Algerian President Hospitalized as Strike Points to Power Struggle

Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers, December 19, 2012
Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers, December 19, 2012 (AFP/Denis Allard)

Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika was released from a French hospital on Sunday after a two-day stay, according to the BBC, at a time of rising unrest in his North African country.

Earlier, the Reuters news agency and a local French newspaper reported that Bouteflika was admitted to a clinic in Grenoble. Official Algerian sources denied the story.

A veteran of Algeria’s war on independence from France, the septuagenarian Bouteflika suffered a stroke early last year when he was also rushed to a hospital in France. He has since returned to the country several times for checkups.

Bouteflika nevertheless stood for reelection in April and won a fourth term with 82 percent support.

Although no definitive proof of election fraud emerged, the vote was generally seen as a ceremonial affair, organized to legitimize the ruling National Liberation Front’s monopoly on power.

However, polls showed many Algerians genuinely preferred Bouteflika and the National Liberation Front clique to democracy. The last time the country tried free elections, an Islamist party threatened to take over, triggering a civil war that lasted more than a decade.

Bouteflika, who served as foreign minister under Algerian strongman Houari Boumediene between 1963 and 1978, presided over the end of the civil war in 2002.

Algeria has largely escaped the sort of civil unrest that toppled other North African regimes in the 2011 “Arab Spring.” Oil and natural gas exports allow the country to alleviate poverty and unemployment but dissatisfaction with its secretive regime — which is believed to be run by veterans of the war of independence who still occupy top military and security posts — appears to be rising.

Last month, police officers in the oasis town of Ghardaïa went on strike to protest low salaries and nepotism. Officers in Algiers, the capital, demonstrated in solidarity, demanding unionization and the removal of national police chief Abdelghani Hamel.

Hamel was appointed by Bouteflika in 2010 after his predecessor, Ali Tounsi, was killed that year. Tounsi was believed to be an ally of Algeria’s powerful intelligence chief, General Mohamed Mediène, a hardliner who has been in office since 1992.

Abdallah Brahimi writes at Sada, a publication of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, that unrest has spread to other security sector workers, “especially the firefighters, who like the police are overseen by the pro-Bouteflika Ministry of Interior.”

Typically, the government caved in to the economic demands of the strikers, promising large retroactive salary increases and access to affordable housing, while ignoring the political demand for Hamel’s removal.

Just as typically, the meaning of the police strikes is ambiguous. Brahimi suspects a power struggle is going on between Bouteflika’s faction and Mediène’s secret service with the former seeking to curtail the army’s and intelligence agency’s influence in politics and the latter responding by putting pressure on the government.

In any event, the police actions themselves “appear to be a secondary concern to the Bouteflika government,” he reports. It is throwing money at the issue to buy time. “But this short-sighted solution is highlighing the government’s vulnerability and its lack of legitimacy among Algerian people,” Brahimi warns.

Algeria’s Aging Leader Bouteflika Expected to Win Reelection

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria bids farewell to Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer of NATO in Algiers, November 25, 2004
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria bids farewell to Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer of NATO in Algiers, November 25, 2004 (NATO)

Algeria’s septuagenarian leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika is widely expected to win an election on Thursday that would allow him to start a fifth presidential term.

While elections in the North African country are more a ceremonial affair, organized to legitimize the ruling National Liberation Front’s monopoly on power, it is likely that a majority of Algerians would rather Bouteflika stayed in power than risk a repetition of the unrest that started in 1991 when an Islamist party looked likely to win the election. The fear of an Islamist takeover prompted a civil war that lasted more than a decade.

Bouteflika, who served as Algeria’s foreign minister between 1963 and 1978, has been in office since 1999 and presided over the end of the civil war in 2002.

A constitutional amendment enacted in 2008 allowed Bouteflika to serve a third term. In an election the following year, he supposedly won over 90 percent support. Officially, turnout was 74 percent but the American embassy in the country put it at 30 percent at most, a diplomatic cable leaked by WikiLeaks revealed.

Too many Algerians probably want to avoid a repeat of the 1990s, when tens of thousands died in the conflagration, to demand free and fair elections. Even so, dissatisfaction with the country’s secretive regime, which is believed to be run by veterans of its war of independence against France who still occupy top military and security posts, appear to be rising. Authorities shut down a privately-owned television station last month for criticizing the government. Demonstrations are carefully watched by police officers in plain clothes. Several planned rallies in support of Bouteflika had to be canceled due to security concerns.

The president himself has not appeared at a single campaign event. Since he suffered a stroke in April of last year, the aging leader has struggled to stand and speak in public.

As Bouteflika looks less capable of heavy-handed leadership, cracks have started to appear in the previously unified ruling class’ facade.

After his reelection in 2009, Bouteflika tried to establish a more independent presidency, apparently to rein in his powerful intelligence chief, General Mohamed Mediène, a hardliner who has been in office since 1992. He tried to remove Ali Tounsi, the national police chief and a Mediène ally, in 2009 — who refused to step down. The following year, Tounsi was assassinated. Newspaper articles than appeared that accused the president’s brother, Said, of corruption. Earlier this year, Amar Saïdani, a Bouteflika loyalist and chairman of the National Liberation Front, suggested in an interview that Mediène had played a role in the 1992 assassination of President Mohamed Boudiaf.

Public dissent is kept in check by generous welfare spending, financed by oil and natural gas exports. This allows the country to alleviate poverty and unemployment, two of the factors that contributed to “Arab Spring” uprisings in neighboring countries. But when hydrocarbon revenues dry up, the government can ill afford to stave off liberal reforms, including abolishing price ceilings and tariffs, that would expose the Algerian population to fluctuations in international fuel and food prices — a third factor in the regionwide unrest of 2010 and 2011 that led to the removal of other longtime North African rulers, including Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

Algerian President’s Illness Could Herald Generational Shift

Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika is welcomed by French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner in Nice, May 31, 2010
Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika is welcomed by French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner in Nice, May 31, 2010 (Ministère des Affaires étrangères/Frédéric de La Mure)

Algeria’s prime minister admitted in remarks that were reported on Tuesday that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was seriously ill and convalescing in France, raising the prospect of a generational shift in the North African country’s secretive leadership.

Bouteflika, who has been in office since 1999 and presided over the end of an atrocious civil war in 2002, might be its last leader to have experienced Algeria’s struggle for independence from France.

Presidential elections, still scheduled for 2014, could be moved up if Bouteflika is permanently incapacitated or dies, even if elections in Algeria are a largely ceremonial affair. Bouteflika supposedly won more than 90 percent support in the last vote in 2009.

Islamist victories in the 1991 parliamentary elections prompted the army to cancel the vote, triggering Algeria’s civil war. Too many Algerians probably want to avoid a repeat of the 1990s, when tens of thousands died in the conflagration, to demand another experiment in democracy.

Algeria has largely escaped the sort of political unrest that toppled dictatorships across the Arab world in 2010 and 2011 as well as the resurgence of Islamist militancy that it so bloodily suppressed over a decade ago and recently plunged neighboring Libya and Mali into civil wars.

Generous welfare spending and tax cuts, financed by oil and natural gas exports, allow Algeria to alleviate poverty and unemployment, two of the factors that contributed to the political crises in its neighborhood. Even if Algerians share many of their fellow Arabs’ grievances, including a desire for better economic opportunities and improved political accountability, uncertainties about the regime’s survival stem mainly from an old guard handing power to a generation that did not fight in the independence war.

“Algeria is coming to a precipice,” wrote Algerian blogger The Moor Next Door earlier this month: “a whole political generation is on its way out and it is not clear how one generation will transfer power and legitimacy to the next.”

While Bouteflika’s departure might not immediately “decapitate the Algerian system as a whole,” which The Moor Next Door describes as “an organic set of highlight networked relationships that are reliant on one another even in competition and conflict,” it could well be the beginning of the end for it.

The regime has so far been able to buy off and incorporate dissenters. Future leaders might not have that luxury.

An almost instinctively statist economic policy means price ceilings and tariffs are unlikely to be abolished, especially when liberalization would expose the Algerian population to fluctuations in international fuel and food prices — a third factor in “Arab Spring” uprisings. Yet hydrocarbon revenues are slowly decreasing. The government can hardly afford to stave off reforms indefinitely which could in turn raise people’s expectations of political change as well.

French Mali Intervention Carries Regional Implications

French armored vehicles north of Bamako, Mali, January 16
French armored vehicles north of Bamako, Mali, January 16 (Ministère de la Défense)

West African forces arrived in Mali on Thursday to reinforce a French-Malian offensive against Islamist insurgents in the north of the country. Some one hundred Togolese troops landed in the capital Bamako and were due to be joined by Nigerian forces en route. Chadian and Nigerien forces massed in neighboring Niger.

French soldiers moved northward in armored vehicles on Tuesday after several days of airstrikes against suspected insurgent targets in the unruly north of Mali. France intervened last week to halt a rebel advance on the south.

A total of 2,500 French troops are expected to be deployed to Mali but the government is Paris is keen to hand control of the mission to West African neighbors who secured a United Nations Security Council mandate in December of last year for a peacekeeping effort. President François Hollande said earlier this week that he expected the West Africans to be able to take over within mere weeks.

Hollande also said that Mali could have become a “terrorist state” if France hadn’t intervened in its former colony.

While different groups are part of the Islamist uprising there, several are either linked to or offshoots from Al Qaeda. Another is the Tuareg Ansar Dine, also Islamist but part of a broader Tuareg independence movement. The hardline Islamist groups appear to have usurped the rebellion, though, and sidelined more mainstream Tuareg secessionists.

The insurgency is further supported by fighters and mercenaries who were displaced by Western powers’ intervention in Libya in 2011 and Algerian counterterrorism efforts in its southern desert area in recent years.

These armed Islamist groups operate across North and West African countries. Due to lackluster counterterrorism cooperation between the governments there, their movements are difficult to monitor, let alone inhibit. Insurgents regularly carry out small attacks and take Westerners hostage.

In a dramatic escalation of such behavior on Wednesday, an offshoot of the Algerian terrorist organization Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb staged an attack on a gas production plant at In Aménas in the east of the country, near the Libyan border. Dozens of foreign nations were held hostage. Several were killed along with a number of their attackers when Algerian special forces attempted a rescue operation late on Thursday.

Algeria has allowed French fighter jets to use its airspace to carry out attacks in the north of Mali.

In Bamako, meanwhile, the war has upset the political landscape. Forces that supported the military takeover in March of last year, led by anti-globalist Oumar Mariko, find themselves in the minority opposing France’s intervention. They backed the army coup when the civilian government seemed incapable of suppressing the insurgency in the north. But even the coup’s leader, Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, says he welcomes the arrival of French troops.

Interim president Dioncounda Traoré’s position has been strengthened as he proved his independence from the military and radical leftist elements by drawing in the French. He has served in his present capacity since April of last year, however, and can hardly stay on as “interim” leader for many more months — even if it is unclear who could succeed him.

Algeria Reportedly On Board With Mali Intervention

The New York Times reports that Algeria has dropped its objections to an international effort to push Muslim militants out of Mali as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in the North African country on Monday to garner support for an intervention in its neighbor to the south.

Algeria was wary of intervention as it could drive the religious fanatics who have taken control of northern Mali into its own territory. The country’s support was deemed necessary for outside powers to develop plans for suppressing the jihadist insurgency, however, as it is the region’s most powerful actor.

While a military plan has yet to be drafted, the basic idea is for forces from Nigeria and other West Africa countries to help Mali’s military mount a campaign against the militants. France, the United States and other countries would help with training, intelligence and logistics.

The Associates Press reported last week that France was already deploying surveillance drones to West Africa and holding secret talks with American officials in Paris to mount a multilateral intervention.

France has hundreds of troops stationed across French-speaking West Africa, in Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon and Senegal, but would rather support a regional peacekeeping effort than going it alone. The United States have no full-time military presence in the area. Last month’s attack on the American mission in Benghazi, Libya was a painful reminder, though, of the rising terror threat in the Sahel.

After the toppling of Muammar al-Gaddafi’s regime last year, mercenaries that were once employed by the Libyan dictator fled to Mali where some of them joined the Tuareg uprising in the north of the country against the central government in the Christian south. As Algeria pressed its own fight against Islamic militants in the Saharan desert, fighters associated with the Al Qaeda group in West Africa also headed to Mali.

There are, then, two Islamist insurgency groups present in the north of Mali: the Tuareg Ansar Dine which also operates in Niger and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, originally an Algerian terrorist organization.

The Moor Next Door suggests that Algerian hesitation to back military intervention in Mali also stems from its regime’s sense of self preservation. As long as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb threatens Algerian security, the government can “justify security and emergency procedures that would otherwise appear extreme as means of maintaining tight political control and the military’s institutional benefits from the security premium.”

From this perspective, that AQIM had been pushed out of Algeria into the Sahel countries benefits the Algerian state by displacing resistance outward and by making the enemy the responsibility of others while not terminating its relevance at the political level inside Algeria.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Anouar boukhars agrees, writing (PDF) that if Algeria wants to sustain its special relationship with the West, which is based on its perceived usefulness as a partner in the fight against Islamic extremism, it “must control the instabilities in its southern Sahelian hinterland, protect against Western intrusion and interference and neutralize its regional rivals.” A Mali intervention championed by Atlantic powers could strengthen to pro-French axis in West Africa, led by Morocco, at Algeria’s expense.