The Army and the Status Quo

2012_Bouteflika_gaid_2_861357901_522205151Late last year this blogger published a partial analysis of the discourse and geopolitical focus areas of El Djeich, the official journal of the Algerian military for a trade journal (readers may inquire if they like via the ‘About This Blog’ page). The piece focused on 2012 as a year of crisis for the region and Algeria and how this was reflected in El Djeich’s reporting on various regional topics (the Sahel, Libya, etc. counting numbers of mention for certain topics, places and so on) and editorials. The internal succession crisis (presumed by many analysts) was another area of focus, as the stability of the Algerian regime’s core depends in part on its ability to maintain control at its peripheries and threats posed to ‘Algeria’s stability’ at the regional and international level can usually be read as the sustainability of the core elite’s interests broadly defined (overlapping with selected regional-international interests). El Djeich – if it can be seen representing the ‘line’ of the high command — has held on to this defensive outlook emphasizing the military’s role in supporting the political status quo amid external threats. Continue reading

New Chart: Another FLN Sketch

The image below is a sketch of the FLN party structure as described here, on its website. This description differs from past descriptions in some academic texts as well as on the party’s old website and in some flyers from several years ago. Past descriptions describe a larger number of committees for a wider variety of topic areas; this was described on this blog in the past (August 2013) here. The sketch here is simplified and should not be considered ‘complete’ (please contact this blogger with errors or corrections, or additions as such things contribute to ignorance and must be corrected and suggestions from those who know better help to combat ignorance); it does not go into great detail. It is meant to give  a basic idea of how Algeria’s dominant political party is set up and why it has been able to muster followers to the polls so much in the past and why that same structure has actually contributed to factionalism and dissension that was common over the last three years in particular (a big tent nationalist party with a broad membership and a decentralized structure at the grass roots which becomes more hierarchical going up the ranks, following the administrative structure of the Algerian state; this is similar in many ways to the RND, the FLN’s ‘little brother’ party). The process of decision-making found in the party program is not always adhered to strictly, a source of discontent internally; some do as they want regardless of the rules of procedure and factional exclusion often leads to the kind of multiple conferences and fist fights that marked some meetings in the 2010-2013 period. One clique has its direction, another has its own but they share the same party; and so measures are taken to activate obscure rules or to simply sidestep them all together. In the past there were Algerian observers and academics that observed a lack of respect for institutions and attributed it to long periods spent without a constitution, with the authorities living by decree, and a military-shaped political and party culture build having links to the strong role the military played in the party until the late 1980s. Today there may be something to this as well as the politics of the rentier system which when not managed best result in negative tendencies even among those attempting to do good.

Furthermore, on the even of the presidential election, an examination of the party apparatus meant to hold up the incumbent is necessary. The RND has a similar structure (not identical) and serves similar purposes. Both parties are products of the reform of the old parti unique system, in which political parties were instruments of military-administrative purposes, mobilizing mass power for regime initiated campaigns and the distribution of rent. In the old system, the party was among the weakest regime elements and one legacy of this is the enduring weakness of Algerian political parties, which remain dominated by heavy personalities, supporting individual or clique ambitions. Algerian parties often seem to be like capes for prominent people, the Louisa Hannoune’s PT, the MSP of Mahdoudh Nahnah, Moussa Touati’s FNA all follow this pattern. Once the leader is gone the party is likely to go with it. The administrative quality of the FLN and RND gives them greater longevity (though it is difficult to imagine their ability to survive out of power). These parties are made up of powerful clans, cliques and networks tied to the state administration and other leavers of power in the business and energy sectors, and so on; the military had a more overt role till the early 1990s and now has a more opaque one which often is more in the way of the retired than active soldiers having influence, sway or interest in its affairs aside from the political components of the security services, which have always had their ‘place‘ in all political formations in Algeria’s history. More to follow. Continue reading

A Pillar of the Regime and Among the Youngest Ministers of His Generation

bouteflika-et-salahSome 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.

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Stability at Any Cost?

C’est enfin l’armée qui a choisi Bouteflika en 1999, vingt ans après l’avoir écarté. Hélas pour elle, l’arrivée aux affaires de ce dernier a considérablement réduit l’influence des militaires sur la vie politique. À tel point qu’en 2004 le chef d’état-major Mohamed Lamari (décédé en 2012) et une partie de la hiérarchie militaire se sont ouvertement opposés à la réélection de “Boutef”. Une situation inédite qui nuira finalement au général : avec la réélection de Bouteflika, l’armée perd, pour la première fois de son histoire, son rôle d’arbitre dans un scrutin présidentiel. Qu’en est-il depuis ?

“Coup d’État militaire sous couvert médical”

Ni l’omnipotence du président ni son habileté politique n’ont réussi à dépouiller complètement l’institution militaire algérienne de son statut de rouage essentiel du système qui gouverne l’Algérie depuis plus d’un demi-siècle. C’est pourquoi Bouteflika, tout chef suprême des forces armées et ministre de la Défense qu’il est, s’en méfie en permanence. Cette méfiance s’est accentuée après son accident vasculaire cérébral du 27 avril 2013. Redoutant “un coup d’État militaire sous couvert médical”, il est alors persuadé qu’une partie du commandement de l’armée pourrait le déposer en appliquant l’article 88 de la Constitution, qui décrit les cas d’empêchement du président de la République, parmi lesquels la maladie.

Lors de sa convalescence au centre de repos des Invalides, à Paris, Bouteflika entame les premières manoeuvres pour réduire cette menace. Il marginalise son ministre délégué à la Défense, le général Abdelmalek Guenaïzia, coupable d’avoir manifesté peu d’enthousiasme à l’idée d’un quatrième mandat. Le 11 septembre 2013, le président va plus loin encore en effectuant un remaniement gouvernemental : Guenaïzia est remplacé par Gaïd Salah, qui cumule désormais les fonctions de vice-ministre de la Défense et de chef d’état-major. Le danger est écarté.

Dans la foulée, alors que rien ne l’imposait, Bouteflika procède à une profonde restructuration du Département du renseignement et de la sécurité (DRS, services secrets). Par la suite, il actionne la commission des ressources humaines du ministère de la Défense pour accélérer la mise à la retraite d’une partie des officiers supérieurs, parmi lesquels des généraux manifestement opposés à un renouvellement de bail du locataire d’El-Mouradia.

Pour renforcer la pression sur l’armée, une campagne de presse contre le DRS, présenté comme une police politique, est lancée par des personnalités et des médias réputés proches de l’entourage présidentiel. Amar Saadani, secrétaire général du Front de libération nationale (FLN, parti dont Bouteflika est le président d’honneur), dénonce l’influence considérable des services secrets sur la vie politique et le fonctionnement institutionnel de l’Algérie.

Cette diversion permet d’évacuer les questions sensibles de l’état de santé du président et de sa capacité à gouverner. Les appels à la mise en oeuvre de l’article 88 de la Constitution ne sont plus un sujet d’actualité. Deux semaines après le début de cette campagne anti-DRS, Bouteflika sort de son mutisme pour défendre l’honneur de l’armée et celui des services ; il met ainsi casernes et mess d’officiers dans sa poche. Plus rien ne s’oppose désormais à un quatrième mandat. “L’armée n’est plus ce qu’elle était”, confie, désabusé, un général à la retraite. Ce n’est peut-être pas une mauvaise nouvelle pour l’Algérie. 

Jeune Afrique (online, 17 March 2014): ‘Algérie | Algérie : comment Bouteflika a neutralisé l’armée.’

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Complex Domination

An excellent piece at Jadaliyya by Thomas Seres [link] describes the Algerian regime as an ‘economic cartel [. . .] an assemblage of actors that controls a field (the State), and must agree on certain things in order to assure its benefits — whether they are material or symbolic’. This is among the best descriptions of the situation recently, particularly in terms of the ‘4th Mandate’ debate and the almost unprecedented acrimony surrounding it in the Algerian public sphere and a system of complex domination.

This explains Abdelmalek Sellel’s announcement that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika will seek to spend a fourth term in office. The reappointment of an old man who has not appeared in public for two years must have seemed to be the best possible solution to ensure the status quo. Perhaps there was no consensus in choosing another candidate? Perhaps this is merely a way to postpone the question of succession? In reality, any attempt to grasp the deep logic behind this decision begins to look like Kremlinology – a haphazard interpretation of the signs of power. That which is clear following Sellal’s declaration, however, is that the cartel has taken a gamble: it will not change its most illustrious representative, even though he has been reduced to an entity that must be animated by a series of grotesque tricks.

Of course this blogger and many others of fans of ‘Pouvoirology’ and the politics of rumour and conspiracy. Seres observes:

It was necessary, then, for nothing to change. There is certainly a lesson to learn: the Algerian political system operates just as well without a “functioning” president. This is also an example for commentators who tend to personalize political regimes. In modern states, bureaucratic mechanisms, budgetary constraints, and international accords all considerably reduce the possible impact of any single individual – no matter how highly placed in the system. Since the Algerian state is not a “failed state,” it highlights that a Head of State is unnecessary – at least from the point of view of effective decision-making.

We should also ask ourselves about the risks that came with this announcement. It seems self-evident that the desire to maintain the status quo does not ensure its continuation—surely that would be granting an exaggerated omnipotence of those who control the State. Again, we see that the candidacy of Abdelaziz Bouteflika very much represents a gamble taken by the cartel.

Contrary to what is often said in Algeria, notably by the many conduits of official paranoia, the risk probably will not come from abroad. There is no “multinational oligarchy that still dreams of subjugating Algeria,” no imperialist conspiracy that would seize any opportunity to destabilize the country.  There is one good reason for this: the Algerian state is a major regional partner and is increasingly cooperative. In Mali, the French intervention benefited from an authorization to use Algerian airspace, as well as timely logistical support. The Algerian commandos were also involved with the American Special Forces’ hunt of jihadists in south Libya [1]. As one indication of this strategic convergence of interests, an Algerian delegation was present at the meeting of NATO’s parliamentary group meeting in Rome. In short, Algeria and the Armée Nationale Populaire (ANP) cannot be seen as the target of an international conspiracy. The stability of the country is too important for its international partners, who have nothing to gain by speaking out against a solution that guarantees the status quo.

From this perspective, those who continue to claim that the DRS still controls the political landscape will increasingly find it hard to rail against Bouteflika’s fourth term.  After all, if the president is nothing more than a façade that hides the real struggle between “praetorians,” then who cares about the vitality of the individual who occupies the position? He would be nothing more than a puppet in the “façade democracy,” and priority would not be given to his election, but rather to the dominance of the military. But this scenario only holds if one considers the military to be the only actor who matters in the political game, which would be far too simplistic. Instead, it is clear that Sonatrach, the ministers, and even the presidency, all play a role. And it is exactly because the latter is in a position of power, among others, that it can be considered insulting to have an aging, sick man, run for president – again.

In the coming weeks, it is not the cries of outrage coming from the editorialists that deserve our scrutiny. Indeed, they have been indignant for many years, and their criticisms have never managed to shake the cartel [2]. However, it would be much more worrisome for the supporters of the status quo should Bouteflika’s fourth term become a common theme in the multiple forms of protests that express the persistent and profound nature of popular discontentment. We certainly have not reached this point yet, and there is hardly any doubt that the Direction Générale de la Sûreté Nationale (DGSN) will do whatever is necessary to prevent cross-sector mobilizations, tracking each slogan that exceeds the habitual socio-economic demands. And still, all forms of control have their limits. One should not prematurely judge the quantity of insults that people can stomach without reacting.

The whole thing is worth reading. It also reminds the reader to think beyond any description of a ‘political-financial mafia’ centered around one family or clan; and to look even further at the heaving tangle of interests that continue to dominate Algeria.

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. Continue reading

Comments on Algeria

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?

Issandr El Amrani, ‘Stability in Algeria, or is reform even possible?’, 28 April 2013. Continue reading

Some Early Algeria Perspectives on the Sahel Situation

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

New Tables, Charts: Sellal Cabinet c. 2012

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.

Clinton in Algiers: Coverage of the 29 October Visit

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.

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Broad Thoughts on Algeria’s New Cabinet

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.

Comparison of Ouyahia’s cabinet (2010-2012) to Sellal’s cabinet (2012). 


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.  Continue reading

Re: The MSP & Leaving the Coalition

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.

The Way Forward: Schmes & Speculation

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

More North African Readings

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

Exceptions, Agency, Structure

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