He Who Has Keeps, Or Tries To

SUMMARY: This post is something more than 3000 words. It deals with motivations and structural concerns associated with the upkeep of the Algerian regime and how this impacts its external behaviour in broad, general terms.

The external behaviour of the Algerian state is occasionally described and analysed in terms of the domestic, parochial priorities of the Algerian power elite alone, that is, the desire of the pouvoir to receive praise from Paris or Washington for holding elections; the desire of the pouvoir to acquired American or other foreign armaments; the need of the pouvoir to receive justify their hold on power to the outside world by fabricating terrorism and running terrorist organisations in the frontier zones of Algeria’s neighbours in the Sahel; the desire of the pouvoir to discredit the Libyan intervention by deliberate means in order to prove the point that political protest is futile and sanguine, as if Algerians do not hold points of reference and lessons learned from their own history); that the Algerian pouvoir dictates its foreign policy as it were locked in a bunker, essentially looking at the world in the way a cabal of Algerian generals might have in 1993 or 1997. There are important generational and power dynamics in Algeria’s political elite that have changed over the last decade that make such frames of analysis less adequate than in the past; given the age of President Bouteflika and the aging and deaths of the chiefs of important state security organs, these dynamics will continue to change, along with the rest of the Algerian political scene. Nonetheless, as certain Algerian Islamist partisans used to say, the Algerian state remains a kind of Janissary or corsair regime, run by cunning men intent on gaining personal profits and prestige through official and clandestine means. Somewhere between a variant of the ‘mukhabarat state’ seen in Syria and [formerly] in Tunisia and the multipolar neo-patrimonial model observed in Morocco and Egypt. All this said, and without putting so much on external policy or environmental forces, it is the objective of the Algerian powers that be to retain what they have by various means deployed in various settings.

Algerian opposition to the NATO intervention in Libya and to American, French and Qatari efforts to increase international involvement in Syria on humanitarian grounds proceed from  legalistic assumptions and views of international politics that are strongly held by Algeria’s diplomatic leadership. But this only goes part of the way: Algerians care about precedent and remember their experience with armed revolt and the depravity it unleashed at all levels. There is little likelihood Algeria’s leadership would seek to contribute to norms or efforts to unseat a regime similar to itself (neo-Mamluk and unpopular and key elites petrified of “universal jurisdiction” cases) in Syria or elsewhere. It is also worth noting, without overstating things, that among the Arab regimes Algeria has much in common with Syria structurally and politically, as far as patrimonial and ‘mafia’ regimes go. It is worth mentioning that in both Algeria and Syria, observers saw the ‘memory’ of past atrocities (government and opposition) as a strong deterrent from mass protest. Both countries’ populations are young and unhappy. And both countries have thus far ended up differently as far as the ‘Arab Spring’ is concerned exposing the limits of the comparison but not discrediting its relevance. Traumatic events marking a population with ‘lessons’ in the willingness of the leadership caste to consolidate and hold power at any cost keep a population in line until the beaten generation is outnumbered by people born after the crackdown and unburdened by its gravity. For a regime to operate on so-called ‘Hama rules’ it needs to institutionalise and normalise violence, even mass violence, for each rising generation. This is a heavy and dangerous task and, when done in a pariah regime with antagonistic relations with western powers or lacking vital natural resources for export, this becomes increasingly difficult over time. It encourages defections and contributes to wider instability; but when does competently at the technical level and accompanied by clever leveraging of other state and social resources it is highly effective though not inherently or even ultimately durable. But it tempting for regimes once a certain threshold in an internal struggle is crossed because survival becomes the objective before all others and all things become possible as the world is turned inside out.

A troubling side affect of this tendency is that events appear to be guided by men who are both eminently competent and experienced in virtually all domains of trickery, subterfuge, sabotage, and the other black arts of politics and warfare. It is not unreasonable or inaccurate to assume the existence of hidden hands in political events in Algeria; not only have such forces been known to operate with impunity but their role in various scandals in and outside Algeria over the years have been uncovered and clarified recently. Thus to suspect that otherwise inexplicable events may have to do with intra-elite and criminal rivalries or clashing ‘clans’ is not unreasonable, but other, perhaps less sanguine, possibilities also need to be explored in the absence of definitive reporting or evidence. Still, it is easy to see that the ‘political police’ and secret police remain features of Algeria’s political terrain, and that fragmentation, bluffing and beefs among minor and medium sized political parties — to say nothing of the goings-on in the large establishment political parties — is instigated at some level by actors in the ‘deep state’. Algeria, along with Syria and Tunisia made one of the better examples of the so-called mukhabarat state up through 2011; with Tunisia’s dictatorship overthrown and Syria’s in a state of advanced decay, Algeria’s regime sits relatively smugly as one of the least shaken of the Arab autocracies in 2012. Without a doubt, the Algerian state appears to have been psychologically shaken both by the raucous events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya (as well as the unrest in Mali) and by the decision by a Swiss court to indict former Defence Minister Gen. Khaled Nezzar on war crimes charges for his role in the country’s civil war. Both of these get at the key domestic motives for many of Algeria’s current leaders’ decisions in internal and foreign affairs: the desire to retain power (in official or semi-official capacities) as a means of avoiding the financial, social and legal consequences of leaving government. Commonly such leaders will seek to remain in power at any cost, fighting and struggling to the bitter end; whether they remain brutally rational or become senseless depends on accidents of personality and temperament as well as deliberate choices about how to react to the environment before things fall apart.

An advantage is that, for a time, the ‘memory’ problem discourages dissent and resistance and makes it difficult for citizens to risk discussing the most banal details of daily life with outsiders. American observers often remark on how ‘cagey’ and ‘spooky’ and ‘anxious’ Algerian contacts appear when discussing political problems; worries over surveillance or retribution and harassment for expressing opinions. The ‘examples’ of journalist friends or teachers or big brothers disappeared or killed in gruesome fashion for having opinions or asking questions is extremely powerful and compounds the effects of psychological warfare schemes hatched by the Algerian security forces in their war with Islamist militants and the political opposition. Algerians were terrified of the Sécurité militaire (SM) by the 1980s, and the depredations and manoeuvrings of the civil war confirmed the regime’s undeterred willingness to struggle hard to stay in place. Les services, the intelligence apparatus widely feared and aggressively active in Algeria, benefit from excellent training in the dark arts taken from the French and Eastern Bloc schools of the DST and KGB; the first MALG cadres overseas (the wartime FLN intelligence apparatus from which the SM, later the DRS, emerged) studied in Moscow under the famous Vadim Kirpitchenko. Consolidated under Mohamed Mediene (‘Tewfik’) in 1990 as the DRS, Algeria’s intelligence services have been a pillar of the regime on their own, distinct from the also powerful regular military. Under Bouteflika, the regular military has been more or less brought under the control of the presidency, its senior wartime commanders forced into retirement, sent overseas as attachés or dead. The DRS, led by what is believed to have the longest serving incumbent intelligence chief in the world (at twenty-two years); similar to the infamously ‘faceless’ director of East German foreign intelligence there is but one image of Gen. Tewfik, published in Gen. Khaled Nezzar’s memoir. Fear of the DRS’s surveillance and repression has an effect on society similar to its East German equivalent¹:

The problem was the Ministerium fir Staatssicherheit, the MfS – infamously known as the Stasi East Germany’s ubiquitous security service had such an iron grip on its people that almost no one dared spy for the Americans. The Stasi had, by one conservative estimate, 174,000 inoffizielle Mitarbeiter –agents or full-time informants – and many more snitches in a country of just 17 million. With those odds, few people truly believed they could steal secrets and get away with it. The Stasi didn’t follow CIA officers as diligently as the KGB, but then again, maybe it didn’t need to. (Bearden and Risen, The Main Enemy, New York, pp. 376)

The DSI, the DRS’s internal security element is led by recently appointed hardliner Gen. Bachir ‘ʿAthmane’ Tartag. During the civil war, Tartag was responsible for monitoring subversives within the military and was known for his wilful (or ‘immoderate taste for’) brutality. Having retired at the beginning of the decade his return to service was widely speculated upon. Was this an effort by the ageing Gen. Mediene to emplace a successor? Was it meant to shield Tartag from potential indictment by Algerian dissidents abroad, such as those who have pursued Gen. Nezzar in France and Switzerland on war crimes and torture charges? Is it a response to the potential for unrest brought about by the Arab uprisings and the collapse of Libya and Mali, the rise of Islamists in Tunisia? Was it to lead an offensive to finally eradicate the last guerrilla strongholds in northern Algeria? To reassure Algerian elites that the government was committed to resisting the so-called ‘Green Tide’ sweeping the region as Islamists came into government across the region? Arrests of dissidents, journalists, labor activists and similar elements suggest the government has taken an at least relatively more firm position toward opposition since January; a targeted campaign against Algerians involved in the external opposition speak to an effort to burry the legal problems presented by court cases in Europe that complicate Algeria’s relations with the west and call the authority and credibility of its leadership into question among its political classes (at least among those who still have their chips in with the regime; it is likely that the bulk of the population has little to no ‘faith’ in the regime as such to start with). It is likely that Algerians have not rebelled like some of their neighbours not only because of the ‘memory’ of their civil war: some of them fear the consequences of doing so or have been prevented or otherwise deliberately deterred from ‘revolution’. ‘Honest’ discussions about these problems remain difficult in the Algerian media, which has for years been relatively free by North African standards but nonetheless still under heavy direct and indirect influence from the country’s power centres. The Algerian media, like the economic and administrative reform processes initiated during the 1990s, was an important element in the government’s counter insurgency and psychological warfare effort against the Islamist insurgency; it cannot be doubted that to a large extent these tools are still used to great effect in Algeria and that cultivating a any number of frames around appointments to the security services, traditionally ‘off limits’ in the Algerian press, serves deliberate objectives. This capacity in psychological warfare remains one of the Algerian regime’s strongest assets in managing domestic dissent and internal and external perceptions of government behaviour and policy; it also maintains an important role in Algeria’s civil-military relations.

Algerian foreign policy does has themes over years.² Algeria’s foreign policy was traditionally activist and non-allied. There were always inconsistencies on this front: its leaders often condemned American imperialism and capitalism during the 1960s and 1970s but actively cultivated the United States as a market for Algerian energy. It spoke out against the capitalist countries more generally and against colonialism but tended to avoid direct public criticism of France except for on specific occasions (due to economic dependency in the first 20 years of independence especially; under Ben Bella this was the key contradiction in foreign policy, he would did not criticise Gen. Franco in Spain as he did Salazar in Portugal because Franco sought to purchase energy from Algeria). It placed emphasis on large international organisations, sometimes believed to be the result of idealism on the part of its leaders in the early period especially, though the broad pattern is that this commitment to large, relatively ineffectual organisations like the Non-Allied Movement, the G-77, the African Union, and the United Nations have abided over time while its interest in regional organisations and trade blocs has remained essentially luke warm, probably the result of a number of internal and ideological factors. Algerian hesitancy about economic or defence cooperation with Europe or NATO or the other Maghreb states has as much to do with the ideological imperatives of self-reliance and independence and sovereignty for their own sake as it does with specific internal or internal dynamics (simultaneously the failure of internal economic reforms can be linked strongly to points in the economic culture that come in part from ideological/dispositional symptoms of its rentier model).³ Algeria has for some time been keen on the rhetoric of Arab and Maghreb unity but cool on integration itself, again because these are ideologies not deeply or widely assimilated within the political culture and their practical requirements risk undermining the compacts and relationships its internal political arrangements are built on; even if the idea of integration is understood or even endorsed, economic nationalism remains relatively pervasive and dominant in deeds. The mixture of these internal and ideational dynamics is strongest in the regional economic domain, where what appears like a preference for autarky is often a mixture of real statist feelings and rational actor calculus about the viability of local monopolies and conglomerates in the face of regional competition. There can also be no doubt that large parts of Algeria’s bureaucracy and administration is often slow, disorganised and disinterested in reforms and beholden to ‘hidden’ interests and greedy Godfathers, and that these characteristics and phenomena influence the pace and enthusiasm with which the Algerian state leans suspiciously toward neoliberal market and administrative reforms.

The ideological component is most clear, though, in terms of non-intervention, which has been most evident in the cases of Libya and Syria. When Algerian leaders say they oppose no-fly zones and humanitarian corridors, back ‘dialogue’ or some other measure short of humanitarian intervention in a specific conflict it is not only from cynicism and a desire to support other authoritarian governments. For Algeria’s  elderly leaders, this is often a red line, a matter of principle: humanitarian intervention is perceived as a pretext for western policies in third countries. A country whose leadership comes from a colonial experience and domestic background rife with paranoia and manoeuvring, the prospect of outsiders taking sides in another country’s internal conflict betrays the entire idea of national self-determination. For a man like Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a veteran of the war of independence and a figure in the Third Worldist camp during the Cold War, self-determination and non-intervention are inextricably linked; there is not a contradiction in external support for armed resistance to foreign occupation, though external support for armed or other resistance to an oppressive regime in a sovereign state is a direct affront to the ability of a people to determine its own direction. Thus Bouteflika has thus spent much time, both as foreign minister under Boumediene, and as president seeking to use African Union institutions to mediate disputes in Mali and Eritrea; the Malian case is an example where Algeria’s role came from a direct interest in preventing a conflict in a neighbouring country from spreading into its own territory by seeking to uphold colonial borders, the Eritrean one shows that the Algerians are not above pragmatism in their interpretation of the he who has keeps principle among African states so long as borders are changed consensually and without external interference. Algeria’s experience of the 1990s, where the regime’s blockage of the electoral process set in motion what at the time was probably among the most deadly and most violent civil war in an Arab country until that time. Statements from Algeria’s representatives abroad became pugnacious when challenged on human rights questions, the validity of the government’s political and military solutions to the ‘terrorist threat’. The Algerians aggressively rejected external mediation in their civil war; the same personalities involved with that process remain key power brokers in Algeria and in its foreign policy. Algeria’s skepticism of interventionism, humanitarian or otherwise, is thus born from more or less pragmatic, cynical motivations that have to do with the lived experience of its relationships with its neighbours and its own record with humanitarian crises – one part big ideas and at least one part reciprocity.4

1 Students of Algeria often note that in investigating the process of the civil war, beyond the military and intelligence men who have already put their experiences out in the open, those who ‘know’ what has gone on dare not speak of it. Occasionally this also goes for members of the political class, deep in Werenfels’s ‘first circle elites’ who, despite their deep knowledge of current affairs, dare not speak of it to outsiders, keeping it close to their chests, for as rational actors they are unwilling to undermine themselves by giving up their information advantage or expose themselves to potential consequences. And it is likely, as is often the case in politics, that the men in Algeria who know the most are known least to the outside world and do no appear in the popular presses, on radio or elsewhere beyond the world of ‘affairs’.

2 There is no intention here to lay out all the ‘themes’ and objectives and ideas associated with Algerian foreign policy, which if it were at all possible to accomplish, would require a whole separate space and line of thinking and research than goes to any post on this blog for now.

3 The Algerians see themselves as ‘grown ups,’ and peers of western partners in counterterrorism especially. Certainly this is designed to build and sustain support from Europe and North America and the idea of Algeria as a counterterrorism powerhouse is a deliberately cultivated effort aimed at both western and domestic audiences. This has been amplified by and promoted during the 2011 Arab uprisings, especially in Libya and somewhat more recently on Tunisia after the rise of Nahdha and the Salafi trend there. Deliberate psychological warfare campaigns to sanitise and improve western perceptions of Algeria’s military prowess and the ferocity of the state’s enemies have been a key element in its foreign policy since the early 2000s especially, when communications officers, English language requirements and conferences hosted in country became a part of the government’s relationships with outsiders. The Algerians present themselves as fine on their own, with a baseline handle on their internal problems which, nevertheless, seem to be permanent despite their best efforts thus necessitating external cooperation with Algiers’s imperatives. This has been a winning strategy for some time, even if suspicion of its refusal to take more aggressive action in Mali has frustrated some western policy makers and analysts and caused them to question its motivations and honesty on these problems.

4 This alternatively comes from or is compounded by accidental and managerial inertia or leadership flaws, bottlenecks at the top of the food chain and so on.