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“Hamel, Leave!”: The Men in Blue and the Fracturing of the Order

[Image of a police protest in Algiers. Image from Algérie-Focus] [Image of a police protest in Algiers. Image from Algérie-Focus]

On Tuesday 14 October, I received a text from a friend—an activist who lives in the center of Algiers: “Urgent: the police are marching on Algiers. They are protesting next to my apartment, this is the end!” The protests started in the basin of Ghardaïa, eventually reaching the capital. One might have the impression that the structure of power in Algeria is suddenly threatening to collapse. Surely, this social movement in particular raises important questions. In a country where the state struggles to contain a permanent but dispersed unrest, the men in blue play a key role in preserving the prevailing order. Should we thus conclude that this recent wave of protests indicates a major political upheaval in Algeria?

Another Sectoral Movement?

The mobilization of the police adds yet another event to the succession of protests by specific professional sectors in the country. Since the beginning of the year, strikes occurred in the domains of education (teachers in secondary schools and administrative employees), transportation (the National Company for Rail Transport, Algiers's subway, Air Algérie), the post office, and the famous steel factory at El Hadjar. As the policemen began their protests in Ghardaïa last week, doctors working at a hospital in Aïn El Hammam, in the Wilaya of Tizi Ouzou, began their own “unlimited movement” in order to obtain better working conditions. Socio-economic demands emanate from all parts of the society, though they are especially prominent among public employees. They express legitimate claims directed at a government that has bragged about the huge quantity of financial reserves hoarded in Algeria during the last decade, reserves which recently reached around two hundred billions dollars, according to the World Bank

The anger of the men in blue is intimately linked to this general context of unrest, fed by the gap between governmental boasting and social realities. These contradictions are exacerbated in the heart of the state apparatus, where public servants experience institutionalized predation at the highest echelons of the state as well as dramatic precariousness. The police are hardly an exception to this rule. When instructed to maintain public order in Ghardaïa, a city divided by continual tensions between its Mozabite and Chaamba communities, the cops were forced to feed themselves with cans of tuna and wafers. Without glorifying these baton-wielders, the sentiment that that this diet is unfit for public servants (who had spent ten consecutive months in the field, being exposed to urban clashes and physical danger on a daily basis) is surely understandable. The least their superiors could do is to provide them with adequate nourishment. These difficult conditions were a particularly fertile ground for a new wave of unrest. In fact, the general director of the Sûreté Nationale (national police or DGSN), the retired general-major Abdelghani Hamel, felt the first tremors of this movement a few months ago. At the beginning of June, he admitted that the improvement of his subordinates' social conditions was an “imperative action.”

The moment was ripe for another sectoral movement to gain momentum. After all, during the last few years, social unrest has not spared the Algerian security apparatus. The sector has no special immunity against the widespread discontent, as shown by the communal guards (a paramilitary corps), who were once a valuable support in the regime's crackdown on Islamist guerillas during the civil war.[1] Since 2011, they have been protesting and asking for more respect from the state. Should we thus consider this movement to be a mere continuation of the ongoing routine of strikes and protests that has marked the Algerian landscape? There is one compelling reason to answer in the negative: in this case, the very foundations of the order are at stake. In other words, this movement is surely an indication that a major upheaval in the political order cannot be delayed forever.

A Fractured Police State

To return to our discussion of the communal guards, they totaled around 90,000 members when the body was officially dissolved in 2012. As a rather peripheral tool rendered obsolete by the “residual” dimension of Algerian terrorism, the communal guard does not appear to be central to the regime's ability to control and coerce. Consequently, during the Arab uprisings, the communal guards’ marches faced harsh repression from the hands of police. After they managed to organize a sit-in in the heart of the capital, the Martyrs' Square was closed to the public, allegedly due to the extension of the subway and the subsequent archaeological searches. Yet, even after their dissolution, the National Coordination of the Communal Guards (Coordination Nationale des Gardes Communaux) continued to mobilize. The organization even evolved toward an increasingly frontal opposition vis-à-vis the presidency. Most notably, they denounced Bouteflika’s fourth mandate and questioned the policy of national reconciliation, a key feature of his presidency. When the protests started again during the spring of 2014, Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal rapidly gave in to their demands.

The elements of the security apparatus are especially important for the Algerian order, which reconfigured itself during the Bouteflika's first three terms in office. In 2012, General Major Hamel's DGSN had grown to over 188,000 policemen, while the strength of General Major Boustilla's Gendarmerie Nationale stood at 133,000 individuals. The growth of these two bodies shows the transition from a military regime, which existed during the civil war, to a police state that appears to be more compatible with the “upgrading” of the order.[2] Nevertheless, when the discontent reaches the DGSN, and more precisely the Republican Units of Security (the anti-riot police), the entire power structure seems to be shaking. Indeed, except for the highly improbable intervention of the army, there is no real obstacle preventing the demonstrations of the men in blue. A prime example of their capacity to protest unhindered is the ease with which they were able to occupy the space in front of the presidential palace in El Mouradia.[3] 

Moreover, the cracks in the foundation of the Algerian political order explain why Tayeb Belaïz, the Minister of Interior, and Abdelghani Hamel hurried to Ghardaïa in order to show their goodwill and announce that the government would meet the demands of the protesters. Officials in the Ministry of the Interior even suggested that the policemen might form their own independent union. Unsurprisingly, eager to end this critical stand off, Belaïz and Hamel promised that no punishment would be taken against the protesters. The DGSN even supplied its own buses to help bring the protesting police officers back to their barracks rapidly. One should point out that, in addition to the classic demands regarding wages and working conditions, the strikers chanted “Hamel irhal!” (“Hamel, leave!”), which undoubtedly reminded the authorities of the winds of change that came with the spring. 

Internal Contradictions Are Increasingly Intolerable

Before we get too excited: if this slogan initially seems revolutionary, it is because it invokes the recent past of political contestation and upheaval in the region. Yet the same individuals who repeated this slogan were in charge of physically assaulting numerous people: the Coordination nationale pour le changement et la démocratie (CNCD), the students in 2011, the communal guards in 2012, the unemployed from the south in 2013, the Barakat movement, and the Berberists in 2014, not to mention the sporadic riots that have occurred all over the country. These cops are merely angry with their superiors; they are not revolutionaries. In short, they want the replacement of Hamel, not the fall of the regime—and they are certainly not seeking social justice or the end of hogra

So what can we conclude from these slogans directed against Abdelghani Hamel? First, the head of the Algerian police is not a mere public servant who the president appoints. Hamel is the former chief of the Republican Guard, a general who holds significant political power in Bouteflika's Algeria. As the head of the DGSN, he has become one of the most powerful praetorians, along with Gaïd Salah (the Chief of Staff), Boustilla (the head of the Gendarmerie), and Toufik (the notorious chief of the secret services, the DRS). Unlike these latter figures who exercised their functions for a longer period of time, Hamel was appointed in 2010, after the assassination of his predecessor under mysterious circumstances. Consequently, he yields less power over the institution. The direction of the police has long been the center of the usual power struggles that reveal the highly fragmented nature of the Algerian regime. Ever since Bouteflika appointed Hamel, he has been presented as a close ally of the presidential clan. He even seemed to be a potential successor to the president at the beginning of this year when there were doubts regarding the possibility of Bouteflika’s fourth mandate. In the present situation, the speculations regarding the conflicts within the DGSN are booming. Some have posited that these tensions are the result of a struggle between the DRS and the presidency in order to establish a plan for the succession. Others echo the well-known chorus that unspecified actors have manipulated the police, a state of affairs that could lead to a dramatic destabilization of the country. As always, there is no certitude regarding the current balance of power or the exact nature of this threat. In other words, there is nothing really new under the Algerian sun. 

Even if there is no indication that a new element will change the status quo of this latent crisis, one can say with no doubt that the existing order is not at its prime. Bouteflika will not reappear as a viable political force, and the echoes of “democratic transition” regarding the dark hole of the presidency seem hackneyed and unconvincing. The regime’s official mouthpiece, the newspaper El Moudjahid might as well continue its chronicles of Bouteflika’s diplomatic visits. But one will need more that a weekly picture with the heir apparent of Abu Dhabi (or the Minister of Sport from Vanuatu, for that matter) to fill the power vacuum at the pinnacle of the state. Meanwhile, the prime minister meets with police protesters and admits that he does not have the power to fire Hamel. Despite his statutory moustache and his technocratic profile, Sellal has neither an electoral mandate nor support from a political apparatus. At the present time, he is no more than a performer of the presidential will, which remains lost in the hallways of the presidential palace. The dynamic of fragmentation in Algeria is even more apparent than in was last June, when a meeting of the Central Committee of the FLN held at the El Aurassi hotel in Algiers turned into an all out brawl (caught on camera) between supporters of Amar Saïdani and Abdelaziz Belkhadem. Internal contradictions continue to paralyze Algerian institutions and ruling parties, exacerbating fears that the order will collapse. This event would tear Algerian society apart that is still traumatized by the civil war. 

Six months after Bouteflika's re-election, it is now clear that the fourth mandate has only delayed the answers to a number of fundamental issues: How can the current state of generalized corruption and stasis be resolved?  How is it possible to end the economic dependence on hydrocarbon rent? What strategies can promote social justice and coexistence in the face of a widely shared feeling of hogra? Is there a way to save the educational system that continues to suffer from the structural adjustment program of the nineties? What is the best way to address the ongoing insecurity that lends itself to the mortiferous ambiance that has reigned since the end of the civil war? The police officers’ protests represent a petty struggle that fragments the regime. Yet, they also confirm that the regime is fundamentally unable to provide answers to these pressing questions. When the police express their discontent with the status quo, it seems evident that the order is being inundated from all sides. The regime’s ship will need more than a few simple repairs to avoid drowning.

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

[1] See Virginie Locussol and Reporters Sans Frontières (2003), Algérie, le livre noir, Paris : éditions La Découverte.

[2] On the idea of a gray zone resulting from the upgrading of authoritarian regime see, among others, Thomas Carothers (2002), “The End of the Transition Paradigm,” Journal of Democracy, Volume 13, no. 1, January, p. 5-21 and Steven Heydemann (2007), “Upgrading Authoritarianism in the Arab World,” The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brooking Institute, Analysis paper no. 13.

[3] A neighborhood of Algiers.

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