Bouteflika, back with a vengeance

Bouteflika, back with a vengeance
5 min read
19 Aug, 2015
Comment: Six years ago, Algeria's president was pronounced "over" by French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy. Then came the Arab Spring, and a new ally in the Elysee Palace, writes Jean-Pierre Sereni.
Bouteflika survived many of his contemporaries, including Libya's Gaddafi [AFP]

Six years ago, Abdelaziz Bouteflika's situation as Algerian president looked unpromising and his French counterpart at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy, considered him "over".

But today, despite his unstable health and economic problems linked to falling oil prices, the 78-year-old has regained the upper hand, imposing his will and removing those in his way, particularly in the security apparatus.

At the root of this return is the Arab Spring and Francois Hollande's arrival at the Elysee Palace.Bouteflika's latest flexing of presidential muscle has become known as the "Zeralda affair", named after the president's seaside retreat when on 16 July, hundreds of soldiers took up positions nearby.

A standard operation for a military unit on the move that wandered astray? Attempted putsch? Or the pretext for a purge?

Whatever the reason, the heads of both presidential and domestic security were shown the door soon after. The DRS intelligence service, run by the irremovable General Mohamed Mediene, was stripped of its 'action' section, thereby keeping its head but losing its body.

Rewind the clock to 2009 and his position looked so different. Re-elected in April for a third term, Bouteflika was immediately placed under surveillance by his generals.

The usually well-behaved press had a field day with two state embarrassments. The first concerned Sonatrach, the public hydrocarbon monopoly, which was embroiled in a huge bribes-for-contracts scandal.

The second was the east-west motorway, built by Asian companies in record time for an eye-watering $11 billion during Bouteflika's 2004-2009 second term. By its completion, DRS bloodhounds had uncovered widespread bribery and arrested high-level officials over allegations of corruption.

     Despite his unstable health, the 78-year-old has regained the upper hand.

Bouteflika then looked abroad to find support, though to no avail. Sarkozy refused to invite him to Paris in 2010 and Hillary Clinton, the then-US secretary of state, avoided a stopover in Algiers, despite $422,000 donated by Algeria to her husband's foundation in February of that year.

Failing to receive any invitations, Bouteflika went to Nice on 31 May for the Francophonie summit. He and the Mauritanian president, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, were the only Arab leaders present.

Ironically, it was the Arab Spring that started to turn things round for the long-time president. The Franco-British mission to remove Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, and a growing threat of revolution, led to Algerian officials flocking to established bases of power.

Hollande's arrival as French president was also a boon for Bouteflika. His trip to Algeria in December 2012 was a success and brought Bouteflika the support of Paris that Sarkozy had refused.

In Tlemcen, before students of the Abou Bakr Belkaid Univeristy, the French president praised his host so emphatically that some of the audience laughed out loud.

The attack on the In Amenas gas plant on 16 January 2013, carried out by Mokhtar Belmokhtar's group, "Those who sign in blood" [el-Mouaguiine Biddam], provided Bouteflika and Hollande with a common enemy.

Boosted by his return to grace, at the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013, Bouteflika within a matter of weeks fired his prime minister and the heads of the two main presidential coalition parties, who, with support from military and security circles, might have been dangerous candidates in the 2014 presidential election.

Having rid himself of potential rivals, he regained the lead until, in April 2013, he received treatment at Val-de-Grace hospital in Paris for three months for a heart condition. But he was soon back back in Algiers, and moved to solidify control of the armed forces by promoting his chief of staff who, at 73, found himself the sole head of the Algerian army, regardless of his skills or merit.

Bouteflika also changed the way state advertising, essential to the survival of the press, was distributed. The military security attached to Gaid Salah, and the judicial police, was dissolved and their officers retired.

     The presidential election in April 2014 was a mere formality for Bouteflika.

Similarly, the dominant party, the central committee of the FLN, which has held a majority in the national assembly since 2012, "chose" a new secretary general, Amar Saadani, under conditions that were anything but statutory.

Under these circumstances, the presidential election in April 2014 was a mere formality for Bouteflika, who glided to victory, taking 81.53 per cent of votes without holding a single public meeting.

EU observers decided not to travel to Algeria after authorities refused to give them the national electoral filem, and polling results conflicted depending on who provided them.

Not even the sharp fall in oil prices could hurt Bouteflika. He rejected any discussion of austerity and on the contrary pledged to maintain social benefits and the main proponents of the five-year programme 2015-2019. 

Ambiguous plans to reduce car imports (more than 500,000 in 2013) were reviewed following Hollande's express visit to Algiers on 15 June.

"I was impressed by the president's intellectual flair. It is rare to have such rich exchanges and to meet a head of state with that capacity for judgement," declared Hollande after spending two hours at the residence in Zeralda.

Ali Benflis, the leader of the opposition which brings together nationalists and the Muslim Brotherhood, did not hide his dissatisfaction the day after the visit.

What did Hollande receive in exchange for his kind words? Promises: a potential reduction in imports and large-scale projects would deprive the French car and rail companies that contributed to making France Algeria's biggest supplier.

Coincidentally, in a replay of December 2012, the French president's visit was followed by an Algerian ministerial reshuffle which saw the departure of the trade minister, accused of harming Renault and PSA (which own more than half of the Algerian automobile industry).

But with Paris lending its support in the name of the "fight against terrorism", can Bouteflika sleep soundly? Having been involved in political life since 1957, he is acutely aware of his predecessor's misadventures.

A version of this article was first published by our partner website, Orient XXI.

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.