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Who rules Algeria?


Algerian protesters are opposed to a fifth term for sitting president Abdelaziz Bouteflika who, by all indications, holds no real power. So who is in charge of Algeria?

Algeria, the largest Arab, African and Mediterranean country, has so far avoided the unrest that swept across the Middle East and North Africa during the Arab Spring. The country’s ruling class used the memory of the 1990s, known as the ‘black decade’, to drum up fear about the potential consequences of protesting and disbursed oil and gas revenues to ward off unrest.

In 2014, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika easily won re-election to a fourth term, despite a few dissenting voices. One year earlier, he suffered a stroke. He has not given a single public speech and has rarely appeared in public throughout his fourth term.

Unprecedented protests recently erupted in Algeria following the announcement that Bouteflika would seek a fifth term in office. The largest protest yet took place on Friday, Feb. 22. The Algerian newspaper El-Watan reported that hundreds of thousands, and maybe even millions, of people participated. AFP put the number at “tens of thousands”. Defying a ban that has been in place since 2001, the protests took place in several major Algerian cities, including in the heart of the capital, Algiers. Last Tuesday, university students demonstrated across the country.

Unlike other Arab countries shaken by protests, Algerians are not calling for the downfall of the regime. Instead, they are voicing their opposition to Bouteflika’s quest for a fifth term. “Makache el-khamissa ya Bouteflika, djibou el-biyari, w zidou el-sa3iqa" (Bouteflika, there will be no fifth term, even if you mobilize the secret police, anti-riot brigades and special forces), the peaceful protesters have chanted so far.

Bouteflika the powerless?

Despite being the focal point of the protests, by all indications, Bouteflika no longer holds real power in Algeria. At 81 years old, he has been weakened since his stroke. Instead of attending official occasions, a giant portrait usually stands in his place. The country’s official news agency and Bouteflika’s associates, ministers or deputies issue statements and declarations on his behalf. The situation reflects the lack of transparency in Algeria’s political system. Bouteflika is not seen as a tyrant, and he is not hated by Algerians. Instead, he is a front for the political actors that hold power behind the scenes and who have not yet agreed on Bouteflika’s successor, despite the risk of fueling popular discontent.

The forces actually governing Algeria are often referred to simply as the “power”, “clans in power” or “clans of power”. These terms, reminiscent of Soviet-style governments, hide the true division of authority and decision making process that takes place behind the scenes.

The most common theory is that the People’s National Army (Armée nationale populaire, ANP), heir to the National Liberation Army (Armée de libération nationale, ALN) that led the War for Independence, is running the country. The fact that all of Algeria’s leaders since independence have come from the ANP or/and ANL reinforces this view. The ANP also helped restore order at the end of the Black Decade. Echoing Voltaire’s statement on the Prussian kingdom and army, proponents of this theory say that “Algeria is not a country with an army. It is rather an army with a country.”

A second theory suggests that power is concentrated in the President’s entourage and based on a system of regional loyalties centered around the northwestern Algerian city of Tlemcen, where Bouteflika’s family is from. Proponents of this theory point to the number of officers purged from the military in the past few years and argue that power has slipped from the army into the hands of the presidency. "Bouteflika's second presidential term marked a loss of power for the army," Mohammed Benaïssa, an Algerian youth activist, told L’Orient-Le Jour (OLJ).

Benaïssa said that Bouteflika was able to take advantage of a wave of popularity stemming from his involvement in reconciliation efforts after the Black Decade and his introduction of social reforms. The restructuring of the intelligence services in 2014 put the shift in power in the spotlight, according to Benaïssa.

Three poles of power

The reality of power in Algeria, however, appears to be complex convergence that combines several theories. “Three sources of power can be recognized: the economic, political and military powers that are mutually supportive,” John Entelis, professor of political science at Fordham University, told OLJ.

Government-owned hydrocarbon companies, such a Sonatrach, “produce wealth”, political parties, including the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the Democratic National Rally (RND) “ensure political power” while spearheading the presidential alliance and the army fights instability and terrorism, according to Entelis.

“The circle includes the president's brother, Said, the prime minister, Ahmed Ouyahia, powerful businessmen, oil and gas leads and powerful military and security figures who are loyal to Bouteflika's term in office,” Yasmina Allouche, a researcher focusing on Algeria, told OLJ.

“Abdelaziz Bouteflika is currently the keystone of this system, and he has two characteristics: he is not hated by the people, and he is willing to not open up the system," Entelis added.

The institutions behind the three poles of power Entelis identified are more important than the individuals who are part of them. This is why the system has been able to function with continuity. The arrangement is self-sustaining and its endurance leaves young Algerians seeking a better future with few options. The choices they face are either to participate in the system by working for a meager salary, launch entrepreneurial ventures in some economic sector without disturbing already established businesses with connection to those in power or simply emigrate.

The first scenario is easier for people who have connections in one of the institutions forming the three poles of power. "The lack of reforms to revise the old system in order to prioritise interests of the power elites is also why little has changed economically and politically and for a population where 30% is under the age of 30, their prospects are either to try getting a visa, emigrate illegally, or to simply labour on if they are not lucky enough to have a foot in the bureaucratic system", Allouche said.

Ultimately, this "military-industrial" complex, supported by political forces, aims to avoid three scenarios at all costs: the opening of the system, democratic elections and an Arab Spring. How it reacts to the current outbreak of protests will determine the shape of Algeria’s future in the coming years.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 26th of February)

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