Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Who Rules Algeria 57 Years after Independence?

Algeria- demonstration algeria
Algerian riot police block demonstrating students on May 14, 2019, as the weekly protests continue in the capital Algiers to demand the overthrow of the “system”. Photo AFP

The army seized power immediately after Algeria’s independence from France in 1962. In 1965, Colonel Houari Boumediene ousted President Ahmed Ben Bella in a military coup and ruled until his death in 1978. He was succeeded in 1979 by Colonel Chadli Bendjedid, former defence minister, and then in 1994 by Liamine Zeroual, also a former defence minister.

Abdelaziz Bouteflika is considered Algeria’s first civilian president, although he took office in 1999 with the approval and support of the military establishment. He began his rule by launching the Civil Concord Law Initiative to end the sedition that had plagued the country for a decade. In 2005, a year into his second term, Bouteflika launched a referendum on the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation. His name thus became associated with peace, security and reconciliation in Algeria, which began to restore security and well-being.

After coming to power, Bouteflika made it a condition that he win high numbers of votes as a way to cement his legitimacy. After that, he began to tighten his grip on the military establishment because he knew he needed military support to guarantee his continued rule. He was able to win the loyalty of the military, notably General Ahmed Gaid Salah and other top commanders, by overthrowing his key opponents in the 2004 elections. He put army chief of staff Mohamed al-Amari into early retirement for supporting Ali Benflis, who ran against Bouteflika. Bouteflika eventually appointed Salah to succeed al-Amari in 2005 and make him his main military ally.

Moreover, Bouteflika was able to dominate Algerian politics by controlling pro-government parties and weakening the opposition by fomenting sedition among them and forcing them to make changes. He also bought out some of these parties, allowing them to participate in government and establish political parties that later became some of the staunch allies in his rule.

Bouteflika weakened all the institutions in Algeria and made them supportive of his rule. He became head of the National Liberation Front (FLN) in 2005 and tamed opposition democratic and Islamist parties and others and used trade unions, associations and civil society organizations to mobilize voters in favour of his agenda. This period also saw a significant recovery in the world oil market, and the government uses oil revenues to fund several public projects in various sectors such as transport, irrigation and housing that have made Algeria a vital place. Some entrepreneurs benefitted from these projects, earning huge sums of money from government contracts and becoming so influential in decision-making circles that they were able to nominate figures loyal to them in the parliament and interfere in the appointment of governors and senior statesmen.

In 2008, Bouteflika amended the constitution, allowing him to run for a third term. In 2013, he suffered a stroke that raised serious doubts about his ability to lead the country. This did not prevent him from running for a fourth term, which he won by a majority in 2014, although his brother and special advisor, Saeed Bouteflika, largely took over the presidential duties. He made several reshuffles in the army, most important of which was appointing Salah, known for staunch loyalty to Bouteflika, as deputy defence minister. Saeed also forced former intelligence chief Mohamed Mediene, known as Toufik, to retire in 2015 for opposing Bouteflika’s fourth term.

Saeed also tightened his grip on the FLN, emptying it of strugglers and supporting many intruders and corrupt businessmen to take over the leadership. He did the same with other parties, including the National Rally for Democracy (RND), the Taj Party and the Algerian National Popular Movement (MPA).

The question of who actually rules Algeria has been raised for a long time but has taken on increased relevance in light of recent events. According to an article published by al-Jazeera on 7 March 2019, a trio consisting of Bouteflika’s family and a handful of generals, politicians and businessmen forms interlocking and monocentric circles to run the affairs of the state.

For the past 20 years, the Bouteflika family has been the main pillar of the regime. Since Bouteflika came to power, he has appointed family members as personal advisers, giving them considerable influence by allowing them to interfere in the appointment of officials and grant concessions to businessmen. The second pillar of the regime is the army. Currently, Salah is the most powerful man in Algeria, with varied views on the intelligence service and the political role it has played since Toufik was forced to retire in 2015.

The third pillar is big business, specifically influential businessmen with close links to the regime, such as Ali Haddad, former president of the Business Leaders Forum, and Redha Kouninef and his brothers.

When Bouteflika announced his intention to run for a fifth term in early February 2019, he sparked massive street protests and demands for his regime to step down. The mounting public pressure prompted the army to side with the people, finally forcing the 82-year-old leader to resign on 2 April.

His resignation closed out the rule North Africa’s longest serving leader but has not solved the political impasse. Despite the arrest of several businessmen close to the regime, including Haddad and the Kouninef brothers, the resignation of Tayeb Belaiz, president of the Algerian Constitutional Council, and the dismissal of Habba Okbi, secretary general of the Presidency of the Republic, Algerians appear, for now, to be stuck with the vestiges of Bouteflika’s power structure.

Moreover, the power struggle between the generals continues, and the dismissal of intelligence chief Major General Athmane Tartag cannot be seen as separate from the decades-long conflict between the intelligence service and army command, especially because the two have played a such major role in controlling the country’s affairs and wealth, a role that has come to the fore again since the outbreak of the protest movement.

In the midst of this upheaval, Salah has shown himself to be a very pragmatic figure who has not hesitated to abandon old friends or overthrow rivals. He is now running the affairs of the country during this transitional phase, but questions have been raised about how far his ambitions will go.

It can be said that Bouteflika came to and stayed in power with the support of the military. Over the next two decades, he was able to reduce the military’s influence and increase the power held by the presidency. Perhaps ironically, the large-scale rejection of his candidacy for a fifth term has once again given the military control of power in Algeria.

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