Eroding Algeria’s political status quo

As popular dissent reaches unprecedented levels, questions swirl over who may succeed country’s ailing president.

Despite his fragile health, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was re-elected for a fourth term in April [EPA]

Algiers – In his first public appearance since being re-elected to a fourth term in April, a wheelchair-bound President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 77, visited the al-Alia cemetery in Algiers last week to mark the 60 th anniversary of the start of the Algerian revolution.

A veteran of the Algerian war of independence, Bouteflika has been widely viewed as one of the pillars of stability in Algeria, the other being the country’s oil-rich economy.

But there are growing signs that these two pillars are beginning to crumble, as global oil prices plummet and popular dissent reaches unprecedented levels.

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Late last month, after hundreds of police officers demonstrated outside the Algerian presidency, the country’s civil protection department issued a statement threatening to protest again this month if their working conditions were not improved.  This was the first time in Algeria’s history that security forces have taken to the streets.  The officers were reportedly demanding better pay and working conditions, along with public housing for their families. 

“There is a widespread perception in Algeria nowadays that the only way to be heard is to bypass the president’s ‘court’ and to go straight to him [Bouteflika],” Riccardo Fabiani, a senior North Africa analyst at Eurasia Group, told Al Jazeera. ” Ultimately he is supposedly the strongman who can resolve this kind of issue.”

According to  Amel Boubekeur,  a non-resident fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, ” while the older generations used to wash their dirty linen in private,” people now tend to make their grievances public in order to put pressure on the government.

“There is a deep social malaise in Algeria, even among those who benefit from the Algerian clientelist political system, such as the policemen, whose salaries have been significantly increased since 2011,”  Boubekeur told Al Jazeera.

There is a deep social malaise in Algeria, even among those who benefit from the Algerian clientelist political system, such as the policemen, whose salaries have been significantly increased since 2011.

by Amel Boubekeur, political analyst

The Algerian regime has become increasingly brittle since Abdelaziz Bouteflika suffered a mini-stroke in April of 2013 and spent 80 days at the Val-de-Grace military hospital in Paris. This was not the first time Bouteflika travelled to France for medical reasons: In 2005, he went there for surgery after being diagnosed with stomach cancer,  according to a leaked US diplomatic cable.

Despite his fragile health, Bouteflika was re-elected for a fourth consecutive term in April. Opposition parties say his allies need him to remain in power to safeguard their own interests.

“They absolutely want and need to preserve the political status quo. Otherwise they would expose themselves to criticism or charges of corruption,” Sofiane Djilali, founder of the opposition party Jil Jadid (“New Generation” in Arabic), told Al Jazeera.

Djilali – who boycotted the last presidential election, saying it was rigged – says the country is now experiencing a power vacuum.  Bouteflika has rarely been seen in public since April, and has met only occasionally with Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal and Deputy Defence Minister General Ahmed Gaid Salah.

Under Article 88 of Algeria’s national constitution , a president can be impeached for medical reasons. However,  “this is not likely to happen since there is no independent constitutional justice. Three of the members of the Constitutional Council are appointed by the President. We cannot expect from them to backstab him,” Fatiha Benabbou, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Algiers, told Al Jazeera.

“Bouteflika has concentrated all the powers in his hands to the detriment of other decision-making institutions. There is no more authority to counter his power.  But, with his absence, this system does not work anymore. Bouteflika’s sickness paralyses everything,” Benabbou added.

As result, the real power lies with a shadowy consortium of senior military and intelligence figures, as well as with Bouteflika’s family, especially his younger brother Said, experts and opponents say. 

“This situation is not sustainable,” Djilali warned. “T he Algerian regime may collapse sooner than what we expect.”

The recent police protest has reopened the succession debate in Algeria, with experts calling it a new episode in the battle for influence within the ruling oligarchy, including the army, the intelligence service and other factions.  This could explain why the protesters, demonstrating in their blue uniforms, called for the dismal of General Abdelghani Hamel, the head of the national police force, who is considered one of Bouteflika’s potential successors.

“How come the DRS [Algeria’s powerful state intelligence service] didn’t warn of an imminent threat to security of this kind?” Fabiani asked. ” There are two possible explanations: Either they have been weakened to the point where they are unable to report about this type of internal problem, or they avoided doing that on purpose, to put pressure on President Bouteflika and the various factions linked to him.”  

At this stage, however, it remains unclear who may succeed the ailing incumbent.

“The more a potential candidate talks about his presidential ambitions, the less likely he is to be chosen as Bouteflika’s successor,” Louisa Dris Ait Hamadouche, a political science professor at the University of Algiers, told Al Jazeera.

The names of two close confidantes of the president are mentioned regularly in the group of potential successors: former Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, currently Minister of State in charge of the president’s office, and Bouteflika’s brother, Said.

“The former would be a more consensual figure, able to appeal to a wider constituency than Said,” Fabiani said.  “However, Said is where ultimately power lies at this moment and he is concerned with the survival of his power after his brother is gone.”

Source: Al Jazeera