Smoking causes cancer, as Gen. Larbi Belkheir is learning. The notorious General and ambassador to Morocco was hospitalized in Algiers last week. Belkheir, who helped plan and lead the 1992, and who was an important force in inflicting Chadli on Algeria, is one of the most important post-Boumediene politicians in Algeria — and one of the most corrupt and hated. He has been accused by opponents of having participated in nefarious acts while during the War of Independence in service of the French army. Belkheir is believed to be connected to the assassination of Kasdi Merbah, in 1993, and others blame him for the assassination of Boudiaf. Of most recent relevance, he is widely believed to have been deeply involved in the Khalifa and Mecili Affairs. Earlier in the decade he was sued by an Algerian refugee for torture. When Zeroual came to power he went into exile in Switzerland, but returned in 1999, as a part of Bouteflika’s administration.
When observers speak of Bouteflika’s backing from “the military,” they are speaking of men like Belkheir, Mohamed Médiène (Toufik), Smain Lamari (d. 2007), Mohamed Lamari, and the like — most of whom were forced into retirement, sent abroad, or otherwise marginalized. The power of those who were allowed to stay on, Médiène and S. Lamari in particular, remained but was significantly quieted. Those who, like Belkheir (and M. Lamari, who was replaced by Gen. Ahmed Salah Gaid, a close Bouteflika ally), were sent abroad, made to retire, or otherwise demoted were protected in their corruption and their violence by the National Reconciliation Charter and the shadow of Bouteflika’s ambition.
Speaking of Bouteflika, I wrote earlier in the year that I did not quite see Bouteflika’s third term as inevitable: It was, in my mind, quite possible that another actor could move to succeed him. I based this mostly only feet dragging on the term extension itself and the language of several men close to Bouteflika. Though remote, possibility is being considered by a good number of Algerians — as a secondary scenario, as no one thinks that Bouteflika will not seize the opportunity to rule as long as he possibly can.
El Watan recently ran an analysis arguing that Bouteflika may not run for the presidency in 2009 for three reasons: A desire to fortify his legacy, the country’s economic fragility, and his poor health. The article compares Bouteflika’s desire to leave an “indelible mark” on Algeria’s history, leaving office at the height of his power as Nelson Mandela stepped down “at the peak of his glory and in possession of all his capacities.” Though the comparison to Mandela is extraordinary, the principle is valid: Bouteflika was known from the outset of the 1965 coup, if not before, to be a man of great ambition and political will. It would not be surprising if he were to publish his memoirs detailing how he plotted his way to the presidency, overcame his exile after Boumediene’s death — which was surely to prevent him from climbing to power over the military — and then maneuvered his way back into El Mouradia. This is the process that has defined Bouteflika’s professional life. He will likely guard his legacy as jealousy as he has power, but it is unlikely that he would forfeit the presidency for ego alone.
The article further cites the world financial crisis as a major factor that could make Bouteflika reconsider running again. The world financial crisis, which has hit Europe, North America and the major emerging economies (China in particular), is soon coming for developing countries like Algeria. The fall in hydrocarbon prices and the government’s failure to diversify the economy and produce new jobs makes the economic situation look especially bleak for 2009. The article compares the unfolding situation to the late 1980’s and early 1990’s in its potential social affects. Bouteflika, aging and widely looked on with scorn, would not be able to carry the necessary charisma or credibility — despite his achievements in restoring civil order — to tame what ever upheavals might arise among the young. El Watan writes that “he can manage in the opulence offered by high oil prices whose height is over a hundred dollars,” but not the crisis resulting from a steep drop. Bouteflika’s ego dictates that he “wants to remain the chairman of a country with high economic growth and continue to manage the oil revenues as a “good father of the family” and not of an economically weak country that could be swept away like straw by the global crisis”. It cites Bouteflika’s choice to defer the presidency in 1994 when it was offered to him by the Generals: Bouteflika wants to restore his legacy, damaged by the army’s smear campaign against him in the late 1970’s. He is not willing to jeopardize his achievements, the piece argues. (Ouyahia is more optimistic than others on the financial crisis: Algeria’s economy will be strong “even at $20 a barrel“)
Finally, it argues that “a third term would be physically impossible”. If Bouteflika were to become ill, the possibility that this would render him incapacitated, causing others — from the DRS, the army, or even his own clan — to run things behind him, is not remote. The El Watan piece speaks of Bouteflika’s fear of becoming “three-quarters of a president,” and ending his presidency as Bourguiba did his. The man is simply too old, too frail, and too proud.
As the article concludes, it rather accurately notes that every possible mechanism that would hand Bouteflika the election has been set in motion. He has begun his campaign, visiting the major cities and offering his distinctive addresses (complete with brown djebela; soon he will don a burnous, for extra Boumediene-esque creditbility). Talk about Zeroual running appears to be exaggerated at best and deliberately false at worse (though he has the semblence of what could be called a following). There is no identified successor that is positioned to run in his steed. The field of presidential contenders is mostly clear, with few serious condenders with large support bases — financially or sentimentally — yet having entered the fold. It is not impossible, though, that he decides against running, at the last minute. With the economic and social problems facing the country (which have been manifest in a variety of ways, especially in the rise in youth violence and complaints of brutality from the police and the gendarme), there may be less stomach for more Bouteflika. This will be especially true in the flood ravaged regions, especially the Ghardaia area which saw additional ethnic stress in recent months, where a sense of neglect is strong since the October floods.
In September, Mostafa Saiji described a two pronged scenario in which
The most positive possibility would involve Bouteflika refraining from running (for health or other reasons), thereby giving full freedom of choice among other candidates. This would boost lagging voter turnout and avoid repeating the experience of the 1999 presidential elections, when most of the candidates withdrew at the last minute, citing the military’s backing for Bouteflika. A more negative sort of transformation might take place if some of the parties resorted to violence to oppose Bouteflika’s nomination for a third term. This would most likely involve the Front of Socialist Forces or the RCD exploiting the predominately Berber Kabyle region, which might explain why the president selected a prime minister from that region.
Large scale disturbances are unlikely, most people are convinced that the election will essentially be a dog and pony show, and are ambivailent to its predetermined outcome. If the economic situation deteriorates significantly by April, there may be a chance of street violence. There are no well popular movements that would be able to facilitate organized rebellion, though. The Amazigh Cultural Movements are not sufficiently militant outside of Kabylia, and even those are essentially what they sound like: Cultural and social movements. It is hard to the arrouche movement rising up. The politicized organizations with histories of rebellion, the FFS and RCD, along with elements within some of the smaller parties, might take to the streets — the FFS heads have described the amendment as illegitimate in the strongest terms. The RCD was also strongly opposed to the constitutional amendment, and has been on the rocks with Bouteflika and his cohorts for some time. I think the probability of an armed rebellion, beyond youth riots (and the molotov cocktails and bricks that comes with those), in Kabylia or elsewhere is unlikely.
This is, though, speculating based on current economic conditions. A major dip in the economy could have disastrous effects on Algeria internally and geopolitically, in a similar way that the disastrous 1980’s had on Algeria’s regional projects and its internal well being. In many ways, the government is somewhat better prepared for the coming crisis than it ever was before. And its leaders are confident enough to say as much. But many Algerians fear that their public certitude hides economic dubiety. If those suspicions bear out to be correct through the new year Bouteflika — and Algeria generally — could be in for a rude awakening. But there is nothing making open and disruptive unrest inevitable, and some in the country see the protraction of Bouteflika’s mandate as a means towards preserving domestic order. To what extent that can hold wide sway through what may be trying times will be seen in the coming months.