The Army and the Status Quo

2012_Bouteflika_gaid_2_861357901_522205151Late last year this blogger published a partial analysis of the discourse and geopolitical focus areas of El Djeich, the official journal of the Algerian military for a trade journal (readers may inquire if they like via the ‘About This Blog’ page). The piece focused on 2012 as a year of crisis for the region and Algeria and how this was reflected in El Djeich’s reporting on various regional topics (the Sahel, Libya, etc. counting numbers of mention for certain topics, places and so on) and editorials. The internal succession crisis (presumed by many analysts) was another area of focus, as the stability of the Algerian regime’s core depends in part on its ability to maintain control at its peripheries and threats posed to ‘Algeria’s stability’ at the regional and international level can usually be read as the sustainability of the core elite’s interests broadly defined (overlapping with selected regional-international interests). El Djeich – if it can be seen representing the ‘line’ of the high command — has held on to this defensive outlook emphasizing the military’s role in supporting the political status quo amid external threats.

The analysis argued that the posture depicted in El Djeich was projected a highly defensive approach, focused on a kind of quarantine from on going regional crises and problem sets (the Mali crisis; the Libya crisis; Arab uprising and transitions in Tunisia and beyond; and the broader internal and external problems of terrorism and organized crime). The rhetoric concerning civil-military relations adamantly supported the political status quo, providing a summary and rationale for each major internal political step taken, following the broader government line closely and describing the military and its interests as professional, apolitical and republican and its role to defend Algeria from its enemies while supporting national development. In the context of the Arab spring and ‘transitions’ in which militaries played key roles as semi-spoilers by refusing orders from regime leaders (Tunisia) or moving to protect sectorial interests (Egypt), the Algerian military, already identified with the center of political power and decision-making in the minds of most Algerians, appeared to have opted to throw its rhetorical weight behind the political leadership in varying ways. This is important to note given the Algerian military’s historic political role under the single party system and at the conclusion of the 1989-1992 infitah when it intervened to bloc Islamists from taking power. The Algerian military is widely seen as the most powerful force in the country and it disposition during times of transition and crisis have been objects of wonder, fear and aspiration at various points since independence and particularly recently during the presidential campaign.

The rhetoric of the Algerian military since roughly 1999 has been to deny a ‘political role,’ even if few Algerian politicians, commentators, analysts or citizens seem to believe this. The military has deliberately sought to downplay its considerable political, economic and social influence since 1999 largely in reaction to the damage to its reputation and interests during the Civil War in the 1990s. It politically safer for officers’ interests if the military is seen as apolitical, professional and let blame for circumstances and decision fall on civilians (militaries suffer from involvement in civilian politics). As all militaries are inherently political institutions — because they are state institutions and states are political constructs – that are instruments of someone’s policy (whether Someone is a coalition of politicians or politicized officers) the idea that the Algerian military is ‘not political’ essentially means that it is not in rebellion or dissension from the political status quo. That is to say the military follows its orders and functions as an implement of the existing order as it is today. As seen elsewhere in the region militaries that existed as part of ruling coalitions moved according to their institutional interests during times of crisis, not dissimilarly from how the Algerian military moved according to its own interests in 1991-1992 (the Algerian military then was of course significantly stronger than it is today and likely even more so than the Egyptian in its own country at that time). It should be noted that in a semi-authoritarian, neo-patrimonial regime like Algeria’s it is difficult to envision a circumstance in which a military would risk its own institutional and political interests by issuing dissenting views about a president very much supportive and emblematic of the status quo with broad support in the political elite, including the military itself. The strategy of Algeria’s leadership overall (which is matched with most international actors) has been for survival of its incumbency amidst upheaval, revolution, coups, terrorist mischief and occupations and rising levels of organized crime.

The official line of the Algerian military as represented in El Djeich appears to be very much aligned with this set of objectives. In this worldview, the security apparatus is most important state organ and not to be taken for granted. The February 2013 editorial, which marked the first issue after the In Amenas crisis began:

The fundamental role of the State is to ensure the security of the citizenry in order to empower developing other domains in relation to their daily lives, namely the economic, social and political domains. Therefore security is the fundamental pillar in the clarification of a stable state aspiring to development and modernization to allow the people to live in prosperity and in a cohesive atmosphere, while also being in tune with the environment at the regional and international levels. (February 2013)

The military, as understood from El Djeich, is part of a unified front comprising the military and the President on the same page. El Djeich enthusiastically endorsed each reform or government initiative or position whether in the civilian sector – before and after elections or following government initiated reforms (light concessions to ‘the opposition’ widely understood) – or the security sector (especially in the area of modernization, strategic cooperation with African and western powers and the reorganization of the intelligence apparatus). Sometimes this meant outlining the ways the military was merely an implement of state power supporting diplomacy and political initiatives to resolve regional crises where Algeria sought mediator status or to prevent foreign intervention. This fit into El Djeich’s broad narrative around a non-political, modern and professional military taking orders rather than issuing them to politicians. This trend and tone continued throughout 2013; the emphasis was on maintaining internal stability and combating organized crime all the while applauding military efforts and avoiding any mention of civil-military competition even through the autumn when the Algerian and international media was rife with rumors about the motivations behind reshuffles in the intelligence services and military. The departure of former Vince Minister of Defense Abdelmalek Guenaiziain September 2013 came with an El Djeich editorial highlighting the military’s commitment to the constitution and its ‘total harmony’ with the country’s legal regime and other ‘institutions of the Algerian state’ and pledging its service to ‘the people and the nation, under the direction of the President of the Republic, the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and Minister of National Defense.’ El Djeich thus put itself in the camp of the Presidency, and it as not unreasonable to interpret Guenaizia’s removal as a calculated move by one political ‘clan’ against another, a consolidation of power for the President on his return from medical care in France. This line continued, with relatively little fanfare for the passing of the baton from Guenaizia to Gaid Saleh (a small article below a summary of Gaid Saleh’s CV). (The October issue featured Gaid Saleh’s Eid message and prominent coverage of his latest activities, and each subsequent issue features his personality prominently. This is to be expected as he now holds both of the top positions within the military bureaucracy; the concentration of these powers in the hands of one person speaks to the condition of the Algerian system today.)

The editorial line has been even more conspicuously supportive of the president in 2014. The January 2014 editorial highlighted Bouteflika’s role in promoting the restoration of order after 1999 through the National Reconciliation platform, ‘allowing Algerian society to reconnect with serenity and tranquility and to focus on the realization of development and prosperity.’ It goes on to herald Gen Ahmed Gaid Saleh’s appointment to the dual role of Chief of Staff of the Armed forces and Vice Minister for Defense (replacing Abdelmalek Guenaiza; the President remains the Minister of Defense):

Within this dynamic, for the ANP the year 2013 was rich in programs, activities and important facts in all areas, of which the most important was the appointment of Lt. Gen. Ahmed Gaid Saleh to the position of Vice Minister of National Defense, while maintaining the position of Chief of Staff of the ANP, as part of efforts to give new impetus to the armed forces and consolidate the profess of professionalization and modernization in which they are engaged. (January 2014)

The emphasis on the person of Gen Gaid Saleh is important as it evidences the effort to consolidate his role in the military as a kind and indicates his proximity to the President and others at the political level. The two most consistently featured faces in El Djeich are the President and the Vice Minister, particularly since last autumn. No other officers receive such attention. Feature articles in El Djeich’s leaders section emphasize both men’s revolutionary background by relating them to nationalist slogans and anniversaries, showcasing their role in historic events or with personalities (a good example is the obituary of Nelson Mandela which highlighted Bouteflika’s role in the struggle against apartheid by discussing his role as Foreign Minister and President of the UN General Assembly).

This is not special, as the culture and symbolism of the Algerian military is massively influenced by the war of independence and revolutionary period. The prominence of the President in recent issues highlights high-level support for Bouteflika, depicting him as an active leader initiating policy, signing laws and convening meetings. None of the editorials or articles expresses explicit support for the President’s candidacy but all promote reverence for his person and his authority, often in a manner beyond identification with the office of the Presidency as an institution. This likely comes from three factors: (1) the President’s role as the Minister of Defense which is functionally carried out by the Vice Minister or Minister Delegate (and Gaid Saleh’s role as the Chief of Staff; (2) the assertion of Presidential and Ministerial power over the military following from the autumn reshuffles and reorganizations; (3) the context of re-election campaign. The first is historical and institutional; the second and third are likely related to efforts to establish the reliability of the military and discourage contemplation about any contrary or dissenting political motives within the armed forces, widely seen as a center of political power and authority in the country, regardless of its actual capacity for independent political action at any given time. The Army is closely identified with political power itself and thus also with the Presidency as an enabler and executor of the will of the State. Military leaders are depicted as professionals responsible for security policy and action, with the endorsement and support of the President. Because of Bouteflika’s limited mobility, he is rarely seen (in recent years) pinning medals, overseeing military ceremonies or in the sort of energetic and active role Gaid Salah or others receive in El Djeich. His presence is usually in printed speeches and screened and choreographed television appearances. He apparently also receives foreign guests.

The atmosphere of crisis seen in 2012 was also constant in 2013 in no small part due to the In Amenas fiasco. While 2013 editorials and features stressed this while projecting confidence (the 2013 issue covering the incident largely praised the Algerian elite forces for their handling of the crisis but also, as did later editions, included large feature articles on the importance of communications and public relations for militaries, perhaps a coded admission that the ‘optics’ of the crisis were poorly handled as virtually all international press coverage and much Algerian coverage criticized the government lack of communication at the government-to-government level and the conduct of the raid that ended the stand off at the gas plant). The February 2013 editorial carried a high, aggressive tone:

On the security front, Algeria has gone through difficult tests due to extremism and terrorism which failed to shake the foundations of the State while the rest of the world indulged in the attitude of the spectator, despite repeated warnings from Algeria about the nature of the trans-national terrorist scourge –which is not only internal but as a phenomena for any country. In these difficult conditions, Algeria fought alone, paying a high price, in the blood of its brave children whose merit is returned by having saved the country from a true disaster and unthinkable outcomes. It was also put off thanks to the determination of the state hitting with an iron fist at any attempt to undermine its security and stability. Also, despite the success recorded in the fight against terrorism, Algerians remain vigilant [. . .] In this atmosphere characterized by a certain instability, the terrorist attack came targeting the gas complex at Tiguentourine, near In Amenas. It was an act of aggression against the economy of Algeria and its livelihood. Hence the unwavering desire to retaliate forcefully and with determination against the enemies of the Nation, whatever their objectives, Algeria’s approach was part of the framework of the principle of sovereignty and independence of decision-making on the basis of ‘no negotiation with terrorists,’ to prevent the criminals and murderers from arising as negotiators, and without either consulting or seeking advice from anyone to remove any interference in the internal affairs of the country. By firm, efficient, quick and decisive intervention, but also thanks to the courage, bravery and expertise possessed by its components, as we have always known them, the National People’s Army was able to avoid Algeria facing a disastrous crisis, especially as these criminals were determined to explode the gas complex that employs foreign workers of various nationalities. Once again, the ANP has met the appointment, giving a lesson to all those feeding attempts at undermining the security and stability of Algeria, reaffirming to all criminals that Algeria has an army that protects it and a people prepared to make any sacrifice for the Fatherland. (February 2013)

El Djeich’s February 2014 issue underlined the atmosphere of crisis and the importance of the military, reflecting on the In Amenas a year after the fact:

For over half a century, this prestigious institution [the ANP] was the bastion against which all lusts for attacks and forms of terrorist threats were broken. For more than a year, the ANP has had to go through perilous tests, following violent terrorist attack against the gas complex at Tiguentourine. And as usual it faced up with responsibility and professionalism, acting with swiftness and decisiveness. The intervention was crowned as successful because it had the merit of avoiding a catastrophe for Algeria, rejecting any negotiations in order prevent the criminals from appearing as negotiators, rejecting any form of blackmail or provocations and external pressures, and other forms of foreign interference. This field experience has allowed the ANP to acquire greater strength and durability, and strengthened its determination to continue to discharge its constitutional responsibilities with professionalism, pride and dignity, by contributing to the construction and development of the country, strengthening its institutions, ensuring the protection of the nation by defending its borders, preserving its integrity and sovereignty and ensuring the security and tranquility of the citizenry. (February 2014)

Recent El Djeich issues have also featured efforts to provide more advanced equipment and training to members of the military, including articles focusing on war in the modern world, geopolitical analyses (pointing to the future of war and militaries moving toward Asia though still focusing on the Euro-American and Atlantic sphere as the main center of world politics, the importance of Algeria’s diplomatic role in African affairs and humanitarian operations, human security, the need for innovation and modernization in the intelligence sphere, especially highlighting electronic capabilities (which appears to be a consistent interest of the Algerian authorities and the Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra even mentioned it publicly during Secretary of State Kerry’s recent visit), etc.). These articles occasionally also cover the issue of domestic military industries and the possibilities for Algeria’s expansion in this area, which in certain contexts appears to be part of an effort to please military constituencies by providing new technologies and opportunities.

From this perspective, the ANP will continue, all throughout the new year, to fulfill its constitutional mission, intensifying efforts at professionalization and modernization of the armed forces while focusing on industrialization and development through the establishment of a solid foundation for the advent of heavy and medium industries calling to inject a powerful impetus for national development across the country. On another level the ANP will show greater interest in the formation and training of elements on the basis of modern scientific methods with particular attention to specific human resource making and the experience of executives considered as catalysts for any action item. (January 2014)

The April 2014 issue’s editorial goes farther than before in expressing implicit and explicit support for the political status quo. Similar to past editorials, April’s expresses the military’s commitment to the constitution and stability. It goes further, however, beyond noting that ‘as citizens, elements of the ANP will not fail to perform their duties’ under the electoral laws and fight terrorism (‘to rid the country and people of this scourge that has only retarded progress and slowed the process of national development’ and ‘forcefully‘ ensure the elections go peaceably, which made many headlines). During the winter, multiple public figures, both retired military officers and civilian (opposition) politicians, called for the military as the ‘strongest’ institution to intervene and lead the country through a process of transition, as Bouteflika’s intention to run for a fourth term became increasingly clear (some invoked Article 88 of the constitution which outlines the removal of the president as a result of health or other medical crises). The April editorial rejects these calls more or less explicitly, in an aggressive tone:

While it is expected that all forces of the country to gather round the supreme interests of the nation, there are voices, proceeding from narrow interests and driven by the desire to settle personal accounts, mount publicly to call on the ANP to violate the Constitution and the Law so they can put on conspiracies against Algeria and its people. The ANP, heir to the ALN [the military of the war-time FLN], by fidelity to its oath and glorious martyrs and respect for the dedication of our brave mudjahidine, act consistently and relentlessly in accordance with the requirements of its constitutional missions and will never deviate as it will ensure forcefully that all the intentions and aims of the enemies of Algeria are defeated. It will remain as usually faithful, defending Algeria with dedication, strength and firmness and maintaining the unity and cohesion of its people socially, culturally and civilizationally. (April 2014)

It is true that many of the public figures that have called for the military to intervene in politics lately have more or less called for what could be called coups by their political adversaries (strange as some of those who recently egged on military intervention like Egypt’s Tamarrod activists who talked about coups which are not really coups now claim to regret their zealotry which till now seems to have primarily led to gore and pain; note this is similar to many Algerians that supported the coup in 1991-1992). Such calls have come from one or another politician about once or twice a year every couple of years in the last decade, especially immediately before elections. This is likely reflective of frustration by some interest sections and the cycle of stultifying proceduralism without deep political movement that characterizes Algerian politics. The most prominent probably came from Mouloud Hamrouche, a former premier, who asked the military to intervene to break ‘deadlock’ by initiating a ‘transition‘ in February and March. The medical crisis of 2013-2014 gave such calls a great sense of constitutional credibility at least superficially. The security sector shake up and related controversies also made such discussions more viable as it allowed sections of the public to question the position of various regime elements.

The enduring perception of the military as an all powerful force unto itself either at odds with or controlling the President also gives such ideas a great deal of space. El Djeich’s repudiation of these calls to intervention are political in their assertion of the military’s technocratic role to maintain order so that ‘other domains’ can operate while the military remains ‘apolitical’. At the same time it represents an engagement of political debates which indicates that even though the military may present itself as outside or above politics — not vetoing candidates or backing candidates, not deciding outcomes, etc. – its rejection of a supposed ‘political role’ is politicized nonetheless. The rejection suggests the military has the mind to comment on civilian affairs regardless of what side to comments on. It also points to the enduring perception in the elite and mass of society that the military is politicized despite its consistent protestations to the contrary. One might read that paragraph and assume that the President is actually a puppet of the Army and is being run precisely because of his ill health (the Weekend at Bernie’s scenario). Even if the military had not commented on such issues some would have interpreted its silence as politically suspicious. Obviously, if it commented in favor of calls for coups (or to compel ‘application’ of Article 88) it would have injected itself into politics directly and caused grave crisis and exposed itself to extreme risk. The rejection is thus the less dangerous of the three options available and underlines its support for the status quo (which appears to be the consensus in the country’s political class for now) and reflects the proximity of Gaid Saleh and other top officers to the President. The coalition between the deep state, the regular military and the political clans seems wound up in a tangle of interests, relations and alliances the military is prepared to defend despite public infighting. How this will resolve the crisis of succession after the election remains unclear and more is yet to come.