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Mar 13, 2019 | 21:13 GMT

9 mins read

Algeria Reaches a Transitional Moment

Protesters rally in Algiers on March 8 against President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika's bid for a fifth term. Bouteflika announced on March 11 that he would not seek re-election and then postponed the country's April 18 presidential election.
(RYAD KRAMDI/AFP/Getty Images)
Stratfor's geopolitical guidance provides insight on what we're watching out for in the week ahead.
Highlights
  • Algerian President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika's surprise announcement that he will not run in the next election in deference to public unrest and demands points to the uniqueness of this transitional moment in Algeria's modern history.
  • The three groups of stakeholders to watch amid the debate on a post-Bouteflika succession plan include the military elite, led by Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah; the business elite, including trade unions and business conglomerate bosses; and the two parties in the government's ruling coalition, the National Liberation Front and the Democratic National Rally.
  • Continued civil unrest will also foster an environment in which these stakeholders, who are fearful of losing control of the simmering Algerian street, must make space at the table for opposition parties and civil society groups that are often shut out of the political process.

Algerian President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika announced on March 11 that he will not run for a fifth term after all. He also postponed, without setting a new date, the country's presidential election that had been scheduled for April 18. What's more, he repeated a call he made last week to convene a national conference by the end of the year to plan Algeria's future. Bouteflika appointed veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi to lead the conference, whose task will be to pen a new constitution that will go to a popular referendum before the next presidential election can take place. A government reshuffle also followed Bouteflika's announcement. The president replaced Ahmed Ouyahia, who resigned as prime minister, with former Interior Minister and confidant Noureddine Bedoui, tasking him with forming a government. Meanwhile, Ramtane Lamamra, a former foreign minister and an adviser to Bouteflika, became foreign minister and deputy prime minister, a new position.

The Big Picture

Algeria's worsening economic strain, as well as the government's halting progress toward much-needed economic reforms, is exasperating Algerians. Amid the economic pressure, Algerians are also increasingly tired of politics as usual, and are uniquely pushing back against the government's effort to extend the current president's term.

The decisions by Bouteflika (and the circle of power around him) overtly show that the government is willing to bow to public pressure after weeks of protests and an ongoing general strike. Celebrations in the streets continue as Algerians grapple with the reality that their next president will not be the infirm, 82-year-old politician who has led them for 20 years. Officially scuttling plans for Bouteflika to run for a fifth term is remarkable for Algeria, where 53 percent of the population is under 30 and barely knows another president. But even though Bouteflika's announcement underlines the importance of the current transitional moment in Algeria, it also highlights how the ruling powers remain firmly in control, and that they are still struggling to hand off power to a new generation in a way that satisfies all the stakeholders in the Algerian government. It's a task that's well-nigh impossible.

Algeria's Key Political Stakeholders

Algeria's political elite falls into three broad categories: the powerful military, the business elite and the civil government — in particular, bureaucrats within Bouteflika's National Liberation Front and its coalition partner, the Democratic National Rally. Together, these political entities dominate Algeria's parliament, holding 264 of 480 seats, and have backed Bouteflika's long presidency. These stakeholders engage in a tug of war for influence, which lends complexity to the Algerian government's power structure and contributes to an enduring problem: They can't agree on a successor to Bouteflika, who suffered a debilitating stroke in 2013. Even though the Algerian constitution details the necessary steps in the event of the president's incapacitation, all of these feuding stakeholders have publicly maintained that Bouteflika is Algeria's rightful leader — not because he is the best leader, but because he is the best compromise candidate. More than that, the Bouteflika clan has anti-colonial and anti-jihadist credentials that have given the longtime president legitimacy that other contenders for his position have struggled to attain.

The decision to delay the presidential election followed a shift by two of these three key stakeholders. Pressure from prominent companies increased when employees from companies like Groupe Cevital and state-owned utility Sonelgaz unusually announced that they too would support the general strike. Army chief Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah also began to express some solidarity with the protesters. No doubt these major stakeholders fear that increasing destabilization puts their political positions at risk. Delaying April's election prolongs Bouteflika's current term, giving these stakeholders more time to settle their feud over an optimal succession as they seek to maintain their tight grip on the political narrative and state institutions.

What will happen with each of the key stakeholders in the coming weeks and months? Within the president's close circle, there are plenty of loyalists who are jostling for influence over succession. Said Bouteflika has long been very close to his brother, as well as a guiding influence in his affairs. Although Algerians are likely tired of the Bouteflika name and are thus reluctant to vote for a younger version of the same, Said Bouteflika is a possible successor. A technocratic confidant of the president could also be pushed forward to assume the reins, including the newly named deputy prime minister, Lamamra. Individuals from the president's National Liberation Front party, like Ali Benflis, who have previously broken with Bouteflika (Benflis has run unsuccessfully against him in previous presidential elections) will also likely emerge now that Bouteflika is out of the running and there are votes to gain from Algerians who broadly agree with the policy priorities of the National Liberation Front but have grown tired of the current president.

Within the president's close circle, there are plenty of loyalists who are jostling for influence over succession.

With respect to the military, the armed forces remain, on paper, in close coordination with the Bouteflika clan. However, this week's crack in Salah's support for Bouteflika, and the surprising solidarity that a prominent veterans' group expressed for the protesters, hints at the military's dissatisfaction with the Bouteflika clan and the family's desire to save itself if unrest heightens. Salah led significant reshuffles last year throughout all ranks of the armed forces, for the stated purpose of anti-corruption and modernization. An unstated reason was likely Salah's desire to shore up support in the military for himself and his loyalists. The moves have helped Salah maintain the army's support for Bouteflika in the near term with an eye toward protecting the army's continued political dominance. They have also helped Salah create leverage for himself and the armed forces in the ongoing succession debate. The fact that Salah met with Bouteflika on March 11 just before the presidency released its surprise announcement underlines how powerful the military's opinion and influence is for the ruling civil government.

Other individuals to watch during the succession debate and the uncertainty to come are the recently deposed and demoted security forces who previously enjoyed powerful positions. This includes former head of general intelligence Mohamed "Toufik" Mediene, who was demoted several years ago to an advisory role to the president, as well as more recently unseated security officials such as national police chief Abdelghani Hamel. Even more important to watch are politicians with military credentials who have split with the military's party line, like Ali Ghediri, who has honed his anti-Bouteflika message for years and appointed this week a financial technocrat as his campaign manager.

The business elite is critical to watch, particularly the bosses of major family-run conglomerates, oil- and gas-related companies, and trade and labor union bosses, because of their control over Algerian capital and economic resources. They are also the front line in implementing any economic reforms the government is trying to push through, like bolstering the private sector and decreasing Algerians' relative dependence on public sector jobs, but the Bouteflika government's economic policies have left the business sector increasingly nonplussed. A surprising number of companies have begun expressing solidarity with the protesters in recent weeks, which hints more at the business elite's weariness with the Bouteflika clan than their interest in different economic reforms. It will be critical to watch major companies like Sonatrach and major trade and labor unions like the General Union of Algerian Workers, because they have long been loyal to the Bouteflika clan but are also eager for changes that could rejuvenate Algeria's stagnant economy (so long as they maintain some influence throughout the reform process).

Historically weaker stakeholders will be able to take advantage of this transitional moment.

The tug of war between these three powerful groups of stakeholders also means we're in an environment in which other historically weaker stakeholders will be able to take advantage of this transitional moment. Though civil society organizations and the other branches of government, including the judiciary, are typically tightly controlled by this balance among the ruling coalition, the military and business bosses, the unusually public demonstrations and strikes have nonetheless emboldened them. Notably this week, a group of 1,000 judges announced they would not oversee the election if Bouteflika ran, breaking with usual form. Civil society stakeholders like Mouwatana, Algerian human rights organizations and other vocal political opposition parties like the Rally for Culture and Democracy will do everything they can to influence the national conference discussion in their favor. Faced with the overwhelming reality of likely further civil unrest, the major stakeholders are in a weaker position, which means the opposition will get a rare seat at the debate table.

Continued Unrest in the Offing

Continued popular unrest is inevitable in the coming weeks and months, which will add urgency to the dealings of the national conference, and the tug of war among the military, the ruling coalition, the business elite and civil society over a succession plan. The recent unrest has opened a Pandora's box, which means the government has to devise some solutions, and fast, to keep people calm, because some of the unrest could metastasize into violence. The current government reshuffle, with Bedoui taking his place as prime minister, might be enough to get major business associations and leaders to calm down, as well as those who were specifically calling for Bouteflika to not run again. Ouyahia's resignation as prime minister also removes one of the politicians most closely associated with economic mismanagement, which could have some calming effect in the interim.

But the changes won't be enough for those Algerians whose calls in the streets are evolving each day. Many in the political opposition and on the street view Bouteflika's decision as an unconstitutional continuation of his fourth term. Moreover, the new government — with close Bouteflika confidants — is helmed by Bouteflika clan loyalists. Protesters' demands have been shifting and growing, meaning the government has struggled, and could continue to do so, to keep up. Unrest could also continue after Bouteflika's constitutionally legal term ends April 26.

There is a high likelihood of ongoing strikes, as well as business disruptions in demonstrations. (For example, many businesses remained closed in downtown Algiers on March 12, not so much as a political statement but because business owners fear property damage from ongoing student demonstrations against the government.) Also, in the longer term, the government cannot make necessary and much-demanded changes to Algeria's archaic foreign investment regulations without a settled government. For the next year, however, the focus will be on the national conference, constitutional amendments and upcoming elections. All the while, an emboldened political opposition will be pushing for the very reforms that the embattled government will be struggling to debate, let alone deliver, while they tussle over who should lead the country next, and when.

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