The official announcement on February 22nd that Abdelaziz Bouteflika will now run for a fourth term as Algerian president in the April 17th election has sent one more shock wave through the society. While no one is surprised when an authoritarian leader seeks to prolong his rule, in this case many hoped that Bouteflika’s severely incapacitating stroke many months ago would inhibit him this time from doing so. Though his increasingly poor health before the stroke greatly limited his public appearances, his new condition sent him to a French military hospital for several months and has kept him in total retreat except for several orchestrated photo or video shots that only seemed to confirm further his very limited physical capacity.
Nevertheless, Bouteflika’s close political entourage headed by his younger brother Saïd,[i] his larger extensive political and economic clientele favored with graft and privilege, and his close relations with high military officers have too much at stake to permit his exit. Besides, with the ultimate hubris of a dictator, apparently Bouteflika has always declared his wish to die in office, thereby earning himself an elaborate state funeral as the final step in his long political career.
While shocked at the audacity of Bouteflika and his allies in posing his physically incapacitated leadership upon the country, many Algerians also despair now more than ever at the possibility of any political opening, however gradual or mediated by the regime. After five decades of authoritarian military-based government and with receding fears of a new militant Islamist resurgence following the bloody insurgency of the 1990s, demands for major political liberalization or transformation have been voiced increasingly stridently in the press and in the streets for a decade, only augmented further by the momentum of revolts throughout the region since 2011.
Beyond the tight political controls and repression of organized dissent in the public arena, major corruption scandals (and their flagrant coverups) involving billions of dollars benefitting Bouteflika himself and close associates have further alienated Algerians already suffering from high unemployment and steadily declining social conditions in every realm. On top of this, the regime has done little to encourage long-term economic development, instead parasitically squandering Algeria’s immense petrochemical state revenues on massive corruption, short-term payoffs to quell certain elements of public unrest, and regime showcase projects such as building the tallest mosque in Africa and much of the Muslim world.
In the meantime, it now seems agreed that those crucial foreign revenues will soon substantially diminish because of both oil and natural gas reserve depletion and declining prices in the world market. A final recent trauma that eroded regime legitimacy was the temporarily successful Islamist terrorist attack on the major Saharan oil refinery at In Amenas in January 2013 and its bloody repression fiasco by the military which killed dozens of foreign worker hostages and left the U.S., Britain and France demanding military reform as the price for continuing foreign support.
Since last September, Bouteflika’s clique and high army officials replaced several important military figures close to the head of the all-powerful DRS security police, General Mohamed “Toufik” Mediène, apparently both to appease Western powers and to better assure their own political base in long-existing power rivalries with the DRS as the presidential election approached. Tension in these rivalries openly exploded several weeks ago when Amar Saadani, the head of the regime’s main political party, the FLN, publicly denounced the corruption, ineptitude, manipulations and authoritarianism of General Mediène. This unprecedented public assault from high within the regime itself was no doubt instigated and protected by those close to Bouteflika himself and/or upper levels of the military discontent with the DRS’ present power. In apparent retaliation, Hicham Aboud, a current journalist and ex-DRS captain, launched another unprecedented attack, this time on the massive corruption and lucrative drug trade of Saïd Bouteflika (and the regime generally), while also attempting to embarrass Saïd with detailed allegations of homosexuality, a criminal offense in Algeria.
But again, however sensational for the moment, such episodes are still like shadow play, with the deeper political dynamics among the so-called “mafia regime” still relatively obscure. Afterward, opportunistically, Bouteflika himself quickly closed the door to further public displays by pretending to be, as president, above the fray and admonishing each side (though one was his own) for endangering national security with its embarrassing quarrel.
The presidential election itself is almost an afterthought, especially now that the incumbent openly declared his intent to remain in power, thus apparently evaporating the slight possibility some hoped for from a regime-imposed alternative if Bouteflika chose not to run. Following the pattern of past elections in the Bouteflika era, voter registration and vote tallies will be massively manipulated and already a number of political parties, both secular and Islamist, have once again called for an electoral boycott.
Only one major rival candidate, Ali Benflis, appeared ready to enter the contest. Though a bitter rival to Bouteflika (defeated by the latter in 2004), Benflis is also a top-level political insider politician whom the military leaders could well accommodate without significant change. Another possible entrant is Mouloud Hamrouche, Algeria’s reformist prime minister in 1989-91 when a brief political liberalization occurred before the military’s shutdown of legislative elections in the face of an imminent militant Islamist victory. Supposedly, though out of the limelight for many years, Hamrouche has significant popularity among younger officers in the all-powerful Algerian military.[ii] Participation in the electoral contest by either one would give more surface credibility to the process, thus might be encouraged by some in the army.
A generational split in the military ranks could become a major political factor in the potential for Algerian political change within the short range as Algeria’s strained political system increasingly implodes or explodes. To be sure, Western powers, led by the U.S., have already heavily invested in this next military generation to assure Algeria’s political “stability,” of benefit to their own economic and military strategic interests.
It seems impossible, despite whatever happens in April or in the short range afterward, that desperate grassroots Algerians will not find some way to more massively express their intense frustration, alienation and anger, but with unpredictable consequences. To date, despite internal divisions, the regime has continued its manipulation and suppression of any organized resistance, of any orientation, thus assuring huge difficulties for any independent radical or revolutionary force from emerging.
David Porter is a SUNY professor emeritus of political science and history and author of Eyes to the South: French Anarchists and Algeria (AK Press, 2011). He can be contacted at [email protected]
[i] In the words of journalist Mohamed Sifaoui, “Saïd Bouteflika is to Algeria what Leïla Trabelsi was to Tunisia” [(the latter was the powerful and corrupt wife of deposed Tunisian dictator Ben Ali] (Mustapha Benfodil, “Mohamed Sifaoui: ‘La confiance est définitivement rompue entre Bouteflika et Toufik’,” El Watan, 2/13/14.
[ii] Hacen Ouali, “Election présidentielle: Hamrouche sera-t-il candidat?” El Watan, February 24, 2014.