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