Algeria’s Military Faces an Existential Choice

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- “Le pouvoir”—as Algerians call their ruling clique of politicians, military leaders and businessmen—was never going to give up “the power” so easily.

Hopes rose briefly last week when army chief General Ahmed Gaid Salah, responding to weeks of street protests, forced the ailing 82-year-old Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down from the presidency. Then came the appointment of Abdelkader Bensalah as president pro tem.

Bensalah, the speaker of the upper house of parliament, is a creature of the establishment: Indeed, he was the titular head of the 1994-97 National Transitional Council, controlled by the army, which paved the way for the consolidation of the clique’s authority. At 77, he is only two years younger than Salah, and five years younger than the man he replaces. He represents neither political nor generational change.

Unsurprisingly, protesters took to the streets of Algiers with the slogan, “Bensalah Go!”

Salah might well claim that he’s playing by the rules: Algeria’s constitution requires the head of the senate to take over from a departing president. But the general could have pressured Bensalah to step aside for a younger figure with credentials as a change-agent—or at least someone who is not so obviously a rubber stamp. He will have known how the protesters would react. His willingness to go with Bensalah suggests that, for all his expressions of solidarity with the protesters, the general is disinclined to weaken le pouvoir’s grip on power.

The president pro tem has 90 days in which to organize new elections. What this means for Bouteflika’s promise of a new constitution before the vote is unclear: but there’s little chance it can be drafted in that time frame. An election held under the existing constitution, and the existing power structure, is unlikely to deliver the change that protesters demand.

Inevitably, comparisons will be made to the Egyptian experience after the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak in the Arab Spring of 2011. Then, the Egyptian military made a show of siding with the revolution and allowing elections—only to reclaim power in a bloody 2013 coup led by General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.

Will the Algerian military, under Gen. Salah, go down the same path? There are some complications. For one, he has no convenient bogeyman, no existential threat against which he can claim to be protecting Algeria. Egypt’s Sisi was able to play on fears—among Egyptians and the country’s allies alike—of Islamic fundamentalism. The misrule of the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government played into his hands. But Algeria’s Islamists were crushed in the 1990s, and are unlikely to be a major factor in any elections, much less form a conveniently inept government for Salah to exploit.

Another complication for Salah is the parlous state of Algeria’s economy. Bouteflika’s preferred manner of dealing with a dissatisfied populace was to dole out subsidies and handouts, benefits that the government can no longer afford. For Salah, the reins of power would also come with ownership of the economic mess. Far better to leave the cleaning up to a democratically elected government.

The general may also consider the cost to the institution he represents. Algeria’s military enjoys widespread popularity; it is perceived as less corrupt than its Egyptian counterpart, and not nearly as dominant in the economy. Algerians have few illusions about the military’s behind-the-scenes political power, but they have tended to blame their problems on their politicians more than on the men in uniform. 

Power without responsibility: that has suited Algeria’s military well for the best part of two decades. Gen. Salah seems to be counting on Bensalah to keep things that way. But if le pouvoir won’t give up so easily, neither will the protesters.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

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