In this article, we shall discuss the politics of the current leader in Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. We shall examine his rise to power, his domestic policies within Algeria, as well as his international relations with neighboring countries in North Africa, European states, as well as other countries. In addition, we shall also discuss his current health, and what this may mean for the future of Algerian politics.
Abdelaziz Bouteflika was born in Oujda, Morocco in 1937, and his family was the Algerian city of Tlemcen. Politically, “ In 1957, three years into the Algerian war for independence (1954–62), Bouteflika joined the National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale; FLN) in its fight against French rule. He became an officer in the National Liberation Army (Armée de Libération Nationale; ALN) in 1960. After Algerian independence in 1962, Bouteflika was appointed minister for youth, sports, and tourism, and a year later he was made foreign minister” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2014).
However, it was not long after Chadli Benjadid came to power in 1979, following Houari Boumedienne’s death, that Bouteflika was no longer the foreign minister of Algeria. Then, due to some corruption issues, he left Algeria in 1981, only returning in 1987 (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2014). Then, it was in 1999 that Bouteflika became president of Algeria.
Following his rise to power, Bouteflika worked to end the civil conflict in Algeria. He did this by offering amnesty to the Islamic Salvation Front. Following his ability to establish a peace in the mid-2000s, he began to work on developing economic and political ties to countries in Europe and the United States. In addition, he focused heavily on anti-terrorism measures within Algeria.
Abdelaziz Bouteflika has continued to stay in power for four terms, the fourth being the April 2014 elections.
Algeria’s April 2014 Elections
Algeria’s most recent national elections occurred in April of 2014. Here, long time Algerian leader Bouteflika was running for his fourth term as the leader of the state. And, according to election results, Bouteflika won easily, with 81.5 percent of the entire national vote. However, the elections were not without criticism, as it was “marred by low turnout and fraud claims by opponents, including main rival Ali Benflis, who achieved 12.2%” (The Guardian, 2014).
However, the concern with these elections are two fold: First, many have criticized Bouteflika and the 2014 elections because of the lack of democratic openness in the country. For example, “The inauguration was boycotted by the opposition, including five parties which had called on their supporters to stay away from the election. Among the absentees was Benflis, who has refused to recognise Bouteflika’s re-election, saying that doing so would make him “complicit in fraud”” (The Guardian, 2014).
But despite calls of corruption, Bouteflika has remains backed by some in the country, particularly because of his ending of the civil war in Algeria (The Guardian, 2014), as well as his crackdown on terror organizations.
In addition, but also why Bouteflika, who has had health problems, would choose to run again. It was reported that prior to the elections, due to a stroke that he suffered in 2013, in which he was being treated at a Paris hospital for a 80 days, (Paven & Ouali, 2014) he rarely made public appearances (The Guardian, 2014). However, this is not the first time that there have been concerns about his health. For example, “Bouteflika’s third term was overshadowed by speculation about his health and rumours he had died, after he underwent surgery in Paris in 2005 for a stomach ulcer. He was hospitalised in France again in April 2013 after a stroke. He chaired only two cabinet meetings that year” (The Guardian, 2014).
Bouteflika’s health continues to be a cause of concern for those who are wondering whether he has the ability to continue to hold power as the President of Algeria. Bouteflika made minimal public presence continued following the elections. For example, between the elections and November, 2014, he has made few public appearances (Paven & Ouali, 2014). In addition, along with his 2013 stroke, and his limited appearances the following year, Bouteflika was again hospitalized in November of 2014 in the French city of Grenoble (Paven & Ouali, 2014). And, something out of the ordinary for Bouteflika, in October of 2014, “he failed to appear in public for Eid al-Adha prayers marking the end of the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca” (Paven & Ouali, 2014).
However, those who back Bouteflika have continued to argue that his health is not an issue, and that he is more than capable of fulfilling his role as the leader of Algeria. For example, in August of 2014, Amar Saadani, who is the Secretary General of the National Liberation Front (FLN) was quoted as saying that “”The president is in good health and can perform his duties[.]” He went on to say that “”He spoke to citizens and took an oath. He is in possession of all of his physical and mental faculties” (Nield, 2014).
The Ineffectiveness of the Opposition in Algeria
Despite criticisms of corruption, as well as the strong authoritarianism of Bouteflika, there has not been an opposition that has been able to challenge him successfully in Algeria. There have been various arguments put forth as to why this is the case. For one, Bouteflika continues to hold onto military and economic power. Economically, he used rents to shore up support domestically, through business elites, as well as through the population. He does this by offering social services, or increases in salaries (as was the case in 2011). This allows him to keep a base of popularity.
Along with this, Bouteflika has oppressed challengers and others who have spoken out about the politics in the country. In addition, he controls the political and electoral spheres of the country. For example, Hugh Roberts (in Nield, 2014) points out that the system–which Bouteflika controls–favors him in elections. Thus, while there are officially opposition candidates, Bouteflika’s power is not truly threatened.
But while these factors of repression and economic influence are very important for Bouteflika staying in power, as Yassin Tamlali (2014) explains,
“Repression and the regime’s ability to buy the support of part of society are not the only things preventing the opposition from carrying out on the ground action and uniting around basic demands. The opposition’s action on the ground is also hindered by a structural impediment. Just like the regime it calls for ousting, the opposition belongs to an obsolete historical stage, whose most important feature is acceptance by the parties’ bureaucracies to play an illusory political role in return for allowing them to criticize the government and the president — and even the army, its intelligence and the commander of its intelligence department personally — as long as they are banned from actual political action in non-election times and remain silent about this ban, as a sign of consent.”
Many of those who criticized Bouteflika running in 2014 have met under the Committee for Freedoms and Democratic Transition–with attempts at forming a bloc against him, although not much has come out of the talks. The hope by some would be to have a unified force for the next legislative elections (Tamlali, 2014); they were not working together for the 2014 elections (Nield, 2014). Much of the problems regarding the opposition in Algeria stem from the lack of strength that the parties have individually. For example, with regards to the political Islamist movements in the country
“During the 1990s, Islamists in the Movement for the Society of Peace had friendly ties with the army and the unelected transitional parliaments, before they become the Islamist supporters of Bouteflika during 1999-2012, particularly as part of presidential alliance with the National Liberation Front and the National Rally for Democracy. This has limited their credibility as oppositionists to the same army and same president. Moreover, they were constantly represented in the governments during 1996-2012, and did not withdraw until after the outbreak of the Arab Spring. They believed that the great powers were in the process of giving the Brotherhood a chance in the region and selecting it as an alternative to the regime. The Justice and Development Front and the Islamic Renaissance Movement are both the product of divisions that exhausted the main branch of the Renaissance Movement, and have turned it into a small party that is not less modest than the groups emanating from it” (Tamlali, 2014).
Other parties such as the RCD has been weakened over the years. In addition, they too have backed Bouteflika in the past (Tamlali, 2014). Then, other parties such as the Socialist Forces Front (FFS) “The FFS did not support any candidate in the presidential election, but did not join the boycotting front either” (Tamlali, 2014). In addition, their past has troubled some Algerians, which have led them to consider more electoral actions. However, since they were not actively organizing against Bouteflika’s candidacy in 2014 has put them in a tough position (Tamlali, 2014). Others, such as the Workers Party, in focusing on what they view as outside threats to Algeria, have not challenged Bouteflika’s control, as some prefer to have a consistent leadership over any challenges that a new regime could bring to the politics of Algeria (Tamlali, 2014).
The Barakat Movement
Along with the various parties listed above, there are also movements arising from within other parts of civil society. For example, one such movement is that known as Barakat (or “Enough). The Barakat movement is calling for democratic reform in Algeria. In terms of its makeup, “Many of the movement’s members are middle-class Algerians—doctors, journalists and businessmen—who have a decent income, but are fed up with the political status quo and corruption” (N.K., 2014). And while Bouteflika and the ruling FLN and Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS) still control Algeria, they are feeling the pressures of Barakat. In fact, “Barakat’s pursuit of democratic change has become a thorn in the side of the Algerian regime. Members of the movement, which is a grassroots rather than a political party for now, have been arrested several times. Ms Bouraoui says they have received death threats and are being called foreign agents on TV channels sympathetic to the regime” (N.K. 2014). However, they do not seem to be stopping. And while it is a new movement in Algeria, “so far Barakat has refused to back down. It hopes to re-energise the depressed and divided political opposition. By mobilising trade unions and civil society groups, it hopes to channel Algerians’ anger, especially about the lack of jobs and corruption. In the past, the Algerian government responded to those protests by going on a public-sector spending spree. This time, Barakat is looking for real political and economic reform” (N.K., 2014).
However, despite the push by Barakat, when looking at the overall political system in Algeria, as long as the current powerful actors are benefiting from the existing system, it will be difficult to alter the political conditions in Algeria (Tamlali, 2014). Thus, for those who back the President and the FLN, they often do so because “Mr Bouteflika and the ruling party as guarantors of stability, prosperity and reconciliation in Algeria” (N.K., 2014). Plus, they receive benefits–whether they are economic or political, and thus, are not willing to accept change so easily But where it can happen, Tamlali (2014) argues, is with the youth in the country. Speaking on this issue, Tamlali (2014) states that
“…change can only be brought by the same source since the uprising in October 1988, that is, by the youth groups. It’s worth mentioning that the greater the weight of ancient and modern oligarchies sustained by oil revenues and the more the loyalty camp includes new middle-class segments who do not want anything but to preserve their consumption power, the poorer and the more marginalized the youth groups will become. These marginalized groups are formed of those expelled from public education, day workers and black market workers. It’s the only category free from the bondage of stability. However, if it were to stage a revolution in this arid political desert, the revolution will spare no one. It may even be the starting point for foreign interference in Algerian internal affairs, which is something the regime has been allegedly seeking to avoid.”
However, they youth were active in 2011, but there were not many opposition parties that were helpful in sustaining the demands of the protesters (Tamlali, 2014).
Thus, scholars and citizens alike are keeping an eye not only on Bouteflika’s health, but also political movements in the country.
Encyclopedia Britannica (2014). Abdelaziz Bouteflika Biography–President of Algeria. 4-20-2014. Available Online: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/750411/Abdelaziz-Bouteflika
N.K. (2014). Algerian Politics: New Opponents. The Economist. April 29, 2014. Available Online: http://www.economist.com/blogs/pomegranate/2014/04/algerian-politics
Nield, R. (2014). Bouteflika Debate Consumes Algerian Politics. Al Jazeera. 08 August 2014. Available Online: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/08/bouteflika-debate-consumes-algerian-politics-2014811641197874.html
Paven, B. & Ouali, A. (2014). Algerian President Bouteflika ‘hospitalized in France.’ Yahoo News. AFP. November 14, 2014. Available Online: http://news.yahoo.com/algerian-president-bouteflika-hospitalised-france-sources-171642777.html
Tamlali, Y. (2014). Algeria’s Political Stalemate Continues. Al Monitor. June 2, 2014. Available Online: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/politics/2014/06/algeria-regime-opposition-weak-bouteflika.html#
The Guardian (2014). Abdelaziz Bouteflika sworn in for fourth term as Algerian president. The Guardian. April 28, 2014. Available Online: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/28/abdelaziz-bouteflika-algerian-president-election