Algeria has an interim president, so what’s next?

Abdelkader Bensalah is mere putty in the hands of Chief of Staff General Ahmed Gaid Salah, who was very close to the Bouteflika clan.
Sunday 14/04/2019
Expecting turbulence. Abdelkader Bensalah after being appointed as interim president by Algeria’s parliament, April 9. (Reuters)
Expecting turbulence. Abdelkader Bensalah after being appointed as interim president by Algeria’s parliament, April 9. (Reuters)

For nearly two months, the ritual of mass demonstrations across Algeria every Friday has been respected. Millions of Algerian men and women marched peacefully through the streets in towns and villages in the vast country asking for radical changes in the way they are governed.

“The system,” as Algerians call the coalition of often hidebound interests that holds power in Algiers, has not gone but it has made concessions. Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned April 2 and will not stand for a fifth mandate.

His once-powerful brothers have been arrested. Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia has been dismissed. He was replaced by Interior Minister Noureddine Bedoui, whose team is even more lacklustre than its predecessor. The key foreign and energy portfolios are in the hands of two senior servants who lack international gravitas.

Thirty years ago, Algerians would dismiss their government as “houkoumat Mickey” — a Mickey Mouse government. No government was more deserving of this sobriquet than the one that has taken on the task of governing Algeria.

General Mohamed Mediene, the former all-powerful head of security (1990-2015), has lost much of his influence because of his — and the president’s brother Said’s — attempt to push former President Liamine Zeroual as interim president.

Mediene’s successor at the Department of Intelligence and Security, which had de facto been attached to the presidency since 2015, General Athmane Tartag, reputedly close to the French, has been sacked.  This came about in part because of strong pressure from middle-ranking army officers.

Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Ramtane Lamamra, whom Paris and Washington would have welcomed as interim president, has vanished into thin air.

The controversial head of Sonatrach, Abdelmoumen Ould Kaddour, is rumoured to be on his way out.

The interim presidency lies in the hands of a faithful Bouteflika man, Abdelkader Bensalah, who is 77 and has presided over the Council of the Nation, the upper chamber of parliament, for 17 years. He is mere putty in the hands of Chief of Staff General Ahmed Gaid Salah, who was very close to the Bouteflika clan until he decided, late last month and under pressure from his army peers, to pull the rug from under Bouteflika. Gaid Salah holds the key pieces on the chessboard of Algerian politics.

The regime’s facade has been brought down but not the regime itself. How much further change takes place will depend on whether demonstrators have the stamina to come out every Friday in the weeks ahead.

Every attempt to divide Algerians along Berber versus Arab or Islamists versus non-Islamists lines has failed but others will occur, spearheaded by groups among the security forces or close to the chief of staff.

Some business cronies close to Bouteflika have had their passports taken from them or are under arrest; others are free to use their considerable funds to manipulate different groups.

Using common criminals or youngsters who are drugged are time-honoured methods in authoritarian systems to split the opposition and create confusion. The arrest of human rights lawyer Salah Debouz does not bode well. It adds to the tension and uncertainty in Algiers.

The economic and financial situation demands attention it is not getting. The publication of the annual report of the Bank of Algeria has been delayed. Its governor, Mohamed Loukal, has been appointed minister of finance.

Loukal is the very symbol of the deeply corrupt ways of the Bouteflika system. His career at the Banque Exterieure d’Algerie, where he worked before being appointed governor, was one of systematic accommodation with the capital evasion and kickbacks on foreign contracts practised by senior army commanders and leaders of Sonatrach — methods that have so deeply corrupted the Algerian system of governance these past 20 years.

Algeria must confront the turmoil in Libya over which it has little influence. That said, its military no doubt sought guarantees about the Libyan-Algerian border from Libyan National Army Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

Senior officers remain vigilant about the stability of their eastern neighbour Tunisia with whose security forces they collaborate closely in their common fight against Islamist groups in the frontier between the two countries.

They also follow developments in Mali but there is no suggestion internal political developments in Algeria in any way impair the army’s will, let alone capacity, to guard the country’s very long borders.

Those same developments do, however, clip the wings of its diplomacy, which has been weakened over two decades by a president who never had much love for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which he ran from 1965-77. Restoring that ministry to the envied position it held for decades after independence is one of the challenges that awaits Algeria’s next president.