During the Arab Spring, the Algerian government fared better than many, possibly because memories of a recent civil war dissuaded citizens from taking part in protests. Still, Algeria's stability during that period of regional turmoil stems more from its deeply institutionalized security apparatus and the strength of President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika, its leader for a decade and a half.
Bouteflika's four presidential terms have shaped Algeria into a stable country governed by a strong civilian leadership. Increasing the power of his civilian government has been a tenet of his presidency, but the most defining changes — such as defanging the military intelligence service, which threatened the civilian leadership — have occurred over the last year or so. Despite his many critics, the patriotism the president inspires — a result of his revolutionary background and the important role he played in reconciliation after the bloody civil war — has helped preserve Algeria's stability in a volatile region. But Bouteflika's declining health raises concerns about the country's political future.
Bouteflika and his entourage maintain that the president has full control over his government, but he has rarely been seen in public since he fell ill in 2013. He holds Cabinet meetings infrequently, and Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal and the ruling National Liberation Front party's secretary-general, Amar Sadaani, often have spoken in his stead. In December, however, Bouteflika chaired several important meetings and met with numerous foreign leaders. The president appears to be solidifying legal frameworks within the country and diplomatic relationships abroad, possibly in preparation for Algeria's coming leadership succession.
By employing constitutional reform, Bouteflika could ensure a stable political future for Algeria, diffusing the president's power among a variety of stakeholders. For years, Bouteflika has floated the idea of weakening the presidency in favor of a stronger prime minister and parliament as part of a new constitution. Bouteflika began holding sessions on constitutional reform Dec. 14 — more than four years after he promised reforms to defuse political protests during the Arab Spring. The president then chaired a second closed session on constitutional reform Dec. 29. He is scheduled to chair a third session Dec. 30, ahead of announcing a constitution some time afterward. The new constitution will either be voted on in parliament or settled by referendum, likely in early January 2016.
Algeria's next leader will be a more neutral figure who will satisfy the requirements of the country's political, economic and military elites.
Aside from Bouteflika's constitutional reforms, he has also made changes to Algeria's security apparatus by weakening the Department of Intelligence and Security — Algeria's military intelligence service — both in its leadership and in its institutional form. This is a clear attempt to keep Algeria a civilian state after Bouteflika's presidency ends. The Algerian military under Gen. Gaid Salah will continue to wield extensive power and resources, but the political challenges the military intelligence service posed for Algeria's civilian government are not likely to recur while Salah — an ally of the Bouteflika clan — keeps watch. In line with Bouteflika's weakening of the Department of Intelligence and Security, the new intelligence chief, Athmane Tartag, broke away from the previous chief's reputation for opaqueness by appearing in public.
Though Bouteflika's leadership style is that of a strongman, few obvious candidates could re-create the inspiring charisma and zeal for Algerian nationalism that Bouteflika embodies. Algeria's next leader will be a more neutral figure who will satisfy the requirements of the country's political, economic and military elites. Bouteflika's successor will ensure the pre-eminence of security forces in battling militant groups, safeguard the country's hydrocarbon revenue and maintain Algeria's extensive patronage networks.
The president is laying the groundwork for a succession plan, and while he is unlikely to step down from the presidency, Bouteflika's deteriorating health adds urgency to the task of how Algeria will define itself in his absence.