David Kenner has an interesting posting at Foreign Policy on the “long-term viability of Algerian strongman Abdelaziz Bouteflika,” based on Wikileaks cables. American diplomats identified key risks to Tunisia’s stability in leaked State Department cables, Kenner writes, and the cables on Algeria may be similarly predictive or useful in some other way. “Is Algeria next?” It identifies the harraga phenomenon and conversations between American officials and Said Sadi. In answering Kenner’s question these are valid points of reference. As someone put it on Twitter recently, “impossible is not Algerian”; Algeria’s long-term stability is very uncertain and it seems increasingly likely that discontent with the country’s managed crisis will produce some kind of political rearrangement in the near future. The harraga issue deserves comment as is shared between Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Libya and because it is interesting to think out politically in terms of Kenner’s overall question, which is important and reasonable (especially as most commentary has focused on Egypt as the next candidate for popular destabilization). The Sadi conversation needs to be put into political context.
The most engaging report is a 2008 cable on disaffected Algerian youth known as “the harraga,” or literally “one who burns.” Unlike Mohamed Bouazizi, who lit himself on fire in Tunisia two years later, these men aren’t burning themselves — they’re burning their identification papers before setting out on makeshift boats in an attempt to reach the shores of Spain or Italy. It’s an unbelievably dangerous journey: The embassy estimates that over 90 percent of the harraga die at sea, are detained indefinitely by North African authorities, or are returned to their host country. According to one article cited in the cable, up to 50,000 Algerians and Libyans attempted to reach European shores in search of economic opportunities in 2007.
From the Algerian regime’s perspective, perhaps the most troubling aspect of this story is that the harraga hail — like Bouazizi — from the society’s educated classes. One boat, the embassy reported “includ[ed] five university graduates and two doctors.” The grandson of a former Algerian president also departed the country in this way and “has not been heard from since.”
The regime’s perspective sees the harraga issue less in terms of brain drain than in terms of its relationship with Europe where it can leverage the migration problem in terms of other economic and security portfolios (one sees a similar tendency in Libya’s immigration policy). Arresting young Algerian harraga helps the regime bolster its credibility with the southern European countries and causes resentment at home; but the regime views the phenomenon as a relief from having to deal with economic demands from that many fewer young men. These young men are seen as pawns in a political process more than a cause for creative thinking which is, in any case, significantly lacking in Algeria’s leadership. The Algerian regime relies on hydrocarbons to finance itself and the economy at large. It does not see itself as being reliant on human capital in the way that Tunisia or Morocco or even Egypt does. This partly (obviously not entirely) explains its lackadaisical posture towards economic diversification (and foreign investment especially) and certain elements of its foreign policy (i.e., the border closure with Morocco).
That aside, though, the harraga issue is troubling but like many other social problems facing youth in Algeria the regime has evolved over the lat ten years in the direction of managing but not solving the problem. The regime’s posture is best summarized as in the title of Isabelle Werenfels book: managing instability. The problem with this is of course that it is not viable in the long term. Algerian politics has been in a state of crisis since no later than 1988 when the regime plainly admitted it was out of substantive ideas in initiating the aborted transition. From that point on political questions have been technical and pro forma, political processes and institutions have been personalized and the multi-level crisis in state legitimacy and socio-economic life has never been resolved and one gets the sense in the last five years that important regime segments have given up on doing so. The current political order was designed in 1995 and put firmly into place from 1999 with the purpose of establishing order and normalcy in the wake of catastrophic Civil War. The “vision” problem former Ambassador Ford is said to mention is a more serious problem than the harraga because there is a growing sense in the elite that there is no sense of where the government is going. Long-term stability is a serious problem not least because short- and medium-term stability are deeply uncertain. Bouteflika and Ouyahia both appear to believe they have viable ideas as to where to take the country but in the former’s case is seen as less relevant in the 21st century (formed during his time as Algeria’s genius foreign minister in the 1970s) and the latter’s is dissatisfying at a popular level given the enduring socio-economic crisis. This consciousness means that dissatisfied or more forward thinking forces are being blocked from enacting “progressive” or effectual policy. This could produce elite discontent and one is already hearing rumors and names (of old men) thrown around in terms of some kind of “transition” to a post-post-Civil War order. Rising divisions in the military, partly the result of the retirement of old guard officers and the rise of younger forces in the last ten years especially and partly the result of frustration among the latter are also key in this context. Algeria’s structural crisis is significantly deeper, more militarized and factional than Tunisia’s and can be expected to be far more gory in a time of true crisis, when youth violence and public resistance goes out of the state’s control and organized opposition forces form. The regime itself has shown remarkable unity: the private firms, unions, the security services, the “opposition” and religious sections lined up behind the regime, the result of ten years of active regime co-optation and a collective fear of a second “national tragedy”. The Tunisian and Algerian leaderships were shocked by the winter riots but the Algerians were prepared in the security and political spheres due to long experience with the problem. The Algerians survived while Ben Ali fell due to preparation less than luck.
The Sadi/Tewfik conversation (or, the pot calling the kettle black):
The most explosive comments in the cable are relayed to the embassy by Said Sadi, an opposition leader. Sadi described a conversation that he had with Gen. Toufik Mediene, Algeria’s head of military intelligence, who “acknowledged that all was not well with the health of Bouteflika and Algeria writ large.” When the conversation turned to Algeria’s endemic corruption, Sadi reports that the general “motion[ed] silently to the portrait of Bouteflika that hung over their heads” to indicate where the problem lay.
This bit needs to be put in political context. Said Sadi is not any old opposition leader. Sadi and his RCD party, usually identified as “Berberist” as Sadi and his following came out of the Berber cultural movement and the party’s base is mainly Kabyle though its other distinguishing features are its assertive secularism and market liberalism, are well known to enjoy a special relationship with the security services going back to the early 1990s when they backed the general’s putsch and backed the eradicationist position in the Civil War. (He was a big force behind the demonstrations this weekend as well.) Sadi’s frequent public outbursts and electoral boycotts are often designed to assist in feuds between the security services and the regime (or are at least perceived that way). His party’s aggressive opposition to the third term, for example, was likely tolerated because it gave voice to sentiments that exist within parts of the security forces regarding Bouteflika’s continued rule. Consequently, one must view Sadi telling a foreign diplomat that Bouteflika is the root of all corruption on word of Tewfik — the head of Bouteflika’s rival political camp — must be taken with a grain of salt and understood in terms of that relationship. Corruption is widespread in Algeria and Tewfik — and his sons — are deeply involved in private sector corruption particularly in extractive industries (notably gold but others, too). So is the Bouteflika family. There had been an effort by Tewfik’s set in the last few years to undermine Bouteflika’s during the run up to his bid for a third term in office via media and quiet talks with foreigners and the meeting with Sadi seems to fit into that background. In that sense the meeting represents one of the basic (“clan”) fissures in Algerian politics between Bouetflika’s and Tewfik’s cliques. (The corruption investigations into SONATRACH and consequent cabinet reshuffle last year are widely believed to have been the result of this too.) Information from Tewfik, directly or indirectly, on the health of Bouteflika or Algeria’s politics (which are dominated by Bouteflika) must be understood in that context and not as mere expressions of anxiety. (That is not to call the RCD a mere pawn in the game but one cannot relay a conversation about corruption between an opposition leader and the head of the notorious state security apparatus without some skepticism.) This rivalry has been a source of instability in the country in the last three years especially and the last ten generally. Additionally, rumors about Tewfik’s own health — he is only two years younger than Bouteflika — are also signs for concern as well.