This year’s political events in Algeria have been important, but they represent little more than the continuation of past events and policies. Opposition parties remain virtually unchanged, though they are attempting to meet more often and form a long-term platform. The re-election of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April 2014 sparked tensions and a series of protests, but these were small compared to other moments in Algerian history.
In order to understand the Algerian political landscape, we must appreciate the president’s limited role and the constant processes of bargaining and factionalism that marks the political system, both at its highest levels and at the grassroots. We must also understand the limits of the country’s political opposition, and the challenges it faces in attempting to rout the powers that be.
Algeria Makes the News
In the last several months, international media coverage on Algeria has focused on security issues and the impending political transition. On the security side, the narrative has focused on the country’s vast and permeable borders, high military expenditures, potential to broker peace among Libya’s fighting factions, and new position as North Africa’s “reluctant policeman.”
In terms of the political transition, much of the discussion began heating up well before President Bouteflika won his fourth term, in noticeably poor health and with an almost nonexistent public profile. His re-election was met with small protests both before and after election day. Led by both Islamist and secular opposition parties, such as the secular-Berberist party Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) and the MSP (Movement of Society and Peace) Islamist party, around 5,000 Algerians gathered in the Algiers sport’s stadium to call for an election boycott on April 15, just two days before polls opened. Despite these calls to protest the election, Bouteflika handily won with 81 percent of the vote and a 52 percent turnout rate.
But this has not stopped the opposition from continuing to push back. After the election, presidential contender Ali Benflis, as well as various opposition groups, accused the regime of voter fraud and corruption, though there was little evidence for these accusations besides procedural irregularities. In what was seen as a regime attempt to reach “across the aisle,” on May 15, former Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia invited opposition parties to meet and discuss a new draft constitution. With most groups less than receptive to the offer, the move did little more than spark another round of opposition meetings. On June 10, one of the largest gatherings of the Algerian opposition in the last twenty years took place in Algiers under the umbrella organization Coordination for Liberties and Democratic Transition (CLDT). The meeting’s goal was to move Algeria from a military-based regime to a real democracy.
The President’s Role in the Political System
In focusing exclusively on the presidential election, the international media has misunderstood the nature of the Algerian political system, which has historically been dominated by factional politics between and within various groups and individuals. These include the National Liberation Front (FLN)—the most powerful and organized political party in the country—the Algerian Peoples’ National Army (ANP), the president, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS), and several formal opposition parties.
The Algerian military is a particularly influential player. The institution reasserted itself in the early 1990s, after forcibly canceling the second round of parliamentary elections in 1991 when the popular Islamist party at the time, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), appeared set to win. A decade of civil war between the government and Islamic militant groups followed, and brought unchecked power to the Algerian army.
Since being elected president in 1999, Bouteflika has been credited with managing a period of economic growth and stability. His rise to power came with the army’s support, a necessary requirement in the country’s political landscape. But as Algeria expert Hugh Roberts argues, the relationship between Bouteflika and the army was more complicated than many assume. In his 2007 report on “Demilitarizing Algeria,” Roberts describes a process of “bargaining” between Bouteflika and army generals in the early years of his presidency. At the center of this struggle was an attempt to limit the army’s role in civilian political affairs, in order to increase the president’s personal prestige, strengthen the executive branch’s influence, and cultivate more checks and balances on other power brokers:
[H]e [Bouteflika] presented himself to the army as its champion and defender, the main, if not sole, guarantor that its commanders would not be held to account for the ‘dirty war’ that had conducted against the Islamist insurgency. The persistence of international pressure on this point, fueled by a series of sensational revelations, enabled Bouteflika to bargain with the army commanders. In return for shielding the army, he sought to get it to withdraw from the political stage and also to reshuffle the high command and push into retirement the generals responsible for the 1992 coup and its bloody aftermath.
For many Algerians, Bouteflika helped put an end to the country’s armed conflict, circumscribed the military’s role in civilian affairs, and improved Algeria’s relations with other countries. His economic policies have even been credited with declining youth unemployment.
Yet, the Bouteflika regime has also continued oppressing independent labor unions and tightly monitoring anti-regime protests, including those seen in the months leading up to and following the 2014 presidential election. While election boycotters were officially allowed to organize rallies, the regime kept a close eye on meetings and was quick to dissolve them.
Algeria Opposition Groups and the Potential for Collaboration
The CLDT coalition meeting that took place in June included a variety of groups, such as the Islamist organizations Movement of Society for Peace, Jil Jadid, El Nahda, and El Adala, Berber/secular groups, like the RCD, and well-known, though unpopular, politicians such as Ahmed Benbitour, Algeria’s prime minister from 1999-2000. While the meeting was important in demonstrating a shift from short-term opposition strategies to a more long-term and viable political platform, the opposition’s very fractured and discredited image remains unchanged.
There are currently four different trends among the opposition, and the CLDT coalition represents just one of these. One coalition is actually part of the CLDT and is composed of Berberists and Islamists that focus on identity politics. Others include the Socialist Forces Front (FFS) and political parties that are united around individuals, such as Ali Benflis, an unsuccessful presidential candidate in 2004 and 2014. Mouloud Hamrouche, Algeria’s prime minister from 1989-1991 and a presidential candidate in 1999, leads a coalition that insists on including the military in any discussion about a political transition.
From amongst these groups, the FFS, Algeria’s oldest opposition party, is the only group that has not worked with the regime, and, therefore, has not been compromised in the people’s eyes. As for the rest of the opposition, many Algerians see them as part of a system in which power is abused and where the priorities of politicians have little to do with the people’s everyday frustrations. During his presidential campaign, Ali Beflis claimed he would fight corruption and empower Algeria’s youth, but these promises could not change the fact that he was once the leader of Algeria’s most influential, status-quo institution, the FLN.
The opposition’s focus on Bouteflika and his re-election also reveals the disconnect between the priorities of Algerians and the opposition’s interests. Bouteflika’s removal was not the goal of Algeria’s limited Arab Spring protests, as most people do not see the president as the source of their problems. In Algeria, various presidents have come and gone, while the system continues on. This is different from other countries in the region, which have maintained a system based on a cult of personality surrounding an individual leader, as was seen in Ben Ali’s Tunisia.
A study on Algeria by the Arab Barometer, a group founded in 2005 by scholars in the Arab world and the United States to better survey Middle East public opinion, demonstrates that many Algerians are in no hurry to see Bouteflika go and are more comfortable with slow political reform. Though this percentage decreased to around 50 percent right after the Arab Spring, by 2013, around 87 percent of Algerians were in favor of slower-paced reform. By contrast, economic issues are a major concern for most people in Algeria. While Algerians differ in their conceptions of democracy, the Arab Barometer’s statistics show that over half of those polled said that “the most important characteristic was economic in nature.”
Even if Bouteflika were the target of Algerians’ economic and political frustrations, the opposition would still stand little chance of overtaking the regime. The FLN is still the most popular political party in Algeria, as well as the best equipped in terms of mobilizing support and maintaining local patronage networks.
Protests and the Struggle for Resources
In October, over one thousand police protested outside the presidential palace, calling for a pay raise, free housing, better working conditions, and workers’ compensation. The police also demanded that the Director General of National Security, General Hamel Abdelghani, be fired. Abdelghani is accused of “hogra,” or injustice and corruption. One regional specialist, who wishes to remain anonymous, considers these unprecedented protests to be an expression of the way in which the regime works, rather than a call to end Bouteflika’s reign. While it is difficult to tell at this point, the protests are likely indicative of factionalism within the regime. Rather than calling for the regime’s overthrow, the groups involved in these demonstrations are looking to secure their own access to specific resources.
Dr. Thomas Serres of Université Jean Monnet at Saint-Étienne also views these protest as a form of in-fighting between different political “clans.”
The direction of the police has long been the center of the usual power struggles that reveal the highly fragmented nature of the Algerian regime. Ever since Bouteflika appointed Hamel [Abdelghani], he has been presented as a close ally of the presidential clan. He even seemed to be a potential successor to the president at the beginning of this year when there were doubts regarding the possibility of Bouteflika’s fourth mandate. In the present situation, the speculations regarding the conflicts within the DGSN are booming. Some have posited that these tensions are the result of a struggle between the DRS and the presidency in order to establish a plan for the succession. Others echo the well-known chorus that unspecified actors have manipulated the police, a state of affairs that could lead to a dramatic destabilization of the country. As always, there is no certitude regarding the current balance of power or the exact nature of this threat. In other words, there is nothing really new under the Algerian sun.
The Arab Barometer reveals trends about the question of democratization in Algeria, and sheds light on the divide between the people’s priorities and those of the political classes. Algerians understand that their country is crippled by systemic issues, including socioeconomic problems, which have little to do with the president. They are waiting for more members of the opposition to take this into account and offer viable alternatives for the future.
Foreign media coverage on Algeria consistently ignores the various power players and active factionalism between political groups. While the opposition is making inroads, by adjusting its strategies and developing alliances, it has a long way to go. Algeria did not react to the Arab Spring protests like other countries and the regime remains solidly in tact. While protests surrounding the 2014 presidential elections, President Bouteflika’s deteriorating health, increased opposition coordination, and recent police demonstration give the appearance of an impending transition, a deeper study of these events reveals patterns of continuity, rather than rupture, in the regime’s power and policies.