In Algeria, “After President Bouteflika” Is Rapidly Approaching

, December 10, 2014

Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 14, No. 42       December 10, 2014

  • Algeria’s president, Abd el-Aziz Bouteflika, 77, is ailing. On November 14, 2014 he was admitted to the cardiology department of a French military hospital.
  • The race for Algeria’s top position will be wide open. The Algerian president is the chief of Africa’s second largest army and also heads the largest producer of natural gas in Africa and its second largest oil producer.
  • Power in Algeria is concentrated in the president’s office, in an uneasy partnership between top party, military, and intelligence officials. Bouteflika seems to preside over a government in which he has been manipulated from behind the scenes by his clan, headed by his younger brother, Said.
  • Protests sweeping the country are also an indicator of political and social instability. Strikes in various public sectors, from education to transportation and postal services, signal a discontented working class. Recent months have seen unprecedented growing tension between the police and the state.
  • While there is still a possibility of a peaceful and stable transition of power, prospects are dimming in light of growing internal divisions and popular opposition.
  • Algeria is at the forefront of the fight against extremist Islamist groups in the deserts to the south as well as in neighboring Tunisia. For the West, Bouteflika’s departure, when it happens, could be a big loss especially since the Arab Spring eliminated longtime allies such as Egypt’s Mubarak, Tunisia’s Zein el-Abdine Ben-Ali and Yemen’s Ali Abdallah Saleh. At the end of the day, the West could find itself without reliable interlocutors in North Africa.
Map of Algeria

Map of Algeria

Abd el-Aziz Bouteflika, 77, Algeria’s ailing president, is one of the few survivors of the national leadership in the war of independence against France that took place between 1954-1962. On November 14, 2014 he was admitted to the cardiology department of a French military hospital. In mid-September 2014 the president spent some time in a Swiss hospital where he underwent a “check-up.”1 Opposition sources claim that the president has lost his mental faculties and that he is no longer aware of his surroundings. Only his family members have access to him.2

The race for Algeria’s top position will be wide open. The Algerian president is the chief of Africa’s second largest army and also heads the largest producer of natural gas in Africa and its second largest oil producer. Speculation will not solve the riddle of Bouteflika at this stage. In fact, nobody really knows who will succeed Bouteflika, for an orderly transfer of power appears unlikely; either the president will die in office or serve out his five-year term.

Major Health Concerns and His Ability to Lead

Concerns over Bouteflika’s health began during his second term in 2005. Then, he was treated in a military hospital in Paris for a bleeding ulcer. Numerous hospitalizations and medical visits followed, most rarely reported. In April 2013, after a stroke that left him quasi-paralyzed, Bouteflika was once again admitted to the French military hospital where he spent 80 days convalescing. He has barely been seen or heard in public. His last public appearance was in April 2014, when he was seen in a wheelchair at the voting booth near his home in Algiers, casting his vote in favor of his fourth term as president of Algeria.3

Bouteflika’s absences reflect his frail health and inability to rule Algeria. He has missed important national holidays such as the November 1 commemoration of the 60th anniversary of Algeria’s revolution against France. And he was absent when Algeria had to deal with national emergencies such as the decapitation of a French hostage by an Algerian-based IS affiliate, an Algerian airliner crash, and terrorists storming one of Algeria’s largest natural gas plants in January 2013, resulting in the death of 39 captive foreign workers.4

President Bouteflika

President Bouteflika

Algerians are accustomed to not hearing or seeing their leader. The press is run under a Soviet model by the DRS (Direction des Renseignements et de Securite) with instructions not to report on the president’s condition or whereabouts. Nobody dares ignore these instructions.5

Oddly enough, Bouteflika, and to no surprise to anyone inside Algeria, was overwhelmingly elected to fill a fourth term amidst claims of manipulated results. For the first time, the turn-out of Algerian voters was minimal, and the regime’s media reported that 51 percent of voters had actually cast their vote, a number that seems to be far above the reality. The statistics also claimed that Bouteflika had won almost 85 percent of the votes while his main opponent, Ali Benflis, got barely 12 percent.6

Efforts made by the president’s immediate entourage to boost the turn-out were blocked by the Minister of Interior, Tayeb Belaiz, one of the latest newcomers to appear on the list of possible successors to Bouteflika.7

Who Runs Algeria?

Power in Algeria is concentrated in the president’s office, in an uneasy partnership with top party, military, and intelligence officials. Bouteflika was elected as President in 1999 at the end of a ten-year civil war that saw the army crack down on Islamists killing around 200,000 people. Bouteflika was elected promising to crush the militants and keep Algeria safe from turmoil, but at the expense of open democracy.8

Bouteflika, a shrewd political player even before independence, ruled Algeria for 15 years with an iron fist neutralizing every possible center of power that could challenge him. As a result, Bouteflika has no obvious successor.  His death could ignite a struggle for control among the elites. While Algeria’s Constitutional Council can declare the president unfit to rule, its decision must be ratified by two-thirds of the parliament. The president of the Senate then takes over for 45 days until new elections.9 It is commonly acknowledged that Bouteflika’s associates would prevent any impeachment vote. His successor would likely be decided by top generals and party leaders.

However, because of his deteriorating health, Bouteflika has been unable to play his full constitutional role as head of Algeria’s executive branch of government. Instead, he seems to preside over a government in which he has been manipulated from behind the scenes by his clan, headed by his younger brother, Said. It is clear today that the presidential elections were intended to provide time for a more durable presidential succession to take place, one that was supposed to satisfy the interests and aspirations of the behind-the-scene groups that make up the power-elite in Algeria.  Elections, in short, were the means through which the real power-brokers – “Le Pouvoir” or “Les Decideurs” – operate and position themselves in the run-up to the succession, writes George Jaffe of Al Araby al Jadeed. 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.10

The Race for Leadership

In fact, Bouteflika and/or his entourage already began preparing for the battle of succession in 2013, a few months after his return from France. The “green light” was given by Bouteflika in September 2013, when he ordered a massive reorganization of his government in which he gave key posts to close allies, aiming to ensure control over his succession. The reshuffle, the largest since 1990, saw nearly a third of ministers fired — only after Bouteflika put a close ally, Ammar Saidani, as head of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN).11

Among key ministers who lost their jobs were Dahou Ould Kabila at the interior ministry who was replaced by Tayeb Belaiz, and Mohammad Charfi who left the ministry of justice to be replaced by Tayeb Louh. Both men were responsible for organizing the presidential elections of 2014 and both come, as does the president, from the western city of Tlemcen.12

More significantly was Bouteflika’s frontal attack against the powerful military intelligence (DRS), the real “dark heart “of the regime which has been the recurring theme of Abdelazziz Bouteflika’s 15 years in power.  Capitalizing on the disastrous outcome of a terrorist raid on the Tiguentourine gas plant in eastern Algeria in which 39 foreign hostages were killed in the Algerian army’s counter-attack, the presidential office forced the security services into the hands of its ally, General Gaid Salah, the army commander and deputy defense minister. Major-General Mohammed Mediène, a Berber, was left with only a reduced and skeletal DRS under his control, and General Bachir Tartag, his close ally, was dismissed. Now, however, General Tartag has reappeared as the president’s military adviser, alongside a former prime minister, Ahmed Ouyahia, who is also close to the DRS and no favorite of the presidential clan.13

Another high ranking officer and former head of the counter-terrorism unit, “General Hassan” [a nom de guerre] who used to be Mohammad Mediene’s right hand, was put under home surveillance in his hometown, Hydra. The general, who had refused to be released from the army even though he had reached the age limit, is accused of trying to establish an armed group and to hold weapons illegally. If found guilty, he could face the death penalty.14

General Mediène, 75, has been able to re-impose himself on the national leadership. 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 diplomats, judges and provincial governors — have been put on hold.

The possible successors –Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal; interior minister Tayeb Belaiz; or former Prime Minister Mouloud Hamrouche all lack support from key power brokers such as army chief-of-staff, Gaid Salah, or the president’s political adviser, Ahmed Ouyahia. Said Bouteflika, the president’s younger brother who simultaneously conducts his brother’s medical care and the country’s day-to-day life, reportedly wants to succeed his elder brother. Said Bouteflika has the support of Algerian economic “barons” but is disliked by the army’s assembly 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, or Abdel Kader Bensalah president of the Senate who was not born in Algeria.15

The emergence of a new contender for succession, interior minister Tayed Belaiz, 66, marks a new development in the political scene, writes Anne Favory of the McGill International Review. Born in Maghnia, in the wilaya [province] of Tlemcen (as Bouteflika), Belaiz is considered close to the Bouteflika family, holds the respect of many senior political officials, and is currently among the most likely successors. Bouteflika is considered to be Belaiz’ spiritual father and it was under his auspices that his political career took off.16 However, tensions between Belaiz and other potential candidates, such as Abd el-Ghani Hamel, 59, the director general of National Security, put in question the likelihood of a peaceful transition.17 Conflict arose between the two men over the management of security forces when Hamel accused Belaiz of impeding the demands of the police. Many political analysts view the latest tensions as a consequence of the politicians’ aspirations for the presidential succession.

Internal conflicts within Algeria are problematic and tend to reflect the actual state of affairs between the rival parties. Moreover, the protests sweeping the country are also an indicator of political and social instability.18 Strikes in various public sectors, from education to transportation and postal services, signal a discontented working class exacerbated by the stagnation stemming from the prolonged absence of Bouteflika.

Recent months have seen unprecedented growing tension between police and the state. The unparalleled display of dissent from the Algerian police could suggest additional upheaval.19 Political protests from the police against Hamel are a clear example of the power struggle between the cabinet and other national institutions.20 Claims of internal conflict between the DRS and the presidency over the succession reinforce the assertion of deep-rooted divisions within the ruling elite.

The transitional order that will accompany the presidential succession will undoubtedly pose challenges to its political legitimacy. While the possibility of a peaceful and stable transition of power is still possible, prospects are dropping in light of growing internal divisions and popular opposition.

Challenges for Algeria and the West

The race for Algeria’s top position is wide open. Speculation will not solve the riddle of Bouteflika at this stage. In fact, nobody really knows who will succeed Bouteflika, for the president will either die in office or serve out his five year term. In the meantime, Algeria stagnates, public anger at administrative chaos grows, as will frustration over worsening poverty as oil-and-gas revenues decline and security worsens.

These questions come at a serious time, as Algeria is in the forefront of the fight against extremist Islamist groups in the deserts to the south as well as in neighboring Tunisia. After the 9/11 attacks, Bouteflika signed an intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States.  However, he refused to take part in NATO’s effort against Qaddafi in 2011 and refused to send troops to Mali to join the French military offensive in northern Mali.  When Jihadists attacked the giant Amenas gas plant, he allowed U.S. surveillance drones to hover overhead throughout the operation.21 Algeria is also a key player in attempts to get the warring parties in both Libya and Mali to lay down their weapons and talk. For the West, Bouteflika’s departure, when it happens, could be a big loss especially since the Arab Spring eliminated longtime allies such as Egypt’s Mubarak, Tunisia’s Zein el-Abdine Ben-Ali and Yemen Ali Abdallah Saleh. At the end of the day, the West could find itself without reliable interlocutors in North Africa.

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Notes

1 Algerian President Bouteflika “hospitalized in France”, http://news.yahoo.com/algerian-president-bouteflika-hospitalised-france-sources-171642777.html; http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-30061113http://www.france24.com/en/20141114-algeria-president-abdelaziz-bouteflika-hospitalised-france/#./?&_suid=141658066775009758921087253685; http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/11/algerian-president-hospitalised-france-2014111522231928783.html
2 Bouteflika ne jouit plus de ses facultes mentales,  http://www.tamurt.info/fr/bouteflika-ne-jouit-plus-de-ses-facultes-mentales,7335.html?lang=fr
http://www.france24.com/en/20140417-wheelchair-bound-bouteflika-votes-algeria-election-benflis-vote/ 
http://www.iol.co.za/news/africa/where-has-bouteflika-gone-1.1758456
http://www.tamurt.info/fr/bouteflika-ne-quitte-plus-sa-villa-de-zeralda,7101.html?lang=
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-27081942
http://www.algerie-focus.com/blog/2014/10/tayeb-belaiz-le-nouveau-favori-dans-la-course-pour-la-succession-de-bouteflika/
http://world.time.com/2013/04/29/abdelaziz-bouteflika-is-algerias-strongman-on-his-way-out/
http://www.iol.co.za/news/africa/where-has-bouteflika-gone-1.1758456
10 http://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/politics/30780250-f30f-4f4e-88bd-2f83ee915c6c
11 http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=61327
12 http://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/politics/30780250-f30f-4f4e-88bd-2f83ee915c6c
13 http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=61327
14 http://www.tamurt.info/fr/un-general-du-drs-risque-la-peine-de-mort,6829.html
15 http://mironline.ca/?p=2580
16 http://www.algerie-focus.com/blog/2014/10/tayeb-belaiz-le-nouveau-favori-dans-la-course-pour-la-succession-de-bouteflika/
17 http://www.maghrebemergent.com/actualite/maghrebine/item/42014-algerie-la-guerre-est-ouverte-entre-le-general-hamel-et-tayeb-belaiz.html
18 http://interviews.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/19752/%E2%80%9Chamel-leave%E2%80%9D_the-men-in-blue-and-the-fracturing-o
19 Ibid.
20 http://www.relais-medias.com/17779/plan-succession-abdelghani-hamel-bouteflika-se-precise/
21 http://world.time.com/2013/04/29/abdelaziz-bouteflika-is-algerias-strongman-on-his-way-out/

 

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.