Algeria: The return of the sovereign presidency

Algeria: The return of the sovereign presidency
Comment: The political police have been sidelined as the ailing Bouteflika seeks to entrench civilian rule, but it is corporate supporters who stand to gain most, writes Yassine Temlali.
10 min read
24 Jan, 2016
Algeria's ailing President Bouteflika appears to be consolidating power [Getty Archive]

The overly powerful Algerian political police - the Department of Information and Security (known by its French acronym, DRS) - has been marginalised without a hitch by an ageing, 78 year-old president.

Bouteflika is ill and physically weak, but has opened the door for the return of an all-powerful presidency, in the style of Houari Boumediène and Chadli Benjedid - Algeria's second and third presidents.

Despite this, the country's economic crisis and the leader's fragility are stopping him going too far against the last bastion of the old regime.

On 13 September 2015, a presidential communiqué announced the early retirement of DRS head, General Mohamed Mediene, to be replaced by one of his former subordinates brought out of retirement, Major-General Bachir Tartag.

The move was rightly considered a major event in Algeria's political landscape, and rightly so. The DRS is the successor of what was until 1990 called "military security". This military security was itself born of the secret services of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) that fought against the French occupation and acted as the fearsome iron fist of the regime after gaining independence.

The authority of the DRS was renewed once more after 1992, in the heat of the battle against Islamist subversion.

Mohamed Mediene's exit was did not come as a surprise, however. Aged 76, and the last of the so-called "janviéristes" officers - who, in January 1992, forced President Benjedid to abdicate and annulled the first round of the legislative election won by the Islamists - his time remaining in the post was clearly running out.

Most telling was a series of decisions, taken in the two years preceding his dismissal, which had weakened him and saw the sweeping powers the DRS had once enjoyed pared down to just its core functions. These decisions amounted to a methodical stripping down of its influence, with a view to turning it into a structure primarily responsible for intelligence, without any military or political weight.

Methodical dismantling

The dismantling of the DRS began at the end of Summer 2013, when three of its branches - the Directorate for Communication and Broadcasting, the Central Directorate of the Security of the Army and the Central Police Judiciary Service - were brought under the authority of the army chief of staff. 

The first of these structures continues to play an important role in the control of the news, through more or less "friendly" pressure on Algerian journalists and foreign press correspondents.

The second remains responsible for the protection of the armed forces against subversive activities, while the police judiciary service mainly carries out economic enquiries on behalf of the legal system. In 2009, they were responsible for launching investigations into Chakib Khelil, a former energy minister and Boutefilka ally who has since fled the country.

After a pause of less than two years, the operation against the DRS resumed in July 2015, when the army chief of staff became responsible for the General Directorate for Security and for Presidential Protection. Soon after, the DRS special intervention group was dissolved, essentially replaced by the Service for Operational Coordination and for Antiterrorist Intelligence.

Between these two structural shake-ups, and/or in parallel with them, many senior DRS officers whose names were associated with the dark days of summary executions and forced disappearances in the 1990s were discharged from their duties.

Bouteflika announced he would not be 'a half-hearted president'

A 'half-hearted' president

The dismissal of Mohamed Mediene must be seen in the context of a long process begun by Abdelaziz Bouteflika on his election in 1999, when he planned to endow the presidency with the prestige of the old days. The past glories of the executive were wiped out between 1992 and 1999 due to the power wielded by the army - particularly the DRS - over daily political life.

From his very first mandate, he was hostile with the main "janvieriste" leaders who had first offered him the presidency in 1999, at a time when the international isolation of the country had become untenable, both diplomatically and economically.

Soon after coming to power, Bouteflika announced he would not be "a half-hearted president", and, in 2004, he acted on his threat.

He dismissed the powerful Army Chief of Staff Mohamed Lamari, who had co-orchestrated with Mohamed Mediene the constitutional putsch in 1992 against Chadli Bendjedid - suspected of wanting to power-share with the Islamists of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).

Lamari's successor, Army Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaïd Salah - who still holds the post today - numbers among Bouteflika's faithful allies, owing the president for his unexpected promotion at a time when he was nearing the end of his career.

Lamari's departure was followed by the dismissals of other "janvieriste" officers who held key posts such as regional military commandants.

And so, even though he had originally been appointed to the role, Bouteflika knew how to make himself into a president in his own right. His three predecessors from 1992 (Mohamed Boudiaf, Ali Kafi and Liamine Zeroual) had been forced to share some of their powers, informally of course, with the generals - with the officers empowered by the army's central position fighting armed Islamist groups.

Former high-ranking officials nominated by their peers... acted like true Napoleon Bonapartes

And though today's incumbent may be physically weak, the presidency remains the sole centre of political decision-making in Algeria.

This represents a return to the 1965-1992 period, during which, while consulting military officials on the main diplomatic and political issues of the day, the head of state exercised powers that reached across all domains, including defence.

Former high-ranking officials nominated by their peers, such as Houari Boumediene and Chadli Bendjedid, acted like true Napoleon Bonapartes - and while they may have arbitrated in the regime's internal conflicts, they did not share their powers with any of the groups that constituted it.

Contrary to predictions of an embittered battle between the dejected "janvieristes", marginalised by Bouteflika and jealous of his constitutional powers, the reinstatement of military leadership passed off without a hitch. The departure of Lamari in 2004 and that of Mediene in 2015 did not create any waves either.

In opposing his adversaries, the head of state doubtless called on the ambitions of young, high-ranking officers, keen to put a lid on a period of political instability, and all the more in favour of the professionalisation of the army, given the huge budgets available.

But above all, he succeeded in seizing the opportunity created by political instability, that is to say, the "janvieristes" had been weakened by their role in the dramas of the 1990s. And without Bouteflika's protection, some would have found themselves before a court somewhere other than Algeria.

It was, for example, aboard an official aeroplane dispatched from Algiers that the retired General Major Khaled Nezzar, mastermind of the 1992 constitutional coup d’état was repatriated from France in April 2001, escaping legal proceedings in Switzerland after allegations of torture were brought against him.

However, the main reason for the lack of opposition to the presidential steamroller from the former "janvieristes" can be found in the political and economic context of the 2000s and the first half of the 2010s.

The Bouteflika era has been characterised on one hand, by a significant retreat of Islamist insurrection (demonstrated after the vote on "civil harmony" in 2000 and the surrender of thousands of jihadists) and on the other, by relative financial prosperity that only began to tail off in Summer 2014, with the global fall in hydrocarbons prices.

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After an austere decade in the 1990s, this prosperity allowed a significant amount of public spending, with $500 billion splashed between 2004 and 2013. It also led to a better income for large sections of the population, and household spending tripled between 2000 and 2011.

To establish the necessary political leeway, President Bouteflika worked cleverly to ensure that the relative stability and the wealth now flowing into the state's coffers appeared to have been of his own doing.

And it worked. It is however known that the Islamist surrender had been negotiated in 1997 during the short and turbulent rule of his predecessor, Liamine Zeroual, and that improved state revenues were due more to a favourable global environment than the forethought of successive prime ministers.

Bouteflika: The new sponsor

This vast public spending turned out to be a blessing for many business owners who benefited not only from substantial state commissions, but also from considerable property and banking benefits.

Some, thanks to the magnanimity of the government and their support for Bouteflika - rather than their entrepreneurial nous - were catapulted to elite levels of industry, though they lacked the stature of the influential nababs. And therein lies the second reason why the Head of State was able to sideline his adversaries so easily: the world of business was not on their side, divided between a pro-Bouteflika acting minority and a wary, passive majority.

According to in March 2014, Ali Haddad, the mastermind behind the patronage links with the head of state, has benefited from $2.5 billion of procurement contracts since 1999.

The Haddad Brothers Group, which became the go-to operator in the public works sector, was, however, just a small family business at the end of the 1990s.

Another formerly small business, the Kougc Group, belonging to the equally pro-Bouteflika Reda Kouninef, today operates in sectors as diverse as hydraulics, construction, electricity, public works and civil petroleum engineering - and its partner is a public company that is as powerful as Sonelgaz.

Lastly, the agro-food group Laïd Benamor became particularly wealthy in a short space of time, and in 2013 was able to acquire 60 percent of the capital of public Eriad mills.

Almost unheard of in 1999, these company owners today preside over the world of affairs in business. Ali Haddad manages the Forum for Business Leaders, and Laïd Benamor heads the Algerian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

As is the case for the FLN - the main constituent of the presidential majority - the civil state in the eyes of these new leaders looks less like a democracy than a state guaranteeing impunity to civilian predators and extracting them from the gaze of the DRS.

The DRS had been, until 2013 - that's to say before the judicial police service was handed over to the army chief of staff - was leading investigations into corruption scandals.

For them, the Bouteflika era must not end before they have had the chance to consolidate their business affairs and their political influence. This explains why they so ostentatiously financed his campaign in 2014.

The second motivation for their enthusiasm is that their privileges may yet fizzle out in a country where the economy remains at the whim of those in power.

The old order reinstated

The weakening of the DRS and the obedience of an over-politicised army can hardly be held as progress on a path leading to a democratic government.

While one phase may have ended, this does not necessarily mean another qualitatively different one is beginning. In essence, the current period resembles that of the pre-1992 era and the supremacy of the presidency over the military, from which, paradoxically, the army derived some of its domestic legitimacy.

In the context of this reinstated order, civilian security forces will inevitably play a greater role than in the past, in anticipation of revolts due to the economic crisis.

Police numbers went from 106,000 in 2006 to 200,000 in 2013, the equivalent of one policeman for every 110 citizens, compared with one for every 270 in France.

The army, however, remains the main guarantor of the regime's longevity, especially as the hotbeds of instability on the borders - Mali, Libya etc - look far from petering out, and relations with neighbouring Morocco have deteriorated severely. 

Born in Algeria in 1969, Yassine Temlali is a journalist , translator and researcher in history and linguistics. Follow him on Twitter: @YassinTemlali

Opinions in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

This is an edited translation of a commentary originally published in French by our partners at Orient XXI.