Algeria under Bouteflika is at a tipping point

Algeria under Bouteflika is at a tipping point
Recent reshuffling within Algeria's top ranks signifies a power contest among the presidential clan as ailing President Bouteflika holds on, writes George Joffe.
5 min read
07 Aug, 2015
Algeria President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been in office since 1999 (Getty)

Summer and autumn are traditionally periods of change in Algeria, when President Abdelaziz Bouteflika seeks to appoint new ambassadors and judges, as well as moving provincial governors and promoting army officers. 


This year, however, has been rather exceptional, both because the moves around the presidential chessboard began earlier than usual and because they have been much more extensive than expected. 


Indeed, some observers are hinting at a new round of power struggle within the occult pillars of the regime – the presidency, the army and the security services.


The changes


The changes kicked off in mid-May with a government reshuffle; that, in itself, was nothing surprising. But its timing was surprising since there had been a previous reshuffle just over eighteen months before, in September 2013. 


It is true that the latest government reshuffle could be explained as an inevitable consequence of the presidential elections a month before which had brought President Bouteflika his fourth presidential term, despite his severe impairment after a stroke in April 2013. 


However, given the actual changes in ministerial portfolios that occurred, this hardly seemed an adequate explanation. 

Behind this political constellation, there seems to have been a move by the presidential clan to guarantee the post-Bouteflika era, now that the president's younger brother, Said, has come to terms with the fact that he cannot inherit the presidential position directly, as he had intended.


Instead, it seems that he and his supporters hope to manipulate a future president from behind the scenes, as many suspect he already does with his brother, the current president.


The governmental changes, however, only turned out to be the first stage of wider reforms. Ten days later, the heads of state enterprises found themselves under presidential scrutiny, with changes occurring in Sonatrach, the national airline, Air Algerie and two banks - the Caisse Nationale d'Epargne et de Prevoyance and the Banque Nationale d'Algérie - among others. 


Then, after 60 days, provincial governors found themselves being relocated and removed from office. A day later, to general surprise, the trade minister and official spokesman for the presidency, Amara Benyounes, was removed from office despite his known loyalty to the president. 


Perhaps he was viewed as a potential threat to the succession plans of the presidential clan who suspected his personal links to the president. His removal from office (he was replaced by an old-timer of little significance) was accompanied by the removal of the agricultural minister and the minister for cultural affairs.


Two days after that, on July 25, three generals were summarily removed from office. They were all connected with the president's personal security and included the head of domestic security, General Bendaoud. 


He was deliberately appointed by the president in September 2013 when his predecessor, General Bachir Tartag, was forced out of office. His departure was in part made necessary to placate foreign anger over the way in which he handled the terrorist takeover of the gas facility at In Amenas when 39 foreign hostages were killed in the Algeria army's riposte.


     Behind this political constellation, there seems to have been a move by the presidential clan to guarantee the post-Bouteflika era.

Also, General Targar was forced out in order to embarrass the wily head of Algerian security, General Mohamed 'Tawfik' Mediene, a longstanding opponent of the president.

General Bendaoud's removal therefore looked as if General Mediene had scored his revenge, an impression buttressed by the other two victims who had been head of the Presidential Guard and the head of the Republican Guard respectively.


Algerian game of thrones


This bewildering whirlpool of changes in Algeria's senior cadres does not fit into a single scenario, but reflects the ongoing struggle between the obscure clans that, behind the scenes, control the country's destiny. 


There is little doubt that the initial ministerial changes served the presidency's interests in creating a new, more docile team prepared to bend to presidential whim - or, rather, that of the presidential clan, now dominated by the president's younger brother.


But nobody knows how active the president himself still is. Yet, the repositioning of the two presidential candidates who are also loyal to the president himself - Taib Belaiz and Abdelmalek Sellal - is challenged by a veteran opponent and ally of the army and the security services, presidential advisor and former premier, Ahmed Ouyahia, and, at one remove, by Miloud Hamrouche, the reforming premier of the early 1990s who is also close to army circles.


The three generals were also presidential allies and their removal appears to have been a sacrifice to appease the longstanding head of security, General Mediene, who was ousted in September 2013, but who still is essential to the presidential clan's plans for the future.


So, Mediene had to be bought off with the excuse that the changes were due to a failure in the security screen around the president. 

The head of the army, General Gaid Salah, who is also believed to have forlorn presidential aspirations but who is opposed from within the general staff by a new generation of army leaders, has made his own bid for power by overt support for the pro-presidential head of the National Liberation Front (FLN), Amar Saadani.


However, Salah is of little importance, for he survives only in the reflection of presidential support as a vice-defence minister.


The army, after all, has a common interest with the security services in denying the presidency's real agency over the state, even if each distrusts the other. The real game, as it has always been, is between the president and the head of the security services for the ultimate control over Algerias future.

George Joffe is a research fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge and visiting professor of geography at Kings College, London, specialising in the Middle East.

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