The resignation of Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on April 2, after weeks of sustained protests, has raised the inevitable question: is this time really different? Algeria has seen streets protests before, and each time the regime has turned the situation around to emerge stronger from the experience. It started to learn the hard way 30 years ago, in October 1988, when in the space of a week popular protests degenerated into a convulsion of riots and repression that left up to 500 dead and thousands wounded.
Algeria was at the time a single-party Republic eaten away by the economic failure of a collectivist model. The price of hydrocarbons, the main revenue of the Algerian state, had been dropping severely in the years prior, provoking a fiscal crisis. The IMF intervened, imposed price hikes, and violence ensued. To help the nation get over the trauma of the riots, then-President Chadli Bendjedid opted to open up the political system.
Algeria had been, since 1962, under the control of the FLN/ALN, the Liberation Front cum military organization that gained independence through a brutal war with France. A pretense of democracy did not last a year. Ahmed Ben Bella, a dictatorial Prime Minister who had spent much of the war in prison, shoved aside other senior FLN figures to seize the presidency in the one-sided 1963 election, with support from the ALN’s Chief of Staff, Colonel Houari Boumédiène. Boumédiène then overthrew Ben Bella in 1965 and would hold the Presidential Palace until his death in 1978. The long Boumédiène years established the structures of the Algerian deep state, run by the top brass of the FLN and known simply as Le Pouvoir.
Ten years after the death of Boumédiène, Le Pouvoir was struggling economically and politically. The new constitution, drafted in 1989, provided for multiparty elections quickly dominated by a Muslim Brotherhood-type party, the FIS (Front Islamique du Salut). The popular verdict was unequivocal. At the end of December 1991, in between the two rounds of Parliamentary elections, the FIS was poised to obtain an absolute majority, while the FLN could barely manage to win 20 seats.
The military stepped in, suspending the electoral process, which ignited a civil war that would last for most of a decade and claim the lives of roughly 150,000 Algerians. Those years would see a President assassinated, mass massacres of civilians, the assassination of priests and Imams, extrajudicial executions, acts of terrorism on French soil, and even a plane hijacking intended to target the Eiffel Tower.
On the side of Le Pouvoir, the civil war was fought, and ultimately won, by a group known as Les Éradicateurs: men like Major General Khaled Nezzar, who had crushed the 1988 riots; Lieutenant General Mohamed Lamari, the Chief of Staff; and Major General Mohamed Mediène, head of the DRS (intelligence and internal security).
Choosing elimination over compromise, the Éradicateurs incited extreme violence from the radical Islamist fringe. They wanted Algerians, the French, and the world to turn their back on the Islamists, so that they could be eliminated with unrestrained brutality. They largely succeeded, as options became limited to a choice between Le Pouvoir and the notorious GIA, the Armed Islamic Group responsible for bloody terrorist attacks and gruesome massacres of whole villages.
By 1997, the tide had turned decidedly in favor of Le Pouvoir, now faced with the task of normalizing the political system for the long term. They understood there was no going back to single-party rule, allowing instead for alternative but sympathetic parties to populate the political space. The FLN would remain, alongside a more civilian and liberal RND (Rassemblement National Démocratique), and even a sanitized, government-approved Islamic Party, the MPS (Mouvement de la Société pour la Paix).
The regime had drafted Westernized liberals in their war against the Islamists, allowing a degree of freedom to the press, intellectuals, and artists. Keeping on with the seductive tone, they brought back from exile a man they hoped would be a consensual figure of national reconciliation: Abdelaziz Bouteflika, elected President in 1999.
Bouteflika was an unassuming man who, during the war of independence, had risen through the ranks of the ALN by virtue of being a close associate of Boumédiène. Minister of Foreign Affairs at 26, he would occupy the position from 1963 to 1979. But, never more than Boumédiène’s shadow, he was pushed aside after the death of his patron amidst accusations of stealing money from the Foreign Ministry.
A man like this, back from exile, seemed unthreatening to Les Éradicateurs. His long diplomatic stint, including at the United Nations, made him useful: He could call on his connections in the world’s capitals to legitimize the Algerian regime. Although by 1999 most Algerians were far too young to remember the war of Independence, his war record proved useful in crafting his avuncular persona, as a pseudo-national hero and a fixture of the easier Boumédiène years who had come back to reconcile a divided nation.
At first, Bouteflika played to the script. A velvet glove around the iron fist, he presided over an amnesty and rehabilitation program for survivors of the security onslaught against Islamists. Externally, he could simultaneously cash in anti-colonial credentials and maintain a good rapport with France, where he had spent his exile. One great success was a quasi-apology for colonization from President Hollande. In general, the West took to him as the grumpy but benign face of a new Algeria. Oil and gas flowed, keeping the treasury afloat. Algeria is not a fast-growing, open economy, but he channeled investments in infrastructure projects in and around Algiers. Contracts were signed with great fanfare.
Under the surface, the reality was bleaker. First, Algerian liberals and intellectuals had acquired a taste for freedom of expression during the civil war, when they mostly denounced the exactions of the GIA. However, their scrutiny of the actions of the government was unwelcome in peacetime. Issues ranged from violations of human rights during and after the civil war to the shady attribution of state contracts. Very quickly, critics had to take the path of exile, usually to France.
The custodians of the regime who had selected Bouteflika may not have realized the full constitutional depth of the role of President. In particular, his influence over governmental appointments allowed him to oversee contracts and appropriations. The FLN had been from its origins a socialist enterprise, Boumédiène presiding over the nationalization and collectivization of most sectors of the Algerian economy. For the military, the business model of the country was to export oil and gas. The budget came mostly from Sonatrach, the state-owned oil and gas company. The working class was organized within the UGTA, the historic trade Union, itself under the control of the FLN.
Bouteflika saw the benefits of a private sector and diversified economy. Infrastructure, in particular, was vastly inadequate in 1999, and Algiers looked suspended in time since the departure of the French, its buildings unmaintained and decaying. Vast infrastructure projects were launched under Bouteflika, including the construction of Algiers’s metro (the second in Africa) and a gigantic mosque. As President, he patronized private businesses and built a constituency among a group of entrepreneurs, which in turn gave him some autonomy from the security apparatus.
This oligarchic clique is embodied by Ali Haddad, a younger man born after independence and the founder and CEO of a construction group often awarded state contracts. Haddad also came to own a football club and a media group, and was elected in 2014 to lead Algeria’s main entrepreneurs’ association (Forum des Chefs d’Entreprise). Public figures like Haddad actively promoted the President, who in return facilitated their business concerns.
Bouteflika’s powerful brother, Saïd, was instrumental in the growth of those relationships with entrepreneurs. A cleavage formed within Le Pouvoir between Bouteflika’s business clique (the oligarchs and some key civil servants), and the old socialist guard of the FLN. The terms of the dispute involved both power and principles. The rising political influence of private oligarchs jarred with the security service’s vision of an Algeria where the state was everything, its authority absolute.
One man who seized the opportunities and navigated the limitations of the new century was Issab Rebrab, Algeria’s richest man. In 1998 he founded Cevital, a conglomerate with interests in real estate, steel, and agribusiness. Rebrab could keep his distance from the Bouteflikas without payback because of a good rapport with the military and because of an international profile—his company has investments overseas, in France especially, and pictures of him with French Presidents are widely circulated.
Rebrab’s unusual autonomy exposes the challenge of political protection in a state with weak rule of law like Algeria. Another tycoon, Rafik Khalifa, had profited from tight military connections to build a banking and transport empire in the late 1990s. But he sided with those generals opposed to the re-election of Bouteflika in 2004. Not long after, his empire collapsed: a cautionary tale for anyone who dare cross the President.
The presidential elections, held every 5 years from 1999, were an unnerving test for Le Pouvoir. The military-security apparatus had never intended for Bouteflika to last past his original reconciliation mission, but the presidency carried enough weight that the incumbent was able to re-impose his candidacy on voters not once but four times: in 2004, 2009, 2014, and initially in 2019. The elderly man, first selected as a weak figurehead, was unmovable.
During his 20-year tenure, Bouteflika cycled through a long list of prime ministers. Beholden to the system of Le Pouvoir, the cabinet was appointed and dismissed to accommodate ongoing power struggles between factions. Ahmed Ouyahia, a career civil servant close to the military and Éradicateurs, founder of the RND, had four long stints as Head of Government. Abdelmalek Sellal, the technocrat who ran Bouteflika’s re-election campaigns, occupied the position between 2012 and 2017.
Dismissals, appointments, and indictments were the main weapons in this internecine conflict. Bouteflika and the security apparatus used mutual accusations of embezzlement to take down each other’s protégés. It was a nasty game of factional attrition, in which Bouteflika prevailed because top military men would prefer to eliminate each other.
The first to fall was Mohamed Lamari, the Chief of Staff and kingmaker who had ruthlessly won the civil war. His chosen candidate for the 2004 presidential election was Ali Benflis, then General Secretary of the FLN. But Mohamed Médiène, the long-standing and powerful head of the DRS, switched support to Bouteflika, giving him a second term. Lamari was forced to step down, replaced as Chief of Staff by General Ahmed Gaid Salah. Like the President, Salah balanced credentials from the war of independence with a well-earned reputation for corruption, which left him vulnerable to prosecution and thus checked his ambitions.
The DRS was a state within the state, and it seemed for a decade that Bouteflika was the useful idiot and Médiène the strongman behind the scenes. But then the remains of the notorious GIA regrouped as “Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb”, pestering Le Pouvoir with occasional bombings and ambushes. In January 2013, a hostage crisis in a major gas facility in the Sahara weakened Médiène’s position as the DRS was held accountable for the failure. A brutal power struggle ensued, as Bouteflika suffered a major stroke in April, Salah was promoted to Vice Minister of Defense in September, and the DRS was placed under partial control of the government. The daunting Médiène was forced to resign in 2015, and the DRS was dissolved in 2016 for good measure.
The Algerian people—almost 43 million in 2019, half of them under the age of 27, more than 10 percent of them unemployed or underemployed—had joined the wave of the Arab Spring in 2011, before the security forces met them on the streets and put an end to it. In 2011, the fearsome Médiène was still in charge of internal security, and the memories of repression were vivid. Bouteflika was still functional, and even if Médiène only tolerated the President, all the instruments of the state were aligned to protect Le Pouvoir from the street.
The 2014 Presidential elections were heartbreaking for Algerians. Bouteflika had just suffered a debilitating stroke; their country was about to re-elect a crippled, silent man in a wheelchair. But the enthusiasm of the Arab Spring had evaporated. The two prevailing sentiments were political apathy and hope of emigration. Algerians were looking at Europe, where their kindred thrived not only in soccer (Zinedine Zidane, Kylian Mbappé) but also as musicians, authors, directors and entrepreneurs. By contrast, Algeria is a virtual wasteland devoid of opportunity or freedom.
The 2019 Presidential elections looked bound to follow the same script. Some protests against the President running for a fifth consecutive term were predictable given the circumstances, and the first gatherings were meek and tentative. What surprised everyone, starting with the protesters, was the absence of public response in those early days. This tolerance emboldened Algerians, who took the to the streets in ever greater numbers across the country.
There are two ways to read the situation. In one scenario, the elite had resigned itself to run Bouteflika once more to push the can of succession further down the road, and avoid an internal bloodbath. The spontaneous reaction of the streets compelled them to rethink their strategy on the fly; the seeming paralysis of Le Pouvoir is a symptom of the deep divisions within it.
The alternative scenario is that Salah, the strongman behind the final years of the Bouteflika reign, has staked a claim on power, using the street to take down the Bouteflikas and the oligarchs. There are signs of premeditation, such as the massive purge of potential army rivals in the summer of 2018 (under allegations of corruption). As the protests unraveled, Salah seemed to control the situation, methodically progressing from supporting Bouteflika’s bid, to accepting the need for another candidate, to pushing for impeachment.
Meanwhile, Bouteflika’s camp was panicked, making desperate attempts to placate the streets with bizarre proposals—he would do a fifth term, but not complete it—that fell on deaf ears. Clearly, his ranks were trying to gain time and salvage what they could. Ali Haddad, Bouteflika’s oligarch-in-chief, was arrested without charges while trying to drive across the border. In the end, Bouteflika would not only pass on a fifth term, but was forced by Salah to resign before the end of the fourth.
The inter-elite massacre was bound to happen eventually, and Salah was best prepared to exploit it. The protests gave him the pretext, though first he had to let them run their course. The risk now is that the demonstrations escape his control, given the genuine frustrations of the people. The street will not be content with just the head of Bouteflika, but wants to take down the entire system and its elites. Protesters have already besieged the headquarters of the UGTA, the official worker’s union, asking for the resignation of its leader, close to Bouteflika.
The street may detest Le Pouvoir but there is no structure to stand against it. Algerians show an exceptional level of distrust for authorities and institutions, perceived to be corrupt and dictatorial. The mindset is a mix of conspiratorial paranoia and apathetic rage, of hatred and despair. No one is happy with the status quo, and yet cleavages between the population exist that could be instrumentalized during a drawn-out struggle for power: between Islamists and secularists, between Arabs and Kabyles (Algeria’s largest Berber group), between Sunni Arabs and Mozabite Berbers, between workers and employers, between Algerians and the diaspora.
The FLN is experienced in the domain of divide and rule. They marginalized Kabyles in the name of Arab nationalism, yet succeeded in coopting their leaders and disarming the explosions of anger that began with the Berber Spring of 1980. Against the Islamists, the military recruited westernized liberals, and even manipulated Islamist factions against each other. Between 2013 and 2015, they let ethnic violence convulse the Saharan city of Ghardaia, until everyone turned to the state for relief. As a last resort, to silence critiques of the regime, they accused them of being agents of neo-colonialism hired to destabilize Algeria.
Le Pouvoir could lose control if, and only if, security forces fractured over the issues of succession and repression. Salah is a Berber from Batna, in the Aures mountains, a guerilla fighter at 17 who then rose through the ranks of the FLN/ALN. He is the last of this class of men who picked up arms in the 1950s, seized power, and has never relinquished it. Yet today’s Algerian military is a conscript army and its effective cadres are no longer from that generation. The question for Salah is thus the extent of his hold on the security apparatus and the price he will have to pay to clear the streets.
Once Bouteflika’s resignation was secured, it was a return to business as usual for Le Pouvoir. Presidential elections were expeditiously scheduled for July 4, making it impossible for a putative “opposition” to make any serious bid. And on the following Friday (the usual day of prayers and protests), the police made, for the first time since February, a genuine attempt to break up the demonstrations. The question is whether the crowd will accept this reality, or test the patience or the regime. It is always unfortunate to start one’s rule on a carpet of corpses, but if push comes to shove, history suggests that Le Pouvoir will not shy away from repression.
Europe has much to fear should things get out of control. The population of Syria was 23 million before the civil war, and the population of Libya only 6 million. Yet the wave of refugees from those conflicts profoundly destabilized the Union. Algeria is home to 43 millions, and unlike Syrians or Libyans, many of them have European relatives across the Mediterranean. It will be impossible to stop that tide.