups like SOS disparus (an advocacy group for the families of people disappeared during the Civil War), Tharwa Fatma N’Soumer (a group opposed to the 1984 Family Code and especially interested in women’s empowerment) and several independent labor unions.) If 12 February is a success in the sense of turn out it will not be due strictly to the work of the CNCD: it will owe to a whole climate of dissatisfaction and frustration. And the regime’s efforts to smother the protests may have the opposite of their intended effect.
The fall of Husni Mubarak might inspire some politically minded Algerians to go out and join the march in Algiers or elsewhere; but to draw the comparison between the Egyptian movement which focused on Mubarak and “his regime” and Algerian political problem is somewhat difficult. The Algerian regime is more effective at managing popular protests and riots than either Tunisia or Egypt, having done so for the last twelve years. The slow official response to the January demonstrations (as compared to the relatively fast and repetitious public statements from the former leaders of Tunisia and Egypt) helped the regime deprive demonstrators of public targets in the form of the the President or the Prime Minster. This was like partly a learned feature (the aggressive and callus statements from former Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni during the April 2001 events had a radicalizing effect not unlike Mubarak’s, though very different in tone) and the result of Algerian decision-making processes which ordinarily takes a great amount of time.
The regime already faced a significant popular protest movement in 1988. The response to that crisis is often remembered in terms of the 1992 elections, called after a period of impressive liberalization and aborted when Islamists looked likely to win. The years of suffering that followed are well known to most. The motivation for the transition has been revealed (and debated) in the commentary and memoirs of contemporaries having been the survival of the old regime by writing the electoral law to favor mass-based parties like the FLN so that the former single party could run younger, more religious candidates and co-opt voters’ religious preference while allowing the ancien regime to maintain its hard grip on the country with a popular mandate. The FIS, modeling itself on the FLN benefited from the new electoral law, though. Chadli failed and Army generals visited him in the Presidential Palace and talked him into resigning and giving them control of the country. The regime that came after, a junta, used Chadli’s strategy: it advanced Liamine Zeroual in the 1995 presidential election. The genealogy of Bouteflika’s leadership comes out of that process; internal competition between factions within the regime reflects the same institutional rot that afflicts other long-standing Arab regimes rather than ideological distention. Because Algeria’s core elite is divided between elements of the military and the president’s loyalists there is a possibility that the deep state may attempt to use 12 February as an opportunity to expand their role own power; encouraging or allowing violence to occur would give the security forces a louder voice in government. It might also give them a means of getting concessions out of the civilian leadership in economic policy and on certain political questions. But the regime as a whole understands how dangerous excessive force could be in the current regional climate. That one or the other elite faction might try to exploit the demonstrations for internal leverage is perhaps the greatest risk for both demonstrators, officials and their allies. Practically all key players understand the importance of avoiding the steps that led to the “national tragedy” though those in power see this as meaning maintaining power for themselves more shrewdly than Mubarak or Ben Ali did. In their view this requires a willingness to do just about anything, violent or otherwise.
Keep in mind that the Algerian regime has something neither Tunisia nor Egypt has: piles and piles of gas money ready to be dumped on the right opposition and social players as needed. The government can buy off political figures and their bases; it can attempt to pacify religious and tribal leaders by dumping money and infrastructure on them. Algeria’s leaders may benefit from the country’s status as a major energy exporter to Europe and America in the event of serious street struggle.
The RCD’s headquarters in Algiers was has already been surrounded by police after three hundred people reportedly congregated there to demonstrate their satisfaction with the fall of Mubarak. What kind of affect early obstruction might have will depend on how many people turn out in force to begin with: the masses of police on the streets may have a serious psychological impact on smaller demonstrators and if the demonstrations are as easily dispersed as on 22 January its unlikely that much else will follow. And while many Algerians are thoroughly dissatisfied with Bouteflika, most understand the real political challenge is the whole system, the politicized military leadership, the economic oligarchs, the not mere personalities. Many Algerians have been impressed by the fall of Mubarak, though. Buses of people are heading to Algiers from the surrounding cities and provinces, blocked by the police. By cutting out those seeking to protest peacefully (and with a limited popular appeal) the regime is increasing the likelihood of spontaneous, violent demonstrations which may indeed be to the government’s advantage. While the opposition is weak and without strong popular credentials (not wholly committed to the 12 February movement) there is more potential for something much bigger than previously anticipated as a result of recent events and the anxiety they may cause in the security services and the government at large. Mubarak’s fall has raised the stakes for Algeria’s 12 February march. But his fall does not necessarily make Bouteflika’s imminent. More to come.
[Compiled from a series of notes taken down from Wednesday, 2 January - Saturday, 5 February.]
It has been announced the Algerian government plans to lift the nine-teen year state of emergency “very soon,” and will undertake economic measures to increase job growth and social stability (for instance, more housing credits). Promises of fair access to media for political parties have been mentioned. As both houses of parliament broke they pledged increase dialogue and involvement with youth. This may be seen as a response to uprisings in late December and January and in anticipation of planned demonstrations in Algiers on 12 February (organized by political parties and activists under the banner of the Committee for Coordination of National Change and Democracy), as Algerian decision-makers watch developments in Egypt. Official statements have mentioned that the purpose of the emergency law is to fight terrorism and that in the event of its removal legal provisions will be made to ensure that the counter-terrorism capacities it allows do not suffer. The president clarified that although the state of emergency would eventually be lifted, protests would not be allowed in the capital “for reasons well known”. Former Interior Minister and current Deputy Prime Minister Noureddine Zerhouni warned that protestors would be responsible for what happens to them if they turn out in Algiers in violation of the emergency law. (Indeed, Algiers is reportedly thick with security ahead of 12 February.) These announcements marked the president’s first comments following the unrest in December and January. The opposition greeted these measures with suspicion and cautious optimism. They are unlikely to address the deep grievances of average Algerians. Many Algerians see talk of repealing the emergency law while adopting new anti-terror laws as a normalization of the status quo. Continue reading
David Kenner has an interesting posting at Foreign Policy on the “long-term viability of Algerian strongman Abdelaziz Bouteflika,” based on Wikileaks cables. American diplomats identified key risks to Tunisia’s stability in leaked State Department cables, Kenner writes, and the cables on Algeria may be similarly predictive or useful in some other way. “Is Algeria next?” It identifies the harraga phenomenon and conversations between American officials and Said Sadi. In answering Kenner’s question these are valid points of reference. As someone put it on Twitter recently, “impossible is not Algerian”; Algeria’s long-term stability is very uncertain and it seems increasingly likely that discontent with the country’s managed crisis will produce some kind of political rearrangement in the near future. The harraga issue deserves comment as is shared between Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Libya and because it is interesting to think out politically in terms of Kenner’s overall question, which is important and reasonable (especially as most commentary has focused on Egypt as the next candidate for popular destabilization). The Sadi conversation needs to be put into political context. Continue reading