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

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

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. Read more “Algeria’s Aging Leader Bouteflika Expected to Win Reelection”

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

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. Read more “French Mali Intervention Carries Regional Implications”

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.