In this podcast, Arezki Daoud of MEA Risk and The North Africa Journal provides an update on the state of the stalled political transition in Algeria.
Transcript: Rough times in Algeria as the military command pushes for more instability
By Arezki Daoud: The deconstruction of the Algerian regime of the past two decades is underway. At least the public figures who were tasked to administer the country for more than 20 years are now being investigated by judicial authorities that appear rejuvenated but too fast. The arrests under detention warrant rules of two former prime ministers, Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal, as well as many other senior political and business figures, did not come as a surprise. The arrests are just an extension of the earlier arrests of the brother of now ousted President Bouteflika and the two most senior Intelligence Chiefs, Generals Toufik Mediene and Bachir Tartag. The three were allegedly plotting to save the Bouteflika system by reportedly illegally planning the formation of a future presidential system that would replace that of Abdelaziz Bouteflika and would have save the furniture, so to speak. But pressure from the street has forced the army command to get involved, in particular after its Chief, General Gaid Salah was threatened to be dismissed by a plot from the trio that I just mentioned. Gaid Salah sent several public warnings to the three men and others who were with them, but eventually he had to resort to arresting them.
You have to know that the three men who are in a military prison nowadays were not only central to the bankrupt Algerian regime of cronyism and outright terror, but they are ultimately the ones who built a nationwide bureaucratic and support system that kept Algeria completely locked down. They created a system that the Moroccans call el-Makhzen, when they describe their own system of cronyism. In Algeria, they put that system at the mercy of oligarch friends who carved out Algeria as a huge cake just for them to eat, and handsomely reward their facilitators. The central administration, including the justice and police authorities were in the hands of their men, from ex-Prime Ministers Ouyahia and Sellal, to minister of justice Louh, to former Prime Minister Bedoui, who was interior minister, and dozens of others who now facing justice, others, like Bedoui, are still in power.
Below that, they created provincial and local authorities that gave allegiance and loyalty to them and them only. All bureaucracies from there on were built to constrain any social and economic improvement for the population, but in fact they were used to keep the simple folks busy with paperwork, red tape, and corruption at all levels.
Now with the Algerian people taking to the street since 22 February, the system lost its balance. No one predicted the intensity of the public response to the system wanting to impose Bouteflika for a fifth term. At MEA Risk, we knew that 2019 was going to be a major year for Algeria, specifically because the country’s leaders, chief of whom Prime Minister Ouyahia, promised the removal of subsidies as the country was about to lose all of its foreign currency reserves. All of that was taking place inside a completely broken economy, and in an election year. Two-to-three years ago, it was easy for our analysts to warn that something will happen in 2019. But not the magnitude. Everyone thought the people were just afraid of expressing themselves with that degree of passion. We were wrong.
Now the pandora’s box is open and putting the genie back in the bottle is just impossible. In a moment of panic, the Bouteflika system collapsed, and the military had no other option but to be part of the cleanup process. The rest we know: those who can inflict the hardest damage were picked up first… think of the three men I mentioned earlier, Said Bouteflika and the two generals. Then the focus was on the oligarchs, who were handled by lower courts. Their incarceration was important because they control billions of dollars and could wreaked havoc if they were not contained. It is true, that their arrest is very much hurting the economy as their companies are essentially frozen. Thousands of workers and projects are idle and that does not help the country. But it is likely that the transition will require a painful period.
The next phase was to go after the top former political leaders. But the problem is that lower courts are not able to touch them, only the Supreme Court could. As in all other administrations, the Supreme Court was also controlled by operatives appointed by the Bouteflika regime. They were loyal to their masters in the Bouteflika administration. They would not only touch their former bosses, as they themselves were likely involved in corruption cases. Therefore, the next move of the military was eventually to clean up the Supreme Court and last week, we saw the dismissal of Abdellah Melak as the Advocate General of the Supreme Court and the appointment of younger magistrates there, including a First President of the Supreme Court, a new Attorney General and a new Human Resources chief. The Ministry of Justice also saw a substantial purge, with the replacement of Inspector General, the head for the Judicial and Legal Issues department, as well as a new President of the Algiers Court. Immediately after these appointments former Prime Ministers Ouyahia and Sellal were sent to prison on a slew of corruption charges, pending their trial.
It is tempting to give all credit to Gen eral Gaid Salah, who promised to clean up and drain the swamp to use an expression by the US president. In one of his earlier speeches he simply said the army had damning files against senior officials and it planned to share them with the judicial system. So, it did after a judicial system reshuffle. But where are we going now? What are the intensions of the military going forward? Will it abide by the public demand for a wholesale change to the system?
These are very difficult questions, but needless to say the military command is under enormous pressure. On the one hand there are the Algerian people who are absolutely determined to see the fall of the house of cards that is the terrible Algerian regime.
Then there are the internal divisions within the command itself. It would be naïve to believed that all top generals are speaking the same language. Although General Gaid Salah may be the voice and face of those generals, many have their own agendas and several of them may have been part of the Algerian mekhzen and may not like the sudden collapse of the system.
Then there are foreign interests. There is no doubt that the calls for democracy and the rule of law in Algeria are not endorsed by the likes of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to say the least. Any rise of democracy in Algeria is a direct threat to the monarchies and Egyptian generals, who are cracking down on the Libyans and the Sudanese? The French obviously have their agenda. A politically and economically independent Algerian can become a problem for France’s image of a power in control of the region. All these regional players and more will do whatever it takes to stop the Algerian people from regaining their dignity.
For the Algerian people, everything that happened since 22 February is absolutely earth shaking. In less than four months, the good people of Algeria have managed to end the Bouteflika 5th term rerun charade. They ended the military’s attempt to run an election on 4 July. They put the countries’ most powerful businessmen in jail. They forced the new judicial system to imprison not one, but two prime ministers, an unprecedented event in the country’s history. They are cleaning up the mess without one single bullet fired. In many of the protests we saw, as many as 22 million people took to the streets simultaneously, and if the Guinness World Records officials fail to put that in their book, then something is wrong. 22 million is our best estimate, and we know no other nation in history that did this.
It is tempting to analyze the ongoing events taken place in Algeria as a pure and simple story of clan warfare, a regime in disarray, foreign meddling, etc. All of that may be true, but none of it would have happened if the Algerian people did not force them to happen. This is a major historical event that will be forever remembered as an event as important as Algeria’s independence from France in 1962.
So, what’s ahead for Algeria? Despite the hope of what’s coming in the long term, the biggest problem for Algeria is its military command. The generals in power are struggling to find a reasonable exit out of the crisis. The proof is that General Gaid Salah is reported to be changing his aids every two weeks or so. In one speech, he appears reconciliatory and going along with public demands. In the next he appears intransigent and outright dictatorial. These speeches, obviously written by different people with different agendas, are hints of deep divisions within the clan of 20 or so generals who control the military command.
From the get-go and since 22 February, this phase was always predicted by analysts and politicians to be the hardest part in Algeria’s transition. Everyone knew that ousting Bouteflika and some of his cronies would be the easier part, but what came after would be an intense struggle. And we are seeing now. There is a great sense of uncertainty that is fueling tension and stress in Algeria. Algerian political commentators, mostly siding with the protest movement are in panic mode now. The Generals’ stalling-and-delaying tactics are considered as proof that the dreadful system of corruption is trying to drain the energy of the protest movement to regroup and reimpose itself. Then there is the fate of the economy, which let’s be frank, it is simply collapsing with major risk of social explosion in the coming months if nothing is fixed. Until the Generals agree to let the people get their way, Algeria is definitely headed toward a disastrous crash.