May 15, 2019:
Algeria is having itself another revolution which so far has not slid into violent anarchy. Former (as of April 2nd) president Abdelaziz Bouteflika is out of power and will remain so, but many of his associates still have enough government jobs or resources to hang onto power for a while or longer. Chief among these Bouteflika associates is armed forces commander and vice minister of defense Ahmed Gaid Salah. So far Salah has been playing kingmaker as he was the one who convinced Bouteflika to step down without a fight. Popular support for Salah is not there in a big way but public demonstrations against him are less angry the more Salah does to address grievances. This includes Salah recently ordering the arrests of many senior officials (including Said Bouteflika), generals and prominent businessmen and charging them with conspiring against the state, undermining military authority and corruption. This helps the opposition politicians, who can now act more freely and openly than ever before. The opposition may never fully accept Salah but for the moment they need him to keep doing things that reduce the number of establishment supporters who want to prevent the opposition politicians from running fair elections and putting untainted (by links to the old government) people in charge. It is proving difficult to find untainted replacements for senior people. That problem will not go away because the corruption went so deep and wide.
Many Algerians fear Salah wants to become president like Egyptian general Sisi did when the first post-2011 revolution Egyptian government turned out to be not what people wanted or needed. But so far Salah is not running for office and national elections (for a new president and parliament) are set for July 4th. The Friday protests continue and will continue until most Algerians are convinced that there is a new government selected by a fair election and an economy free of government corruption. The corruption angle will be the most difficult to achieve because corruption has been around a long time and is considered part of the local culture. What people want is new standards of acceptable behavior that will eliminate the degree of corruption that makes good government and economic growth impossible. That but its very definition is going to be difficult to agree on, much less achieve. In the near term, most Algerians will be content with some visible progress in that direction and they have been since February but, so far, not enough.
The Power Broker
Salah is the last man standing among the Bouteflika inner circle. The much less popular 60 year old Bouteflika brother Said, who had partnered with Army chief-of-staff Salah to act in the name of the elder Bouteflika, has been arrested. The younger Bouteflika brother often did things that annoyed the FLN (the ruling party) leadership and most Algerians. The younger brother has been a key aide, especially in supervising (and fixing as needed) his older brothers’ election campaigns since the 1990s. Because of that, it is not considered unusual that Said Bouteflika was the one who communicated with his older brother and passed on his instructions, or at least what Said says he believed were his brothers’ intentions. Efforts of the older brother to appear in public and speak, no matter how briefly, have not worked because the older brother, who is now 82, did not recover from his strokes. This was not a politically stable situation and eventually fell apart.
One of Said’s intentions was apparently to succeed his brother as president, although that always seemed unlikely as Said apparently has pancreatic cancer and has been out of the country more often to get it treated. No other members of the Bouteflika clan have achieved senior government jobs. Previously Said had led efforts to ensure that all the senior military and police commanders who might oppose his stealthy government takeover were arrested and accused of corruption. For the last six years, this slow-motion purge was apparently supervised by general Salah. Said Bouteflika knows who is corrupt because one of his jobs was to see to it that there were no unseemly feuds among senior officials over who got what. Said Bouteflika never managed to gain enough key supporters, or popular support, to run for high office. Until now he has been content to be the kingmaker. That has changed and Said has not got much left. The Algerian people have made it clear they have had enough of the Bouteflikas and the FLN is not really welcome to stick around either. In effect, both Bouteflika brothers are now out of power and general Salah is, for the moment, the new power broker despite being so closely associated with the Bouteflikas.
If general Salah keeps arresting the wicked he will keep the protests from escalating out of control. Those continued arrests will also mute calls for the removal of Salah, who was one of the main associates of the Bouteflika clan and is the last of these Bouteflika era leaders still in power four weeks after Bouteflika resigned.
Another reason for keeping Salah in power for the moment is that he can be depended on to keep the pressure on any Islamic conservative groups trying to gain power. While there are Islamic political parties in Algeria, there has been little public support for “Islamic rule” or Islamic radicalism since the Islamic terrorist insurrection of the 1990s. One thing the senior military leaders have in common is they are all veterans of the 1990s war with Islamic terrorism. It has not gone unnoticed that many of these officers have been removed from the military in the last few years for advocating a crackdown on corruption. It was the pervasive corruption that made the Islamic radicals so popular in the early 1990s, but not popular enough to establish an Islamic state.
Back in the 1960s Algerian rebels overthrew their French overlords and replaced the French with Algerian overlords. A few dozen senior rebels quickly turned the new Algerian democracy into a corrupt and self-serving “managed democracy” where the media, police, military and elections were all managed to keep the FLN party (the heroes of the revolution) in power until 2019. Half a century of bad behavior has triggered the most serious rebellion since the French tried to suppress the Algerian independence movement. It’s too soon to be sure if this reform movement will succeed and, if it does, to what extent. The current upheaval is only two months old and the 1960s era establishment has been retreating as fast as they can in an effort to placate the demonstrators and hang on to some of their power. Based on other rebellions since the 2011 “Arab Spring”, the corrupt and dictatorial establishment has the edge. Only Tunisia, which shares a border with Algeria and was where the Arab Spring began, had a successful revolution. What gives Algerian rebels hope is the fact that, like Tunisia, the North African Arab states have always done things differently. Thus Libya, also a neighbor and also an oil state, had a different type of revolution which is just now winding down. It is unclear if Libya will be a democracy or another Arab kleptocracy (a dictatorship run by people who steal enough of the local wealth to keep themselves in power). Algeria has already agreed to hold elections in July and the generals have so far refused to order their troops to open fire on the people, mainly because of fears the troops will refuse. At the moment Algeria could be on the road to an honest democracy or on the brink of civil war. Too early to tell which way it will go.
The Other War
There are still Islamic terrorists out and about in the region (mainly Libya, Mali and Tunisia) and less so inside Algeria. The security forces are still conducting their searches for remaining Islamic terrorists or evidence (abandoned stockpiles of weapons and gear) of former activity. There are still a lot of soldiers and police guarding the borders with Mali and Libya. But what is going on with the counter-terrorism effort will get less attention than the effort to create a new government.
May 9, 2019: A prominent opposition politician (Louisa Hanoune, head of the Worker’s Party) was arrested and charged with “conspiracy against the army.” Hanoune has run for president three times, in rigged elections that always elected the FLN candidate. The charges against Hanoune are widely considered bogus and the interim government will have to produce convincing proof and do so quickly or this arrest will backfire badly.
May 5, 2019: Said Bouteflika, the less popular 60 year old brother of the recently ousted president, was arrested, along with two formers heads of military intelligence. With the fall of the elder Bouteflika, the arrest of brother Said was expected. This signals that the Bouteflika clan and its cronies are very much out of power, and possibly on their way to prison.
May 1, 2019: General Salah, the military chief of staff who became the temporary national leader with the resignation of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, assured Algerians that he would use the army to maintain order and make possible prompt corruption investigations and arrests. This has already led to the arrest of many prominent Algerians who were also notoriously corrupt (and wealthy).
April 30, 2019: The long-time ruling party, the FLN, appointed a relatively young (a 50 year old businessman) as its new leader. Since the 1960s the FLN was the party of unpopular and corrupt leaders. It would not have much appeal in a fair election and that’s what the next elections appear to be.
April 29, 2019: Over the last two days the air force used two locally developed El Djazair UAVs to bomb terrorist targets in an unidentified remote area. This was apparently the first combat mission for this UAV, which had been flying surveillance missions for several months. Unguided bombs were used for the attack today, indicating that laser guided missiles are not yet available. El Djazair is a variant of the AD-40 UAV built by a UAE firm with the assistance of Ukrainian aircraft manufacturers. El Djazair is a twin-engine propeller-driven UAV that can also serve as a maritime patrol UAV. Algeria apparently has at least four of these UAVs. The existence of the El Djazair UAV was first revealed in late 2018.
April 22, 2019: Five of the wealthiest businessmen in Algeria were arrested on corruption charges. The “Five Billionaires” were long known for their use of contracts in the Bouteflika to gain an edge in business dealings and to share the wealth with those politicians.