The president of Algeria, in office since 1999, turns 81 this March. After such a period and at such an age, one might expect to hear lots about Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s position, but elections scheduled for next year are, at this stage, most remarkable for the lack of speculation. Repeated questions have been raised about the president’s health and capability following a stroke in 2013 and limited public visibility since.
The Algerian political landscape is dominated by a shady network of establishment security and business figures known as “le pouvoir”. The most significant developments in recent years revolved around the removal of longstanding intelligence chief, Mohamed Mediene. For many, this represented a shift in power towards the presidency and away from the KGB-like DRS agency.[i] The question seems to be whether Algeria and its presidential network are able to prepare – however clandestinely – the ground for a stable transition that maintains the status quo, or if they are sleeping on the side of a volcano ready to erupt when Bouteflika’s rule ends.
Algeria notably avoided much of the unrest which spread through North Africa in 2011, but the conditions that sparked revolts in neighbouring Tunisia and beyond are alarmingly present.[ii] As Kamel Daoud has argued, the ‘Algerian exception’ is untenable.[iii] The same demographics of an overwhelmingly young population without enough jobs, an economy heavily dependent upon oil and hydrocarbons and, of course, an ailing head of state of questionable legitimacy are all prevalent in Algeria.
Oil prices have fallen and the state’s strategy of quelling discontent through handouts is thereby threatened. Much is made of Bouteflika’s standing as a figure of reconciliation and stability,[iv] but his popularity is based in the generation who remember the French war with Algeria.[v] To the approximately 70% of the population under the age of 30,[vi] neither this nor even the 1990s civil war remains a real memory.
Whilst Ben Ali and his ilk may have been taken by surprise by the “Arab Spring” uprisings of 2011, there can surely be no such negligence now within the Algerian establishment. Rumours of an internal power struggle are rife[vii] and, undoubtedly, plans are being made to attempt a stable transition.
However, the concern remains that the establishment is burying its head in the sand and simply trying to postpone the potentially enormous eruption of problems when Bouteflika is gone. He is a figurehead holding the country together, but the regime is no monarchy and must end eventually– notwithstanding the manoeuvring of brother Said[viii] and claims that President Bouteflika will run again in 2019.[ix]
Although some concerns from the West sound too jittery and alarmist,[x] there remains the spectre of an Islamist presence that might seek to take advantage of instability.
A more optimistic viewpoint is that the President and his last FLN-veteran generation are preparing the way for a transition of power that might allow for a more democratic future. Certainly, the demise of Mediene and the decline of the DRS indicate that power has been wrested away from secretive, repressive security networks and might one day be harnessed more transparently from the office of the President.[xi, xii]
Having lived through what might be considered “the prototype Arab Spring” experience of the 1990s, the argument that the national memory would not allow for any reckless leap into revolt and chaos is persuasive. However, it seems somewhat naïve to see Bouteflika as a ‘radical reformer… Mediene’s removal is not a sign of change — only a sign the regime faces tough problems.’[xiii]
As things currently stand, the official FLN line is “no speculation”;[xiv] meanwhile, even opposition figure Ali Benflis stated recently that this was ‘not the moment to speak of the next presidency.’[xv] Perhaps he is afraid to do so. One must also wonder when a good moment might be. Said Bouteflika’s presence continues to be a source of conjecture and he is considered by some as not only de facto current ruler,[xvi] but also likely successor.[xvii]
Other prominent figures rumoured to be positioning themselves include former prime ministers Abdelmalek Sellal[xviii] and Mouloud Hamrouche,[xix] as well as incumbent Ahmed Ouyahia and businessman Chakib Khelil.[xx]
Whoever it may be, one point of apparent consensus is that the military will be central in arranging the successor.[xxi] Though, the name of the president may soon (and at some point must) change. The Algerian establishment seems undesirous of substantial change. The current situation, without solutions to the problems which found no outlet in an “Algerian Spring”, is untenable. Something has to give, but we won’t know just how chaotic that “give” will be until the imminent fall of President Bouteflika.