Algeria: Stir Vigorously And Stand Back

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April 18, 2019: Algeria is having itself another revolution. 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 the local wealth to keep themselves in power). Algeria has already agreed to hold elections within the next few months 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 Old Order Passes

Former (as of April 2nd) president Bouteflika is now out of power but many of his associates still have government jobs or resources to hang onto power for a while or longer. Most Algerians realize that and have been conducting demonstrations demanding a clean sweep of Bouteflika cronies and all their associates, including the ruling FLN party itself. That is not happening, it rarely does in these situations. Armed forces commander Salah is trying to play kingmaker but his popular support is not there. He can use force, but not all the troops can be relied on to follow orders. The way these situations (which occur regularly in the Middle East) work out, a lot of senior people are forced out. But their replacements tend to become the kind of people they replaced. Establishing a Western-style “civil society” that allows free speech and fair elections has proved to be much more difficult in the Middle East, which is one reason why Israel sticks out. Long despised for being so different, Israel is now seen as a model worth emulating. But such fundamental changes are very difficult for Middle Eastern nations.

The growing demand for Western-style civil society has revealed a lot of agreement within the government and key commercial organizations (like broadcast media companies). The judiciary, election officials, labor unions and broadcast (radio and TV) companies suddenly discovered that many of their lower level members want some fundamental changes. The judges want true judicial independence, the better to crack down on government corruption. The elections bureaucracy found it had a lot of members who want the usual election manipulation stopped immediately with oversight by independent judges. Labor unions found their members calling for senior labor officials to step down and be replaced by those who would work for union members, not the ruling political party. In the media reporters and on-air personnel have quickly become all about accuracy and ignoring government instructions about what to cover and what to ignore. Middle management in media organizations has largely gone along with this, telling senior management that to do otherwise would shut TV and radio stations down or reduce them to airing poorly produced government drivel that few Algerians will watch. The media companies are privately owned, often by men close to the president and FLN. But business is business and the media still knows how to measure public sentiment and right now the FLN era government is what most Algerians prefer to mock and hate. The FLN and the old guard are scrambling to salvage what they can and limit damage to themselves.

The Trust Gap

At the moment trust is in short supply among Algerians. The opposition now has widespread popular support for curbing the power of the FLN. While there are factions in FLN (about how to go about retaining their power) the FLN is in big trouble this time. FLN still has the support of major business interests. With the Bouteflika faction no longer dominant and the survival of the FLN at stake, the political cards in Algeria are being reshuffled and no one can predict what the next government will be like or how long it will take to get one. The opposition is hostile to any FLN appointed transition government but will accept a transitional government led by neutral interim (for 90 days) leaders. General Salah has appointed a veteran FLN leader as interim president and that was seen for what it was and rejected by most Algerians.

Before Bouteflika resigned the Algerian military, despite being run by FLN loyalists, announced it would not take sides and would not fire on the people unless there was no other choice. Growing Internet access was the catalyst that brought most (at least 70 percent) of the under 30 Algerians into the streets to protest the decades-long misrule of the FLN party and FLN efforts to get the crippled president Bouteflika elected to a fifth term. The sudden appearance of so many demonstrators caught the FLN and most of the current government leaders unprepared. The protests so far are not about another revolution, people just want existing laws to be obeyed. The main demand is for free elections, something that has not been allowed since the current Algerian Republic was formed in 1962 and the FLN party got elected and decided it could do whatever it could get away with to ensure it remained in power. Bouteflika presided over a police state run by families that were active in the liberation movement that freed Algeria, in the 1960s, from over a century of French colonial rule. Free elections were first allowed in 1989, but that resulted in an Islamic party winning, and proposing that Algeria be turned into a religious dictatorship, in order to deal with the widespread corruption and incompetent bureaucrats. The FLN dominated government refused to accept those election results, so the Islamic radicals turned to violence and terror. Throughout the 1990s, the violence killed over 200,000 (mostly civilians killed by the terrorists). The population gradually turned on the Islamic radicals, and the government counter-terrorist tactics shut down the Islamic radical movement. Remnants of the 1990s Islamic radical movement fight on as an al Qaeda, and then as ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) franchise. The Islamic terrorist remnant in Algeria has not yet recovered the mass appeal it once had and has withered away to a few hundred diehards who spend most of their energy striving to remain hidden. Continued army and police patrols confirm that the Islamic threat is still much diminished and on the run.

Bye Bye Bouteflika

With president Bouteflika incapacitated by strokes since 2013, it was no surprise that he finally gave up his political ambitions and resigned when longtime loyalist general Salah demanded he do so. While president Bouteflika is gone there are still other Bouteflikas to contend with. There is the much less popular 60 year brother Said who has partnered with Army chief-of-staff Ahmed Gaid Salah to act in the name of the elder Bouteflika. This annoyed the FLN 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 believes 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, is not recovering from his strokes.

One of Said’s intentions was apparently to succeed his brother as president, although that seems unlikely as he apparently has pancreatic cancer and has often been out of the country 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 Army chief-of-staff Ahmed Gaid 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 potential kingmaker despite being so closely associated with the Bouteflikas.

What People Want

Most Algerians would prefer honest government and a lot less corruption but the FLN loyalists prefer to keep things as they are. That attitude, shared by most, but not all, of those running the country has been the major obstacle to meaningful change. Corruption prevents rewarding the most capable people and generating enough economic activity to make Algeria a place where most young Algerians would want to live and work. Even with the two Bouteflika brothers out of the picture, they have many like-minded associates willing to carry on. It should be no surprise why it took so long for the majority of Algerians openly demand change. The alternative is another rebellion (at great cost to everyone and Algeria in general) or emigrating.

There is not enough popular support for the interim president, the July 4th elections, or general Salah. For the moment the military is trying to run the country but that effort is opposed daily by growing numbers of Algerians in the streets calling for something independent of the FLN gang and the military. The history of modern Algeria is all about the military being a kingmaker and generally supporting a political party (the FLN) and a president that will look after the interests of the armed forces and its senior commanders. This arrangement is well known by young Algerians who are keeping the demonstrations going. Thus one of the more difficult goals is that of removing the military from politics. The situation is different this time because there are a lot more senior officers (many of them recently retired) who support a military subordinate to an honestly elected government. This is part of the civil society seen as essential for Algeria to flourish economically and otherwise.

The problem is the FLN led government has long made it difficult for opposition parties to operate freely and those opposition parties are not enthusiastic about trying to agree on a single opposition candidate for president. Many Algerians realize that and see the only solution is to ensure the elections are honest and let the voters decide. It is obvious at this point that most Algerians back a much less corrupt government and honest elections. A growing number of establishment families are moving people and assets out of the country. There is change in the air, but no one is sure how much.

The largest demonstrations are held every Friday and they have been getting larger and more raucous each week. The army does not want to fight the people but the people do not want the status quo army leaders are defending. It is still in doubt who will prevail, the generals or the civil society advocates. The generals have the guns but, given the popularity of civil society, they will gamble if they assume that their troops will side with the unpopular old ways. The military commanders have already indicated they are uneasy about whether ordering the use of force against demonstrators will lead to the disintegration of the military. Many of the reform-minded generals know that these fundamental changes are also about finally enacting economic reforms that will make the economy less corrupt, more efficient and more productive. Many of the most ardent demonstrators are young Algerians who are educated but face an economic future full of unemployment and the realization that immigration is the only way to make the most of their education.

Islamic Terrorists Watch And Wait

Islamic terrorists in Algeria and neighboring states are in “watch and wait” mode. Once the outcome of the current political upheaval is known the Islamic parties hope to act wisely and effectively. There are several Islamic political parties in Algeria. These have kept their heads down to survive but still call for Sharia (Islamic) law while also realizing that in Algeria that would have to come with democratically elected officials. To Islamic conservatives, democracy is seen as un-Islamic, but Islamic party members also know that in democratic Moslem majority states Islamic parties can play politics and get a lot of Sharia made part of the local legal code.

April 10, 2019: Armed forces chief general Salah said he would prosecute associates of ex-president Bouteflika for corruption. Some had already been accused but the prosecutions never occurred. Salah is himself a longtime associate of the Bouteflika family. Most Algerians do not trust Salah to allow fair elections of anyone not connected to the current ruling families.

April 9, 2019: Abdelkader Bensalah, the new interim (for 90 days) president promised to hold elections by July. The next day he said elections will be held July 4th.

April 5, 2019: Protests continued and grew larger as Algerians called for Bouteflika associates to resign as well.

April 2, 2019: President Bouteflika resigned, after several days of trying to delay having to do so.

March 30, 2019: Three weeks ago the head of AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) released a speech to the Internet where he called on all Moslems to unite and see that the current upheaval in Algeria leads to the establishment of an Islamic state (religious dictatorship). There was more online discussion about this outside Algeria than inside Algeria. AQIM leaders are well aware of the fact that since the 1990s Algerian Islamic terrorist uprising there has been no Algerian popular enthusiasm for any proposals for an Islamic government in Algeria. But AQIM could not pass up the opportunity to talk the talk even if they know few Algerians will walk the walk. Three weeks after the AQIM speech get into circulation there is no sign of the AQIM proposal for an Islamic dictatorship gaining any traction at all.

March 26, 2019: The commander of the armed forces, Ahmed Salah, demanded that the incapacitated president Abdelaziz Bouteflika resign immediately or be declared medically unfit to be president.

March 19, 2019: In the east, across the border in Tunisia local special operations forces cornered and kill three armed men believed to be members of the local ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) factions. Various Islamic terror groups have survived in the rural, mountainous area where the Algerian border is. These groups find Tunisia a better choice for a sanctuary but that has become a less satisfactory choice over the years.

 

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