Who rules Algeria right now? An analysis on the current state of state [power] and how it is changing after the ousting of President Bouteflika
20 septembre 2019
Since February 22, Algeria has been shaken by a nationwide protest movement demanding for radical political change, a week after President Bouteflika – President of Algeria since 1999 for four successive terms – announced through the media his decision to run for a fifth term despite his advanced age and ailing health. Consequently, hundreds of thousands of people took the streets peacefully to protest against the President’s bid. President Bouteflika resigned under pressure both from the protest movement and from the Military. As a result, Algeria is currently experiencing critical circumstances, facing a worrying political crisis focused on who will be the next president. One may then wonder who rules Algeria now, the nature of the country’s political system looks thus for the most potentially credible issues out of the crisis. It is though necessary to analyse in depth the riddles of one of the most opaque political system in a country, which is one of the world’s major oil and gas producers, considered as a key partner both in the global war on terror and for its pivotal role in insuring sub-regional and regional security and stability.
Algeria is perhaps the only country in the MENA region where the Military acted as the founder of the nation-State that resulted in its ruling system being often qualified a military regime[i]. Especially, the June 19, 1965, military coup led by President Boumediène arguing for such a paradigm. However, against all the common belief, Algeria’s political system, often described as “Le Pouvoir”, it cannot be described as a military regime despite the influential role of the Army.
Before going into details about the subject, let us recall the key events and factors that have led to the current crisis: this could help to better understand Algeria’s ruling system.
Algeria’s Current Political Situation
ex-President Bouteflika resigned on March 2nd, the Chief of Staff Vice/Defense Minister General Gaïd Salah urged the Constitutional Council to speak up and announce the vacancy of the presidency, following six weeks of the largest protest movement in the North African country since 2011, asking for democratic reforms and a radical change in the way Algeria is governed. The pressure of the protest movement triggered a series of defections from the former president’s close guard, belonging to political parties (FLN-RND, MPA and TAJ — the so-called the Presidential alliance). The nation’s private sector CEOs., businessmen all the way up to the Chief of Staff and Vice/Minister General Ahmed Gaïd Salah himself.
The President of the Senate, Ben Salah, is now Caretaker of the State according to the Constitution article 102-3, led by a Caretaker Premier, whose major task to organize the next presidential elections, which [they] decided to be held on July 4th. However, the ongoing protest continues to make huge pressure on the current leaders have had obliged to postpone the elections, because the majority of the people are not buying , they believe this transition being controlled by the ex-President’s oligarchs.
Hence, under the pressure of the street, security forces have launched a purge operation, arresting high profile businessmen close to the Bouteflika’s inner circle, e.i., Kouninef family and Ali Haddad, the former head of Algeria’s employers’ organization (FCE), who were accused of corruption. A few weeks later, three key figures of the system, former President Bouteflika’s brother, Saïd, and two former Intelligence Chiefs, General Bachir Athman Tartag and his predecessor, General Mohammed Mediène alias Toufik, knowing in the town under the name: Algeria’s God (Rab D’zeïr), are incarcerated either in infamous al-Harrach prison or in the Military prison for the ex-President’s brother and the retired Intelligence Service Chiefs and Trotskyist party Chairwomen Ms. Hannoun, the charges are heavy, plotting against the Army.
Recently, the Supreme Court also ordered the detention of several senior officials who served under ex-President Bouteflika, including two former Prime Ministers, Abdelmalek Sellal and Ahmed Ouyahia, in a corruption probe. Nevertheless, all these “sensational” arrests have not helped the Chief of Staff General Gaïd Salah to gain popular support of the street nor agree to the road map established by the Military, calling for a solution through presidential elections proposed by the Caretaker government. The postpone of the elections reveals how deep the crisis is to trigger a political vacuum if no solution is found shortly, as Algerians are rejecting any compromise between the opposition parties and the Caretaker government.
It should be stressed that the current protest movement is led by young middle-class Algerians, well-educated and politically mature, aspiring for political participation and change. This category has emerged thanks to the economic and social progress made in the first decade of the 21st century: the open market, the rise in wages and massive public recruitment. Internet and social media also play an important part in helping Algerians spread news about corruption, as alternatives to the controlled media, as well as in broadcasting and coordinating protests across the country, outside traditional political structures.
Besides, austerity measures applied after the drop of the oil prices in 2014, accompanied by the inflation of basic goods that hit the working class, this situation has worsened the social despair and raised anger among a hopeless population. The ailing ex-President Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term, who had not spoken to his countrymen since he suffered from a stroke in 2013, was seen by many as a humiliation and resented as the last straw on the camel’s back. Since the beginning of the mass uprising, the Algerian population has become a full-part actor in the political imbroglio, applying pressure both on the ruling class to come up with concrete measures for political change and on the military. Who rules then?
Algeria’s political system: questioning traditional research paradigms
The country’s developments political situation calls to question the two long-established paradigms that dominated academic research about Algeria’s politics and political system, and by extension most of the Arab States. The welfare State paradigm considers oil revenues as a key factor in understanding the Algerian political system. This approach is based on the belief that oil revenues hinders Democracy and leads to enhance the control of Pouvoir by authoritarian regimes through patronage and populist redistribution of public funds[ii]. The second paradigm stresses the role of the Army considering Algeria under a Military regime in which the ruling power is entirely in the hands of the Military chief of staff who rules the country behind the scene.
This analysis aims at arguing that these approaches both disregard the complexity of Algeria’s ruling system and downplay other factors, colonial history and liberation war for Independence, culture and ideology that have contributed to wrought it.
The legacy of more than a century of French colonization ended by a bloody war for Independence that lasted seven years (1954-1962) and caused hundreds of thousands deaths have deeply impacted the building of the State at the birth of the young and fragile Republic. In the aftermath of the independence, wartime rivalries between FLN leaders continued in favour of the military veterans or landlord war against civil militants who dominated the ruling elite. Moreover, the latter was influenced both by the French view of a centralized unitary State and the Soviet-oriented system of government based on single-party and authoritarian regime as a result of the country’s ties with the Soviet Union in a Cold War context.
Algeria’s ruling establishment was seldom entirely under military control. Even though the Military (veterans) were at the core force of the founding elite of the new Republic, they sought from the beginning to coalition with National Liberation Front’s political leaders, such as former President Ahmed Ben Bella, Algeria’s first president, who brought both historical and political legitimacy without the ruling elite could not have been able to set her authority. In 1965, Colonel Houari Boumediène then Defense Minister seized power from Ben Bella through a military coup and ruled the country with an iron fist both as president and head of the Revolutionary Council, following the steps of Gamel Abdenasser’s revolutionary policy. Opposition leaders were arrested and put in jail or forced to exile. However, under the banner of Socialism, Algeria’s government encouraged social and economic progress. Algeria had been at that time a leading advocate for developing and non-allied governments as well as for oil exporting countries mainly since the nationalization of oil production in 1971.
The death of President Boumediène in December 1978 and his replacement by Colonel Chadli Benjedid in February 1979 paved the way towards a change within the ruling system from government based on a strongman towards the one based on consensus leader. The collapse of oil prices leading to the oil counter-shock in 1986 generated a harsh economic and social crises in the entire country dependents on oil exports and State expenditures. As a result of growing social crisis and anger, violent riots broke up in October 1988 in Algeria’s large cities and the capital Algiers.
Violent military crackdown caused hundreds of deaths among civilians within few weeks. Under pressure, President Bendjeddid’s government agreed to implement “radical” political reforms ending the single-party system, in favour of political pluralism and freedom of the press, which led to the proliferation of political parties and newspapers.
However, social revolt was accompanied by the rise of radical Islamism seen by many young Algerians as the alternative to the long time secular authoritarian regime. This gave rise to a solid Islamist political party: The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), while the ruling elite suffered deep divisions mainly between political leaders and the Military[iii]. The FIS got the majority of parliamentary seats in Algeria’s first free elections, yet a military coup took place against President Bendjeddid in January 1992, establishing State of emergency and banned the Islamist party, which had led to a decade of bloody “terrorist” insurgency spread across the belt of the country, infamously known “Black Decade”.
Former President Benjedid was forced to resign and an interim collegial Counsel was formed headed by war veteran and historical leader in exile, Mr. Mohammed Boudiaf, for few months before being shoot-dead while giving a speech in a theatre, in Annaba, replaced by Mr. Ali Kafi who led the interim Counsel until presidential elections were held in 1994 putting General Liamine Zeroual as new President-elect post-Jan 1992 Coup.
The 1990s was the only period when the Military played a direct and exclusive role in the political decision-making apparatus, a situation which resulted from the cancelling of the electoral/democratic process in 1992 without any consensus with political elite. This period, however, shows the idea that changes in oil revenue availability could necessarily reduce authoritarianism cannot be proven. Rise in authoritarianism during this decade, while the State faced bankruptcy, undermines the automatic correlation between oil rent and political order as the Rentier State paradigm argues.
Algerian Pouvoir has thus been from the dawn of State’s birth a mixed system composed of a complex network that functions both through legal and unofficial mechanisms and composed of decision-makers from the Military, from political parties, business organizations and civil society organizations, such as the State-controlled Workers Union UGTA or the ONM (Organization of War Veterans). The establishment thus gained loyalty and legitimacy through a set of legal and illegal practices: historical legitimacy, patronage, corruption and the redistribution of state revenues to buy social peace helped by important oil exports.
Rise and Fall of Bouteflika’s Rule
For almost two decades, President Bouteflika’s power relied on the same network structure. When he came to power in 1999, he was helped by propitious circumstances. He benefited from the return to peace, after a decade of violent terrorism, and for the first ten years from high oil revenues that helped him buy social peace, co-opt businessmen and a coalition of political parties, such as the National Liberation Front (FLN), the National Rally for Democracy (RND), or the Islamist Party (MSP), who all sought to preserve both personal political privileges and financial interests. Bouteflika’s power was also strengthened by his dismissing senior military officers and appointing those loyal to him. Finally, Bouteflika’s family members, mainly his brother and advisor Saïd, played an important role within the ruling system, particularly since the minor stroke that had weakened him in May 2013.
The Bouteflika’s network could thus take control of the State’s structure, of political power interplay and of the media. However, since his fourth term, President Bouteflika who had been the Ref-in-Chief between the establishment’s clashing multiple networks, could no longer rally factions around his name. Moreover, several other factors led to dramatic fractures within Algeria’s ruling class and paved the way to the fall of the Bouteflika’s Pouvoir and to regime change. Waning ideologies within the State apparatus have brought down divisions between the different factions. The passing away of the aging war veterans rendered historical legitimacy out of date. Moreover, many of the ex-President the Military’s old guard were removed by ex-President Bouteflika or died of old age. Thus, young officers who are both professional and well-educated compared to the liberation war veterans, have become sensitive to the deteriorating image of the Military Institution among Algerians and towards the country’s impaired image both at regionally and internationally, this decline considered as the consequence of the ailing political system due to overt corruption and patronage.
The gradual modernization of the Military apparatus that has brought a new generation of professional and less ideology-oriented personnel combined with the peaceful protest movement made the Military unwilling to back the ruling class against the protesters, which could lead to a violent clash with the people. The protesters have been shouting slogans such as “Jeïch Chaab, Khawa khawa” (The people and the Military are brothers) this is appealing. A crackdown in oil prices has also caused a dramatic drop in the State revenues depriving the ruling class from its capability of buying-off social peace. Of course, what has sparked directly the protest movement was ex-President Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term, but social and economic factors have also stirred up Algerian’s outrage. Despite the huge sums “invested” to modernize the country’s economic development, the State has not succeeded in developing a productive economy that improves people’s purchasing power and provides jobs for the growing number of unemployed.
Several weeks after the ex-President Bouteflika resignation, Algerians are still in the dark as to who is going to lead the country. The opposition had been fractured, major political parties are deeply mistrusted. During his fourth terms in Office, ex-President Bouteflika and his supporters worked to co-opt and weaken the opposition political parties and leaders, leaving no notable rival to succeed him. Moreover, divisions within the ruling elite hamper any consensual alternative. The protest movement is decentralized and emerging protest leaders have not yet succeeded in federating broader base of supporters to let emerge a strong political force and hold power. Even the FLN, historically the party in the heart of the ruling system since 1962, the date of Algeria’s independence, is today deeply shaken up by an internal crisis that might lead to its break-up.
Today, Algeria is facing a situation of political standstill. The current government continues to govern, but it does not rule the country. The Caretaker President, Abdelkader Bensalah has not offered anything to find a consensual political solution to the crisis than holding presidential elections, a solution backed by the Military Chief of Staff, General Ahmed Gaïd Salah. While the protesters’ demands are for a transparent transition, and not with the Bouteflika’s allies’ hands and influence that they fear might mean a continuation of the system.
Weekly demonstrations continue as protesters ask for radical change. The arrests of businessmen and high officials under ex-President Bouteflika’s rule have obviously made Algerians very happy, but they are far from being satisfied as long as their demands for political transition are still on hold.
Since the fall of ex-President Bouteflika’s ruling clan, a coalition of young officers from the Military and Intelligence Service joined forces to take control of power to handle the situation. As a result, the Military has become the principal broker of the ruling power; a fact that raises a growing scepticism among the protesters over the Military’s role and bring them to doubt that the former restraint at holding power, and not to follow the Egyptian scenario. Such a sentiment is understandable but unfounded. The Algerian Military have an important role to play first to guarantee national security and political stability, but also to back a peaceful transition, hence it does have the will to control political system. The role of the Military though as mediator it is important to avoid any deadlock that could trigger tensions and radicalized protest movement.
National and regional impact
There are concerns towards the situation in Algeria. The country’s neighbours and the International Community fear that any deteriorating situation in Algeria would increase regional instability leading to the rise of the threat of terrorism and increase the migration crisis. However, Algeria’s stability is not at stake despite uncertainties over the crisis’s outcome. The current political crisis is not likely to destabilize the country for various reasons. First, there is a shared consciousness both among the people and the State leaders about the risks of violent riots. Each party undertakes to maintain a peaceful mobilization. Then, the country has strong institutions, and an important human and economic potential to achieve a peaceful political transition.
In fact, several Union and civil organizations among protesters are currently holding meetings to agree on common solutions and proposals to get out of the crisis. This may set the stage for negotiations between the Military, the Caretaker government, political parties and representatives of the protest movement to find agreement on consensus solutions to the current political crisis and work on a democratic transition[iv]. The dilemma now is in the fact that a successful democratic transition should be a long and slow process, while the protesters urge for rapid political reforms and change. Any disappointment could trigger radical protests and violent riots in the future.
The real danger might stem less from the current political deadlock than from a harsh economic crisis. Algeria’s economy remains dominated by the State, strongly dependent on hydrocarbon exports, accounting for 60% of the budget’s revenues and for nearly 95% of export earnings. Thus, a dramatic fall of the oil prices may lead into a serious economic and social crisis. The unemployment rate is 11% high and even higher for the young at 29%. Other threats might come from the neighbourhood. Instability in Libya and sub-Saharan bordering states might trigger increase in terrorist threats and criminality.
Outlook and possible scenarios
Of course, prospects about the current political crisis carry out uncertainties and hazardous conditions are not excluded. However, Algeria has great economic and human potential to cope with the current crisis and achieve a successful transition. Algeria has reached a point of no return to the old system. The ongoing arrests are a sign of a deep change within the ruling elite and the “deep State”. Moreover, it is clear that the protest movement is not going to wane. Protesters show every Friday their determination not to give up their demands for regime change. Such sustained peaceful protests and strikes place sufficient pressure on the ruling elite to force at least a partial change.
Three major scenarios can be called up. First, negotiations between different parties, the current ruling elite, political parties, the Military as well as the protesters’ representatives, could lead to an agreement on a consensus transition body with a transitional plan to carry out urgent reforms and a deadline to organize presidential elections, resulting from concessions both from the current ruling elite and opposition leaders. This outcome may lead to important political and economic reforms while guaranteeing a certain continuity within the system for the ruling elite.
The second scenario would happen in case the pressure placed by the movement on the ruling elite triggers even more fractures within the establishment leading to real change, through the election of a Constituent Assembly, assisted by experts and advisers, that would be in charge of framing a new Constitution and restructuring the political system to found a new Republic. This solution implies in theory an act of popular sovereignty that could satisfy the protesters’ demands for substantive change. However, it carries risky drawbacks. Drafting a constitution within a Constituent Assembly is a slow, complex and confrontational process. Algerian society is deeply polarized between conservative and secular forces that might hamper any consensus. Besides, an assembly might be dominated by traditional parties leading to a continuation of the current blocked situation. The Tunisian case is a good example, whose Constituent Assembly took more than three years to draft its Constitution as a result of a tough confrontation within Ennahdha-dominated constitutional commissions.
The third scenario and the most likely to happen is one that advocates proceeding through presidential elections. However, this process suffers from the confidence crisis vis-à-vis the ruling elite. Algerian protesters and opposition political leaders are likely to boycott such an election if no measures are taken to guarantee its fairness. That is why forming an independent election commission to organize and control the electoral process could be appealing to Algerians if it provides assurance of free and fair elections.
In sum, a continuation of the locked situation or a political vacuum could, of course, trigger rises in tensions and some violence, but not to the extent of threatening the country’s stability. A Military takeover of the Pouvoir is unlikely to happen for the reasons explained above. The Military do not want to use of force or direct control of political system that might trigger a clash with the population. The dramatic experience of 1992 that triggered a bloody decade is still in the minds of most of the officers and the people. There is need to carry out rapidly political and economic reforms: to integrate young generations into the political process, to carry out constitutional reforms in order to limit presidential power and the State’s control over the economic, which encouraged the rise in corruption and clientelism within the Algerian political system.
Finally, the new elites should encourage national and foreign investments in order to develop new industries not based on hydrocarbons, to extend agriculture and services, etc., as the only way to reach a sustainable development both of its economy and political system and to guarantee stability.
[i] Flavien Bourrat, “L’Armée algérienne : un État dans l’État ?”, Les Champs de Mars,
n° 23, hiver 2011. Paris : La Documentation française, pp. 21-37.
[ii] Lahouari Addi, “Sociologie politique d’un populisme autoritaire”, Confluences Méditerranée, N° 81, février 2012, pp. 27-40.
[iii] Khaled Nezzar, Recueil des mémoires du Général Khaled Nezzar. Alger : Chihab Éditions, 2018, p. 54-55 ; Rachid Benyelles, Dans les arcanes du pouvoir : memoires (1962-1999). Alger : Éditions Barzakh, 2017, pp. 205-232.
[iv] “La feuille de route de la société civile pour la transition”, Maghreb Emergent, 15 June 2019.
This article first appeared in Italian in the issue 6-2009 of Limes – Rivista italiana di geopolitica, with the title « Chi comanda in Algeria » (Who rules Algeria).