Algeria in eye of storm as elections near

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The controversy surrounding Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision to run for a fourth term in the upcoming elections has only added to the crises facing the country.

The Algerian regime is facing a dangerous crisis as presidential elections — the first round scheduled for April 17 — approach, and as the president-elect will be required to take or recommend important “organic” decisions (namely relevant to state institutions, structure and principles). The team of Gen. Mohamed Mediene — also known as “Toufik” — who has been head of the political police for 23 years, is involved in a dispute with the team of Lt. Gen. Ahmed Kaid Saleh who is backed by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. This dispute emerged as a result of a decision to remove generals from the intelligence services (including stripping Mediene of some of his powers) and of the battles raging in the press. [The dispute] is now before the whole world.

The airing of dirty laundry has forced the head of state to interfere, through a Feb. 24 statement issued as an attempt to impose silence within the ranks of the regime. He relatively succeeded, yet, this silence is no longer fooling anyone. The dispute is wreaking havoc and will sooner or later result in the withdrawal of one of the two conflicting parties. The consensus at the top, which was imposed in the early 1990s under the supervision of Maj. Gen. Larbi Belkheir (who died in 2010) and Maj. Gen. Khaled Nezzar (who retired in 1994), has become obsolete. The rift in the ruling group has stressed the need to bring in younger figures — an even more urgent need given the failures of the intelligence and security services in countering terrorism — particularly in the Algerian desert in the south and the Sahel region.

This unhealthy climate has been nourished by disagreements over Bouteflika’s decision to run for a fourth term in the upcoming elections, as his health has deteriorated drastically. Following these alarming disagreements, the electoral campaign — surreal in every sense of the word — was able to gain media attention, though weak. Bouteflika, who cannot move and speak for more than a few seconds, has entrusted to the unpopular Abdelmalek Sellal the task of managing his electoral campaign. The latter has temporarily left his post of prime minister to lead the campaign and tell crude jokes. He, however, decreased the number of popular gatherings, as his presence has raised more discontent than sympathy toward Bouteflika.

Things are not much better for candidates who are entrusted by the political police with assuming the role of “pace makers” in the advantage of Bouteflika. Their performance is lower than expected, as they only succeeded in running comic election campaigns. As for those candidates whose role is limited to embellishing the ballot, the Trotskyist candidate Louisa Hanoune has made long speeches to warn against foreign interference in front of audiences sometimes only consisting of children. Meanwhile, the remaining candidates have failed to mobilize the masses outside their personal surroundings. As for the pseudo-opposition, which was allowed to call for an elections boycott or the rejection of the fourth term of Bouteflika, it is not even able to fill the gathering halls put at its disposal.

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The Barakat, or Enough, movement could not reach out to public opinion. There is no remarkable echo to this campaign that aspires to break society's wall of apathy. The low-income neighborhoods in the major cities are far removed from movements that are more or less controlled by those in power. Many consider the situation to be better than any other. If the anger of social groups that are deprived of state welfare explodes, it will destroy everything: the regime, its cronies and the whole country and society, which observers fear. It is no secret that Algerians — who are weakened by the wounds of “the war on the people” of the 1990s — are seen today with misprision by “the thieves” of the regime. This is why they waver between complete apathy and deep discontent.

With the exception of the regime cronies who get a share of state welfare, the citizens do not listen to advocates of political and economic petrification disguised under the banner of stability, or to those whose stance is centered on rejecting Bouteflika’s fourth term. Barakat is a movement led by figures who spontaneously emerged in the street and who are not known on the scene, but apparently are part of the middle class. The movement was also unable to build a bridge with the public. Despite (or probably because of) the extensive media coverage and flurry of activity on social networking sites, the demonstrations held by Barakat attract more police personnel than supporters. Just as the Algerians do not recognize the credibility of the elite that is being strongly present in the media, they view with suspicion movements that are reminiscent of the “Arab Spring.” It seems that they do not want a Western “democratic” shelling.

Although the Algerian people were not enchanted by late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, they cannot bear see another Muslim Arab country, such as Iraq and then Libya, destroyed in the name of a false democratic liberation led by a colonial force backed by the United States. Moreover, they know that the only true Arab revolution is the one conducted by the Tunisian people.

As for all other revolutions, they were affected by foreign influence, starting with Yemen, which is now under the grip of Saudi Arabia, to Syria, which has turned into a geostrategic battlefield, and finally Egypt, which is currently under a military dictatorship. At the grassroots level, political gambles in the Middle East are viewed from a key angle related to the cause of the Palestinian people. Seeing the West and Gulf kings rushing to rescue the armed “opposition” in these countries will only reduce their credibility in the eyes of Algerians, who have paid the price of a raging war to share the welfare under the horrible isolation that they lived in the 1990s.

This particular political sensitivity characterizes Algeria, along with its modern history. This explains the patience of Algerians in dealing with the oppressive tyrants, although they knew very well how nasty these tyrants were.

Rampant corruption and waste of resources

The possible failure to manage the country and the intimidating corruption affecting all sectors has added insult to injury. Moreover, the decline in fossil fuel yields (constituting 97% of Algeria’s foreign income) is not an illusion. Gas exports did not exceed 45 billion cubic meters in 2013. This drop is partially one of the repercussions of the December 2013 terrorist attack on Tigantourine gas facility, which led to the loss of 8 billion cubic meters of energy exports. However, Algerian experts believe that the decline in gas production started before this attack.

Production reached its peak in 2005 with 65 billion cubic meters. This figure remained quite far from speculations that production would reach 85 billion cubic meters in 2012. Petroleum production is also dropping, as new discoveries have been limited to mildly important fields. A former official in Sonatrach, a petroleum and gas company, did not rule out the possibility that Algeria might find itself, by 2030, unable to commit to its export engagements if it does not make huge drilling efforts and follow an efficient energy policy. The experts also confirmed that making use of shale gas will not be enough to compensate for the definite decline in national production capacities and that this use will, at best, contribute to reducing the effects of limited production of traditional gas in the coming years. However, these grim prospects have not reduced the greed of the rulers of the country and the powerful oligarchy, who have been implementing for years now an economic policy that is, in fact, a real theft policy. Moreover, the unequal distribution of yields has deeply poisoned the general atmosphere (the number of billionaires who have emerged out of the blue is no less surprising than the level of misery of entire groups of the population).

The strategy of “public bribery,” which aims to ease social agitation, seems pricey and inefficient. Half of the 35 million Algerians that constitute the population do not live in proper houses and do not receive appropriate health care. Just like the health system, the education system has experienced a complete setback. The high rate of unemployment, especially among youth, is the clearest proof that the Algerian economy is totally based on exporting hydrocarbons. But this activity is declining, while imports destined for consumption is constantly on the rise.

Official figures indicate that the commercial surplus disappeared after it reached $20 billion in 2011. Furthermore, the balance of payments was almost equal at the end of 2013. Hydrocarbon export revenue dropped from $70 billion in 2012 to $63 billion in 2013, while exports witnessed a 7% increase.

The countdown has begun

Although it is obvious that nobody wants tension in Algeria due to the danger of a spillover, it is also clear that constantly weakening Algeria serves the strategies of many regional and international players. Algeria has been crippled politically and economically, and today, it has been diplomatically silenced. The increasing emergence of jihadist groups on the African coast and the military return of the former French colonial power stand witness to that. Neutralizing Algeria’s influence, which is shown through its support for fair cases like the Palestinian cause, helps achieve the goals of those aspiring to keep the Maghreb under the great powers’ command. The visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry to the Algerian capital should be read in this context. The American leaders do not trust the Algerian leaders, and their friendly statements are mere talk. Even if they were honest, they have put aside their objections to the human rights situation since 2001 to cooperate with the Algerian authorities in their perpetual war on terrorism.

The United States is content with the geopolitical role of Algeria, therefore, it is not asking Algeria to democratize its regime, which was politically commended by the US foreign minister. However, the US commendation was dishonest. Despite the significant foreign support, in the absence of public support for the regime, the countdown has started. If wisdom and reason do not prevail, it is likely that Algeria will enter into a rough danger zone. The danger proved imminent during the latest television appearance of President Bouteflika, when he gave Army Chief of Staff Saleh full power to solve security problems, putting Toufik, head of the intelligence and security department, under Saleh’s command.

Will the president’s voice be heard? Will Saleh be able to impose his power on the army and its intelligence? Will Toufik manage to dissolve this alliance (between the chief of staff and the president) so that he can further tighten his grip on the state’s institutions? Algeria is in the eye of the storm, and if it does not hand over the reins of power in the army to a new generation of officers and fails to reach a new settlement among all political forces, including the military institution, the country’s future will be at stake. With the current pronounced divisions on the political front, the tough boycotts are not mere theories. It is unrealistic to perceive a solution for the crisis if the army and regime do not cooperate and if there is no democratic consensus. In such a situation, the door will be wide open for the worst of possibilities. All the components of this multidimensional crisis are present: regional temptations, greed of the prevalent oligarchy and conflicts over power between the great powers.

The above article was translated from As-Safir Al-Arabi, a special supplement of As-Safir newspaper whose content is provided through a joint venture of As-Safir and Al-Monitor.

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Found in: revolution, military, elections, dictator, arab spring, algerian elections, abdelaziz bouteflika
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