In what might be one of the first articles on Algeria in the prestigious American foreign policy journal Foreign Affairs in many years Geoff Porter writes:
Very few Algerians know how policy decisions get made. Instead, policies appear like ripples on water after a stone hits its surface—except neither the stone nor its thrower is ever seen.
In the absence of decisive evidence, analysts have taken to describing a mythical cloak-and-dagger cabal that runs Algeria—often called le pouvoir—whose membership is uncertain and whose power is unchecked. But when theories are pressed about who is actually in le pouvoir and what they are capable of, the concept collapses into speculation.
This is basically accurate and well known. Even early treatments of Algerian politics in the 1960s and 1970s described either an emerging trend towards secrecy and méfiance or an established tendency among Algerian leaders to horde, use and manipulate information to enhance their own power or diminish that of others (boulitique). (See Quandt, Revolution and Political Leadership: Algeria, 1954-1968, MIT, 1966, for an example of a discussion of this.) This only increased over time, enhanced by the emergence of the mukhabarat state and civil war In the last decade the prominence of the military, intelligence services and by many accounts secretive style of Abdelaziz Bouteflika produced a culture of inner circle intrigue and paranoia. The supposed inaccessibility of Algeria as a field for contemporary research (with so many red lines and hard to get visas) means that many analysts see it as a black box or denied terrain run by scary men. There is thus reliance on speculation and over analysis.
As Porter points out the dominance of pouvoirology – both good and bad – means that there is sometimes too much speculation and stereotyping in the way the actions of the Algerian state are interpreted, especially abroad. Algerian leaders are sometimes seen as ‘too clever’ or the military too powerful to make mistakes or to be outsmarted so that any major incident or event is seen as having inevitably been the result of some powerful conspiracy or false flag. Much of this is comes from word of mouth discussions with people who are knowledgeable about but do not know what is actually happening, including officials and party people themselves. And yet there are times when this situation poses no problem at all because Algeria is like any other state in that there indeed are conspiracies (or what look like conspiracies) because most government organizations make plans and execute them, either on or off the books and when these become exposed to the wider world they appear strange and even offensive because they appear out of context or poorly conceived. This is because official often people work in a different setting from non-official and there are always those who become isolated from the outside and whose interests become narrower and more ruthless, regardless of what state they serve.
The most widely available sources of information, like the flagship Algerian newspapers in French and Arabic, are often seen as mere cyphers for the deep state – which is true as often as it is not. Or they are treated as semi-official sources of information on recent events such as organizational changes or appointments within the State. These reports can be put into better perspective and sometimes confirmed using official sources of information or perspective like the Journal Officiel or El Djeich. Many times they cannot. This is often problematic. In the last few years three cases come to mind, some of which vague and difficult to confirm using publicly available sources. Analysis of some of these issues sill leads only to more confusion. Continue reading