by Wayne White
When I first walked the streets of Algiers back in 1975, the city was decked out in banners heralding a visit from North Korean tyrant Kim Il Sung. Algeria’s foreign policy radicalism of those days shifted to a far more moderate pragmatism over 25 years ago, but surprisingly, little parallel evolution has occurred domestically. Over 50 years since independence from France, Algeria retains a heavy handed, relatively socialist, military-dominated, exclusively secular ruling elite. Turnover in terms of those wielding power has been determined by ongoing rivalries within that privileged elite, as well as the limited life expectancies of its geriatric kingpins.
With a populace still traumatized over the bloodletting of the 1990s civil war pitting the authorities against armed Islamists, seeing chaos as near as neighboring Libya following the so-called “Arab Spring”, and harsh regime crackdowns on demonstrations in 2011, there has been great reluctance to mount a strong challenge since then. More sure of itself again, the regime remains notoriously resistant to outside criticism or diplomatic entreaties urging greater transparency and more restraint.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in power since 1999, just announced his intent to run for a 4th term. Early on, Bouteflika, another aging veteran of Algeria’s war of independence against France from the ranks of the National Liberation Front (FLN) party, had relatively limited power compared to the military. His election in 1999 and re-elections in 2004 and 2009 were tainted by manipulation, the withdrawal of other candidates, other political party and Berber boycotts, as well as considerable voter apathy.
In fact, for Bouteflika to run in 2009, the FLN-dominated legislature had to amend the constitution to allow for more than two presidential terms. Not surprisingly, his last victory, by a highly suspicious 90% of the vote, was characterized by one opposition party as a “tsunami of fraud.”
But Bouteflika accumulated more power, building alliances with key military factions behind the scenes. By the end of his 1st term, he succeeded in using his allies to defeat former army chief of staff, FLN Secretary General, and rival Ali Benflis in the election, and then forced the resignation of army chief of staff General Mohammed Lamari a few months later. Subsequently, senior military officers not aligned with Bouteflika were shuffled to less important posts or forced to resign. Even after returning last year from treatment abroad for a stroke, Bouteflika and his allies succeeded in weakening the chief of Algeria’s formidable Intelligence and Security Department (DRS), General Mohammed Mediene.
Still, the 77-year-old Bouteflika’s decision to run for a 4th term on April 17 came as a surprise to many. Since the stroke, he has been seen only rarely in public or on TV. Underscoring doubts about his health, Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal has commented that Bouteflika does not need to campaign because there are others who could do so for him. The news sparked a protest in Algiers, broken up by club-wielding police. The Algerian newspaper El-Watan (operating despite past closures and harassment) ran a cartoon in which one Hollywood Oscar nominee for special effects was “The Fourth Term” from Algeria.
Yet, defeating Bouteflika seems near impossible, with opposition parties so weak, the FLN’s electoral machinery so formidable, and his allies in the military establishment on top. The latter probably hope to prolong overall stability by doing whatever is needed to keep Bouteflika in office, whether Bouteflika remains fully effective or not.
As one would expect, sustained authoritarianism with little transparency has bred an immense amount of official corruption and dysfunction. Within the military, even sales of soft drinks, cigarettes and other commodities have been divvied up by municipality so rake-offs can be assigned systematically. The judiciary is also subject to unwarranted official, business or individual interference. In 2004, Algeria established the National Body for Preventing and Combating Corruption, but Bouteflika failed to appoint its governing members for 6 years! Naturally, its impact has been nil.
Moreover, although Algeria has sizeable oil and gas exports, running up foreign exchange reserves of roughly $200 billion (3 years of imports), the plight of the average Algerian continues to stagnate. Despite well over $100 billion said to have been allotted to alleviate problems like Algeria’s appalling housing shortage, lagging education, and shoddy health care during Bouteflika’s presidency, actual performance has changed little.
The worst of its bloody civil war ended 15 years ago, but Algeria still trails its less wealthy neighbors Morocco and Tunisia in growth. Most recently, the World Bank ranked Algeria a rather poor 153rd out of 189 countries globally in ease of doing business. So, foreign investors largely shun Algeria as a locale for generating industrial, commercial, service or other enterprises. It is not surprising that unemployment — officially cited among youth as 21% — is far higher than admitted, a situation worsened by widespread underemployment.
Why then is Algeria relatively stable? First, there are the dark memories of the worst years of the Algerian Civil War (1992-1998) when as many as 200,000 Algerians may have perished. Not lost to those who lived through that horror, despite the overwhelming international focus on the savagery of Muslim extremist groups in the war’s closing years, was the brutality of regime forces in crushing the rebellion (ironically mirroring that of the French during the Algerian liberation war of 1954-1962).
The impact of the “Arab Spring” (which did in fact generate some hope for change in Algeria) has been tempered by the grim fate of Syria, Egypt and Libya — the last abutting Algeria’s borders. The January 2013 terrorist attack and hostage crisis at a southern Algerian gas facility near Ain Amenas was launched from Libya. Algerians know, however, that the origins of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (IQIM), and some related terrorist elements active in southwestern Libya, Mali, southern Algeria, and northern Niger stem from the last extremist spawn of the Algerian Civil War: the ruthless and fanatical Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (or GSPC).
Still, the Arab Spring was not without impact. Localized protests had occurred during 2007-2010 over various issues such as food, housing, and infrastructure. In 2008, US Ambassador Robert Ford described Algeria as an “unhappy country” in a leaked cable.
In January 2011, however, the pot boiled over with far larger demonstrations — including riots and attacks on government offices all over the country triggered first by a rise in food prices and then by Tunisian President Ben Ali’s resignation. Bouteflika temporarily cut in taxes on sugar and cooking oil, and security forces cracked down hard on larger protests.
Nonetheless, when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned, the opposition gained renewed vigor in February despite a promise by Bouteflika to end the 1992 “State of Emergency,” with the parliament doing so later that month. Security forces responded far more harshly, banned demonstrations, and in one instance arrested close to 10,000 in Algiers using possibly as many as 30,000 police. Occasional demonstrations continued through April, when Bouteflika promised on TV to seek constitutional amendments to “reinforce representative democracy.”
Despite the failure of the regime to follow through on some promises (like constitutional change, which Bouteflika also promised in 2006), the situation has settled down substantially since mid-2011. The continuation of harsh government crackdowns exhausted various opposition elements while ugly developments in Syria, Libya and Egypt doubtless alarmed many oppositionists too. In fact, Bouteflika & Co. publicly support the Assad regime’s struggle in Syria, though not materially. It did likewise toward Muammar Qadhafi until his overthrow, providing sanctuary for Qadhafi’s son Mohmammed and daughter Aisha.
Sad to say, no meaningful change is likely anytime soon in what has been a sort of governmental Jurassic Park. Even after President Bouteflika cannot be propped up anymore, only establishment stalwarts like Bouteflika allies Prime Minister Sellal or the national police chief, General Abdelghani Hamel, appear to wait in the wings.
Meanwhile, major world capitals wrestling with instability and uncertainty wrought by the “Arab Awakening” in other important regional states, along with their pervasive fear of terrorism, probably will not be too disappointed to see more of the same in Algiers so long as the country remains stable. The regime’s huge governmental failings will be reported, critiqued, and duly frowned upon. There will, however, be few adverse consequences from abroad for this self-serving cabal of heavy-handed old men who lead a country in which 70% of the population is now under the age of 30.