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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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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