Prêcher dans le désert: islam politique et changement social en Mauritanie (Karthala, 2013) by Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem, the preeminent scholar working on political Islam and religious social movements in Mauritania, chronicles the history of Mauritania’s Islamist sub-cultures and political trends from the time of independence through the present. It brings together two decades of work in the most understudied area of the Maghreb. There are few comprehensive treatments of Islamist politics and actors in Mauritania and Prêcher dans le désert provides scholars, researchers and students with a clear and eloquent tour of the sociological, cultural, intellectual and historical setting that brought Mauritania’s Islamists from the bare margins a generation and a half ago to being a relevant social and political category worthy of independent analysis and contemplation. It argues for a re-conceptualization of Islamic ‘radicalization’ militancy as one of several possible pathways resulting from a long-term series of negotiations over Muslim identity, agency and efforts to grapple with a wide palette of complex problems around statehood, ethno-racial and caste identity, rapid socio-environmental change borne from climate change, poverty, the struggle against slavery and the shari’ah. Prêcher dans le désert covers these topics in expert fashion, as expected of Ould Ahmed Salem, whose writings on most of these subjects should be considered essential to achieving a grasp on contemporary Mauritanian society and political culture. Broken into six sections, rationally and judiciously divided and providing readers with a well structured understanding of the arguments put forth later on. It provides a deep take on the emergence and political role of Haratine religious leaders in the abolitionist movement and in Haratine urban life, including fascinating case studies based on in depth discussions with the first Haratine imams in Mauritania. (The subject has been covered in several dissertations but in this case it is related to a number of interrelated trends and placed in a more accessible format giving it a unique value. Ould Ahmed Salem also touched on the issue in his chapter ‘Bare-foot activists: Transformations in the Haratine movement in Mauritania,’ in Movers and Shakers: Social Movements in Africa, Brill, 2009.) It additionally provides the most detailed discussion of the emergence of Mauritania’s Muslim Brotherhood (Tewassoul) and a unique presentation of the role of Islam in the Mauritanian public sphere. In studying the rise of political Islam in northwest Africa or the Sahel and Maghreb there is no substitute for this book, despite numerous monographs, white papers and articles. Few texts in recent years approach its breadth and granularity. Because the space for ‘Mauritanian studies’ is limited, especially in the west, it is a milestone and cornerstone in the literature on the whole and should be a first stop for those seeking answers to questions about political Islam, radicalism and radicalization in the Sahel, Islamist movements in the Maghreb, the religious sociology of religious revival and environmental change and urbanisation, the rise of Arab and west African youth cultures and politics and contradictions of Arab and Muslim identity movements and well as slavery in northwest Africa. Aside from prose that can sometimes be denser than preferable, there is little criticism for this volume. As yet the book is only available in French, though efforts for an English translation are underway and will hopefully bring this important volume to an even wider audience beyond scholars of west Africa and the Maghreb.
Some 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.
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.’
An excellent piece at Jadaliyya by Thomas Seres [link] describes the Algerian regime as an ‘economic cartel [. . .] an assemblage of actors that controls a field (the State), and must agree on certain things in order to assure its benefits — whether they are material or symbolic’. This is among the best descriptions of the situation recently, particularly in terms of the ‘4th Mandate’ debate and the almost unprecedented acrimony surrounding it in the Algerian public sphere and a system of complex domination.
This explains Abdelmalek Sellel’s announcement that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika will seek to spend a fourth term in office. The reappointment of an old man who has not appeared in public for two years must have seemed to be the best possible solution to ensure the status quo. Perhaps there was no consensus in choosing another candidate? Perhaps this is merely a way to postpone the question of succession? In reality, any attempt to grasp the deep logic behind this decision begins to look like Kremlinology – a haphazard interpretation of the signs of power. That which is clear following Sellal’s declaration, however, is that the cartel has taken a gamble: it will not change its most illustrious representative, even though he has been reduced to an entity that must be animated by a series of grotesque tricks.
Of course this blogger and many others of fans of ‘Pouvoirology’ and the politics of rumour and conspiracy. Seres observes:
It was necessary, then, for nothing to change. There is certainly a lesson to learn: the Algerian political system operates just as well without a “functioning” president. This is also an example for commentators who tend to personalize political regimes. In modern states, bureaucratic mechanisms, budgetary constraints, and international accords all considerably reduce the possible impact of any single individual – no matter how highly placed in the system. Since the Algerian state is not a “failed state,” it highlights that a Head of State is unnecessary – at least from the point of view of effective decision-making.
We should also ask ourselves about the risks that came with this announcement. It seems self-evident that the desire to maintain the status quo does not ensure its continuation—surely that would be granting an exaggerated omnipotence of those who control the State. Again, we see that the candidacy of Abdelaziz Bouteflika very much represents a gamble taken by the cartel.
Contrary to what is often said in Algeria, notably by the many conduits of official paranoia, the risk probably will not come from abroad. There is no “multinational oligarchy that still dreams of subjugating Algeria,” no imperialist conspiracy that would seize any opportunity to destabilize the country. There is one good reason for this: the Algerian state is a major regional partner and is increasingly cooperative. In Mali, the French intervention benefited from an authorization to use Algerian airspace, as well as timely logistical support. The Algerian commandos were also involved with the American Special Forces’ hunt of jihadists in south Libya . As one indication of this strategic convergence of interests, an Algerian delegation was present at the meeting of NATO’s parliamentary group meeting in Rome. In short, Algeria and the Armée Nationale Populaire (ANP) cannot be seen as the target of an international conspiracy. The stability of the country is too important for its international partners, who have nothing to gain by speaking out against a solution that guarantees the status quo.
From this perspective, those who continue to claim that the DRS still controls the political landscape will increasingly find it hard to rail against Bouteflika’s fourth term. After all, if the president is nothing more than a façade that hides the real struggle between “praetorians,” then who cares about the vitality of the individual who occupies the position? He would be nothing more than a puppet in the “façade democracy,” and priority would not be given to his election, but rather to the dominance of the military. But this scenario only holds if one considers the military to be the only actor who matters in the political game, which would be far too simplistic. Instead, it is clear that Sonatrach, the ministers, and even the presidency, all play a role. And it is exactly because the latter is in a position of power, among others, that it can be considered insulting to have an aging, sick man, run for president – again.
In the coming weeks, it is not the cries of outrage coming from the editorialists that deserve our scrutiny. Indeed, they have been indignant for many years, and their criticisms have never managed to shake the cartel . However, it would be much more worrisome for the supporters of the status quo should Bouteflika’s fourth term become a common theme in the multiple forms of protests that express the persistent and profound nature of popular discontentment. We certainly have not reached this point yet, and there is hardly any doubt that the Direction Générale de la Sûreté Nationale (DGSN) will do whatever is necessary to prevent cross-sector mobilizations, tracking each slogan that exceeds the habitual socio-economic demands. And still, all forms of control have their limits. One should not prematurely judge the quantity of insults that people can stomach without reacting.
The whole thing is worth reading. It also reminds the reader to think beyond any description of a ‘political-financial mafia’ centered around one family or clan; and to look even further at the heaving tangle of interests that continue to dominate Algeria.
This blogger wrote a briefing piece on some issues around succession and elite conflict in Algerian politics for World Politics Review 13 February. Link (Note: This article is behind a paywall; email at the address provided on the About/Contact page for full text, or click on one of the links on Twitter).
This past autumn saw the rise of a narrative of a resurgent Bouteflika clan, perhaps reacting to two or more years of investigation and depredation by the deep state; the most recent posts on this site have dealt with this subject from a narrative standpoint as these events were reported in prominent Algerian media outlets. The ‘dismemberment’ of the Algerian security services, the DRS and its numerous sub-organs, looked to strengthen the Presidential camp by reorganizing its org chart, moving this department to the Interior Ministry; that directorate to the Defense Ministry proper; this other activity to the Presidency. The second ranking officer in the DRS — Mhenna Djebbar — was dismissed earlier this week (supposedly with other DRS chiefs); a move that fits well in the narrative of a resurgent Bouteflika clan moving to arrange a favorable line up ahead of elections in which the President or some successor will carry on the flame and whatever it stand for. On the face of it, this all looks debilitating, placing the DRS closer to the paws of its spooky doyen’s great rivals. This is how it was presented in most places and many informed people believed or believe this to be the gist of what has happened. Those who have spent some time exploring Algerian politics under Bouteflika often have difficulty accepting this; it does not carry on easily from the presumed anchoring in Algeria’s power politics for sometime vis-a-vis the President and the DRS. It makes the DRS look weak where it has previously been assumed to be strong. Sometimes it is worthwhile to explore other possibilities on a theoretical level for the sake of working out a bigger picture. Some will dismiss this as a useless exercise in conspiracy theorizing.
Recent events force the analyst’s mind to wonder and ask: What if those who look weak are strong and those who look strong are weak? Continue reading
Below is a list of trends this blogger watches/has been watching with respect to Algeria of the last year and will continue to watch in 2014. Others are likely observing some of these as well, and other important trends not mentioned here. These are not comprehensive. Business, exhaustion and health prevent immediate (though eventual) elaboration in this post. Continue reading