A month ago Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s was secreted away to a Parisian hospital for a reportedly minor operation. As his stay grows longer, Algerians are growing increasingly nervous about the state of their country. The press has stoked widespread fears about the President’s health by reporting him healthy without producing any evidence to prove it. Two newspapers have even been suspended for reporting that the President has entered a coma. The FT reports:
“The consequences [of his absence] are clear,” said Faycal Metawi, an Algerian journalist and political analyst. “Bouteflika is the head of the cabinet. The cabinet has to authenticate each law, so at the moment all security and economic decisions and projects have been put on hold until the president is back” […]Algeria’s leadership, still largely dominated by the military and security services, is complex and secretive, making it impossible to discern how it views the crisis and whom it views as a potential successor to Mr Bouteflika, who may be unable to influence the transition if health issues persist. Despite his flaws, many Algerians have embraced him as an alternative to the shadowy security forces.“Who is in charge . . . in Bouteflika’s absence, or is it the ‘black box’ in the regime?” the influential daily newspaper El Khabar wrote in an editorial. “To what extent is the regime prepared to enter the post-Bouteflika era without exposing the country to a violent tremor and at the least cost?”
The greater Arab Middle East has had two main types of government in recent decades, broadly speaking: ‘republics’ and ‘monarchies’. The republics have been, if anything, more absolute in their rule than the monarchies. The difference is that the monarchies tend to be based on tribal and ethnic ties, and the kings stay in power by working with established power brokers in traditional ways. Some, like those on the Gulf, are very rich, and the oil wealth helps lubricate the gears of governance. Others, like Jordan, rely more on the deft political touch of the kings.
The republics have been more ‘modern’ in that the powerful rule through formal institutions: parties, the armed forces and so on. They have also seemed more brittle, and many republican regimes have been overthrown or subjected to civil war in recent years: Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria. The monarchies have been more adaptable.
Algeria is the last major Arab republic still standing.Perhaps it’s out-lasted the others because it’s a bit of a hybrid. The complex military and political leadership of modern Algeria, coming out of the war for independence against France, contains parties and other modern institutions but also reflects traditional forms of leadership in a country that was more heavily impacted by European colonization and settlement than any other.Algeria also benefited because in some ways it experienced its version of Islamist unrest earlier than the rest of the region. After a bitter civil war with Syrian-sized casualties the insurgents were crushed and much of civil society rallied to the government against an Islamist opposition that was truly murderous.But now as President Bouteflika sits in a French hospital undergoing treatment for what the government describes as a mild stroke but rumor suggests could be much more serious (he is 76), the possibility of instability in Algeria looks more serious.With lots of guns and militant groups floating around its ill-policed frontiers, Algeria has to be worried about what comes next. For now, the formidable organization of Algeria’s ruling elite argues for continuing stability. But the climate these days does not seem to favor the authoritarian, nationalist and social republics that until recently dominated the Arab world.[Image of President Bouteflika Courtesy of Getty Images]