Algeria: It Smells Like Another Revolution

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July 26, 2018: The 2017 parliamentary elections are seen as the model for what to expect during the 2019 presidential elections, where the disabled (by a stroke and, at 81, old age) incumbent Abdelaziz Bouteflika appears to be the only major candidate. As he did in 2014 Bouteflika will cast his own vote, for himself, from a wheelchair. With Bouteflika largely a figurehead president the government runs on automatic seeking to keep themselves in power and out of trouble with an increasingly restless population. At this point half the 40 million Algerians are too young (under 30) to remember a time Bouteflika was not the president or what it was like to have a president who was alert and able to do the job. Bouteflika and his associates have eliminated all potential rivals (via forced retirement or arrest and prosecution for imaginary offenses).

Bouteflika is also the last major politician who participated in the rebellion against French rule that led to Algerian independence in 1962. That ended 132 years of colonial rule (originally imposed to shut down for good the centuries of raids by Barbary Pirates and Saracen Corsairs operating from Algerian ports. The pirates did not return when the French left but the pre-colonial tradition of corrupt and inept rule by autocratic leaders did. In 1962 Algeria chose democracy, one of many bits of French culture the Algerians adopted (to one degree or another) during the colonial period. Democracy and the many personal freedoms the West takes for granted did not thrive in independent Algeria and one response to the inept post-colonial government was a call for an Islamic religious dictatorship (controlled by clerics). This led to a brutal and bloody civil war in the 1990s that made quite an impression on most Algerians and eliminated, for a few generations, any potential popular support for another “Islamic solution.”

Meanwhile, Algerians have to put up with elections that are rigged, at least enough to ensure the ruling party maintains its controlling majority. Government efforts to get more people to vote have failed, with only 29 percent of eligible voters participating in 2017 compared to 34 percent in 2012. The greatest concern of the government was getting enough people to participate. The number of young Algerians participating in anti-government protests continues to rise. The government has been pretending to reform the political system but that is widely seen as another sad failure.

In 2016 parliament passed much needed changes to the constitution. But reformers were not impressed because as long as power is monopolized by a few families (which were prominent in the 1960s rebellion against France) new laws will not change anything and in this case, they did not. That’s because some of the “new” reforms were implemented in the past but then canceled when it suited the corrupt ruling families. Unless the government introduces and enforces honest voting and then obeys the law, there can be no real reform. This is a common pattern worldwide and especially in the Middle East. Everyone knows that corruption and bad government are the main cause of stagnant economies and general unrest but not enough of those in charge are willing to give up enough power to fix the problem. In part, this is because of the well-founded (in history) fear that another group of corrupt officials will resume the practice of rigging elections.

The government, mindful of what happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when rising unemployment and falling oil prices led to widespread unrest and eventually an Islamic terrorist uprising, is making a major effort to cushion the population from the impact of the current (and apparently long-term) decline in oil prices. For decades oil income allowed the government to provide enough prosperity to avoid a rebellion. There is also talk of doing something about the corruption, but there is not much action on that. The problem, for most Algerians, is that the government says the right things but does not follow up. This delays an explosive popular reaction and reminds Algerians that they have been tolerating this corrupt and ruthless ruling class since the 1960s. Then again students of Algerian history note that this form of government was common in what is now Algeria for thousands of years and played a role in giving the French an excuse to take over in the 19th century and run Algeria as a colony for over a century before leaving (involuntarily) in the early 1960s. Despite all the talk about a “new beginning” the post-colonial Algerian leaders promptly went old school and there it remains. The main reason Europe pays attention is that the return to the old school governing methods also meant the return of North African based criminal groups that found new ways to prey on Europe. Well, at least the pirate raids were gone. And so it came to pass Algeria found it could resume extorting cash and other favors from European states. That sort of thing has not been seen since the 19th century and before that flourished for nearly a thousand years. Ancient vices are difficult to shed.

With no serious opposition apparent in the 2019 presidential elections Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has held the job since 1999, is apparently running again. Although confined to a wheelchair he can still appear at public events and on TV, but not frequently. Since he suffered a stroke in 2013 his close associates (family, friends and political allies) have managed to hold tight the reins of power with or without a lot of help from the elderly (now 81) and ailing president. Bouteflika will run for president again because he is still alive and his associates cannot agree on a replacement. Bouteflika has remained president since 1999 using a rigged system that blocks opposition candidates and generally guarantees Bouteflika will get reelected. Bouteflika has retained power by taking care of key groups (the security forces, key politicians and non-government leaders). At the same time Bouteflika is considered a more successful ruler than most others in the Arab world and that counts for a lot.

July 15, 2018: Algeria refused to set up any illegal immigrant screening facility to decide who might be allowed to stay. Algeria sends illegals back, with or without the cooperation of the nation the illegals came from. At the same time Libya Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia turned down the latest EU proposal to set up EU migrant processing centers in a North African country where illegals would be screened by EU personnel to determine who is eligible for asylum (very few) in the EU and who is not. Those not given asylum could still pay smugglers to try and get them across the Mediterranean to Malta or Spain, the only two EU nations willing to cooperate with the people smugglers. As a result of this opposition the number of illegal migrants, largely from Libya, is down by half so far this year compared to 2017. But that means the number of illegal migrants stuck in Libya is increasing and is over half a million and rising. About 50,000 illegals made it to Europe so far this year, but about two percent of those attempting to reach Europe died getting across the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, Germany has declared Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria nations that illegal migrants can be safely returned to (as opposed to nations where illegals would be in danger if returned). France has long had an agreement with Algeria to take back Algerians illegally in France or being expelled for Islamic terrorist activity. A growing number of these Algerian Islamic terrorists are being expelled from France after they complete prison terms. If these men have charges pending against them in Algeria, France will assist in the prosecution.

July 10, 2018: The government expelled another 355 illegal migrants from Niger and sent them back to Niger. Algeria has an agreement with Niger to return the illegals, via trucks or busses, to the Niger capital where Niger officials take over. Most 0ther sub-Saharan nations refuse to take their illegal migrants back from Algeria so Algeria takes these illegals to the Mali or Niger border, gives then supplies of water and points them in the direction of the nearest town across the border. Soldiers remain at the release point for a day or so because the illegals were told they would be shot on sight if they tried to double back into Algeria. European media found out about this practice (which was no secret in Algeria and the nations the illegals were forced to return to) and accused Algeria of murder because some of the illegals sent back died along the way. Algeria told the UN that if they wanted to help they could set up aid stations in Niger and Mali near the Algerian border. Whether the UN does that or not Algeria made it clear it would continue the “return” policy because most of the illegals made it home and reported that Algeria was not a good choice if you were seeking to migrate illegally. Many of these illegals are headed for Europe but will often remain in Algeria if they must to raise more money to pay the people smugglers to get them into Europe.

July 8, 2018: In the east (Constantine province), across the border in Tunisia a group if al Qaeda Islamic terrorists used explosives and gunfire to ambush a Tunisian army patrol. Six soldiers were killed and three wounded. Both the army vehicles were damaged as well. Both sides of the border are subject to violence by al Qaeda members in the area but the Islamic terrorists have found it safer to operate on the Tunisian side. Attacks like this trigger more counter-terror operations on both sides of the border. Algeria and Tunisia cooperate closely when it comes to this sort of thing.

June 26, 2018: President Bouteflika fired a senior police general, Abdelghani Hamel, who has the head of the National Security Division and considered one of the few remaining potential rivals in the 2019 presidential elections. Hamel’s personal driver had been arrested on a cocaine trafficking charge but there was no apparent connection to Hamel. Since Hamel was seen a potential rival for Bouteflika any excuse would do to remove the rival candidate.

Bouteflika has often eliminated potential rivals this way. There was a power struggle in 2013 that went public with the August 2015 arrest of Abdelkader Ait Ouarab. This was the guy who led the counter-terror campaign in the 1990s that defeated the Islamic terrorists. Ouarab continued serving until he retired (apparently under pressure) in late 2013. All this internal strife has been going on, quietly, for over a decade. Things heated up in early 2013 when Bouteflika had his stroke and was disabled. Pro-reform members of the senior leadership pushed for Bouteflika to resign followed by free elections. The Bouteflika clan and corrupt officials allied with the Bouteflikas got organized and resisted. No one wanted a civil war, but the two sides were sharply divided and a compromise was not possible. By late 2013 it was clear that most Algerians wanted the government to clean up the rampant corruption and that there was support for that on the inside led by several senior Intelligence officers. Most of the corrupt officials and their civilian allies belong to the extended family of the elderly Bouteflika. The clans of several other families that led the country after freedom was achieved in the 1960s have dominated government and the economy ever since. The Bouteflikas were apparently slow to realize that their most dangerous political enemies were the senior people in the intelligence and security agencies who had decided that some fundamental changes (cleaning up the corruption) were needed. There were also a lot of military officers who favored anti-corruption reforms. Fortunately for Bouteflika many senior military commanders were corrupt, some because they felt refusing the economic perks offered when they achieved high rank would be seen as disloyal. Bouteflika always believed the loyalty of the military was essential to keeping his corrupt crew in power. Yet by late 2013 many Bouteflika loyalists noted the split within the military and began moving more of their assets out of the country, just in case. That’s because if there are another large-scale uprising and the military refuses to suppress it (or, worse, splits or falls apart because of disagreements among officers) the current government is done.

Bouteflika realized that most of the troops favored anti-corruption efforts. Now the more loyal intelligence services will devote most of their efforts to ensuring the loyalty of the army and police. There had already been hints of trouble after the 2013 stroke. In late July 2015 local media revealed that the government had unexpectedly replaced three of the most powerful generals in the military (the heads of counter-intelligence, the Republican Guard and presidential security). This was immediately linked with two other odd events. First, there was the large number of troops showing up at the presidential residence in July. Whatever was going on there was never made public. Finally, there is the fact that president Bouteflika had not spoken or appeared in public for months and many Algerians believed he was dying or at the very least not getting any better. Then in August general Ouarab was arrested and in mid-September came the news that general Mohammed Medien was retiring. In power since 1990 Medien headed the powerful DRS (intelligence and security department) and was always believed more powerful than the president. But he was only two years younger than Bouteflika and rarely seen. It is still unclear what his views on corruption and the current political situation were. Medien was mostly concerned with keeping tabs on Islamic terrorism and other threats to Algeria.

June 25, 2018: In the far south (Tamenrasset province) near the Mali-Niger border three Islamic terrorists surrendered, with their weapons, to an army patrol. Since May Algeria has publicized border zones where Islamic terrorists seeking to surrender can cross while armed and not be shot on sight. Islamic terrorists seeking to surrender are advised what to do when they encounter troops. Intelligence indicates there are a growing number of Islamic terrorists in northern Mali who want to get out of the terrorism business. Algeria has about 80,000 troops guarding its 3,000 kilometer long border with Niger, Mali and Libya.

 

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