Algeria: President Bouteflika and the army’s political end game

Analysts say rival factions are struggling to find consensus candidate to secure stability in post-Bouteflika Algeria.

Bouteflika Algeria
If Bouteflika wins next year's elections, he will be 87 at the time of the next elections [Mohamed Messara/EPA]

He last addressed the nation six years ago, but officials from Algeria’s ruling party insist that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika run for a fifth consecutive term in next year’s election.

Aged 81, Bouteflika has been severely ill and confined to a wheelchair since suffering a stroke in 2013.

A year later, Abdelmalek Sellal, the prime minister at the time, announced that Bouteflika would run again, assuring Algerians he was fit for office.

This time, there has been no official announcement yet by the ruling National Liberation Front but a number of party executives and government officials have publicly said that Bouteflika would again be their candidate.

If he wins, he will be 87 at the time of the next elections.

More than 40 percent of Algeria‘s 41 million population is under 25 and many of them know no other leader besides Bouteflika.

Those who witnessed the war of independence in the 1950s and, more recently, the civil war in the 1990s are mostly apathetic about politics.

Many Algerians choose peace and stability over political reform, pointing at the devastation in neighbouring Libya as a result of the country’s revolution. 

Analysts say the recent wave of announcements on Bouteflika’s election bid was made for an entirely different audience.

No sooner had the declarations been made, than key figures – seen as contenders for the top post – fell in line and accepted the dictum.

“Bouteflika and those around him are flying the proverbial kite to see in which direction the wind is blowing, to see how people react,” Jeremy Keenan, an anthropology professor at the School of Oriental and Africa Studies in London, told Al Jazeera.

“They have an advantage both in declaring and in not declaring his candidacy. By not declaring it, it means that nobody else can jump in. The longer the ambiguity remains, the more difficult it is for [Prime Minister] Ahmed Ouyahia or anybody else to start putting forward their names.”

According to Keenan, nobody would dare declare their intention to run against Bouteflika because they would immediately be seen as disloyal and be “crucified by the state media”.

This however stops short of answering a key question; if the president is unable to assume his duties as head of state due to old age, who is calling the shots?

Military as central pillar

The country’s military has played a pivotal role in politics since the country gained independence in 1962.

In 1992, the army intervened in the political process to prevent the Islamic Salvation Front, a loose coalition of Muslim thought currents, from acceding to power, a move that antagonised many Algerians. 

As such, when Bouteflika announced the departure of his intelligence chief in 2015, many welcomed the development as ushering in a new era in the state’s historically troubled civil-military relations.

General Mohamed Mediene, or Toufik as he is better known to Algerians, reigned over the country’s arcane Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS by its French acronym) for the better part of a quarter of a century.

In 1999, Mediene, alongside top cadres from Algeria’s military, had engineered Bouteflika’s rise to power.

But when Bouteflika sought to run for a fourth term in 2014, Mediene is said to have objected, prompting the president to terminate his powerful general’s duties, in what was largely seen as an effort to consolidate civilian control of the military.

The divorce, however abrupt, would prove difficult to execute in a country where the military played so significant a role in running the country.

For the military, abandoning their political role would be synonymous with jeopardising their nation

by Dalia Ghanem Yazbeck, resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center

Algeria’s past and the fluid nature of the ruling FLN – both a revolutionary party and armed movement – blurred the state-army divide.

“The People’s National Army (PNA), because of its role during the war of liberation and later during the civil war, identify with the nation itself,” Dalia Ghanem Yazbeck, a resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, told Al Jazeera.

“For the military, abandoning their political role would be synonymous with jeopardising their nation,” she said.

To be sure, the president is not a powerless figurehead. Instead analysts describe politics in Algeria as a mutual pact, its strength depending on the president’s charisma and the state of the economy.

The army and the presidency each exercise power over their respective spheres of influence – ever in flux.

Ghanem Yazbeck believes the army has learned from its past mistakes and knows better than to antagonise Algerians. 

“I believe they will do their best to find a consensual person, a ‘presidential’ civilian with a modicum of public support to replace President Bouteflika,” she said.

Replacing Bouteflika

In 2014, in light of the president’s failing health, the military thought it unwise for Bouteflika to run for a fourth term.

However, in a rare moment of indecision, the army is believed to have conceded to the ailing president’s demands, deeming it necessary to preserve stability in times of uncertainty.

Within months of his re-election, Bouteflika announced through a series of decrees the dismissal of a number of officers suspected of disloyalty.

Prominent amongst those dismissed were the president’s defence advisor General Mohammed Touati and army chief of staff General Mohamed Lamari.

Some analysts believed the army had finally been tamed and would henceforth work on guarding the borders and focus on professionalisation.

But, according to Ghanem Yazbeck, “professionalisation does not necessarily mean becoming less politicised… The professionalisation of the army is a fact. The People’s National Army (PNA) invested in quality training, reduced military conscription from 18 to nine months”.

“It also invested in women’s training and their integration. But again, it does not mean that they are withdrawing their political arena. Their influence remains intact.”

For Ghanem Yazbeck, the president had “replaced one loyal officer by another”.

WATCH: Inside Story – Bouteflika: Down but not out

Adlene Meddi, an Algerian journalist, paints a different picture. The quietism with which the president carried out these replacements, Meddi said, suggests a desire to rid the army of figures seen as potentially disruptive.

“Three years prior to the departure of the man [Mediene] who’s referred to as ‘Reb Dzayer’, the ‘God of Algeria’, a showdown took place opposing the presidency and this security Leviathan that was the DRS,” Meddi said.

“As with all matters relating to the secret service, it is through an unpublished presidential decree that the head of state [Bouteflika] buried this super structure created in 1990; a mix of political police and intelligence agency.”

The DRS was dissolved in January 2016 and replaced with the Departement de Surveillance and Security (DSS), an agency that falls under the direct control of the president.

Headed by retired Major General Athmane Tartag since September 2015, the body’s chief is officially a “coordinator”.

For Keenan, the army and the intelligence services cannot be lumped together as one.

In his view, the presidency, the army and the DRS are separate entities, all involved in a constant struggle to control the state.

The army’s chief of staff, Ahmed Gaid Salah – described in a 2008 leaked cable by US Ambassador to Algiers Rob Ford as “perhaps the most corrupt official in the military apparatus” – was reinstated by Bouteflika and Mediene because of his vulnerability.

“He was appointed head of the army in 2004 when Mohamed Lamari was dismissed. At the time, Gaid Salah was not the obvious candidate. There were at least two or three candidates more senior to him,” Keenan said.

“Why was he appointed? My guess is that, because he was corrupt, it meant Mediene and Bouteflika could blackmail him,” Keenan added.

If this is the case, Mediene’s dismissal is the product of inner machinations within the ruling elite.

Stability and continuity

According to Mohamed Hachemaoui, a political sociologist at Sciences Po Paris and author of ‘Clientelism and Patronage in Algeria’, the intelligence services still have considerable sway over the country.

“It’s not because the secret police changed names again – DSS or Department of Surveillance and Security – that the structure has [actually] been dissolved,” Hachemaoui told La Croix, a French daily newspaper.

The president’s brother and advisor, Said Bouteflika, is considered by some to be the true decision maker but if that were the case, Hachemaoui remarked, he wouldn’t have stood by idly after he was defamed in the press.

“He could not even sue those who slandered him,” he said.

Despite Bouteflika and Ouyahia not getting along, Hachemaoui believes that the latter was imposed on the president when he was appointed chief of staff in 2014 and prime minister for the fourth time in September 2017.

Keenan believes that those like Said Bouteflika are ephemeral actors who will be asked to step down eventually, and if they do not, corruption scandals will force them to. 

“This is the DRS’ way of doing business,” Keenan said. 

Ouyahia is widely expected to take over in the event Bouteflika’s health further deteriorates, or if he dies, but how much power, if any, he will be granted is a subject that is without relevance to many Algerians.

It is telling that those in power have ominously been referred to as Le Pouvoir, or the powers that be, throughout much of Algeria’s contemporary history.

“Ultimately, as those in power say, the most important thing is not to know who would replace Bouteflika (the system knows how to work in all circumstances) but to know if the entire system agrees on the new candidate. Which is not a simple matter,” Meddi said.

Source: Al Jazeera