Forward… But Where to?

The end of Bouteflika, the centrality of General Ahmed Gaïd Salah, and the parameters of change in Algeria

Former Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Deputy Minister for National Defense and Chief of Staff General Ahmed Gaïd Salah attend an event in Algiers, Algeria, June 27, 2012. Stringer/EFE/EPA

After almost six months, the protest movement (Hirak in Arabic) has managed to radically change Algeria’s political landscape, triggering the collapse of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s authoritarian coalition, reinstating the army as a central player, putting an end to competitive clientelism, bridging old divisions within society, and creating new cleavages within the country. Yet, the current deadlock between the military and the demonstrators appears as just an intermediate stage on the way to a possible democratic transition or a consolidation of power around General Ahmed Gaïd Salah and the army. While the two sides are still struggling to find a common language to move forward, they have so far avoided any serious misunderstandings, leaving Algeria in a political limbo.

To understand the current crisis, it might be useful to take a step back and analyze the complex dynamics that led to President Bouteflika’s rise to power, his ability to stay in power for longer than what many initially expected, and his sudden fall earlier this year. While Bouteflika’s ascent cannot be separated from his success in putting an end to the country’s civil war, his four consecutive presidential terms highlight well the contradictions that eventually led to his downfall and fuelled the current popular movement against the regime. At the same time, his tactics and policies can explain the current dynamics in the relationship between the army and the protest movement, and the likely scenarios for Algeria going forward.

The entire Bouteflika era was centered around the presidential ambition to tame, once and for all, the military and their influence over the presidency. When he seemed able to accomplish this strategic aim—at the beginning of his fourth mandate (2014–2015)—paradoxically, that was the moment that signaled the start of the military’s resurgence in shaping Algeria’s political landscape. This development was characterized by the growing centrality of the Chief of the General Staff and Deputy Minister of Defense General Gaïd Salah, in the informal balance of Algerian power. From this point of view, Algeria is now back to square one: the military keeps running the country, as it has always done since independence, and the Hirak is now constrained within the political and legal limits that Gaïd Salah has set over the past months.

Rise and Fall: Bouteflika’s Authoritarian Coalition
Bouteflika was first elected president in 1999, after the then-military leadership opted for this long-time exile in the United Arab Emirates to replace General Liamine Zéroual. The latter had resigned as head of state at the end of a contentious term, during which his room for maneuver had been severely constrained by the army. In the late 1990s Algeria was still in a state of civil war, although the Islamist insurgency had been losing momentum for a while.

The country’s military leadership saw in Bouteflika someone who could restore Algeria’s international status. Bouteflika enjoyed huge international political capital—and contacts—that he built during his former role as foreign minister in the 1960s and 1970s. However, the constraints around this position were clear from the beginning: the country was de facto run by the military, with the president acting as a mere figurehead. This was an attempt to reintroduce what political scholar Abdelkader Yefsah once described as the “civilian hijab”. This veil was used by the military throughout Algeria’s history to dominate the political system, that is to rule from behind using a civilian leader to hide their power. Bouteflika, in his years in power, tried to resist this dynamic. At some point, he even seemed to be successful.

This civilian veil was temporarily ripped during the 1990s as the military took a more open role in running the country, after military leaders Abdelmalek Guenaïzia, Khaled Nezzar and Larbi Belkheir forced President Chadli Benjedid to resign in January 1992 and took the reins of power.

Bouteflika’s presidency depended on three sources of legitimization, which he carefully cultivated to boost his influence vis-à-vis the security forces and avoid being a “three-quarter president,” as he famously stated soon after his first electoral victory.

First, Bouteflika could claim that he belonged to the revolutionary generation that fought against the French and managed to liberate the country. His involvement in the national independence struggle and his role during the presidency of Houari Boumédiène during the late 1970s afforded him a degree of public credibility. However, this was the only source of ideological legitimacy that Bouteflika could realistically rely on. The other sources were material, highlighting his presidency’s authoritarian/bureaucratic nature. The other two bulwarks of his legitimacy in the eyes of Algerians were his ability to put an end to the civil war and the redistribution of oil wealth in order to craft a new social coalition that would come to support the regime and, in particular, be loyal to Bouteflika.

Much has been said about his initiatives to reconcile a country torn apart by a violent civil war and to conceal the military’s crimes during the 1990s. Consistent with his pragmatic aim to shore up his own legitimacy by materially improving the lives of the Algerians, Bouteflika refused to take into consideration any idea of restorative justice or reconciliation that could expose the army to many accusations. Instead, the Bouteflika administration banked on war fatigue, the military’s desire to exit the civil conflict with a full rehabilitation, and the growing resources at the state’s disposal to accelerate the transition to a new political phase. Coming into power when the military had already regained the upper hand over insurgents, Bouteflika could easily offer to whitewash the military’s reputation and protect it from possible international prosecution while enticing the Islamist guerrillas to drop their weapons and be reabsorbed into Algeria’s expanding economy in exchange for their disengagement from politics.

As mentioned, the key to Bouteflika’s bureaucratic normalization project was access to and redistribution of oil and gas wealth, which coincided with a sustained increase in available energy revenues. The president used this money to end the civil war, build a coalition of constituencies and interests supportive of the state, and increase his leverage over the other factions, in addition to controlling the security forces. From the point of view of the Algerian government, Bouteflika successfully bought the loyalty of several groups, which had previously distanced themselves from what had effectively become a bunker state (that is, a regime isolated from its own population and ruling through an oversized military apparatus) in the 1990s.

Before Bouteflika, several constituencies had only reluctantly given their support to the government because of the increasingly violent crimes committed by the Islamist guerrillas. The devastating impact of the chaotic economic liberalization of the 1980s, the failed democratic transition, the civil war and the harsh austerity measures imposed in the mid-1990s had isolated the Algerian leaders from their population.

The president generously redistributed the vastly increased oil and gas revenues to stitch together a new political settlement and regain the trust of the population. The new social coalition was happy to provide its support to Bouteflika and his normalization project in return for political stability and long-lost economic prosperity. An increase in the number of public sector employees, combined with the reinjection of resources into the private sector through government contracts and infrastructure projects, were instrumental in securing the support of Algeria’s middle and lower classes. In addition, the government bought the support and/or political demobilization of other constituencies such as feminists, Berber speakers (with visible exceptions, such as the 2001 Black Spring), former Islamic Salvation Front militants, informal economy entrepreneurs, religious confraternities, rural notables, religious minorities, mujahideen associations, youth groups, and so on. The redistribution of hydrocarbon revenues was the necessary glue holding together this variegated coalition of interests.

In parallel to this new social contract, Bouteflika used oil and gas money to create his own patronage networks and increase his leverage. The most evident example of this strategy was the creation of a new and politically outspoken business class, in a country where state intervention in the economy and the chaotic liberalization of the 1980s and the 1990s civil war had always pre-empted the rise of a self-confident private sector elite. Bouteflika raised a breed of crony capitalists that became assertive in their support for the presidency and their hunger for opportunities. Along with the country’s General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA), the religious zawiyas, the rural associations, and many other groups, this class enabled Bouteflika to build his own support base within the country and to compete with the security forces’ own patronage networks.

Lastly, shifting international circumstances allowed Bouteflika to make the most of his international political capital. The September 11 attacks made jihadi terrorism a truly global issue and changed the perception that many capitals had up to that point of the Algerian events of the 1990s. As terrorism increasingly became a European and American problem, Algeria was not only rehabilitated in the eyes of the global public opinion for what it had gone through during the 1990s, but was also increasingly perceived as a useful partner, as its counterterrorism knowhow was considered an asset by many actors who were facing this threat for the first time.

Ahmed Gaïd Salah: from Outsider to Kingmaker
Nevertheless, the epilogue of his presidency showed that Bouteflika never managed to decisively centralize power around himself. When it appeared that the president had managed to tame the military once and for all by dismissing the Department of Intelligence and Security (Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité, or DRS), he paradoxically created the conditions for a return to greater military influence. The growing centrality of Gaïd Salah within the system, which had been implied in recent years but only emerged over the past few months, was the result of this process. In his attempts to sideline his adversaries, Bouteflika was always forced to strike tactical alliances with other actors, some of whom were within the army itself. From this point of view, Bouteflika adopted—this time in substantial continuity with previous practices—a “divide and rule” strategy.

Throughout his presidency, he looked for allies within the army itself to limit and remove those officers that he perceived to be his immediate enemies. Belkheir, one of the historical heavyweights among the Janvierists and close to Benjedid before ousting him, was the director of the president’s office, and later became Bouteflika’s head of cabinet in 2000. The “Cardinal of Frenda” (one of his nicknames) was actually the person who suggested Bouteflika as a replacement for Zéroual, after the latter called early elections in 1999.

After a relatively low-profile first term, Bouteflika’s reelection in 2004 marked an acceleration in his plan to reduce the army’s influence on politics. In the summer of the same year, the then-Chief of Staff Mohamed Lamari left his position allegedly for health reasons but arguably because he fell out of favor within Bouteflika’s circle. One year later, Bouteflika appointed Belkheir ambassador to Morocco, effectively neutralizing him. A key role in this reshuffle was played by Mohamed Mediène, the powerful head of the DRS. However, in accordance with the playbook of Algerian politics, Bouteflika also struck an alliance with a less powerful actor who was at the same time an enemy of both Lamari and Mediène—Gaïd Salah—and appointed him chief of staff. A Chaoui Berber from Batna province in Algeria’s northeast—often described as a self-effacing man mostly focused on prioritizing the professionalization of the army and keeping it out of politics—Gaïd Salah was initially chosen to take over the role of Lamari for a number of reasons. Both Lamari and Mediène wanted him out, and indeed Gaïd Salah was on a list of officers ready to retire. Since its reestablishment in 1984, the General Staff served the purpose of reducing the president’s authority over the Armed Forces. This was essential in determining the president’s room for maneuver in relations with the Armed Forces.

Gaïd Salah was appointed to this position as Bouteflika needed a dependable outsider with sufficient experience to act as a counterweight to Mediène and the DRS. After ten years of struggle, Bouteflika and Gaïd Salah managed to sideline the DRS and Mediène, who was eventually forced to leave in 2015. However, as the power of the DRS declined, Gaïd Salah became increasingly central to the system. Inevitably, speculation concerning his role within the presidential faction accompanied his rise to power, with rumors concentrating on his rivalry with Saïd Bouteflika, the president’s youngest brother. Meanwhile, Bouteflika’s deteriorating health and the lack of a clear successor within this circle created the space for Gaïd Salah to strengthen his role as the arbiter of the government. The outbreak of the 2019 crisis and Bouteflika’s resignation were therefore the culmination of Gaïd Salah’s ascent. With the benefit of hindsight, the impact of the Oran cocaine-smuggling scandal in mid-2018, which implicated high government officials, led to the sacking of Abdelghani Hamel—the head of the General Directorate for National Security, DGSN, who was considered close to Bouteflika. It also led to a wide reshuffle within the security forces signaling what would happen only a few months later. The end of Bouteflika’s presidency, the return of the Security Services Department (Département de Surveillance et de Sécurité, or DSS) under the control of the minister of defense and the resignation of Athmane “Bachar” Tartag as head of the DSS completed Gaïd Salah’s evolution from outsider to kingmaker.

Gaïd Salah and the Re-centralization of Power
The impact of a well-organized and civic-minded protest movement has now dramatically changed the contours of Algerian politics and led to a broad reshuffle of personnel within the country’s main institutions. With the Bouteflika faction out of the picture, the country is now increasingly divided between the possibility of a civil society-led democratic transition or a quick return to the ballot box to elect a new president under the watchful gaze of an ever more central army, which aims to retain a key role in the decision-making process.

The unified social and political front against Bouteflika that emerged over the second half of February has marked a major shift in the context of Algerian politics. In previous years, protests in Algeria were never part of a coalition with shared national and political aims. They were mostly focused on short-term material gains for specific territories or professional cadres, as protesters abided by the implicit rules of the game set by the regime in the context of the commodities super-cycle; for example, access to and redistribution of government revenues and opportunities was not regulated through elections but through patron–client relations and social unrest. Elections themselves had merely been a tool in the Bouteflika state and the regime before to punish disloyal elements, award loyal politicians, and co-opt civil society or political leaders.

This anti-election position, however, has been gradually eroded by the new generations, who are presumably less acquainted with this political logic and were born and raised in a different cultural environment more open to global trends and external influences. Indeed, it was a vanguard made of young activists and students that took to the streets and injected the necessary momentum that enabled more reluctant actors to get together and become agents for change. Following the success of the first demonstrations, civil society groups, independent trade unions and other organizations, and private citizens decided to join, giving even more strength to the protest movement.

While this dynamic has been successful in changing the relationship between the state and the people, under the leadership of Gaïd Salah the regime has shown a remarkable ability to adapt to the new circumstances. The harsh stance taken by Gaïd Salah toward the Bouteflika faction has been so far functional to his strategy aimed at neutralizing the protest movement and thus riding out the storm. By forcing the president to stand down while ostensibly applying the constitution, Gaïd Salah has worked to guarantee the survival, at least in the short-term, of the political system. As a result, he has now changed the parameters of the confrontation by taking the “constitutional path” and has thus attempted to constrain the opposition.

In doing so, he has reaffirmed not only the centrality of the army within the system, but also in the context of the protest movement, by setting the parameters of what can be lawfully achieved and what cannot, always relying on Algeria’s constitution. Indeed, bypassing the limits set by the country’s fundamental charter would imply that the Hirak is trying to pursue an anti-constitutional path—a development that could potentially foster divisions within the opposition and the protest movement and affect both domestic and international public opinion.

In addition, while there have been cases of intensified repression of protests by Algerian police, the use of violence has not become systemic. If there is one lesson to be learned from the events of the 1990s, it is that government repression can unify a front that is only nominally cohesive but internally heterogeneous and fragmented. From this point of view, the Hirak is even more heterogeneous and internally diversified than the Islamist opposition of the early 1990s, but there is every reason to believe that a harsher security response would likely backfire for the regime. Indeed, it seems that the authorities selectively use repression to deliver a message to the protest movements about the army’s readiness to resort to violence.

Most importantly, starting from March the Algerian justice system suddenly awakened from a long slumber, arresting a series of people on allegations of corruption, abuse of power, and conspiracy against the state. Some Algerians even joked that the prison of El Harrach is the new Club de Pins (the exclusive residence of most of the elite). The list of people in jail includes former heavyweights like Saïd Bouteflika, politicians and former ministers, security officers, and formerly all-powerful businessmen.

The arrests have been arguably Gaïd Salah’s key strategy to achieve a number of different, yet interrelated aims. First, he recentralized power around himself and sidelined any potential competitor. These arrests have effectively destroyed the competing patronage networks linked to Bouteflika and Mediène and have further strengthened Gaïd Salah’s control of the political and economic engine, thus replacing Algeria’s previous system of competitive clientelism with a new centralized clientelist settlement. Second, he issued a message to other political, military, and economic players that confronting him would result in their exclusion from the new system, while a more cooperative approach could allow them to climb up the political–economic ladder.

Finally, these arrests aim to widen cracks within the protest movement. By centralizing patronage and throwing in jail the old elite, Gaïd Salah has presented himself as the only player who can rid the system of corruption and open up new opportunities for those Algerians who have been marginalized for all these years, in effect undermining the anti-co-optation efforts deployed by the protest movement since the beginning. Indeed, a division between pro- and anti-Gaïd Salah demonstrators has already appeared, although it has not yet had any tangible impact on the protest movement.

Civil Society’s Transition Roadmap
This central role played by the army was even more evident in Gaïd Salah’s handling of the constitutional court’s decision to delay the presidential ballot, which was initially supposed to take place on July 4 and has now been indefinitely postponed. This ruling has marked a major setback for the military’s strategy to quickly move to presidential elections. Following the ruling, Gaïd Salah has reiterated that he will not allow a constitutional vacuum to set in, while conceding that there needs to be an orderly dialogue between civil society and the institutions to prepare the terrain for presidential elections.

This invitation to start a dialogue between the institutions and the protest movement has been seized by a coalition of civil society groups, which organized a series of meetings around mid-June to put forward proposals to break the deadlock. While opinions on Gaïd Salah’s management of the transition vary within these groups, these meetings were the first attempt to bridge the representation gap between the protest movement and the elites in Algeria. From the beginning, protesters have shown little regard for opposition parties and leaders that they consider part of the same system they oppose. The mistrust between the protest movement and Algeria’s opposition parties was also mirrored in the demonstrators’ refusal to choose their own leadership structure. The protest movement’s lack of leadership has probably been a strategy to deal with the risk of co-optation by the regime, but it has undermined its ability to formulate a detailed and realistic agenda for change and to negotiate with the opposition as it confronts the ruling authorities.

The June meetings organized by civil society groups, independent trade unions, and religious associations have tried to fill this gap. Five main groups participated in these meetings: two civil society umbrella organizations, the Civil Society Collective and the Forum for Change; a coalition of independent trade unions (mainly representing workers in the education and healthcare sectors); and two religious groupings, Amal and the association of the Algerian Ulama. These organizations have tried to represent the broad spectrum of Algeria’s protest movement and, after discussions, eventually managed to agree on a transition roadmap.

The plan consists of four main points. First, Algeria needs an interim presidential committee or a consensus president and a technocratic government to run the country during the transitional period, which is meant to last six to twelve months. Second, the electoral commission needs to be reformed to guarantee the neutrality of state institutions in the next ballot. Third, a dialogue between civil society groups, the political class, and the protest movement should take place to discuss the country’s main political, social, and economic priorities, culminating in a national conference. Finally, these measures aim to pave the way for a yet-to-be-defined electoral process that should complete the transition to a full-fledged democracy.

While this roadmap marks a significant development and throws the ball back into Gaïd Salah’s court, a closer look at the discussions that preceded this proposal and the reactions it has elicited within society shows a more complex picture. First, the roadmap remains elusive on a key point—the type of elections that are supposed to take place at the end of this transition. The Civil Society Collective and the Forum for Change are divided on this point, with the former advocating the election of a constituent assembly that should lead to a complete overhaul of Algeria’s political system, while the latter supports the idea of moving swiftly to presidential elections—an option that is probably closer to Gaïd Salah’s preferences. This is not simply a matter of procedures, but indicates a much deeper division between supporters of more radical change and advocates of a gradual approach—a cleavage that seems to mirror debates that have taken part in Libya and Tunisia over the past years.

Likewise, the discourse around this roadmap and the visible presence of Islamists in conversations around the roadmap have irked many in Algeria. The use of Arabic and Amazigh as official languages and the exclusion of French has sparked complaints online, while others have focused their attention on the overwhelming presence of middle-aged men in defining the roadmap, some of whom could easily be identified as Islamists and who are in any case hardly representative of the strong presence of women and youth activists in the demonstrations.

Overall, these divisions have so far remained dormant or have been successfully contained, as the protest movement presented a united front against Bouteflika in favor of a democratic transition. They now threaten to become more evident and to play into the hands of the regime, which remains suspicious of any form of radical change. It remains to be seen how Gaïd Salah and the military will respond to this initiative and, most importantly, if the protest movement will still manage to remain united and contain its own divisions now that its posture is inevitably shifting from contestation to proposition.

Presidential Elections or a Political Transformation?
Twenty years of skillful maneuvering were never enough to earn Bouteflika complete control over the Algerian state or rent distribution. Paraphrasing what he said once sworn in, Bouteflika remained a “three-quarter and something” of a president, too busy outmaneuvering his challengers and focusing on his political survival to lay the foundations for the long-term development of the country. This was evident in many sectors, including the numerous and unpredictable regulatory as well as personnel changes in the oil and gas sector, the unstable and ineffective industrialization policies (for example, in the automotive sector), and the spectacular U-turns on monetary or trade policy.

Lacking any strong ideological legitimacy (beyond his independence struggle credentials), Bouteflika gradually lost his ability to provide material improvements to the Algerian population as oil and gas revenues started to shrink from the mid-2010s. The end of the commodity super-cycle and, most importantly, the unsustainable weight of the country’s overstretched social contract meant that the regime became unable to accommodate all the requests coming from Algerian society and in particular the new generations. Depleting foreign reserves, increasing import restrictions, and stagnating incomes for many Algerians signaled the limitations of Bouteflika’s authoritarian/ bureaucratic agenda. In the meantime, the chaotic implementation of pie-in¬the-sky industrialization policies highlighted the challenges of development in a polity characterized by competing patronage networks.

Faced with the president’s illness, the lack of a clear successor within the clan, and the regime factions’ inability to agree on a successor only exacerbated these problems and contributed to the gradual erosion of the regime’s already shrinking legitimacy. Eventually, it was the attrition of the social coalition behind the regime, combined with the political de-mobilization of a large share of the population and the coming of age of a new generation that had not materially benefited from Bouteflika’s normalization project, that gave birth to a largely spontaneous, leaderless protest movement that the authorities have so
far proven unable to control.

Against this backdrop, the president’s declining health and the progressive elimination of a number of heavyweights within the army, such as the dismissal of Mediène in 2015, increased the room for maneuver and the centrality of Gaïd Salah. The changes in the security services in the months before the protests were already proof of this centrality, which became more evident as the protests gained momentum. Gaïd Salah’s call to implement Article 102 of the constitution, which allows a constitutional council to declare the president unfit to rule and the presidency therefore vacant, was itself a result of his consolidation of power. This dynamic was in the making for quite a while, as he moved from being an outsider among the generals-kingmakers to become the sole kingmaker.

After taking a few weeks to adapt to the new political environment crafted by the protests, Gaïd Salah managed to set the parameters of the confrontation by taking the “constitutional path” and thus attempting to constrain the opposition. The arrest of officials and businessmen linked to Bouteflika and Mediène has enabled Gaïd Salah to recentralize power by eliminating competing patronage networks, while making timid overtures to a dialogue with civil society. His plan is now to move as quickly as possible to presidential elections, leaving the army in a key position to continue to influence the decision-making process.

On the other hand, the protest movement has recently managed to overcome its divisions and hesitations to present a transition roadmap centered around the idea of a dialogue between state institutions and civil society groups. This proposal marks a major development, but remains critically unclear regarding the final outcome of this process—whether Algeria should go down the route of a constituent assembly, along the lines of what Tunisia did after 2011, or if the best option is to quickly transition to presidential elections (an option that Gaïd Salah is probably more inclined to push for). However, as the protest movement changes its posture and tries to articulate some proposals to break the current deadlock, divisions are inevitably becoming more apparent, posing the risk of manipulation by the authorities.

Dexterous Movements and the Pole that Confronts
One of the most significant books written on Algeria and its elites is Isabelle Werenfels’s Managing Instability in Algeria. She discussed the challenges that the Algerian state faced in the latter half of the 1990s and its capacity to manage instability. Werenfels argued that the governing elite displayed “a notable aptitude for adapting its strategies to the many challenges posed by an unstable international and domestic environment”.

Twenty years later, the rulers of Algeria continue to be dexterous in how they position themselves. In 2019, the governing elite adapted to instability by sacrificing members of its community to persecution in a bid to ensure the survival of the political governance.
The centrality of Gaïd Salah and his capacity to redraw the boundaries of the confrontation vis-à-vis the opposition are indisputable and represent the lifeblood of this adaptation aptitude. That said, despite the emergence of several cleavages and divisions within the movement, the Hirak managed to impose itself as a pole of dialectic confrontation, a factor that cannot be ignored or bypassed in any way moving forward. While Gaïd Salah’s maneuvers have allowed him to set the boundaries of this confrontation, these boundaries themselves cannot exclude in any way the movement and its desires.