by Steven Massa
On October 26, it was announced that Abdelaziz Bouteflika would be running for a fourth consecutive term as president in Algeria’s upcoming 2014 elections. This has come as something of a surprise to observers, since the president had previously said in April 2012 that his generation’s time was ending, a statement many interpreted as a hint that the president would be standing down after his third term.[i] Such beliefs were further strengthened when Bouteflika suffered a stroke earlier this year. Recent political maneuvers by the president were widely seen as reinforcing his party’s position against the powerful state security apparatus, possibly in preparation for an upcoming power transition, but until the announcement many saw Bouteflika’s candidacy as unlikely.
Algeria has been dominated, more or less since its independence in 1962, by a behind-the-scenes coordination of power between the Department of Intelligence and Security (Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité [DRS]), military leaders, and influential party officials, particularly from Bouteflika’s National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale [FLN]), which was the sole political party in Algeria until 1989. This arrangement, known by Algerians as le pouvoir (the power), is widely seen as controlled by General Mohamed Mediène, who has been head of the DRS since 1990.[ii] According to a 2010 profile of him,
Mediène became Algeria’s undisputed “strong man” after the April 2004 presidential election and the unexpected dismissal of [Army Chief of Staff General] Mohamed Lamari four months later. The intrigue that led to Lamari’s dismissal involved a deal between Bouteflika and Mediène to give Algeria a new image by removing the most hated general of that time. With Lamari gone, power was effectively shared between Bouteflika and Mediène….[iii]
Mediène has reportedly used his knowledge of high-level corruption and scandal to retain his hold over le pouvoir.
Bouteflika’s recent changes—including a cabinet reshuffling, with the aim of surrounding himself with political allies, and the transfer of certain roles from the DRS to the more reliable army—seem to reflect an attempt to stifle some of the influence of the DRS and its powerful leader. A FLN spokesperson said that the president wished to create a “civil society” and “civil state” where the DRS “will no longer get involved in politics, including in the political parties, media, and justice.”[iv] However, others have suggested that Bouteflika may be concerned over DRS investigations into his political allies and may be trying to preserve the image of his party. Regardless of his motivations, Bouteflika’s challenge to the DRS and the possibility of an unseen power struggle could have far-reaching consequences for the wider security of the region.
Over the past two years, despite the protests that swept through the Middle East, Algeria has remained relatively stable with help from payments to citizens out of oil revenues, though unemployment and dissatisfaction remain high. Although Algeria has largely stayed out of recent regional conflicts, including Libya’s civil war and the uprising in Mali, it has nevertheless served as a source of stability in a region that is currently undergoing a period of turmoil and growing threats. Algeria maintains friendly relations with most of its neighbors and takes a prominent role in regional affairs, including attempts at establishing a Union of the Arab Maghreb. Algeria certainly carries influence in the region; recently both sides of the political standoff in Tunisia met individually with Bouteflika. Though all sides deny that mediation in their political impasse was being requested, Algeria surely has the historical influence with its smaller neighbor to help seek a settlement.
It is difficult to say what the effects of a power shift in Algeria could be. Still, any change would have to account for the need to maintain a level of security and stability given the state of the region and the country’s own experience with civil war in the 1990s. It may be that Bouteflika is poised to oust Mediène in order to firmly establish the FLN as the power in Algerian politics before he chooses to leave office. Alternately, Bouteflika and Mediène may come to a mutually beneficial arrangement to avoid any political turmoil; though Bouteflika has tried to solidify his position visibly, the network supporting Mediène still wields great influence and power. Regardless, neighboring states as well as those with regional interests will be watching during the months leading up to the election with great interest, looking for any hints as to what the future holds for the nation.
[i]“Algeria’s ailing President Bouteflika will run for fourth term,” Al Arabiya, October 26, 2013, http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2013/10/26/Algeria-s-ailing-President-Bouteflika-will-run-for-fourth-term.html.
[ii]Bruce Riedel, “Algeria’s Failing State,” Al-Monitor, October 28, 2013, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/10/bouteflika-fourth-term-generals-pouvoir-mohammad-mediene.html
[iii]Jeremy Keenan, “General Toufik: ‘God of Algeria,’” Al Jazeera, September 29, 2010, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/briefings/2010/09/201092582648347537.html.
[iv]Lamine Chikhi, “Algeria’s Bouteflika to curb security service power: party official,” Reuters, October 24, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/10/24/us-algeria-politics-idUSBRE99N0YH20131024.