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‘My generation has reached its end. We did things for the country. Henceforward, the country is in your hands, you the young. Take care of it’.
– Abdelaziz Bouteflika, May 2012
Johannesburg, South Africa.
As Algerians participate in the fourth presidential election since incumbent president Abdelaziz Bouteflika ascended to the helm in 1999, questions around the consequences of the vote for the country’s military-civil relations are preeminent. The outcomes of these will greatly shape the short and medium term futures of Africa’s largest LNG producer and second largest oil exporter.
Contested by six candidates, the result of the election is not in doubt. Bouteflika is likely to be victorious, though not with the implausible ninety percent he secured in the 2009 election. Pre-empting this, His main rival, and former Prime Minister Ali Benflis has already claimed fraud as being the greatest threat to the election. Further, the legitimacy of the election faces a threat from boycotts and voter apathy. Bouteflika’s resolution to stand for a fourth term, despite ailing health which saw the seventy-seven year old spend over three months in a French hospital last year for a ‘mini stroke’ and not physically participate in the election campaign has galvanised opposition. His campaign rallies have been frequently disrupted and a ‘barakat’ (enough) campaign has been initiated. Moreover, the two main opposition parties (the Rally for Culture and Democracy [RCD] and Movement for the Society of Peace [MSP]) have called for a boycott, citing the lack of transparency. However these are unlikely to alter the election result.
Bouteflika will face greater challenges once elected. Unemployment –which unofficially stands at around thirty percent- and lack of basic services such as housing and health have led to daily protests. However the country’s two hundred billion dollars in reserves, which it used to quell the 2011 protest movement through the increase of subsidies and public sector salaries, will enable the regime to navigate through this in the short term. In addition, the population’s fatigue, caused by the 1990s ‘Red Decade which saw the military violently suppressing Islamists leading to the deaths of over two hundred thousand, and the international intervention in Libya which resulted in a large amount of death and destruction will act to inhibit a broad scale uprising. The lack of coordination between the various opposition formations and their co-option by the regime further decreases the chances for mass mobilization.
Resuscitating the industrial sector, whose contribution to GDP has dropped to five percent from twenty-five percent thirty years ago, will prove difficult. This is especially since investment in the hydrocarbons sector which accounts for over ninety-five percent of export and seventy percent of government revenue have meant that much state expenditure has been directed to the sector. The lack of interest shown by international companies toward investing in the country’s hydrocarbons sector –in 2011 only two of the ten advertised exploration contracts were awarded-, which is a result of its tight regulations on foreign enterprises, will further mean that less state funds will be available for diversion to other sectors. It is significant that the sector only employs around three percent of the country’s workforce despite accounting for over forty percent of GDP.
However Bouteflika’s dealings with the military, specifically the military intelligence service (DRS) directed by General Mohamed Mediene, during this term is more significant. The country is controlled by a cabal of military generals and clans within the National Liberation Front political party (FLN), known simply as ‘le pouvoir’ (the power). These factions were instrumental in ensuring his rise and securing his presidency for the past fifteen years. However recent occurrences have pointed to a strain in these relations. Following a corruption scandal in 2013 (Sonatrach II) which indicted to of his close allies, Chakeb Khelil and Mohamed Rida Hemche, Bouteflika engineered a cabinet reshuffle. The ministers of interior, defence, justice and foreign relations are now loyalists. Further mandatory retirements and the reorganisation of the DRS have been used to curb the powers of the institution. Major General Tartak Bachir, a key Mediene ally who headed the institution’s internal intelligence agency (DSI) was replaced, while general Mhenna Djehbar was shifted and tasked with heading the agency which coordinates military affairs and controls expenditure (Bureau d’Organisation [BO]). Further, key agencies including the Service Central de Police Judiciaire (SCPJ), the Centre de la Communication et de la Diffusion (CCD), and the Direction Centrale de la Sécurité de l’Armee (DCSA). Were transferred from the DRS’s control into the remit of the military’s chief of staff and key Bouteflika ally general Ahmed Gaid-Salah. It is noteworthy that Gaid-Salah’s promotion to the position of chief of staff in 2004 was a direct result of Bouteflika’s intervention.
The SCPJ’s transfer was the most contentious as the agency is tasked with investigating corruption in state institutions and had been used by Mediene to eradicate bouteflika associates especially through the Sonatrach I and II probes. The CCD is tasked with media relations, while amongst the tasks of the DCSA is ensuring discipline within the armed forces, ostensibly providing Bouteflika with the ability to influence how the DRS’s agenda is presented to the military and public. This culminated with the Secretary General of the FLN’s (Amar Saidani) February call for mediene’s resignation, accusing him of failure and interfering ‘in activities of political parties, the judiciary and the press’.
However the friction is not likely to escalate overtly. Both men see political stability and the protection of their interests as greater factors. The country has, for the most part, managed to avoid the political instability caused by the Arab uprisings which resulted in the collapse of long-time regimes in neighbouring Tunisia, and Libya. Calculations around this will inform the vigour of the friction and will likely mean that a protracted, low-profile process rather than a purge will ensue. Further, both are old and ailing (Bouteflika 77 and Mediene 75) and thus their gains will only be enjoyed by their successes.
Bouteflika’s ill health will mean that, despite the assurances of his chief of staff (Ahmed Ouyahia) and campaign manager (Abdelmalek Sellal) he will be unable to exercise his responsibilities. This will likely result in an amendment to the constitution establishing the position of vice president, allowing him to choose a successor, and continuing the path followed by other autocrats in the region- both Mubarak and Gadhafi sought the transfer of power to their sons prior to their ousters. This is in stark contrast to his aforementioned May 2012 statement which provided the impression that questions around the country’s future leadership would be left to state institutions and the younger, post-liberation generation.
Algeria’s importance to the international community (specifically the U.S. and EU) in the field of ‘counter terrorism’ and as an energy supplier will mean that little opposition to the election and subsequent path will be expressed. This could best be inferred from the international community’s weak response to the procedurally flawed May 2012 parliamentary election. Despite the state’s own national election monitoring commission declaring the vote ‘non-credible’ and ‘non-transparent’ foreign observers from the U.S. EU and Arab league sought to argue that it was a first step in the country’s democratic consolidation.
The election, it needs to be noted, was organized when the region was experiencing vast changes and democrats were in the ascendancy-The Mursi regime was still at the helm in Egypt, while Ennahdha maintained control in Tunisia. The subsequent role back and re-emergence and reassertion of control by the gulf monarchies means that the international community now has even less incentive to respond critically to the impending vote.
Ebrahim Shabbir Deen is a researcher at the Afro-Middle East Centre based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He specializes in African and Middle Eastern politics.