Algeria’s army strengthens hold on power, Hirak fading away

More than ever, foreign policy is in the hands of the army high command.
Monday 27/07/2020
A file picture shows Algerian soldiers standing guard at the Tiguentourine gas complex, in In Amenas, about 1,600 kilometres southeast of the capital. (AFP)
A file picture shows Algerian soldiers standing guard at the Tiguentourine gas complex, in In Amenas, about 1,600 kilometres southeast of the capital. (AFP)

The COVID-19 pandemic and the confinement that followed have helped Algeria’s military take greater control of the country than at any time since the civil war in the 1990s.

The collapse of the clan system of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the freewheeling appointments to senior military and civilian jobs that characterised the six months during which General Ahmed Gaid Salah held sway (before he died at the end of last year), have given way to a systematic purging of the military, police and security corps by President Abdelmajid Tebboune.

Tebboune, who became president just over six months ago, has marched in complete lockstep with the chief of staff, General Said Chengriha, whose style contrasts sharply with that of his predecessor. The third key player is General Abdelaziz Medjahed, Tebboune’s military adviser.

The choreography of power matters. It now dictates that every newly appointed senior military or security official, whether posted in Algiers or as head of a military region, attends a publicly filmed ceremony of allegiance where his oath to the army and to Algeria is carefully staged. This was seldom the case before, not least in the 1980s or 1990s, let alone the twenty years of Bouteflika’s presidency from 1999 to 2019.

Meanwhile, any semblance of freedom of the press has all but vanished.

In this respect, we are back to the days of Houari Boumediene in the 1970s. Young Algerians who are tempted by Facebook satire of the regime can face arrest as patriotism is the order of the day. No dissent is allowed and, for now, the vast Hirak demonstrations of 2019 are a distant memory — a happy or unhappy one depending on where you stand.

The appointment of a savvy communicator to the presidency, Colonel Chafik Mesbah, suggests Algerian leaders will try to refurbish the country’s international image. To the extent the outside world cares, which is probably not very much outside of a few capitals such as Moscow, Paris and Tunis, he has his work cut out for him.

All efforts, meanwhile, are focused on trying to boost an economy severely disrupted by last year’s turmoil, which saw the closure of many companies that belonged to members of the Bouteflika clan. The fall in the price of oil and gas and the pandemic have only made matters worse.

A number of grand investment projects have been announced but some are more pie in the sky types of projects. That is the case of the development of the iron ore deposits of Gara Djebilet in the south-west of the country, which would require the construction of a more than 1000km railway. Others are more realistic, but as the country remains closed to foreign visitors for health reasons, Algerians will have to rely on their wits.

The government is very much relying on the support and investment of major state companies, such as Sonelgaz and Sonatrach. The latter, however, has been seriously destabilised by the revolving door of endless CEOs in recent years and the loss of many cadres that have gone abroad in despair over how their company was managed and the overt corruption of one of its recent CEOs, Abdelmoumen Ould Kaddour, who lives between Paris and the United Arab Emirates.

Boosting oil and gas production takes years and in today’s economic circumstances, demand for Algerian gas remains depressed. Large private groups will also be called upon to help: Cevital, the Kerrar Group and others will no doubt have some influence as will the business managers’ group, Le Forum des Chefs d’Entreprises, which has changed its name to Conféderation Algerienne du Patronat Citoyen (CAPC).         .

More than ever, foreign policy is in the hands of the army high command, which suggests that on the Western Sahara issue, a strict line will be followed.

With Morocco as intransigent as its eastern neighbour and no country outside seriously intent on altering the long prevailing status quo, nothing can be expected to change on this front.

Support for the territorial integrity of Tunisia remains paramount. On Libya, Algeria is fighting to make its voice heard but seems unlikely to move unless Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi is rash enough to send troops across the border. Algerians have always expressed their preference for a political solution and will spare no effort to contribute to possible negotiations.

On their southern border, Algerian leaders can take comfort in the killing by French forces operating in Mali of Abdelmalek Droukdel, the once-feared supreme emir of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Although there are still many questions regarding the circumstances of his killing and the consequences it might have on other jihadist groups in the region, the fact is that the relentless combined pressure of Tunisian and Algerian security forces has all but eliminated the threat of serious terrorist attacks in Algeria, Tunisia and along their respective borders.

Whatever the feelings many Algerians harbour about the lack of freedom in their country today, no one is likely to question the role of the army in defending the country’s borders and the very efficient way it has helped Tunisia face the jihadist problem since its 2011 uprising.

Officers from both countries are at one in their fight against jihadist terrorism, which has been nearly extinguished. The challenge both countries face today is similar: less corruption, greater economic reform and more jobs for the young. The answers they provide to those problems will determine the future of Algeria and Tunisia.