Algeria’s Succession: schemes & power plays

This sh*t is wicked on these mean streets
None of my friends speak
We’re all trying to win, but then again
Maybe it’s for the best though, ’cause when they’re saying too much
You know they’re trying to get you touched
Whoever said illegal was the easy way out couldn’t understand the mechanics
And the workings of the underworld


There’s a war goin on outside, no man is safe from
You could run but you can’t hide forever
from these, streets, that we done took
You walkin’ witcha head down scared to look
You shook, cause ain’t no such things as halfway crooks
Now we all grown up and old, and beyond the cop’s control
They better have the riot gear ready
Tryin’ to bag me and get rocked steady

Survival of the Fittest

The murder of Ali Tounsi has raised important questions in Algerian politics. Rival political “clans” appear to be at war, though no one can quite prove Tounsi’s killing was related to these gang wars. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s political allies have been clashing with allies of the military and intelligence services for several months. The battlefield has been chiefly bureaucratic and legal. Ministers and their sons, nephews and friends have been investigated and taken to court for corruption. Since Tounsi’s killer, Oultache Chouaib, is believed to have done the deed after learning that he was under investigation on corruption charges, many believe the former police head and ally of the intelligence services was put out as a result of this struggle. Tounsi’s wife was indignant after hearing Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni’s comments about the “absence of any witnesses” as the Interior Ministry’s investigation into the killing began earlier this week. In a statement she said her husband was killed “treacherously in cold blood and all consciousness”. Khaled Ziari, an ex-DGSN head, suggested to El Khabar that Tounsi be replaced by a civilian, ruffling some feathers. (Abdelaziz Affani has replaced Tounsi as interim Director General.) At the center of all the fuss is one main question: who will succeed Abdelaziz Bouteflika?

Speculation and commentary about elite clan warfare is increasingly widespread. The Economist published a brief article on the matter, “Trouble in Algeria: The president and the police,” which describes how Larbi Belkheir’s death “left a vacuum which Mr Bouteflika filled to puff up his own power.” By parachuting his buddies into the top posts in the Ministry of Energy and Mines and SONATRACH, Bouteflika alienated the military hardline — especially after he began backtracking on economic liberalization and increased public works spending. Restricting imports and changing the foreign investment law, “hurting some well-connected businessmen” who are close to the military. Hoping to preserve themselves, the hard-liners are “fighting back” using the intelligence services’ investigations into high-ranking personalities close to Bouteflika in SONATRACH and public works. Ultimately, The Economist links Tounsi’s killing to his high profile feud with Zerhouni which might have led to him being sacked, had he lived. The Economist does not mention the source of the Zerhouni-Tounsi feud: the former’s desire to make the ever-increasing police force report more directly to the Minister of the Interior. Zerhouni being a stalwart ally of Bouteflika, this would have meant that Tounsi’s DGSN forces would have less independence from the president and that Tounsi and other poles within the power structure (especially Gen. Mediene at the DRS) would lose freedom of movement.

The story of Bouteflika’s second term is largely one of consolidation. His alliance with the military derived from his being a civilian capable of launching the National Reconciliation agenda that effectively amnestied the army and got the militias to come down from the hills. This would persist arrangement would allow the military bras to hold on to its power and privileges while  the regime regained some semblance of internal and international credibility. But following the 2004 election, Bouteflika began to rely more heavily on alternate alliances in the technocracy, especially his trusted Interior Minister, Zerhouni, and Chakib Khelil in the Ministry of Energy and Mines. Two things allowed Bouteflika to increase his powers, virtually independently of the military core: increasing security and massive profits from rising hydrocarbon prices. Bouteflika was able to exploit political alliances in the bureaucracy and civilian political class by launching huge public works projects and placing them in key posts within the security apparatus. Among his civilian allies are members of the Movement for a Society of Peace, especially Amar Ghoul, currently the Minister for Public Works. Ghoul’s office has been investigated repeatedly, especially for irregularities in the much touted East-West Highway project, long over-due because of corruption and managerial problems. The pillars of Bouteflika’s “clan” are civilian technocrats, like Khelil and Education Minster Boubekeur Ben Bouzid, and military and semi-military men like Zerhouni and Defense Minister Ahmed Gaid Saleh. Bouteflika’s place at the center of the power structure has come at the expense of the military-intelligence chief that dominated Algerian politics from the late 1980s through the Civil War. Early in his presidency Bouteflika said: “I will not be three-quarters of a president!” He appears to have meant it — he is not in a position, as Chadhli was in 1992, to have his own resignation recommended to him; and on no occasion that his liver or kidneys have faltered has a general been able to say “I’m in control.”

In the Energy Ministry, especially SONATRACH which is usually left out of regime infighting, has seen multiple, lengthy and publicized investigations since as early as 2006. The BRC affair, where the head of Brown Root and Condor, an Algerian-American joint venture (and Halliburton subsidiary), was forced out and jailed for two years on corruption charges was a major event in 2007. Russian intelligence told the DRS that a communications system sold to the Algerian government by BRC was connected to American and Israeli surveillance networks, causing Bouteflika to order an investigation into the firm; whether the Russian hint was true or not is irrelevant. The investigation revealed that 27 of BRC’s contracts with the Algerian government came with inflated price tags, often as high as 300% without tendering. BRC CEO, Abdelmoumen Ould Kaddor, was jailed and the company dissolved. The close personal relationship between Khelil and then-US Vice President Dick Cheney came to light and SONATRACH’s reputation dented. In 2008, a similar affair where SONATRACH was revealed to be purchasing spare parts from a British company at a severe mark-up. Recently allegations of corruption and embezzlement at SONATRACH have put Khelil in the media spotlight. Notably, reports that several SONATRACH partnerships in North America and managers’ families have been involved in corruption have been leaked to the press. These leaks have likely been made strategically, to highlight the Energy Minister’s long-time connections to the United States. In each case Khelil denied any knowledge of the incidents denying responsibility for SONATRACH’s management. Increasingly, corruption investigations have implicated men in his entourage, including Mohamed Meziane, SONATRACH’s CEO — even Khelil’s son and nephew. It is notable that Khelil has been integral in Bouteflika’s foreign policy, especially in cultivating closer ties with the United States and increasing exports to Spain and Italy.

There are concerns that the struggle may have a street dimension as well. The recent surge in street demonstrations, both organized and spontaneous, may be the result of some great plot by the intelligence services to blackmail the technocrats in the Ministry of Education and in the UGTA, headed up by a Bouteflika friendly. News reports, as well as sources in Tizi Ouzou and Annaba, have noted that the security forces have often appeared reluctant to exercise characteristic levels of force against protesters in recent months. Rather than dispersing demonstrators, these sources say, the security forces often allow them to go on until intervention is absolutely necessary; in the case of union demonstrations — usually treated with contemptuous brutality — have been allowed to carry on, especially when their demands involve foreign companies or teachers. Union leaders have been unable to stop teachers and industrial workers from striking. Some see the security forces’ unwillingness to quickly bash-up the teachers or to forcibly break up government workers’ sit-ins as evidence of a plot to raise pressure on Boubekeur Ben Bouzid, the Education Minister and Bouteflika ally. Ben Bouzid had to publish an unprecedented open letter begging teachers to return to work; afterwards he promised wage increases if the teachers returned to school. This was met with bitter shrugs. A teacher who participated in a recent demonstration called it a “massive humiliation for a man so arrogant.” Others see the government afraid of instigating confrontation with an increasingly irritable population. There is likely truth to both views.

The recent investigations appear to being designed to discredit Bouteflika’s allies in the Energy Ministry and to force their resignation. This would allow for the military and intelligence set to force a friendly civilian into the most lucrative post in the Algerian government while decreasing the possibility that Bouteflika’s clan could force through a supposedly “clean” candidate in the event of his death.

It is also a show of force by the deep state. The DRS chief Mohamed “Tewfik” Mediene controls all the “black files” from the 1990s and earlier. That practically all top officials receive massive large kick backs from foreign companies or otherwise skim off the top is well known, or at least easily assumed. But confirmations could be damning. Consequently, he could, theoretically, release details on the improprieties of practically all public officials at will. This is intended to combat the process that has been used to suppress the influence of the military-intelligence chiefs over the last ten years. Whether they died or were forced into retirement, the military hardline and its profit-happy allies in the private sector fear that they will be marginalized from the selection of Bouteflika’s successor or that its result will be chaos. Belkheir’s death has made this all the more urgent.

Additionally there is the issue of trust. After the military gave the go-ahead for the 2008 constitutional amendment allowing Bouteflika to run for a third term, two important affairs went public. The first was the revelation by a French general that the kidnapping and murder of the Tibhirine monks was the result of a botched operation by the Algerian military, not the Islamist GIA. The second came with the August 2008 arrest of an Algerian diplomat implicated in the 1987 assassination of Ali Mecili (he was recently released). In both cases, the military saw the government’s relative silence as evidence of the president’s distance from their interests and perspective. It was also in this period that Said Bouteflika’s political party, Génération libre, was founded fueling fears that the president planned to parachute his younger brother as his successor (some Algerians would like him to). Many now see Said as the Bouteflika clan’s fall-back should the president buy the farm. This does not sit well with the DRS (or many ordinary Algerians already feeling disenfranchised and in no mood to accept hereditary rule). Recent developments in Bouteflika’s style of rule has failed to produce the kind of trust-fall confidence and collegiality in the elite that existed under Boumediene.

Some old-timers look at Bouteflika’s ten-year consolidation of power as revenge for the smear campaign the military ran on him after Boumediene’s death in 1978. That campaign tarnished Bouteflika’s reputation so badly — with accusations of embezzlement and other transgressions — that he was shamed out of the running for Boumediene’s succession and left the country. Some of the men behind those attacks remain influential today. Back then his enemies were pro-market and wanted to change course from much of the policies Bouteflika and Boumediene stood for in the 1970s. Similar ideological and personal differences persist today.

Bouteflika’s clan seems to be striking back with the completiton of the first report ordered by the president on the deaths of Gen. Fodil Saidi (1996) and Mohamed Boudiaf (1992) by the Independent Commission of Inquiry. Many believe that Boudiaf’s 1992 assassination by an “Islamist” body guard was related to his having raised concerns about corruption publicly and for speaking of “mafia”-like networks in the elite. Saidi was an ally of fmr. president Lamine Zeroual. Zeroual attempted to weaken the DRS’s power over the political and military establishment by placing several of his confidants (Saidi and Gen. Mohamed Betchine as well) in the DRS and by rearranging some of its offices and powers. Saidi was killed, along with several others, in a suspicious accident in a remote part of Ouargla. Betchine was smeared with corruption allegations in the media which many believe the DRS to have been behind.

Two things are telling about this: First is that Bouteflika has attempted to hit back at the DRS’s campaign against his entourage by digging up two highly emotional killings during the 1990s — of yet no serious investigation, whatsoever, has taken place into the abuses and conspiracies of the Black Decade. Secondly, it is notable that immediately after the report came out DRS chiefs were brought to the presidential palace for discussions with Said Bouteflika, the president’s brother, who assured them that during the whole process individual officers would be protected by the presidency. This is notable because it speaks to the extend to which the Said has been empowered by the president. The president had made no public appearances in days, leading many to believe he had died. As of at least two days ago typing “Bouteflika” into Google produced the auto-prompt “Bouteflika est mort” — though the president emerged publicly with his two brothers and Zinedine Zidane yesterday.

Of late Tewfik looks more and more like the Earl of Kent in King Lear, ambitious and feeling slighted by the president. Bouteflika, who is not easily analogous to Lear, for his part is determined to maintain his personal prestige at home and in the international sphere. Each investigation, however politically motivated, has been played as an initiative of the executive washing its hands with Bouteflika either presenting himself as in control of the whole process or uninvolved. The intrigues and skulduggery that will eventually settle Algeria’s succession battles will cost much of Bouteflika’s confidants their reputations; it will very likely caused ever greater cynicism among young Algerians uncomfortable with the military’s continuous meddling in politics. Current trends indicate that the ruling class has not developed a unified idea of who should rule post-Bouteflika Algeria. The public interest, it seems, is fragmenting.

The military’s support for Bouteflika’s third term now appears to have been a sign of weakness — an inability to muster institutional resistance or public faces of its own to compete. The anti-Bouteflika forces rallied around the military-intelligence apparatus are constantly reacting to the presidential faction’s actions and of yet without a viable political or civilian agent. The likely contenders to succeed Bouteflika — Said Bouteflika, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia (a pragmatic eradicator with DRS links), Speaker of Parliament Abdelaziz Ziari and others — are all civilians close to Bouteflika. Even the “outsiders” sometimes raised as possible consensus candidates — Mohamed Bedjaoui, Lakhdar Brahimi, etc. — appear or are known to have little interest in the post, not least because of their age and reputations. Those who advocate for younger leadership, such as Ahmed Benbitour a former Finance Minister (1996) and Prime Minister (2000) and staunch Bouteflika critic, must grapple with a political class that distrust youth and is characterized by rigid and jealously guarded pride.

It has been one of the greatest failures of the generation of mudjahidine who wrestled Algeria’s independence to create a peaceful process of executive succession; only one presidential transition has taken place lawfully (and some would debate even that). Durable, national institutions that transcend individual leaders seem almost non-existent outside the armed forces and SONATRACH. In this setting men will struggle over who takes what powers whenever the opportunity arises, because action must be dictated by the urges of the hour rather than generational considerations taken independently of leaders or popular whims. The results, as the record since 1978 shows, can be disastrous.


13 thoughts on “Algeria’s Succession: schemes & power plays

  1. One interesting aspect of this whole tug of war is the role that France and the US may be playing behind the scene. In this comment on French radio, Alexander Adler sees an alignment that puts on one side the US with Bouteflika and his ministers + the Islamists of the MSP + The FLN and Belkhadem. While on the other side we would find France + the DRS + Ouyahia (viewed as the DRS favorite for the after-Bouteflika period). Adler ends his comment saying the DRS gaining the upper hand would be a good thing for Paris…

    • Thanks for this Karim. I listened to this a little bit ago and wanted to reserve comment on the outside element for a separate posting. Here is how I see that:

      US business certainly favors Bouteflika (mostly because of Khelil/SONATRACH). US officials decline to comment on the investigations, though. Khelil, et al’s connections to Huston and Washington are very important. Ouyahia is probably the DRS’s best civilian bet but we then have to ask why the Elysee was so hostile towards him during the Tibhirine affair. Business links between the DRS and its private sector friends and France probably drive that connection. The deterioration in Franco-Algerian relations probably has to do (at least in part) with Boutef’s “attacks” on private business.

      I’m not sure the US administration/France are consciously going at it, the US tends to defer to Paris on Algeria; they do not seem to think the shake ups between the DRS and SONATRACH will affect hydrocarbon exports. Boutef & co want more ties with the US but the Americans have received that affection awkwardly (because of Morocco, outgoing Bush administration, death of Ted Kennedy, etc.). Germany is also happy with Boutef. Russia less so. Will make a post on this soon.

      • Yes, the Tibhirine affair is a bit of a puzzle to me as well. I’m wondering whether the Elysee really wanted that story make the headlines again. I agree that the US will defer to Paris on most issues, but the AfricaCom initiative seems to matter to Washington (unless I am reading all that wrong) and I don’t think they will defer to the French on that dossier (Sahel, AQIM etc.) I wonder how the coup in Niger and the Franco-Malian deal of last week could affect all that. There was story on some Algerian site about Morocco wanting to close that deal with Washington. But it could just be Rabat trying to spook Algiers though.

  2. I would be cautious about AfriCom. It is not universally accept in the US yet. The Niger coup is seen as a basis for the US to re-start normal relations with the country (start giving non-humanitarian aid again). They see Algeria as unstable and want to see an outcome that will not be disruptive in terms of oil or violence. They will probably back whoever comes out on top so long as they don’t behave like Qadhafi. The Moroccans are excited about AfriCom and they have been gunning for a key role in it for some time but the US has doubts because of their disconnect from the AU and because of the Sahara question. The Americans see Algeria as the most important country in the region diplomatically (they are a leader in the AU and can help convince little and oil producing countries to go along) and militarily (because of its experience with counter terrorism). The Americans have a passion for the Moroccans though for all kinds of sentimental and geostrategic reasons (Gibraltar and treaties and bureaucratic sentiments, etc.). Will be interesting if the DRS types try to torpedo the AfriCom business.

  3. Kal,

    In your comment you suggest that US firms are with the Boutef camp because of the Khelil connection. What’s your assessment of the likelihood that Khelil stays on post-Boutef regardless of whether Boutef’s camp holds on to power or it shifts to the Pouvoir?


    • Hi Geoff,

      I don’t want to make any predictions. That said it has been the trend in the past that competent technocrats were allowed keep their posts when power changed hands. At the same time, though, there is the tendency where their subordinates are replaced whenever new management comes in. So if we take the historical trend Khelil stays in place but I would think Meziane gets the boot; but the media has focused mostly on Khelil as the face and enabler of corruption in the energy sector. To me that says somebody’s out to get him sacked. Depending on who ends up in power and what comes out of the investigations (if Khelil is directly linked to anything especially shady) I think there is a pretty good likelihood he could be replaced. That also depends on if there is some kind of reconciliation between the two camps in the meantime.

      Also, Khelil represents the vehicle by which Boutef has strengthened his hand domestically and internationally and as such, were the military to gain the upper hand, it’s likely they’d want to eliminate the possibility of leaving too much of the old guy behind.

      Can’t say for sure either way, in my mind it’s 50/50 as things stand now.

  4. The Algerian masses have reached the limit of their patience and what could well happen in the days to come would be a disaster that would destabilize the whole region including Europe. Unless the French rein in their DRS agents and for these to take their loot and leave Algeria the damage will be so great and France will end up paying the price on their homeland.
    The reason consecutive junta’s got away with murder in the last 50 years is because of illiteracy amongst the masses, but this is rapidly changing given the changing demographical mix of the Algerian people.

    • Very unlikely in my opinion. There has been a string of riots and strikes these past few months but I don’t see a synergy that would collect of that pent-up frustration into a serious challenge to the established order. One of the great successes of the regime has been to fragment the opposition into small separate groups. Political parties in one corner, trade unions in another, citizen groups (mostly informal) in yet another corner. These groups don’t seem to be talking to each other (and although I don’t that for a fact I am sure that any attempt to mount collective action is severely repressed.) But when it comes to rallies for the national soccer team….

      • The fragmentation so successfully pursued by the regime for so long is starting to unravel. Movements such as “Rachad” and “The call of the 19 March 2009” are starting to gather momentum in uniting various views and movements within Algeria despite repeated attempts by the DRS to restrict internet access to these web sites. In my humble opinion, the days of this regime are numbered and it is just a matter of time before its total collapse. Could be even as close as the end of the soccer World Cup!! To use your soccer analogy 🙂

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