Algeria Faces Several Presidential Scenarios

Article Summary
With the health of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika still unclear, the country’s future is open to many possibilities.

Algeria passed through two years of bitter developments, during which the Arab Spring storm approached — but did not reach — the “country of the 1.5 million martyrs.”

Algeria seemed an exception in the regional changes that began in Tunisia and Egypt. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika succeeded in removing the political and security landmines, such as the socioeconomic protests in 2011, the legislative elections crisis of 2012 and the terrorist attack on the In Amenas oil facility in 2013.

There are several reasons why the Arab Spring coming from the east (Egypt, Tunisia, Libya) and the wave of insecurity coming from the south (Mali) did not reach Algeria. The main reason is the success of the military and intelligence services in keeping the country under control. Another reason is that the West, and in particular the Europeans, gained the trust of a regime that holds $200 billion in reserves.

Despite that, Algeria is not immune from internal and external tension. There have been questions about the country’s future ever since Bouteflika went out of sight on April 18. The presidential office’s announcement, two weeks later, that the president was in France undergoing treatment for a stroke, did not help matters.

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Bouteflika’s successor

That lone announcement by the presidential office plunged Algeria into a sea of political gossip. Making matters worse was the silence by the official agencies. Al-Shorouk’s news section editor Rushdie Radwan told As-Safir that some have started calling for the application of Article 88 of the constitution and declaring the presidential post vacant.

Article 88 provides that “if the president is unable to exercise his duties because of a serious and permanent illness, the Constitutional Council must meet.” If the president is unable to exercise his duties, the head of the National Assembly (Abdul Qadir bin Saleh, 70) becomes acting president until the holding of presidential elections within a period not exceeding 45 days.

There is no doubt that the talk about Article 88 had the political class salivating to contest the elections. In that context, Radwan said that a presidential vacancy is wished by many oppositionists, especially those who stood against Bouteflika running for a fourth term.

Perhaps what drives those to go far in their ambition, according to Radwan, is “the absence of any charismatic candidate who can achieve consensus in the coming period. The last parliamentary elections (in May 2012) showed the ruling coalition parties to be weak, which later got manifested in the National Liberation Front’s inability to find a successor for Secretary-General Abdelaziz Belkhadem, and the National Democratic Gathering’s inability of to find a successor for Ahmed Ouyahia,” as well as “the demise of the Islamist current.”

All of these factors, according to Radwan, “may open the door for the return of old faces that were eliminated from the political scene in Bouteflika’s era, such as his prime minister and former director of his presidential campaign in 1999, Ali Benflis, and former PM Ahmed Benbitour, or others who may not be acceptable, for now, by the army, which effectively chooses the head of state.”

One veteran politician disagrees with that perception, which gives the impression that Algeria’s president is chosen by the ballot box. That politician thinks that the president is practically appointed by the military institution, specifically the intelligence services, not by the people.

The Algerian army has played a big role in controlling the rhythm of the country’s political life since the military coup led by Houari Boumediene against President Ahmed Ben Bella. The military institution, specifically the intelligence services, is “the only organized party” according to the veteran politician. The intelligence services played a big role in putting Bouteflika in power.

Months ago, the media started talking about a struggle between the presidency and the military because Bouteflika wished for a fourth term, which some army leaders oppose. So the question remains: Will there be a new order or will the old order remain?

A source that wished to remain anonymous described to As-Safir the behind-the-scenes activity about Bouteflika’s succession. The source said that “the country’s de facto ruler, the chief of intelligence Mohammed Mudin, who has a reputation of reconciling contradictions, sought to please everyone during the last period. He endorsed the opposition’s position regarding a fourth term and at the same time tried to please Bouteflika’s supporters by proposing a compromise based on the idea of moving from a fourth 5-year term to a third 7-year term, whereby the presidential elections will take place in 2016 instead of 2014.”

But it seems that this idea did not achieve consensus, according to the source. And the proof is that “if the army had a candidate, it would have promoted him.” But all the above are “scenarios that will disappear as soon Bouteflika reappears,” according to Radwan.

The army and the presidency

“The relationship between the presidency and the army has been on the table since Algeria’s independence. It often returns to the fore whenever there’s a crisis,” says Al-Watan’s editor Salahuddin Bilabes. “Actually nothing points to a conflict between the army and the presidency, even though many talk about it,” he said.

The political source disagrees. He feels that “the talk about holding local and presidential elections is empty talk because everybody is appointed by the head of the intelligence services, from the mayor to the president. ... If a crisis hits Algeria, such as the president dying, the only true institution will be the army because there are no institutions nor an opposition. All those are fake institutions.”

But from a regional and even international perspective, Bilabes disagrees. He thinks that it is not in the military’s interest to directly interfere in politics.

It is true that the army has a lot influence, said Bilabes, but it prefers not to be visible and “the experience of the 1990s was enough to convince the army to stay out of the spotlight, after it paid dearly for it.”

Foreign influence

The world wants Algeria to “be the policeman of the area spanning Mali, Libya and Tunisia in the face of terrorism, arms and drugs,” said Bilabes. He also said that “it is not in the interest of Western countries, such as France and the United States, to lose Algeria and drive it to chaos. So stability is important right now even for distant countries such as Russia, China and others.”

According to Bilabes, the partition scenario, like for Iraq and Sudan, is possible, especially given that the Tuareg are deployed on Algeria’s border.

The political source goes further. He said, “We cannot talk about foreign policy without considering the American plans because breaking up the Arab Nation would open the way for these plans, which help Israel. ... After Sudan and Iraq got divided, now comes the question of Mali’s Tuareg and in the same context.”

So to face any partition scenario, Algeria needs to fortify its internal front, something that Bouteflika didn’t do in his 14-year rule, according to the source.

Just as Algeria’s future gets decided locally, it is being studied abroad, specifically in France and the United States. The former considers itself Algeria’s historic patron, while the latter wants to have a say in any change that happens in Algeria.

So Algeria stands facing several options: renewing Bouteflika’s mandate, if he is able to run the country, which is unlikely; or choosing a figure from the old order, whereby Algeria would not have benefitted from the Arab Spring; or resorting to a reassuring new figure, who many think is not available because in Algeria the opposition is the “regime’s opposition,” not an “opposition against the regime,” according the veteran politician.

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