Who Really Rules Algeria?

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A few hours after publishing this article, news broke that Bouteflika will not be seeking a fifth term in office, and that this year's presidential elections will be postponed to a later date. With this news, the article below is even more relevant; as the powers behind him must manoeuvre again we must ask - who really rules, and how will this transition be different from other regional countries such as Egypt?
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A few hours after publishing this article, news broke that Bouteflika will not be seeking a fifth term in office, and that this year’s presidential elections will be postponed to a later date. With this news, the article below is even more relevant; as the powers behind him must manoeuvre again we must ask – who really rules, and how will this transition be different from other regional countries such as Egypt?

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Thousands of Algerians have taken to the streets across the country to protest the re-election bid of Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The 82-year-old is seeking a fifth term as president, despite being disabled and wheelchair bound since suffering a brain hemorrhage in 2013.

Despite the protests – which have been growing since 22 February – Bouteflika’s campaign manager Abdelghani Zaalane filed the paperwork for his candidacy for a fifth term last week. In an attempt to placate the thousands of protesters who took to the streets, Zalaane claimed that Bouteflika would step down after a year, should he win. But rather than appease protesters, the declaration only angered them more.

The Algerian people have not directly heard from their president for years – he has been unable to speak in public. As Bouteflika retreated from the public eye, many Algerians have wondered who really rules their country.

Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a civilian veteran of the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962), had been a senior figure in the ruling National Liberation Front, serving as President Houari Boumediene’s longtime foreign minister. He was purged soon after Boumedienne’s death in 1978. After a period of detention, an unflattering (yet never substantiated) corruption charge, and several years of exile in the UAE, Bouteflika got his chance in 1999 – chosen to transition the country out of its deadly 1990s civil war.

Two decades later, Algeria’s ruling establishment is unable to find an alternative to Bouteflika, despite the escalating protests against an ailing president who appears to only be ruling in name. To understand why, we must look at the nature of Algeria’s governing establishment.

Who Really Rules Algeria?

The military is traditionally thought of as Algeria’s ruling establishment, but that’s not entirely accurate; the army has immense power – but not all of it.

Power in Algeria is the sum of a civilian-military matrix of patronage networks that buy loyalty for themselves, while providing protection to their members. Powerful Colonels place their allies – often civilians, and almost never family – in lucrative positions, where they enjoy business privileges such as import licenses, state contracts and control of certain industries that pay for favors in their own regional towns. This chain goes to the state’s very top – a system we described earlier on the Arab Tyrant Manual podcast as “the Orcas”.

The sum total of these networks is the real power base, and Algeria’s true rulers. Political parties and parliament merely serve as façades, and are themselves legalised patronage networks. The system is opaque by design – their dealings often involve illicit enrichment, graft, and massive squandering of public wealth, fueled by Algeria’s considerable oil & gas reserves.

The Algerian model differs from that seen in Syria, Egypt, or Saddam-era Iraq; its networks are diffused, whereas in the other Arab countries, only one chain of patronage existed, with all power concentrated in one hand, and with all decisions ultimately made by a single man. In contrast, in Algeria almost all major decisions involve arbitrage and mediation.

So while the army is highly influential, it doesn’t rule the country all on its own. Furthermore, it went through a gradual “de-politicization” over the past couple decades, with many of the old guard dexterously removed by the cunning Bouteflika, while others died of old age. The current kingpin of Algeria’s army is Deputy Defence Minister General Ahmed Gaid Saleh – a firm ally of Bouteflika. He’s 79 years old.


Deputy Defence Minister General Ahmed Gaid Saleh

Breakdown of a Model

Bouteflika has for the last two decades been the chief arbiter between the country’s multiple patronage networks. The different military and civilian elite networks mistrust each other, and Bouteflika is the only thing they – begrudgingly – agree on, leaving the country stuck. Why take a risk on a change at the top, when the new figure could decide to rattle the system?

But the system could only continue because it secured the silence of the Algerian citizen in return for providing security and basic economic benefits, funded ultimately by Algeria’s oil & gas exports. This is the catch-22 of Arab economic reform – fix it and you upset the entrenched patronage networks; leave it and you lose the goodwill of the population. The newer generation of Algerians don’t remember the civil war, and don’t understand why they must endure government austerity measures, unemployment, and low income for the system’s privileged to gobble the country up in the name of “stability”.

The widespread attitude fueling the protests is perhaps captured by an Algerian term: Hogra, meaning “contempt’, “disrespect” or “arrogance”. This is how many Algerians feel towards Bouteflika running for a fifth term: The system does nothing for us; the system is contemptuous of us. This is more than just a grievance – it’s the breakage of a social contract, one that was based upon a now-expired economic model.

Into the Unknown

The greatest paradox of Algeria, where elites are clinging to power via a half-dead man, is that the transition models (and survival strategies) seen across the region do not apply here. This is not only because Algeria’s governance model is different from others in the region – but also because of Algeria’s unique history.

Unlike Mubarak-era Egypt, passing power to a family member will never work here. Bouteflika’s brother Said, the éminence grise, can never rule Algeria, or even run. The birth of modern Algeria after independence generated an ingrained republicanism; Algerians pride themselves that they’re not ruled by monarchs. It would be like proposing monarchy in America – a national non-starter.


Said Bouteflika (right), the president’s brother and a main power behind the throne

Unlike Syria in 2011, Algeria has already had a devastating civil war, and its people know full well that any militancy or outbreak of violence will only empower the army – this is another reason why Algeria’s protesters have maintained a strategy of strict nonviolence. And unlike Tunisia in 2011, Algeria’s army – or General Ahmed Gaid Saleh in particularl – is unlikely to stand aside and allow an orderly transition to democracy – a transition that would uncover the deep networks of patronage and corruption that the army has benefited from for decades.

Yet the Algerian military remains a highly opaque institution whose actions are difficult to predict. Many researchers have spent lifetimes trying to understand it – rarely successfully. A recent leak of private conversations between Bouteflika’s sacked campaign manager Abdelmalik Sellal and business tycoon Ali Haddad raises questions about whether part of the military and intelligence establishment are signaling their displeasure with Bouteflika’s candidacy and trying to undermine it.

The People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria is not very democratic; the elites forgot to factor the people into their calculus, at their own peril – they are now driving the country into the unknown, destabilising it with each passing day. Unlike in 2011, when as a conciliatory measure the decade-old emergency law was repealed, minor concessions will not work this time around. And while the thoughts of the Algerian ruling establishment are rather difficult to predict, the Algerian people have been far more transparent about their sentiments: They haven’t been part of the ruling formula, they’ve had enough, and they’re not stepping down – for now.