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Algeria’s generational change

Posted on Monday, 19 October 2015 16:49

And then there was one. Three men dominated in the Algeria that emerged from the 1990s conflict between a directionless state and radical Islam: President Abdelaziz Bouteflika; the longstanding secretary-general of the presidency, Larbi Belkheir; and the man who presided over the pervasive Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS).

Does Mediène’s departure contribute to a much needed generational change in Algeria?

military intelligence service for 24 years, Lieutenant General Mohamed Mediène. Belkheir died in 2010.

The dismissal on 13 September of the DRS head, most often known by his nom de guerre, ‘Toufik,’ leaves only an ailing Bouteflika in place. In the power vacuum that emains, Algeria’s chattering classes are speaking openly about the fall
of a generation of ‘untouchables.’

A power balance that has functioned so well for ‘le pouvoir’ – the sometimes competing factions within the small elite of military and security leaders and their political and business allies who dominate decision-making – is out of kilter. The critical question for Algeria is: does the dismissal of the security chief who was both so familiar and so unknown mark a historic watershed in the trans- ition to more open governance?

Analyst Geoff Porter asked on Twitter: “Does Mediène’s departure contribute to a much needed generational change in Algeria?” He answered his own question with a “yes”–but “no” to the follow-up: “Does Mediène’s departure signal the systemic change that Algeria desperately needs?”

Mediène was replaced by a controversial general, Athmane ‘Bachir’ Tartag, who was last year moved from being Toufik’s apparent successor on security to be appointed presidential adviser on security. In the opaque world of Algerian politics, Toufik has long been seen to be in conflict with the ‘presidential clan,’ whose most prominent member is Bouteflika’s influential brother Saïd.

Saïd has built up a complex network of business, political and military relationships, from high-profile oligarch Ali Haddad to a clique of senior officers. His elder brother has fostered hopes of an eventual succession, but a wide spectrum of people have opposed this possibility.

There had been signs for several months that Mediène was on his way out, especially following a still unexplained series of explosions reported on 16 July near the president’s seaside residence at Zéralda.

Government flacks brushed off the incident, which was followed by an immediate security blanket around the Algérois resort, but the heads of senior security officials have rolled in the following months.

If Algeria is to enact genuine systemic change, it is unlikely a security chief will ever wield the power exerted by Toufik – whose legendary files were said to contain incendiary information about decades of activity of the ruling elite.

But to have this sort of transition towards more open and responsive government will require the emergence of a politician able to replace Bouteflika. No civilian politician has come close to radiating the ruling legitimacy and leadership charisma of Bouteflika – who, for all his faults and infirmities, is a North African zaïm (charismatic leader).

Bouteflika took power after long negotiations with le pouvoir, led by Belkheir, and established a zone of influence for civilian politics in a political system dominated by the military since the coup mounted by Houari Boumédiène in 1965.

These are big shoes to fill that leading civilian politicians – including potential successors such as prime minister Abdel- malek Sellal, industry minister Abdeslam Bouchouareb and former prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia – have yet to show they can fill. With Toufik out of the way, a project favoured by the presidency to revise the constitution may return.

Under the model previously proposed by Bouteflika, Algeria would gain a vice-president who would take over were the president to become incapacitated. This has been blocked for several years by controversy, not over the constitutional niceties but over Bouteflika’s ambitions to have Saïd take the role.

As ever in Algiers, the personal politics seem to trump even the most elegantly wrought institutional reform, and that has yet to change, even with Toufik’s dirty washing being displayed in public. ●

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