Third term for Bouteflika
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has slammed a constitutional amendment through parliament, enabling him to run for a third term. Soon thereafter, the tripartite presidential alliance of the FLN, RND and MSP decided to launch him as their "consensus candidate". There can be no serious doubt that he will win at the polls next year. While there are questions about his relations to powerbrokers in the army -- most importantly Gen. Mohamed Médiène, the military security chief -- this remains speculation. Had some army-political faction seriously wanted to derail his third term (and: been able to), they would have had a better shot at doing it in parliament than in the elections, so now it looks very unlikely to happen.
Whatever the case, both of Bouteflika's earlier victories have been marked by gentle purges in the military pouvoir, as he shunted competitors to the side. Bouteflika may be a mediocre character in many ways, but when it comes to subtly amassing personal power, he is top of the class. Thus, the Boutef presidency has been remarkable for the way the army top brass has, not so much retreated from politics, but been overwhelmed by and submerged in Bouteflika's rapidly swelling power structure. If he started as a puppet, by 2004 he very publicly cut his strings, with the "retirement" of Army Chief of Staff Mohamed Lamari, and the subsequent dethronement of Gen. Larbi Belkheïr and others. In this way, the country has come to resemble a more straightforward dictatorship, instead of a military-run shadow republic, and Bouteflika to resemble a more straightforward Arab president-for-life. Cynical as it may be, I believe most Algeria watchers have considered this a basically healthy process, in that it normalizes the political scene to some extent. That, on the other hand, is of course most revealing of the sorry state of Algerian politics. But, the downside of this "neo-Boumédièneism" -- apart from authoritarianism in itself -- is that when Bouteflika dies, and he will soon enough, a giant power vacuum could open up, with unpredictable consequences. The West is then highly likely to back whatever strongman (= military security) looks set to gain control the easiest. Whatever happens, a serious contender for the post as future president is and remains Ahmed Ouyahia, of the RND party in the presidential majority, but the question is perhaps less who will be the next president, than what the next president will be able to control.
The most vocal opposition to the constitutional amendment has come from the RCD party, whose leader Said Saadi says he will run against Bouteflika. Let us state it as a matter of fact: Said Saadi has no chance of winning, even in a free and fair election. First of all, while ordinary Algerians are deeply unhappy with the state of the country, Bouteflika is still quite popular (he did end the civil war, and things are better now than before), and he plays the role of nationalist-populist caudillo with considerable skill -- not to mention that he and his allies control the major patronage networks, in the state, the army and even business. Second, the RCD is a small and organizationally limited liberal party whose voter base is restricted to about a third of the Kabyle population, with its Arab constituency limited to a tiny number of mainly Francophone ultrasecularists. Even if he should be bolstered by a powerful protest vote and serious cross-party opposition backing, Saadi is highly unlikely to ever get more than 30% of a fair Algerian vote, not to mention an unfair one. (It looks as if it's going to be the latter, since the government is now on the record as opposing international observers.)
There may be other challengers, though, who could theoretically scrape up a majority backing. But, short version: this time around, they don't stand a chance, and they know it. Running in the elections now is solely about profiling yourself with future political schemes in mind, not about seriously trying to get into el-Mouradia.
Islamists in disarray
The MSP, also Hamas, is the Algerian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, and has its roots in the Islamic reformist movement founded by the late Sheikh Mahfoud Nahnah. The Algerian Brotherhood tendency, through MSP, participates in government, and has -- contrary to much uninformed belief -- not been involved with the country's insurgency or with the banned FIS party. Their strategy is to stay out of any unwinnable confrontation with the army or Bouteflika, and instead pragmatically strengthen the Islamic character of the state and build their movement's capacity to govern. In this, they have been reasonably succesful; but it has also cost the party some standing with the public, as it is increasingly seen as part of the ruling elite. It's quite likely that the regime will pounce upon the split, to weaken the MSP and make Soltani more dependent on the presidency than he already is; on the other hand, they wouldn't want to destroy the party, and leave Islamist voters without any credible pro-regime option.
The Islamist opposition, to which the MSP defectors are likely to gravitate, is in a sorry state. On the one hand, you have the ex-FIS, which is now completely in disarray. Its leading lights are either disconnected from Algerian politics (Abassi Madani), or angling for favors from the regime (Rabeh Kbir, Madani Mezrag), or bitterly rejectionist, monitored, harassed, and reduced to railing against the powers that be in the Friday Khutba with no parliamentary leverage (Ali Belhadj). On the other hand, you have the anti-regime wing of the reformist Islamist trend, led by sheikh Djaballah. His party (el-Nahda) has been split through no little amount of state meddling, and he was himself ousted by the regime-backed wing of the party. This effectively deprived him of any chance to participate on fair terms in the political game, which spares the regime a nasty critic, but on the other hand risks alienating his supporters from parliamentary politics altogether. Lastly, there's the potential challenge from Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, a much-respected Islamic nationalist, who previously attempted to challenge Bouteflika's election in 1999. He then, however, had his party (el-Wafa) banned, for allegedly serving as a vehicle for reintroducing FIS into politics, but more likely because he seemed to be serious competition. Given his advanced age, he is not likely to give it another go.
Now, if credible Islamist opposition personalities like those mentioned above could congregate into a somewhat efficient political alliance -- a big if, given the size of the egos involved -- they would stand a good chance of assembling street power, since Algerian Islamist populism remains as potent a force as ever. However, this is something the authorities have made it very clear that they will not allow, like with the banning of el-Wafaa. With demonstrations still banned under the state of emergency, even non-party attempts to build an overtly political Islamist popular movement are doomed to failure, or at least to being outlawed and persecuted. For all their failures, the MSP seem best placed to capitalize, in the somewhat distant future, on their strategy of collaboration, than any of the groups that have tried a more confrontative approach.
Finally, the al-Qaida rebellion: nothing really new there. Fighting continues in the Kabyle mountains, occasional skirmishes elsewhere, a bombing now and then. The two Austrian tourists that were kidnapped in Tunisia a while back, have been released some time ago, unscathed. It seems rather obvious that someone paid a ransom, and it seems rather likely that "someone" is either Austria or Libya, with Algerian or Tunisian authorities as second-rate contenders, and the families involved a distant third. Regardless, the important point to take away is that the southern wing of the Maghrebi al-Qaida is still essentially a desert mafia, working in the grey zone between Saharan tribal trade and organized crime, with global Jihad as a pet hobby project on the side. They were not interested in killing kuffar, nor even in upsetting the Tunisian tourism business or shaming the infidel governments of Algeria and Mali: they wanted hard cash.
Oil prices slipping
Also worth noting is the slip in oil prices, following the global financial crisis. Algeria is of course completely dependent on hydrocarbon income (oil & natural gas). It has no significant economic activity apart from that, or at least not one that would survive without it. However, prices right now (50-60 USD/barrel) are still way above where they were a few years ago, and they don't seem likely to slip much further (Saudi Arabia now openly advocates 75 USD/b as a "fair price"). While Boutef may have to go through his checkbooks again, there seems to be no reason to fear major drawdowns in state spending. The earnings from the post-2003 oil bonanza have actually been used rather wisely (after subtracting for corruption and the Morocco-Algeria arms race), on infrastructure, paying off loans, and saving up huge reserves. So all in all, while Algeria's economic position is no longer great, it is still pretty good.
Even so, the population hasn't seen much of all this money, but plenty of the global price increases. The cost of living has skyrocketed, and people who were already on the margins now find it completely impossible to make ends meet. The state has not been able to effectively counteract this, and of course, poverty was pretty dire already before the price explosion. Accordingly, this year has seen an upsurge in political and social unrest especially in rural areas, with demonstrations, riots, road blocks, crime, state repression, and plain unfocused violence all around -- as well as growing numbers of harraga, young Algerians who risk their lives to flee across the Mediterranean in search of jobs, money, women and all the other things they've seen on MTV. This social crisis is certainly the most serious threat to Algerian stability, even including the sputtering al-Qaida rebellion.
The only credible solution to these issues, a program for systematic economic reform, is still in its infancy -- and what an ugly, misfit baby it is. Bouteflika's darkest legacy will undoubtedly be the failure to use his ten years of reasonable political and economical stability to develop and diversify the country's economy. I see no reason to hope for change in his third term, and what little exists of opposition tends to be even worse than the present regime on these issues. Also, today's (unworkable) system is so cemented and change resistant as to make any serious attempt at reform likely to be a very painful experience for ordinary Algerians, and possibly also upsetting to political stability, because it necessitates a challenge to entrenched bureaucratic and political-military interests. Therefore, even if almost everyone who is someone in Algeria agrees that reforms are necessary, they are ever put off for the future, since the hydrocarbon rent seems to be enough to keep the country afloat for the time being. But is it really?