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Thursday, September 8, 2011
Algeria, Revolutionary In Name Only
By John P. Entelis
Is Algeria Next?
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.
reluctance to abandon its fellow revolutionary in Libya flows from an outdated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.
"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."
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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"?
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.
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.
-This commentary was published in The Foreign Policy on 07/09/2011
-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