Some thoughts on recent appointments in Algeria. This is how things look from roughly 06/07 September to 11 September, to this observer at least. All impressions subject to change.
- There are superficial demographic similarities between this cabinet and previous ones, but Bouteflika’s ‘clan’s’ dominance specific is less emphatic than before. Boudjerra Soltani who heads the MSP (whose political fortunes have been in the dumps since the May election) describes the new ‘technocratic’ cabinet as ‘punishment for the FLN’. There Prime Minister belongs to no political party, which Soltani seems to take as evidence of the ‘breaking of all alliances’ with the political parties and Bouteflika. Certainly the new cabinet looks somewhat like an effort at fronting something newer, younger and actionable (see the two charts below comparing the last Ouyahia cabinet to the recently appointed Sellal cabinet, note that Sellal’s cabinet remains slightly smaller). If the rumours are true (which they well may not be), Bouteflika has been absent and sick and is preparing the ground for the end of his presidency. It is unlikely major changes will result from this cabinet, but it may increase confidence among some foreign investors and firms. Continuity is the more likely outcome of the appointments at the moment, though. As per usual, though, rumours about the President’s health over the summer and the last week point to physical incapacity and/or fatigue, including foreign travel for treatment, somewhat reminiscent of similar rumours in 2005 and 2006. The Foreign Ministry has officially denied these rumours and the press made a big to do when Bouteflika received foreign dignitaries, including the Prime Minister of Qatar, this week. (Each year rumours about Bouteflika’s health or death are taken more and more seriously inside and outside Algeria, for obvious reasons.) It is quite likely that the long period of indecision leading up to the appointments reflects elite deadlock, especially given the president’s ‘condition’ and the proximity to the municipal and 2014 presidential elections.
- Sellal represents basic consensus and continuity. Abdelmalek Sellal is a longtime high-level technocrat linked to the clans loyal to the president. Sellal’s credits include what some consider a successful stint at the Ministry of Water Resources, where TSA says he is ‘using billions of dollars, largely solved the problem of water distribution in the major cities,” without the scandals that rocked the other major industrial and infrastructure enterprises over the last decade (a reference to Public Works minister Amar Ghoul, who is still in the cabinet and recently broke with the MSP). Sellal is a heavyweight and a loyalist to Bouteflika, having run his 2004 reelection campaign and been long associated with the president’s cadre of technocrats, though unlike many of Bouteflika closest associates, Sellal is from Constantine and from a Kabyle background (note also that Sellal was Interior Minister in 1999 and responsible for organising the presidential election in that year, which brought Bouteflika to power). His resume includes times as a wilaya and daira official in Guelma, Tamanrasset, Arzew and the Ministry of the the Interior; Wali in Boumerdes, Adrar, Sidi Bel Abbes, Oran and Laghouat; director general for resources at the Foreign Ministry and Ambassador to Hungry; and as a minister of the Interior, Environment, Public Works, Youth and Sports, Transportation before heading the Ministry of Water Resources. Sellal, 64, has been around the system as much as any high official in Algeria’s recent past, superficially similar to Ouyahia (as a Kabyle alumni of the Ecole National d’Administration (ENA) though he is considered non-ideological and is less polarising). Nonetheless, Sellal’s appointment does appear to be the result of a negotiated process (taking as long as it did) between the ‘clans’ that run Algeria’s politics (Amar Ghoul was widely considered another candidate, likely rejected for any number of reasons) and he is likely represents the technocratic, transitional nature of the regime in Bouteflika’s twilight years.
- The departure of Ahmed Ouyahia, Boubekeur Benbouzid (education), Said Barakat (National Solidarity), Noureddine Zerhouni (advisor. former interior minister), Noureddine Moussa (environment), and Abdellah Khanafou (fisheries) are notable because these are big men with big roles; Ouyahia is obvious but nonetheless very important, and signals some change in direction given Ouyahia’s high profile and association with rather unpopular economic policies. On top of this, one might also look at this as his positioning himself to run a presidential campaign and expand (or rebuilt or fortify) his support base.
- The retention of Amar Ghoul at Public Works has him making money and friends and it will be interesting to see if perceptions of him as gunning over for a presidential run end up being true or if these rumours are true and the political environment actually facilitates some level of success. His new party, TAJ (which he has said is not an Islamist party has helped retain some of his fellow ex-MSP ministers, and it is likely their cabinet positions will help in any effort to build out their party over time.) The appointment of Belkacem Sahli (b. 1974) is also significant generationally speaking and points to elite circulation by bringing in people from later generations, something Algerians who care about cabinet appointments have sought for some time. The average birth year for ministers in the last cabinet was 1947; this cabinet will likely skew closer to 1950, with most ministers still having been born in the late 1940s and 1950s but with a few more born in the 1960s than in the past.
- There are fewer FLN men and people closely associated with the traditional inner circles than in the previous cabinet. The big names are gone: Belkhadem (personal representative of the president), Zerhouni (Interior Minister until 2010, now out of government), Ouyahia, and so on. Men close to Bouteflika, like Abdelhamid Temmar (Forecasting and Statistics) are basically in place and there appears to be space made for any range of constituencies within the regime. This is a negotiated cabinet and one might think this put the FLN and RND on the back foot somewhat, though Belkhadem’s own comments about the cabinet (“we support the government“) and that Ouyahia’s RND did not hold its usually summer school which is significant in both cases considering the November municipal elections are upcoming and will important in showing the strength of both parties’ networks of patronage and their ability to mobilise supporters; Belkhadem especially (and Ouyahia perhaps only slightly less so) is likely to still be thinking about running for president in 2014. The new cabinet also includes fewer men from Tlemcen and western Algeria (unlike previous cabinets which where this ratio was much higher).
- These appointments probably interest outside analysts and pouvoirologists (to steal the phrase recently invented by 7our) and the like more so than ordinary Algerians at the ground level, for whom they make only a minor difference.