How the Bouteflika Clan Engineered a Political Deadlock

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Algeria underwent a political earthquake this week after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, under pressure of nationwide mass protests, withdrew his candidacy to a fifth term at the helm of the nation of 42-million people.

On the face of it, this is a resounding victory for Algeria’s youth. In reality, the ruling establishment’s response to this resounding defeat threw out the conventional rulebook in a brilliant, yet sinister, maneuver to cling to power.

President Bouteflika receives visitors on state TV after his return in, if not a show of power, a show of existence.

“I give up on a 5th term, but I’ll instead do a 4th term of 10 years” – cartoon by Ali Dilem

The Bouteflika Clan Buying Time

In a recent primer, I explained the nature of Algeria’s ruling establishment – what I refer to here as “the Bouteflika Clan”.

By cancelling the presidential elections scheduled originally for April 18, the Bouteflika clan is opening pandora’s box. They have opted for a tactical reprieve at the expense of creating a constitutional vacuum, preventing any real transition from taking place. This shuts the door completely for any possibility to unseat him, save for a military coup or the unlikely Bastille Day scenario, where the masses would storm the Mouradiya Presidential palace to physically remove him.

Mouradiya presidential palace, the black hole at the center of Algeria’s ruling networks

The Bouteflika clan, surely fearing legal persecution and scrutiny of their fortunes, is making sure that it can negotiate a more favorable outcome for its members at the inevitable end. This is why the National Dialogue, the only mechanism for the discussion of the transition, is designed to be supervised and controlled by the President. The move ensures that events don’t go out of control as they have in the past week, and puts their camp firmly in the driver’s seat for all political discussions.

Alive & Hinting At A Dauphin?

The 82-year old, ailing and embattled, moved swiftly to put his own plan into action in the same letter in which he gave up the fifth term. The essence of it is the creation of a national dialogue mechanism in order to ensure an orderly transition. In other words, Bouteflika went ahead and gave himself more time in power beyond his expiring term without any legal or constitutional basis.

Bouteflika receives visitors on state TV after his return

Bouteflika was seen for the first time in months on State-owned TV, receiving prominent personalities. Although the footage didn’t show him moving, or even speaking, it was the regime’s way of saying “the news of his imminent demise were vastly exaggerated”. Chief among Bouteflika’s guests was veteran diplomat, former Foreign Minister and more recently the UN’s Syria Envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi. This is hardly a coincidence; Brahimi was one of Bouteflika’s protégés under President Boumediene, when then flamboyant Foreign Minister Bouteflika was crisscrossing the planet as Algeria’s diplomatic wunderkind.

The verbally unstated message was clear: Brahimi is a potential choice for mediator for the hypothetical national dialogue roundtable tasked with the transition. Even more subtly, Brahimi could be a consensus figure for President.

Musical Chairs to Slow Protestors’ Momentum

Meanwhile, and in typical Bouteflika fashion, he sweetened the deal he was offering his people by scarifying a few peons to further consolidate a feeling of change. Unpopular and detested Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia and his government resigned.

The new Prime Minister is Noureddine Bedoui. The longtime FLN apparatchik, who rose through the ranks from Prefect in Wahrane (Oran) all the way to Vocational Training Minister in 2013, then Interior Minister in 2015, is at 60 years old relatively young by Algerian government standards. Ramatane Lemamra, long-time fixture in the African Union and Algerian diplomacy, was appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. Both are staunch Bouteflika loyalists.

Notably, the unmovable Deputy Defense Minister Generalismo Ahmed Gaid Saleh, age 79, remained at his post. He has been multiplying his Cassandra-esque public pronouncements of late, warning against instability and hinting at a foreign plot to destabilize Algeria. The self-styled second-rate Caudillo more than anyone else symbolizes the military side of the regime’s three-dimensional oligarchy, the politico-business-military alliance, and its hold on Algeria’s destiny.

These factors all are seen by the the Algerian public as clear evidence that the President’s clan is just engaging in yet another round of a game of musical chairs without any real changes. Yet Bouteflika’s strategic deception plan is arguably already working, at least partially, as the Algerian public opinion was split – anti-government demonstrations didn’t stop, but slowed down momentarily. However, this can change, as the Algerian internet is already buzzing with calls to mass demonstrations planned for Friday, March 15th.

Weakend & Domesticated Opposition

Meanwhile, the Algerian opposition, a hodgepodge of political parties and ideologies split into amoeba-like fractions, failed to mount an effective front to counter the regime’s maneuvers. Meeting for the second time in a week, they just issued a statement declaring their intention “to confront the regime’s illegal attempts to stay in power”.

This sorry state of affairs is not a judgement of value of the opposition, but is largely due to decades of aggressive domestication, infiltration, dirty tricks and right out heavy-handed repression by the State’s security organs. Those who don’t comply are either run out of public life or out of Algeria to exile.

This strategy, known as “noyautage” (Nwa-Yo-taj), aims to disrupt any opposition Algerian political party from growing and building a base. For instance, Algeria’s Muslim Brotherhood isn’t one faction, but three. The country’s socialists, Arab nationalists, Amazigh rights advocates and human rights defenders are all split into a salad bar of parties.

This sad spectacle also aims to undermine the public’s trust that political parties can be a credible mechanism of change. The message is that only the ruling establishment can be a vector of change, thus emptying democracy of its substance.

Biological Game Rules  

Ultimately, no matter how devious Bouteflika’s clan’s strategy can be, it comes with two serious limitations. First, the entire system is anchored in the person of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is not getting any younger or healthier. Should he disappear again or die, the entire deck of cards collapses.

The second limitation is involves Algeria’s inscrutable military establishment. Should the army come to a conclusion that the country is heading to the unknown, it could decide that enough is enough and intervene. In both cases, there is no guarantee that the three-dimensional oligarchy suffocating Algeria will be replaced by a functioning democracy — but it’s worth the effort.

The ball is back now in the people’s camp. The upcoming mass demonstrations planned for Friday the 15th, if they materialize, will up the ante again on the ruling clan. It is also too early in the game to entirely write off the opposition, as they may get their act together by offering an alternative plan more appealing to Algeria’s invisible kingmakers — the army’s officer corp.

It is also worthwhile to wait and see if Lakhdar Brahimi can perform in his homeland what he failed to provide in Syria – a roadmap out of the crisis. Perhaps such a roadmap can, in the least, lead Algeria out of the current deadlock by putting an expiry date date on Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s 4th term.

Until then, Algeria remains in political deadlock.