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Algeria, An Authoritarian Regime Without A Leader

Grave doubts about the health and capacity of longtime President Bouteflika are pulling Algeria apart at the seams. Who's in charge? What happens next in this pivotal North African country?

Police in Algiers earlier this month marching in protest.
Police in Algiers earlier this month marching in protest.
Florence Beaugé

ALGIERS — The surroundings of El Mouradia, the Algerian presidential palace, are calm once again. The protesting police officers had cleared out in the afternoon of Oct. 16, in exchange for wage hikes and other negotiated benefits. But such an event was unprecedented in Algeria, and will leave scars.

Over a 24-hour period, several hundred police personnel had gathered outside the presidential palace, which they had reached without much difficulty, after having encircled the government’s headquarters. For Algeria, the scenes were almost unreal. To the shouts of "Harmel, get out!" the demonstrating officers demanded the resignation of the police chief, and sang the Algerian national anthem.

"We’re sick of the humiliation," they explained to reporters and astounded passersby. "We can't stand the pain anymore."

But being Algeria, the question arises: Was this a genuine protest movement or some kind of manipulation? Here where "conspiracy" theories are legion, the first hypothesis is favored, but not unanimous. The fact that the revolt started in the southern town of Ghardaia is no coincidence, after battles there between the Arab and the Berber communities have been occupying several thousands of policemen for 10 months.

Exhausted by their working conditions and infuriated to see that the authorities favor a security crackdown over a political solution, Ghardaia’s police officers ended up rebelling, dragging along with them their colleagues from the capital of Algiers, and to a lesser extent, those from the cities of Oran and Constantine.

By rebelling, the police, until then considered to be a cornerstone of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s "system," dealt a symbolic blow to the power in place. The breach is open. Not only do the angry policemen’s action weaken a regime standing on its last legs, but it is an indicator of a deeper unease across Algeria.

Such is the state of affairs in the North African country, six months after 77-year-old Bouteflika started his fourth term in office, following his partial recovery from a grave health crisis that sent him to France for a months-long convalescence.

The broader Algerian population seems to be eaten away by gnawing questions – and growing anger. Who is leading Algeria? What is the true health status of the president? How long can the country function with an invisible man at its head?

The questions about Algeria's uncertain future take on further relevance in one of the few countries in the region that was not touched directly by the upheaval of the Arab Spring earlier this decade.

Without a grip

Noted Algerian sociologist Nacer Djebbi says that since he took office 15 years ago, Bouteflika has concentrated all the powers of the nation to his own inner circle, to the detriment of other decision-making bodies like the Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS) and the government. "But this heart of power doesn’t work anymore," he says. "The president’s illness handicaps everything. Algeria is not badly run, it’s simply not run." Algeria’s political system as we used to know it, Djebbi says: "is living its last days."

Still, there doesn't seem to be any viable scenario to replace him. Weakened by the repeated blows dealt by the president and those around him, the intelligence agency has lost its might and aura. As for the army, it has retreated in the barracks, with several once-powerful generals fading from view. All that is left is the president, an old, sick man, isolated and over whom his family clan keeps a jealous watch, starting with the younger brother, Said.

But is Said Bouteflika the real decision-maker or just another messenger. No one knows. "We are in an authoritarian state without a leader," sums up Hacène Ouali, journalist for El Watan daily. "Nobody has a grip over the situation. There are only groups that control segments of power."

Political analyst H’Mida Layachi cites the widespread fracturing of society as the most dangerous development. "Bouteflika has encouraged every kind of dissent. The political class is in shreds. There are only micro-factions left," he explained.

Out with the old careful balance. Improvisation and every man for himself rule, along with new wheeler-dealers and widespread corruption.

Still, with the state’s coffers full thanks to the sale of oil and gas, it continues to be an easy option for the regime to pay for social peace, no matter what the World Bank may say. "Each Algerian gets a slice of the cake," says Rachid Tlemçani, a political science professor at the University of Algiers. "If they declare their intention to create a small business, young unemployed people can get a loan — which more often than not is used to buy a car — without having to pay it back."

At the same time, says political analyst Rachid Grim, so-called "riot culture" is encouraged, as people setting tires on fire and other vandalism is seen as a shortcut to better salaries and housing.

Still, inside the government, officials remain unfazed. "Protests are a sign of democratic vitality!" says Hamid Grine, the Communications Minister.

As for a power vacuum, Grine strongly denies it. "I can guarantee you that there is one president, and not two. Said is only an advisor," he declared. "We all get our instructions from the prime minister, who himself gets his from the president." Grine warns against believing the newspapers, which "write nonsense."

The president is fine, he repeats one more time, before adding, with regret in his voice, "I say it to everybody, but no one believes me."

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Why The U.S. Lost Its Leverage In The Middle East — And May Never Get It Back

In the Israel-Hamas war, Qatar now plays the key role in negotiations, while the United States appears increasingly disengaged. Shifts in the region and beyond require that Washington move quickly or risk ceding influence to China and others for the long term.

Photograph of U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken  shaking hands with sraeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

November 30, 2023, Tel Aviv, Israel: U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken shakes hands with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

Chuck Kennedy/U.S State/ZUMA
Sébastien Boussois


PARIS — Upon assuming office in 2008, then-President Barack Obama declared that United States would gradually begin withdrawing from various conflict zones across the globe, initiating a complex process that has had a major impact on the international landscape ever since.

This started with the American departure from Iraq in 2010, and was followed by Donald Trump's presidency, during which the "Make America Great Again" policy redirected attention to America's domestic interests.

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The withdrawal trend resumed under Joe Biden, who ordered the exit of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2021. To maintain a foothold in all intricate regions to the east, America requires secure and stable partnerships. The recent struggle in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict demonstrates that Washington increasingly relies on the allied Gulf states for any enduring influence.

Since the collapse of the Camp David Accords in 1999 during Bill Clinton's tenure, Washington has consistently supported Israel without pursuing renewed peace talks that could have led to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

While President Joe Biden's recent challenges in pushing for a Gaza ceasefire met with resistance from an unyielding Benjamin Netanyahu, they also stem from the United States' overall disengagement from the issue over the past two decades. Biden now is seeking to re-engage in the Israel-Palestine matter, yet it is Qatar that is the primary broker for significant negotiations such as the release of hostages in exchange for a ceasefire —a situation the United States lacks the leverage to enforce.

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