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Vol 60 No 7

Published 5th April 2019


Protests flush out the old guard

Popular anger has finally unravelled the Bouteflika power network. Cronies are under arrest and there are doubts the deep state can survive

Over the 20 years before President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned on 2 April, Algeria-watchers took to comparing the political outlook to making mayonnaise. Resistance to poor services, graft, maladministration and crony capitalism drove thousands of demonstrations every year, but a mass movement that could sweep away le pouvoir ('the powers that be') had never gelled since the civil war with radical Islamists ended.

The ossified political system dominated by the military and security establishment and their associates in le pouvoir's 'deep state' hung on. Algeria was compared to a bowl of eggs, but as in making mayonnaise, pouring oil into the mix does not mean the sauce is going to set. 'La mayonnaise ne prend pas', it was widely observed. But the mayonnaise finally 'took' in the shape of an apparently spontaneous movement which took to the streets in February to protest Bouteflika's attempt to stand for a fifth term (AC Vol 60 No 6, A spring in the step). A situation le pouvoir appeared to have under control has now reversed, possibly irrevocably, despite the manoeuvres of key power-brokers led by Vice Minister of Defence and Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaïd Salah (AC Vol 60 No 2, A stasis of emergency).

The 31 March announcement that Bouteflika would stand down before his term expires on 28 April showed the protest wave was strong enough to outflank the dominant Algerian political clan of recent years. That Bouteflika formally resigned only two days later pointed to a regime in meltdown.

Previously untouchable elements of the regime are panicking as political and business networks constructed by presidential brother Saïd Bouteflika unravel. Security Services Coordinator Major General Athmane 'Bachir' Tartag and the Bouteflika clan's most prominent business ally, Ali Haddad, have already departed the scene – literally, in Haddad's case, as he was arrested trying to cross the Tunisian border by car early on 31 March carrying a British passport and large sums of money, local media reported. Former Forum des Chefs d'Entreprise (FCE) head Haddad and Saïd share business interests and rents through middlemen based in France and Dubai, business sources say. Activist groups are now seeking to have Saïd and other 'oligarchs' charged with corruption and abuses of power. Reports that private planes have been grounded and borders closely watched suggest more heads will roll.

'Second Republic'
Algerians are looking for a 'Second Republic' which enshrines a genuine break with the past. A majority want full regime change, which means sweeping away le pouvoir and its cronies. Gaïd Salah's efforts to assert control point to business as usual after Bouteflika, but it is not clear if even he is really in charge. Many fear a deep-state backlash. Long-time security chief retired Maj Gen Mohammed 'Tewfik' Mediene is said to be among those active behind the scenes.

Another announcement on 31 March, that the caretaker Prime Minister, Bouteflika loyalist Noureddine Bedoui, had undertaken a 'sweeping' reshuffle, was intended to build confidence by naming competent officials like Banque d'Algérie (BdA) governor Mohammed Loukal as interim Finance Minister and power specialist Mohammed Arkab at energy. But although several unpopular Bouteflika cronies departed, the change fell well short of public demands. Feeling free now to speak up, local economists pointed out that Loukal had permitted ex-Premier Ahmed Ouyahia's version of quantitative easing.

Elections ahead
Former Interior Minister Bedoui's government will be charged with organising elections and can expect to be held to high standards. Yet, Bouteflika's departure will do little to calm either protesters or investors. By announcing his exit, the Constitutional Council, headed by another Bouteflika loyalist, Tayeb Belaïz, will be called on to launch a transition towards new elections, in which Council of the Nation (upper house) Speaker Abdelkader Bensalah should step up as acting president until elections are held within three months (AC Vol 59 No 14, Dead in the water). In a typically Algerian spat, local media have been questioning whether Bensalah is qualified to take office, since he may have been born in Morocco rather than Algeria.

The weekly demonstrations that have seen off the Bouteflikas remain largely good-humoured and well-attended – aided by the large female turnout. However, dark conspiratorial mutterings about foreign attempts at subversion by bogeymen like French President Emmanuel Macron or Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani could inflame feelings. There are fears that deep-state power-plays could sour a peaceful movement.

The reshuffle on 31 March is widely believed to have been the result of a compromise between the 'Bouteflika clan' and its once most devoted member Gaïd Salah. But it may fail just as an early effort to broker a national unity agreement involving the Deputy Prime Minister Ramtane Lamamra and veteran UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi – who few would deny are two of Algeria's most respected diplomats – quickly came to nothing. Their starting premise, that Bouteflika might stay on for a year, helped keep crowds on the streets and the two lacked any domestic following. As the regime's Plan A (Bedoui's first interim government) was replaced by Plan B (a new interim government) on 31 March, Lamamra was booted out and, with no new deputy PM, Gaïd Salah is formally number two in the administration, and probably now first among Algeria's informal but more powerful décideurs.

Plan C involves a counter proposal for an interim 'national unity' government under a stand-in head of state – ex-President Liamine Zéroual is the name most often mentioned, although the widely respected general is keeping his counsel. This government might include other figures who have retained some integrity such as former Prime Ministers Mouloud Hamrouche (though he has said he's not interested), Ali Benflis (a distinguished human rights lawyer and former FLN head who fell out with Bouteflika) and Ahmed Benbitour, who has aligned with the Mouwatana opposition movement (AC Vol 55 No 12, Adrift in dangerous waters). Other Mouwatana figures – notably Jil Jadid (New Generation) leader Soufiane Djilali – could have a role, but such solutions, imposed from above, may not take.

Other establishment politicians have sought to take the initiative, including the Islamist Mouvement de la Societé pour la Paix (MSP) leader Abderrazak Makri, who on 25 March proposed a six-month transition process led by an interim leader acceptable to the protesters. Gaïd Salah's eye-catching demand on 26 March that Article 102 be invoked to remove Bouteflika followed.

For now, a majority of even the ruling Front de libération nationale (FLN) is siding with the demonstrators. The last FLN secretary-general of the Bouteflika years, Mouad Bouchareb, was mired in controversy even while the fifth-term plan was on. But the old party has a powerful machine, where traditionally critical members like veteran militant Abdelkrim Abada and anti-Bouchareb faction leader Ahmed Boumehdi are re-emerging to take control of local mouhafadhates (regional party cells) and align themselves with the demonstrators. As of mid-March, some 72 mouhafadhates of the FLN's total of 120 had joined the protest movement, criticising the party's 'illegitimate' leadership.

The wily Ouyahia has returned to his alternative political fief as head of the Rassemblement national démocratique (RND), stretching credulity by sympathising with protesters' demands (AC Vol 59 No 23, The sick men of North Africa). His RND spokesman Seddik Chihab even attacked the 'presidential clan' as being an 'unconstitutional force' that had run the country 'for at least the five, six or seven last years'; ironic, since his boss ran the president's office and then the government. The RND is also now split between hardliners, some of whom hark back to the party's links to military 'eradicationists' in the 1990s and a reformist, anti-Ouyahia group.

Leaderless movement
Establishment politicians' stock may be low, but the protest movement has yet to throw up a leader – potentially a major challenge as new elections will probably be held this summer. Like France's gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests, the apparently leaderless movement mobilises and networks online. Prominent activists include the publicity-hungry, French-born Rachid Nekkaz, who tried to stand against Macron as well as Bouteflika. Lawyer Moustafa Bouchachi has emerged as a more authoritative figure, but much will depend on whether protesters can organise. There is no sign of the movement waning, with popular figures including Manchester City footballer Riyad Mahrez and Algerian national football team manager Djamel Belmadi lining up to offer their support. While 'oligarchs' within Saïd's orbit are afraid of the lawyers' groups calling for a crackdown on graft, others may benefit from having fallen out with the Bouteflikas. In recent weeks protesters were joined by Kabyle billionaire Issad Rebrab and FCE members who were disaffected with Haddad.

The army remains a key player that may seek to shape events. Having dropped his much-vaunted 'blind loyalty' to Bouteflika, Gaïd Salah retains the defence portfolio in Bedoui's sticking-plaster administration. The avuncular 79-year-old has consistently surprised observers with his powers of survival and quiet ability to concentrate power in his own hands; he is not widely trusted.

While some still chant 'El Jeich echaab khawa, khawa' ('The people and the army are brothers'), and Bouchachi is among those to praise the behaviour of troops, the movement is rightly wary of senior officers' intentions. Gaïd Salah's attempt to seize the initiative was accompanied by Bachir Tartag handing in his resignation from the Direction des Services de Sécurité (DSS), pointing to traditional faction fights within le pouvoir. His replacement, Maj Gen Mohammed 'Youssef' Bouzit, was previously head of foreign intelligence and is said to be close to Gaïd Salah.

The move may have been weeks in the making as Bouzit was replaced as head of the Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure (DGSE) in mid-March by Maj Gen Ali Bendaoud, a former military attaché in Paris.

Others under pressure include Sonatrach's CEO Abdelmoumen Ould Kaddour, whose competence is appreciated by international oil companies, and has undoubtedly helped the state energy giant grapple with declining oil and gas production and sales. But Ould Kaddour's links to the Bouteflika clan came into the open when ExxonMobil went public on a decision to halt talks on a shale gas project. Oil companies with more to lose are staying quiet but are nervous about what comes next. Sonatrach unions are calling for Ould Kaddour to go and many in the Union générale des travailleurs algériens (UGTA) labour federation are calling for its veteran leader Abdelmadjid Sidi Saïd – one of the regime's ultimate wheeler-dealers – to depart. For the crowds who will continue to protest each Friday, reshuffles alone are not enough.


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