x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

In Algeria, a new generation of leadership waits in the wings

Analysis: As Abdelaziz Bouteflika recovers in France, the men who are mentioned as possible successors are younger. Alice Fordham writes

A poster of Abdelaziz Bouteflika in the city of Constantine. Lindsay Mackenzie for The National
A poster of Abdelaziz Bouteflika in the city of Constantine. Lindsay Mackenzie for The National

The Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has not been seen in public since he suffered what officials described as a minor stroke a month ago, and observers of the country are beginning to speculate about the effect of his absence.

The prime minister, Abdelmalek Sallal, tried to quell persistent rumours that the 76-year-old president was incapacitated or even dead last week, saying that he was "doing well and resting", in hospital in France and that Algerians should not believe "false information in foreign media".

On Monday, the head of Algeria's main Islamist political party called for the ailing president to appear on television to dispel rumours over his health and, earlier, an editor of two Algerian newspapers said his publications were blocked by the government after he rejected an order to remove a story that claimed Mr Bouteflika was in a coma.

According to state media reports, Mr Sallal said that the president, "follows the daily activities of the government, pending his return to continue his mission in the service of Algeria and the nation".

However, after a month of ill-health in his 14th year of rule, it seems less likely that the president will continue his former plan to change the constitution and run for a fourth term in planned presidential elections next year.

Considerable political power is concentrated in the hands of the president and, when a new one is appointed - be it in five weeks or five years - it will be a landmark. Every president thus far has come from a generation of men whose legitimacy is rooted in their role in the war against French colonial forces to win independence 51 years ago.

As this political cadre ages - and Algerians grow more vocal in their disdain for what is widely seen as an old men's club - the men who are mentioned as possible successors are younger. Mr Sallal, 64, who has been energetic in his travel around the country and dynamic in his discussions with groups of dissenters, is a possible candidate, as is a former prime minister, Ahmed Ouyahia, 60.

"There's a desire for more dynamic leadership, they want someone young, sensitive to the interests of the elites but not someone from within the system," said Geoff Porter, a political risk analyst specialising in North Africa.

"Someone from within the system will lack credibility, but an individual coming from outside the situation will have to respect the vested interests of the elite."

The people will elect the new president, but Algeria is not run solely or even mostly according to electoral processes. Algerians disillusioned with their democracy turned out in small numbers and spoiled nearly one-fifth of ballots in last year's parliamentary elections, in what was seen at a protest at the powerlessness of the parliament.

Most people say that more power rests with the military, the intelligence services and a few wealthy industrial families who form an opaque power structure referred to in French as "Le Pouvoir" - the power. It is true that, under Mr Bouteflika, the military, which was very powerful during the civil war in the 1990s, has ebbed in strength as a political force. But most analysts agree that the shifting, competing clans and groups will try to agree on a consensus candidate and present him to the electorate rather than allowing a fully free presidential race.

"You have these different clans, rearranging themselves and positioning themselves to compete in discussions," said an Algerian analyst who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject. "On the Bouteflika side of things I don't think they have a successor ... there isn't a clear protege."

The question is whether Le Pouvoir will opt for a candidate that offers continuity, or one who could bring change to the system. A civil war in the 1990s, which Algerians call the "black decade", was waged between Islamic militants and security services after the government voided the 1992 election that Islamists were winning. More thn 100,000 people died, according to most estimates, and villages were razed in the ensuing violence. For years afterwards, there was a profound desire for political stability in Algeria, even at the cost of real democracy or economic opportunities.

Mr Bouteflika, say analysts, gives the power structure a legitimate figurehead. He speaks a number of languages, travels widely, speaks eloquently and, crucially, was able to manoeuvre within the existing system, cutting deals without angering any one faction too much.

But with nearly half the population under the age of 24, the black decade is a distant memory for many. A protest movement has grown in strength since the Arab uprisings rocked north Africa, resulting in demonstrations demanding housing, electricity and jobs - in 2011 alone there were more than 10,000 protests, some of which turned violent.

A paper by Lachen Achy, an economist with the Carnegie Endowment, last month argued that the problems of high unemployment - about 22 per cent for those between 18 and 24 - and a stagnant private sector would worsen in the next two decades as oil wealth begins to run out, unless stringent economic reforms were introduced.

If the elite recognises the calls for change as a serious threat to their interests, it could use the election of a new president as an opportunity to garner support with a popular candidate. It could begin, in earnest, a process of economic reform that the country sorely needs but, if it involves cuts in subsidies and government jobs, would be unpopular.

Meanwhile, as the current president's poor health continues - he has been ill intermittently for the past several years - the country seems rudderless. The national oil company is paralysed by a corruption scandal. International calls for changes to security policy after the mass kidnapping at the In Amenas oil and gas installation earlier this year have met with only a lukewarm response. If the president returns to work in good health, the system will, in all likelihood, continue on its current trajectory for months or years - but a generational change in leadership is approaching.



* With additional reports from the Associated Press