Political Regionalism in Algeria: East side-West side?

Algeria in all its parts

The degree to which regionalism, real or imagined, factors into Algerian political calculus is interesting. Many Algerians (and outside observers) discount regionalist tendencies in the leadership caste. The war generation tended to de-emphasize regional, ethnic and even religious differences to build consensus and nationalism. There are, nevertheless, tendencies for men from particular areas to have say over the nation as a whole, not as a result of deliberate conspiracies  but more because of circumstances. The urban areas were historically centers of political power that struggled to control the tribal and nomadic populations on the periphery. The French were the first to make Algiers indisputable center of political power Algeria (the Ottomans never really got it). But that was European power and when the Europeans left at independence, rural people took their place (Algiers was a majority European before 1962). The result is that Algiers tends not produce leadership clans or political factions; instead political factions with their origins outside the capital, in eastern Algeria, western Algeria or Kabylia, tend to impose themselves on Algiers. Though Algeria is a unitary (if highly complex) state, its capital is the locus of institutional powers that are filled from other parts of the country. Algiers does not dominate Algerian politics. Algerian politics dominates Algiers.

Regionalism and political clannishness are a result of this background; a variety of political cliques developed during the War of Independence and the nation-building process afterward. Men who served in the war-time maquis or ALN clustered together, often according to which wilaya they fought in or what FLN/ALN base they served on outside (or inside) the country. Other alliances were the result of education or personal friendships. As the military became increasingly professionalized, men who were sent abroad for training, to the Soviet Union, Jordan, Egypt, France or China, made good with each other. In the technocratic fields men were tied together by schooling, hometowns, departments or simple corruption. Whether men were urban or rural helped to color the type of bonds and clannishness that developed.

Today networks of corruption bind various “clans” of the national elite, whether in SONATRACH or the ministries or the military. Many retired military men have since gone into the privatized industries, import-export and so on. Many have friends in France or elsewhere in Europe. In the energy sector many have relationships as a result of studying in Europe or North America (even Russia) or because they embezzled money with colleagues. Changes in economic policy or public exposure can be a weapon. The result is a tendency toward secrecy (already in place among many during the wars) and mutual “respect for honor” (code for not talking about other people’s misdeeds). A few observations about the regionalized view of these “clans,” which have their own internal réseaux (شلة) within them that are too cloudy to get into in a blog post, may be in order. This post is not complete as an appraisal of existing political “clans” by any means and does not aim to be.

Tebessa-Batna-Souq Ahras/Skikda

TBS

Many Algerians are familiar with the TBS triangle (Tebessa-Batna-Souq Ahras, or sometimes Skikda), the area in eastern Algeria where many military and political leaders came from in the immediate post independence period and even on into the 1990s. Such men included (past and present) Larbi Ben M’hidi (Oumm el-Bouaghi), Mostefa Ben Boulaid (Batna), Houari Boumediene (Guelma), Tahar Zbiri (Ouenza/Annaba), Abdelhafid Boussouf (Mila), Rabah Bitat (Constantine), Ali Kafi (Skikda via Algiers), Abdelmalek Benhabylès (Setif) Khaled Nezzar (Batna), Lamine Zeroual (Batna), Chadhli Bendjedid (Annaba), Belaid Abdessalam (Setif), Redha Malek (Batna), Mokdad Sifi (Tebessa), Mouloud Hamrouche (Constantine), Mohamed Betchine (Guelma), Mohamed Lamari (Biskra via Algiers), Ali Benflis (Batna), Abdelmalek Guenaiza (Souq-Ahras), as well as others. These characters are especially prominent in the ANP (the national army).

Many (but not all) of these men were or are of Berber or Arabicized Berber background (Chaouis of the Aures and Nementcha mountains and some Kabyles). Most identified with the Arabo-Muslim identity of the state and nationalist project. In some quarters, especially among some Berberists and western Algerians, their dominance in the military, and thus political, sphere signaled an “Arab” or eastern favoritism within the the upper ranks of the state. But the eastern set was diverse in its background and ideologies; some were gruff maquisards, others were ALN commanders or former French army officers (the so-called “hizb Faransa“), some were Arabists and others were not. Many were educated in Soviet or other Eastern Bloc (especially East Germany and Romanian) military academies, but many also studied at Egyptian, Jordanian, Iraqi, Chinese and, of course, French military schools. It is not just in the military that easterners have been prominent; many leaders of the Islamist movement, especially the less radical tendency therein, hail from the eastern wilayat. Bouguerra Soltani of the MSP is from Tebessa; Abdallah Djaballah of En-Nahda is from Skikda; Abbassi Madani of the FIS is from Biskra.

As is well known, correlation is not causation. It is highly unlikely that all (or even most) of these men became influential because they came from eastern Algeria, though some speak of a “Chaoui clan” in the military (meaning easterners, not necessarily Berbers; Chaoui is sometimes used to refer to anyone from eastern Algeria, especially the rural and mountainous areas). This has a core of military officers and their allies from the TBS region forming a strong clique within the armed forces bound by a rural sensibility, a kind of contemporary ʿaṣabiya as a Le Monde article from 1999 put it. The eastern officers are loyal to one another as a result of their country sensibility, which is lost among the men from urban areas. After independence, important military schools, bases and training facilities were set up in Batna, Biskra and other parts of eastern Algeria. Artillery, paratroopers, and mechanized units were positioned in that often desolate part of the country. It is reasonable to say that the TBS set or Chaoui clan was among the most influential political forces in post-Boumediene military politics. But it would difficult to speak about these people as a singular group; Nezzar, M. Lamari, Ali Benflis and Zeroual would fit here but in different sub-factions. One cannot assume political loyalty because an individual was born in Batna or Tebessa or anyplace else.

Easterners have been influential in the military for a variety of reason. It begins with the War of Independence. The war began in the east and many of the early wilaya and ALN commanders came from that part of the country. Also, many easterners who served in the French military during the World Wars (or in Indochina) became officers in the French army. Some of them switched sides during the War of Independence and became officers in the ALN, rising through the ranks immediately after independence. These men formed a distinct clique on their own. Additionally, at independence the Aures was massively rural and grindingly poor even when compared to the rest of the country. Many young men saw the military as a means of social mobility and economic security. Like other officers, many of them were trained abroad and formed cliques based on the relationships they formed in the academies.

Tlemcen-Nedroma-Maghnia

TNM

Nowadays an alternate, western, circuit has been identified with Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Bouteflika was born in Oujda, Morocco. His family is originally from Mehrez, a village near Tlemcen. (He is not “Moroccan” as some of his opponents often jibe.) Like many Algerians in western Algeria, displaced by the colonial economy and by European settlers, Bouteflika’s family found work over the border. Many Algerians migrated back and forth between eastern Morocco and western Algeria during the colonial period and it is not uncommon for elderly Algerians from that part of the country to have gone to school in Morocco or to have relatives there. Westerners have been less influential in the Algerian military. Algeria’s first president Ahmed Ben Bella was from Maghnia, near Oran, but he rose to power only because of his alliance with Boumediene, then the head of the ALN. Bouteflika’s partnership with Boumediene in Oujda during the War of Independence, the result of the ALN forces there. The “Oujda clan” was a group of influential ALN officers clustered around Boumediene near the end of the War, who ended up putting Ben Bella into power, smashing the rebellions led by the war-time wilaya commanders in Kabylia and the Aures. Ultimately, Ben Bella attempted to disempower the Oujda clan by sacking Boumedine’s allies from the council of ministers and by appointing Tahar Zbiri Chief of Staff to weaken Boumediene’s control over the military. He moved to sack Bouteflika and Boumediene finally over threw him in 1965. From that point on Boumediene dominated politics (especially after the Zbiri’s failed coup in 1966) through the 1970s. Bouteflika, with many of his allies from the War, dominated foreign policy in that period as Foreign Minister. After Boumediene’s death Bouteflika was shamed by corruption allegations and left the country. The military, via Chadhli (originally from Annaba but head of the Oran military region), came to dominate politics in full. The TBS triangle was most powerful from then through the 1990s.

Bouteflika’s current set up has many westerners in high places. Algerians call it the “Oujda clan” or the TNM triangle (Tlemcen-Nedroma-Maghnia). All of the cities in the TNM area are in the Wilaya of Tlemcen. Oran and Sidi Bel Abbas are also important in the president’s vicinity. Chakib Khelil, the Minister of Energy and Mines and close Bouteflika ally, was also born Oujda to a western family. Mohamed Bedjaoui, formerly Bouteflika’s Foreign Minister and now a Justice at the International Criminal Court hails from Sidi Bel Abbas (though there are rumors that Bedjaoui and Bouteflika had a tiff over Algeria’s support for Egypt’s Furuq Hunsi for the UNESCO presidency). Those from Tlemcen include his replacement at the Foreign Ministry, Mourad Medelci, Amar Tou (Transport), Djamel Ould Abbes (National Solidarity), Abdelkader Messahel (Maghreb Affairs).  Maghnia gives the council of ministers Hamid Temmar who has overseen privatization and investment under Bouteflika, Teyeb Belaiz (Justice) and Teyeb Louh (Work and Social Security). Interior Minister Nureddine Zerhouni was born in Tunis to a western family while Daho Ould Kablia (PM’s delegate Minister to the Ministry of the Interior), also of western origin, was born in Tangiers. Ultimately, among ministers westerners are outnumbered by easterners, mostly from the TBS region. Nothing says that the number of westerners in Bouteflika’s government means much; there have been westerners in key economic posts for years — Sid Ahmed Ghozali from Mascara was a close ally of Boumediene and headed SONATRACH in the  1970s for instance. And many people close to Bouteflika are from eastern Algeria; such as Education Minister Boubekeur Ben Bouzid (Oumm el-Bouaghi) and Amar Ghoul in Public Works (Ain Defla). Still, many of Bouteflika’s close confidantes are westerners. That he has come to rely on westerners as the influence of the generals has declined has caused some discomfort.

Western Algeria has benefited from Bouteflika’s economic and foreign policies, likely the result of so many ministers from the region dealing with economic affairs. Arzew in particular has become a major industrial center, hosting many of SONATRACH’s new projects, though not without complications. Though Bejaia is still the most important port, Oran has caught up rapidly. Tlemcen has become a center for the informal economy and is the Capital of Islamic Culture for the year 2010. Bakhchich posted an article highlighting this early last year; drawing agitated commentary from Algerians, some of whom agreed that Bouteflika has indeed stacked government with westerners or aggressively disagreeing with accusations of regionalism. It would be easy to attribute the growth in petrochemical projects in western Algeria to regionalist prioritization but such an analysis is not satisfactory. Because Bouteflika’s foreign policy has attempted to orient Algeria’s exports toward European states other than France, especially Spain, Italy and Germany, it is only logical that more gas pipelines to Spain would pass through western Algeria. Additionally, economic liberalization and improved security has benefitted the informal economy all over Algeria, the port and border cities perhaps most of all.

Western Algeria has been militarily important since independence, on the coast and in the south (Bechar, Tindouf). After the border war with Morocco, the Bechar-Colombo military and Oran military districts were of high importance and many top colonels and (eventually) generals spent significant time there. In the middle 1970s it became drastically more important, during the Sahara War when Algeria supported the POLISARIO Front in its war with Morocco. Oran is the site of the important naval base, Mers El-Kebir.

Others

Another grouping, often ignored, is the prominence of Kabyles, or people from Kabylia, in the technocracy and in the military/intelligence services. Contrary to what some would say, Kabyles are hardly under represented in the Algerian government — if one is counting bodies. As is the case with the country as a whole, government officials from Kabylia often do not “represent” popular public sentiments. In any event, Gen. Mohamed “Tewfik” Mediene hails from Kabylia; so too did Smain Lamari as does PM Ahmed Ouyahia and several current ministers. The average Mouloud in Tizi Ouzou would likely shurg at that. Nevertheless, Kabyles have been integrated into the governing class as much as any other population group. And they are especially well entrenched in education, SONATRACH, finance, the professions and so on. One can hardly speak of a “Kabyle” clan however. That Ouyahia, Lamari and Tewfik have been close to the TBS generals speaks to a pragmatism that goes beyond regional proclivities. Kabyles are represented in the body and leadership of practically every major political movement in Algeria, whether Berberist or Islamist, military or technoratic.

One hardly can speak of deliberate plots to dominate government, driven by regional particularism per se. Instead, what is more important are personalities and personal relationships, economic, political, military and platonic. Men who studied together or who served in the same units during the War of Independence or the Civil War form relationships that frequently transcend regions or ethnic solidarities; and they almost always rise above tribal, clan or other kinships at the national level. That Tewfik and Ouyahia are so connected to the ANP generals from the TBS region or that Bouteflika’s speaks to the overlap in political loyalties that makes strict “regionalism,” as in Iraq or Syria, difficult to discern in Algeria. In local politics, though, tribal and clan loyalties remain powerful — the major national parties often win votes by soliciting the support of local chiefs and elders in rural areas. In eastern and southern Algeria (and Kabylia, too) local politics are often struggles between kinships — raising concerns some communities enforce and make laws based more on ʿaṣabiya than republican values. National politics often evidence rivalries between different kinds of groups.

In political discussions among Algerians one every so often hears about an eastern clan and its sinister domination of politics through the military, or the nefarious separatist Kabyles’ collaboration with France, or westerners’ affection for Morocco. Yet the average Algerian from Kabylia, like Tewfik, or the Aures, like the generals, or the west, like Bouteflika tends to balk: “You show me what that ‘clan’ has done for me.” Life is hard in all regions, even those that have produced elite clusters. No one notional tendency can claim the loyalty of all Algerians — save perhaps Antar Yahia. And it would be insulting to presume that any grouping of generally self-interested politicians represented regional interests above kick-backs and monopolies derived from a national system of corruption. Nevertheless regional divisions in the Algerian elite help to explain some of its behavior and direction.

4 thoughts on “Political Regionalism in Algeria: East side-West side?

  1. The east also has proportionally more Algerians. The habitable strip narrows down as you go West. The East has more populous Wilayas, Setif and Constantine are thought to have overtaken Oran in population, add to that Annaba, Constantine and the huge concentration of population from Jijel to Boumerdes. That could partly explain why there is more domination from the East (and why the fighting against France was fierce there).

    What do you think of the South? it is not populous, but many think that Ouargla has a disproportionate political influence over other southern Wilayas, or even over many other Wilayas in general. There are currently 5 senators of Ouargla and I believe one minister.

    Like you said, on the national level I don’t believe it’s due to regionalism as much as to pragmatism. But on the local level, oh my – especially the Eastern Wilayas. Take employment for example: a big part of the unrest in Annaba over Al-Hadjar is due to dissatisfaction over what they see as regionalist hiring practices favouring neighbouring Wilayas over Annaba itself.

    Chadli is from Taref I believe.

    • I remember reading something that was an understanding between the central government and Ghardaia that they would always get representation in the ministries and legislature in some way (trying to find the book). There is always at least one minister from Ghardaia. Ouargla, I have no idea. Only thing I can come up with off the top of my head is that there are major military installations there. They are also on the border with Libya; but if that were a factor there should be more ministers from Bechar and Tindouf because of Morocco (or Illizi). Historically they were very conscious about having easterners, Kabyles and westerners in the government by their proportion in the population and having at least one southerner in the government.

      Totally agree about the el-Hadjar situation. Recall an agriculture program in Khenchela where people were angry because they thought that Biskra was getting more than their fair share for tribal reasons. It is a struggle.

      I will update the post with some population figures as well to show the comparison; it’s true, the eastern region is much bigger (more big wilayat and bigger ones) than the western region. I’d be curious to see how population densities compare too. Kabylia must be higher than the far east or the west but I wonder how the two border regions compare.

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