Algerian president removes prime minister in a peculiar power struggle
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.