Return of ‘Mr Dirty Work’ spurs questions in Algeria
Surprising comeback of Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia could herald the start of a deep austerity programme, analysts say.
Algiers, Algeria – Five years after being removed from the post, three-time Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia is making a surprising comeback.
Last month, Ouyahia, nicknamed “Mr Dirty Work” by the Algerian public, was recalled to replace Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who served as housing minister before his surprise appointment as prime minister this past spring. Ouyahia served as prime minister of Algeria on three separate, previous occasions between 1995 and 2012.
Although the president’s office has yet to comment on the latest reshuffle, analysts say it is likely a result of Tebboune’s campaign against corruption and corporate influence in politics.
When he gave his first speech to parliament as prime minister in June, Tebboune – whose three-month tenure in the position has become the shortest in Algerian history – called upon the business elite to stop interfering in public affairs, saying that “politics needs to be separated from the power of money”.
By trying to reduce the influence of wealthy entrepreneurs, Tebboune ended up sinking his own career, analysts say.
“Tebboune made a series of mistakes that annoyed some of the most powerful people in Algeria,” Riccardo Fabiani, a senior political analyst at Eurasia Group, told Al Jazeera. “In particular, he attacked Ali Haddad, a prominent businessman close to the president’s brother, Said Bouteflika, and targeted the interests of Algeria’s influential class of importers. By taking such an uncompromising stance, he threatened to become very popular – too popular for the regime.”
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According to Ali Benouari, a former treasury minister, Tebboune’s abrupt dismissal and Ouyahia’s appointment have highlighted the growing influence of a clique of oligarchs over Algeria’s political system.
“Back in the early 2000s, when Ouyahia served as prime minister for the second time, he passed a package of reforms, including amendments to the investment code, that have enriched a clique of oligarchs. Now, they absolutely need him to be back in office to preserve their vested interests,” Benouari told Al Jazeera.
Fabiani agreed that the recent cabinet reshuffle represented a move to maintain the country’s status quo.
“Ouyahia is a trusted pair of hands. He knows how to move in Algeria’s complex politics without annoying the wrong people,” he said. “He is the opposite of Tebboune: a seasoned politician, with a precise sense of what can and what cannot be said and done, and no interest in upsetting the business class’ vested interests or the Bouteflikas. After Tebboune’s chaotic three months as prime minister, Ouyahia is the man who can … restore the status quo.”
Ouyahia – the cofounder and leader of National Rally for Democracy (RND), a party allied with the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) – takes the reins of government as the North African OPEC member is in the throes of a budget crisis amid a global plunge in oil prices. A major energy exporter where oil and gas account for 94 percent of total exports and 60 percent of the state budget, Algeria has seen its foreign currency reserves fall from almost $180bn in December 2014 to $108bn in June 2017, according to the governor of the Bank of Algeria, Mohamed Loukal.
Ouyahia’s supporters say that he is “the man for the job” given his long experience as a crisis manager. “[He is] the most appropriate choice to stabilise the country and reach a national consensus,” Ilies Berchiche, who manages RND’s digital team, told Al Jazeera. “He has a deep understanding of what Algeria has become and a large majority of the members of the parliament back him.”
But not everyone is happy to see President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s veteran ally back as prime minister two decades after he first held the office. “Few Algerians have forgotten the harshness of his experience as prime minister. Ahmed Ouyahia has unwavering political opinions and no scruples,” said Benouari, who himself ran for the presidency in 2014.
When Ouyahia was first appointed as prime minister by President Lamine Zeroual in 1995, Algeria was on the brink of bankruptcy. His tough economic and social policies left thousands of Algerians jobless as hundreds of public firms were dismantled, taxes rose, and pensions fell. His policies earned him the moniker “Mr Dirty Work” among Algerian critics.
Analysts suspect that Ouyahia has now been appointed to carry out a deep austerity programme and to impose import restrictions in an effort to control public-sector debt.
“He is likely to apply a classic IMF [International Monetary Fund]-inspired cut-spending plan, including tax increases and additional privatisation that would benefit mostly a group of oligarchs close to him,” Benouari said. “We can expect to see both unemployment and inflation rates to increase.”
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Today, Algeria’s unemployment rate exceeds 12 percent, according to official figures. In a country of 40 million, where half of the population is under 30, one in three young people is unemployed.
The country has also been gripped by increasing speculation over succession plans, with the ailing president’s term set to end in 2019. Bouteflika, confined to a wheelchair after suffering two strokes, has rarely been seen in public since 2013. Some analysts have interpreted Ouyahia’s return as an effort to consolidate support around Bouteflika in the run-up to another election campaign; he played a key role in the president’s previous electoral victories. In 2008, Ouyahia was the architect of a controversial constitutional reform that removed Algeria’s two-term limit, enabling Bouteflika to run for a third successive term.
“Bouteflika is staying in power even while absent, even invisible, and even in a state of clinical death. He is similar to all other African leaders who want to stay in power until their death. It would not be surprising if he chose his brother to take over his place when he is gone,” Noureddine Boukrouh, an Algerian author and former staff member for the economy ministry, told Al Jazeera.
Asked about Ouyahia’s own potential presidential ambitions, Berchiche responded: “[He is a] loyal servant who has no need and no desire to be in the spotlight”.