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The Changing Nature of the Algerian Political System and the Illusion of a Civilian Regime

[Image of the Martyrs Monument at the Central Military Museum in Algiers, Algeria. Image by US Army Africa/Flickr] [Image of the Martyrs Monument at the Central Military Museum in Algiers, Algeria. Image by US Army Africa/Flickr]

Since 2011 Algeria has recorded a series of important political changes, despite its reputation as one of the most immobile countries in a region marked by instability and turmoil. This evolution in the nature of Algeria's regime has gone largely unnoticed on the international media, while domestically the authorities have been able to craft a narrative centered around the idea of a transition from a military-backed system to a civilian regime. In this powerful narrative (all the more powerful due to the lack of any effective counternarrative), President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is the bold architect of this reform: his rise to the presidency has marked the end of military dominance over politics, in what amounts to a milestone in Algerian history. 

However, a closer look reveals a much more complicated and less straightforward situation than is claimed. The emergence of an increasingly influential and proactive business class has coincided with a comprehensive restructuring of the military under the Bouteflika presidency, thanks to two factors. The first being the gradual exit from the 1990s civil war and state of emergency, which has reduced the army’s room for political maneuver. And the second being the process of economic liberalization (that overlapped with the commodity supercycle), which has boosted private sector activity, albeit in a position of dependence from the political powers. However, this evolution has not led to the construction of a civilian regime, as claimed by the authorities, but to a more complex arrangement that continues to center around the army as the main guarantor of stability. This gradual change in the natural of the Algerian political system has begun with the rise of Bouteflika to the presidency. 

The Bouteflika Presidency: Tactical Alliances for “a Three-Quarter of a President”

When he was first elected in 1999, most observers expected Bouteflika to walk in the footsteps of his predecessor, Liamine Zeroual: a leader who tried unsuccessfully to take on a powerful military that had no intention of running the country directly, as well as no willingness to cede the reins of power to a civilian authority. This guardianship had previously led Zeroual to resign in an act of frustration toward the military officers who were constraining his room for maneuver. Against this background, there were no expectations that Bouteflika would be able to set himself free from these constraints.

It is in this context that Bouteflika pronounced a sentence that was to mark his presidency: "Je ne serais pas un trois-quarts de président" ("I am not a three-quarter of a president") – a clear statement that he would not tolerate the limits the military imposed on his power. Indeed, from the outset he maneuvered relentlessly to exploit divisions within the military elite by striking tactical alliances with some of the officers in order to sideline his adversaries and increase his freedom of action. This tactic first became clear in 2004, when General Mohamed Lamari and General Khaled Nezzar (who were both chief of staff of the army at different points) decided to oppose his re-election by backing the man who would become his main political antagonist for the next ten years: Ali Benflis. Against all odds, Bouteflika managed to obtain the support of the other décideurs and successfully isolated the powerful Lamari and Nezzar, thus getting triumphantly reelected for a second term.

The tactical alliance with the head of the military intelligence (Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité, DRS), General Mohamed Medienne, ushered in the second phase of Bouteflika's presidency. In this phase, Medienne became the only survivor of the old guard that led the country through the 1990s civil war – coupled with the extreme secrecy surrounding him, this meant that many Algerians and external observers started considering him the real power in the country, "rab al djazair" ("Algeria's God"). The arrangement between these two poles of power means that "pouvoirologists" (the wide-ranging category of analysts and experts who try to make sense of rumors and maneuvers within Algeria's decision-making elite) elaborated a new framework to interpret the nature of the Algerian regime: from a military-dominated to a bipolar system, where the DRS and the presidency shared the exercise of power. 

However, this was not a system where the two poles of power had the same weight, according to pouvoirologists. Many observers agreed that General Mediene was more powerful than Bouteflika and that eventually it was the DRS that called the shots within the Algerian regime. Moreover, due to the tactical nature of this alliance, pouvoirologists thought that at some point, General Mediene would have clashed with Bouteflika and his growing clan of associates and clients, eventually imposing a new president.

And yet, when Bouteflika forced his hand to change the constitution and remove the two-term limit to the presidency, General Mediene complied. The third term in power was the beginning of the end for this tactical alliance, gradually introducing the third phase of Bouteflika's presidency: a protracted behind-the-scenes war between the two clans that eventually led to the marginalization of Gen. Mediene and the "boumediennization"[1] of the regime. To be precise, the alliance started to unravel in 2010/11, when the DRS used a series of corruption scandals to regain control over the hydrocarbon sector and to sideline some of the pro-Bouteflika elements. What exactly drove this maneuver remains unclear to date – some people talk about the will of the DRS to put its hands over the regime's cash cow. Contrarily, others point to General Mediene's opposition to the idea that the president's brother, Said, could succeed Bouteflika himself.

In any case, the 2010/11 offensive against the Bouteflika clan was the first episode in a long series of events that culminated in 2014 in a major counteroffensive that the presidential clan orchestrated. A series of unprecedented public attacks against General Mediene set the stage for a major reshuffle of powers as well as the DRS that Bouteflika and General Ahmed Gaid Salah, chief of staff and deputy defense minister, implemented in order to marginalize the military intelligence and its rumored opposition to the president's bid for a fourth term. This maneuver took everyone by surprise, leaving pouvoirologists at a loss to explain what was happening.

Controlling the DRS

The key move that seems to have reduced General Mediene’s influence was the major reshuffle that redesigned the responsibilities and the structure of the DRS. While caution is important here owing to the regime's opacity, it seems evident that a series of decisions have weakened the military intelligence's ability to influence the politics and policies of the regime. Indeed, as of November 2014, General Mediene is still the head of the DRS. That said, most of his close associates have been removed and his political isolation is noticeable even by simply looking at the new structure of the DRS. 

The reshuffle took place between late 2013 and early 2014 and affected:

  • the Central Direction for Army Security (DCSA), which is in charge of the security of military personnel and facilities. The DCSA is not part of the DRS anymore and now reports directly to Gen. Ahmed Said Galah;
  • the Direction for Internal Security (DCE/DSI), which deals with domestic security, terrorism, etc. It is essentially the most important department within the DRS. Here, General Bashir Tartag (one of General Mediene's closest associates) was replaced by the more dependable Abdelhamid Bendaoud, who was fired in July 2015 (his replacement remains unknown at the time of writing);
  • the Direction for Documentation and External Security (DDSE), which deals with security threats abroad. Here as well, General Mohamed Bouzit replaced the pro-Mediene General Rachid Lallali;
  • the Center for Communication and Diffusion (CCD), which used to deal with vetting/controlling the Algerian media. However, it was abolished in late 2013;
  • the Service for Presidential Security (SSP), which ensures the security of the president. This service is not part of the DRS anymore and now reports directly to General Ahmed Said Galah;
  • and finally the Service for Judiciary Police (SCPJ), which copes with corruption cases. It now reports to the defense ministry too.

This series of changes was the result the presidency's cunning strategy, which in December 2013 created the "Special Commission on Security" and appointed General Ahmed Gaid Salah at its head. Officially, this is a body tasked with managing the careers and the retirement of the army's highest-ranking officers. For this reason, the commission is filled with officers loyal to Bouteflika or unsympathetic to General Mediene, who also sits on this committee. Effectively, the commission has functioned as the presidency's weapon to neutralize General Mediene by replacing his associates with more dependable officers, thanks to the army leadership's consent. 

That said, in the following months other decisions seem to have counterbalanced these measures – or at least to have partly empowered parts of the DRS (but not necessarily General Mediene). In June 2014 a presidential decree changed the previous decision regarding the SCPJ and assigned it again to the DRS, albeit under a series of clear conditions that include supervision under the public prosecutor. Most importantly, however, the appointment of Bashir Tartag to the position of advisor on defense to the president in September 2014 was probably the most surprising. Tartag has always been known to be very close to General Mediene and, after his removal from the DCE/DSI, he was thought to be on the way to retirement. Although this appointment remains quite difficult to explain, many newspapers have pointed to recent disagreements with General Mediene that the presidential clan exploited by widening the chasm between the two through this measure.  

The New Configuration of the Algerian Regime

The intense maneuvering around the army and, specifically, the DRS has paved the way for a reconfiguration of the Algerian regime. The bipolar system that dominated Algerian politics for several years is now giving way to an unprecedented arrangement, of which the presidential faction, a section of the business class and the army leadership can be considered the effective stakeholders. 

Inevitably, every attempt to describe the inner workings of the Algerian regime is bound to be based on rumors, clues, private conversations, and journalistic conjectures. This is because any first-hand source is, in the best-case scenario, partial and unverifiable; and in the worst-case scenario an attempt to blur the truth and make sure that the real nature of the regime remains unclear. As a result, the description made below is a sketch based on local press reports and private conversations held in Algiers in May 2014 and is open to challenges and contradictions. 

The Presidential Clan 

The faction around President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is composed of several men and women whose political career is almost entirely dependent on him. The most famous and influential character is undoubtedly Said Bouteflika, the president's brother and éminence grise. Many things have been said about him, from his key role behind the "throne" to his ties to the business sector and his alleged aspiration to succeed his brother. In any case, Said Bouteflika stands out as the most powerful and feared figure within the presidential circle and a key decision-maker.

Beside Said Bouteflika, other important members of the presidential faction occupy a series of fundamental positions within the regime, guaranteeing the stability of Bouteflika's power. Along with Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, Interior Minister Tayeb Belaiz, Justice Minister Tayeb Louh, President of the Constitutional Court Mourad Medelci, and Upper House Speaker Abdelkader Bensalah all play key roles in maintaining the status quo and protecting Bouteflika from potential challenges to his rule – both by keeping a tight grip on the electoral process (thus avoiding possible surprises) and by ensuring that any attempt to remove the president on grounds of article 88 of the constitution is repelled. Effectively, these people represent Bouteflika's praetorian guard. 

Finally, the presidential clan includes a series of less prominent politicians, such as Trade Minister Amara Benyounes and Transport Minister Amar Ghoul. The fact that Benyounes was a member of the secular Rassemblement pour la culture et la démocratie (RCD) and that Ghoul was part of the moderate Islamist Mouvement de la société pour la Paix (MSP) illustrates well the regime’s ability to present a pluralistic façade, although they play a secondary role in the balance of power of the regime. Indeed, both Benyounes and Ghoul have become prominent in the Algerian press thanks to their unflinching loyalty to and outspoken defense of Bouteflika.

The Businessmen

Under Bouteflika and thanks to their ties with the presidential clan, an increasing number of businessmen have thrived, managing to expand their activity as well as their influence over the decision-making process. Among various results, the “bazaar economy” of the 1990s and the privatizations “imposed” by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) produced a new business class that initially carved a niche in the informal sector between the military-dominated import sector and the reintegration of former Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) Islamists into the rent economy. During the Bouteflika years, this business class has gradually joined the rentier circles linked to the regime. These people have profited from the economic expansion recorded under the current president, thanks to the end of the civil war and the recycling of rising oil and gas revenues, and from their connections with the decision-makers, particularly in the process of privatization and contracting. In turn, the Bouteflika clan has exploited this dependency to fund their activities, in what has become a relationship of mutual interest.[2] An Algerian opponent has described their growing influence over the decision-making process as “state capture” by parts of the business class.[3] 

However, not all Algerian businessmen should be considered as pro-Bouteflika – a distinction between pro- and anti-Bouteflika entrepreneurs is necessary here. Or, as it is often the case, between pro-Bouteflika and neutral entrepreneurs who do not harbor much sympathy for the presidential clan but will keep it relatively quiet to avoid any conflict. Some of the most notable businessmen entrepreneurs are not necessarily very sympathetic to Bouteflika – especially Issad Rebrab and Slim Othmani, who resigned from the Forum des chefs d'entreprises (FCE, the industrialists’ association) in protest of its pro-Bouteflika alignment.

However, the main entrepreneur behind the Bouteflika clan is without any doubts Ali Haddad, the head of the ETRHB group. He has benefited greatly over the years from his relationship with Said Bouteflika and has made sure that the FCE was on board with the president during the campaign, along with contributing significantly to campaign costs. His growing influence has emerged recently in two episodes. First, in August 2014 the removal of Sonatrach CEO Abdelhamid Zerguine was rumored to be the result of his lobbying of Said Bouteflika. Haddad wanted to have a more flexible and friendly CEO as he started looking at expanding into the hydrocarbon sector with his group. Second, in November 2014, Haddad became the new chairman of the FCE at the end of an uncontested race. His election marked the final consecration of the new business class and its power within the regime, as FCE members hope that Haddad will be able to reinforce the relationship between the industrialists and the government.

Other important businessmen who are influential within the National Liberation Front (FLN) and have benefited from their relationship with Bouteflika are also Tliba Bahaeddine, a young entrepreneur from Annaba, Cherif Ould El Hocine, former president of the National Chamber of Agriculture, Mohamed Djemai, partner of Essalam Electronics, and other local entrepreneurs, such as Ahmed Djellat, from the town of Blida, Ali Hamel, from the town of Adrar, and Dilmi Abdelatif, from the town of M’sila. These businessmen are important because they are said to have been part of the emergency group that, together with Said Bouteflika and other members of the clan, were in charge of the strategy and key decisions while Abdelaziz Bouteflika was in hospital last year. In addition, Reda Hamiani and Mohamed Bairi are pro-Bouteflika and have made sure to steer the FCE in support of the president during the last campaign. These people belong to a restricted circle of influential entrepreneurs close to the Bouteflika faction.

General Ahmed Gaid Salah and the Army

It is hard to accurately describe the role of the army within the Algerian regime – traditionally the military has managed to keep away from the gaze of the media. Any attempt to provide a detailed description of the army's high-ranking officers and their thinking has become even more complicated over the past ten years, as this institution has effectively been the battleground of the repeated clashes between Bouteflika and parts of the military.  

By removing unsympathetic generals and appointing more loyal officers, the president has managed to sideline his enemies and to neutralize the army. This seemed to be the case also in September 2014, when Bouteflika removed one of the last janvierists in power, General Mohamed Touati, a series of advisors and generals, including General Rachid Zouine, Youcef Medkour, Abdelkader Aouali, Abdelkader Benzekhroufa, and Said Ziad while appointing two new generals, Noureddine Haddad and Khalifa Ghaouar, respectively responsible for the first and fifth military regions.

In this context, General Ahmed Gaid Salah plays a pivotal role in ensuring the loyalty of the army during a delicate phase of transition. His relationship with Bouteflika is said to be solid, although there has been the odd report regarding problems between the two. Below General Gaid Salah, a new generation of officers who are seen as more professional and less prone to political interfering than their predecessors is gradually taking over.[4]In particular, a wave of promotions within the DRS over the past few years has changed the nature of this institution, reducing its room for maneuver.

What Has Led to this Change?

Beside the journalistic obsession with the inner workings of the Algerian political system and the personal conflicts between Bouteflika and General Medienne, the evolution of the regime just described can also be explained by the changing balance of power between the private sector and the country's political-military establishment. The gradual sidelining of army officers and eventually of General Medienne's DRS as well as the rise of General Gaid Salah and the businessmen are not only the result of Bouteflika's cunning maneuvers. They are also the consequence of two major political and economic events that have shaped Algeria in the past fifteen years. 

The end of the civil war between the late 1990s and early 2000s has ushered in a completely new phase in Algerian politics. Emergency decision-making has given way to a less hectic and unstable policy environment, where the justification for special security measures has gradually faded. At the same time, the rationale for the military's complete takeover of day-to-day politics has disappeared. Under pressure from their domestic and international constituencies, the generals have accepted the idea of ceding power to a civilian president who would be able to restore the country's damaged international standing. This situation has also meant that Bouteflika has slowly gained room for maneuver at the expense of the army – particularly with his initiatives for national reconciliation. In particular, the end of this state of emergency has marked the relative decline of two specific military categories: the old generals, so called "janvieristes" (the officers responsible for the January 1992 coup), with their inclination to meddle into politics; and the military intelligence, whose power to interfere into national political affairs was at odds with the new post-war climate. On the other hand, the purged and professionalized army led by General Gaid Salah has emerged as a more dependable partner for Bouteflika – thus giving way to its gradual rise to power. 

Meanwhile, the end of the civil war has partly overlapped with the commodity supercycle that has boosted Algeria's energy revenues, considerably strengthening the country's fiscal and external accounts. In particular, the commodity boom has enabled the authorities to recycle unprecedented amounts of money into the economy, boosting private sector activity. Moreover, structural adjustment measures adopted in the 1990s under pressure from the IMF and a gradual opening of trade and investment thanks to an ever closer relationship with the European Union have created an open field for private sector players in what was once a quasi-socialist economy. This boom has mainly affected two categories: importers and constructors, which have benefited from rising domestic demand and government contracts. Unsurprisingly, Algeria's new business class is dependent on government patronage and closely connected with the regime – this has created a context where the government helps the most pliant entrepreneurs, who reciprocate the favor by financing their preferred politicians in power. Inevitably, this deal between the political power and the business class has meant that the latter have started to play an increasingly influential role in the decision-making processes.

Conclusions: The Illusion of a Civilian Regime

Does the evolving balance of power between regime clans mean that a civilian regime is finally in the making for Algeria, as Bouteflika's mouthpieces have been claiming? After decades of military interference in politics, the presidential clan has been quick to assert that the recent reshuffle within the DRS marks the end of this and the birth of a civilian regime – a narrative that many inside and outside Algeria have repeated. Stripped of many of its powers, the DRS has lost influence, leading the government to claim that the decline of this institution is the end of military meddling into politics. 

However, the picture is more complex than the one the presidential clan has painted. The much-rumored decline of the janvieristes and General Mediene, coupled with the rise of a new business class, is only half of the story. While it is undeniable that "civilian" actors play a much more influential role than twenty years ago and that the generals have lost their stranglehold over the decision-making process, the truth is that the army continues to be a key stakeholder of the current political system. It is thanks to General Gaid Salah's consent that Bouteflika has managed to sideline General Mediene – specifically through the Special Commission on Security. Without the army's support for this decision, Bouteflika would have probably never attempted to marginalize General Mediene.

In this context, while the army has lost the dominance over politics that it had in the 1990s, the military still remains a pillar of regime stability. The continuity between the Ben Bella and Boumedienne years and the latest evolution of the Algerian regime under Bouteflika cannot be mistaken: the army is still the backbone of the system and, despite the rise of new factions and competitors for power, these challenges are a weak match to the military. The difference lies in the Bouteflika clan's ability to maneuver around the army to strengthen its own power and in the heavy legacy of the 1990s, which makes the army's direct intervention into politics very difficult given the adverse domestic and international environment (unless exceptional political or security circumstances were to justify such an extreme move again).

As a result, Algeria's civil society remains too fragmented by decades of repression, violence, and rent distribution through patronage networks to tackle the army. This is demonstrated by the new business class' opportunistic relationship with the decision-makers and, most importantly, by the opposition continuously appealing for the army to intervene and bring about an Egypt-like transition, in a desperate move that cruelly shows the bewilderment of these political parties. The simple fact that both the regime and its opposition rely on the army for their plans shows plainly how the claim that Algeria is now a civilian regime is only an illusion. The army remains the ultimate powerbroker: its tactical alliance with the Bouteflika faction does not mean that its interests will always be aligned with the presidential clan's, while the military still preserves its autonomy toward the other regime clans. This effectively means that, although the military is now in the background, it retains its ability to intervene again and affect political decisions if need be.

The narrative of the new "civilian" regime is therefore an illusion fed by the presidential clan to gain sympathy and support for its maneuvers aimed at sidelining a political adversary – nothing more. As long as the army continues to play an overwhelming role in politics, because of the lack of a counter power or a system of checks and balances to control it, there will be no civilian regime in Algeria.


[1] The reference here is to Hugh Roberts' analysis of the late period of President Houari Boumedienne's presidency, which the author describes as a phase of increasing centralization of power and growing discontent by the other factions and interest groups within the regime. Roberts, Hugh, The Battlefield Algeria, 1988-2002: Studies in a Broken Polity, Verso, 2003.

[2] Boubekeur, Amel, Rolling either way? Algeria entrepreneurs as both agents of change and means of preservation of the system, The Journal of North Africa Studies, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 3, 469-481.

[3] Private conversation with an Algerian opposition politician, Algiers, 17/05/2014.

[4] Private conversation with an Algerian journalist, Algiers, 16/05/2014.

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