It started on February 22, 2019. A series of powerful demonstrations throughout Algeria began, an unanticipated national mobilization. The demonstrations are massive, militant and well organized It continues as of this writing. When the announcement was made that Algeria’s ailing – to put it mildly – president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika would run for his fifth term a national protest explosion erupted that has not yet run its course. For weeks now Algerians have been turning out in force throughout the country voicing their disapproval at the very thought of Bouteflika running again.
The several weeks of non-stop demonstrations have achieved their first tactical victory. The upcoming elections where Bouteflika would have run for the fifth time have been called off. The Algiers’ power brokers have simply called off the election for the time being until they can figure out how to proceed.
It is a moment when political commentary passes from journalists and tv commentators to the street. The posters and banners reflect not only the demands for change, but as French publisher Francois Gèze pointed out “the remarkable lucidity” (la remarquable lucidité) of the Algerian people concerning the nature of their government. They were in Arabic, French and English:
• “Dear USA, there is no oil left, so STAY AWAY unless you want olive oil”
• “Algeria is kidnapped by a gang”
• “Voleurs, vous avez mangé le pays!” (Thieves, you have stolen our country)”
• “Monsieurs our generals! If you dare to fire a single shot, to spill one drop of our blood, THE PEOPLE will drag you to the International Criminal Court and indict you for crimes against humanity. The blood of the people is the red line you dare not cross.”
• “No the FLN, ni RND, ni DRS/GIA”
• “Those who plant misery will harvest the people’s wrath”
• “The government pisses on us and the media tells us that it’s raining”
• “When food is rotten, it is not enough to simply change spoons”
Of course the question of Algeria’s presidential succession is simply the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Under the surface it is protest over the unfulfilled promises of the Algerian independence war (1954-1962) which remain unfulfilled.
The same issues that triggered the massive region-wide 2011-12 uprising known as the Arab Spring – economic disparity, corruption, repression, the breathtaking waste of the country’s natural resource wealth, the government’s growing dependence, if not subservience, to foreign powers, especially the USA and France – are fueling the current demonstrations in Algeria. Given the regime’s ultimate fragile hold on power, it is possible that the current nexus of power could collapse. (1) As the oppositional momentum gathers, the crisis of state has intensified.
It is no secret that Bouteflika has not actually run the country for some time. In 2013 he suffered a debilitating stroke from which he has not recovered. Even prior to that he had been ill for a long time. The last time he addressed the nation was in 2012. Little more than a frontman, and not a very convincing one at that, he has been a convenient patsy for those who have been in power since independence: Algeria’s military and the security apparatus.
A Bouteflika presidency provides another valuable service to those who run the country behind his back. It prevents the tensions between the different networks vying for power from coming out in the open in a more pronounced, if not violent fashion. They can do their maneuvering, cut their deals behind the scenes, pretty much like Chicago gangsters of the 1930s, rationalizing among themselves how to divide the loot, the loot being the profits from oil, stolen from the Algerian people for more than half a century. They all benefit from having a National Liberation Front (NFL) cover as president, so much so, that without a Bouteflika, they fear for their future.
These two institutions, the military and the security force, themselves rife with deadly factional power struggles, have long hidden behind the hollow mask of the country’s NFL, today a hollow shell of its former glory. Powerless as it is and long has been, its actual influence gutted already by the mid 1960s, it holds a legitimacy in the minds and hearts of the Algerian population that neither the military nor the security services could ever achieve.
The heart of the matter is simple: without the cover of the NLF, Algeria’s power brokers cannot claim legitimacy. Now, 57 years after independence, there are no other “NFL founding fathers” to hide behind, period. They have all passed from the scene, some assassinated, others simply died. All that is left is Bouteflika to give the generals and the security apparatus legitimacy. This is the crisis.
The military and security apparatus have milked every bit of legitimacy out of the NLF possible. There are no more “heroes of the revolution” to hide behind. Thus the need to continue to prop up Bouteflika, as sick and incoherent as he might be. He is the only card left in the general’s deck. They don’t have another. In modern Algerian history there is none. This is the charade that two weeks of national demonstration has exposed.
Lacking the historic legitimacy of the NLF, neither institution has the confidence to run their own candidates openly, and if they did, it could ignite a major confrontation between the two. The military and the security apparatus function exert their influence and power, but have been long reviled and disrespected by the Algeria people as a whole, who know intimately how corrupt and repressive both are. In Algeria, the military and security apparatus need to hide behind someone from the old NLF to give a sugar coating to what has been their half century of social cyanide They may have power, achieved through ruthless repression, but not respect. Indeed, the Algerian national sentiment towards them is one of pervasive cynicism and contempt.
Tizi Ouzu, Kabylie, Algeria. March 15, 2019
Since the 1965 coup that resulted in Houari Boumedienne seizing power shortly after Algeria gained independence from France, the actual power behind the scenes in Algeria has been the military and the security apparatus to the exclusion of all other possible social forces. They have ruled with an iron hand, ruthless and fanatic in their struggle to maintain power. Together these two institutions have dominated the oil and natural gas rich North African nation. Political parties, elections, Algeria’s much admired “free press” have been little more than the trappings of democracy.
The realities of the 1954-1962 independence war – in which the leadership and much of the cadre of the National Liberation Front (NLF) were exterminated – led to a post-independence situation in which the Algerian army was the only organized collective to emerge intact and unscathed. This army hardly engaged in any of the fighting against the French but instead remained outside the country in bases in both Morocco and Tunisia close to the Algerian borders, returning to the country only after independence was declared. Soon thereafter it seized power.
From its earliest days the Algerian military was totalitarian, exclusive and in many instances violent against the Algerian people. Unlike the NLF, the military did not represent any particular social grouping within Algerian society. As Dr. Aurelia Mane Estrada noted in the summary to her Phd thesis on Algeria:
“Therefore those who took power [the military] had not personally suffered the horrors of the war nor were they the intellectual initiators of the war. In fact they had no program for the creation of the new, post-colonial society. They were only military leaders with one clear idea: to seize power in a state that they had only created in name…The military took over the state and the state has enjoyed a monopoly of power since. ” (1)
As a result, essentially from the outset of independence – or shortly thereafter – Algeria has been governed by a group representing only itself and its own interests, while claiming to represent the interests and vision of the Algerian people. In order to legitimize their seizure of the government, the military claimed to represent the heritage of the country’s national liberation front, those who did the fighting, dying and political work that actually resulted in Algerian independence from France. Moving ever further away from the NLF’s vision, every Algerian government since 1965, including the present one, has cynically claimed the NLF’s heritage as its own. To this day, some 57 years after independence, the vision, values and sacrifice of the NLF remains the conscience of the country.
When the military-security coalition rule was threatened in the late 1980s by elections that would have almost certainly led to an Islamicist-dominated government – curtailing their access to the country’s oil and gas wealth – or worse – eliminating access, the military and security apparatus suspended the results of the 1988 elections, triggering a civil war of horrific violence and brutality. By then, twenty six years after independence, the military and security apparatus had already lost the confidence of the Algerian people and their legitimacy before the nation. Had electoral democracy won the day, they would have been swept from power.
With no domestic legitimacy, it should come as no great surprise that Algeria’s military-security apparatus would try to embrace the sacrifices and achievements of the NLF as its own. It’s an old game, really, one that has taken different forms through the ages. For example, in the late 1990s, having crushed the armed Islamic (and other democratic) opposition, the apparatus had won militarily but had lost politically. If anything, their legitimacy shrunk to naught as a result of their cruel excesses during that period.
Much of the violence perpetrated in the 1990s – some of the worst incidents – were organized by the Algerian government itself and then blamed on the Islamicists. The narrative that the government crafted then, was that it was fighting radical Islam. From the beginning of the armed conflicts in the early 1990s this “war against terrorism” had lost credibility as the more militant radical Islamists were isolated and defeated early on. It was instead a case of the ruling strata fighting to maintain control of the country’s wealth by any and all means necessary to stay in power.
Tuareg women. Tamanrasset, Algeria
Lacking legitimacy among the people meant, very simply, that to maintain themselves in power, besides relying on raw repression, the ruling circles would have to come up with some strategies to stay in control. This they did, both domestically and internationally. Internationally the Algerian government put great stock in improving its ties with the United States, in the Clinton, Bush and Obama Administrations. In exchange for enhancing (exaggerating) Algeria’s reputation, helping the regime remove its pariah status in the international arena (UN, World Bank, etc), the United States placed rather severe, but usual conditions on the Algerian government.
Several themes emerged.
∙ Algeria would agree to much greater security cooperation with U.S. agencies (C.I.A, Special Forces) in maintaining control of the Sahara region. U.S.-Algerian security cooperation has deepened dramatically since the turn of the millennium, so much so, that Algeria has become, its anti-imperialist rhetoric aside, Washington’s security partner throughout the region, on a level similar to that of Egypt and Ethiopia.
∙ As a part of the bargain, the Algerian military has wanted access to US intelligence and weaponry. Again this arrangement has grown significantly since 2000. While the U.S-Algerian security connection is, frankly, not a secret – anyone can find evidence of it in public documents – it has been downplayed in the mainstream media, to such an extent that the American public, as well as Congress, are generally unaware of its scope and importance
∙ In exchange for lubricating Algeria’s reentry into international acceptance, it has been forced to continue to open its oil and gas industry, the source of the nation’s wealth, to foreign investment to an unprecedented degree.
Regaining domestic legitimacy, the support and allegiance of the Algerian people for their government, has proven far more difficult. A highly educated, literate population, the Algerian people are among the more politically savvy anywhere. In their great majority, they know the score. They know what their government is and isn’t about.
Regaining a legitimacy that it has never earned or enjoyed, the Algerian military-security apparatus has resorted to the only card it has in its deck – symbolism. Try as it might, it cannot erase history, either it’s own or the NLF’s. So it tries to “borrow legitimacy” by shaping the myth that it, the military are the children of the Revolution rather than its betrayers. One way to achieve that has been to have an NLF figurehead as head of state, one with a link to the past but stripped of all power. Since the early 1990s, this has been attempted several times.
∙ In late June of 1992, Algerian President Mohammed Boudiaf was assassinated. He had been coaxed back from a long exile in Morocco to lead the nation at a time when the country was plunged into civil war. He had been assured by the leadership of the military-security apparatus that he would be given the powers to reform the state, and resolve the military conflict in such a manner as to broaden the base of the government to include opposition social elements. At the time of his assassination, Boudiaf was one of the few leaders of the National Liberation Front – one of the founders actually – still alive. But when he took his job seriously, and actually tried to challenge the stranglehold of the military-security apparatus, he was, in broad daylight at a public event, assassinated. The attempts to blame his assassination on opposition Islamic elements failed. Soon the responsibility for the murder was placed at the door step of the security apparatus.
The “lesson” – if one can use this term – for other NLF elements was unambiguous. An NLF leader as a figurehead would be tolerated, but any attempt on the part of a Boudiaf to actually consolidate his power would not be. When another figure, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was approached and coaxed to run for the presidency six years later, he had Boudiaf’s experience clearly in mind. Of less NLF stature than Boudiaf, but still a part of what Algerians consider a sacred team, Bouteflika had been a part of the NLF’s negotiating team which had crafted independence.
1. I will deal with the possible options for Algeria in a separate second article. For the moment it is noticeable that, like the Tunisian and Egyptian examples in the Arab Spring, these are social movements without a vision beyond cosmetic changes at the top.
2. Personal Communication from Dr. Aurelia Mane Estrada to Rob Prince.
3. When a new international crisis breaks out, it is not to the American (usually way off the mark), European (not much better) press I turn to for insights but to the North African press – to websites like Algeria Watch (out of Germany if I am not mistaken, but with many articles from Algerian sources, mainstream or otherwise) and Nawaat.org (from Tunis), to get their take… Then there is the Maghreb Center out of the DC area..with excellent articles in English, French, especially on their Facebook page. Usually more insightful that even the better mainstream sources from Europe and North America.