Shuffles in Algeria: Additional Thoughts

Since Abdelaziz Bouteflika returned from prolonged convalescence in France late this past summer, Algeria has seen three moves that have been seen in most public writing as representing a resurgence of the President’s clan over his rivals in the DRS. These changes are, generally:

  • The abolition of or transfer of multiple operational elements from the powerful intelligence service (DRS) to the regular military/military intelligence chain of command, explicitly under the direction of the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, the Presidency, or elsewhere.
  • The rise of Bouteflika-allies to top positions in the FLN and RND, Algeria’s two dominant political parties, after prolonged struggle among factions with diverse loyalties to the President, the head of the DRS (Mohamed ‘Tewfik’ Mediene), or other even more parochial interests. This came after a cabinet reshuffle in September, purging the Council of Ministers of several men loyal to factions opposite the President.
  • FLN and other party bosses floating the idea of a fourth term for Bouteflika in 2014, despite worries about his health and age. This was announced around the same time discussions about a constitutional amendment to create Vice Presidency with role and form similar to that of the American one (which seems to speak directly to concerns about succession).

Analysts have generally interpreted these moves as power plays by the President’s clan in its ongoing power struggle with the DRS. Bouteflika’s declaration that he would never be a ‘two thirds president’ echoes over much writing and analysis on Algerian politics; the struggle between Algeria’s first civilian president since 1965 and first president since the 1990s Civil War on the one hand and the military-intelligence establishment on the other is the single strongest meta-narrative in Algerian haute politique. Many analysts approach each of the crises in Algerian politics that emerged during the last decade over corruption in the energy sector, government contracts, party politics, ‘reform,’ and through this lens of a conflict between the President and the Army, the DRS and similar interests. After years and months of aggressive investigations into men close to the President, arrest warrants issued, hostile press coverage, the President has come back swinging and out to draw blood. Yet multiple interpretations of the key issues in Algerian politics remain the subject of serious debate; in light of recent events one must question whether he believes any of his observations about past contestation in Algeria remain valid.[1] Permutations of the narrative around the Bouteflika-DRS rivalry include:

  • The President progressively purged the military high command of loyalists to the war-time generals, such as Larbi Belkheir and Mohamed Lamari during his first and second terms. That process was brutal and led to near open conflict between the factions, and was widely reported in the press. Top spots went to new generals, many of them from the President’s home region in western Algeria, shifting the balance of power at the top from eastern Algeria (the Chaouis and BTS-Triangle types) toward the Tlemcen-Maghina-Nedroma-Triangle and more or less ‘winning’ Bouteflika to the ‘army’ proper, leaving the DRS as the main bastion for the military hardline opposed to the President’s full consolidation of power. The ‘real centres of power’ through most of the decade were more or less fixed in this pattern. The DRS has sought to prevent Bouteflika from obtaining a full grip on the country by making controversies of his abolition of term limits and his family members’ alleged roll in the economy. Bouteflika and his cohorts have also attempted to fight back, sometimes with success other times not,  but generally establishing the Presidency as a or the main force in political life.
  • The President, having come to power with the backing of the military-intelligence apparatus in 1999, has never really been a freeman. The DRS has remained the main power in the country throughout the last decade, pushing hard against efforts by the President to sop up more authority and power, allowing minor, superficial gains for the sake of stability. Personalities have come and gone but not much else in the way of the distribution of power has changed, not least as a result of Tewfik’s God-like powers.
  • Following from 1 and 2, the President has been on the back foot and took serious (or desperate) measures to re-establish his authority and safeguard his seat on his return from France. This was likely intended to remove some ambiguity over decision-making both internally and externally; 2013 was an even cloudier year than 2012, especially problematic a time of high regional crisis. With 2014 approaching, the President moved to set the stage for another election, cementing himself or others like him in place going ahead, removing room for ambitious counter forces to emerge from behind the mountains and to find gleeful patrons who would make them pretty and give them a road to power, succeeding an aged patriot whose time to step aside had arrived. One interpretation would see this as a near ultimate move to check Tewfik and other (lesser) rivals.  Another would see this as pantomime or a move meant to give exactly this impression during a time of serious crisis, if not decline for the Bouteflika clan or an improvised reaction to be pined against the wall.
  • Depending on how one reads the last several years, Bouteflika’s decrees and advances are more or less believable as proof of life. Analysts seem divided, confused, and no more aware of ‘What is going on’ than when the Presidency and DRS were reported to have given contradictory responses to French requests for over flights to support Operation SERVAL, or when Algiers seem to give radio silence in the midst of the In Amenas crisis (some saw the Beslan-esque response as evidence of Tewfik’s enduring dominance), or when the country went months without its President in the country or addressing its people (non-addresses from the President have become less abnormal than in the past during the third term). Any view that one faction has (or had) trumped or bested the other is probably due for a caveat that if victories in high politics were permanent, Bouteflika would be out of power by now.
  • Numerous other vantage points. There are not certainties or hard baselines to go on for the most part as yet. New ‘data points’ will probably emerge by the end of December or later, adding to the mix.

Media reports on the reshuffle(s) made in the security sector were sometimes reported as a ‘reaction’ to impolitic moves by the DRS: the aggressive move on In Amenas (thus far only remotely ‘official’ accounts from Statoil are available on the conduct of the Algerian raid; western media produced at least one long documentary on the raid, interviewing survivors and focusing on individuals’ experiences of the Algerian response and their opinions about it as victims rather than the actual operational priorities or strategic imperatives of the Algerian response; a few domestic media reports carried desirable narratives relayed by the services and military; El Djeich covered the incident with praise and pomp for Algerian special operators but thus far no ‘official account’ or assessment has circulated widely making it hard to evaluate where what decisions were made and why so little public or even official communications were made by the government; that is there is not enough information to write a ‘history’ of the incident with a  focus on Algerian decision-making or crisis response, only perspectives and impressions about the results), which was said to have been controversial or to be the result of an intelligence failure on the part of the DRS; and the unfavourable coverage of the Presidency while the President was in hospital (for which the DRS department responsible for the media was reportedly abolished).

Other, non-DRS-specific changes that came as part of the September reshuffle point at what might be seen as ‘corrections’ to long standing issue items, such as poor chemistry between top military men such as Gaid Saleh (who has taken on the role of Minister Delegate for Defence while keeping the post as Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces) and Adelmalek Guenaiza (who was reported by outlets supposedly close to Khaled Nezzar as having long considered leaving the government in September; he might also be seen as belonging to a clan too far away from the Bouteflikas in orientation. The post of Minister Delegate for Defence – basically Minister of Defence, although the President retains this role formally, which has been the norm since the days of Boumediene[2] — emerged in the 2000s as concession to accusations of regionalism by senior officers that felt top posts were monopolised by westerners (Guenaiza is from Souk Ahras). It is thus notable that this role has been absorbed by Gaid Saleh, also an easterner, from Batna with strong loyalties to Bouteflika. Guenaizia’s departure is thus particularly important. (See the ‘Note on regionalism’ at the end of this post. It is also known that Guenaizia had attempted to leave his post on previous occasions.)

These manoeuvres in general and superficially look quite Russian, resembling the reorganisation of the KGB following the 1991 and 1993 coup attempts if more extreme (note that attempts to ‘abolish’ the KGB failed outright). In the view of many analysts and observers, the DRS represents the most effect Arab intelligence service both in the suppression and management of Islamist opposition (both violent and non-violent) as well as dissent in general – at least as far as regimes where there have been serious internal crises. It is also a key piece of the regimes overall vertebrae with enormous power and at least some level of politicisation as far as outsiders can tell. This means that ‘dismembering’ its operational and political components or otherwise shifting them round the chain of command is dangerous in terms of the overall stability of the Algerian regime as it potentially creates avenues for confusion and for deliberate attempts by networks of protégés to deliberately sabotage the ‘success’ of said security sector reform (or at least potentially creates incentives for such behaviour). It also creates risk of setting certain employees or former employees on a course out of the government and into political, economic or even criminal life, as it did in the former Soviet Union where former security men became new barons and oligarchs, mayors and advisors and presidents in ways bringing stability but also creating problematic circumstances from human rights and other standpoints – though there the overall context of such ‘reforms’ was different, taking place in a much more dire context of an open coup plot and the collapse of an empire. Possible risks here for certain civilian clans is that such men become involved or further involved in political, criminal and other streams giving them even more or comparable capacity to influence politics and melt into interest groups. And while trends similar to this have actually emerged in Algeria since the earliest waves of ‘privatisation’ and since the end of the civil war (indeed in some cases as part of ‘bargains’ between the Presidential clan and its rivals, giving economic opportunities to adversarial clans in exchange for less political trouble or the like) regional and domestic political conditions in Algeria make this all the more worth pondering.[3] (The idea of the ‘beylikal’ and ‘mafia-state’ common among some Algerians, both elite and non-elite, opposition and not, speaks to those basic trends; import monopolies, often run on a family basis or on the basis of this one or that one having obtained a former general or colonel as a god-father reinforce this. The consequences of these things being impacted by a new wave of powerful retirees or by the weakening of these networks’ connections to the state are important to consider.) And while security sector reform is necessary across the region, though for different reasons and in different contexts, there is real risk in any change on the level of the political and security concerns: whatever the numerous human rights, corruption and other real problems that have been ingrained in Maghrebi security service cultures (resulting from their politicisation) there is a reality that these organisations have legitimate security-related roles to play. The regional trend has thus far been for these services to be left mostly unreformed or only superficially with environmental and political contexts shifting to make undermine their effectiveness in their legitimate spheres and to partly redefine the scope of their activities (Tunisia), to retrench and seek revenge (Egypt), to be utterly destroyed (Libya) or riding the motions of old regimes (Algeria, Morocco).

The Algerian political class is highly fragmented. Isabelle Werenefels observed Algerian elite networks trending toward greater fragmentation during Bouteflika’s near the end of the first Bouteflika term; this trend has continued and by many accounts has intensified during the last couple of years and months. Deadlock over the political direction of the country as Bouteflika ages and his third term ends speaks to this; the conflagrations within the FLN and then RND during the last three years show this in some detail – especially the fist fights and double party congresses seen in the FLN cadres; and all the while those who were thought to have firm loyalties are now seen as wavering, uncertain even among the dinosaurs. These moves, as has been said elsewhere, immediately appear as an attempt to show certainty and project reassurance for allies and potential allies. If one hopes for others to follow him, he leads by showing confidence, moving directly and speaking clearly. And he hopes that his competitors fail to do so more competently and without shoving him out of their way.

NOTE on Regionalism:

  • Analysis of formal political institutions in Algeria usually allows for the development of descriptive, non-causal inferences about the potential motivations or mechanisations at work within the regime. It can sometimes provide pointers or signposts toward where certain clans and other actors would like things to appear to be going (or where they have brought them). Thus analysis of Bouteflika-era cabinets under various Prime Ministers is occasionally useful for looking at the overall direction of things. This approach is limited by the nature of power in Algeria, though: People in formal positions lack strong agency or authority because decision-making is heavily informal and often involves elites outside of state and other concrete institutions. The recent reshuffle produced a cabinet that looks very different from previous ones, including the latest Ouyahia and first Sellal cabinets. It is worth considering in terms of recent changes and trends reported within the regime and ex-parti unique organisations.
  • The new cabinet is less diverse, and includes larger numbers of ministers from the eastern and western parts of the country: there are fewer ministers from Algiers and the Kabylie than in the last cabinet. In the autumn 2013 cabinet (Sellal II) westerners hold 34%, easterners 31%, with Algerois at 16% and those from the Kabylie at 13%. In the autumn 2012 cabinet (Sellal I), westerners had 28% of posts, people from the Kabylie 25% and easterners 22%. Algiers had only 8%.
  • As in the past, the three most heavily represented provinces are Tlemcen, Batna, Algiers and Tizi Ouzou. In the last Ouyahia cabinet, Tlemcen (18%) led the way, followed by Batna (12%) and Algiers (9%). In the first Sellal cabinet, Tlemcen remained first (with 14% of ministers), followed more closely by Tizi Ouzou (11%), and then Batna and Algiers (8% each). The latest Sellal cabinet gives 22% of post to men from Batna; 19% to Tlemcenis; 16% to the Algerois; and 6% to Tizi Ouzou. If Ali Benflis were a factor in the internal FLN party squabbles of the last two to three years, the increase in ministers from Batna (Benflis’s natal region) may be notable, representing a way for the Bouteflika clan to co-opt up other clans in that area at Benflis’s expense, or an attempt at bringing him further in (more likely the former). Benflis has floated the possibility of running in 2014, even after Bouteflika’s nomination for a fourth term by the FLN in early November. Both cabinets are younger and more formally technocratic than the last Ouyahia cabinet (the average birth year in the latest Ouyahia cabinet was 1947; the average birth year in either Sellal cabinet has been later than 1950). The Sellal II is rather obviously political, as the messaging put out around the time of the reshuffle indicated that many of those ministers dropped had been seen as taking the wrong side in internal FLN disputes, including for having been favourable toward Benflis.


Sellal I


NOTE: Summary chart:



Note that there is ambiguity about the placement of the DSPP under the DRS or elsewhere within the Ministry of Defence, as it is one of the few organisations often reported as being or having been part of the DRS that is as of late mentioned in El Djeich rather openly.


[1] He must also ask: Are the images he has relied on to frame his ways of thinking about Algerian politics in general, about specific actors, and group and factions of such actors (generally or particularly) still reliable? Were they ever? What kind o regime does Algeria have?  Algeria is not a personal regime; as has been said previously and recently (in the Algerian press), this is a regime of men and networks. It is not unique in the world in its general form — Algeria is a rentier oligarchy with authoritarian and occasionally populist tendencies — but in the region it is unique for its survivability of late. Mohamed Touati once noted that Algeria is neither really democratic nor truly a dictatorship; neither presidential nor parliamentary and not truly republican: Algeria’s regime type beyond ‘authoritarianism’ remains one of the open questions with which many analysts continue to struggle. Too much of this risks wandering off into directs that are no longer entirely constructive, and is perhaps better for some such other time or venue. These issues nevertheless remain relevant in trying to get a handle on politics in Algeria.

[2] This was a coup proofing measure following the attempted coups against Boumediene, in the 1960s, after which the president absorbed the post of Minister of Defence.

[3] At the end of the 1990s, Algeria had a glut of long-serving senior officers past a reasonable retirement age. As a result many colonels had little opportunity for promotion and left the armed forces. Many went into private business after early retirement. It conceivable that upper middle-ranking men in the services may find difficulty in seeking promotion under new management due to past or perceived loyalties. One rational response to this would be to leave and begin new careers, as consultants, merchants, politicians and similar.


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