Algeria: Does Bouteflika’s Illness Signal the End of an Era?
Gianni Del Panta 14 January 2016

During the Eighties, with the arrival of the new president, Chadli Bendjedid, the process of economic liberalisation implemented became characterised by a withdrawal of the state’s presence, greater space for free initiatives, and oil revenue used to stimulate light industry and build infrastructure. The sudden and violent fall in oil prices on global markets in 1986, linked to rising social inequality, explain, at least to a certain extent, the November 1988 uprisings, quelled in blood by military intervention. The process that followed, involving political openness, therefore resulted in an Islamist victory in the 1990 local elections and their success in the first round of the 1991 general election. In order to prevent the certain formation of an Islamist majority government, the army blocked the electoral process with a coup, sparking a lengthy civil war in which about 200,000 people died.

Nowadays Algeria is a country profoundly marked by this experience, afflicted by internal divisions and hyper-dependent on oil revenue that finances nepotistic expenditure all to the advantage of those with the right connections to power. Power that is managed by the various clans in a constant battle that keeps a resource-rich country prisoner of extremely high levels of social malaise.

At the beginning of September this year, with a move that surprised many, President Bouteflika dismissed the very powerful head of the Algerian secret services, Mohamed Mediene, known by the nickname Toufik. Trained by the KGB during the Sixties, the “God of Algeria” – as he liked to be called – grew up in the shadow of General Mohamed Betchine, head of intelligence during the Eighties, before remaining for over 25 years as the head of one of the most powerful and influential secret services in the world. This was an extraordinarily lengthy tenure, considering also, as emphasised by the scholar Jeremy Keenan, the Soviet Union’s Lavrenti Beria lasted 15 years, while the Nazi Heinrich Himmler committed suicide after just eleven. During this quarter of a century, Mediene has been one of the most famous and yet also lesser-known faces of Algeria – due to the presence of only one faded photograph that portrays General Toufik, presumably towards the end of the Nineties. His fall from grace is not, however, as many rushed to state and write, an attempt by civilians in power to exercise greater and more effective control over military forces. On the contrary, it should be seen as a joint and successful attack carried out by Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaïd Salah -Mediene’s bitter enemy ever since 2004 when his predecessor Mohamed Lamari was removed precisely by an agreement reached between Toufik and Bouteflika – and by Athmane Tartag, known as Bachir, Algerian intelligence’s former number two, who had clashed with Mediene after the catastrophic management of the so-called In Amenas crisis in January 2013, when a group of militiamen linked to Al Qaeda had taken hostage over 800 workers at the Tigantourine gas extraction plant. On that occasion, a hurried and badly organised Algerian Special Forces raid caused at least 67 deaths, among them 37 foreigners, resulting in a case of international proportions that also led to the unusual official summoning of the Algerian ambassador to Tokyo by the Japanese government when ten Japanese workers were killed in this attack.

Contrary to what one might think, Mediene’s replacement did not come as such as surprise, but was the result of a successful weakening of the former most powerful man in Algeria. Planned during the previous months, this manoeuvre consisted of three stages. Initially, a series of agencies traditionally controlled by the Algerian secret services were moved under the army’s direct management, therefore under Ahmed Gaïd Salah. Later on, a number of those very loyal to Mediene – ranging from the director of counter-espionage Abdelhamid “Ali” Bendaoud to the head of the Presidential Guards Djamel Kehal Medjdoub – were excluded or dismissed. Finally, General Hassan was arrested at the end of August. Everything was now ready for setting up the decisive blow against the “God of Algeria”. A blow that was soon dealt since, according to official sources, it was decided at the beginning of September. Following his sensational dismissal, General Toufik fell into a long but much discussed silence, only recently broken with an open letter written to an Algerian daily newspaper following the long sentence that condemned his close ally General Hassan to five years in prison. At the moment, it remains quite difficult to predict in what direction and in whose favour this clash will develop, although it seems easy to envisage that in no case will it lead to a significant strengthening of civil power. The reason for this is simple; the presidency, the main and only opposition to the super domination of the army, has never been so weak and dissipated.

When the Army asked Abdelaziz Bouteflika, foreign minister from 1963 to 1978, to run as the “chosen” president in the not very free 1999 elections, Algeria was a country worn out by seven long years of civil war and totally isolated at an international level. In spite of this, Bouteflika’s personal connections, the rise in the price of oil on world markets and a change of paradigm at a global level following Al Qaeda’s attacks on the heart of the United States on 9/11, provided a context favourable to the new president who quickly managed to consolidate his power. Having obtained an amendment to the Constitutional Charter that restricted the presidential mandate to two terms, Bouteflika was re-elected for the third time in a row in 2009. This mandate, however, has from the very start been characterised by an abrupt cooling of the pact that had governed Algeria in recent years; the one between Bouteflika and Mediene.

The reasons adopted to explain this remain vague, although many commentators have hypothesised that Toufik feared the president’s increasing power, just as he opposed the dynastic succession that Bouteflika was preparing, expressed by the constantly increasing influence exercised by his younger brother, Saïd, who Mediene considered to be broadly incompetent. The clash between the president and the head of intelligence seems to have ended clearly in favour of the second, who had not only reduced Bouteflika’s manoeuvring capabilities as of 2009, using the judiciary – with the president, following a never-ending series of scandals, obliged to abandon many of the men closest to him, starting with his friend and Energy Minister Chakib Khelil – but was also helped by Bouteflika’s precarious health. After a serious stroke, the president had been obliged to spend almost three months in France in the spring of 2013 for treatment, before managing to return to Algiers, only thanks to the use of a wheelchair.

In spite of all this, and amidst endless controversies from the oppositions, Bouteflika managed to get himself re-elected for a fourth term in April 2014, in an election that will be remembered as the one won by a man “unable to walk but who managed to run in the elections.” As was widely predictable in a country that has always been governed by what is described as “the deep state”, the president’s physical infirmity has resulted in an endless series of rumours and gossip concerning Bouteflika’s real capability to run the country and about who is really in power in Algeria.

An important turning point came on November 1st, when nineteen extremely important Algerian political players took paper and pen and publicly expressed their very serious doubts concerning President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s ability to govern. This initiative is certainly not a real novelty for the North African country, but a quick glance at the list of these “nineteen” writers, then reduced to sixteen due to three defections, results in a few additional questions. Should one exclude the “pro-Trotskyist” Louisa Hanoune, Secretary General of the Workers’ Party, the other eighteen initial signatories of the letter also requesting a meeting with the president, are all personalities very close to Bouteflika, if not real members of his inner circle of very loyal supporters. It is thus that one strong doubt emerges; why publicly ask what one already knows, or that could easily be known thanks to personal contacts?

The entire sequence of events – and here the conditional clause is compulsory – has led many to see this gesture as a defensive manoeuvre in favour of the president, one aimed at protecting his precarious position by directly involving the country, in a phase in which “sabre rattling” has reached new levels. The present situation in Algeria reminds many observers of Tunisian events in 1987, when the sick President Habib Bourguiba was removed from office by a “medical-legal coup d’état” according to the famous formula created by Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, at the time Interior Minister and the main instigator of a plan that would take him to hold the highest state and political appointment until the uprisings began – later to become famous as the “Arab Springs” – which obliged him to leave the country in great haste in January 2011.

This fierce power struggle at the top is taking place in what is quite a difficult economic context for Algeria, where social inequality is rising and the impoverishment of the weaker classes is evident. The country remains one of the less diversified economies of the world, with over 97% of exports coming from the hydrocarbon sector and a manufacturing base that has in practice vanished after the efforts made in the Seventies to accelerate industrialisation were abandoned. In such a situation the enduring low cost of black gold is causing serious problems for the Algerian government, which although accepting very significant budget deficits, has in fact been obliged to cut expenditure and drastically reduce subsidies even for basic necessities.

Considering the regime’s very limited political legitimacy and the growing disquiet experienced by various sectors of the population, this has been offset by an increasingly massive use of repressive means to prevent social uprisings that would be hard to contain without help from a large oil revenue as has happened in the recent past. The shrinking of areas in which the opposition is free to move is also affecting the work of a number of independent journalists and social movements. In the first case, what happened to Hassan Bouras is certainly exemplary. A member of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH, the French acronym) and an activist opposing the use of fracking techniques for the extraction of oil and shale gas in the south of the country, Bouras was arrested and detained without charge at the beginning of November. On the other front, violent protests continue to animate the reactions from below from those with no representation whatsoever in the current political system.

On December 2nd, an attempt to destroy a building illegally built during the years of the civil war sparked an unusually violent reaction from young people in Dergana, in the outer eastern suburbs of Algiers. The balance of the clash between police forces and protesters resulted in a dozen arrests and various people wounded, before an apparent calm returned to the streets. In the recent past, uncontrolled outbursts of social rage were a constant element in the Algerian political landscape, but their inability to formulate broader political demands as well as the impossibility to become linked to a numerically limited and not very combative workers’ movement, were elements that more than any others restricted the emergence of a real social opposition. Both problems still seem to be present, although recent mobilisations of SNVI workers in Rouïba, the beating heart of Boumedienne’s heavy industry, lead one to think that there may be more in Algeria’s future than just power clashes between various sectors of the military.

Translated by Francesca Simmons



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