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Bouteflika’s Fourth Mandate: The Cartel’s Gamble

[Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika casts his ballot in the 10 May legislative election. Image by Magharebia/Flickr.] [Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika casts his ballot in the 10 May legislative election. Image by Magharebia/Flickr.]

The Algerian regime can be understood as an economic cartel. It is, in other words, an assemblage of actors that controls a field (the State), and must agree on certain things in order to assure its benefits – whether they are material or symbolic. These actors are of different stripes (military, technocrats, politicians) and do not need to agree on all of the actions or decisions taken by the government. Instead, they often find themselves in disaccord or in competition, which explains the infighting occasionally covered by the media. This was recently the case in the reports of a controversy between the Secretary General of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), Amar Saidani, and the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS). For the cartel, the only thing that matters is the continuation of the status quo and its resulting benefits. 

This explains Abdelmalek Sellel’s announcement that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika will seek to spend a fourth term in office. The reappointment of an old man who has not appeared in public for two years must have seemed to be the best possible solution to ensure the status quo. Perhaps there was no consensus in choosing another candidate? Perhaps this is merely a way to postpone the question of succession? In reality, any attempt to grasp the deep logic behind this decision begins to look like Kremlinology – a haphazard interpretation of the signs of power. That which is clear following Sellal’s declaration, however, is that the cartel has taken a gamble: it will not change its most illustrious representative, even though he has been reduced to an entity that must be animated by a series of grotesque tricks.

It was necessary, then, for nothing to change. There is certainly a lesson to learn: the Algerian political system operates just as well without a “functioning” president. This is also an example for commentators who tend to personalize political regimes. In modern states, bureaucratic mechanisms, budgetary constraints, and international accords all considerably reduce the possible impact of any single individual – no matter how highly placed in the system. Since the Algerian state is not a “failed state,” it highlights that a Head of State is unnecessary – at least from the point of view of effective decision-making.

We should also ask ourselves about the risks that came with this announcement. It seems self-evident that the desire to maintain the status quo does not ensure its continuation—surely that would be granting an exaggerated omnipotence of those who control the State. Again, we see that the candidacy of Abdelaziz Bouteflika very much represents a gamble taken by the cartel.

Contrary to what is often said in Algeria, notably by the many conduits of official paranoia, the risk probably will not come from abroad. There is no “multinational oligarchy that still dreams of subjugating Algeria,” no imperialist conspiracy that would seize any opportunity to destabilize the country.  There is one good reason for this: the Algerian state is a major regional partner and is increasingly cooperative. In Mali, the French intervention benefited from an authorization to use Algerian airspace, as well as timely logistical support. The Algerian commandos were also involved with the American Special Forces’ hunt of jihadists in south Libya [1]. As one indication of this strategic convergence of interests, an Algerian delegation was present at the meeting of NATO’s parliamentary group meeting in Rome. In short, Algeria and the Armée Nationale Populaire (ANP) cannot be seen as the target of an international conspiracy. The stability of the country is too important for its international partners, who have nothing to gain by speaking out against a solution that guarantees the status quo.

From this perspective, those who continue to claim that the DRS still controls the political landscape will increasingly find it hard to rail against Bouteflika’s fourth term.  After all, if the president is nothing more than a façade that hides the real struggle between “praetorians,” then who cares about the vitality of the individual who occupies the position? He would be nothing more than a puppet in the “façade democracy,” and priority would not be given to his election, but rather to the dominance of the military. But this scenario only holds if one considers the military to be the only actor who matters in the political game, which would be far too simplistic. Instead, it is clear that Sonatrach, the ministers, and even the presidency, all play a role. And it is exactly because the latter is in a position of power, among others, that it can be considered insulting to have an aging, sick man, run for president - again. 

In short, the cartel’s gamble regards the reaction of the Algerian population. It regards the capacity of the ruling elite to know the opinions and interests of the people. It is, after all, in the name of these people that they pretend to rule. But one would need to be a soothsayer to be able to claim such knowledge. In fact, there are a number of factors that influence the reception of this announcement: certain material interests, the fear of a much-cited potential chaos, political mobilization (or lack there of), and the senses of priority and honor. Also, even if this choice was one between stability and loyalty, as claimed by the servants of the Impotent Prince, it also implies a period of uncertainty. The uncertainty does not concern the relationships of power within the cartel as much as the reaction of those who may see this non-event as one insult too many.  

In the coming weeks, it is not the cries of outrage coming from the editorialists that deserve our scrutiny. Indeed, they have been indignant for many years, and their criticisms have never managed to shake the cartel [2]. However, it would be much more worrisome for the supporters of the status quo should Bouteflika’s fourth term become a common theme in the multiple forms of protests that express the persistent and profound nature of popular discontentment. We certainly have not reached this point yet, and there is hardly any doubt that the Direction Générale de la Sûreté Nationale (DGSN) will do whatever is necessary to prevent cross-sector mobilizations, tracking each slogan that exceeds the habitual socio-economic demands. And still, all forms of control have their limits. One should not prematurely judge the quantity of insults that people can stomach without reacting.

[This article was originally published in French and translated to English by the Maghreb Page.]

[1] Le Canard Enchaîné, 5 February 2014.

[2] On this point, Algeria can be seen as a system of complex domination (un système de domination complexe), as described by Luc Boltanski. See his De la Critique, Paris, Gallimard, 2009, p. 190.

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