Algerian president removes prime minister in a peculiar power struggle

August 20, 2017
The president’s man. Ahmed Ouyahia gives a speech during a parliamentary election campaign in Algiers, last April. (Reuters)

Tunis- Algerian President Ab­delaziz Bouteflika has fired Prime Minister Abdelmajid Tebboune, making him the coun­try’s shortest-tenured premier in 55 years.
Tebboune, who was appointed to the post less than three months ago, was replaced as prime minister on August 15 by Ahmed Ouyahia, a career diplomat who held the posi­tion three times previously.
Tebboune’s fall from grace came after a power struggle with Said Bouteflika, the president’s brother and adviser, culminated in a pub­lic spat over Algerian businessman Ali Haddad, who has been accused of using business links to influence the political process.
Tebboune, who launched a cam­paign against corruption and cor­porate influence in politics, took public aim at Haddad, dismissing him as persona non grata from an inauguration ceremony on July 15.
Haddad, president of the pow­erful Algerian Business Leaders’ Forum (FCE) and a close friend of Said Bouteflika, was hit with government notices urging him to speed up work on 26 high-level government projects contracted to his construction company, ETRHB Haddad.
Tebboune’s salvo against Haddad was supported by Algeria’s political class, which expressed hope that the move signified a lasting change in policy.
“Mr Tebboune, your stand has earned you the support of the pub­lic and a margin of goodwill and trust. Please do not let the people down. If you were to back down, you would harvest unrest and re­bellion,” Sofiene Jilani, who leads the main centrist New Generation Party, said in a statement.
“If the defenders of the status quo win and the government loses, the country will likely plunge into chaos and a popular rebellion.”
Other opposition politicians voiced support for Tebboune’s campaign, although analysts doubted whether someone from the regime would have the freedom to face down a key part of the same regime.
“In this kind of fight in Algeria, the survival of one camp depends on the destruction of the opposite side,” political analyst Rabia Said said.
Tebboune’s move had at least one prominent detractor — Said Bouteflika — and Tebboune`s sub­sequent removal hammered home the message that Said Bouteflika carries the most influence with the ailing president.
During a ceremony July 30 hon­ouring former Prime Minister Red­ha Malek, who died the day before, Said Bouteflika made a public show of support for Haddad, greeting him with a long embrace in front of the cameras. The gesture was in­terpreted as a rebuke of Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s anti-corruption efforts.
The event marked the first time that Said Bouteflika, who usually works behind the scenes, publicly involved himself in governmental politics.
“July 30 will remain as the day when Said Bouteflika buried the ambition and dreams of Tebboune to separate money from poli­tics,” said political analyst Lounes Guemache. “It is a slap in the face to the premier.”
“Said Bouteflika emerges from the shadow once and for all,” added political analyst Achira Mammeri.
The political infighting comes amid speculation over Abdelaziz Bouteflika, whose term as presi­dent is to end in 2019.
A fact-finding mission by mem­bers of the French upper parlia­mentary house stated that Boutef­lika “enjoys a genuine legitimacy he earned namely at the end of the black decade.”
“The possibility of his candidacy for a fifth mandate in 2019 seems furthermore not rto be uled out,” the report added.
Bouteflika, 80, gained popular­ity after putting an end in 2002 to an Islamist insurgency that claimed the lives of an estimated 200,000 people. However, his policies to liberalise the economy allowed the expansion of crony capitalism, which Algerians blame for limiting economic progress to the hands of a few.
“In the 1960s, the army selected the president and in the 1990s the intelligence apparatus decided who would be president but under Bouteflika, the contaminated mon­ey has become a power to contend with,” said political commentator Bouokba Saad.
Former Finance Minister Abdel­latif Benachenou described the country’s crony capitalists as “pil­lagers.”
“Suddenly, the world’s biggest capitals, with their jewellery stores, real estate and all the rest are regu­larly being visited by newly rich Al­gerians with pockets full of foreign currencies smuggled out of Alge­ria,” he said.
“The disorderly opening of the economy has handed over the country to pillagers who enjoy con­nections within the political sys­tem.”
Haddad is at the centre of such criticism. Government documents leaked to the media indicated he won billions of dollars in govern­ment contracts and then out­sourced the work to foreign firms for additional profit.
Haddad was the first among the country’s politicians and business­men to congratulate Ouyahia, call­ing him “a dear friend” after his showdown with Tebboune.
Ouyahia, like Haddad, is from the restive Berber-speaking Kabylie re­gion, which has been a bastion of secularist opposition to successive presidents since Algeria’s inde­pendence in 1962.
Since his first appointment as prime minister in 1995, Ouyahia has skilfully handled several crises and adapted his posture to the priorities of the sitting president.
A Berber speaker, Ouyahia is credited with expanding Arabic lan­guage use across the country. He also mediated a deal with Islamist insurgents to end a civil war that raged from 1992-2003.
In 2008, Ouyahia oversaw an amendment to the constitution that effectively extended Bouteflika’s stay in power before spearheading a legal manoeuvre to reinstate the two-term limit on the presidency in 2016.
Algerian analysts said the ap­pointment of Ouyahia, who is con­sidered an aspiring successor to Bouteflika, was aimed at stabilising the regime.
“The decisions by Tebboune had instilled hope among broad sections of the society that positive regime change amid serenity could be pos­sible,” said Louisa Hanoune, leader of the leftist Socialist Party, “but it is important to recognise that the strange replacement of the prime minister showed once again that this regime is incapable of change.”
Political analyst Ali Idir said Teb­boune lost the power struggle but had rallied support among the people despite his short ten­ure.
“It is clear that Teb­boune had gained further traction with the population as the campaigns to back him on social media showed. For a broad section of the pub­lic opinion, he is perceived as the man who sought to battle the powers of money,” Idir said.
Tebboune, as he left the gov­ernment’s headquarters, said that “every mission had an end.” He did not say what he planned to do in the future. Some former prime minis­ters have formed political parties to influence regime change from out­side the establishment.