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Tamed or broken?

February 20, 2009

Algeria’s presidential elections are drawing near, and the incumbent Abdelaziz Bouteflika has announced his candidacy for a third tirm, after changing the constitution to allow it. (For a list of participants and non-participants, see The Moor Next Door.) That he will win is beyond doubt — the only question is by how much. Even an opponent in the race, Moussa Touati (who espouses an old-school populist nationalism inspired by the original FLN; not much unlike Bouteflika himself), refuses to criticize the president openly, saying that it is “for the people to judge”

This illustrates two of the facts of Algerian political life 2009:

  • Bouteflika’s hegemony. He now confidently controls the public sphere to the extent that he needs to control it, although, despite his massively increased influence, the battle may not yet be settled on the military side of things; this remains one of the great unknowns of Algerian politics.
  • The feeble state of the opposition. Contestants in the elections cannot hope to ever win, but only to advertise themselves by token participation (or loudmouthed boycott), in the hope of gaining name recognition and emerging as “national figures” with some leverage to strike deals with people in power.

It is just like Abdallah Djaballah says: “The political arena has been closed for nearly a decade […] The regime has tamed the political parties that accepted to be tamed and has broken those that refused to be tamed.”

Count him among the broken. Sheikh Djaballah recently lost his party through state manipulation of its internal conflicts, because he refused to step aside when the Bouteflika steamroller came honking. Now, he has bowed out from the elections, unable to mobilize sufficient resources for a campaign and certain that, if he did anyway, he would either suffer a humiliatingly low score or be administratively punished in some way after the polls had closed. Plus, he would have legitimized Bouteflika’s win. Other leaders within the Algerian Islamist movement has chosen other strategies, but all — almost — are adopting to reality. Thus, since the secular parties were in Bouteflika’s era always either part of the regime or marginal movements, the only serious challenge to the Algerian regime (except infighting) appears to have been contained. At least for the time being.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s wing in Algeria, MSP/Hamas, is in Bouteflika’s tripartite alliance présidentielle with the secular FLN and RND. The party had decided long time ago that cooperation with the state would be a safer option than confronting it (it was not part of the FIS and it condemned the violence of the 90s). By holding ministerial posts, and without harassment from security forces, the party can organize efficiently and spread their ideals slowly but surely. This is of course classic ikhwanism: its how the Brothers have operated everywhere when given the chance to do so — it’s just that given the politics of the Arab world, they rarely get that chance.

On the other hand, as a strategy, it ha a definite downside. Power and responsibility go together, but Bouteflika’s game is to exercise the former and saddle his subordinates with the latter. Some time ago, he held a round of harsh one-on-one interrogations with his ministers, to see if they were keeping their promises to him. This publicly communicated the image of him as the strong and well-meaning but aloof leader, who is unfortunately surrounded by corrupt and snivelling advisors. Transparent, you say? Maybe, but add poverty and low educational levels, state control over radio and television, and a long legacy of Big Man rule, and it will work just fine with a large chunk of the population.

Therefore, the MSP (and other governing parties) is, through its strategy of collaboration, in danger of becoming assimilated to the ruling elite in the eyes of the people. That would undermine its strategy of gaining popular trust and state influence long-term. To make things worse, a few months ago, the MSP broke apart in an acrimonious faction war. It had been brewing for some time, and this winter a group of party veterans began openly attacking party leader Boudjerra Soltani for monopolizing power; however, it’s not quite clear what relation this conflict had with his staunchly pro-Boutef line. It’s quite possible that the dissidents only wanted a larger share of the rewards for it.

The other main organized Islamist faction, the Front islamique du salut, FIS, is by now totally broken. FIS won, or was about to win, the elections in 1991, when the military intervened. The state then waged a punishing war on it, which didn’t end until 1997. Some sort of closure was reached in after Bouteflika took power in 1999, when AIS, its armed wing, was amnestied, but the FIS itself remains banned. Without either a political project or a military one, this highly heterogenous collection of Islamist groups has drifted apart and is now far beyond rescue. The historical leadership have, unless they died during the war, gone off in one of three ways:

  • Uneasy collaboration. These, the “tamed” FIS leaders, include Rabeh Kbir, it’s spokesman during the war years, who recently returned to Algeria from Germany to be granted a pardon. He is now negotiating his role in the new order by alternately threatening to restart organized opposition, or heaping praise on the presidency. The FIS returnees and ex-guerrillas need not be on friendly terms with the regime (some are), but they now play its game, the game of fighting each other for scraps from the table of le pouvoir.
  • Abstention/exile. Some others, like Abassi Madani, have simply given up and retreated from Algerian politics, or from Algeria altogether. They are unable to play the game to their advantage, and desillusioned about changing the rules: the military option proved to be a complete disaster, and the political option remains blocked.
  • Resistance. Here’s where you find Ali Belhadj, the firestarter of Bab el-Oued, who has refused to accept defeat or to change his tune. He represented the most radical and diehard Salafist element in FIS, precipitously close to the insurgent movements, and today continues to rally Islamist youth in condemnation of Bouteflika as well as of democracy, the West and unveiled women. But he pays dearly for it, too; and his complete marginalization from official politics means he is not a serious threat to the regime — a troublemaker at most. Abdallah Djeballah, who was quoted above, would seem to fit in the same category, even if he is more moderate ideologically and a lot less intransigent tactically. A potential source of instability would be to see such hardliners pool their resources, or opt for a return to militancy, but both things are unlikely today. However, should the regime liberalize significantly and again allow demonstrations (now banned under emergency laws), they could presumably create serious street pressure. Islamist populism remains a potentially very powerful mobilizing force among Algeria’s urban poor. This is of course precisely the reason why demonstrations remain banned: it is the one venue of nonviolent popular discontent that the regime fears it cannot peacefully contain.

The secular opposition was never much of a threat to begin with, for Bouteflika. The challenge from inside the FLN had been averted in the mid-90s, and today the party celebrates him as its honorary chairman (although he runs as an independent). The RND, another major party, serves as the vehicle of Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia and those who support him, but they, too, back Bouteflika. The small Berberist parties RCD and FFS are railing angrily from a position of total marginalization, as are other Kabyle movements, while the socialist PT has been coöpted, and Moussa Touati’s movement, the FNA, vainly bumbles about in Algeria’s parliamentary smoke-and-mirror show.


But the question is if, as Djaballah claims, “[t]he current regime is isolated from the people” and there is “a huge gap between the two sides”. Now, I’m not so sure about that.

Certainly, one must recognize the inherent danger in closing off the parliamentary venue and repressing attempts at legally changing the regime; it will no doubt push some people in the direction of violent opposition. But I believe Bouteflika, Gen. Médiène, and whoever else runs this government, sees this as a manageable problem. Popular support for an armed campaign is nonexistent: Algeria has already had its civil war, and the one thing all Algerian agree upon is that they don’t want it back. Furthermore, there’s already enough background violence for a few additional bombs to make no significant difference. And in exchange for the politicians, strict believers, liberals, Berberists and terrorists whose hearts he can never win, Bouteflika has gained the nodding acquiesence of a large number of Algerians, who see him as the man in charge and the only credible ruler at a time when stability is everyone’s top priority.


This style of leadership of course brings back memories of Bouteflika’s old master, Col. Houari Boumédiène, the Algerian dictator 1965-1978, whose trusted right hand he was. Boumédiène was unabashedly authoritarian and not much loved, but, in later years, almost universally respected. Bouteflika is now cooking up his new Algeria on the same ingredients: centralizing control over the military clans, oil-and-gas-driven development, massive state-party patronage systems, authoritarian rule, and a populist discourse. The differences is the market economy (if you can call it that), the considerably toned-down foreign policy, the party pluralism (although the parties still serve as clientelist networks), and the relatively open climate of debate. This is on the realization that just like you don’t need 99% in the polls (60% or 70% will do fine to prove your undisputed leadership), you don’t really need intellectuals. Let them curse in the press all they like; it’s not as if they’re ever going to pick up a rifle and head for the maquis.

Short-term, this is perhaps, to be crass, what Algeria needs to regain a stable footing after the horrors of the 90s. There is some real appreciation of Bouteflika precisely because of that. But long-term, its a rather different story: building roads and bridges with oil money is not the same as creating a self-sustaining business environment;  and feeding your grand coalition with oil money is not the same as fostering a civil society that can take you out of caudillo politics at some point down the road. Already, the price riots has inflamed tensions everywhere, and just like other countries in the region, Algeria is roiled by severe social disturbances and price riots. (Don’t miss Kal’s coverage on TMND of the Ghardaïa riots, eg. here.) This economic malaise and brings with it a risk that local violence can itself trigger a political crisis with long-term effects (the October Riots in 1988 or the Black Spring of 2001 are of course on everyone’s mind), and unlike guerrilla violence and terrorism, it is still unknown how the state will cope with it, if it intensifies further.


At the bottom of all this lies Bouteflika’s failure to seriously address the question of economic restructuring. He came into office in 1999 as a junior partner in a military-run regime, asked to rectify a failed rentier state in civil war, so it was never going to be an easy task. But still, he has done precious little to make Algeria economically viable, despite unprecedented resources when the oil price was at its height. One reason, of course, is that the economy in Algeria is political, even more so than in most places. Social stability rests to a large extent on state patronage through jobs, handouts, state financing of welfare services, and swollen bureaucracies; while politics is about the division of spoils in a shady complex of public firms, the state-held oil and gas sector, the army and the bureaucracy. With the global crisis and price jumps, as well as the drop in oil prices, it’s not going to be any easier now. His only advantages are the cash reserves he assembled during the oil spike and the fact that he is no longer a junior partner; instead he now dominates the regime’s civilian side and has pushed most of the military men into submission.

This is his greatest achievement: a major step towards normalizing Algerian politics into a straightforward dictatorship rather than a military shadowplay. But his centrality in this system is in itself is worrying, because it automatically raises the question of succession. When the soon re-elected president dies — he is today 71 years old and of infamously poor health — can someone else step into his shoes? Will others let him?


For an older post of mine that makes essentially the same points, see Western Sahara Info.

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