The sick man of the Mediterranean

The ongoing struggle for power between Algeria′s president and the country′s secret service may for the time being have been won by Abdelaziz Bouteflika. But the question as to who holds the reins of power in Algeria remains. The president or the omnipresent armed forces? An analysis by Gianni del Panta

By Gianni Del Panta

Although Algeria is a complex country, were one to state the three key elements dominating current dynamics, they would most certainly be clan, oil revenue and civil war. Having finally obtained independence from France in 1962, following 130 years of colonial domination and a ferocious war of liberation – led by Houari Boumedienne – that lasted for almost eight years, Algeria embarked on a process of accelerated industrialisation financed by oil sales.

During the eighties, with the arrival of the new president, Chadli Bendjedid, the process of economic liberalisation was further characterised by a withdrawal of the state′s presence, greater space for free initiatives, with oil revenue being used to stimulate light industry and build infrastructure.

The sudden collapse in the global oil price in 1986, linked to rising social inequality, explains, at least to a certain extent, the November 1988 uprisings, which ended in bloody military intervention.

The process that followed, involving political openness, therefore led to victory for the Islamists in the 1990 local elections and their success in the first round of the 1991 general election. In order to prevent what seemed certain to be the formation of an Islamist majority government, the army blocked the electoral process with a coup, sparking a lengthy civil war in which about 200,000 people died.

Nowadays, Algeria remains profoundly marked by this experience, afflicted by internal divisions and hyper-dependent on oil revenue that finances nepotistic expenditure for those lucky enough to be close to the regime. Power that is managed by the various clans in a constant battle keeps this resource-rich country a prisoner of extremely high levels of social malaise.

The ″God of Algeria″

Tank in the Algerian suburb of Bab El-Oued on 17 January 1992 (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Algeria′s "dark decade ": in order to prevent what seemed certain to be the formation of an Islamist majority government by the FIS, the army blocked the electoral process with a coup, sparking a lengthy civil war in which some 200,000 people died

At the beginning of September this year, in a move that surprised many, President Bouteflika dismissed the very powerful head of the Algerian secret service, Mohamed Mediene, known by the nickname Toufik. Trained by the KGB during the sixties, the ″God of Algeria″ – as he liked to be called – grew up in the shadow of General Mohamed Betchine, head of intelligence during the eighties, before heading up one of the most powerful and influential secret services in the world for over twenty five years.

As the academic Jeremy Keenan is quick to emphasise, this was an extraordinarily lengthy tenure, considering that the Soviet Union′s Lavrenti Beria only lasted 15 years, while the Nazi Heinrich Himmler committed suicide after just eleven.

During this quarter of a century, Mediene was one of the most famous and yet also lesser-known faces of Algeria – due to the presence of only one faded photograph that portrays General Toufik, presumably towards the end of the nineties.

His fall from grace was not, however, as many quickly claimed, an attempt by civilians in power to exercise greater and more effective control over the military. On the contrary, it should be seen as a joint and successful attack carried out by Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah.

Salah has been Mediene′s bitter enemy ever since 2004, when his predecessor Mohamed Lamari was removed precisely by an agreement reached between Toufik and Bouteflika. Athmane Tartag, known as Bachir, Algerian intelligence′s former number two, had also clashed with Mediene after the catastrophic management of the so-called In Amenas crisis in January 2013, when a group of militiamen linked to al-Qaida took over 800 workers hostage at the Tigantourine gas extraction plant.

In Amenas road sign in Algeria (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Catastrophic management: in spring 2013, radical Islamists bearing the name ″Those signed in blood″ occupied the Algerian gas field at In Amenas. During the well-planned operation, the group took many hostages over a period of days. The intervention by Algeria′s armed forces ended in a bloodbath. Twenty three hostages were among those killed

On that occasion, a hurried and badly organised Algerian Special Forces raid caused at least 67 deaths, among them 37 foreigners. This resulted in a crisis of international proportions which, owing to the deaths of ten Japanese workers in the attack, also led to the Algerian ambassador to Tokyo being issued with an official summons by the Japanese government.

Settling the score with General Toufik

Contrary to what one might think, the replacement of Mediene was not much of a surprise, resulting as it did from the successive weakening of Algeria′s most powerful man. Planned months in advance, the process consisted of three stages. Initially, a series of agencies traditionally controlled by the Algerian secret service were moved under the army′s direct management, therefore under Ahmed Gaid Salah.

Subsequently, a number of those very loyal to Mediene – ranging from the director of counter-espionage Abdelhamid ″Ali″ Bendaoud to the head of the Presidential Guards Djamel Kehal Medjdoub – were excluded or dismissed. Finally, General Hassan was arrested at the end of August.

Everything was now ready for setting up the decisive blow against the “God of Algeria”. A blow that was soon to be dealt – according to official sources, the decision had already been taken at the beginning of September. Following his sensational dismissal, General Toufik fell into a long but much discussed silence, only recently broken with an open letter written to an Algerian daily newspaper following the long sentence that condemned his close ally General Hassan to five years in prison.

Head of the Algerian armed forces, Ahmed Gaid Salah (photo:: STR/AFP/Getty Images)
All power to the general? Following Mediene′s departure, a series of agencies traditionally controlled by the Algerian secret service were moved under the army′s direct management, therefore under Ahmed Gaid Salah

At the moment, it remains difficult to predict in what direction and to whose benefit this conflict will develop, although it seems clear that there will not be a significant strengthening of civil power as a result. The reason for this is simple; the presidency, the main and only opposition to the massive domination of the armed forces, has never been so weak and dissipated.

When the army asked Abdelaziz Bouteflika, foreign minister from 1963 to 1978, to run as the ″chosen″ president in the not very free 1999 elections, Algeria was a country worn out by seven long years of civil war and totally isolated at an international level.

Despite this, Bouteflika′s personal connections, the rise in the price of oil on world markets and a change of paradigm at a global level following al-Qaida′s attacks on the heart of the United States on 9/11, provided a context favourable to the new president who quickly managed to consolidate his power.

Having obtained an amendment to the constitutional charter that restricted the presidential mandate to two terms, Bouteflika was re-elected for the third time in a row in 2009. From the outset, however, this third term has been characterised by an abrupt cooling in the relationship that had governed Algeria in recent years; the one between Bouteflika and Mediene.

The reasons behind this remain vague, although many commentators have hypothesised that Toufik feared the president′s increasing power, just as he opposed the dynastic succession that Bouteflika was preparing, expressed by the ever-increasing influence exercised by his younger brother, Said, whom Mediene considered to be utterly incompetent.

The clash between the president and the head of intelligence seems to have ended clearly in favour of the second, who as of 2009 used the judiciary to reduce Bouteflika′s manoeuvring capabilities. The president, following a never-ending series of scandals, was obliged to abandon many of the men closest to him, starting with his friend and Algeria′s energy minister, Chakib Khelil.

Bouteflika′s precarious health also played into his hands. After a serious stroke, the president was obliged to spend almost three months in France in the spring of 2013 for treatment, before managing to return – wheelchair-bound – to Algiers.

Wheel-chair bound, yet still running

In spite of all this and amidst endless controversies from the oppositions, Bouteflika managed to get himself re-elected for a fourth term in April 2014, in an election that will be remembered as the one won by a man ″unable to walk but who managed to run in the elections.″

As one might predict in a country that has always been governed by what is described as ″the deep state″, the president′s physical infirmity has resulted in an endless series of rumours and gossip concerning Bouteflika′s real capability to run the country and about who really holds the reins of power in Algeria.

Bouteflika is sworn in for a fourth term as President of Algeria on 28 April 2014 (photo: Reuters)
The Algerian patient: President Bouteflika had already travelled to France on numerous occasions for treatment. In 2013 he had a stroke and spent two and a half months there. Since then, he has rarely been seen in public, leading the press to refer to him as the "phantom". The opposition has been demanding his removal and new elections for months. Many fear that the actual transfer of power to Bouteflika′s closest advisors has already taken place

An important turning point came on 1 November, when nineteen leading Algerian politicians put pen to paper and publicly expressed their grave doubts concerning President Abdelaziz Bouteflika′s ability to govern. This initiative is certainly not a real novelty for the North African country, but a quick glance at the list of these ″nineteen″ writers, which fell to sixteen due to three defections, poses a few additional questions.

If we exclude the ″pro-Trotskyist″ Louisa Hanoune, Secretary General of the Workers′ Party, the other eighteen initial signatories of the letter requesting a meeting with the president are all personalities very close to Bouteflika, if not actual members of his inner circle of very loyal supporters. Why, then, issue a public request for something that one already knows, or that could be easily established through personal contacts?

The entire sequence of events – and here the conditional clause is compulsory – has led many to see this gesture as a defensive manoeuvre in favour of the president, one aimed at protecting his precarious position by directly involving the country, in a phase in which ″sabre rattling″ has reached new heights.

Shades of Tunisia and Bourguiba

The present situation in Algeria reminds many observers of Tunisian events in 1987, when the sick President Habib Bourguiba was removed from office by a ″medical-legal coup d′etat″ according to the famous formula created by Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, at the time interior minister and the main instigator of a plan that would lead him to hold the highest state and political appointment until those uprisings began – later to become famous as the ″Arab Spring″ – which obliged him to leave the country in great haste in January 2011.

This fierce power struggle at the top is taking place in what is quite a difficult economic context for Algeria, where social inequality is rising and the impoverishment of the weaker classes is evident. The country remains one of the less diversified economies of the world, with over 97% of exports coming from the hydrocarbon sector.

The country′s manufacturing base has all but vanished. The efforts made in the seventies to accelerate industrialisation have long since ground to a halt. In such a situation the ongoing low price of ″black gold″ is causing the Algerian government serious problems. Although the regime was prepared for very significant budget deficits, it has in fact been obliged to cut expenditure and drastically reduce subsidies for even the most basic necessities.

Democracy activists demonstrate against Bouteflika′s fourth term as president on 15 March 2014 (photo: picture-alliance/AA.)
Growing unrest against the authoritarian state: "the regime′s very limited political legitimacy and the growing unrest among various sections of the population is being offset by the increasingly mass use of repressive means to prevent social uprisings, which large oil revenues would once have helped to contain," writes Gianni Del Panta

The regime′s very limited political legitimacy and the growing unrest among various sections of the population is being offset by the increasingly mass use of repressive means to prevent social uprisings, which large oil revenues would once have helped to contain.

Limited scope for opposition

The shrinking of areas in which the opposition is free to move is also affecting the work of a number of independent journalists and social movements. In the first case, what happened to Hassan Bouras is certainly exemplary. A member of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH, the French acronym) and an activist opposing the use of fracking techniques for the extraction of oil and shale gas in the south of the country, Bouras was arrested and detained without charge at the beginning of November. At the same time, violent protests continue to attract support from those with no representation whatsoever in the current political system.

On 2 December, an attempt to destroy a building illegally built during the years of the civil war sparked an unusually violent reaction from young people in Dergana, in the outer eastern suburbs of Algiers. The balance of the clash between police forces and protesters resulted in a dozen arrests and various people wounded, before an apparent calm returned to the streets.

Recently, uncontrolled outbursts of social unrest have become a constant element in the Algerian political landscape, but their inability to formulate broader political demands, as well as the impossibility to become linked to a numerically limited and not very combative workers′ movement, are aspects that more than any other have prevented the emergence of a genuine social opposition.

Both problems still seem to be present, although recent mobilisations of SNVI workers in Rouiba, the beating heart of Boumedienne′s heavy industry, leads one to hope that there may be more in Algeria′s future than just power clashes between various sections of the military.

Gianni Del Panta

© ResetDoc 2016

Translated by Francesca Simmons