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Case Analysis 26 June, 2013

Algeria: A Cautious Overview


The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 

Questions on Algeria's political future have become more pressing since the unexpected deterioration in the health of the country's president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The absence of any concrete information on the president's condition, the result of an obvious media failure on the presidency's part, has intensified the situation. The president's hurried departure for medical treatment in Paris at the end of April renewed discussion on the post-Bouteflika period. During this time of uncertainty, in addition to the lack of a clear vision in all areas of life, Algerians are left asking: which way is the country headed? This situation has also led to the marginalization of those calling for a further extension of the "Bouteflika Era".

Political Ramifications of the President's Illness

This paper departs from the basic premise that the president's worsening illness has led to and accelerated a political and social debate on the post-Bouteflika period. It also contends that the idea of a Bouteflika candidacy for a fourth term has now come to be a moot point, indicating a qualitative change in the way the issue is being dealt with at the highest levels of decision making. Until very recently, seats of power associated with the president touted the possibility that he would run for a fourth term. Unlike his run for a third term in office, no constitutional amendment would be needed on this occasion. Not only has his worsening medical condition since 2005 brought discussions of a fourth term to an end, it has also raised doubts about his ability to complete the present term, due to end in April 2014.

Numerous indicators suggest that Bouteflika's fate is sealed, and that his rule as president has nearly come to an end. Former minister of energy and Bouteflika associate Shakib Khalil was recently tied to a scandal at the national oil company Sonatrac. Khalil was, in fact, named by the judiciary as a witness wanted for questioning: the fact that no arrest warrant was issued, which would have prevented Khalil from leaving the country, is itself evidence of conflicts within the ruling regime. With no warrant forthcoming, he left Algeria immediately after the news was announced. Almost simultaneously with the announcement that Bouteflika's health condition was worsening, the Algerian president announced that his brother, Alsaid, who was associated with a number of corruption cases in the energy sector, was being dismissed from his position as presidential advisor. A different reading of the events suggests that an outbreak of interest in corruption cases in which Bouteflika associates are involved may be a means for some to send a political message to the president and his allies, to dissuade them from running for a fourth presidential term.

The Group of 14 is a coalition of political parties opposed to the renewal of Bouteflika's term, several of which are Islamist in character and criticized the results of the last legislative elections. The group has called for the implementation of Article 88 of the Constitution, which stipulates that parliament is required to make a formal announcement should the president be prevented from carrying out his duties due to a serious or terminal illness. Within 45 days of such an announcement, the president of the Council of the Nation (the Algerian parliament's upper chamber) is appointed as a caretaker president for a 60-day period during which new presidential elections can be held. Such steps would fulfill the Group of 14's goal to isolate Bouteflika and bring his political life to a close, even in the event of his convalescence, using constitutional means.      

Being electorally weak, the Group of 14 is betting that, due to his health, Bouteflika will be unable to take up his role as president, which will then set the stage for early presidential elections. The deliberations presently underway also suggest that HAMS, the Movement of Society for Peace, an Islamist group, may also join the Group of 14. Previously, HAMS had served briefly within the government before rejoining the opposition. Indeed, all of the indications are that one era is coming to an end, and another is beginning.

Notably, at a time when the Group of 14 and other political groups demanding the implementation of Article 88 receive unduly large amount of media attention, the government's assurances of the president's health have not been persuasive. On the contrary, the media blackout on his exact location and medical state, together with the judiciary's attempts to prevent news stories contradicting the official line, have served to bolster the opposition. The political parties within the ruling coalition-the FLN and the National Rally for Democracy (RND)-and their political fellows remain silent on the matter.  Such a silence is possibly due to the fact that the two parties in the governing coalition have long been used to supporting their official candidate for the presidency. Given that they support Bouteflika, they are biding their time to wait and see who will succeed him as the official candidate for presidency in the event that he cannot return to take up his duties and carry out his present term.

The Army and Constructive Chaos

Algeria's army is in an unenviable predicament. As an institution, it seeks to continue the process of transition it has been engaged in for several years, such as distancing itself from politics, or at least from direct involvement in the running of the country, and forming a professional army. To achieve this aim, the army needs financial support, as well as regional and local stability. While the first of these is readily available to the army, there is still a lack of stability. In fact, Algeria now finds itself surrounded by threats emanating from non-state actors, particularly along its borders with Libya and Mali and, to a lesser extent, Tunisia; their border with Morocco, though, has long been the source of frustration, due to the conflict in the Western Sahara.

While the border with Mauritania has remained calm in terms of state relations, trans-border, non-state factors continue to effect this boundary. Both the lack of security in neighboring countries and the repercussions of this on Algeria's domestic situation have forced the country's army to focus on its primary mission of protecting national security. Politically, especially with regards to domestic issues, Algeria is now in a state of deadlock: the government and the entire state are reliant on the directives of Bouteflika, whose political prominence has been dented since his illness in 2005.

Quite naturally, the army has not made any moves regarding the continuing deterioration in the performance of state institutions, some of which have become entirely paralyzed, and the growing perceptions of corruption. If they did, the army would be accused of a coup against the civilian regime. The army remained silent even as some political parties called for its intervention to bring an end to the "derailing" of the state.

Regardless of the details of any discussion on the future of the country that may be taking place within the military establishment, it is clear that the international and regional contexts-specifically in the context of the Arab Spring-will not allow for a strong, declared, and direct military intervention into political affairs. It then follows that the army will likely rely on the present political debate over Bouteflika's illness to produce a sort of "constructive chaos" to pave the way to the president's removal through constitutional means, without the need for military intervention. Two factors could explain the military's inaction. The first of these is to do with the constitutional impediments to any military moves, while the second is related to the structural changes that have affected the army and its younger officers over the past 10 years.

The constitutional impediments were put in place in order to serve the aims of both the military and civilian political elites. Following the experience of 1991-1992, when Islamists won parliamentary elections in Algeria, the 1996 Constitution was tailor made to ensure that only those approved by the then-powerful elite would come to power. Indeed, the constitution gave the president wide-ranging powers, effectively making him the main guarantor of the workings and stability of state institutions. The result is that the functioning of state institutions suffers during times when the president is absent, as in the present case. In other words, the political regime has now fallen into a trap it set for itself: given the president's pivotal role, it is no surprise that state institutions have been in paralysis since Bouteflika first became ill in 2005.

Additionally, there have been a number of changes to the military's core leadership over the past 10 years, a period during which most of its high-ranking officers retired. The newly retired officers had been at the helm of the army since the 1980s, and were responsible for ending parliamentary rule in Algeria in January 1992. This period also saw the rise of a new generation of military officers, who had on-the-ground experience of the country's civil war and are not known to have any involvement in business, unlike the "generation of the revolution" that had previously held sway. This new cadre of officers wants to ensure that the military does not have a role in the political sphere, or at the very least that it does not have a direct influence on political life. Instead, they want to focus on the development of its professional, military skills.

No discussion of the Algerian military's role in the country's political life is complete without specific reference to the military intelligence's role, which continues to influence those with decision-making power within the state. While the military's general staff has been severely limited since the 1980s and 1990s, the military intelligence apparatus, the leadership of which has not changed as sharply, has come to fill its place.

Possible Scenarios: Superficial Reforms or Democratic Transition

Algeria's future is now open to all possible eventualities that can be grouped into two general categories: those based on superficial reform and those based on comprehensive, democratic transition. Superficial reform would see the ruling regime improve the visible vestiges of its authority in such a way that would allow for open presidential elections, greatly increasing the chances of success for a candidate not nominated by the ruling regime. The aim of such a maneuver would be to bestow increased credibility and legitimacy on the electoral process, thus ensuring that the same tools of the political process are maintained.

Such a situation would also give the impression of combatting corruption and the urge to set free the channels of freedom of expression within the country. Certain constitutional reforms, such as the return of a two-term limit, each five years, for the presidency would also serve as a gesture of the regime's good will. The fact that the country has arrived at a highly strung political impasse makes this scenario more likely since it would allow for increased "breathing space" without necessarily producing a change in the regime. It is possible that Bouteflika's departure alone would suffice the regime's ability to demonstrate that its survival is not contingent on individuals. Bouteflika's absence from the coming presidential race would also serve to demonstrate this, and that the identity of the future president remains an open question. Given the delicate balances of power among decision makers within the Algerian regime, such a scenario remains a distinct possibility.

Though this scenario does not indicate that the centers of power in the Algerian regime have decided to complete the transition towards democracy, it may usher in greater political openness. Should it come to pass, the question raised in such a situation is: who rules? To which branch of the regime, or political party, does the new president belong? Currently, while the present regime remains in power with only minor modifications made to the structures of power, Ahmad Ouyahya, a former presidential candidate-running twice during Bouteflika's term and once before-stands out as a possible contender for the Algerian presidency.

A second solution is based on a comprehensive transition towards democracy, and would be widely-approved among Algerians. In this situation, the race for the presidency would be open to all, allowing a person not necessarily nominated by the ruling regime to come to power. This may entail the provision of assurances to the relevant contenders that any elections would be free and fair, given openly or through private communications. In fact, a number of individuals are prepared to run in the coming elections, provided that there is a gradual, democratic revision of the rules to ensure the country would not go into a downward spiral of increased instability. Such a scenario would resonate with wide swathes of Algerian society and the broader Arab Spring. Within this category of eventualities, the question becomes: what is the desired mode of governance? What kind of regime could replace the one currently in place? Candidates who are not part of the ruling regime, and who are opponents of Bouteflika, would likely come to the fore as part of such scenarios. Ahmed Benbitour, a former prime minister during Bouteflika's first presidency who declared his intention to run in the 2014 presidential elections roughly one year ago, is one example. Mouloud Hamrouche, a former prime minister under Chadli Bendjedid who headed one of Algeria's first reformist cabinets, is another possible contender. Various Islamist groups, including the largest Islamist grouping HAMS's head Abdulrazzak Maqqari, are also likely to put forward contenders in any presidential elections. All of these candidates, however, would require concrete assurances before taking part in any such elections, which would have to take place after a total break with the Bouteflika era.

The question remains: which of the two outcomes is more likely? Providing an answer to such a question is not a simple matter, and will be determined by two factors. The first is the military establishment's attitude, as well as its readiness to enter into a trial phase that would take the country toward democracy. There is no definitive evidence to suggest that the military leadership prefers one of the above categories though the implied assumption is that the military command takes a unified view of the political situation; this paper, however, asserts that this is unlikely. The second determining factor is the power of vested interest and pressure groups associated with corruption who will stand opposed to any transitions toward democracy. They would do so not only for immediate concerns, but also because they know that a transition to democracy would create a new environment in which corruption would be aggressively pursued by legitimacy. In other words, the coterie of corrupt officials, which has itself become an institution, can be expected marshal its forces to foil any serious transition toward democracy. The security establishment's attitude toward this situation, specifically among the military intelligence, will be more difficult to ascertain. While the security establishment is locked into a battle against corruption, it is also tied to a number of financial interests. Bouteflika's ambitions for a fourth term, which have been hampered by his illness, and the fact that many of his associates have been involved in corruption cases, has produced a separate conflict between the military and the president.

Based on the above, the army will be the decisive arbiter in the conflict between the two solutions, despite the fact that some groups, or at least certain individuals, within it have been involved in corruption. Given their awareness of how instability in neighboring countries has created a number of security worries for Algeria, it is probable that the military will accept open presidential elections. This is especially true as elections that are unassailably legitimate will provide the regime with a dose of immunity from the "contagion of the Arab Spring" spreading to Algeria. Although it is unlikely, the protests of unemployed youth in southern Algeria make this a distinct possibility. With the domestic political impasse, and the need to limit the level of "domestic exposure" before regional challenges can be faced, it remains probable that the army will favor a transitional process, if only for the time being.

*This Assessment was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version published on December 4th, 2013 can be found here.