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?
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."