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Quick Thoughts: Thomas Serres on the Algerian Succession

[Image of Abdelaziz Bouteflika taken from Wikimedia Commons.] [Image of Abdelaziz Bouteflika taken from Wikimedia Commons.]

[Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in office since 1999, is widely reported to be in failing health and has not been sighted in public for over two years. His current condition raises questions about the presidential succession in Algeria, as well as broader issues concerning the stability, policies and direction of the Algerian state. Jadaliyya asked Thomas Serres of the University of California, Santa Cruz to place the Algerian succession in broader context]

Jadaliyya (J): Why is Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika still in office?

Thomas Serres (TS): Even though Abdelaziz Bouteflika is clearly in failing health, there are three factors that explain his continued tenure:

First, members of the presidential entourage, that is to say all those whose political, social or economic position depends on the presidency, are unwilling to abandon their privileges. This includes individuals directly related to Bouteflika, such as his brother and counsellor Saïd; powerful businessmen such as Ali Haddad; political figures such as Prime minister Abdelmalek Sellal or Amar Saâdani, who was the head of the National Liberation Front (FLN) until his recent resignation. This entourage is also connected to broader networks of vested interests and clientelism that are deeply embedded within Algerian society.

The second factor is that it is difficult to find an alternative figure who will guarantee the internal equilibrium of the ruling coalition, has a minimum of legitimacy (i.e. whose installation will not overtly insult the popular will), and who can also satisfy Algeria’s international partners by perpetuating the fiction of a gradual, which is to say never-ending, transition toward democracy. 

The third factor is broader. Even if it may sound counter-intuitive, an institutionalized state can function without a functioning head of state. Each of the state’s various institutions and agencies possesses its own goals, its own hierarchy, and its own internal dynamics. This does not mean that the Algerian state is not corrupt, or that the government manages the nation’s wealth for the common good. It just means that to implement coercion, extraction and basic management of the population, the active leadership of Bouteflika himself is not necessary.

(J): What, if any, succession measures have been put in place?

(TS): Succession measures have been put in place during the past few years, and recent developments within the ruling coalition have contributed to the on-going process of re-ordering the power structure.

The main development has been the forced retirement of General-Major Mohamed Médiène and the subsequent dissolution of the regime’s secret service and political police, the Département Renseignement et Sécurité (DRS). The removal of this major power center illustrates the ongoing restructuring inside security apparatus. Following a presidential decree published in January, the DRS was dismantled and its remains placed under the control of the presidency. Athmane Tartag, a former DRS officer, is now in charge of coordinating these services in his role as Minister-Counsellor to the President for Security Affairs. At the same time, the military’s Chief of the Staff, Ahmed Gaïd Salah, has reinforced his control over the army, notably by participating in the removal of Médiène and the dissolution of the DRS, but also by cashiering some high-ranking officers and promoting others in their place.

Another important measure taken to organize the succession has involved a constitutional make-over. In theory, the revised constitution gives parliament more control over the government and imposes term limits on the presidency. Yet, since institutional limitations can easily be overturned by the ruling coalition, this nod to liberal constitutional norms is entirely compatible with the pervasively anti-democratic nature of the Algerian regime. At the same time, this revision confirms that the next president will have to be elected through a “constitutional process,” even if everybody knows that the process will be heavily guided by the administration.

(J): Who are the leading candidates to replace Bouteflika, and what do they represent?

(TS): In case of a health emergency, the head of the Council of the Nation (the upper house of parliament), Abdelkader Bensalah, will be constitutionally in charge of the transition. Given the polemic on his Moroccan origins, it is highly unlikely that Bensalah will be more than an interim figure. If you come back to the idea that the successor will have to be validated through an electoral process, you can divide the candidates into three categories.

First, you have high-ranking bureaucrats who graduated from elite national schools and made their career in the administration before becoming members of the government. This kind of candidate represents the continuity of the internal equilibrium of the regime and the persistent force of the “state class” beyond the end of Algerian state capitalism. Here, one can identify current Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, but also his predecessor Ahmed Ouyahia, who has become the head of the presidential cabinet.

Second, you have figures of authority, individuals with longstanding experience in diplomatic affairs who are well-known in international circles, and can thus benefit from the support of foreign partners. In this context the figure of Lakhdar Brahimi, who is said to have the support of the Americans, has sometimes been mentioned. One could also think of Mourad Medelci, the current head of the constitutional council, who has been in the highest decision-making circles for some time.

And finally, you have former prime ministers who entered into conflict with sections of the ruling coalition and subsequently became opposition figures. Depending on the overall situation, such individuals might represent a good solution in the sense that their ascendancy perpetuates the twin myths of “democratic transition” and “political liberalization.” At the same time, their familiarity with the regime would be counterbalanced by former disagreements conducted within it. Be that as it may, someone like Ali Benflis or Mouloud Hamrouche could present a credible face for the renewal of the civil leadership.

I did not mention Saïd Bouteflika, because he would be a suicidal choice for the regime and an incredible provocation given his highly unpopular image. Those who have ruled the country for so long, and who have worked so hard to secure their positions cannot ignore this kind of risk.

Additionally, no figure of the historical FLN has emerged as a credible candidate. After the resignation of its secretary general, Amar Saâdani, at the end of October 2016, the old nationalist party is once again in crisis. In fact, the FLN has long become a catch-all (but soul-less) clientelist structure. This may be enough to dominate a legislative election, but is insufficient to elevate a candidate as the new face of the ruling coalition.

Finally, the most important point to emphasize here is that the absence of a clear plan for succession illustrates the uncertainty that characterizes Bouteflika's Algeria – this uncertainty has in fact become a way to manage the polity.

(J): Do you expect that there will be an orderly transition?

(TS): From a regional perspective, the geopolitical stakes are too high to permit any major upheaval to occur in Algeria. At the same time, there will always be some kind of social unrest, given the fact that the political system as a whole lacks legitimacy and that the current economic equilibrium is neither fair nor viable. Nevertheless, memories of the civil war of the 1990s are still very fresh and developments in Libya or Syria act as a foil to any potential uprising. The vast majority of the political oppositions will do anything they can to avoid violence.

In addition, the next Algerian president will surely struggle to reinforce his position, create his own networks of affiliates and reduce the influence of his competitors. This is what happened during Bouteflika's first mandate, and this is what usually comes with any major change in a country's leadership. During this period, the political landscape might be unstable, but given the blurriness that characterizes the Algerian political arena, it might also be an opportunity to introduce politically meaningful debates and competition.

In any case, the narrative of impending catastrophe – one that is often present in political analysis on Algeria - must be overcome. While this discourse helps to shape a governance based on security concerns and paternalism, it does not respond to the demands for dignity and justice that motivate popular discontent. Moreover, focusing on power struggles at the summit of the state is a red herring. The main issue is not the individual who will rule the country. Rather, the key issues concern economic reforms that could be implemented under the pressure of pro-business elites and foreign actors, and the risk that a neoliberal turn represents for millions of Algerians.

Given low hydrocarbon prices, the defenders of such a reorientation of the country's political economy are in a favourable position. At this point, I don't see how the privatization of public sector businesses and the reduction of subsidies can help the more precarious segments of the population. It is rather the opposite. Whatever we think of the Algerian state, it has remained constrained by the legacy of its “specific socialism.” Yet, the current economic emergency might lead to the (sadly common) hybridization between a security-state and neoliberal restructuring. From this perspective, the identity of the next president is more of an epiphenomenon than a central question.

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