Algerian cabinet reshuffle, 29 May: II

This post is intended to follow up on, clarify and correct the previous posting on the 29 May cabinet reshuffle in Algeria. Alle’s previous comments are invaluable as well have been those of Algerians inside the country who have offered observations and opinions.

Nouredine Yazid Zerhouni has lost his standing. His “move” from the all-powerful Ministry of the Interior to the deputy Prime Ministership is a demotion in response to his handling of at least two issues in recent months: the fallout from the Ali Tounsi assassination and his poor relations with Abdelaziz Belkhadem and Said Bouteflika. In particular, Tounsi’s death benefited Zerhouni and the Bouteflika clan in terms of control over the Interior Ministry, operationally. Though a long-time ally of Bouteflika, he alienated himself from both clans. His age likely also factored into the move as well. This is perhaps the most consequential element in the whole reshuffle, even if Zerhouni remains influential without a portfolio. Daho Ould Kablia, the new Interior Minister, as written previously, has historically been especially close to Zerhouni. His appointment is important for this and because he also has connections to and support within the DRS. He is seen as a balanced figure, one who can help to bridge divisions between the DRS and Bouteflika clans. He will be the most interesting figure to watch and his activities will indicate what kind of conciliation takes place (or does not take place) as a result of this reshuffle. His appointment is likely intended as a bridge between factions.

Chakib Khelil’s removal is a clear boon to the DRS but is not especially remarkable in itself. His replacement, Youcef Yousfi, has served as CEO of SONATRACH, chief of cabinet for President Lamine Zeroual, Minister of Energy, Ambassador to Canada and the United Nations. Further, he served briefly as Foreign Minister in 1999 and as a junior minister in Ali Benflis’s government. He is competent and well respected.

The Ministers who were removed from office — Bessalah (ex-Telecoms) and Djaaboub (ex-Commerce) — were both close to Bouteflika; none of those moved or fired are close to the DRS. Thus, the reshuffle represents a win for the DRS clan. What is critical, though, is that while important regime figures have been shaken this is not a total reversal of the political situation. The DRS’s clique is known to carry a sense of paranoia and isolation and, while there is good evidence to the contrary, there are some who believe it is less powerful than commonly thought. A few Algerian sources have said that an important factor driving the Bouteflika-DRS feud in recent months has been a sense that Bouteflika’s clients were arrogant and “carried on without fear”. The intelligences services, then, wished to show that they could reach out and “touch” Bouteflika, as their allies were “touched” by changes to investment laws and they by the Tounsi assassination.

The ministries with well known corruption scandals (Fisheries, Public Works, Education, etc.) remain under their old management. It is not a decisive swipe at corruption, but a strictly political maneuver. The Ministry of Energy got a new chief because Khelil had been linked to corruption within SONATRACH in local and international media. If the government did not sacrifice him it would look bad at home and abroad and sully SONATRACH’s name further. As Rachid Tlemcani told El Watan: the SONATRACH scandal has “hurt the image of the country” overseas (improving this image has been one of Bouteflika’s priorities). Amar Ghoul’s embezzlement problems, for instance, receive less attention abroad and sprinkle wealth further down than Khelil’s, so much of this is for show both in and outside Algeria. This is the same reason the contentious and unpopular Education and Health ministers were not replaced. Ahmed Ouyahia has retained his place, an indicator of the internal balance of power and the meaning of the reshuffle.

At the same time, though, much of SONATRACH’s senior management (including Mohamed Meziane who was replaced by Mohamed Cherouati) has been replaced in the last several months. Some believe that this represents deeper change: the company has been traded over to the DRS “clan” by Bouteflika’s. That is, SONATRACH, too, has become at once a weapon and casualty in the county’s “clan warfare”. One Algerian source in particular noted that the rearrangements at SONATRACH bode poorly for the networks that were reliant on Khelil and Meziane. One so frequently hears official Algerians say that Bouteflika has a “personal interest in fighting corruption” that it sounds like a cover at a time of weakness. What exactly has been forcing Bouteflika’s hand all these months — aside from a growing sense of isolation within the intelligence service — remains to be seen upfront.

The imbalance (both perceived and real) between rival networks of patronage and corruption demanded some sort of concession from the publicly and politically dominant faction. Adjusting the balance between these networks has been one of Bouteflika’s strengths in office. Bouteflika has been able to stave off the most utterly disastrous results of intra-elite competition by bargains and re-distributions of public and private goods as needed, evidence of his deep understanding of the Algerian political class. As Bouteflika’s health has deteriorated and anxiety over succession and economic prospects have increased virtually all possible constituency have become desperate and aggressive. Whether it is the military and DRS factions trying to discredit powerful technocrats and civilians or young men burning cars or chasing border police, the government is walking on egg shells all along the way.

The country’s World Cup mania has allowed the regime to arbitrate much of its inner crisis without aggressive public scrutiny while newspapers are plastered with updates of every possible movement of Rabah Saadane and the national football team. This reshuffle was announced in the middle of a dismal friendly between the Algerian and Irish national teams, when few were paying attention. Internal political fights are obscured by coverage of Franco-Algerian relations, the crimes of colonialism, the rivalry with Egypt and so on. Some of these — like Israel’s massacre on board the Gaza Freedom Flotilla — have been accidental. But the release of important information during such times of crisis or glory has been conspicuous for many months. The regime is adept at manipulating legitimate outrage for its own purposes. Public protests are handled swiftly and callously except where anger is directed abroad, but the situation is so risky that the government will not allow Algerians to protest the Flotilla killings even as government figures make their outrage well known and call out Egypt for complicity in the Gaza blockade. Opposition figures have called for a lift on the ban on public demonstrations in Algiers for the occasion. That the government is seizing on these issues — as well as its close association of other issues of pride and honor — indicates a desire to boost national morale and the government’s credibility in a time of internal strife and impending doom. Algeria’s prospects in the World Cup are not good. The regime has identified itself with the team and a poor showing in South Africa will be of no benefit to Bouteflika or his entourage and could give Algerians yet another reason to take to the streets.

In all, the reshuffle is indicative of a short to medium-term settlement between factions. It is a readjustment of the system in hopes of preventing a total erosion of group feeling within the elite. In particular, it is sill apparent that the political elite views the country’s economy as a battleground and that SONATRACH has been drawn into the political fray with potentially very serious consequences. It is clear that while Algeria’s deep state has been set back in recent years, its ability to influence events and public opinion remains formidable — and that it means to let those in doubt know this.

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