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Algeria at a Crossroad

 
Filed under: The Middle East

Algeria at a Crossroad
Ailing Algerian President Abd el Aziz Bouteflika (Sidali Djarboub/AP)

Algeria survived the shockwave of the so-called “Arab Spring” and managed to successfully contain the resurgence of the Al-Qaeda-inspired and remote-controlled extremist Muslim organizations, which tried to undermine the stability of the Algerian regime through acts of terror. Even though the ailing and frail Algerian President Abd el Aziz Bouteflika was hit by a stroke in 2013 from which he did not recover, he managed to maintain his grip over the country, mainly assisted by a loyal “clique” led by his brothers, Said, Nacer, Mostafa and Abd el Ghani. They succeeded in establishing a ring of loyalists made up of the two pillars of power in Algeria: The dominant political party – the National Liberation Front (FLN- Front de Liberation Nationale in French) and the army.

Bouteflika, the last surviving member of the founding fathers who fought and established independent Algeria in 1962, had served for years as Algeria’s foreign minister before being elected in 1999 as president of the North African country. Bouteflika successfully fought the Islamist wave of terrorism that cost the lives of more than 200,000 Algerians and managed to be reelected as president for four consecutive terms even though his sickness worsened, and he practically disappeared from the public eye over the last two years. In his rare appearances, he was moved in a wheelchair and communicated with his entourage with a special device that enabled him to be understood. Four doctors took care of him, in addition to his close family and a group of loyal civil servants.

In his last term as president, it was a well-known fact that Bouteflika was no longer the decision-maker and that he had been replaced by his brother, Said. Numerous attempts to challenge him in the previous four presidential campaigns were thwarted, allegedly through fraud and falsified results.

Approaching the fifth presidential election, scheduled for April 18, 2019, Bouteflika’s health deteriorated to such a point that he was urgently whisked to Geneva where he was hospitalized at Hopitaux Universitaires de Genève (HUG), but not before announcing he was a candidate for a fifth term.

This was the crack that broke the dam: news about his incapacitation spread in the Swiss press. Algerians living in Switzerland called the hospital to check on his health. The curiosity of a rival candidate in the Algerian presidential campaign pushed him to sneak into the HUG, where he was arrested just steps before entering the special wing where the Algerian president was being treated. A series of protests began in Algeria demanding Bouteflika withdraw his candidacy. Several other candidates followed by withdrawing their candidacies as the ultimate expression of their opposition to Bouteflika. One of those was Ali Ben Flis, a former prime minister and close collaborator of Bouteflika, who lost in the presidential campaign of 2015 even though his supporters claim he had won the elections but lost in the counting of the falsified ballots. Ben Flis’s tactic was clear: he expected to be “called back to the flag” once Bouteflika’s candidacy was dismissed.

In any case, Bouteflika was rushed back to Algeria once a Swiss NGO had filed a motion at a local Genevan court to appoint a Swiss custodian to Bouteflika to protect him from being exploited by his entourage. Immediately after that, the Bouteflika entourage dropped a bombshell, announcing that Bouteflika would not run for a fifth mandate.

However, in a last ditch attempt to hold on, the announcement stressed that the presidential elections will not take place on April 18 but would be delayed until a new constitution would be drafted and a new election would be set. A former foreign minister, Lakhdar Brahimi, who was supposedly nominated to head this reform “national panel” (Al-Nadwa Al-Wataniya) announced days later that he had no intention to be the chief reformer.

In a swift action meant to show his grip on power, Bouteflika asked his Prime Minister Ahmad Ouwayhi to resign, and he replaced him by two loyalists: Prime Minister Nour el-Din Badawi, who served as the former minister of interior and his deputy, as well as his former adviser Ramtan Laamara. The prime minister’s first declaration was the necessity to maintain law and order. The chief of the army, Field-Marshall Qayed Salah, followed by stating the army would back the Algerian people in its quest for order while preserving the integrity of Algeria.

The scenes of joy and celebrations that occurred following the announcement of Bouteflika’s decision not to run for the fifth mandate faded quickly with the realization that Bouteflika was not really going to step down in the near future. Instead, the protests focused on the need to replace Bouteflika, who was unable to fulfill his post as stipulated in article 102 of the constitution – the core argument in the protests that took place in Algeria since mid-February.

Protests spread all over Algeria, led by thousands of youngsters, students, and university teachers. The Algerian National Bar Association demanded the elections be conducted on their original date. Unlike other countries that experienced the Arab Spring, the Algerian protests have until now been peaceful and non-confrontational. The protests were quickly joined by six trade union organizations, including the employees of the port of Bejaia who staged a three-day strike demanding a change of regime. Thirteen opposition parties expressed their rejection of the timetable set by the regime, claiming that the regime’s decisions were pushing Algerians into a revolution. As a countermeasure, the opposition parties asked all members of both houses of parliament to withdraw their membership and stage sit-ins until the regime bows to their demands.

What Next for Algeria?

The big question remains, where is Algeria heading? Much depends on the actions of several groups in Algeria: The ruling “clique” made of Bouteflika’s entourage could lose its privileges together with a cabal of high ranking officers, veterans of the war of independence and the FLN “Old Guard.” Will they, along with the parasites of the Bouteflika era and the businessmen who have stakes in the oil and gas industry, allow a smooth transition of power? Or, will they maintain their coalition and fight the winds of change that have been felt in Algeria since mid-February. One thing is sure: Algerians have lost their fear of the regime and are ready to confront it; at this time the confrontation is still devoid of violence.

By March 16, 2019, officials in Algeria’s ruling party, the National Liberation Front (FLN), had announced their abandonment of Bouteflika. A senior leader, Hussein Khaldoun, told Al-Nahar TV that Bouteflika “is history now.”1

In this state of affairs, the chances that the regime will continue in its ill-fated policy and maintain Bouteflika as president beyond the April 18, 2019, deadline are very slim. It is the end of an era, and the beginning of a new chapter in Algeria’s history. Bearing in mind the importance of the role of the Algerian army, speculation is that the army will arrange for an orderly succession by choosing a kind of “marionette,” someone who has been part of the local elite who will continue to serve the army’s interests, as has been the case in most Arab military regimes. The latest declarations of the chief of the army hint that this scenario is the most concrete and realistic.

However, take into consideration that young Algerians represent two-thirds of the population of 41 million people. They were not part of the war of independence nor have any memory of Algeria’s colonial past that once dominated the Algerian peoples’ collective memory. “What was” will definitely not apply to the reality of today, which could mean that Algeria could enter a period of instability with all the unknown consequences that could influence its neighbors and its European customers for Algerian oil and gas.

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