By Dr Mohamed Chtatou
The strong man of the Algerian regime general Mohamed Mediène, alias Tewfik, head of the powerful DRS (Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité), has been ordered into retirement some time ago, at the height of his power within the army and popularity among many people, who view him, first, as the true symbol of stability of the country and, second, as the next president capable of holding ebullient and unstable Algeria together. He was popularly known as rabb dzayer “the God of Algeria.”
Is the army still powerful?
This done, one wonders quite rightly whether this “political coup” directed at the powerful army, that, was in the past and still is the main inspiration and the sole power behind the throne, is the work of the incapacitated President Bouteflika himself, the presidential staff headed by the powerful President’s brother Said or the core army nomenclature represented by the chief of staff general Gaid Saleh, who had many things to settle with general Tewfik?
The answer is neither straightforward nor simple in opaque Algeria that is reminiscent of its long-time ally and patron Russia, in its old Soviet configuration. The power struggle is fierce, especially when the opponents feel, with much strength, that probably the end of the reign of Bouteflika is at hand. So the players want to get the most material benefits from it before it is too late.
However, the opposition and secular Berber party Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Démocratie (RCD) is very skeptical of these changes, and does not see them leading to the much-hoped for democracy, but just more of the same, whereby different clients of the establishment are in total clannish feuds for more power within the system and consequently more benefits.[i]
Since the president suffered his first heart attack and was hurriedly transported to a French hospital for medical care in total secrecy, various powerful groups have been vying, in the dark, for the favors of the powerful army to win the honor of selection for the position of president, to no avail. The nimble President Bouteflika, though weakened by illness and obliged to use a wheelchair for mobility and Skype for mass communication, seems to still hold the power firmly and enjoy the confidence of the army.
The fire next time
Algeria’s economy depends to almost 90 % on earnings from oil revenues and like many oil-producing countries in the MENA region, has set up a huge rentier state that serves as a means of buying social peace disguised into the so-called policy of even distribution of wealth, but aiming, in the end, at perpetuating the absolutist regime, tightly controlled by the omnipresent army.
In this peculiar set-up, half of the oil revenues go to the secret Swiss bank accounts of the top brass of the army, who consider themselves the sole and legitimate inheritors of the Algerian independence. All in all, they are ready to use force, if necessary, as they did with the Islamists, in the past, to safeguard their material benefits in the name of the concept they created prior to independence, to keep power, even by using brutal tactics: “revolutionary violence.”
As the oil prices are dwindling on the world oil market rapidly, Algeria will soon face difficult options. Initially, it will probably make use of the sovereign fund to maintain the social status quo, but once it is depleted, it will have no other alternative but to opt out for hard choices of realpolitik: cut the subsidies. It has already started in some areas, and the people’s reaction has been violent.
This perilous act has indeed been preceded in the last year or so by putting stringent conditions on car-importing which led to diplomatic outcry from European countries like Germany, whose manufactured vehicles were denied entry to the Algerian market.
In Algeria, everything is subsidized by the state from medicine to housing, attempting to cut the subsidies will amount to political suicide because the rank and file will argue that the military are denying them a birthright while they themselves indulge unashamedly.
As they will start feeling the pinch of economic reality, the Algerians will take to the street en masse to denounce their government’s policy, initially this will lead to scuffles with the police force but with time it will go crescendo into an uprising as more localities through the country will join the fray.
If the Arab Spring did not occur in Algeria few years ago it is because the people had in the back of the mind the atrocities of the civil war (December 26, 1991 – February 8, 2002) and wanted voluntarily to spare their country another blood-spilling episode, so they shied from taking to the streets. Now, the situation is different, it is about survival, if they cannot have subsidies and bread, then they would want all-out democracy, instead.
The Algerian potential spring
The Algerian police force is estimated at 130,000, it is under the command of Direction Générale de la Sûreté Nationale (DGSN) itself headed by the Ministry of the Interior, and it is charged of maintaining law and order in urban areas in addition of other police routines.[ii] In the countryside, the police duties are discharged by the Gendarmerie Nationale, whose forces are estimated at 60,000 and is directly related to the Ministry of Defense and acts also as a versatile paramilitary force.[iii]
In the 1988 riots, the two polices in question, the urban and the rural were surpassed by the events and the state had to call in the army to quell the popular discontent with, of course, all the unpleasant results of such an undertaking.
The Algerian army is the true power in Algeria since its creation in 1962 at the end of the liberation war against the French; it is known as the Armée Nationale Populaire (ANP) formerly the Armée de Libération Nationale (ALN). The Algerian armed forces number in active frontline personnel 512,000 troops and 400,000 in active reserve personnel.[iv]
In the case of a probable uprising that could ultimately happen in the next two years or so, the discontent will go national, in a matter of days, because cutting the subsidies will be severing the sacrosanct bloodline and for the ordinary Algerian it is the honor, a concept of manhood and virility known as nif that would call for revenge and blood-spilling.
This uprising, if it happens when it happens, will certainly lead to many important and salient changes in the future of Algeria:
- The end of the supremacy of the army in politics and economics and its return to the barracks, once for all, to undertake its primordial and only role, that of the defense of the integrity and independence of Algeria;
- Democracy will, more likely, bring back to power the very Islamists that were kicked out by a military coup in 1992 because they are the only organized and regimented political alternative power to fill in the vacuum;
- Algeria will open up to the world politically and economically; and
- Algeria will initiate a new era of cooperation and understanding with its immediate neighbors, especially Morocco with whom it has been estranged over the Sahara issue since the Green March in 1975.
What future for Algeria?
At this point, the future of Algeria is grim and uncertain; there is an urgent need for immediate and radical change in politics and economics to avoid future probable uprising and upheaval. It is a well-known fact that bread comes before democracy[v] but if the establishment cannot provide anymore, somewhat, free bread then Algerians will go for democracy, for good, no matter what the price to pay would be.
So the following questions impose themselves :
- Would the revolution rock the Algerian Kasbah soon?
- Would the Islamists lead again the street protests and ultimately come to the helm of the country?
- Will the army remain neutral like in Egypt or shoot its own people?
- Will the uprising embolden the Amazigh/Berber to declare unilaterally their autonomy or even independence?
- Will the turmoil push thousands of Algerians to become refugees in France and Europe and exacerbate the local European population further more and maybe even lead to a probable FREXIT in France?
- What will the reaction of the neighboring countries like Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Mali and Niger be?
- What will happen to the orphaned Polisario Front, will it die out or accept the Moroccan autonomy plan?
In reality it is difficult to foresee what will happen in the field, only time will show and time is what the establishment lacks in Algeria today badly.