Many rumors and news reports have hinted at the creation of additional Military Regions in Algeria over the last three years. These have usually been described as responses to the Arab Spring, the Mali crisis, the disintegration of Libya, and the proliferation of increasing capacity and mobility of terrorist groups in the region. The January 2013 In Amenas crisis was a major catalyst for the revisiting and revision of key Algerian security doctrines in recent years. Algerian military journals have highlighted numerous analytical and academic conferences and symposiums held at the Military Region, command, and national level addressing Algeria’s threat environment and strategic position in the region. Press reports have suggested that the military high command has moved to implement lessons learned and boost the country’s defensive position by reorganizing large parts of the military command infrastructure and redeploying military and police units to the country’s eastern and southern borders. It worth considering some of these shifts in a very general way. Continue reading
In what might be one of the first articles on Algeria in the prestigious American foreign policy journal Foreign Affairs in many years Geoff Porter writes:
Very few Algerians know how policy decisions get made. Instead, policies appear like ripples on water after a stone hits its surface—except neither the stone nor its thrower is ever seen.
In the absence of decisive evidence, analysts have taken to describing a mythical cloak-and-dagger cabal that runs Algeria—often called le pouvoir—whose membership is uncertain and whose power is unchecked. But when theories are pressed about who is actually in le pouvoir and what they are capable of, the concept collapses into speculation.
This is basically accurate and well known. Even early treatments of Algerian politics in the 1960s and 1970s described either an emerging trend towards secrecy and méfiance or an established tendency among Algerian leaders to horde, use and manipulate information to enhance their own power or diminish that of others (boulitique). (See Quandt, Revolution and Political Leadership: Algeria, 1954-1968, MIT, 1966, for an example of a discussion of this.) This only increased over time, enhanced by the emergence of the mukhabarat state and civil war In the last decade the prominence of the military, intelligence services and by many accounts secretive style of Abdelaziz Bouteflika produced a culture of inner circle intrigue and paranoia. The supposed inaccessibility of Algeria as a field for contemporary research (with so many red lines and hard to get visas) means that many analysts see it as a black box or denied terrain run by scary men. There is thus reliance on speculation and over analysis.
As Porter points out the dominance of pouvoirology – both good and bad – means that there is sometimes too much speculation and stereotyping in the way the actions of the Algerian state are interpreted, especially abroad. Algerian leaders are sometimes seen as ‘too clever’ or the military too powerful to make mistakes or to be outsmarted so that any major incident or event is seen as having inevitably been the result of some powerful conspiracy or false flag. Much of this is comes from word of mouth discussions with people who are knowledgeable about but do not know what is actually happening, including officials and party people themselves. And yet there are times when this situation poses no problem at all because Algeria is like any other state in that there indeed are conspiracies (or what look like conspiracies) because most government organizations make plans and execute them, either on or off the books and when these become exposed to the wider world they appear strange and even offensive because they appear out of context or poorly conceived. This is because official often people work in a different setting from non-official and there are always those who become isolated from the outside and whose interests become narrower and more ruthless, regardless of what state they serve.
The most widely available sources of information, like the flagship Algerian newspapers in French and Arabic, are often seen as mere cyphers for the deep state – which is true as often as it is not. Or they are treated as semi-official sources of information on recent events such as organizational changes or appointments within the State. These reports can be put into better perspective and sometimes confirmed using official sources of information or perspective like the Journal Officiel or El Djeich. Many times they cannot. This is often problematic. In the last few years three cases come to mind, some of which vague and difficult to confirm using publicly available sources. Analysis of some of these issues sill leads only to more confusion. Continue reading
This blogger published a brief piece for World Politics Review on vulnerabilities and risks in light of the re-election of Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz in Mauritania, and continued western support for his government. Aziz is seen as a reliable counterterrorism partner in much of the west and Algiers. There are many things at work that make him an effective regional ally and leader and others that expose Mauritania, his leadership, and the region at some risk. All eggs are best distributed in multiple baskets. It was shortened at publication for word count purposes; the full original will be posted on this blog shortly. Comments and feedback by email are welcome. Readers who need to hop the pay wall may contact this blogger for the piece at: nourithemoor @ gmail.com
Late 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
In the comments accompanying the FLN party sketch posted to this blog yesterday, this blogger wrote in passing that the RND (an FLN spin off that emerged in 1997 and has been the secondary party in the ruling coalition since a kind of backup singer for the ex-parti unique) was organized on lines similar to the FLN. It has never been as powerful as the FLN but can be considered a key part of the multiparty procedural regime that emerged after 1995 (it is the famous ‘baby born with a mustache’). This is true an extent though the RND has differences which are important only in the sense that they reflect a somewhat greater level of internal control at lower levels. The precise details are not greatly important. Ideologically the parties are not especially distinct though the FLN has a wider range of trends (more space for ‘national’/’official’ religion, a wider variety of Arabists and Algeria-centric nationalists, stronger statist/leftist tendencies and a greater degree of populist engagement); RND’s ideological position is probably best called ‘status quo’ or the disposition of Werenfels’s ‘nationalist reformer‘ where the FLN would have a mix of the neo-dinosaur, nationalist reformer and perhaps even some regime supportive Islamists. In any case, the party looked something like what is below in 2010-2011 when the chart below was drawn up (note: the officers and leadership are now different, Abdelkader Bensaleh, not Ahmed Ouyahia is the current Secretary General; also note it does not go down to the khaliya (cell) level but refers to ‘local’ committee in reference to communal, daira, and khaliya coordinating bodies). The 2012 legislative platform was quite broad, very much focused on continuity. Its organization approach borrows heavily from the FLN in form. Note the image there is in PDF and is quote large and requires the viewer to ‘zoom’ in. Dated though it is, it can possibly be of some use.
RND 2011 (PDF)
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
Prêcher dans le désert: islam politique et changement social en Mauritanie (Karthala, 2013) by Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem, the preeminent scholar working on political Islam and religious social movements in Mauritania, chronicles the history of Mauritania’s Islamist sub-cultures and political trends from the time of independence through the present. It brings together two decades of work in the most understudied area of the Maghreb. There are few comprehensive treatments of Islamist politics and actors in Mauritania and Prêcher dans le désert provides scholars, researchers and students with a clear and eloquent tour of the sociological, cultural, intellectual and historical setting that brought Mauritania’s Islamists from the bare margins a generation and a half ago to being a relevant social and political category worthy of independent analysis and contemplation. It argues for a re-conceptualization of Islamic ‘radicalization’ militancy as one of several possible pathways resulting from a long-term series of negotiations over Muslim identity, agency and efforts to grapple with a wide palette of complex problems around statehood, ethno-racial and caste identity, rapid socio-environmental change borne from climate change, poverty, the struggle against slavery and the shari’ah. Prêcher dans le désert covers these topics in expert fashion, as expected of Ould Ahmed Salem, whose writings on most of these subjects should be considered essential to achieving a grasp on contemporary Mauritanian society and political culture. Broken into six sections, rationally and judiciously divided and providing readers with a well structured understanding of the arguments put forth later on. It provides a deep take on the emergence and political role of Haratine religious leaders in the abolitionist movement and in Haratine urban life, including fascinating case studies based on in depth discussions with the first Haratine imams in Mauritania. (The subject has been covered in several dissertations but in this case it is related to a number of interrelated trends and placed in a more accessible format giving it a unique value. Ould Ahmed Salem also touched on the issue in his chapter ‘Bare-foot activists: Transformations in the Haratine movement in Mauritania,’ in Movers and Shakers: Social Movements in Africa, Brill, 2009.) It additionally provides the most detailed discussion of the emergence of Mauritania’s Muslim Brotherhood (Tewassoul) and a unique presentation of the role of Islam in the Mauritanian public sphere. In studying the rise of political Islam in northwest Africa or the Sahel and Maghreb there is no substitute for this book, despite numerous monographs, white papers and articles. Few texts in recent years approach its breadth and granularity. Because the space for ‘Mauritanian studies’ is limited, especially in the west, it is a milestone and cornerstone in the literature on the whole and should be a first stop for those seeking answers to questions about political Islam, radicalism and radicalization in the Sahel, Islamist movements in the Maghreb, the religious sociology of religious revival and environmental change and urbanisation, the rise of Arab and west African youth cultures and politics and contradictions of Arab and Muslim identity movements and well as slavery in northwest Africa. Aside from prose that can sometimes be denser than preferable, there is little criticism for this volume. As yet the book is only available in French, though efforts for an English translation are underway and will hopefully bring this important volume to an even wider audience beyond scholars of west Africa and the Maghreb.