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Power behind the president

Spencer, Kimball
February 14, 2011

As protests in Algeria continue with a renewed confidence, opposition leaders are calling for the president's resignation. However, a regime-friendly military will make radical political change very difficult.

Bouteflika, president algeria
Bouteflika is a consensus figure approved by the militaryImage: AP

After the popular overthrow of the authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced that he would lift the 20-year-old emergency law that restricts freedoms in Algeria. Despite the promise, some 30,000 security forces prevented protests by the National Coordination for Change Democracy (CNCD) from taking place in the capital of Algiers last Saturday. CNCD is an umbrella group that represents numerous opposition factions.

In defiance of the still active emergency law, the CNCD announced subsequent to Saturday's aborted demonstration that it would hold protests every week until Bouteflika steps down. However, it is unlikely that the Algerian regime will witness a fate similar to that of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt. While in those cases the military either sided with the opposition or remained neutral, in Algeria the armed forces are deeply invested in the survival of Bouteflika's regime.

Power of the military

Similar to Tunisia and Egypt, Algeria's young population - 60 percent of the country is under 30 - struggles with a staggering 30-percent unemployment rate and little hope for the future. Protests in January over rising food prices and lack of economic opportunity turned violent, resulting in several casualties.

"If you go on the street and ask young Algerians what they want to do, most have exactly one idea and that's a visa for France," Oliver Schlumberger, an expert on democratic reform in the Mideast with the University of Tuebingen, told Deutsche Welle.

And though the opposition groups have taken to the streets ostensibly against Bouteflika, the real power in Algeria lies with the military. Respectfully called "le pouvoir" - the power - virtually every facet of life in North Africa's largest nation is dependent on the military, from politics to the resource-rich economy. Regime change in Algeria would ultimately impact the interests of the military itself.

"In Algeria, the president is actually a consensus figure for the military which stays behind the scenes," Schlumberger said. "The president himself doesn't come from the military, but instead is a diplomat who was a minister during the 1970s. A group of 10 to 15 generals is the real power behind the scenes."

Yet the opposition has - up to this point - tried to avoid confrontation with the armed forces. They remember what happened when free elections were held in 1991. The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won and the military intervened to annul the results. A brutal six-year civil war ensued which claimed 100,000 lives.

War weary

The now polarizing President Bouteflika originally came to power - undoubtedly with the support of the military - on a platform of national reconciliation. He promised amnesty for anyone who laid down their arms. The situation slowly calmed down, but peace never totally returned. The hardcore Islamic fighters vowed to fight on, some declaring their allegiance to al-Qaeda. They roam the vast expanse of the Sahel Desert, kidnapping Westerners and demanding ransoms and carry out bomb attacks from time to time.

Schlumberger visited Algeria just as the civil war came to an end in 2001. He told Deutsche Welle that the conflict makes Algerians different from Egyptians in a very important way.

"They're war weary," Schlumberger said. "There was such an extreme, palpable need to return to normalcy. That people could go to work in the morning and return at night without fear or worry and maybe drink a coffee on the street."

As a consequence, most of the population supported the reconciliation program. War-weary enemies became neighbors once again, despite the fact that most people know exactly who killed whom. But political reconciliation has not resolved the economic and social problems that originally contributed to the Islamist victory in the 1991 elections. And the Algerians currently taking to the streets say that their situation is getting worse every day, despite the fact that the national economy is doing fairly well. However, it remains to be seen whether the opposition movement can win the war-weary population to their cause.

"Repression and lack of modernity surely exists in Algeria," Schlumberger said. "But I'm not so sure that this will lead to a similarly large number of people taking great risks and going onto the streets and protesting."

protesters, algeria
The opposition says it will protest weekly until Bouteflika steps downImage: picture alliance/dpa

National security petrostate

Algeria has large oil and gas reserves and profits from economic relations with the West. However, wealth from energy exports has done little to alleviate the plight of the population at large. Approximately 60 percent of state income comes from the energy industry while 95 percent of Algeria's export revenue comes from oil and gas. And according to Schlumberger, the military has a major stake in the country's energy-dependent economy.

"The military is of course a security actor on the one hand, but also an actor with very important economic interests on the other hand," he said. "A model dominates there in which you need the consent of a general in order to be economically successful. That means there's someone from the military behind the scenes who takes a percent of the earnings."

The military, the real power behind Bouteflika, is invested in and profits from the status quo. So while the armed forces either sided with the opposition or remained neutral in Tunisia and Egypt, which ultimately gave the protesters a window of political opportunity, in Algeria the generals have - at the moment - little interest in political change.

"The military has a lot to lose in terms of privileges," Schlumberger said. "And in that respect, I don't really see the military agreeing to meaningful reforms without a fight."

Author: Peter Philipp, Spencer Kimball
Editor: Rob Mudge