Algeria's long-ruling president is cruising to victory in the polls. But the outside world shouldn't be fooled: The authorities are losing control.
On April 17, 2014, Algerians will head to the polls to vote for their president. Regardless of the actual desires of the electorate, the Algerian military regime that stands behind the 77-year-old incumbent, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, is pushing him towards a fourth term. Counting on his physical inability to rule on his own, they are hoping to keep control over his succession and any subsequent regime change.
The election outcome will not, however, disguise the fact that this ruling configuration is already deep in a transitional crisis. Since the military seized power in a coup in 1992, it has been unable to create legitimate power-sharing mechanisms. Until now, it has mainly relied on tools aimed at maintaining the status quo. The army and the intelligence services have granted wide-ranging powers to the presidency but have in fact continued to govern by proxy. They have granted amnesties to insurgent Islamists with the intent of avoiding a broader reckoning with the traumas of the past. And they have continued to use the redistribution of natural resource rents to corrupt society.
While this strategy probably helped the regime to survive, it now stands in the way of a much-needed renewal. The leadership's focus on retaining power has produced countless problems. Growing street protests and rising inner-regime conflicts are compelling Algeria's rulers to redistribute power yet again in order to stay in place. The sense of crisis is compounded by an imminent generational shift. Bouteflika is too sick to finish his potential fourth mandate. Gaid Salah, the army chief-of-staff, and Tewfik Mediene, the head of the intelligence services, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS), are 78 and 74, respectively. Whether the transition to come is conducted under the guidance of the army or negotiated with demonstrators, the image of stability Algerian rulers have tried to convey to the international community for so many years can no longer be regarded as a given.
The first big problem that the regime must address is what will replace the all-powerful presidential office. In 1999, the army and the DRS top generals agreed to appoint Bouteflika to the presidency. Thanks to the exploitation of his civilian credentials, they built a governing system that prevented challenges to their questionable legitimacy after the coup d'état they had staged seven years earlier in the wake of a national election that had been won by Islamists. Acting in the name of "peace, reconciliation, and stability," Bouteflika marginalized the parliament, ruled by presidential decree, co-opted the opposition, and revised the constitution to eliminate term limits.
Current elections show that this monopolistic system of presidential governance has made the emergence of a successor impossible. Despite their DRS support, pro-government parties have proved unable to offer an alternative candidate.
The army could, perhaps, choose once again to fill the presidency with a figure who appears, like Bouteflika once did, to stand above the political fray. The leading candidate for such a scenario is Ali Benflis, a former prime minister who has now emerged as Bouteflika's current challenger. But Benflis won't find it easy to give the illusion of new, reformist governance. Bouteflika has multiplied the number of regime clienteles within the bureaucracy, post-civil war businesses, and state-orchestrated "civil society" groups, while simultaneously depriving them of any real political obligations. As a result, these groups focus on the capture of public funds, and show little inclination to make contributions to the renewal of the system.
Moreover, the president's three terms, not to mention the potential fourth, have tarnished the international reputation of Algeria's elections, which is crucial to maintaining the façade of democracy.
Another problem is the unresolved legacy of Algeria's civil war, which officially ended in 1999. Although the regime ultimately succeeded in crushing the Islamist insurgency, the failure to implement a full-fledged truth and reconciliation process has had negative effects on security management. In the early 2000s, the president enacted amnesty policies for former Islamist insurgents while failing to implement any broader transitional justice policies; to the contrary, he explicitly guaranteed the impunity of the security forces. He has also continued the 1990s strategy of the DRS aiming at suppressing any peaceful demonstrations in the name of stability and the fight against terrorism. This alliance between Bouteflika and the DRS is beginning, however, to show signs of strain. Over the past few years, distrust has deepened and competition grown within the security apparatus, leading to major breakdowns, such as a failed suicide attack on Bouteflika in 2007, the assassination of the police chief Ali Tounsi in 2010, the January 2013 terrorist attacks in the town of Tiguentourine, and the leaking of DRS documents on corruption cases involving Bouteflika's entourage.
These cases have escaped the regime's control and are now subject to international investigation. In an effort to regain the upper hand, the president's office recently announced that it had commenced restructuring of the DRS under the supervision of a "neutral and professionalized" army. It is hard to believe government claims, however, that allowing the army to mediate the conflict between Bouteflika and the DRS will solve the problems arising from the intervention of the security forces in the country's political life. Nor will this address the rising crime rate -- a direct consequence of the regime's voluntary weakening of judicial institutions. Smuggling is proliferating, as are kidnappings and deadly tribal clashes like in the southern city of Ghardaia. The security services seem powerless.
The regime's redistribution of rents from the sale of oil and natural gas has enabled it to enlarge its social base. This strategy has led, however, to ever-greater demands for redistribution than can now be met by the government. The lack of transparent rules for the allocation of resources has favored the emergence of corrupt importers and bureaucratic networks that are now competing with the government itself for public funds and the control of informal economies. The government's irrational policies on the awarding of jobs, houses, or subsidies without any attempts to control inflation or speculation are also undermining the regime's legitimacy (which has traditionally derived to a large extent from its status as the arbiter of rents). The government's position is likely to deteriorate further in the years to come, given that oil and gas revenues are set to decline.
The lack of an Arab Spring-style uprising against Bouteflika does not mean that contestation has disappeared. Disillusioned Algerians reject the binary opposition of revolution or pseudo-democracy. They are increasingly resorting to demonstrations, riots, sit-ins, protest marches, uprisings, strikes, hunger strikes, and even immolations; in so doing they are aiming less to overthrow the regime than to create leverage for negotiations. In such ways, they pressure the government to live up to its responsibility to provide public goods, such as local development, health, housing, employment, or safety. The thousands of protests taking place in Algeria each year should be understood as an effort to renegotiate citizenship from the margins and to enforce indirect accountability on unreliable representatives.
Among the most prominent figures of this contestation are non-legalized independent workers' unions. Their strikes can paralyze the country, also undermining the state's argument that it has benefited society by creating massive public sector employment at low wages. The unemployed, as well as a growing number of citizens' groups, have organized numerous demonstrations to draw attention to patterns of injustice as well as to criticize the government's claim that its control is based on the maintenance of stability and the fight against terrorism. The Barakat ("Enough!") Movement is now organizing public demonstrations against both a fourth Bouteflika mandate and the intelligence service's omnipresent role. (The photo above shows Barakat protesters rallying in downtown Algiers on March 27.)
Boycott campaigns (some even organized by Islamist and leftist parties formerly co-opted by the regime) and public demonstrations are intensifying. The opposition is limiting its criticism to Bouteflika, but the majority of the Algerians who plan to abstain from the coming election do not believe that an alternate president will be enough to satisfy their demands.
To calm down protesters and boycotters, the current post-Bouteflika scenario imagined by the regime may consider the option of a controlled transition period outside of electoral mechanisms. In the most likely scenario, Bouteflika could become incapacitated, withdrawing in favor of a challenger who will rule the country in his stead. This adjunct role could go to an army-backed candidate or to a supposedly apolitical new generation of army officers. Whichever group or leader assumes this function may also lead a new transition council that includes parties opposed to a fourth mandate. This approach will give the illusion that both Bouteflika and the head of the DRS (which has rooted in the press it controls the idea that it won't intervene in elections this time) have been marginalized and that the political and social conflicts inherited from the civil war have been resolved. Needless to say, that will not be the case unless there is a clear agreement on the delineation of military and civilian powers, an independent transitional justice process that addresses the numerous outrages experienced by Algerians over the years, and an end to populist economic governance.
The most urgent need now is to allow Algerians to reconnect with each other on the basis of a new transitional pact monitored by neutral and transparent institutions. The United States and the European Union justify their support to Bouteflika and the military by arguing that there is no organized alternative to the current system to ensure stability. They should understand that such an alternative will only be built through an institutionalized process of transparent negotiations and consultation. This needs to be done now, before the current consensus on the need for a nonviolent transition among protesters, opposition parties, and security forces collapses.
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