Algerian Expert: We Have Entered 'Post-Bouteflika' Era

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In an interview with El-Khabar, Hasni Abidi, director of the Geneva-based Study and Research Center for the Arab and Mediterranean World, gives his views on the country’s presidential crisis.

Algerian researcher Hasni Abidi, director of the Geneva-based Study and Research Center for the Arab and Mediterranean World, stated that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika came to power in 1999 through negotiations and guarantees and that he will only step down through negotiations and guarantees.

In an interview with El-Khabar, Abidi gave his opinion regarding the post-Bouteflika era, and he mentioned that the president will step down — defeated — due to scandals that jeopardized his seat of power and that were instigated by the security institution.

The interview also tackles issues related to the characteristics of the next president who will be accepted by Paris and Washington, in addition to Abidi’s explanation for the current resurgence of Islamists.

El-KhabarDo you think Algeria has entered the post-Bouteflika era?

Abidi: Politically, yes. I believe that Bouteflika’s rule is collapsing, and we started to notice the harbingers of a new mandate that would finally boycott the effective decision-makers in Algeria. Bouteflika has unfortunately become a “legitimate” cover manipulated by political and economic interests that are beyond him. For the first time since 1962, these interests have started to threaten the underlying political balance between the authorities in Algeria in favor of the security institution. Bouteflika and his allies wanted to expand the ruling circle to introduce new forces that would break the security and military monopolization of political and economic decisions. Yet such a beginning for the end of Bouteflika’s era is not really the end of a regime that has lost its legitimacy as much as it is an alteration of it. Bouteflika will leave the seat of power — defeated — due to scandals that jeopardized his position, not to mention his illness. Moreover, his absence reflects the ill state of the Algerian regime since its independence.

El-Khabar: Do you think that the photos of the president in Val-de-Grace military hospital, published by Algerian state TV, were aimed at asserting his ability to maintain his duties, or to indicate the end of his rule?

Abidi: The president’s illness and absence do not insinuate the absence of power and its transfer to Paris. It is just an absence of one of the authority figures because Bouteflika is, after all, only a part of the ruling body. It is true that his absence has weakened his stand in the continuous negotiations with the army regarding the coming presidential elections. Moreover, it is hard for a citizen to accept the fact that his country is directly governed from Paris. The photos broadcasted by the Algerian channel conveyed a kind of urgency, because waiting is no longer feasible in this situation. The photos carry two messages. The first is that the president is alive. There is no need to worry, and Article 88 is not a priority at the moment. The second is that the health condition of the president is critical and that the next president will not be Bouteflika. Therefore, his powerful supporters should search for new partners or for the first escape route available.

El-Khabar: How do you explain the fact that the president gave orders to his prime minister to prepare the Cabinet when he visited him in Paris? Doesn’t this mean that he is still clinging to the rule?

Abidi: The Algerian regime is characterized by its strict abidance to formalities and pretenses of respecting the constitution, which means that it puts a certain law to violate another. The visit of the military and security ministers indicates a desire to take things slowly. They don’t mind that Bouteflika stays until 2014, as per his wishes. Yet this does not undermine the president’s clinging to power and his insistence on maintaining office. Bouteflika did not come back to power after years of being away just to resign.

El-Khabar: Why is the government refusing to enforce Article 88, which deals with [what to do in] the event that the president suffers from serious illness?

Abidi: The government is not refusing to enforce Article 88, but its time has not yet come. The current political regime believes that this is the last option, not to mention that enforcing this article necessitates the fulfillment of three conditions:

First, all alternatives must be available. I do not believe that the security institution and those close to the decision-making process have reached an agreement on a second option.

Second, all means of negotiation must be used before resorting to [Article 88].

Third, the approval of the person concerned must be guaranteed and that person or people close to him must not appeal against the authority’s decision, to avoid an internal and foreign dispute that weakens decisions following the “constitutional” dismissal.

El-Khabar: What do you think is the fate of the network of relations and loyalties established by the president’s brother, once Bouteflika is no longer in power?

Abidi: The current situation in Algeria is similar to that of Tunisia during the final days of Bourguiba’s rule: political paralysis, economic confusion, and an infiltration of people with interests and who are backed by those close to the president and influence his decisions. This called for an alliance between the army and the security institution to carry out a “medical” coup against Bourguiba and assign Gen. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali instead. The move made by Bouteflika’s brother was inspired by the president and was not the fruit of his own judgment. Bouteflika’s brother realized that “weakening the security institution” — or the “black book,” as it was referred to by the late Muhammad Yazeed — necessitates the expansion of the circle of outlaws and the variation of the decision-making centers. This would pave the way for dismantling the strongest entity in the country: the security institution. Algeria is in a quandary. In the absence of firm institutions that run the country, the army will remain the only institution that has the power of weapons and organization and that is capable of guaranteeing the country’s persistence. In light of this, the attempts to dismantle the security institution without establishing constitutional ones are dangerous. Therefore, the army is responsible for disrupting the return to constitutional legitimacy, while Bouteflika also assumes a big part of the responsibility because of his coup against the constitution and his apathy towards any real constitutional reforms.

El-Khabar: Do you expect a settlement between Bouteflika and the security wing of the army — one that guarantees letting Said Bouteflika judicially off the hook after the president steps down?

Abidi: Since he took over power in 1999, and with the blessings of the army and guarantees from foreign countries, Bouteflika asked to stay in power until death. In other words, Bouteflika — along with those close to him — wanted to enjoy all privileges, whether dead or alive. However, Bouteflika is aware that there is no trust between him and the security institution, which jeopardized his seat of power through unmasking dangerous economic manipulations. These manipulations were enough to lead to a collective resignation, and they were used to weaken the president and everyone around him. He came to power through negotiations and guarantees and will not back down except in the same way. The dismissal option is still on the table, but the other possibilities have not been completely ruled out yet. 

El-Khabar: What are the traits of the next president? What will it take for the Algerian regime and the major Western forces, like the US and France, to accept him?

Abidi: On the political and security levels, the Algerian regime does not want any surprises. Consequently, it is always seeking to tame the most credible candidates to become more widely accepted. The next president will not be the people’s candidate, but the candidate of this stage. How can we think of a democratic candidate amid the deep stagnation of the political scene in Algeria and the absence of real competition to nominate credible candidates?

[What is needed is] a transitional government that works on the election of a constituent assembly that is capable of genuinely breaking with a coup political system, which was established to manage a transitional period and ended up running the state for nearly 50 years.

Neither the US nor Paris will find any difficulty in dealing with Algeria's next president, no matter how different their views may be. Washington and Paris are keen on maintaining strong ties with Algeria, without entering into internal sensitivities. They have red lines whereby they have to stay away from a military coup, abstain from using violence and secure oil and gas. As for the remaining issues, these are negotiable.

El-Khabar: The Islamist movement seems to be doing well given the rapprochement taking place between its leaders. Does it have a chance in the 2014 elections, or is the game closed?

Abidi: If the Islamist movement enters the presidential elections without guarantees of fundamental change in the decision-making mechanisms and constitutionalization of the country’s laws, it will be going against the flow, and it will prove once again that it is blinded by a lust for power and that it supports the authoritarian nature of the system, rather than working on the adoption of costly and arduous political and economic reform. It is hard for the honeymoon between the Islamist leaders to last amid the internal mining strategy, and the obsession with imitating or using foreign countries to derive strength.

The faltering situation in Egypt — after the Islamist candidate came to power and the dominated all aspects of authority — will discourage the Islamist movement in Algeria from participating in the presidential elections. If the Islamists’ management of municipalities is very limited, then their arrival to the presidential elections amid the current polarization will be disastrous.

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