A Turning Point for Algeria?

Following President Abdulaziz Bouteflika’s recent re-hospitalization in France, panic and widespread rumors have again inundated Algeria’s media and its political institutions. With the stability of the country closely linked to presidential elections hypothetically slated for April 2014, the results will undoubtedly determine Algeria’s political power configuration for the next decade. Bouteflika’s ability to run in the April elections, given serious health issues, will have a significant impact; it is indeed a defining moment in Algerian history.

A year after a terrorist attack at the In Amenas’ oil fields, security in Algeria remains tenuous. Instability along the Tunisia and Libya borders and in the southern part of Algeria is still a major concern, and a change in the political landscape could destabilize Algeria’s security, in large part due to the government’s tight grip on the security sector. Conversely, a deteriorating security situation could delegitimize the government because it is so closely linked to the country’s security apparatus. With these two areas so closely linked, a change in one is likely to impact the other.

A year ago, neither the political nor security landscape were as fluid as they are today, and many discounted that the country would see much change, especially since the protest movement sweeping the region never took hold in Algeria as it did elsewhere. However, in 2013, both politics and security in Algeria changed considerably, and the coming year will prove to be far more tumultuous.  Given resurgent health issues, it is increasingly unlikely that Bouteflika will be re-elected for a fourth term—paving the way for an internal power struggle—and it is also likely that low-level terrorist activity, which Algeria has witnessed for the past decade, will continue to escalate. 

For the first half of 2013, Bouteflika’s hold on power seemed less secure than in the past. The president’s hospitalization last April for three months due to a stroke led to speculation that his power and influence were diminishing and that it was unlikely he would run for a fourth term. However, upon his return to Algeria last summer, Bouteflika took a series of steps, consolidating power through a government reshuffle and ensuring only those loyal to him were in positions of power. The ruling National Liberation Front (FLN), tightly controlled by the Bouteflika clan, then proceeded to nominate him as the party’s candidate in the upcoming elections. Nevertheless, it remains unclear mainly due to his health, if Bouteflika will run for a fourth term.

In the meantime, preparations for the elections have already begun. In this continued air of uncertainty, rumors are spreading, one which sees an almost incapacitated Bouteflika running for election, this time with a vice presidential running mate. In this scenario, once elected, he would resign in favor of his number two. In early January, speculation emerged that the FLN had selected the current prime minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, as this candidate. Seizing on the possibility that he will not run, Bouteflika’s political opponents are already preparing their candidacies. The popular Ali Benflis, the former head of the government from August 2000 to May 2003 and a member of the opposition, will officially announce his presidential bid on January 19.

Another rumor sees Bouteflika trying to keep the power structure in place by immediately appointing a successor and announcing a roadmap for the country in the event he does not run. It remains unclear if this is possible from a legal standpoint, but the very fact that it has been discussed is a clear indication of the precariousness of the moment. This possibility of succession is very important since it could have significant implications for the stability of the country on various counts. First, there is no clear procedure for succession, which could create a dangerous power vacuum. Cracks could emerge within the ruling elite, as they compete for power and draw Algeria into a political crisis.  Second, Bouteflika has focused on consolidating power by placing those loyal to him in positions of power and marginalizing those that are not. As the political opposition, consisting mainly of the Green Alliance, a coalition of Islamist parties including the Movement of Society for Peace (Hamas), the Islamic Renaissance Movement (Ennahda), and the Movement for National Reform (Islah), and some secular parties such as Front of Socialist Forces and the Workers Party,  increasingly demand change, it is unclear whether the ruling FLN will be able to successfully keep control of the country in the hands of the same elite that have helped Bouteflika rule since 1999, even if the party is united behind one successor. Third, the lack of change in the ruling elite, and thus a lack of meaningful social and economic reforms, could push the general population to demand change. Finally, some analysts regard Bouteflika and his allies as being at odds with Algeria’s military security apparatus. If Bouteflika is no longer in power and his successor is unable to solidify his position, a power struggle could emerge between the political and military elite. This would undermine both political stability and the security of the country at a time when terrorist activity is on the rise.

While security in Algeria has improved since the bloody civil war of the 1990s, low-level terrorism has persisted for more than a decade. As the entire Maghreb-Sahel region has destabilized over the last three years, the security situation in Algeria has once again begun to deteriorate. Poor border control has resulted in the easy movement of arms, drugs, and terrorists from Algeria’s neighbors into the country and vice versa. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an al-Qaeda affiliate with origins in the Algerian civil war, is becoming a greater threat to stability in the region. The shocking terrorist attack at the In Amenas gas fields in January 2013 was perpetrated by a splinter group of AQIM, which managed to take control of the installation, capture foreign hostages, and maintain their position for three days, ending with thirty-eight hostages killed and most militants either killed or captured.  This event is particularly significant because the scale and complexity of the attack was far greater than analysts believed the group was capable of carrying out. Looking forward, a political crisis resulting from the 2014 election, or in the lead-up to the elections, could create a power vacuum of which AQIM or another militant group could easily take advantage.    

Monitoring what happens in the months leading up to the election will be just as significant as the results of the presidential election itself in understanding the direction Algeria will take over the next decade. As rumors abound regarding Bouteflika’s health and his ability to govern the country, members of the opposition, and even individuals within the ruling elite, may seek to profit from the growing uncertainty. Additional actors, including members of terrorist groups and criminal organizations may seek to take advantage of this unstable environment in order to establish strongholds within the country. Most important to monitor, however, is the impact these changes have on the social and economic conditions in the country, the reaction of the Algerian people to the changing political and security landscapes, and whether the people will seek to play a meaningful role in steering the future of the country.

Karim Mezran is a senior fellow with the Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Ilana Hosios completed her Bachelor’s degree at Tufts University in international relations and is currenty an intern at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. 

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