The Middle East Channel

Algeria, revolutionary in name only

The news that Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi’s wife and three of his children found political refuge in neighboring Algeria comes as no surprise given the country’s long-standing effort to reaffirm its revolutionary heritage, drawn from 132 years of colonial occupation and nearly eight years of a war of national liberation. Yet this historically-rooted revolutionary struggle was ...


The news that Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi’s wife and three of his children found political refuge in neighboring Algeria comes as no surprise given the country’s long-standing effort to reaffirm its revolutionary heritage, drawn from 132 years of colonial occupation and nearly eight years of a war of national liberation. Yet this historically-rooted revolutionary struggle was long ago routinized. The resulting bureaucratically defined and elitist directed nationalist myth is intended as much to sustain the political status quo as to serve as an exemplar of peoples’ revolt against hegemonic rule, whether foreign imposed or domestically conspired.

Algeria’s reluctance to abandon its fellow revolutionary in Libya flows from an outdated yet still dominant ideological frame of reference through which Algeria sees the world and wants to be seen by it. It also reflects an unwillingness to accept the new geopolitical and strategic realities that the Arab Spring has brought to North Africa and the Middle East.

This "stand pat" perspective exists in the context of fundamental challenges currently confronting the Algerian political system along three different but related axes. The first challenge is an intra-elite struggle for power between the governing class and the all-powerful intelligence services. Secondly, the battle for economic supremacy between resource nationalists and economic reformers has led to a political standstill. This conflict revolves around control over the "goose that lays the golden eggs" — Sonatrach, the country’s gargantuan national oil and gas company. Finally, intergenerational divisions plague state-society relations. Discontented, disillusioned, and desperate youth — often over-educated but under-employed — have taken to the streets in repeated wildcat strikes, public demonstrations, and other forms of anti-regime protest. Such protests signal a permanent rupture with the grand social contract implied in the post-independence ideological mantra, "the revolution for the people and by the people."

Recent developments point to an intra-elite power struggle at the highest levels of state authority involving the three pillars of the Algerian state: the military and intelligence agency; Sonatrach, representing the economic engine of the country; and the ruling elite in the governing party (Front de Libération National). In early January 2010, there was a political upheaval of national proportions affecting Sonatrach’s senior management team. The president of Sonatrach, Mohammed Meziane, and three of the company’s four vice presidents were fired as a result of a public corruption investigation. Algeria’s top security and intelligence agency, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS), headed by the influential General Mohammed "Tewfik" Mediène, initiated the investigation.   

Given the direct relationship between Meziane and his boss, Energy, Mines and Industry Minister Chakib Khelil, it was not long after the scandal broke out that Khelil himself was indirectly implicated. The minister was not charged but simply removed from his important position in a government reshuffle. A month later, major shifts in cabinet appointments followed another significant event — the assassination of Ali Tounsi, head of the national police or Direction Générale de la Sûreté Nationale (DGSN).

Tounsi was no mere flic (cop), but a key figure in the government security apparatus having directed the DGSN for over ten years. Under President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Tounsi modernized the national police force, overseeing a rapid expansion in personnel, and constructing dozens of new police stations across the country as part of the government’s anti-terrorism program. Bouteflika’s strong support for Tounsi’s efforts was part of the president’s larger strategy to create a powerful security force loyal to the executive and independent of the DRS. Although Tounsi himself was once a colonel in the army, he had been a civilian for many years. Thus, some analysts saw a connection between the DRS investigation of Sonatrach officials close to Bouteflika and the murder of the police chief.

Although the army high command (or le pouvoir) was instrumental in securing the Algerian presidency for Bouteflika in 1999, since that time — and following two successful back-to-back presidential reelections in 2004 and 2009 — Bouteflika has gradually reasserted authority over his military patrons. Through a combination of forced retirements, ambassadorial assignments, and the age-related deaths of many key high army officers, he was able to concentrate ultimate power within the executive office, with him at its head. This attempt at shifting the balance of power away from le pouvoir in favor of civilian authority did not sit well with Gen. Mediène — the aging but powerful head of the DRS and the country’s ultimate power broker.

In addition, unpacking the conflict between "resource nationalists" and economic reformers is crucial to understanding the government’s maneuvers. When Bouteflika announced the cabinet reshuffle at the end of May 2010, the political implications of the corruption scandal were still playing out. Ultimately, 14 men, the majority of whom formerly served as senior officials of Sonatrach, were indicted for their involvement in the direct awarding of contracts to international service companies. They were replaced by individuals identified more closely with resource nationalists, the old-line political conservatives, and le pouvoir.

In a blow to Bouteflika’s efforts to redirect the Algerian economy and polity away from its overly authoritarian past into a more liberal, pluralistic future, three principal members of Bouteflika’s government were removed from their cabinet positions. The sacked ministers, closely associated with reformist economic policies, were Chakib Khelil from the energy ministry, Abdelhamid Temmar from the investment promotion ministry, and Nourredine Zerhouni from the interior ministry. The confluence of the dramatic events described above virtually assures that hard-line resource nationalists will be determining the direction of the national economy — including the legal, administrative, and financial status of Sonatrach — in the immediate and intermediate future.

These governmental changes are significant because all three of the men removed from their high-profile positions were professionally, politically, and personally close to the Algerian president. Khelil and Temmar, for example, were central to Bouteflika’s efforts early on in his second term to open up the country to increased foreign investment, especially in the energy sector. Le pouvoir consistently opposed these efforts.

As interior minister, Zerhouni endeavored to exercise the full powers of the presidency. In his previous post, he had control of the DGSN, the police agency that had been significantly strengthened, ostensibly to reinforce the "war on terror," but also as a means of counter-balancing the power of le pouvoir — the army and the DRS. Now as "deputy prime minister," a new and undefined position, Zerhouni pales in comparison.

The changes in personnel reflect a broader policy shift in key areas of the economy, especially the energy sector. Both Khelil and Temmar came to represent the liberal moment in recent Algerian economic history, with the former tasked with the liberalization of the hydrocarbons industry in which foreign companies were to be allowed majority ownership in upstream oil and gas licenses and related downstream industry. Temmar was given responsibility for implementing a privatization policy intended to sell off more than 1,000 state-owned enterprises. But in the past five years, the two ministers had been undermined by an increasingly conservative regime strategy and, in any case, had long since ceased to promote market-oriented reforms.

The Arab Spring arrived at a critical juncture in Algeria’s modern history as a state and society are in the midst of great uncertainty. While anti-state behavior has not reached the proportions experienced in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, or Yemen, the protest movement does reflect a deep cleavage within the body politic. The gap between state and society in Algeria has never been wider than it is today. A deeply discontented mass public is demanding change from an apparently indifferent, if not contemptuous, ruling elite. The list of grievances held by the majority of ordinary Algerians cuts across every category of society, economy, and polity; grievances that have found expression in virtually daily acts of protests and other forms of civil disobedience.

To be sure, there are numerous factors that limit the degree of political change via populist protest in Algeria. The ferocity of a militarized apparatus determined to maintain itself in power at any cost is not the only impediment to revolution. Factors such as the size of the country, the diversity of its population, and the oil-generated wealth used to placate aggrieved classes also play a significant role. Furthermore, the recent memory of bloody civil war that left 200,000 dead along with the continued attacks by the terrorist group, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, hangs over the national consciousness, serving as a brake to large-scale domestic rebellion.

Meanwhile, Algeria’s youthful population, constituting the country’s majority, has begun to articulate a political vision far removed from the country’s aging ruling elite. The archaic phraseology of the past is now being replaced by explicit demands for political freedom, democracy, and human dignity. The emergence of a loosely coordinated group of opposition figures known as National Council for Democratic Change (Coordination nationale pour le changement et la démocratie) has spearheaded a populist revolt against the regime since early 2011, inspired in great measure by the intifadas taking place in North Africa and the Middle East. But is Algeria "next"?

The weakened president is unlikely to complete his third presidential term in 2014 because of visible illness, and the constitutional system does not provide a clear mechanism for political succession. Meanwhile, an individual who is himself, at 72, exhibiting signs of physical weakness, heads an emboldened national security apparatus. The hydrocarbon industry, from which virtually all sources of state revenues derive, remains politically manipulated and economically mismanaged. As such, an increasingly animated civil society is no longer willing to be placated by either rhetorical promises or short-term economic rewards as condition for political compliance.

What is clear is that the previous modes of rule-making and rule-enforcement will have to be fundamentally reconfigured to respond to populist demands for social advancement, economic opportunity, and political freedoms. Whether this process develops peacefully or violently is ultimately in the hands of le pouvoir — as it has been since the founding of the republic.

John P. Entelis is a professor of political science and director of the Middle East Studies Program at Fordham University. He is the editor of The Journal of North African Studies.

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