After a series of public appearances in recent weeks, Algeria's former prime minister, Mouloud Hamrouche, has left little doubt that he is positioning himself to be the next president of Algeria.
Some believe that the regime has already lined up Hamrouche to succeed the current president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was re-elected for a fourth term in April despite his declining health.
In recent weeks, Hamrouche, a former army colonel who served as prime minister between 1989 and 1991, has given speeches in the cities of Oran, Constantine, and Bejaia to promote his campaign for a democratic transition in Algeria.
"Much of the media and liberal intelligentsia would be enthusiastic [about a Hamrouche presidency]," said Hugh Roberts, director of the Middle Eastern Studies Programme and an expert on Algeria at Tufts University in the US.
All the [political] parties are in crisis... [State] institutions are 30 years behind because there is no real democracy where citizens are considered to be responsible adults.
"The [opposition] Front des Forces Socialistes party would endorse it; Islamists have no big reason to be hostile to him; Western governments would be unlikely to oppose it, so a consensus within the ANP [Armee Nationale Populaire, the national army] could form to agree on it and there's your presidential succession problem resolved ... for the time being," Roberts told Al Jazeera.
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"All the [political] parties are in crisis," Hamrouche said in a July 17 speech given before journalists, members of parliament, academics, and civil society representatives in Constantine. "[State] institutions are 30 years behind because there is no real democracy where citizens are considered to be responsible adults."
According to Hamrouche, who declined to be interviewed by Al Jazeera for this article, the current system "is incapable of engaging in reforms or of producing any alternative, still less to transform its words into action, while the elite is totally bound up [with the current system]".
Such persistent and outspoken criticism of the regime is unusual in Algeria, and the frequency of Hamrouche's public appearances is also in stark contrast to his behaviour in recent years. Until a few months ago, Hamrouche had been almost completely absent from Algerian politics since he ran against Bouteflika in the 1999 presidential election, when he won just 3.1 percent of the vote.
"It's a [reminder] to the regime," said Abdenour Bakour, a spokesperson for the civil society group Barakat, which supports regime change. "He's saying, 'Don't forget me, I can help you [fill the gap]'".
The regime is struggling to find a suitable candidate to replace Bouteflika, whose health issues have raised doubts about the longevity of his tenure. In appealing to a range of different groups, Hamrouche could be a solution to this problem.
Hamrouche returned to public life in the weeks ahead of Algeria's last presidential elections on April 17, leading to a widespread belief that he would run for the presidency. But in an interview with local Arab-language daily El Khabar on February 17, Hamrouche announced that he would not run if the army presented an alternative candidate.
Despite his decision not to run, he reiterated his wish to "bring down the system in a peaceful manner, with the support of all sections of society". The time had come to "turn the page and begin a new one for Algeria," he said in a statement.
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Along with several opposition parties, Hamrouche chose to boycott the election, saying that the "factors blocking [the proper functioning of the system would remain], whether or not the president's mandate was renewed". These blockages, he said, created "grave dangers … encouraged divisions and paralysed the work of the [country's] institutions".
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Hamrouche has been careful both before and after the elections not to align himself with any official political party. "Everything he has said and done supports this," Roberts said. "He's courting many different groupings while aligning with no one."
When a group of opposition parties organised a national conference on June 10, Hamrouche attended the event, but has made it clear that he had no intention of aligning himself with the coalition, known as the Coordination of Freedoms and Democratic Transition (CLTD).
Another former prime minister, Ali Benflis, won 12 percent of the vote in the last elections. "Benflis has had too many tries - all unsuccessful - and thus he is stuck with the label of 'loser'," said John Entelis, professor of political science and an expert in Algerian politics at Fordham University in the US.
Benflis' political team did not respond to Al Jazeera's requests for comment in time for publication.
"I don’t think there is an obvious candidate and whoever does emerge, if it is not Hamrouche who is clearly posing as a transition figure, may be unknown or a surprise or both. [Former President Liamine] Zeroual has apparently lost interest, Benflis is now far too critical and allied to the opposition. [Former Prime Minister Ahmed] Ouyahia is the obvious choice, but widely unpopular and fundamentally a technocrat," said Michael Willis, a specialist on Algeria at St Antony's College in Oxford.
Hamrouche's 15-year break from politics has also meant that he has not been tarnished by associating with a Bouteflika administration with which there is widespread public frustration. "A lot of people like him very much," said Kamal Benkoussa, an Algerian politician who withdrew from the presidential race after Bouteflika announced he was seeking re-election. "He is seen as the only person who can bring stability to Algeria," he told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, Hamrouche's decision not to run against Bouteflika also means that he maintains a good relationship with the president, whose supporters are an important constituency in choosing a successor. "One can't underestimate the influence of [Bouteflika's brother,] Said, given his [constant] presence behind the scenes," Entelis said.
A lot of people like him very much. He is seen as the only person who can bring stability to Algeria.
"Hamrouche is everyone's guy," Bakour added. "He has the support of the Islamists, the democrats, and the army won't refuse. I even think that the decision is already made and all this [public debate] is to make it appear that there is a [process of] democratisation."
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Hamrouche has offered few specifics about what he would change if he were in power.
"The striking thing about Hamrouche's discourse these last few months is that it consists almost entirely of nice-sounding but vague abstractions, plus repeated nods to the army, without any clear commitment to a specific proposal for political reform," Roberts said.
The centrality of the army to any process of political change has remained a constant refrain in Hamrouche's rhetoric since the elections. "There is no chance of installing a democratic system without the approval and the active support of the army," he said in July.
"No politician can ever be truly 'independent' as some link to key power brokers in the system needs to support him," Entelis said. "At this point everyone is waiting for Bouteflika's health to seriously deteriorate or for him to die before a transition can take place."
Benkoussa, meanwhile, said he believed regime change would happen within the next 12 to 24 months. "I think a strong credible candidate will come to the fore very soon, and that candidate will be Hamrouche," he said. "He will be the next president of Algeria."
Follow Richard Nield on Twitter: @Rnield01
Source: Al Jazeera