Incomplete thoughts on the Algerian Situation

[Compiled from a series of notes taken down from Wednesday, 2 January – Saturday, 5 February.]

It has been announced the Algerian government plans to lift the nine-teen year state of emergency “very soon,” and will undertake economic measures to increase job growth and social stability (for instance, more housing credits). Promises of fair access to media for political parties have been mentioned. As both houses of parliament broke they pledged increase dialogue and involvement with youth. This may be seen as a response to uprisings in late December and January and in anticipation of planned demonstrations in Algiers on 12 February (organized by political parties and activists under the banner of the Committee for Coordination of National Change and Democracy), as Algerian decision-makers watch developments in Egypt. Official statements have mentioned that the purpose of the emergency law is to fight terrorism and that in the event of its removal legal provisions will be made to ensure that the counter-terrorism capacities it allows do not suffer. The president clarified that although the state of emergency would eventually be lifted, protests would not be allowed in the capital “for reasons well known”. Former Interior Minister and current Deputy Prime Minister Noureddine Zerhouni warned that protestors would be responsible for what happens to them if they turn out in Algiers in violation of the emergency law. (Indeed, Algiers is reportedly thick with security ahead of 12 February.) These announcements marked the president’s first comments following the unrest in December and January. The opposition greeted these measures with suspicion and cautious optimism. They are unlikely to address the deep grievances of average Algerians. Many Algerians see talk of repealing the emergency law while adopting new anti-terror laws as a normalization of the status quo.

Ahmed Benbitour has called for creation of a transitional government to lead Algeria toward greater democracy. His manifesto is focused mainly on economic reforms, badly needed in a country suffering from massive unemployment and dependence on hydrocarbon exports. Rumors that Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, Secretary General of the powerful National Rally for Democracy, will be replaced in an imminent cabinet reshuffle are rampant — especially in terms of opposition demands for his removal or the revision of his economic policies (that reshuffle has been referred to as a response to discontent). This has been discussed previously on this blog and around informed circles. Ouyahia is associated heavily with the economic reforms undertaken in the last several years, many of which have been particularly unpopular and which many blame for the winter unrest. One might also expect other unpopular members of the government to be replaced. Such maneuvers are designed to lend some credibility to the regime as it stands by “responding” to mass discontent without significantly altering the general political order.

Questions such as: What will the military do in the event of a crisis? are particularly relevant but must be re-fitted to ask: What will sections of the military do? There are overlapping and conflicting power networks within the military — the “clans” of loyalists to military intelligence, centered around Maj. Gen. Mohamed “Tewfik” Mediene, and those in the regular staff close to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. And there are emergent elements among the young officers, many of whom are frustrated by their superiors’ machinations and corruption. Additionally, the role of the Interior Ministry forces, which have been used extensively as elsewhere, particularly riot police and the Gendarmerie Nationale, must be established in terms of their interests and loyalties within the regime. The image of Algerians flocking to the army or police for protection as Tunisians and Egyptians did, at least initially, is difficult to imagine. The military — the Army specifically — is widely seen as the strong force behind the scenes in Algeria’s politics. Algerians too young to remember Chadli Bendjedid and who were children during the Civil War and who have come of age under Bouteflika know the President as the country’s powerful front man but have been told by the people they know and those they respect that his power is regulated by the military. The army, the secret services, the president and his cabinet and the large public/private industries (the private ones often strongly linked to the military) are the key factors in Algerian politics. Its historical role in politics has severely damaged its prestige, particularly following the Civil War; a major project in the Bouteflika era has been its modernization and the gradual re-establishment of its honor in the public sphere. The military as a whole benefits if the population does not see it as the key actor in political events and particularly if it is not associated with crackdowns or other activities generally carried out by police and gendarmes. But the moment it appears that officers or their close allies are involved or are plotting to involve themselves politically it would likely cause a backlash unlike in Tunisia and at an earlier stage than in Egypt. The military is still the main national institution and commands significant respect from ordinary people. The military includes an enormous number of conscripts who are themselves just as much a part of the popular society as youth rioters and demonstrators. And while the military commands a great degree of respect, there is also an underlying feeling of resentment towards an institution frequently associated with corruption, arrogance and (at least partial) responsibility for the Civil War.

The military and civilian elite learned the “lesson of April 2001,” when youths in Kabylia, and then the rest of the country, rose up and were brutally suppressed: higher levels of violence increase resentment and anger thereby making resistance more powerful. The Algerian response to the winter uprising netted far few deaths than those in Tunisia and Egypt where the deaths of demonstrators became galvanizing moments in struggles against local regimes. The Algerians were able to weather the uprisings without the kind of firm anti-government movement faed by their neighbors. Over the last ten years the Algerians have also grown adept at coopting ideological demands from popular and party forces: it met demands to give Berber a more exalted place within the state, recognizing it as a national language and including references to Berber identity in the constitution; it has included Islamists in the ruling coalition (the MSP) and adopted some of their recommendations in family law and education. But it has not taken on the social and economic contradictions that animate most social and political dissatisfaction among the population.

At the core there is the President, his closest advisors, the Prime Minister and the Generals; just beyond them are the major economic players. Isabelle Werenfels illustrates the “segments” of the political elite in her 2007 book Managing Instability in Algeria: Elites and Political Change since 1995 (Routeledge, 2007) in Figure 7.1:

The military is not monolithic: its leadership and former leadership are heavily involved in the country’s economic life to a degree that is well understood by many Algerians. These provide some of them with a sense of solidarity but personal loyalties and factionalism dating to the early 1990s is also influential. Some generals and other officers that did not enjoy the favor of Larbi Belkheir (a key power broker under Chadli, now dead), for example,  have returned to top spots under Bouteflika; additionally, many of the old brass were forced to retire or died of natural causes early in the last decade. This has allowed Bouteflika the opportunity to cultivate loyalties and egos and deprived the Civil War brass of important positions of authority, though many of these men remain in place within military intelligence (the DRS) or elsewhere. The modernization of the Air Force and Army through Russian and Serbian purchases especially has won him friends, and Bouteflika’s efforts to improve Algeria’s credibility with Europe and America has been especially pleasing to many in the armed forces. Yet infighting between Bouteflika’s clan and those in the DRS (which is said to have cultivated extensive links to politicians and to have set up minders in key economic and political fora) has been a major factor since the run up to the 2009 presidential election, when Mediene opposed Bouteflika’s candidacy and re-election and used opposition elements to voice his faction’s displeasure. Earlier disagreement on economic issues (affecting the core’s interests) and displeasure over changes in military staff emerged early in the second term. Eventually the question was resolved and Bouteflika won the support of the deep state. This did not remove concerns in intelligence circles that Bouteflika sought to eclipse their power; the death of Ali Tounsi, corruption investigations into the state energy firm SONATRACH and the resulting cabinet reshuffle in early 2010 came on this backdrop but have not totally settled questions around Bouteflika’s succession and or other factional disputes. Elements within the regime likely see the current situation in terms of political opportunities for themselves and in terms of buying time as the population becomes increasingly impatient with a tired status quo.

But what of the organized opposition? The FFS, the oldest opposition party in Algeria, has dismissed the promise of lifting the emergency law as a “scam,” noting that new anti-terrorism laws would simply replace it. The FFS is a major competitor with the RCD, Said Sadi’s party, which is playing a leading role in the 12 February movement (both draw their core constituencies from Kabylia). Their rivalry represents an important characteristic of Algerian politics: for any one political tendency there are two or more parties. The religious tendency is fragmented between the MSP (a member of the ruling coalition), En-Nahdah, El-Islah and a slew of other minor parties. The left is spread across many minor parties, the largest of which is the Trotskyist PT. A wide array of independents sit in parliament and whole range of tiny parties, some breakaways from the old FLN or regionalist formations. The second largest party, the National Democratic Rally (RND) is itself a breakaway of establishment figures from the historic FLN. Thus the FFS and the RCD took drastically different lines in response to the ministerial communique: the FFS dismissed it and compared it to Mubarak’s piecemeal reforms; the RCD called it a “serious process,” while calling for political restructuring. One should not overstate the RCD’s political appeal: it turned out relatively demonstrators on 22 January and on its own carries little appeal beyond Algiers and Kabylia (in elections it performs narrowly). The organized political parties very often do not command mass bases and ordinary people (especially young people) tend to view them with contempt at worst and pragmatism at best. There is a sense of disdain for those whose actions have or do legitimize regime institutions and personalities — those who vote and run in “bunny rabbit” elections for example. What happened in December and early January (and the rest of 2010, one might add) literally came from the bottom up. Recall that the bulk of political parties and official organized labor condemned the winter rioters in Algeria. These groups do not command wide numbers and lack the popular legitimacy and will to organize youth against the regime; Algeria’s weak and often ineffectual opposition is part of the regime built in 1995 with the intent of normalizing a regime built at the mouth of cannons.  The opposition wants change but, like the ruling faction, fears chaos and relies on the status quo for sustenance. The parties act more as a valve for blowing off steam from within than forces for popular, mass resistance to the regime itself. It is unclear what will come from the 12 February demonstrations; what is clear is that the Algerian system of politics is shaky at its core and the opposition in many ways plays into the hands of the regime by acting a regulator of popular distress without pressing out sweeping change. One doubts Algerians will miss an opportunity to turn out and show the regime what they think of it. But he may question what will come of such demonstrations.

15 thoughts on “Incomplete thoughts on the Algerian Situation

  1. algeria could have been the first tunisia but the two countries diverged on how they dealt will their protesters
    while tunisia has had a heavy handed approach algeria tried to be soft in dealing with the protesters (most of the injured were the police)
    demonstrations do not have to end in the toppling of the regime but all countries of the regions should not emerge of this incident unscathed

  2. “The military is still the main national institution and commands significant respect from ordinary people.”

    I don’t know where you get this from, but I don’t think there is much truth in that. If anything it is more fear than respect.

    • The military is the strongest state institution in the country (which where that was coming from). Fear is correct. That sentence exaggerates massively on second glance. The point was that there is still respect for the military but that it isn’t seen as golden (the sentences after it get at what I’m try to say better). Scratch significant and qualify some (it depends who you’re talking to; there are still people that look at the army as a way of getting a career and status). This is what happens when you write things in stream of conscious and don’t go back through them.

      • OK. This I can agree with. You are correct as far as the military being the strongest institution. It has a remarkable ability to stay together despite all the internal divisions that are reported to exist within. And it is probably true that ambitious young men probably view it as the golden route to the top. Finally, I believe that there are people who would give a positive rating to the military for keeping the Islamists in check even if they don’t agree with everything it does. Louisa Hanoune comes to mind when she said she would not get involved in security matters (when asked about the lifting of the state of emergency.)

    • Louisa Hanoune is an interesting study in pragmatism. I keep meaning to write more on her maneuvering but there are more interesting and relevant characters to follow, especially since she has lost so much dynamism.

      • Louisa Hanoune works for the DRS, heading a false opposition party. She has property in Paris apparently and decent Algerians know full well who she is. Whoever claims that he is acting as a shield against Islamism to please the West, is just trying to keep stealing and killing his own people. We say in Algerian: “Fakou”! This doesn’t work anymore. Mubarak has claimed that for the last 30 years and has now amassed a 70 Billion US Dollar fortune (more than Egypt external debt)! (Islamism threat = bogeyman).

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