The Finish Line for Bouteflika Is the Starting Gun for a New Algerian Politics

Faisal Al Yafai

The Zayyanid dynasty were the last Algerian rulers before Ottoman rule, and the last independent state on Algerian territory before the modern era. During the convoluted Mediterranean wars of the 16th century, the Zayyanids gradually had their territory dispossessed by Tunisian, Spanish and Ottoman rulers.

For most Algerians, such history is rarely remembered. But the ending of the 16th century state has become part of the current build-up to national elections in April, weaponized by a former prime minister to criticize the country’s long-term president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Bouteflika has been in power since 1999, though he has rarely been seen in public since a stroke in 2013. When presidential elections were called in mid-January, there was widespread speculation over whether he would run. On February 10, his office confirmed it. Bouteflika, barring extraordinary events, will contest a fifth term.

If he wins in April – and given that he was re-elected in 2014 with 81 percent of the vote, with the second-placed candidate gaining barely 12 percent, that seems a certainty – it will still be his last term in office. Bouteflika removed the two-term limit on presidential terms a decade ago to run again, but the cap was reinstated two years ago. In 2024, a new figure will lead Algeria, for the first time this century.

That has set off a starting gun for a new Algerian politics.

Algeria has long been run by an ad hoc collection of military men, prominent businessmen and politicians, collectively referred to as le pouvoir (the power). For diplomats, journalists and researchers – and especially ordinary citizens – to understand what is happening behind the scenes requires a certain amount of divination and extrapolation.

When, in 2014, Bouteflika dismissed the head of the intelligence services and dismantled the agency, it was interpreted as the executive stamping its mark across the military. But in November, when the head of the largest party in parliament resigned, it was attributed to clashes with the army. Such political jockeying is usually kept behind closed doors. But with Bouteflika reaching the end of his political career, the infighting will certainly spill into the public domain. His fifth term will be turbulent, as it will decide who ushers in a new Algerian political era.

Criticism of Bouteflika is always muted, not only because of the state’s intolerance for genuine dissent, but also because of the esteem in which he is still held, as both a veteran of the independence war against France and the president who brought the brutal civil war in the 1990s to an end.

But criticism is rising. One rival presidential candidate, Ali Benflis, said after the announcement that Bouteflika would run again that the latter was “incapable of exercising the role of president.” The largest Islamist party in the national assembly echoed that, saying he was unable to continue governing because of his illness. A prominent newspaper, El Watan, called it “a frightening candidacy” on its front page this week.

The most severe criticism has come from a previous prime minister, Mouloud Hamrouche, who wrote a long essay this month referencing the Zayyanid dynasty and warning that it was destroyed because of a lack of national leadership and a weak army. The point was not lost on Algeria’s political classes: Bouteflika and the army that backs him are leading Algeria not merely to stagnation but perhaps to oblivion.

Criticism however has not translated into candidature. Hamrouche himself said he will not stand against Bouteflika. Those who do, such as the former army general Ali Ghediri, have found the weight of the security forces ranged against them. Ghediri says he was warned by the intelligence agencies not to stand for the presidency, and days after his announcement the military banned any members of the army from any role in the elections.

So the issue is not whether Bouteflika can win. It is who will succeed him, at what point that person will be introduced to the public and whether the inevitable infighting and jockeying for position will taint the incumbent president’s likely final term.

The suggestion this week that Bouteflika may appoint a vice-president before the election will be watched closely for hints about who might succeed him. The most likely option would be someone without a power base of his or her own, a technocrat who could be expected to follow Bouteflika’s direction and, if need be, lead the country to an election should something happen to the president. Anyone else – a candidate from the military, for example – could set off infighting as other factions fear they may lose their preferred candidate.

Infighting after the election may be better than infighting before. Because while there may be a widespread sense that someone else should take over, there is no consensus whatsoever on who that candidate should be. Indeed, it has been reported that in 2014 le pouvoir sought a new candidate, but a lack of consensus settled the decision in Bouteflika’s favor.

The Algerian political system remains fragile – indeed, it is precisely because of Bouteflika’s long dominance in office that rival parties and personalities have not been able to assert themselves. Yet now, with only a few weeks to go until the election, would hardly be a conducive moment for backroom fighting. Perhaps the worst aspect of a sclerotic system is that it condemns Algerians to vote for the same candidate again and again, lest the country tear itself apart, as it did mere years ago, seeking an alternative.

Still, the time has come for Bouteflika to relinquish control and to pave the way for a new generation of political leaders. The period of le pouvroir must come to an end and Bouteflika should trust in a new generation to lead Algeria into a new political era.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.