By: Alex El Ghaoui
This article was originally published on April 17, 2019 but was briefly removed from the WIRe in anticipation of the author’s visit to Algeria in the summer of that year.
Massive anti-government protests in Algeria have led to the resignation on April 2 of eighty-two-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika after twenty years in power. Former President Bouteflika, the longest-serving head of state in Algeria’s history, had rarely been seen in public after suffering a paralyzing stroke in 2013. In fact, in the 2014 Algerian presidential elections, eventually won by Bouteflika with over 80 percent of the vote, the former president was only seen campaigning in public once.
On February 6, 2019, the announcement that Bouteflika would run for a record fifth term was read aloud on state television by one of his ministers. Ten days later, Algeria erupted in enormous demonstrations. Algerians had had enough of not only their invisible and ailing president but also the opaque cliques that govern their country known as “Le Pouvoir” or “The Power.” These cliques of extremely powerful and wealthy business tycoons, military generals, intelligence officers, and un-elected politicians are the true sources of power and authority in Algeria. While referred to by a single name, “Le Pouvoir” is not a unified and coherent organization. The three most powerful elements of “Le Pouvoir” are the military, the intelligence services, and the executive branch. Others of significance are Sonatrach, the state-owned energy company, and the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA), the main Algerian trade union. The clans within this mysterious authority are constantly fighting for power, privileges, and wealth. They essentially govern the country, deciding who is awarded state contracts, who is promoted, and even who is president. The military is the most powerful force within “Le Pouvoir.” It controls not only public legitimacy, from successfully gaining independence from France in 1962, but also the physical might of half a million soldiers. The military is the backbone of the Algerian regime. While the military was the driving force behind the political turmoil of both Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s rise to power in 1999 and his stepping down, “Le Pouvoir” as a whole is the reason why Algeria could function while Bouteflika laid bed-stricken in Swiss hospitals.
For the greater part of his presidency, Abdelaziz Bouteflika was a popular figure. In his first few years as president, Bouteflika piloted Algeria out of diplomatic isolation, hosting and visiting important heads of states and diplomats such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, United States Secretary of State John Kerry, and French President Jacques Chiraq. Bouteflika’s government also re-invested oil revenues into public infrastructure, housing, and education. Bouteflika’s popularity stemmed not only from his diplomatic and macro-economic policies but also from his political guile in stabilizing the North African country. This was established through the passing of controversial amnesty laws, such as the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation in 2005, an attempt to bring closure to the Algerian Civil War.
In the 1990s, Algeria underwent an extraordinarily violent civil war between the military and Islamic extremist forces after the former cancelled the 1991 elections, the first free elections in Algeria’s history in which the Islamic party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), was poised to win. In only 10 years, an estimated 150,000 people died and 20,000 disappeared. Most notorious were the massacres of entire villages in 1997, such as in Rais and Bentalha, often by sword or machete. The identity of perpetrators of these massacres are still debated today. While the government states that the Islamic terrorist groups perpetrated the horrific crimes, some have suggested that Algeria’s intelligence agency at the time, the infamous Department of Reconnaissance and Security (DRS), committed the massacres in disguise as terrorists in false-flag operations to showcase their brutality and convince the population to never vote for Islamists again. By the end of the 1990s, Algeria was in ruins. “Le Pouvoir” needed a someone to stabilize the country and heal the country. That man was Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
While the rest of the Arab world, including neighboring Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia, was rocked by the Arab Spring, Algeria was spared of protests. There were no large-scale movements calling for the resignation of Bouteflika, nor were there any significant clashes between civilians and public security. The Algerian population, over the course of Bouteflika’s presidency, had placed a larger emphasis on stability over democracy. The scars of the civil war ran deep in Algeria and the Algerian people, at least for a time, were content with having limited democratic abilities if their government kept subsidizing housing, food, and electricity while investing in public infrastructure projects. The decrease in Bouteflika’s popularity coincided with the collapse of the price of oil from $115 a barrel to $35 between 2014 and 2016. To say that the Algerian economy is over-reliant on oil and natural gas would be understatement. According to the Central Intelligence Agency, hydrocarbons account for 30% of the GDP, 60% of government budget revenues, and an astonishing 95% of export earnings. Between 2014 and 2017, Algeria’s foreign exchange reserve decreased from $20 billion to $7 billion. The Algerian economy, already plagued by rampant corruption, could not support its massive subsidies and public infrastructure projects that had kept the population content for so long. By the end of 2018, rumblings that Bouteflika would seek a fifth term mobilized a small protest in the Bab El Oued neighborhood of the capital Algiers, where public protest has been banned for over ten years.
By early March, the popular and peaceful uprising movement calling for not only the resignation of Abdelaziz Bouteflika but the eradication of the “Le Pouvoir” ruling cliques had grown to historic levels. On March 1, 2019, an estimated 3 million people demonstrated across Algeria. The combination of massive public pressure and international media exposure forced Bouteflika’s advisors to form a new provisional government. It is important to note that Algeria is a notoriously reclusive country on the international stage, so this is a monumental moment for the young nation. While still maintaining his position to run gain, Bouteflika’s clan replaced the prime minister with Noureddine Bedoui, the former Interior Minister, and named a new cabinet. This was not enough for not only the people but the ever so powerful Ahmed Gaid Salah, Vice Minister of Defense and Chief of Staff of the Algerian People’s National Armed Forces. In fact, a rift had been developing over several years within “Le Pouvoir” in the last few years between those who supported Bouteflika and those who wished to replace him.
On March 26, Ahmed Gaid Salah forced Bouteflika to step down by urging the Constitutional Council to declare the president unfit to rule under Article 102 of the Algerian Constitution. Article 102 stipulates that the president must step down and be replaced by the President of the Council of the Nation. On April 2, after losing the required support of the military, Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down and was replaced by Abdelkader Bensalah. According to the Constitution, Bensalah will be interim president for a maximum of 90 days and has declared that the presidential elections will be held on July 4, 2019. As of today, Ahmed Gaid Salah is the most powerful man in Algeria. The general has hijacked the popular uprising in the military’s favor by eliminating the Bouteflika clan, known to be wary of the powerful military, re-organizing the political, intelligence, and military structure of the government in his favor, and purging his political enemies. Gaid Salah and the powerful military now have until July 4th to decide who will be the next president of Algeria and weaken their political opponents. While the government will proclaim that this is a victory of democracy and that free and fair elections will be held, the Algerian military will continue to hold its hand on the power that it has held since Algeria’s independence in 1962. The next President of Algeria will be vetted and approved by the Algerian military.
While the popular movement has achieved its primary goal of Bouteflika stepping down, its secondary goal of eradiating “Le Pouvoir” is unattainable. “Le Pouvoir” is a societal class and an integral part of Algerian society. The Algerian people have no influence on these cliques as they are deeply embedded and hidden in the upper echelons of Algerian bureaucracy. The infamous General Mediène, the former KGB-trained head of the DRS for 20 years and self-proclaimed “God of Algeria”, was so powerful and mysterious that only two official photos of him exist. The eradicating of “Le Pouvoir” can only come from within.
Leaders of the Algerian military, led by Gaid Salah, have already taken steps to eradicate elements within “Le Pouvoir”. Ali Haddad, President of the influential Forum des Chefs d’Entreprises (FCE) — a business leaders’ council — and major Bouteflika ally, was arrested in February after being apprehended fleeing the country. Hundreds of other Bouteflika’s allies have banned from leaving Algeria and many are under investigation for corruption. The Algerian peaceful uprising, although massive in scale, will not lead to the abolition of “Le Pouvoir.” “Le Pouvoir” is the embodiment of the Algerian state. No official state business is conducted without approval of the ruling cliques. State contracts, political promotions, and presidential elections are decided by the opaque apparatchiks. Bouteflika was merely their puppet and the next president will be too.