The many woes at the root of Algeria’s crisis

It seems that the military and security circles are unable to read the street in Algeria and that makes them unwilling to adjust to the new developments.
Sunday 10/03/2019
Buying time. Algerian ministers and representatives of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (L to R) Amara Benyounes, Ahmed Ouyahia, Mouad Bouchareb and Amar Ghoul during a political meeting in Algiers, February 2. (AFP)
Buying time. Algerian ministers and representatives of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (L to R) Amara Benyounes, Ahmed Ouyahia, Mouad Bouchareb and Amar Ghoul during a political meeting in Algiers, February 2. (AFP)

Algerian authorities have seen nothing in the recent popular demonstrations but the ominous shadow of the dangers of civil war, as shown in the Syrian scenario, statements by Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia indicate, or a return to the nightmarish years that Algeria experienced decades ago.

Since independence in 1962, Algeria has been governed by the same regime, whose outward facade may change but whose governing and fundamental philosophies remain unchanged.

The dynamics of power revolve politically around the National Liberation Front, the military and the security apparatus. Nothing has changed since 1962, except that this time the regime is experiencing a blockage and couldn’t find an alternative facade other than Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

In addition to the fact that Bouteflika has been president since 1999, making the circus of giving him a fifth term look like a provocation, the man is ill, wheelchair-bound and absent from the public scene. In principle, the “powers that be” in the Algerian regime should have rushed to replace him as a gesture of compassion towards Bouteflika and Algeria.

It seems that structural paralysis has hit the narrow ruling circle surrounding Bouteflika. It also seems that Bouteflika represents a complex password in a system of government that could quickly disintegrate with his physical absence or the absence of his symbolic presence.

It is a rather intriguing fact for any observer that the military and security institutions, along with decision makers in Algeria, could not agree on an alternative who would represent the interests of all sectors of the political system. What would they have done if divine intervention were to have taken the man away and these people would have to declare the presidency vacant? Of course, the office has been vacant for years, since Bouteflika suffered a stroke in 2013.

The Algerian regime is buying time. It doesn’t want to admit that the street is rising and that the demonstrations that were not seen on state television are a fact that requires urgent political answers. The protests seemed to focus on the fact that, unlike the demands of the demonstrators of the “Arab spring,” Algerian protesters are not looking to “overthrow the regime.”

Algerians took to the street with a simple demand: “No to the fifth term in office for Bouteflika.” The demonstrators were not opposed to another term by the ruling party, which has governed Algeria since the 1960s. The demand of the commoners was simple and logical: “Rule us with someone else.”

Algerians came out together in a movement that is nothing like the one that devolved into civil war in Syria and which Ouyahia and his government’s mouthpieces like to brandish in the face of demonstrators. Algerian society is nothing like Syrian society in terms of the multiplicity of sects and ethnicities and the Algerian regime, which is structurally complex and based on figures, is unlike the Assad regime, which is essentially limited to his family and based on a sectarian minority.

The Algerian people who can remember the disasters of the bloody “black decade” are the first to realise the dangers of resorting to violence. Every day since the outbreak of their protest, demonstrators have been giving the world lessons in peaceful civilised protest and in placing the emphasis on the unity of Algeria and of Algerians.

Thus, Ouyahia’s exaggerated scenarios of doom and destruction reflect the worrisome bankruptcy of a power that cannot come up with a convincing response and that tends to choose the easy way out — malicious intimidation.

During all the years of its rule, the Algerian regime has not freed the Algerian economy from its dependence on oil and gas. This regime has always chosen the option of relying on a security approach to solve the country’s problems. The security apparatus bears a share of the responsibility of dragging the country into a bloodbath during the years of confrontation with Islamic and jihadist movements. Finally, the regime has relied on buying civil peace through the financial bonanza that came with the golden years of high oil prices.

Algeria’s economy depends on revenues from the oil and gas market (35% of its GDP, 75% of the budget revenues and 95% of export earnings). So, when prices in this sector fall, the fake nature of the social ladder is revealed.

Observers are investigating the shadow figures surrounding Bouteflika and who decide the fate of the country. Many question the controversial role played by the president’s brother, Said Bouteflika. Leaked information speaks of the great influence of Said Bouteflika in appointing ministers, for example, and deciding policies to be implemented by the prime minister.

Another person being scrutinised is General Ahmed Gaid Salah, chief of staff of the Algerian Army and deputy defence minister (the defence minister is the president himself) as one of the most serious figures who worked alongside Bouteflika. The man and his wiliness are credited with the removal of senior army and security commanders in favour of the president’s individual authority. Observers say that he was the main beneficiary of the dismissal of General Mohamed Mediene, also known as Toufik, who headed the Algerian intelligence services for 25 years.

A third unavoidable figure is Major-General Athmane Tartag, who was chosen by Bouteflika to replace Mediene at the head of the intelligence apparatus. Tartag seemed to be one of the cornerstones of the shadow authority adopted by Bouteflika. Tartag holds the security file and its extensions outside the country, which makes his role and his presence inside and outside Algeria crucial for the stability of the Algerian regime.

It seems that the military and security circles, which had allied themselves with a handful of big businessmen, are unable to read the street in Algeria and that makes them unwilling to adjust to the new developments. They feel compelled to hold on to Bouteflika as their candidate for the president, even if someone else submits his candidacy file on his behalf but that’s OK because, in Algeria, power is exercised on behalf of the big boss.

What this circle of power needs is time so it can extend the life of the regime. That same regime is bringing up Bouteflika’s promise to leave power soon, perhaps as soon as the circle finds a replacement. That regime is deaf and cannot hear Algeria’s call these days.

Some Algerians believe that the country that got rid of French colonisation 57 years ago needs to get its independence from those who had liberated it from that colonisation.