Stability at Any Cost?

C’est enfin l’armée qui a choisi Bouteflika en 1999, vingt ans après l’avoir écarté. Hélas pour elle, l’arrivée aux affaires de ce dernier a considérablement réduit l’influence des militaires sur la vie politique. À tel point qu’en 2004 le chef d’état-major Mohamed Lamari (décédé en 2012) et une partie de la hiérarchie militaire se sont ouvertement opposés à la réélection de “Boutef”. Une situation inédite qui nuira finalement au général : avec la réélection de Bouteflika, l’armée perd, pour la première fois de son histoire, son rôle d’arbitre dans un scrutin présidentiel. Qu’en est-il depuis ?

“Coup d’État militaire sous couvert médical”

Ni l’omnipotence du président ni son habileté politique n’ont réussi à dépouiller complètement l’institution militaire algérienne de son statut de rouage essentiel du système qui gouverne l’Algérie depuis plus d’un demi-siècle. C’est pourquoi Bouteflika, tout chef suprême des forces armées et ministre de la Défense qu’il est, s’en méfie en permanence. Cette méfiance s’est accentuée après son accident vasculaire cérébral du 27 avril 2013. Redoutant “un coup d’État militaire sous couvert médical”, il est alors persuadé qu’une partie du commandement de l’armée pourrait le déposer en appliquant l’article 88 de la Constitution, qui décrit les cas d’empêchement du président de la République, parmi lesquels la maladie.

Lors de sa convalescence au centre de repos des Invalides, à Paris, Bouteflika entame les premières manoeuvres pour réduire cette menace. Il marginalise son ministre délégué à la Défense, le général Abdelmalek Guenaïzia, coupable d’avoir manifesté peu d’enthousiasme à l’idée d’un quatrième mandat. Le 11 septembre 2013, le président va plus loin encore en effectuant un remaniement gouvernemental : Guenaïzia est remplacé par Gaïd Salah, qui cumule désormais les fonctions de vice-ministre de la Défense et de chef d’état-major. Le danger est écarté.

Dans la foulée, alors que rien ne l’imposait, Bouteflika procède à une profonde restructuration du Département du renseignement et de la sécurité (DRS, services secrets). Par la suite, il actionne la commission des ressources humaines du ministère de la Défense pour accélérer la mise à la retraite d’une partie des officiers supérieurs, parmi lesquels des généraux manifestement opposés à un renouvellement de bail du locataire d’El-Mouradia.

Pour renforcer la pression sur l’armée, une campagne de presse contre le DRS, présenté comme une police politique, est lancée par des personnalités et des médias réputés proches de l’entourage présidentiel. Amar Saadani, secrétaire général du Front de libération nationale (FLN, parti dont Bouteflika est le président d’honneur), dénonce l’influence considérable des services secrets sur la vie politique et le fonctionnement institutionnel de l’Algérie.

Cette diversion permet d’évacuer les questions sensibles de l’état de santé du président et de sa capacité à gouverner. Les appels à la mise en oeuvre de l’article 88 de la Constitution ne sont plus un sujet d’actualité. Deux semaines après le début de cette campagne anti-DRS, Bouteflika sort de son mutisme pour défendre l’honneur de l’armée et celui des services ; il met ainsi casernes et mess d’officiers dans sa poche. Plus rien ne s’oppose désormais à un quatrième mandat. “L’armée n’est plus ce qu’elle était”, confie, désabusé, un général à la retraite. Ce n’est peut-être pas une mauvaise nouvelle pour l’Algérie. 

Jeune Afrique (online, 17 March 2014): ‘Algérie | Algérie : comment Bouteflika a neutralisé l’armée.’

The military has been seen as (and has been) the most political powerful force in Algerian politics since independence. The effect of the military’s political role over time has been to make it an object of both respect (as a symbol of sovereignty and national strength one level and political patron or menace) and fear (the force that stops at nothing to defend its interests).  Any political decision or maneuver has typically been seen as not only going through or originating from the military but also requiring its active or passive approval. The same remains the case today, though the country, its military and the regime are different.

Since 1999 prominent voices from the Algerian military have routinely pushed the narrative that: the military is declining in political influence, the military neither picks nor blocks presidential candidates, there is no feuding over succession and no campaign against Bouteflika specifically. On Bouteflika’s rise to power members of the military brass at the end of the 1990s (several of whom were still at the centre of power in the presidency and high command) made such arguments publicly; they said the same during the 2004 campaign, despite widespread rumors and speculation to the contrary (particularly regarding presumed military support for Ali Benflis); and have said the same in the last two presidential cycles. Military leaders even rejected or declined public calls for support from politicians and praise from high officials undesirable and embarrassing.

This was part of a deliberate campaign by military leaders to walk-back their domestic and international image as the true king makers in Algeria in a context of political normalization and rebooting at the end of the Civil War; modern militaries and governments recognize the institutional and reputational harm done by the militarization of politics, regardless of the degree to which they actually influence politics. Militaries in many countries also recognize the damage that perceptions of the military’s power can have on a country’s ability to engage with the outside world and on the ability of militaries to pursue institutional interests. This is true in the case of militaries with active roles in political life as well as militaries that are politically marginal. Institutions, militaries in particular, require public trust (and/or fear) to be effective; if an institution is seen as all powerful trust is basically impossible outside of emergencies. And if the Algerian military hoped to engage the outside world to pursue modernization, especially access to advanced training and weapons systems, as well as external political support, it needed to conform as much as necessary to international (Euro-Atlantic) standards for such cooperation. Key areas of the Algerian military thus sought to downplay its political role and deflect attention immediately following the Civil War for their own interest, whether national or parochial.

At the same time personalities previously affiliated with the institution or closely linked to the military or to the economic interests of former officers have spoken openly about the need for political alternatives to Bouteflika, discussed corruption and authoritarian tendencies associated with the President and his entourage, often sticking to the line that the military establishment ranks beneath the President in decision-making on the political and economic fronts and has lost or is losing influence and clearly suggesting that divisions over the direction of the regime have persisted under Bouteflika. Some of this is related to efforts to downplay the overall political and economic influence of military and semi-military actors; in others it may be related to efforts by political factors or clans to drive certain points or contest decisions and narratives.

The main point is that the military is not one thing in any society, let alone Algeria. It is complex system of formal and informal hierarchies and personnel networks, economic and bureaucratic interests. The Algerian military has also not been a ‘unitary actor’ in the way that no state institution is ever truly unitary or rational. Strategic and tactical disagreements existed within the military high command and secret services during the 1990s over the development of special operations units or the development of the patriot militias, over negotiation or reconciliation and the eradication of Islamist factions. These often played out at the highest level. Bringing Bouteflika to the presidency was no exception to this pattern: top generals preferred Bouteflika or leaders with weaker personalities, less cunning and ambition. Divisions in the military leadership and bureaucracy probably provided opportunities for Bouteflika’s emergence as the first powerful civilian leader of Algeria in the history of the country.

Bouteflika’s ambition and cultivation of his own base of power – which some feared would be a counter to military leaders’ interest – emerged early on and Bouteflika did take active measures to ensure his success in this area. This emerged in the appointment of advisors, the lines of communication and settings for decision-making and expanded to other areas where regional allies from the western part of the country won promotions over protégés of military leaders or clans; officer promotions at the senior level eventually reflected this trend. Bouteflika developed a new generation of officers that were politically reliable or non-threatening, working within and despite the strategic objectives and rhetoric of political operators in the Army. The military is perhaps the only area of the state where ‘rejuvenisation’ efforts can be considered mostly successful; the ‘professionalization’ and ‘modernization’ agenda worked to Bouteflika’s benefit, boosting younger officers and showering money on the military for procurement and buying loyalties. While efforts to move toward a wholly ‘professional,’ non-conscript military were unsuccessful, Bouteflika is likely to have come as far in terms of bringing the military away from dominating political life as such than any other figure, although it remains enormously consequential in itself.

That situation divided the military elite and led to political confrontations, according to many including the political rise of Ali Benflis by 2004. This trend continued more or less through the second term, and despite controversy over his third term, Bouteflika it was a fair to place the President at the center of the regime. Looking at top posts in the security sector  — the Interior, Defense and their subordinate bodies and offices – gave a strong impression that Bouteflika allies more or less ran the whole show. Divisions in the military meant that some clans of officers could benefit form the decline of others as Bouteflika rose. Bouteflika was never able to entirely get his own people in control of the Defense Ministry but often came close; the presence of men like Abdelmalek Guenaizia in strategic posts meant no one clan was ever entirely in control and personal conflicts between men in the upper echelons of the defense apparatus are believed to have been common for years.

Algerian political history teaches observers, as zen masters teach their disciples, to become aware of what is not obvious. Thus the power of the DRS (the security service previously known as the SM) was known, feared and vaguely understood by most observers and citizens to be substantial and persistent. Some long argued this was the centre of true power, even beyond men like Larbi Belkheir, Mohamed Lamari or other prominent names included in references to le pouvoir. There is a consistent narrative through the Bouteflika-era that frames high politics in terms of an ongoing case of Bouteflika v. Tewfik. Typically the point in question is defined in terms of power for its own sake (there is little identifiable in the way of a battle of big ideas in the Algerian elite) though the specific interests of the DRS are rarely discussed as such; indeed the struggles outlined in the press tend to discuss corruption in the President’s ranks more than the political or economic interests of the deep state (a deep state is not deep if anything is remotely clear about it) in part, presumably because a good deal of information published on such issues is leaked or spread deliberately in the context of feuding. Where such interests are discussed, it is the corruption and decadence of the President’s people and their opposition to much needed reforms that is described as the source of disputes. The cyphers on this front are often journalists, retired officers, or similar. Bouteflika’s ability to remain in power is sometimes treated as a consequence of his domination of the political-administrative machine (the FLN, RND and the Interior and Foreign Ministries, especially in election seasons) as opposed to toleration or support from perceived rivals. Other times these rivals are treated as too weak or politically distant to become involved. This type of reporting and discussion has become more and more frequent in the last decade, moving from a hushed taboo to a point where news reports print the name of security service men dumped, promoted or emplaced.

Though this has been gradual, it changed fundamentally in 2013. Public discussion of the security sector took a near tabloid-like quality after In Amenas and Bouteflika’s time in Europe. Various reshuffles, dismissals, inquiries and commissions were discussed publicly. Official mediums denied the drama discussed in the press but generally confirmed that decisions had been taken to reform the security sector. As discussed elsewhere on this blog, there is significant incentive for regime principals to downplay their centrality in decision-making and regime survival; Jeune Afrique shared an anecdote from a French envoy who asked an Algerian leader why the system was ‘so opaque’; the Algerian responded: it is the source of our strength. Lack of clarity produces confusion and requires internal and external threats to spend more time thinking and hypothesizing about what the regime might be doing, who might be important, what might be coming and so on. Opacity thus reflects a kind of regime ideology together with ‘stability’ or ‘normalcy.’ Sudden bouts of transparency must be regarded with skepticism.

The failure of Bouteflika’s rivals to settle on an alternative candidate, in an atmosphere of exacerbation and a changing regional tone is indicative of several things. One the one hand it reflects, as Werenfels wrote recently,

While the political class and social elites publicly engage in confrontation, important decision makers in the military, in the FLN and other system parties, and in the economic sphere appear to have reached consensus behind the scenes on a fourth term for Bouteflika. His decision to run implies that he is sure of substantial backing among key military figures, who feel he alone can preserve the political status quo and preserve their vested interests.

On the other hand it reflects an inability (or lack of desire) of the regime elite to initiate a convincing rotation of power, to produce new high-level leaders that can uphold existing interests while proving at least a glimmer of broad desirability and enthusiasm to any significant degree as such mobilization would expose the system to too great a risk of loosing control and repeating the worst years of the Algerian republic (perhaps). It also suggests conflict ‘between clans’ maybe less dire than the melodrama many Algeria watchers are familiar with, for multiple possible reasons. The Algerian polity under Bouteflika has been a post-conflict one, weary, jaded, furious and tired. Since 2011, the regional climate has made no overarching argument in favor of experimentation foe many Algerians. At a popular level this can only be ‘measured’ by absorbing the tone of conversations and watching the language of dissenters whose demands have been consistently more or less about more equitable rent distribution, a better quality of life, aside from prominent minorities condemning the system as such. This seems likely only to continue if the regime’s security apparatus remains disciplined enough to avoid committing symbolic outrages and rent remains sufficient to meet demands for payouts. This is to say: much luck, will and international hydrocarbon prices.  At the official level it is plain in the rhetoric and direction of official journals and comments by state officials and personalities; the whole discourse of periodicals like El Djeich and ech-Chorta is of an internally oriented security sector concerned preserving a reformist regime and domestic stability by keeping out troublemakers, whether armed militants or external interventionists and interventions. While Algerian leaders appear uninterested in reform and risk-taking, numerous proposals from former presidential candidates exist for the executive, legislative and legal realms. The likelihood of those reforms being adopted after the elections in April seems low but not unimaginable. The possibility of a natural transition after April 2014 is also not inconceivable. It would force the people behind the curtain to arrange a new consensus, rapidly. Patiences will surely be tried in the next months, at the top and at the bottom of political life.