Uncertainties over Algerian transition continue
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.