Algeria’s Power Clique Must Keep Bouteflika’s Promise

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Will Algeria, long a model of relative stability in the region, go the way of Tunisia, Egypt  or—heaven forbid—Libya and Yemen? On the evidence so far, the answer is none of the above.

After three weeks of popular protests that inevitably drew comparisons with the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s announcement that he will not seek a fifth term in power is being likened to the fall of other tyrants—Tunisia’s Zine al-­Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Muammar ­Qaddafi, and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh. It is tempting, too, to speculate on whether Algeria will follow Tunisia’s path to democracy, Egypt’s counterrevolutionary military ascendancy, or the horrific civil wars of Libya and Yemen.

Certainly, the outcomes of the Arab Spring revolutions will inform the actions of all the players in the Algerian drama—Bouteflika’s ruling clique, the military and the protesters. But they will view the events of 2011-12 through the prism of Algeria’s own unique circumstances and experience.

Bouteflika is quite different from the four toppled tyrants. Much admired for his role in ending Algeria’s civil war of the 1990s, he is not regarded to be as corrupt and venal as Ben Ali and Mubarak, nor as brutal as Qaddafi and Saleh—these are, admittedly, very high bars. Had he bowed out of office after his 2013 stroke, Bouteflika might have been given a fond farewell by many of those who now mock his age and infirmity, and be remembered as the leader who survived the Arab Spring without resorting to brute force.

Likewise, the parallels between the protests in Algeria and those of the Arab Spring diverge on closer examination. As I wrote two weeks ago, the most popular slogan in the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli and Sanaa was, “The people want to bring down the regime.” In Algiers, it was: “No fifth mandate for you, Bouteflika.” His announcement should satisfy a large proportion of the protesters.

But only if he really means to give up power. Bouteflika has deferred the vote, due next month, until after a national conference to discuss political and economic reforms, draft a new constitution and put it to a referendum. The election is to take place at the end of the year. If effect, says Sarah Feuer, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “the announcement could merely prolong Bouteflika’s fourth term.”

In the meantime, a transitional administration will be led by Interior Minister Noureddine Bedoui, with a Bouteflika ally, Ramtane Lamamra, as his deputy. 

The bottom line is that Bouteflika is still president, and the ruling clique known as Le Pouvoir (or The Power)—including the president’s brother Said, top military commanders, and a small group of businessmen—remains unchanged.

And it could remain for a while yet. By promising a new constitution before the next vote, the regime has “essentially bought itself more time,” says Jonathan Hill, professor of international relations and director of the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College London. With Bouteflika remaining president and his trusted lieutenants running the administration while the new constitution is hashed out, this inner circle will retain the ability to put its finger on the scales.

Judging by the experience of Egypt and Tunisia, it is highly unlikely a new constitution will meet the year-end deadline: The vote may have to be delayed, giving the regime still more time to protect its power and privileges.

Many protesters say they intend to keep up pressure on the government until the regime—and not just Bouteflika—gives up its hold on power. There will likely be a celebratory air to the demonstrations planned for this weekend. But can they be sustained for weeks, even months, to come?

That will be the real test, of what the protesters want: “Those whose problem with Bouteflika was about his physical incapacity will feel they’re on the way to getting that,” says Hill. “But those who want the entire regime to be changed have a long way to go.” The two groups may have been united by a common desire to prevent the president from getting another term, but the regime now has the opportunity to play on divisions about what should come next.

As ever, a great deal will depend on the Algerian military, which enjoys both popular prestige and behind-the-scenes political power. After initially backing Bouteflika, army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah seemed to signal a change of heart in a speech last Sunday, when he pronounced that “the people and the army have a common vision of the future.” This may have been the straw that broke the president’s determination to contest the election.

For Olivier Guitta, who heads GlobalStrat, a security and geopolitical-risk consultancy, one of the key questions for Algeria now is “whether the army gives up power or follows the Egyptian model.” As yet, Salah has shown little inclination to ape Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, who shed his uniform to take political office. He may count himself fortunate that he didn’t find himself in the position of General Rachid Ammar, the Tunisian army chief who disregarded Ben Ali’s orders to fire on protesters.

In any event, the general will play an important role in the political realignment to come. The military is genuinely popular: Many Algerians regard it as their only protection against a return to the civil war, which killed tens of thousands. The memories of that conflict have been refreshed by the internecine wars now raging in Libya, Yemen and Syria. It may explain why the protesters have, for the most part, given the military a wide berth.

Algerians, understandably, are seeking a spring of their own.    

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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