Only four months ahead of Algeria’s presidential election, which is scheduled for April 2019, the opaque tug-of-war within the country’s fragmented regime continues to escalate on an unprecedented scale. There is a current lack of consensus around yet another presidential run for the Algerian head of state, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. It remains unclear how this will affect the upcoming vote. While numerous regime fractions have already publicly backed the candidacy of the ailing president, who has been serving as the regime’s “consensus candidate” since 1999, a wave of severe and highly dubious shake-ups and reshuffles within several key institutions of the regime are threatening a trouble-free, smooth scheduled election.
It all started in May 2018, with the seizure of 701 kilogram of cocaine in the port of the Mediterranean city of Oran. The scandal has been making waves ever since, as several high-ranking officials from the security apparatus, top politicians and their children, as well as judges and prosecutors are allegedly involved in the case. A month after the “cocaine affair” started to stir up Algerian politics, Abdelghani Hamel, the head of the country’s national police department (DGSN), indirectly accused the law enforcement agencies responsible for the investigations in the case of corruption during a press conference in Algiers. A day later, Hamel was sacked and replaced.
In July 2018, the chief of the powerful Gendarmerie Nationale, General Menad Nouba, was likewise dismissed and the commanders of four out of six regional military commands in the country had to leave their posts within the following weeks. Also affected by the wave of sackings was the head of the Central Directorate of Army Security (DCSA), the police chief of the Algerian capital Algiers and several airport security and customs officials. Furthermore, the campaign also hit the secondary level of command, as several top commanders of the Gendarmerie were additionally replaced.
While neither the presidency nor the Ministry of Defense provided any official explanation for the dismissals, local media outlets, observers and opposition figures have increasingly linked the wave of replacements to the 2019 presidential elections, the cocaine affair and Bouteflika’s attempts to counter the widespread corruption within several state institutions or the clash of clans within the strongly fragmented Algerian regime.
In September 2018, a military court in Blida, on the northern coast, deprived five generals, including General Nouba, of their passports and launched investigations against them, into alleged “ill-gotten property”, “personal fortune” and the establishment of companies “in the name of their children”. Those investigations are by far not the only cases in recent years to implicate the involvement of high-ranking government or security officials in embezzlement or corruption related probes. However, revelations of such cases are increasingly exploited, or even launched, by respective fractions of the regime to weaken their opponents within the ruling elite. The Algerian elite is composed on the one hand of a civilian wing, led by Bouteflika’s FLN and Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia’s National Democratic Rally (RND) and the military on the other.
Against this background, the well-informed journalist Adlène Meddi framed the recent replacement campaign as an indication that the long-lasting power struggle between Bouteflika’s clan and the military might finally be coming to an end. In an article for Midde East Eye, Meddi points to the surprising retirement of Mohamed “Tewfik” Mediène in 2015, the military’s most influential figure and the long-serving head of Algeria’s military intelligence unit, the Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS). Tewfik was considered Bouteflika’s most powerful antagonist within the regime and a key figure in the army’s bloody counter-insurgency campaign during the Algerian civil war in the 1990s. In 2016, the DRS was re-branded as the Coordination of Security Services (CSS) and is ever since has been controlled by the presidency. This reconfiguration of the security apparatus was widely considered as a coup against the military’s intelligence branch by Bouteflika’s allies.
Therefore, it is worth noting that some of the Algerian generals who were sacked in recent months were the last remaining commanders representing the so-called “eradicateurs”, the hard-line fraction of the Algerian military who had executed an uncompromising approach during the civil war. After the war, the DRS, headed by Tewfik since 1990, had been the key department of the Algerian military and considered to be even more influential than the army’s general staff.
But today, the power within the military establishment had shifted largely away from the opaque intelligence department toward the chief of staff and Vice-Minister of Defense, Ahmed Gaïd Salah, who since 2015 has gained massive influence over the country’s security apparatus. In August 2018, Algérie Part reported about regular meetings between Bouteflika and Gaïd Salah in the presidency’s residence in Algiers, framing the purpose of those meetings as an attempt to “drastically reduce the influence of the unhealthy power of money on political affairs”. Although Bouteflika and Gaïd Salah appear to spearhead the current campaign to tackle the issue of corruption within certain fractions of the regime, it remains questionable whether this is done for the sake of eliminating corruption in general. The campaign might be simply a reflection of the tug-of-war within the Algerian regime.
Meanwhile, the dubious purge in the security establishment, sidelining some major representatives of the military’s old guard, might be linked to the upcoming presidential elections, as Boutefika’s clan, led by his younger brother Said Bouteflika, attempts to gain the upper hand within the regime ahead of the vote. However, opposition toward a fifth term of Bouteflika has strongly increased in the Algerian regime, and even within the FLN, due to Bouteflika’s deteriorating health that prevents him from conducting his duties. This became even more evident after the FLN was likewise hit by a comprehensive upheaval in November 2018, when the party’s Secretary General, Djamel Ould Abbès, suddenly stepped down. Officially, this was due to health reasons. Following a peculiar week of silence from the party’s leadership, Mouad Bouchareb, the newly elected speaker of the People’s National Assembly (APN), the lower house of the Algerian parliament, surprisingly announced the immediate dissolution of all executive party structures. This included the Political Bureau and the Central Committee, the two most powerful supreme bodies of the party. A “temporary collective leadership” led by Bouchareb was set up to replace the former executive bodies, in contradiction to the stipulations of the FLN’s bylaws.
However, the 47-year-old Bouchareb, who had played a major role in the controversial replacement of Said Bouhadja as the speaker of the APN a month earlier, continues his unexpected ascent within the FLN, almost uncontested. While Ould Abbès, the most outspoken campaigner for yet another presidential bid of Bouteflika, had followed an accentuated aggressive approach toward internal opposition, Bouchareb appears to be in favor of a more accommodating strategy in dealing with the current lack of consensus about Bouteflika’s possible candidacy. Although he indicated in early December 2018 that Bouteflika still is the FLN’s candidate for the 2019 elections, he does not openly lobby for this option and instead is attempting to inject new blood in the party through achieving consensus within the party’s ranks. Since taking over, Bouchareb has held numerous consultations with representatives of several wings of his party, including former Secretary Generals Amar Saadani and Abdelaziz Belkhadem, in order to create unity within the fragmented party ranks.
Nevertheless, it remains unclear if the desired consensus within the Algerian regime about the upcoming elections is in sight. Several parties affiliated to the regime are already suggesting to postpone the vote, which would be in clear contradiction to the constitution.