Signs of Bouteflika clearing path to fifth term
Tunis - Algeria’s ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) Secretary-General Amar Saadani asked members of the party’s decision-making central committee if any of them wanted him to resign but not one among the 500 committee members gathered October 23rd said they did.
On the contrary, a rapturous standing ovation erupted, drowning out Saadani’s announcement that he was no longer the FLN leader and his oblique message that he was forced to leave as part of a purge within Algeria’s complex ruling establishment.
Saadani, who took over as party head in August 2013, was seen as a staunch supporter and unofficial spokesman of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Analysts said Bouteflika sacked Saadani in a power struggle over who would replace the ageing president who is fighting to extend his stay in the El Mouradia presidential palace.
“The departure of Saadani is not a one-off action. It heralds a long list of people leaving the military and political fields,” said security analyst Salima Tlemçani, who has close access to senior military and security officials. “This purge reaffirms the power of El Mouradia.”
“The option of the fifth mandate is becoming clearer,” Tlemçani said, a reference to the new five-year mandate Bouteflika might seek when his fourth term ends in 2019.
Bouteflika enjoys support among mostly older Algerians who credit him for ending the 1991-2002 civil war in which about 200,000 people died.
Against the backdrop of political tumult in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Bouteflika also draws his popular backing from freeing Algeria of the burden of foreign debt and rebuilding an army that is widely seen at home and abroad as a force of stability amid threats from extremist Islamist groups.
There is, however, frustration among Algerians younger than 45 — 80% of the country’s 40 million people — with ageing leaders who are seen as eager to maintain power and wealth without giving space to younger generations to tackle the new challenges of an open and modern society.
Ill-health, including two strokes since 2013, has forced Bouteflika, 78, to limit public appearances and led close friends to write him an open letter early this year seeking a face-to-face meeting to ensure that he was not the victim of a palace coup. But during October, Bouteflika was seen in public, including at an opera in Algiers, which was widely covered by state media.
Some observers argued that Bouteflika moved to sideline Saadani as a pre-emptive strike against his opponents inside the establishment who might plot to push him aside.
“One can understand what Bouteflika did was interference in the internal affairs of the biggest political party in the country but his action was justified because if he did not fire Saadani, Bouteflika could meet the same fate as Bourguiba did at the hands of Ben Ali,” said Saad Okba, a political writer in the main daily El Khabar.
Former general Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali replaced Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba in a medical coup after the ailing leader was declared by doctors to be “mentally incapable” in 1987. Ben Ali was Bourguiba’s prime minister at the time.
“The error of Saadani was that he embraced a suicidal logic. He aligned himself with the most powerful figure, army Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah,” said Tlemçani, who also suggested that Gaid Salah would be next to be sidelined.
“It was a question of Gaid Salah to be named Defence minister and the position of chief of staff to be given to another whose name is already known but the move was put off for now,” added Tlemçani, citing sources inside the government.
Political watchers in Algeria say there is a pattern repeated before Bouteflika renewed his mandates in 2004, 2009 and 2014 with political allies voicing support for his candidacy and more backing from the grass roots following the quashing of any ambitions from aspirants within the ruling establishment.
“Our common link and common ground is Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the president whom we backed during his presidential campaigns in 1999, 2004, 2009, 2014 and in 2019, if God extends his life,” said the new FLN chief Djamel Ould Abbes, who at 82 is the oldest figure in the party.
Two leaders of political groups close to the presidency also voiced support for Bouteflika seeking a new term, leading Algerians to joke about “whether 2019 comes before 2017”, a reference to legislative and local elections planned for next April.