Uncertainties over Algerian transition continue

Sunday 08/01/2017
Algerians protesting as part of 3-day strike over plans to tighten spending

Tunis - When Abdelaziz Bouteflika assumed the presidency of Algeria in 1999, he warned that he would not accept being “three-quarters of a president”. The inde­pendence guerrilla fighter added: “I’m not afraid to be hit by a bullet in the head.”

Almost two decades later, Boutef­lika, 79, has sidelined all power­ful rivals, but there is speculation whether he will extend his 20-year hold on power in 2019 or anoint a successor.

The Algerian constitution grants the president paramount power. But presidents have often sought compromises with the ruling par­ty’s leaders, business people, re­gional elites and military and intel­ligence commanders. Those who failed to toe the line were ousted in military coups, killed or saw their mandates curtailed.

“Algeria’s problem is not only the bad government. The problem is that the alternatives to this govern­ment are all dervishes,” said politi­cal commentator Saad Okba.

Riots erupted January 2nd in the restive Berber-speaking north­ern town Bejaia in protest of rising food and transport prices that have come about because of of budget cuts meant to address lower oil and gas revenues. Protesters set a police truck and public transport bus on fire and damaged several buildings, in­cluding a bank, but the unrest did not spread to other parts of the country.

Political commentators warned the turbulence could be a sign of things to come, pointing out similari­ties with circumstances that prompt­ed the bloody riots of October 1988 when rising prices led to political up­heaval and civil war.

Bouteflika has set a longevity re­cord as president and his leadership strength seems unchallenged since he cleared powerful contenders by embracing them as allies — for as long as it took — before dumping them.

“President Bouteflika has his own method to manage the men who ac­cept to work for him or those who come under the illusion that they struck an alliance with him. He puts them in competition showing them they could be replaced by one an­other,” said Abed Charef, an Algerian journalist for Agency France-Presse.

“He, under no circumstances, tolerates their being equal to him. In some cases, such as with general Mohamed Mediene, Bouteflika ma­noeuvres and arranges his work to jeopardise and waits with patience for the fruit to fall,” Charef added.

Known familiarly as “General Tou­fik”, Mediene, 76, was one of the longest-serving secret service chiefs in the world. Trained by the Soviet KGB in the 1960s, he oversaw Alge­ria’s Intelligence and Security Direc­torate (DRS) for 25 years. Bouteflika sacked Mediene in September 2015, jolting Algeria’s political and mili­tary establishments and leaving ob­servers outside Algeria wondering about the consequences of the move given the frail state of the president’s health and the power wielded by Me­diene, whom Algerians called Rab Dzair (Algeria’s God).

Mediene took over the DRS lead­ership in 1992 at the beginning of an Islamist insurgency that lasted a decade and claimed more than 150,000 lives. Before firing Mediene, Bouteflika forged a strong link with the armed forces chief Ahmed Gaid Salah, who was on a list of generals prepared by Mediene for sacking.

Bouteflika showed the list to Gaid Salah in 2004 and kept him as an ally. This was another example of Boutef­lika’s strategy of forging make-and-break alliances with influential gen­erals and political figures, such as general Larbi Belkheir, nicknamed the “Military’s Shadow” for his role in decision-making conclaves, including when new presidents were selected, as well as Mohamed Lamari, the army chief of staff.

“There is a difference for Gaid Salah. He was pushed out before Bouteflika rescued him. As a result, Gaid Salah was ready to fight and prepared for the next battle when Bouteflika was preparing to get rid of General Mediene,” Charef said.

He and others argue that such tactics helped Bouteflika bolster his power but produced only smoke screens of change for Algerians yearning for a strong multiparty sys­tem and deep economic reforms to enable the country to diversify its economy from dependency on oil and gas exports.

“It is the same cyclical dynamic giving the illusion of a political battle while it is indeed a machine going into freewheel. It is suffi­cient to remember that nothing has changed since the firing of [Mo­hamed] Betchine, [Tahar] Benbai­beche, Larbi Belkheir, [Abdelaziz] Belkhadem, Chakib Khelil, Toufik Mediene and many others,” Charef said.

Ali Benflis, a former prime min­ister and head of the opposition group Talaie el Houriat (Freedom’s Vanguards), bemoaned the coun­try’s apparent political stalemate. “Algeria is a country with no good management and without a vision for its future and with no inclusive national project,” he said.

Noureddine Benissad, head of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights, said: “Our coun­try lived under a state of emergency for 19 years since 1992. We hailed its lifting in 2011 but we see no pro­gress on human rights.”

Bouteflika is relatively popular among sectors of the Algerian pop­ulation who see him as the protec­tor of the country’s security and stability amid fears of the repercus­sions of chaos in Libya, political tu­mult in Tunisia and tensions with Morocco over Western Sahara.

He is credited with building a strong army that shields Algeria’s borders from radical Islamists and other threats and a guarantee of do­mestic security in case of troubles.

Bouteflika also freed Algeria of its burden of foreign debt; the country has huge foreign currency reserves.

Despite weak oil prices, Algeria had increased oil output to offset price declines.

Amine Mazouzi, chief of Algeria’s hydrocarbon state group Sonatrach, said in early December that oil out­put reached 1.135 million barrels per day since November compared to an average of 1.051 million bar­rels daily in 2015.

“Bouteflika is the only leader capable of tackling the country’s challenges now. He should run for a fifth mandate out of national duty,” said Amar Tou, a former cabinet minister. Other officials made simi­lar calls.