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Algeria’s president Bouteflika is tired, but the generals cling on

By Jon Marks
Posted on Tuesday, 3 July 2012 09:44

In May’s legislative elections the ruling party won the majority of seats, and Algeria’s legalised Islamist parties found their hopes of success inspired by Tunisia and Morocco unrealized.

On the face of it, Algeria’s military and security establishment – ‘le pouvoir’ – have pushed back against the pressures on the street. Yet dissatisfaction is growing at all levels. Younger officers grumble at the lack of promotion opportunities as older generals cling to their posts, led by the legendary Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité service chief, Major General Mohamed ‘Toufik’ Mediene.

“We are tired … my generation has had its day”, 75-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika told a gathering before the 10 May parliamentary elections. “Long life to he who knows his limits,” he concluded. But the old guard hangs on to power.

The elections left the former single party, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), dominant in the new parliament. Opponents accuse the regime of manipulating figures to boost voter turnout and bolster the credibility of the result.

Le pouvoir has proved resilient despite the thousands of protests – such as labour and student strikes, demonstrations over lack of infrastructure, housing and jobs, or over unresolved issues from the 1990s decade of conflict.

President Bouteflika’s mandate ends in 2014, if his health holds out. The establishment parties, the FLN and prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia’s Rassemblement National Démocratique (RND), and a shadowy group of décideurs are plotting how to manage the handover.

Before the parliamentary election, the Alliance de l’Algérie Verte (AAV) and other legalised Islamist parties thought they might win a share of the vote unequalled since the December 1991 general election, when the now banned Front Islamique du Salut won 188 of 231 seats with some 48% of the popular vote. Leading AAV member Bouguerra Soltani pulled his Mouvement de la Société pour la Paix out of the presidential coalition to compete against his former partners, the FLN and RND.

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Soltani had expected to form a government like other parties rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood tradition, such as Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi’s Ennahda in Tunisia and Abdelilah Benkirane’s Parti de la Justice et du Développement in Morocco, where Islamists head the new administration in Rabat. To its surprise, the AAV took only 47 seats in the new 462-seat Assemblée Populaire Nationale.

Like Morocco, where King Mohammed VI remains the arbiter of power despite opening up the political arena, Algeria is a heavily managed polity. “The Green Alliance [AVV] is not popular among many Islamists or credible among the wider population – it would probably have needed vote rigging to gain a bigger percentage of seats,” according to one Algerian political scientist. “Ironically, its share of the seats may be the most honest thing in the election,” he added.

Some securocrats wanted to promote the AAV to refresh the government. But that did not happen, and Algerians are not going to the barricades for Soltani, having lived through a decade of deadly conflict in the 1990s. The focus now returns to the FLN, whose secretary-general Abdelaziz Belkhadem emerged triumphant from the election. Belkhadem has long represented the ruling party’s ‘bearded FLN’ faction, promoting social conservatism and strong Arab/Islamic values.

Belkhadem faces strong resistance from within his own party. Ouyahia offers a ‘secular’ alternative, but he is widely unpopular. Le pouvoir has yet to produce a leader with a credible strategy to reform the system under which a tiny elite controls Algeria’s hydrocarbon wealth as social conditions deteriorate.

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