Behind the Façade of Bouteflika: Who Really Rules Algeria?

High-level Algerian politicians, trade unions, and political parties are calling on Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to run for a fifth consecutive term in the national elections, slated for spring 2019.

Algerian president, Abdelazziz Bouteflika
Algerian president, Abdelazziz Bouteflika

High-level Algerian politicians, trade unions, and political parties are calling on Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to run for a fifth consecutive term in the national elections, slated for spring 2019.

The unusual aspect of all of this, however, is that Bouteflika, 81, is known to be in very poor heath, raising doubts as to whether he has the mental or physical capacity for the job. This reality engenders the question, why are so many different elements pushing for him to run for reelection and who stands to benefit?

The President’s National Liberation Front (FLN) party called on Bouteflika back on April 7 to run for a fifth term. FLN Secretary General Djamel Ould Abbès stated, “On behalf of all activists of the FLN, numbering about 700,000, and on behalf of its members and supporters, as secretary general I pledge to convey to the president of the republic the wish of the party’s members to see him continue his work as the president of the republic.” The following day FLN Foreign Minister Abdelkader Messahel also endorsed Bouteflika’s candidacy, claiming that “under the leadership of Bouteflika, Algeria [had] regained peace and security, and has become a reference in the field of de-radicalization, and resolution of international conflicts,” according to the Maghreb Times. He added, “[T]he opposition can say what it wants, but we have the right to defend the achievements of Bouteflika, including democracy which remains a strategic choice for Algeria.”

A few weeks later, Algeria’s largest labor union, the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA), echoed the FLN’s endorsement on May 1 at a gathering of more than 2,000 members. Union Secretary General Sidi Said, announced, “I will deliver the request for a fifth term to Bouteflika’s interior minister so he can hand it to him,” as reported by Reuters. Finally, on June 21, incumbent Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia joined in the chorus of those calling for Bouteflika to run for a fifth term during the national council meeting of his National Democratic Rally, the number two party in the current ruling coalition. The president, he stated “is the man of national reconciliation who returned stability to Algeria after the bloody and destructive terrorist decade of the 1990s,” as reported by AP.

Notwithstanding this overwhelming outcry, not everyone is in favor of a fifth term for Bouteflika’s presidency, and some have called for him to step down. In June, scores of academics, politicians, and prominent members of civil society urged the president give up his post at the end of his current term, citing his poor health and advanced age as the primary reasons he should not try for a new term.

Bouteflika, who rose to power in 1999, has been ill, partially-paralyzed, and confined to a wheelchair since he suffered a stroke in 2013. During his 2014 victory, reports surfaced that he was barely able to recite his oath and was only able to read a few paragraphs of his acceptance speech. Since then, he has made only rare public appearances, leaving many to speculate as to what role he is actually playing in governing the country. The president has not yet made any formal announcement as to whether or not he will run for a fifth term.

Scholars and analysts generally agree that the North African nation is ruled by some combination of military, security personnel, and political elites, also referred to as “le pouvoir” (the power). More specifically, however, there is no consensus as to which element in the mixture dominates.

Some argue that it is the military that serves as Algeria’s primary powerbroker, a role it has filled since the country gained independence from the French in 1962. Throughout the nation’s recent history, the army has been instrumental in deciding who should formally lead the country and when he (it has always been a he) should step down. Ahmed Ben Balla’s attempts to rid Algeria of the military’s influence resulted in his fall from power in a bloodless coup in 1965 and the subsequent rise of Houari Boumédiène to the presidency. Upon Boumédiène’s death in 1978, roughly a third of his Council of Ministers were army officers. (Willis 2012) Col. Chadli Benjedid took over in 1979 with the backing of the military, and in December 1991, when the Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), appeared poised to beat the ruling FLN party, the military intervened and canceled the election results. The nation’s fourth president Liamine Zéroual was equally a prominent member of the military like his predecessors, and when he announced his premature retirement from office in 1999, the army back a new presidential candidate, the current president, Abdelazziz Bouteflika.

Others claim that an elite-circle within the ruling FLN party really calls the shots within the country. Following a bloody war for independence from France in 1962, French leadership was replaced by a single-party state under FLN, which continues to serve as the dominant political power through military authoritarianism, and an oligarchy that still dominates the country 56 years later.

Still others, such as Moroccan-Italian journalist Anna Mahjar-Barducci, claim that the military’s Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS) is the entity that really holds power. Historian Benjamin Stora argues that state intelligence services, including the army, play a very important role in governing the country, especially given the nation’s tense security environment. General Mohamed Mediene headed the DRS for decades and along with other top military officials, was instrumental in Bouteflika’s rise to power in 1999. After opposing Bouteflika’s bid for reelection in 2014, Mediene was removed from power in 2015, signaling what some thought would be a new era in Algerian politics.

A fourth ruling component, as argued by Francisco Serrano in his 2016 Foreign Affairs piece, “Algeria on the Brink?,” is an emerging financial oligarchy consisting of “a network of businessmen around Bouteflika’s brother, Saïd, who benefit from state contracts and dealings with international companies that operate in Algeria.” According to El-Watan political journalist Hacen Ouali, this sudden injection of money into the economy has destabilized the power balance within the regime.

A 2016 New York Times article by Carlotta Gall documented the ongoing political struggle within the Algerian ruling political circle. Some sources speculate that Saïd Bouteflika and a clique of supports have successfully staged a silent coup and are, in fact, ruling the nation in the name or the president. Lakhdar Bouregaa, the founder of the political party, Front of Socialist Forces (FFS), affirmed in an interview with El-Watan, “[W]e have this feeling that the president has been taken hostage by his direct entourage.” Louisa Hanoune, head of the Worker’s Party (PT) claims the president has recently made a number of decisions that seem out of character. Former Prime Minister Ali Benflis, asserted Bouteflika’s poor health has left a power vacuum that could allow his close supporters to take control of his position. Finally, Omar Belhouchet, the publisher of El-Watan, added, “[T]here is today a ferocious struggle concerning the succession.”

While ambiguity remains as to who exactly rules Algeria, it seems evident that it is not Abdelazziz Bouteflika. If, in fact, fierce competition is raging regarding whom will succeed Bouteflika, the endorsements of the president’s fifth presidential bid indicate that the current governing clique has no intentions of ceding power to the opposition, and that it plans to continue its rule behind the façade of the incumbent president as long as possible.

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