Power brokers jockey for position in Algeria’s succession run-up
On November 1, 2014, Algerians celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of their revolution, which began in 1954 and lasted up to July 1962. During the struggle, perhaps as many as one-and-a-half million Algerians died and France, convulsed by the conflict, brought back its wartime hero, General Charles de Gaulle, to finally end it. One Algerian, however, is unlikely to take much of a role in the celebrations, even though his office is central to them – the president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
A year-and-a-half ago, the Algerian president suffered an incapacitating stroke which has generally excluded him from public life since. He has, it is true, made some fleeting and silent appearances at major public events but he has generally been incapable of playing his full constitutional role as the central figure of Algeria’s executive branch of government. Instead he seems to have presided over a government in which, like the Wizard of Oz, he has been manipulated from behind the scenes by the presidential clan, headed by his younger brother, Said.
|Algeria will stagnate, public anger at administrative chaos will grow, as will frustration over worsening poverty
Amazingly, despite his physical infirmity, Abdelaziz Bouteflika stood for re-election and a fourth term as president, in April of this year. To nobody’s surprise, he won handsomely, gaining 81.5 per cent of the vote on an official 51.7 per cent turnout. His closest rival, Ali Benflis, the former head of Algeria’s presidential (and former sole) party, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), came a distant second with 12.2 per cent of the vote, followed by four other candidates who garnered, collectively, the remaining 6 per cent.
Opposition voices contested the result, claiming the turnout had only been around 20 per cent, pointing to a boycott by Islamist and Berberist parties – the Green Alliance and the Rassemblement Culturelle Démocratique – and to widespread disturbances on election-day in the Berber centre of Kabylia. They also questioned how the ailing president could discharge his duties, despite optimistic claims by Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal and Interior Minister Taieb Belaiz that he is still fully in charge.
The contenders for the succession
In reality, of course, everybody knows that the election was only a holding operation; President Bouteflika was re-elected to provide time for a more durable presidential succession to take place, one that will satisfy the interests and aspirations of the occult groups that make up the power-elite in Algeria. Elections, in short, are merely the democratic façade behind which the real power-brokers – ‘Le Pouvoir’ or ‘Les Decideurs’ – really operate and will jockey for position in the run-up to the succession.
The difficulty this time is that the ‘old guard’ in the army and the security services is under pressure to leave the scene, to make way for a new group of army officers but will only do so once they are certain that they will be left alone to enjoy their retirement. Indeed, the presidential clan has been trying to prize them out of office for the past year but has been only partially successful in dismantling the Direction de Renseignements de Securité (DRS), the real ‘dark heart’ of the regime, and isolating its head, General Mohammed Mediène. In fact, bringing the security services under presidential control has been the leit motif of Abdelazziz Bouteflika’s fifteen years in power.
A year ago last September, capitalising on the calamitous outcome of the terrorist raid on the Tiguentourine gas plant in Eastern Algeria in which 39 foreign hostages, along with 29 terrorists, were killed in the Algerian army counter-attack, the presidency forced the security services into the hands of its ally, General Gaid Salah, the army commander and deputy defence minister. General Mediène was left with only a truncated and skeletal service under his control and General Bachir Tartag, his close ally and the commander of Algerian forces in Tiguentourine, was dismissed. Now, however, General Tartag has reappeared as the president’s military adviser, alongside a former premier, Ahmed Ouyahia, who is also close to the DRS and no favourite of the presidential clan.
General Mediène, in short, has been able to re-impose himself on the presidency as somebody to whom it must listen if its plans over the succession are to come to fruition. The presidency has struck back, ordering all DRS personnel out of their traditional ministerial oversight posts but has not yet dared to make the demand official. Meanwhile, the normal day-to-day responsibilities of the presidency – the annual rotations of provincial governors, of judges and of diplomatic personnel, for example – have been put to one side as the contenders for the succession jockey for position.
Most of those who are named as possible successors – the premier, Abdelmalek Sellal, the interior minister, Taieb Belaiz, or the former premier, Mouloud Hamrouche, for example, lack support from the key power brokers such as the army chief-of-staff, Gaid Salah, or the president’s political adviser, Ahmed Ouyahia, even if they enjoy army support. Said Bouteflika, has the support of economic ‘barons’ such as Ali Haddad but is disliked by the army’s conclave of powerful senior generals and by the DRS leadership. Others are simply excluded, like Abdelazziz Belkhadem, former head of the FLN, who was too open about his ambitions and was brutally cut down to size by the president some months ago.
The race, in short is wide open. Nobody knows who will win it or even when it will take place, for the president will have to die in office or serve out his five year term. In the meantime, Algeria will stagnate, public anger at administrative chaos will grow, as will frustration over worsening poverty as oil-and-gas revenues decline and security worsens – a truly sad coda to the titanic struggle for independence sixty years ago!