Sunday,15 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1276, (31 December 2015 - 6 January 2016))
Sunday,15 July, 2018
Issue 1276, (31 December 2015 - 6 January 2016))

Ahram Weekly

Algeria’s presidential dilemma

The health of ailing President Bouteflika has again come into focus in the wake of sweeping changes in Algeria’s intelligence agencies and apparent efforts to shore up the presidency, writes Kamel Abdallah

Al-Ahram Weekly

An air of uncertainty continues to hover over the state of health of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika focused on whether he is fit to run the country or whether those in his close circles are doing that for him. Bouteflika has already suffered two strokes in recent years, which has led some of his closest associates to insist on seeing him in order to ascertain that it is he who is still giving the orders. But, as The New York Times observed, “The president remains so sequestered that none of them have met with him in more than a year.”

While it is true that he has made the rare appearance in the government media, which shows him meeting with local or international officials, the images do little to reassure the public on his health, especially when compared to how he looked before his health deteriorated.

More significantly, measures taken during the past month indicate that the 78-year-old president or the powers-that-be in Algeria are making arrangements for a transition so as to avert potential quakes in light of the political fluidity and upheaval that characterises regional and international situations. On 13 September, Bouteflika dismissed long-serving chief of intelligence General Mohamed Mediène, AKA General Tawfik, and replaced him with Major General Athmane Tartag. Observers believed the step was an attempt on the part of the Algerian president to curtail the overwhelming intervention of intelligence officials in politics. Tartag, the new director of intelligence, is the security advisor to Bouteflika and previously served as director of domestic security in the intelligence agency.

General Mediène, 76, had been a powerful behind-the-scenes player in Algerian politics. He was described as a maker or breaker of political leaders through the influence he exerted behind the scenes during his quarter of a century in office, but he never appeared in the media or spoke in public. It is said that Algerians do not even know what he looks like.

Although the news of Mediène’s retirement was publicised on 13 September, AFP, citing a senior Algerian security source that day, reported that the spy chief had actually tendered his resignation at least 10 days earlier. The source added that the Algerian intelligence agency had undergone several changes in the course of the year and that it would be restructured and made directly subordinate to the president rather than the defence minister. The measure was clearly designed to strengthen the presidency with respect to other agencies of the state, the security agencies above all.

In this context, three days prior to General Mediène’s dismissal, a large number of security officers were fired, foremost among them the head of presidential security and the director of internal security. The functions of these posts were handed to the deputy minister for national defence and chief of staff of the People’s National Army, Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaid Salah, who is one of President Bouteflika’s closest allies.

Also in September, the Algerian president dissolved the military intelligence’s counterterrorism unit and placed its staff under the command of the army. Moreover, prior to that, authorities arrested Abdelkader Ait-Ouarabi, AKA General Hassan, the deputy head of the intelligence service responsible for counterterrorism, and detained him in a military prison in Blida without revealing the charges. Only in November was it revealed that a military tribunal in Oran had sentenced him to five years in prison for destroying documents and breaching regulations. The verdict precipitated an angry outcry on the part of former Defence Minister Khaled Nezzar who described the trial as a crime. Moreover, the incident galvanised retired General Mediène into going public for the first time and stating in an open letter that General Hassan had been carrying out his orders.

Ait-Ouarabi, AKA General Hassan, long a close ally of General Mediène, had served as the head of the counterterrorist department for a decade. Some media commentators have taken this as grounds to wonder whether he would play a part in the corruption investigations currently being heard in Algerian courts. Other analysts observed that the arrest of the key military intelligence officer and ally of Mediène was another sign of the dwindling influence of the intelligence agency.

On the other hand, a military source cited by Reuters on 10 September held that a military intelligence agency with reduced political and economic authorities or even no such authorities at all was a potential positive development. It will strengthen its ability to focus on its chief task which is to collect intelligence and place it in the hands of the army chief of staff and the president. This indicates that the Algerian army chief of staff and the presidency will be directly supervising this agency.

While what has been described as a “purge” in the intelligence agencies has dominated headlines in Algeria, other changes are in process, including a drive to amend the constitution. Some political forces maintain that such measures are working in favour of the pro-Bouteflika camp, which is led by his brother Abdel-Karim Bouteflika who has ambitions to succeed him. Nevertheless, principal private secretary to the presidency, Ahmed Ouyahia has described the changes as “normal” and required in the post-terrorism phase.

While many Algerian observers see the changes as a sign of a conflict between the presidency and the intelligence agencies, there remains every reason to believe that Algeria is laying the foundations for a smooth transition to a new post-Bouteflika phase. The president’s ailing health, suspicions harboured among the opposition in particular that he is unfit to govern, and widely circulating rumours that a clique within the ruling clique has actually taken control of the country, lend themselves to this argument. But so too do the recent changes that are working to shore up the executive and the army chief of general staff, the two institutions that appear poised to dominate the transition. An alliance between the army and the presidency may be what is required to handle the challenges that arise from likely political tensions and the possible rise of terrorist threats in Algeria. Close coordination between policy and security could keep the ship of state afloat on turbulent seas, though it is impossible to predict exactly what lies ahead.

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