international analysis and commentary

Bouteflika after Bouteflika: Algeria’s internal challenges and regional role

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Three years after the Arab revolutions drove out dictatorships but could not bring in democracy (with the exception of Tunisia), Algeria held presidential elections this April. The controversy over the unexpected candidacy of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for a fourth term took center stage both before and during the election campaign. The fact that he was seeking a new mandate was a surprise to public opinion due to three main reasons: the consequences of the Arab Spring, Boutefika’s failing health and his commitment expressed on the eve of the 2012 parliamentary elections in which he announced his intention to pass the torch on to the younger generation. The argument of stability, however, apparently prevailed over change and Boutefika won the elections with more than 80% of the vote.

It should also be noted that a charismatic figure who can unite the democratic opposition does not exist in the Algerian political class and therefore President Bouteflika appeared to voters, despite his failing health, as the only man who embodies stability and peace.

Bouteflika, a 77-year old veteran of Algeria’s war of independence, remains popular in Algeria. Opposition parties who rallied against a 4th term for the long-time leader, already lost the term limits battle in 2008 when Bouteflika amended the constitution to remove the section that allowed presidents to serve only two terms. Political debate during campaigning was focused very much on the moral aspect of this, though it was evident that only his failing health would have prevented Bouteflika from seeking the extra term. One reason was due to a lack of unity in the opposition and in civil society. Boycotters and the Barakat movement staged weekly demonstrations in Algiers and in other cities but were unable to draw in large numbers of supporters.

Some critics cite police repression in preventing Bouteflika’s opponents from marches, however it remains that the social climate in Algeria is far from that of Egypt or Tunisia where people are highly engaged in political issues. Thus, the results of the presidential election were somewhat expected and far from ambiguous: President Bouteflika took 81.53% of votes; Ali Benflis, 12.18%; Abdelaziz Belaid, 3.36%; Louisa Hanoune, 1.37%; Ali Fawzi Rebaine; 0.99% and Moussa Touati 0.56%. Benflis, Bouteflika’s main rival, denounced in a public statement “massive fraud” in the elections (without providing concrete evidence of this accusation) and announced his intention to work alongside opposition parties towards peaceful change of the Algerian political system.

On the other side of the spectrum, Louisa Hanoune, Secretary General of the Workers Party and candidate in the presidential election said that the vote took place under good conditions and that no act of fraud or excess has been reported. She also noted that this is the first time that the regularity and transparency of an election has been respected.

But a question remains: can the opposition effectively reverse current policy trends? The opposition was embodied in the Barakat movement and in the boycotters through the party for Culture and Democracy (RCD), the Movement for Society for Peace (MSP), Jil Jadid (new generation), Ennahda, the Front for Justice and Development (PJD), as well as political figures such as the former head of government Ahmed Benbitour. However, nothing is less certain than actually creating change. It should be remembered that Algerians have not adhered to the initiative of the NCCD (National Coordination for Change and Democracy) launched in the wake of the Arab Spring in 2011. Still traumatized by the “black decade” of civil war (the 1990s), Algerians certainly do not want change through violence. Over the past decade, the government has increased subsidies, housing and job creation programs as social riots marred the country.  But as the economy is 98% dependent on oil exports, a possible drop in oil prices could deal a blow to the government’s social policy, and thus the country’s stability. IMF forecasts are good for Algeria but in the absence of an alternative economy, oil revenues cannot indefinitely assure the functioning of the state. With nearly $200 billion in reserves from energy income, Algeria still has a large financial cushion, but it needs to invest these resources wisely.

Algeria, France and the US
Since the French intervention in northern Mali in early 2013, and the terrorist attack against the gas site of Tiguentourine, Algeria is looking for a new regional role to cope with the consequences of destabilization in neighboring states and to strengthen security cooperation. In this context, the visit of the US Secretary of State John Kerry in early April gave Algiers an opportunity to reframe its bilateral relations and Algeria’s regional role. Kerry effectively laid a new basis for relations between Washington and Algiers, “The United States will work with the president of Algeria that the people choose in order to bring about the future that Algeria and its neighbors deserve. That and a future where citizens can enjoy the free exercise of their civil, political and human rights and where global companies are confident in being able to invest for the long haul.”

Washington has quietly supported the French agenda in the region in assessing North Africa in the current environment, and the Obama administration needs Algeria as a pivot state in the coming months. First, Algiers will strengthen its economic assistance to the young Tunisian democracy – aid will reach 300 million euros this year. Forms of cooperation are also underway with Libya in support of its challenging state-building exercise: Algeria has already begun training programs that will affect 400 Libyan military in Algerian barracks. Partnerships will also be concluded for the protection of southern borders and the Sahel – including one with police and customs. John Kerry expressed recognition by Washington of Algiers’s role in the region, “We are grateful, very grateful for Algeria’s efforts in Mali and Niger all which underscore Algeria’s constructive role in regional stability not only in the east aim, to the south also. In the years to come, the United States hopes to partner with Algeria to build a more robust defense relationship based on mutual respect and what I mentioned earlier obviously, our shared Interests. Together, we can help other nations in the area secure borders strengthen their rule of law and steadily build democratic institutions.”

On the economic front, the US announced the participation of 68 companies at the International Fair of Algiers with the visit of the Secretary of Energy, Ernest Moniz next June. American business will be the guest of honor at the Fair.  It’s no coincidence that John Kerry stressed the importance of the contract ($2 billion) signed by General Electric (GE) with the Algerian electricity and gas company in 2013, but also the technological contribution that the The Secretary of State has also launched an initiative with the states in the region to fund an education project in tribute to the memory of Ambassador Christopher Stevens who was killed by Islamists on September 11, 2012 in Benghazi. A positive and unexpected response has come from Algiers, before other official reactions: the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has announce the release of $1.3 million to finance the project.

The MENA area and Europe
Western partners have often asked Algiers to be the locomotive of various initiatives in the region, considering that nothing can be done without Algeria. It is a condition in with which the US, through AFRICOM and NATO, seems to be comfortable in order to secure an area infiltrated by Al-Qaeda groups for years.  But this strategy needs instruments.

In particular, the CRIC* Committee Joint Operational Headquarters based in Tamanrasset (southern Algeria), which includes Mali, Niger and Mauritania, must play a more effective role in the future in securing and stabilizing the Sahel. The Algerian army is the cornerstone of Sahel-Maghreb security cooperation, but the Algerians need US backing in order to convince Tripoli, Tunis, Bamako and Niamey to participate in the system with less distrust of Algeria. A serious obstacle in this process is Morocco: Algiers seems to not appreciate the participation of Moroccans in coordinated operations, and here is where American mediation might prove very useful.

Europe decided not to send electoral observers to Algeria. It is early to say whether this was a wise choice. In any case, Brussels has, once again, followed the advice of Paris.  Since the military intervention in the North of Mali, which saved the country from terrorism, France wanted to use the occasion to mark his return in the Sahel area in order to protect its interests – among which, uranium reserves. Be it as it may, Algiers will remember this refusal when it comes to security cooperation, especially in the Sahel, where the strategic interests of the EU are numerous and complex. The immediate consequences could be that some capitals like Berlin and Rome begin to stir to strengthen bilateral relations with Algeria in the security and military realms outside the EU mechanisms. Their logical aim would be to a an active role in the new geostrategic configuration that John Kerry’s visit has marked.

Political reforms, rejuvenation and anti-corruption
Anxious to preserve stability, the Algerian political system will reform itself despite the 4th term of President Bouteflika. The conditions do exist for a political transition, that will allow the younger generation of executives to participate in the management of national affairs. Greater democratic opening will come through reforms with terms limits for the president and wider powers for opposition parties and civil society. The first step should be the revision of the constitution to enshrine the presidential term limits. A major anti-corruption effort is equally crucial, while an inclusive form of democracy must be pursued by offering members of opposition parties as well as civil society to hold important official positions. These are pressing Western requests that Algiers understood and integrated into its internal reflection. Ahmed Ouyahia, former prime minister who has been named Chief of Staff of the Presidency of the Republic may be called upon to play a greater role in this overall process – perhaps as Vice President, a new position that might be established in the future revision of the basic law.

After having escaped the Arab Spring and avoiding a fundamentalist power grab during the 2012 parliamentary elections, the presidential elections seem to mark, in any case, the will of the Algerian people to opt for stability, but with a clear message that political reforms are not only urgent, but inescapable.

 


* The CRIC (or CEMOC in the French language) means the Committee Joint Operational Headquarters (In French Comité d’état-major opérationnel conjoint). Except specialists, few people know that acronym. It is a military staff structure involving the armed forces of several countries in the Sahel under the auspices of Algeria to conduct operations to locate and destroy terrorist groups. The structure was created on April 21, 2010.