Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
21 - 27 October 1999
Issue No. 452
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Algerian split averted

By Nasr El-Qaffas

Monday's meeting between Algerian President Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika and Army Chief-of-Staff Lieutenant-General Mohamed Lamari came after several days of conflicting reports concerning a possible split between the powerful army establishment and the presidency. Such a split also reportedly delayed the formation of the new cabinet, which Bouteflika had promised shortly after the controversial presidential elections that brought him to office in April.

Bouteflika met Lamari before the general flew to China to hold talks with military leaders in Beijing and to prepare for a visit by the Chinese president to Algiers on October 30. This was the first time that the local media had reported on Lamari's travels abroad, since, like many Algerian generals, who are believed to hold the real power in the country, Lamari has traditionally preferred to remain behind the scenes.

Bouteflika's six opponents in April's presidential race pulled out 24 hours before elections were due to be held, alleging that the army had already decided on the winner. However, Bouteflika's speeches since, which have set national reconciliation as a top priority, and his unprecedented criticism of past practices in Algeria and promises to hit hard against corruption, have allayed doubts surrounding the legitimacy of his rule and have much increased his popularity.

Thus, when Reuters filed a dispatch on 11 October from Algiers that quoted an unnamed government official as saying that the generals had vetoed President Bouteflika's proposals for a new cabinet, many Algerians and outside observers felt that the restoration of stability and the putting to an end of the bloodshed that had afflicted the country would still remain inaccessible targets despite Bouteflika's efforts.

However, the fact that the state-owned Algerian Press Agency (APS) carried the same report only hours later surprised observers, who described it as an unprecedented incident, especially since it had apparently been done "upon orders from top officials". Algeria's opposition parties, while stunned by the report and surprised by the fact that it had been distributed by APS, reacted either by condemning "interference in Algeria's affairs," or by grimly welcoming the report as confirmation of their long-standing view that the generals were the country's real rulers and had been since its independence from France in 1962.

The military's role in running Algeria's affairs increased after events in 1992, when the army intervened to cancel the results of the first round of parliament elections, in which the now outlawed Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) had won a clear majority.

Concerning the 11 October report, after some days of silence, Bouteflika confirmed reports in the Algerian press that he had asked APS to transmit the Reuters' dispatch, "in order to discover the party who had leaked such a report". He then claimed that he had quickly managed to do this, and denied that there were problems between himself and the military, commenting that his "relation with the military establishment is normal".

The Reuters report had said that the generals had rejected the president's candidates for the new cabinet because these did not include members of the political parties which had been Bouteflika's main supporters at his election six months before. "Bouteflika had proposed a list from his entourage. But it was rejected by the generals, who insisted that ministers be picked from the political parties that had supported his election," an unnamed senior official told Reuters.

Meanwhile on Sunday, an Algerian newspaper reported that Bouteflika had wanted to appoint as defence minister one of his close associates from the days when he had served as Algeria's foreign minister in the 1960s and early 1970s. However, the army had apparently said that his candidate, Hazid Zerhouni, was an "outsider", who had not been involved in Algerian politics for many years and was therefore ineligible.

Bouteflika promised the appointment of a new cabinet in mid-July to replace that of former Premier Ismail Hemdani. This, however, was then postponed until after the 16 September referendum on a national peace plan designed to end the seven-year-old violence in the country in which more than 100,000 people had been killed. But no cabinet was appointed then either, and a third deadline has now been set for early next year, when the grace period agreed upon in last month's referendum for suspected militants to hand themselves over to the authorities expires.

"Naming high-profile officials had usually been the result of the approval of influential figures in the military establishment. And this is obviously incompatible with Bouteflika's character and vision of leadership," the official added in his statements to Reuters.

Bouteflika's predecessor, Limaine Zeroual, had been forced to step down 19 months before his five-year term in office ended in an apparent disagreement with the country's generals over plans for restoring peace to the country and for reconciliation with the Islamists.

Shortly after the controversy accompanying the Reuters report, Bouteflika again surprised Algerians and outside observers, this time by making available both to APS and to Algerian newspapers a letter he had received from a key member of parliament who had sharply criticised Bouteflika's speaking in French and shaking hands with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak when the two attended the funeral of the late King Hassan of Morocco in July.

Abdel-Qader Hadjar, head of parliament's foreign relations committee, also claimed that Bouteflika had threatened him with unspecified punishment if he did not halt his criticisms of the president. Although Hadjar had asked Bouteflika not to publish his 30-page letter, the Algerian president said that he would read it "like any other Algerian citizen," in the framework of his policy of assuring transparency and of keeping the public informed of what was going on in the country.

The meeting between Bouteflika and Lamari might have been only a public show of unity, but one thing most observers remain certain of is that the Algerian leader has shown a real talent for surprising those who thought they knew Algerian affairs. However the real fear among many in the country is that whatever Bouteflika's policies may be, the general's tolerance may one day come to an end, which may end hopes for the restoration of peace.

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