The announcement over the weekend that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika will run for a fourth term despite suffering a stroke this year illustrates the bankruptcy of the Algerian political process. The president and the generals who run Algeria, the Arab world’s largest police state, apparently decided to prolong the status quo as long as possible, fearing that any moves toward opening the political process would usher in unpredictable and dangerous demands for democracy. But there are also hints of division at the top of the power elite which may suggest some changes are coming.
Bouteflika, 79, is the longest-serving president in Algerian history. He has run the country since election in 1999. He ended a brutal and bloody civil war that began after an army coup in 1991 that overturned free elections that had been won by an Islamist party. In the violence that followed, at least 160,000 died. In 1994, Algerian terrorists hijacked a jet bound for Paris with the intent of smashing it into the Eiffel Tower, the plot that inspired 9/11. The army reacted with brute force. Bouteflika offered amnesty and initiated reforms to win over an exhausted nation. He was re-elected in 2009 with 90% of the vote in a massive vote fraud.
Bouteflika had a stroke in April. He was hospitalized in Paris until July. His public appearances since his return to Algiers have been few and carefully scripted. He has reshuffled his Cabinet and made some changes in the military. All of this has been done with no transparency whatsoever. Rumors abound about what Bouteflika’s changes mean; he apparently is trying to clip the wings of some of the generals who run the country behind the scenes.
While Bouteflika is the public face of the government, real power still resides with the generals. They are known in Algiers as “le pouvoir,” the power behind the scenes. In the shadowy world of “le pouvoir,” the most powerful man is the head of the secret police or mukhabarat, Mohammad Mediene, KGB-trained and almost never photographed, Mediene has run Algerian intelligence since 1990 and is known for his professionalism and determination. He is also known by his nickname, "the god of Algiers," because his power is so pervasive and unaccountable. Born in 1939. he served in the French colonial army before defecting to the FLN revolt when it began in the 1950s. Mediene is the longest-serving head of intelligence in the world. Rumors abound that Bouteflika wants to cashier him.
Seventy percent of Algeria’s 35 million people are under the age of 30, 30% are under the age of 15 and have no memory of the 1990s nightmare. Unemployment among young men has been a major problem since the 1970s despite vigorous efforts to reduce it. While women can participate in the work force and are well educated by regional standards, they, too, are often unemployed or under employed. University graduates often find they can not get jobs commensurate with their education skills. Groups of angry young men can be seen every day in every Algerian city.
The oil and natural gas economy produces a large GDP, but provides only a small number of jobs. Tourism could produce many more, but the country is not tourist- friendly despite its beaches, wine and Roman ruins. Its reputation as a violent and dangerous place discourages Europeans looking for sun. The regime fears opening the country up to outsiders.
Algeria is a colossus in Africa, the largest country in size with the largest army of more than 150,000 men, and a defense budget of more than $10 billion annually. Algerians are fiercely nationalistic, after more than a million Algerians died in the war for independence from France. It remains especially sensitive and nervous about French actions. Algiers opposed France, America and NATO's role in Libya which it blames for starting the chaos there today. But the Algerians did allow French fighter jets to overfly Algerian territory to bomb al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb targets in Mali, prompting the attack on its gas facility at Inl Amenas last January in which dozens of foreign workers were taken hostage and forty died.
The mastermind of that attack, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, announced in August the merger of his al-Qaeda faction with another one to produce a new group, al Murabitun, which seeks to united all jihadists from “the Nile to the Atlantic.” Belmokhtar’s group remains distinct from the mainstream al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb but does stress its allegiance to the al-Qaeda core in Pakistan and its leader, Ayman Zawahiri and Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar. The new group uses the Almoravid Empire of the 11th century as its role model. The Almoravids united Arabs and Berbers against the Christian West to defend Spain from reconquest. While Belmokhtar does not represent a serious threat to the survival of the pouvoir, his group is certainly capable of more spectacular terrorist attacks.
With the regime choosing to stick with Bouteflika and endless stultifying repression, Algeria’s future remains depressing.
Bruce Riedel is the director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution. His latest book is Avoiding Armageddon: America, India and Pakistan to the Brink and Back.