Algeria after Bouteflika, a very complex puzzle
Federica Zoja 19 March 2019

«There will be no fifth term; this has never even been a question for me». With these words, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika — in office since 1999 — announced the withdrawal of his candidacy from the April 18 elections — launching a political transition toward “a new Republic”.

In the days since Bouteflika‘s March 11 announcement, however, it is increasingly evident that the real turning point remains far off in the distance. The regime has not identified an authoritative and reliable name to succeed Bouteflika and the presidential vote has been postponed as well. What we are witnessing, then, is a fragile trompe l’oeil of the pouvoir — the sclerotic Algerian system.

This being the case, it is easy to foresee new unrest — more political than economic — in the coming weeks. The wave of demonstrations that shook the country (starting February 22) reached a peak not seen in Algeria since the ‘80s, pushing the regime’s back against the wall.

Returning from a hospital stay in Switzerland, the elderly Bouteflika had no choice but to capitulate to the instability generated by his proposed fifth term. Government concessions included: a ministerial reshuffle, a new leadership structure for the transition (the so-called “Inclusive National Conference”) and a delay to presidential elections. Moreover, a new draft Constitution prepared by the Conference will be put to a popular referendum by the end of the year.

The appointment of Noureddine Bedoui to replace Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia — with long-time diplomat, Ramtane Lamamra, as his deputy — appears to have satisfied, at least in part, the masses, but certainly not the opposition. Nor are the most influential professional corporations happy: “We announce our intention to abstain” from “overseeing the electoral process against the will of the people”, declared a thousand judges before Bouteflika’s March 11 retreat. Even now, it is not clear they have stood down.

The posture of the Armed Forces, a crucial background player, is unclear. We do know that Bouteflika and Field Marshal Ahmed Gaed met recently, but the outcome of the meeting is not known. One has to assume the army is playing a strategy of “wait and see”.

Bouteflika has hinted that he will remain in office until the now-delayed elections are complete: “I commit myself, if God grants me life and assistance, to pass on the President’s office to the successor that the Algerian people will freely elect”. But when exactly? Will the patience of the Algerian people hold until then?

On the fourth successive Friday of demonstrations, March 15, the protesters’ demands “shifted” somewhat: immediate resignation of the president and a full-scale reorganization of the Algerian political system, held hostage for decades by the veterans of the war of independence from France.

Yet it is also clear that the protest continues without any centralized coordination, driven in a spontaneous way by the events as they unfold. For their part, the opposition parties cannot find a synthesis or fully embrace the protests with enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, the new deputy prime minister, Lamamra, took the government’s stabilization campaign abroad, with diplomatic trips to Algeria’s strongest allies: Italy, Germany, Russia and China. The main goal of this is probably to reassure Algiers’ most important strategic economic and political partners that the Algerian system will remain stable in the post-Bouteflika period.

For some time, however, some opponents of Bouteflika within the regime have been carrying out political missions abroad. This is the case of Mouloud Hamrouche, a former prime minister, moderately critical although he also sprouted from the National Liberation Front. Hamrouche was spotted in Paris – in the autumn of 2018 – in Paris, with some Fln executive now fallen into disgrace.

In this context, Saïd Bouteflika, 60, brother of the president, prudently remains in the shadows, considered by many to be the real strongman of Algiers since the raìs suffered a major stroke, in 2013. Too young for having participated in the war of liberation from the French colonizers, without a military curriculum, Saïd does not have the credentials to replace his brother. Certainly, not as abruptly as would be necessary during a revolution.

The presidential topic, however, only represents a piece of a very complex puzzle: Algeria, the oil giant of the African continent like Nigeria, has not yet managed to diversify its economic framework. The energy sector remains the Algerian cornerstone.
More than half of the state’s income depends on it, while Algiers exports are three quarters of hydrocarbons or oil-processing products. A real suicide, in times of strong fluctuations in the price of the barrel.

In the last two years, Algiers has introduced corrective measures – first and foremost, the devaluation of the dinar and the cutting of subsidies – to obtain loans necessary to reduce the budget deficit and create a more favorable climate for foreign investors.
The results are slow to arrive: youth unemployment touches peaks of 30 percent in the most disadvantaged areas of the country. Those in which it is easier for the Islamist virus, sown by Salafist groups linked to al-Qaeda and by jihadists loyal to Daesh, to spread. So far Algeria, having won armed Islamism in the 1990s, has represented a barrier to jihad in North Africa, but the current crisis could change this scenario.

 

Photo: Ryad Kramdi/AFP


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