Algeria’s Ailing President and the Problem of Succession

Why it Matters to the US and EU

Protests raged for a second week against the country’s ailing and absent president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, whose decision to run for a fifth term has infuriated Algerians and sparked the largest anti-government crowds in over 30 years.

In defiance of the biggest and most impassioned displays of public fury over the weekend, Boutefilka submitted his election papers at the Constitutional Council in Algiers on Sunday but promised to call for elections within one year to replace him if he emerges victorious in April. This failed to satisfy the thousands of demonstrators from all walks of life and from across the political spectrum who demand an end Bouteflika’s 20-year reign. Many seem unable to bear the thought of prolonging his rule again. This is particularly true for the many young Algerians who feel stifled by social constraints, difficult economic conditions as 30% of Algerian youth are currently unemployed, lack of opportunities, and a political class that is unresponsive to their needs.

Bouteflika is currently in Geneva for medical care but although the state of his health is a closely guarded secret, his condition is such that the Algerian ambassador in Paris had to appear on French television on Monday to affirm that Bouteflika is indeed alive. “I say it all in certitude: Abdelaziz Bouteflika is alive,” said the ambassador, Abdelkader Mesdoua. He is strapped to a wheelchair and can neither walk nor, apparently, speak. He has not been seen to speak in public in six years and the last time he ran for office, in 2014, he failed to make an appearance on the campaign trail.

The National Liberation Front, has remained in power since Algeria’s independence from France in 1962. In 1991, a multiparty election in Algeria sparked a decade-long, violent civil war, which killed more than 200,000 people. Bouteflika and his party have benefited from a level of popular support because he is credited with restoring stability to the country by his reconciliation policies following the bloodshed in the 1990s.  He is also the last surviving leader from the 1954 – 1962 war of independence against France, a battle that has been used by successive regimes to give them legitimacy.  These factors, along with the memories of the conflict, the dread of instability and bloodshed and the unravelling chaos in neighbouring Libya, as well as Syria, have helped Bouteflika and his party stay in power and have stagnated attempts at reform. But these arguments now carry little weight with the younger generation.

Helped by oil and gas revenue, Africa’s largest nation by land mass became peaceful and richer but it has now been plunged into crisis and the sharp fall of revenues in this oil-dependent country has worsened the situation since there is a lack of funds to buy civil peace as Bouteflika has done since coming into power in 1999.

NO CLEAR SUCCESSOR

It is widely believed that the President, who is known as “the frame” because he is usually visible to the country only in framed portraits, has left the reins of power of the country in the hands of a tight intertwined network that includes military generals, politicians, civilian elite and his brothers, known as “le pouvoir” (the power) in recent years. Algerian news reports suggest that the ruling clique had been unable to agree on a successor and so chose to run Bouteflika again, despite his illness.

Algeria’s opposition is historically weak, unorganised and divided. Opposition parties have struggled to unite behind a candidate and therefore there are no strong challengers or a united front against the current regime.  During Bouteflika’s fourth term, the opposition had been unsuccessful in coming up with a clear roadmap for the future and therefore have been unable to mobilize the public. The formal opposition have also lost the trust of a lot of the population.

Some 20 candidates are said to be running for the presidency, though none of them have much name recognition or will be able to mobilise state resources like Bouteflika.  Two opposition parties, the Labour Party, and the Islamist Movement of Society for Peace, have said they will boycott the election. Some within Mouwatana (Citizenship), an organisation coordinated by opposition politician Soufiane Djilali, have backed retired army general Ali Ghediri to run for president, but the group as a whole has not endorsed this and so he is unlikely to garner support as a new figure of consensus leadership.

Even in light of the current political climate, the opposition have remained fractured and unorganised, further eroding their ability to serve as a viable option.

 


WHY IT MATTERS

Algeria boasts one of the most modern militaries in the developing world and is an important security partner to the West, especially in combating extremist groups in North Africa and the Sahel.

Its stability is important to the US and the US. In recent years the Algerian government has become a key ally in the fight against terrorism in Africa and is relied upon as a bulwark against the twin challenges of terrorism and illegal immigration. With prolonged factional fighting in neighbouring Libya, civil unrest in Algeria would leave a broad swath of North Africa unstable, with potential population flight posing challenges to its relatively stable neighbours Tunisia and Morocco, as well as to southern Europe.

The protests are being watched closely with some alarm by Algeria’s partners across the Mediterranean Sea, especially in France, Italy and Spain – who have a great interest in Algeria’s stability. Algeria is also the third biggest supplier of gas to the EU including half of Spain’s natural gas imports and the bloc is Algeria’s largest trading partner by far. However, the European Union has largely silent, with Macron’s silence being heard the loudest. Some are calling on Macron to side with the streets of the former French colony but observers warn that such a step could undermine France’s delicate strategic relationship with the regime, and that key French priorities risk being compromised if the Algeria tips into turmoil. Under Macron, France has tried to forge closer economic and security ties with Algeria. Visiting Algiers in late 2017, the president called for opening a "new chapter" with Algeria, and urged young Algerians to look to the future.

An uprising resulting from long-simmering outrage in a more open society could have positive outcomes, but as the regional record shows, successful transitions to democracy are rare. It is difficult to fully predict how this political movement will end but any route the country now takes will come with a risk. If the government choose to crack down, the demonstrations could grow and become violent, an escalation that no one can afford. Steady departures from Bouteflika’s inner circle make his position untenable, raising concerns among army generals who have dark memories of the civil war in the 1990s after the Islamists took up arms when the military cancelled elections they were poised to win. Protesters have praised the military, who have said they will guarantee security and not allow a return of a bloodshed era, for staying in its barracks throughout the unrest.


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