Shoes and pants soaked with rain, I tagged along with a journalist from the popular Arabic daily Echorouk—his paper my umbrella—while he visited polling stations in the Belcourt neighborhood of Algiers on the day of local elections in November 2007. At the first site, disgruntled party officials quickly ejected us. We did not have the right papers, they said, and the police who looked on bored were inclined to agree. At the second station, we kept our distance. Watching for half an hour, we could count the voters who entered on two hands. Next to us stood four youths, escaping the rain under a shop awning. They laughed at us when we asked if they were going to vote. Down the road we saw an older gentleman on his way back from voting. For the occasion, he had donned a woolen Nehru-type cap and a brown burnoose, to which he had proudly affixed a medal earned during the war for independence from France (1954-1962). 

It would be facile to depict Algeria as a society divided between alienated youth who spend their time leaning against walls (hittistes) and engaged veterans of the war of independence. There are, in fact, a multitude of divisions—economic, socio-cultural, devotional, political—that define contemporary Algeria. Yet inter-generational tensions are difficult to ignore, especially when youth-led riots—over soccer, jobs, housing or simply hogra, an Algerian expression meaning being excluded and held in contempt—are recorded almost weekly in one locale or another. The Economist recently reported a poll of Algerian men between 15 and 34 that found half would probably or definitely try to reach Europe in the near future. These intrepid souls have earned the name harraga (those who burn), because they burn their identification papers before leaving. The weight of popular sentiment, it might be said, lies somewhere between hogra and harraga.

Algeria is not just another oil-dependent state afflicted with authoritarianism, as it is sometimes portrayed, nor is it another nominal democracy whose elite rule by raising the specter of civil conflict. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, reelected to a third five-year term by a predictably huge margin in April 9 polling, is not just an Arab Vladimir Putin or a North African Husni Mubarak. His blueprint is homegrown. Bouteflika’s third term represents an attempt to fulfill the dreams of his mentor, Houari Boumedienne, a leading officer in the war of independence and Algeria’s president from 1965 to 1978. For many Algerians, Boumedienne’s reign was a golden age in which economic nationalization and assertive non-alignment on the international stage marked Algeria’s place among the great nations of the emerging Third World.

For Algerians born after 1962, and especially those who came of age during the “black decade” of the 1990s, the meaning of 1962 is a synthetic ideology rather than a felt experience. Born in 1937, Bouteflika represents the trailing edge of those who were of fighting age during the war of independence. At the age of 26 he became Algeria’s foreign minister, but went into self-imposed exile under the shadow of corruption charges after Boumedienne suddenly died of a rare disease in late 1978. During his years “wandering in the desert,” as he liked to say, Bouteflika was an international fixer of sorts, not unlike his sparring partner in the 1970s, Henry Kissinger. Yet Bouteflika’s exile did not last forever. Failing to tempt Bouteflika back to power in 1994, the military-dominated regime finally cut a deal in 1999 that allowed the former foreign minister to reassume his place in the Algerian oligarchy. The past ten years, and the next five, assuming Bouteflika’s health holds out, are first and foremost an Algerian story.

The “National Tragedy”

As we walked back toward central Algiers for lunch on that rainy election day in 2007, my journalist friend claimed that there have been only two genuine elections in Algeria: in 1989 and 1995. In both cases, he explained, the voter queues extended around the block everywhere. The 1989 vote was a referendum on a new constitution that permitted multiple political parties. It came four months after riots in October 1988, which were brutally suppressed by the military. Following the global collapse in hydrocarbon prices in 1985-1986, Algeria’s economy—already weakened by years of poor management and haphazard liberalization—had begun to falter. Unemployment rose, the middle class was gutted and the youth, representing the majority of the country, faced dismal prospects. The deployment of the military against the people in the streets of Algiers finalized the state-society divorce. The first elections held under the new constitution in 1990 saw a recently formed Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), take a significant number of municipalities and provincial bodies. The following year, in December, the FIS dominated the first round of polls for the national parliament. To prevent the FIS from taking over government, elements of Algeria’s security and military elite forced out President Chadli Bendjedid and instituted a High State Committee—a military junta—to fill the political vacuum they had created. The FIS was banned and thousands of Islamist activists were sent to camps in the Sahara.

Even before the “soft coup” of 1992, Algeria was on a dangerous path. There had been a brief Islamist insurgency in the mid-1980s, a small taste of the horror that was to come. With the FIS leadership behind bars in 1992 and the activist base shipped out to the desert, the militancy of the opposition increased, with many more activists taking up arms. At this point, the repression of the regime spun out of control. By 1996, reports of bombings, assassinations and mass roundups were routine but attracted scant international media attention. As Somalia, the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda disintegrated, Algeria was just more background noise in the “coming anarchy” heralded by the writer Robert Kaplan. Then, in late 1997 and early 1998, Algeria witnessed a spate of massacres—Raïs, Beni Messous, Bentalha, Sidi Hamed, Relizane—that claimed hundreds of lives, each in a single evening. Conflicting reports as to who was behind the killings fueled an increase of international scrutiny. If it was the insurgents of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) shedding the blood, as the Algerian government alleged, then Algeria was in the midst of its own war on terror. If, however, the Algerian state was behind the killings, as some massacre survivors and military defectors claimed, then it would seem that the government was carrying out a scorched-earth policy. 

Either way, the logic of militarized humanitarian intervention, the dominant security paradigm before September 11, 2001, dictated that foreign powers ride in to save the day. With violence reaching “Bosnian proportions,” as journalist Robert Fisk claimed in late 1997, the international community felt compelled to do something. Yet when, in January 1998, the United States finally threatened to intervene—that is, to send a UN human rights rapporteur—Algeria protested and the West quickly shut up. A year later, NATO launched a war against Serbia because 40 people were killed in Račak, Kosovo. Algeria’s prime minister admitted in 2006 that nearly 1,000 had been killed in the Relizane massacre of 1998, yet the true figure had been hidden because Algeria did not want to appear to be losing the war. In reality, such a figure might have pushed Western states, especially Britain, France and the United States, to take a harder line with Algiers. With the final death toll estimated between 100,000 and 200,000, it is difficult to think of a crisis in the 1990s that received less international attention than Algeria’s civil war.

Whether one calls it a civil war or a precursor to the “war on terror,” Algeria’s was one of the dirtiest wars since the slaughters in Latin America during the Cold War. On the pro-government side, there was the police, gendarmerie, military, intelligence agencies and special forces, not to mention several hundred thousand state-armed militia members and secular death squads. On the rebel side, those fighting for an Islamist Algeria and those fighting for the pan-Islamic umma spawned an alphabet soup of armed groups representing various regions, ideologies and personality cults. From the long-haired, hard-drinking cop killers of the casbah to the austere, bearded veterans of Afghanistan, it was an insurgency in the loosest sense. The two best-known groups were the Islamic Salvation Army, which represented the FIS, and the GIA, which after 1996 appeared to have no ideology other than its slogan “damm damm, hadm hadm” (blood, blood, destruction, destruction). Distinctions between political, criminal and personal violence were non-existent. As during Algeria’s war of independence, internecine fighting among insurgents likely accounted for as many deaths as fighting between the government and the rebels.

One indicator of the scale of the atrocities is the lack of a precise figure for the numbers killed. The government now suggests 200,000, but there has never been a formal effort to establish an accurate count. Mass graves have been ignored or destroyed by local officials, surrendering Islamist insurgents have rarely faced rigorous investigation and the state admits to “disappearing” only 6,146 of the 20,000 people believed missing. All in all, only several hundred persons (all Islamist insurgents) have been held accountable for their deeds. Not a single government official, not a single member of the security, military or intelligence forces, and not a single member of the state-armed militias has gone to prison or stood before a truth commission. Instead, all sides (including the generals who initiated the war) have been amnestied and immunized from prosecution under Bouteflika. Some “repentant” insurgents and leaders of the outlawed FIS receive monthly stipends, while the families of the disappeared have been offered, on average, $10,000 for their loss and their silence. The logic of Bouteflika’s national reconciliation policies was impunity, remuneration and forgetting. “How are you going to leave this war behind if you don’t forget?” the president told a meeting of the mothers of the disappeared in 1999. 

Besides the 1989 constitutional referendum, the Echorouk journalist said, the only vote that has elicited massive turnout was the presidential election in 1995, the first since the civil war started. It was not that Algerians were so enamored of the military-backed candidate, former Gen. Liamine Zeroual, first appointed to the post in 1994. My friend believed that his election was, in fact, a national referendum on stability. It was not that no one liked the FIS any longer; it was that so many people were sick of the violence. Indeed, there was ambiguity in the FIS electoral victories in 1990 and 1991. Few would argue that the Algerian electorate had wanted the FIS to introduce Iranian-style government. Much of the sentiment behind the FIS was not unlike that for Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian elections: Throw the bums out. In the case of Algeria, the bums belonged to the National Liberation Front (FLN), the organization that had led the war of independence and became a kind of single political party until the rupture of 1988. By the late 1980s, the FLN had become synonymous with corruption, authoritarianism and hogra. It does not take long to find secular-minded people in Algeria today who voted for the FIS, or whose parents did, out of cynicism. This is not to say that the FIS did not have a real base of support for their political program. The fact that the FIS and its heir apparent, the Wafa Party, remain outlawed in Algeria suggests that the FIS is a force to be reckoned with.

Bouteflika’s Mandate

When first elected on April 15, 1999, Bouteflika did not face a candidate representing the FIS tendency. In fact, Bouteflika faced no competition at all. The last-minute withdrawal of the six other candidates on April 14, alleging vote rigging by the military, provided Bouteflika with an easy win but little legitimacy. Some were quick to accuse the regime of attempting to prevent the victory of either leading Islamist candidate, Saad Abdallah Djaballah or Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi. In the 1995 presidential race, the Islamist Sheikh Mahfoud Nahnah had garnered a quarter of the vote, though many Algerians believe he would have won if not for the military’s intervention in Zeroual’s favor. Following the suspect 1999 election, all sides of the political spectrum called for demonstrations. The security forces had the final say when 10,000 riot police flooded the streets of Algiers on April 26.

Bouteflika’s assignment was twofold: Whitewash Algeria’s international image and put an end to the civil war once and for all. With the quick passage of a Civil Concord after his election, Bouteflika attempted to coax Islamist rebels out of the mountains with offers of amnesty and reintegration into society. The Civil Concord essentially formalized the 1997 FIS truce with the regime; its results, however, were difficult to judge outside of the fact that 2,000 fighters took the offer. Political violence, including massacres and bombings, persisted even as the GIA petered out. With nowhere left to hide, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, a GIA splinter, increasingly took to the mountains of Kabylia, just as the FLN had during the darkest days of the war of independence.

Algeria’s international image got a huge boost after September 11, 2001, when Algeria became one of the first countries to offer aid to the United States in its “war on terror.” Bush and Bouteflika seemed cozy even before September 11, though they would have a falling-out over the question of Western Sahara in 2003. Economically, the Algerian state was doing well, surfing the rising wave of hydrocarbon prices and slowly shaking off the bonds of international debt incurred during the civil war. A 2003 financial scandal involving a small-time entrepreneur suddenly turned multi-industry, multi-billion dollar magnate, Rafik Abdelmoumen Khalifa, provided Bouteflika’s government with a pretext for reining in privatization.

Bouteflika’s first major domestic test came unexpectedly in the spring of 2001. When members of the gendarmerie killed a Berber youth in cold blood, it triggered a wave of protests that seemed capable of bringing down the government. It was also bad timing; the 2001 events fell near the twenty-first anniversary of the original “Berber spring,” protests in Algeria’s Kabylia region that signaled the birth of a renewed political consciousness among Algeria’s Tamazight (Berber)-speaking minority. In June 2001, Algiers saw 1 million Kabyles and supporters march against hogra in the biggest pro-democracy display since 1988. But with time, power and resources on its side, the state watered down the ambitious, democratic demands of the Citizens’ Movement spawned by the 2001 demonstrations. One by one, its leaders were coopted, bought off or squeezed out.

Given the outcome of the 1999 elections, it was important for Bouteflika to establish an independent base of support, one that would free him from the whims of the generals who put him in power. Though Algeria’s 2002 elections recorded what was then the lowest turnout since independence, the outcome indicated the growing power of Bouteflika’s electoral machine. The FLN—a party that had seemed moribund in the 1990s—took 51 percent of the seats in Parliament. This surprising show of strength was repeated in October at the local level. Though Bouteflika has been officially independent from the FLN since 1999, the reconstituted FLN provided him with the foot soldiers to bring people to the ballot box. The formation of the “presidential alliance”—a three-party coalition led by the FLN—would later guarantee the Bouteflika camp’s total electoral hegemony. Still, Islamist parties performed well in 2002, despite severe restrictions on many candidates; the largely secular-left Berber opposition stayed true to an electoral boycott stemming from the 2001 unrest in Kabylia.

As the April 2004 presidential contest approached, there were indications that elements of the security-military-intelligence apparatus were starting to see Bouteflika as a threat. Bouteflika’s Brutus stepped forward in 2003, when Prime Minister and FLN Secretary-General Ali Benflis—none other than Bouteflika’s 1999 campaign manager—declared his intent to run. Yet even with the FLN divided and Benflis’ candidacy supported by powerful figures in the security oligarchy, Bouteflika sailed to an impressive 85 percent margin of victory, on turnout of nearly 60 percent. Benflis, who quickly disappeared from the political scene, managed to pull in 6 percent.

With his 2004 reelection, it was clear that Bouteflika had established the independent base. A growing ensemble of stakeholders, from traditionalist elements of Algerian Islam to veterans’ and war martyrs’ groups, provided Bouteflika with his own means of reaching down to the grassroots. An Algerian sociologist has provisionally termed this coalition Bouteflika’s makhzan, in reference to the patron-client networks that have allowed the Moroccan monarchy to rule for centuries.

There was perhaps no greater indication of Bouteflika’s triumph than the June 2004 “retirement” of Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mohammed Lamari, architect of the dirty war in the 1990s, and the 2005 posting of retired Gen. Larbi Belkhir to the embassy in Morocco. Belkhir, a key player for decades, had reportedly championed Bouteflika in 1999 in the face of the skepticism of others and subsequently ran the president’s office. Bouteflika’s new chief of staff and deputy defense minister were trusted allies. With Khaled Nezzar (mastermind of the 1992 coup) sulking in his villa, there appears to be little left of the cadre of “deciders” who allegedly manipulated events behind the scenes in the 1990s, except for long-time intelligence head Mohamed “Tewfik” Medienne, who, like the Wizard of Oz, seems to instill fear simply by staying out of the public eye.

It was only after his 2004 reelection that Bouteflika fulfilled his end of the bargain with those who had put him into office. On February 27, 2006, the presidential cabinet, chaired by Bouteflika himself, used a special rule to ratify the National Peace and Reconciliation Charter while the parliament was in recess. Though the Charter had ostensibly passed a national referendum in September 2005, there were doubts as to the authenticity of turnout figures. In its final form, the law amnestied insurgents who surrendered after January 2000, including those facing criminal proceedings or held in prison, while at the same time opening a new six-month window for more insurgents to surrender. At the same time, the Charter kept the same restrictions on amnesty as the 1999 Civil Concord, but those found guilty of unprotected offenses could receive reduced sentences. For the families of the “disappeared” or those abducted by armed opposition groups, death certificates could be issued once all investigations had been completed. Perhaps the most important aspect of the Charter was that, for the first time, the government extended full immunity to the security and military forces, including civilian militias. Merely to criticize the actions of the government or its agents during the “national tragedy” of the 1990s was made a criminal act.

Blessing and Curse

After the 2004 election, it seemed inevitable that Bouteflika would seek to lift the two-term limit for the presidency. The reason for this—and the reason why Bouteflika’s third term is a blessing and a curse—is that there seems to be no other political force in Algeria capable of replacing the old chieftain. While Bouteflika has wrested the reins of power from the grip of the military, he has seemingly monopolized it for himself. It is not just that power is heavily concentrated in one office, the presidency, but that it is centered in a single person. As the 2009 elections demonstrate, there is no personality, no figure, no movement and no organization that is capable of filling his shoes. The only constituency with the potential to counter Bouteflika’s ambitions also happens to be, by definition, the most disorganized: the Algerians who do not bother to vote. During the 2009 campaign, one of Bouteflika’s key messages was simply to plead for Algerians to vote—either for or against him. Instead of backing or fielding candidates, Islamist figures and a few political parties championed the indifferent and the dispossessed with their calls for a boycott. A record low turnout in 2009 could have been read as a vote for “none of the above” or even a popular mandate for the reinstatement of term limits. These opposition hopes were dashed when the Interior Ministry began reporting turnout of over 70 percent after polls closed on April 9. Though the Interior Ministry claims are to be taken with a grain of salt, Bouteflika can now even claim triumph over apathy.

Bouteflika’s victory is now almost total. He has conquered the generals, kept the FIS from returning in any form, staved off democratic challenges from his own party and the Kabyle Citizens’ Movement, and won the right to a third, or even fourth, term. The challenges he faces now seem almost quaint by comparison: residual political violence, high unemployment, widespread disillusionment with government and the state’s near total dependence on hydrocarbons.

What is in store for Algeria? The master of Algerian political satire, Liberté’s Ali Dilem, recently poked fun at Bouteflika’s health. The cartoon announced the rollout of Bouteflika’s campaign team: a line of doctors with their stethoscopes at the ready. Bouteflika will be 77 when he next comes up for reelection in 2014, and a bout with what many believe was stomach cancer made it seem that he had already reached his last days in 2006 and 2007. But recent videos posted to his official campaign website show an almost jaunty Bouteflika pressing the flesh with the same vigor as in 1999.

Dilem’s cartoon also hints at the subtext of inter-generational tension. At an academic conference in Oran in February 2008, a young Algerian political sociologist dared to suggest that relations of extended kinship—“tribalism”—were affecting electoral outcomes in several eastern provinces. Before he even finished his paper’s introduction, an elderly man shouted that he would not allow such an attack on a sovereign, independent, democratic nation. The ornery spectator challenged the young scholar, “Where were you in 1954?” The young scholar calmly replied, “I wasn’t born yet,” eliciting thunderous applause from the students in the audience. Such exchanges make it seem as if Algeria has stood still for the past 20 years. The 1988 riots, which had ushered in the brief democratic experiment of 1989-1991, were a rupture between the generation of the war of independence and those born afterwards. Inter-generational tensions were not the cause of the civil war, but were perhaps indicative of the underlying conditions that made it possible. Bouteflika’s triumph shows that the “dinosaurs”—the war of independence generation —have some fight in them yet.

Who would replace Bouteflika should he die? As with his role model, Boumedienne, who expired abruptly in 1978, the void would likely be filled by the only institution in Algeria that has the resources and capacity to assert effective control nationwide: the military. After all, the omnipotent Boumedienne was followed by Chadli Bendjedid, often mocked as a lackey of the army. The irony of Bouteflika’s triumph—the civilianization of the regime—is that it has come at the expense of a sound foundation for civilian-led politics in the future.

How to cite this article:

Jacob Mundy "Bouteflika’s Triumph and Algeria’s Tragedy," Middle East Report Online, April 10, 2009.

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