A Last Stand for Algeria's President
It'll take more than a stroke to bring down Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his clique.
There are those who argue that Egypt's infamous dictator Hosni Mubarak sealed his own fate long before the first activists pitched their tents on Tahrir Square in January 2011. They say the countdown really began in 2010, when Hosni's eldest son Gamal pitched a bold economic reform package to weather Egypt through the global economic recession. At the time, Gamal was known to be next in line to succeed his father. The plan would have essentially taken the regime's massive economic holdings out of the hands of the military-backed older generation and into the hands of Gamal's loyal young business class within the ruling NDP party. After the Arab Spring engulfed the country, the Egyptian military unsurprisingly had little motivation to save the embattled Mubarak family, instead organizing his dismissal and eventually, enabling the trial of Hosni and his two sons on corruption charges.
Numerous comparisons between Egypt and Algeria have since been made in the global pundit-sphere. Most have focused on their respective battles with political Islam, but few have given credit to Algeria's aging authoritarian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, for recognizing Mubarak's mistakes and keeping his regime afloat amidst the storm of regional political upheaval.
Not four months ago, the seventy-six-year-old Bouteflika was fighting for his life in a Parisian hospital after suffering a debilitating stroke, while his political career was pronounced dead by most Algerians. Not one to forgive, Bouteflika has wasted no time in identifying and sidelining anyone who prematurely plotted to fill his shoes during his absence. In September, he implemented Algeria's largest cabinet reshuffle since 1990, replacing the interior, foreign, and justice ministers with his close allies. Bouteflika appointed the previous foreign minister Mourad Medelci to President of the Constitutional Council. The Council, together with Interior and Justice Ministries, comprises the three bodies that will oversee the country's first post–Arab Spring presidential elections in April 2014.
Bouteflika's stroke has made it practically impossible for him to legitimize running for an unprecedented fourth term in office, but reports indicate that he has been grooming his younger brother Said for the job. Said Bouteflika has also been the driving force behind the recent political strong-arming, which has not only sought to influence control over upcoming polls, but diminish the influence of the Bouteflika clan's most powerful rivals in Algerian politics, the powerful military intelligence service, the DRS.
In recent years, the power struggle between Bouteflika and the DRS' secretive commander, General Mohammed "Toufik" Mediene has intensified. Since taking command of the newly-created DRS in 1990, the KGB-trained Mediene has become widely known as the heart of "Le Pouvoir" (the power) in the country. Mediene is reportedly spearheading recent corruption charges against former energy minister Chekib Khelil and eight other officials who are known Bouteflika allies, causing extreme embarrassment for the administration during a period of rising economic discontent, particularly regarding mismanagement of the country's crucial oil sector. On August 10, international arrest warrants were filed for the accused for awarding contracts between the state oil company Sonatrach and European firms in exchange for commissions.
Bouteflika has used the recent cabinet reshuffle to fire back at Mediene, placing his DRS under the supervision of the new Deputy Defense Minister, the army's current Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah. Salah is, you guessed it, a close ally of Bouteflika, ever since he was appointed by the President to Chief of Staff in 2004.
The proverbial ball is now in Mediene's court and if history is any indicator, he will not likely allow Bouteflika to transfer power to his brother Said without a fight. Bouteflika has reportedly attempted to replace Mediene himself twice. In one instance, the candidate was mysteriously killed in a car accident, and the other was publicly shamed by a barrage of publicized corruption scandals.
As the longest-serving internal-intelligence chief of any modern nation, Mediene is privy to all of the skeletons in Bouteflika's closets. In some cases quite literally, as his DRS has been tasked with the regime's dirty work since the 1992 military coup. In addition, Mediene has been known to work with pretty much anyone or do anything to achieve his goals. Legend has it that during the 1992-1998 civil war, Mediene ordered DRS agents to stage bombing attacks under the guise of Islamic radicals in order to curb their support, while Mediene himself has been known to personally torture and threaten dissidents.
In an age of social media, internet, and emboldened activism, however, the showdown between Algeria's top power brokers isn't going to be a clean fight. Algerian media is becoming ever-more willing to name and shame government officials for corruption, fueling the general population's already dismal approval ratings of the country's leadership. Until now, it has been widely assumed that the memories of Algeria's brutal civil war which followed the coup of 1992 are keeping the country's labor unions, civil activists, and Islamist opposition groups from banning together and rising up against the regime.
Much like in Mubarak's Egypt, a dynastic transfer of power from Bouteflika to his brother isn't going to be received positively by anyone, regardless of whether Said puts his own name on the ballot or fields a close ally to hold the fort until the next round. Bouteflika can only bank on the Algerian people's fear of political instability, fears which have undoubtedly been exacerbated by the turmoil engulfing newly revolutionized states across the Arab World.
Until now, Bouteflika has successfully outmaneuvered his political rivals and even his own ailing health, but at a severe cost to his regime's image among the general population. If 2014 elections are to run smoothly and North Africa's last dictatorship is to be preserved, Bouteflika and his allies will need to tread carefully.
Daniel Nisman is the Middle East and North Africa Intelligence Manager at Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical and security risk consulting firm.
Image: Flickr/thierry ehrmann. CC BY 2.0.