Ghost President

Algeria's ailing, invisible strongman is a lock to win a fourth term as president. But things are not so quiet behind the scenes.

TUNIS — Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika looks healthy enough in campaign posters. At a rally for Algerian expatriates in Tunis, the septuagenarian gazes warmly at the crowd from glossy poster stock, his trademark moustache and wispy thatch of hair not entirely overtaken by gray. In the background, his campaign jingle blares over loudspeakers, an ode to the highs and lows of the Algerian football team.

"He's the candidate who inspires hope, and he has achieved many things for our country, especially bringing peace," says Amar Saadani, the less-than-charismatic secretary-general of Bouteflika's National Liberation Front (FLN) and one of the president's most vocal supporters.

But the youthful campaign photos bear little resemblance to the man spotted only sporadically in public over the last year. A ghost candidate, Bouteflika didn't appear at a single rally throughout the campaign, not even the grand finale in Algiers on April 13. No surprises there. Since he suffered stroke last April, the aging president has struggled to stand or speak. There has been much speculation about who has been running the show since then, especially during the three months Bouteflika spent recovering in a Parisian hospital. There is also talk of updating the ever-malleable constitution later this year to create an official vice president, just in case. Unofficially, his brother, Said Bouteflika, is believed to be pulling the strings, but nothing can be said for sure.

Bouteflika's reelection campaign is a well-oiled machine -- so efficient that even in his invisibility, the aging strongman is the only candidate with a real shot in the April 17 election. But his regime has grown increasingly brittle. The president's frail health has deepened divisions within the ruling elite, and united the typically fractious opposition, which has declared its intention to boycott the vote.

Still, Bouteflika's supporters are confident he will win a fourth term in office: "We know how to run elections," Saadani says dismissively, when asked if the anger Bouteflika's candidacy has provoked risks undermining the credibility of the elections. Six candidates are technically running for the presidency, but the vote is set to be the usual one-horse race, with all the standard allegations of systematic fraud. With the president too ill to campaign himself, his political allies have risen to the occasion. Along with Saadani, Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal resigned last month to run the campaign.

Bouteflika has been in power since 1999, in the depths of the Algerian civil war, when he won election with the backing of the military. In that contest, all six of his opponents withdrew in protest on the eve of the election, and he received nearly 74 percent of the vote. Since then, his margin of victory has only gotten wider. In the 2009 elections -- already controversial because the constitution had been altered to allow Bouteflika to run for a third term -- he was reelected with an astonishing and almost certainly fraudulent 90 percent of vote. Officially, the turnout was 74 percent, but the U.S. embassy's estimate was "25-30 percent at most," a diplomatic cable leaked by Wikileaks reveals. This time around, Saadani predicts that a more modest 60 percent of Algerians will vote to return the president to office.  

In the lead-up to the election, there has been little freedom for public debate. A wave of peaceful anti-Bouteflika protests was viciously suppressed by security forces. At many demonstrations, plain clothes police officers and members of the media outnumbered protesters. Last month, authorities shuttered the privately owned Atlas television station after its coverage became "too critical." Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both condemned government abuses in recent months.

Popular anger has boiled over into violence on more than one occasion, and several pro-Bouteflika rallies have been cancelled as a result. One, scheduled to take place on April 5 in the eastern region of Kabylie, where the president is especially unpopular, was called off after the venue was burned to the ground.

The controversy surrounding his bid for a fourth term has divided the ruling oligarchy to an extent not seen in years. In the three previous presidential elections, the generals of the military and the all-powerful intelligence service, known as the DRS, were unified in throwing their support for Bouteflika.

Since his 2009 reelection, however, the balance of power between the presidency, the DRS, and the military has been in serious turmoil. Bouteflika has sought to establish a more independent presidency, attempting to rein in the intelligence chief, Gen. Mohamed Mediène, known popularly as Gen. Toufik, who has been considered an untouchable force since his appointment in 1992 (Toufik reportedly describes himself as the "God of Algeria").

In response to Bouteflika's attempts to reduce the DRS's political power, media loyal to the intelligence chief have been attacking the president and his loyalists.

The DRS has spent years gathering files on everyone who is anyone. In January 2010, it began leaking information about the corrupt dealings of top employees at Sonatrach, the state oil company which accounts for fully 98 percent of Algerian exports. Among those implicated by the leaks was Bouteflika's protégé, ex-energy minister Chakib Khelil, and his entourage. Khelil was, among other things, a key interlocutor with the United States, where he fled in 2013 to avoid arrest.

One of the powerful DRS figures -- and Toufik allies -- whom Bouteflika had tried, unsuccessfully, to remove in 2009 was Ali Tounsi, the national police chief. Tounsi refused to step down, telling the media that "A mujahid never retires." In February 2010, he was assassinated under mysterious circumstances.

The Sonatrach leaks hit even closer to the president's inner circle when a series of newspaper articles alleged that his brother, Said Bouteflika, was heavily involved in corruption dealings at the oil giant and that Khelil had taken the fall for him. On April 24, 2013, for example, the leading daily El Watan published an article titled "Corruption case: Said Bouteflika, is he implicated?" It was the first in a series of articles implicating the president's brother in the massive corruption scandal. Bouteflika suffered his stroke three days after it appeared in print.

The back-and-forth has escalated since then. Saadani, as the public face of the Bouteflika clan, attacked Gen. Toufik by name in a stunning -- and unprecedented -- Q&A published by the website Tout sur l'Algérie on Feb. 3. Among other things, he accused the spy chief of playing a role in the 1992 assassination of President Mohamed Boudiaf. The tone of these unprecedentedly public clan wars became distinctly low-brow the following day, when another leading pro-DRS paper, Le Jeune Independent, ran a front page story denouncing Saadani under the homophobic headline: "Quand un homo provoque un homme," or "When a homo [sic] attacks a man."

When it comes to his battles against Toufik's supporters, the FLN secretary-general is tight-lipped: "That's an internal matter. I don't have a response," he tells me.

As the election draws closer, Bouteflika's backers appear to have bested the DRS for now. They have promised to deliver additional reforms to the national intelligence service -- Toufik has proven impossible to fire, but they can continue to clip the wings of his agency -- suggesting that the balance of Algerian political life has indeed been permanently transformed. Of course, that doesn't mean Toufik won't put up a fight, and the power struggles between the self-proclaimed Gods will very likely lead to yet more violence and turmoil for mortal Algerians. 

According to Michael Willis, a professor of North African politics at the University of Oxford, the ruling elite doesn't want to take any chances of putting in place a president who might be too independent. Despite simmering clan feuds, Bouteflika is still viewed as the most "manageable" way to preserve the status quo. "It suggests they're running out of ideas," he says. "On some level, if you have somebody who's very, very ill and not very active, then at least well they know that that person won't go off on their own and create problems."

On the sidelines of the Tunis rally, an FLN official argues that Bouteflika is the only guarantor of stability. When I point out that Bouteflika is not exactly immortal, he insists that the wheelchair-bound president's fourth term will be the one that prepares the terrain for a democratic transition.

Faced with messy transitions in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, not to mention a ticking time bomb in Syria, it appears the international community is placing its bets with Bouteflika, who has been a key U.S. ally since 2001.

"There may be some thinking that given what's happened in the Maghreb, that stability is more important than an open, democratic regime," Willis says, referring to the messy revolutions in Tunisia and Libya. "I personally think that would be a mistake."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's April 2 visit to Algiers has been interpreted by many Algerians as an implicit blessing for Bouteflika -- and by extension the military establishment -- and the supposed "stability" he represents. Ultimately, however, the West has little control over Algeria's internal power struggles, as the unceremonious departure of Khelil, a key U.S. ally within the regime, demonstrates.

And so the security card has trumped reform yet again, even though the supposed guarantor of stability could very well die in office. Indeed, the metaphor of death has become a recurring theme in the election, with critics of the aging strongman imploring him, in the words of commentator Kamel Daoud not "to take the country to the tomb with you." Algerian cartoonist Ali Dilem may have said it best without using words at all: In a series of recent cartoons for the newspaper Liberté, he has variously portrayed the president as a mummy, the Bouteflika campaign team as medics, and the presidential chair as a gravestone.

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The Siege of Sloviansk

Inside a brewing insurgency as Ukraine sends in the tanks to quell unrest in its chaotic East.

KIEV, Ukraine — Large contingents of Ukrainian forces are now on the move near Sloviansk and the nearby town of Kramatorsk, where separatists have also seized a government building. But the mood of those in the town and the other occupied areas of eastern Ukraine remains defiant, and greater conflict seems almost a certainty.

Over the past few days, Sloviansk -- a small, once-insignificant industrial town of just under 130,000 in eastern Ukraine, near the Russian border -- has become what many there have said will be the first battleground of a larger war.

As late afternoon fell on Tuesday in Sloviansk, the sound of machine-gun fire grew more regular. The armed men around the police station have become emboldened. These are the men the Ukrainian army will face when it tries to break the siege here, and they have no intention of leaving without a fight.

On April 12, armed pro-Russia activists demanding a referendum on joining the Russian Federation stormed and occupied a police station in Sloviansk and vowed to fight any Ukrainian forces dispatched to remove them. The center of the town, an unappealing grid of drab streets and gloomy concrete buildings, was deserted except for a few groups of masked and armed men who wandered aimlessly, staring into passing cars. On the ground the atmosphere was intense.

The occupied police station sits just off the main road and is little more than a small concrete hut. Inside, there was chaos: masked men wandered in and out, jostling one another in the cramped space. The floor was covered in muddy footprints and strewn with rubble. In a parody of officialdom, masked men stood behind what was once the reception desk. Only a select few were allowed behind it. Outside, a blue "police" light shone, a seeming rebuke to the lawlessness around it.

Barricades -- mounds of tires and sandbags topped with barbed wire -- stretched around the building, sealing it off from the surrounding streets. Access was only possible with the permission of an armed protester holding a huge riot shield, which was used as a makeshift "door" to allow people in and out. These makeshift walls in Sloviansk looked nothing like the barricades built in Donetsk and Luhansk, where the mounds of tires and sandbags had a haphazard feel about them -- placed prominently in front of the occupied buildings but offering little in the way of any real protection.

The heavily-armed masked men who patrolled the Sloviansk streets, gripping automatic weapons and occasionally speaking into their hand-held radios, stood in stark contrast to the protesters in Donetsk and Luhansk, who wielded bats and metal bars. The degree of precision and economy of purpose among the protesters in Sloviansk -- from the way these men walked to the way they gathered in groups at strategic points around the city, clearly taking orders from the senior members among them -- suggested with near certainty that if they were not soldiers, they had at least had military training. They were reluctant to speak or have their photo taken -- grunting at journalists and outsiders to go away.

The Ukrainian government has accused Russia of being behind this takeover, a charge Russian President Vladimir Putin denies. Reports are that many of these men are Russians, mysterious "Cossacks" who had arrived from elsewhere -- just like those who appeared in Crimea during Russia's seizure of the peninsula in February. Some of the armed men inside the barricades were clearly carrying specialized Russian weapons and had identical uniforms without insignia, again, similar to those Russian troops wore in Crimea. The palpable degree of coordination behind events here suggested that this suspicion may well be correct.

The majority of Ukraine's Russian-speaking citizens have said they want to remain a part of Ukraine and, more significantly, consider Russia's actions in Crimea to be an invasion. But this majority does not rule the streets of Sloviansk.

Further up the street from the police station was another barricade. On the other side, a crowd of several hundred mostly middle-aged men and women chanted for Russia and for an independence referendum, while a speaker stood on a mound of tires and punched his fist in the air, shouting slogans and leading the chanting. 

"The government ignores us," said one young girl. "Putin is a great leader," said another. "He is strong!" And it is not just Russia that is admired here: it is the USSR and the Russian Empire -- and flags representing both flew inside the barricades. "The Soviet Union was glorious," said one elderly man. "Everything has gone downhill since it ended."

The crowd began to thin in the early hours of April 13, as a cold rain got heavier. Gangs of masked, armed men wandered the streets around the occupied building and moved to a 24-hour café just off the main road, eating soggy pizza and drinking bad coffee while they mingled with locals who were terrified of what would be coming to their town.

The following morning, the talk was of an impending attack by the Ukrainian Special Forces to take back the police station. Ukraine's Interior Minister Arsen Avakov once again accused Russia of orchestrating the violence here and vowed to the end the siege. On hearing the news, some protesters linked arms in front of the barricades to create a human shield, in case an attempt was made to break up the occupation, while others carried oil drums on their shoulders to further fortify the barricades. Armed men gathered in urgent conference and ran in and out of the occupied area coordinating the defense they are going to mount.

In just two days, the separatists had completely overrun Sloviansk. On a street just off the town's main thoroughfare, two large, blue trucks were parked across the road, forcing cars to drive onto the pavement to pass around them. Several militia checkpoints were set up on the roads leading to the police station, while on the outskirts of the city more checkpoints manned by heavily armed men and, in some cases, armed teenagers, controlled access in and out of town. The whole area was in total lockdown.

As Tuesday wore on, machine-gun fire could be heard as separatists clashed with arriving Ukrainian forces, leaving one officer dead. A few armored vehicles were said to be on the outskirts of Sloviansk -- and the mood inside the city became even more intense. Rumors flew as people in the crowd discussed the news they had seen on Russian TV; the armed contingent of the protesters grew even more hostile and suspicious.

As the situation has worsened, U.S. President Barack Obama has expressed "grave concern" about Moscow's perceived support for the actions of the separatists, which he says threatens to undermine and destabilize the government of Ukraine. "The president emphasized that all irregular forces in the country need to lay down their arms, and he urged President Putin to use his influence with these armed, pro-Russian groups to convince them to depart the buildings they have seized," read a statement released by the White House late on April 14 in Washington.

But these words are unlikely to have any traction in Sloviansk, where the United States is both hated and feared. Paranoia about the presence of U.S. spies in the region is widespread across eastern Ukraine and journalists are repeatedly accosted and accused of being American, with protesters demanding that outsider produce passports and other identifying documents. Banners fly urging Washington to keep its hands off the country; defaced U.S. flags hang from barricades. For the majority of protesters, many of whom are middle-aged, the Cold War lives on.

The deadline issued by Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchynov for all pro-Russia separatists to leave occupied buildings passed on the morning of April 14. On Tuesday morning the president announced the start of an "anti-terrorist operation" in the north of Donetsk Region to "protect Ukrainian citizens, to stop the terror, to stop the crime, to stop the attempts to tear our country apart." It would, he said, be conducted "stage by stage, in a responsible and weighed manner."

Meanwhile, in the capital city Kiev, a stronghold of nationalist sentiment, militant protesters gathered outside Parliament to demand decisive action against the separatists in the East. Armed militia that fought during the Euromaidan revolution to help overthrow Yanukovych are reportedly making their way to the border areas to fight the separatists and, if it comes to it, the Russians. Both sides are now mobilizing, and the possibility of further bloodshed in Ukraine is getting higher by the hour.