While the Middle East and North Africa continue to feel the reverberations and distant after-shocks of the ‘Arab Spring’, anyone seeking a sense of where the region is heading would do well to keep a close eye on news emanating from Algiers over the next few months. As the country gears up for next year’s presidential elections, scheduled to take place in April 2014, the magnitude of the political and geostrategic issues hanging in the balance, both nationally and regionally, is immense.
Since the turn of the year, the question of whether Abdelaziz Bouteflika - in power since 1999 and already the country’s longest-serving president - would run for a fourth consecutive term has been the central preoccupation of the political class. As the weeks went by, signs that the President’s grip on power was open to challenges seemed to proliferate. A corruption scandal involving the country’s State Oil company, Sonatrach, featured as its chief villain Chekib Khelil, a former energy minister and close Bouteflika ally. For weeks, the nation was gripped by sordid tales of greed and incompetence. The extensive coverage, as well as the judicial case itself, was seen by many as part of a campaign to weaken the president and his camp by rivals within the country’s power system.
Serious health issues seemed to make the president’s position even more precarious. On April 27, Bouteflika suffered what official reports confirmed was a mini stroke, and was immediately flown to receive treatment at the Val-de-Grace hospital in Paris. For the following eight weeks, speculation over the extent and seriousness of his condition, further intensified by the quasi-silence from official media, dominated conversations, both off and online. On June 11, in a clear attempt to stem the debilitating tide of rumour and counter-rumour, footage was released of him receiving a visit from the Prime Minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, and the army chief, Ahmed Gaid Saleh. These images were generally considered far from reassuring, but a month later, on July 16, official state media announced the president’s return to Algiers. Many predicted an imminent curtain call, declaring the president a spent force and dismissing prospects of a fourth term as an impossibility.
Instead, the three months since his comeback have witnessed a spectacular turn of events. In the past few weeks, Bouteflika has overseen a series of unprecedented changes at the heart of the country’s ruling apparatus, whose scale and unceremonious brutality took the most seasoned of observers by surprise.
Most notably, the country’s powerful security services agency, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS) - widely considered a principal rival pole of power alongside the military and presidential institutions – had three key units amputated, thus considerably reducing its political influence and reach, including its ability to support a viable alternative candidate at next year’s elections. This move was further accompanied by changes at the top of the military hierarchy, with a number of potential adversaries sent into retirement.
Meanwhile, a protracted months-long battle within the ranks of the FLN, the country’s biggest political force, finally reached its dénouement at the end of August with the ascent of Amar Saidani, a Bouteflika loyalist, to the leadership, effectively securing the party’s all-important allegiance at next year’s elections. Finally, on Sep 11, a government reshuffle saw ten ministers moved, with key portfolios - such as the Justice, Interior, Foreign Affairs and Defence posts – all assigned to presidential loyalists, while most of Bouteflika’s political opponents (or those deemed insufficiently loyal, such as FLN ministers who had opposed Saidani’s leadership,) lost their briefs. Both Gaid Saleh and Sellal emerged as winners, consolidating their positions and underlining their roles as instrumental players in the push for a fourth term.
What happens now remains unclear. Six months before the elections, no serious rival candidates have come forward, with the sole exception of Ahmed Benbitour, a reformist former Prime Minister. Most seem to be waiting for the presidential camp to make its anticipated move of pushing through a constitutional revision plan that introduces the post of Vice President. Once this happens, many believe, the ruling system will have secured its key - arguably sole – objective: its own survival and the preservation of the enormous network of interests it represents and protects.
Amidst these transformative changes, the political class has been dependably inert and ineffectual. Though the country boasts more than fifty registered political parties, the vast bulk of these formations are no more than empty shells, devoid of any popular anchorage and usually confined to the role of supplying plausible electoral scenery. Meanwhile, the more established opposition is not only fragmented and riddled with internecine fault lines, a number of the larger parties - such as the secular RCD (Rassemblement pour la culture et la démocratie) and the country’s biggest Islamist party, the MSP (Mouvement de la Société de Paix) – have seen their oppositional credentials fatally compromised by their participation in a number of successive governments during the Bouteflika era. Their hurried attempts to distance themselves from the ruling system have, so far, proved underwhelming.
Meanwhile, the country’s socio-economic realities for millions of Algerians - of endemic unemployment, a spiralling cost of living and deepening inequality – present a recipe for disaster in the absence of a clear and coherent strategy for national development. The current political model, based on a rentier elite purchasing social peace with the proceeds of oil wealth, patently unsustainable and utterly dependent on the capricious fortunes of oil prices, is a disaster in waiting. Indeed, social unrest continues to grow: no day seems to go by without a demonstration, or a strike, or a sit-in, or a road-blockade taking place somewhere in the country in an attempt to highlight some grievance or other. On the civil liberties front, some worrying developments have been noted signalling a tightening of the media-political space. On Sunday, Abdelghani Aloui, a youth arrested four weeks ago for posting cartoons mocking the president was again denied bail. His case has raised the alarm among many in the Algerian press (as well as among a number of NGOs such as Amnesty and HRW) about what this presages for press and political freedoms in the country in the weeks and months ahead.
As next year’s presidential elections loom larger on the national horizon, the country seems to be heading towards a political non-event. While the population at large continues to show deep indifference towards the political shenanigans of the elites, there seems to be little enthusiasm among the political class for any change worthy of the challenges facing the country. Sadly, for most Algerians, 2013 will have been a strange year: so much has happened and yet, in the final analysis, so little is set to change.