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Ben Bella
Ben Bella

Algeria is a silent country. No one talks about it. But rather than silent, the country is still. Its president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, is physically incapable of exerting his role, but is still at the helm. There is a simple reason for that: he is not the power. His poor health conditions, repeated tours at the hospital and a neurodegenerative condition don’t allow him to run the country. And this has been the case since his first election back in 1999.

The true power in Algeria, what is commonly know as “le pouvoir”, is in the hands of the political-military class, but mainly the military, that fought the war of liberation against the French and obtained independence on July 5, 1962. Nothing has changed since.

From independence to blind terrorism

The National Liberation Front, the party founded by Ben Bella in 1954, is the political branch of the Algerian power-brokers. The one-party regime evolved when multiparty rule was introduced in 1989, but still played a key role in the Algerian political system. Was this a democratic evolution in Algerian politics? No, it was rather a necessity.

At that time the country was undergoing deep social upheavals, the population demanded more democracy, the ISF (Islamic Salvation Front) led the protests. The ISF was an Islamist party – opposed to the secular and socialist rule of the NLF – that had a great following in the Algerian middle class. The country also had high unemployment rates, especially among the youth, that had reached unacceptable levels. Exploiting the discontent and its deep-rooted presence in the mosques, the ISF won local elections in June 1990 and would have taken over Parliament in the vote that followed.

This is when the military stepped in with a coup. They arrested the leadership of the Front, banned the Islamic movements and outlawed the ISF. This was possible because the radical islamic agenda of the ISF – they wanted to introduce Sharia law in a mainly secular society – had scared large portions of Algerian society that viewed the military takeover as the lesser evil.

Islamic terrorism against a State was thus born in Algeria in the 1990s. The ISF went underground and the Armed Islamic Movement became its military branch. Then came the terrorist groups: the GIA (Islamic Armed Group), then renamed GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat). They practiced an “aveugle”, or blind, form of terrorism that targeted the civilian population. In historical terms, they were the precursors of the Islamic State or Daesh in Syria and Iraq.

The Algerian military regime fought back terrorism with the same degree of ruthlessness. A general, Liamine Zeroual, was elected president and didn’t pay a lot of attention to human rights in his war against the terrorists. There was no room for amnesty or international mediations. The Community of St. Egidio attempted an intervention, but without any success. The regime refused all meddling. Sant’Egidio became known as “Sant’Eccidio”, i.e. Saint Massacre. The unrequested attempt was perceived as a neocolonialist intervention. During the civil war Berbers and Christians were largely fighting alongside the French and are still viewed as traitors, or harkis.

Algerian islamic terrorism was eventually crushed brutally and efficiently by the army and is now confined to the country’s south, in the desert. Sub-saharan countries like Mali and Niger, which are socially unstable, are now paying the price for this relocation, while it is basically non-existent in Algeria. Not even the growing terrorist threat in neighboring Tunisia and Libya has been able to affect Algerian security.

Abdelaziz Bouteflika

A spring that never was

When the Arab Spring kicked off in 2011, with its tail of mostly Islamist uprisings, Algeria experienced a deja vu. In other words, Algeria was more than ready to deal with a social revolution and remained largely unscathed if compared to what happened elsewhere in the region.

Now that the terrorist threat is over, has Algeria improved its democracy or developed an economy capable of offering an opportunity to its unemployed youth? The answer lies in the facts. Algeria is formally a democracy under military tutorship. There may be a political debate, a proliferation of parties, but the status quo will not change. Politics should keep away from “le pouvoir”.

On the economic front, the youth unemployment rate is currently around 30%, a critical level if we consider that 40% of the population is under 24 years old and if we look at how wealthy Algeria is. The country is one of the world’s top exporters of oil and gas. In 2016 they will receive around 40 billion dollars of receipts – a figure that has been influenced by low oil prices – which represent about 94% of the country’s exports.

The issue is thus not how much money the country makes, but how it is spent. The regime’s immobility has led to widespread corruption. When the people in charge don’t change, the flow of money is not “democratized”, the economic system becomes sclerotic and in the hands of a few privileged ones. While limited number of people enrich themselves, the masses starve.

When multiparty rule was introduced, Algeria also went from being a State-led economy to a market economy. The liberalization of the political system was to go hand-in-hand with the liberalization of the economy. This was a crucial moment for the evolution of Algerian society because, at least in theory, opening up the market should have led to the eradication of privileges and lobbies. The story took instead another turn because the system generated its anti-bodies.

The people within the State that managed the imports of a designated product or oversaw a State-sector simply moved their activities from the State to the private sector. And while earlier they were, at least nominally, working in the best interest of the State, they then did it for their own personal profit. Corruption and privileges didn’t disappear, but wealth basically shifted into private hands.

Athmane Tartag, head of the Algerian security Service

Change everything, change nothing

One of Algeria’s main traits is to change without changing. This happened in economics, politics and in the people ruling the country. And it’s the same thing happening with the likes of Bouteflika, who continues to be president despite his health problems.

In the security sector, change only comes with death. This was the case for general Smain Lamari who led counter-espionage and anti-terrorism for several years and who passed away in 2007. The same happened with the head of the Direction Général de la Sureté Nationale, homeland security, Ali Tounsi, who was killed by one of his officers in 2010. Algeria’s security apparatus, alongside the military, is one of the keys to uphold and manage power.

When change does occur, and it happens in a subtle way, it signifies that someone is going up or down the social and political ladder. New people do come about from time to time, like major general Athmane Tartag, who recently rose from darkness to become the head of Algerian security services. He replaces Mohamed Médiene, known as Toufiq, a legendary figure in the fight against terrorism. Toufiq was known as a fearless man, who travelled the country without an armed escort, a ghost that would appear out of nowhere in the country’s hotspots or during the hottest moments. Even in Algiers’ casbah, where he was born and where terrorists were hiding.

Médiene’s replacement is not a demotion, but rather a simple sign of the times. In the Algerian system of power every move is agreed upon, mediated and part of a smooth process. After 25 years at the helm of the security apparatus, it was time for Toufiq to go. He is still very influential. Even after his demise, Mohamed Médiene was still seen at the Direction du Reinsegnement et Securité, the structure that coordinated the different Algerian agencies. And the DRS, that was founded when he took over, was disbanded when he left it.

Now that the DRS is gone – at least in theory it answered to the president (although the opposite was more plausible) – Tartag, known as the bombardier for his attitude to air-strike the terrorists, has been appointed the president’s security advisor. He now coordinates Algeria’s security apparatus: the Direction Générale dela Securité Intérieure, the Direction Générale de la Sureté Exterieure and the Direction des Reinsegnement Techniques. However, unlike in the past when all informations gathered flowed into the DRS, each agency now operates autonomously and independently. The aim is to prevent that a single individual controls the entire security of the country.

Tartag is not Toufiq, both in terms of management of the intelligence sector and attitude. The times they are changing. The terrorist threat that put “le pouvoir” in peril is no more, and security can now be handled by the president directly without any intermediaries. The military is handing responsibilities over to civilians, and no security structure within the State holds a dominant position.

The only issue with the decree signed by Abdelaziz Bouteflika, or that they made him sign, is that it gives the president a power that the incumbent, given his health, is not capable of exerting. And for those capable of observing the imperceptible movements within the regime, this can only mean that there is an ongoing process to pick Bouteflika’s successor. Toufiq was one of the president’s most trusted men. Another detail that confirms that there will soon be a rotation at the presidency.

When will this happen? The answer is: when everything is ready and the designated person is in the best condition for a takeover. A negotiation that will happen away from public scrutiny. The name will surface only once a decision has been take. There won’t be any need for further constitutional amendments – the Constitution has been bended twice already to grant Bouteflika a third and fourth mandate – because article 88 of the Algerian Constitution states that a sick president incapable of exerting his role can be replaced. And the pre-conditions for this to happen in the near future are all there at the moment.

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