A Pillar of the Regime and Among the Youngest Ministers of His Generation

bouteflika-et-salahSome sections worth highlighting from ‘From Revolution to Domestication: The Foreign Policy of Algeira,’ in Bahgat Korany and Dessouki, Ali E. Hillal, The Foreign Policies of Arab States: The Challenges of Change, Second Edition, Westview, 1991, pp. 125. Today many conversations about Abdelaziz Bouteflika re about his age, his health, his expressions, and other features of the bizarre period since his departure for and return from medical treatment in France after strokes nearly a year ago. Some Algerians complain of becoming a laughing stock, falling behind the curve in a region with major changes occurring while their president, clearly ill moves for a fourth term. As most know, Bouteflika was not always this way.

It is worth noting historical depictions and studies of Bouteflika prior to his return to public life and rise to the Presidency, as well as patterns of decision-making during his most formative years, the Boumedienne era. Prior to the time when Bouteflika broke the record for longest-serving President of Algeria, and others broke their own bureaucratic records, he was among the youngest ministers of his generation and the longest-serving Foreign Minister under Boumedienne. Even on his taking office he was an aggressive public personality, spritely and dynamic. The ‘hyper-presidential’ model that developed under Bouteflika after 1999 — which brought stability to the regime in general and reestablished the Presidency as the center of power as such — after years of the Presidency acting as a proxy or extension of the military core especially after 1992. Bouteflika’s return to prominence caused tensions in the military among those fearing his ambition and ‘authoritarian’ tendencies and forced elites to take sides in the emergent order. The construction of what has sometimes been called a ‘neo-Boumediennist’ order is what has set Bouteflika a part from his predecessor, Zeroual: returning with the support of key military decision-makers, a country moving out of conflict rather than in the midst of it and political lifetime lived exclusively at the center or attempting to move toward the center of power. Bouteflika poses features of a common personality in political life: the political animal seeking power as an end in and of itself, not a mere means to an end, not a dirty ‘must do’ or ‘without which not,’ but as the driving force in his life tied up in transcendent visions intimately linked to their own self image and identity. These people seize opportunities during crises or as crises terminate, when they believe they can make a mark on the world around them. They attach themselves to causes and identify themselves with them publicly, if not privately. Such people are likely to make enemies as well as to win supporters because their ambition is often bolstered by charisma and attention to details even in small things that attracts the confidence others. They proceed deliberately, planning and plotting their way ahead over months, years and even decades. They often have personal visions that are bounded by a sense of realism or cynicism. They make no pretense or effort to please everyone and their accomplishments are often somewhat exaggerated. Bouteflika was first asked to act as a ‘fresh face’ for the military in the mid-1990s and refused, willing to wait for a wider opening for himself to take control and define the political direction of the country. Such people are often confronted by similarly ambitious and resolute personalities fearful of their ascent; they face the risk of backstabbing and counter mechanizations. Bouteflika is not an exception here a many readers will know. But those who know the land survive and Bouteflika knows the political culture and terrain as well as any: the expectations leaders are held to, the animating cues to rile up a crowd, the contours and borderlands between generations. He is also lucky: he returned to politics amid high and rising hydrocarbon prices, and  a world campaign on terrorism that made allies from otherwise ambivalent powers. If order and prestige on the international stage came with Bouteflika, a rebooted style of rule appears to not to have removed the opacity, malaise and ‘vision problem’ that has confronted the Algerian state since the departure of Boumedienne and the death of the infitah.

Three, and now four terms, of Bouteflika seem to have left the country with similar or the same contradictions and troubles that led to past crises. Since 2011, Algeria has appeared as a symbol of the old order, a reactionary regime hunkering down to avoid the catastrophes of its basket-case neighbors and paranoid of the success of its less dysfunctional ones. And the inertia in foreign-policy that seemed to have kept Algeria’s ‘playing its role’ in Mali looks to have been bound up in rivalries and internal conditions. Algeria has gotten bad press on this front, some of it fair, some of it less so.

Common apprehension about change aside, the risk of repeating past transition traumas is real and leaders of the quality or type of Bouteflika are not easy to find or create. Risk aversion is often a symptom of some other sickness. As many Algerian leaders, some more frequently than others, have urged in recent months and years, there is a an urge for ‘revitalization’ and ‘renaissance’ and desire for substantive reform. Changes in the security services leadership and structure and earlier reforms in 2011 appear to have been meant to appease some of this and to boost the spectacle of presidential power in times of crisis. Much of what has been done in the last two years seems to be meant to buy time for broader, harder decisions. Even more of it, though, seems to be the result of delays owing to conflict at hight levels and an inability to reach decisions because of glitches at the very heart of a hyper-presidential regime, structured around a number of interest groups and clans but reliant on some of those in particular for affirmative movement.

Centralization and Transiton

The new constitution and new assembly notwithstanding, this change in the Council of Ministers was interpreted as a further consolidation of power by Boumedienne. The actual decision-making pattern, based on presidentialism and the primacy of the military, remained intact despite institutional modification.

This pattern was confirmed with the president’s death the following year. When Boumedienne went into a coma in November 1978 from a rare blood diseased, the responsibilities of the president were transferred — not to Rabih Bitat, the head of the Popular National Assembly, as the constitution decreed — but rather to colonels Bendjedid and Belhouchet.

Moreover, the votes of the 640 army delegates to the February 1979 FLN congress were the prerequisite for Bendjedid’s election as president. Attempts at collective leadership notwithstanding, Bendjedid emerged — after a short transition period — as the leader, combining the posts of president, defense minister, and FLN secretary-general, and eliminating from power his earlier rivals to the presidency, Bouteflika and Yahiaoui. The foreign minister, Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, a close collaborator of Bendjedid, came to the Foreign Ministry directly from the presidential staff.

Thus since independence, the decision-making process has become increasingly centralized, notwithstanding the reactivation of institutions  year before Boumedienne’s death.

A biographic summary, circa 1991:

In the conduct of foreign relations, Algerian diplomats are professional, competent, and well-respected at the international level. They usually arrive at meetings with well-prepared position papers and thus guarantee Algeria’s success in Third World coalition-building. That does not mean that the Foreign Ministry personnel are among the top decision-makers, yet they are essential for the conduct of the country’s international behavior and thus belong to the 500 to 600 Central Committee members of the FLN, the 31 wilaya governors, the 261 members of the National Assembly, the general secretaries of ministries, presidents and directors of the fifteen or so major state-owned industries, the presidents and executive councils of the five national organizations [. . .], and the heads of the numerous professional associations [. . .] The influence of the top ambassadorial and diplomatic corps varies, of course, according to the issue area and also according to the personnel’s connections with the top decision-makers, the core elite. This is even more so in the case of the foreign minister.

The minister’s influence, however, is much less a function of his administrative position as head of the Foreign Ministry than it is the result tof his connection with the very top decision-maker, the president. Nothing illustrates this better than the position of Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika, who probably had the longest term as foreign minister in any Third World country. IN a system plagued by factionalism and rivalry, Bouteflika was foreign minister from the second Ben Bella government (September 1963) until Boumedienne’s death in December 1978.

Bouteflika had the reputation of being one of the youngest foreign ministers in the Third World. He was born in March 1937 in Tlemcen, in the western part of Algeria near the Moroccan frontier. In the 1950s he became an activist within the “Morocco section of the General Union of Algerian Moslem Students in France, an organization that worked closely with the FLN. After finishing his secondary school education, Bouteflika joined the ALN rather than pursue a university education. He was sent to the western region of Oujda, where Boumedienne was the commander. Their ensuing friendship meant that with the rise of Boumedienne, Bouteflika’s responsibilities and influence also grew, and he was entrusted with delicate missions. An example was his selection for a three-man delegation to study the possibilities of opening a southern front against the French army and of contacting Algeria’s neighbors to the south, Guinea and Mali. Along with his military experience Bouteflika was thus initiated into political-diplomatic activities.

[. . .]

In the first Ben Bella government Bouteflika became minister of youth and sports (at the age of twenty-five); a year later he became foreign minister, replacing the assassinated Khemisti, a close Ben Bella ally.

Soon, however, differences arose concerning jurisdiction in decision-making. Ben Bella and Boumedienne differed on the army’s role in decision-making, and Bouteflika took Boumedienne’s side. Then Ben Bella, who followed a Guallist concept of the state and foreign policy-making, clashed with Bouteflika, who refused to play a subordinate role in foreign policy decision-making. This conflict ended in Ben Bella’s overthrow.

From the beginning of the Boumedienne era, Bouteflika was a pillar of the regime. He sat on the twenty-six member Council of the Revolution and continued as foreign minister. His influence over foreign policy incased as Boumedienne devoted most of his time in the early years to the domestic front. From the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, Boumedienne and the presidential center became increasingly active in foreign affairs, and rumor revealed a latent tension between the president and the foreign minister. Friction between the two men did not, however, lead to a public break, as both agreed on the bases of Algerian foreign policy orientation and behavior. When Boumedienne died, Bouteflika was among the three candidates to the presidency. He lost to Bendjedid the army man. He also lost his position as foreign minister and after a few months, his membership in the FLN Political Bureau.



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