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Algeria, a Succession Already in Place

Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika

Mistery over President Bouteflika’s health, fighting among the high ranks of the army and in the secret services: the political élites demand answers on who is leading the country

There is secrecy regarding the president's health, fights between former military leaders on the national press, and mysteries over who is actually making decisions in the country. The stability of Algeria, one of the few Arab countries that passed unscathed through a season of regional revolts in 2011, has become increasingly important in a regional context of uncertainty and tension. Doubts and questions over the fate of Algeria strengthened since April 2013, when a mild ischemia forced President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to undergo a long period of hospitalisation, surrounded in state secrecy. Having decided to take a step back to make room for the "younger generation" a few months earlier, the President instead announced his candidacy, succeeding in being re-elected for the fourth time, after a campaign carried out by proxy.

 

 

The energy connection

 

Italy's interest in ensuring stability in Africa's largest nation is undoubtedly linked to its traditional ties with Algeria in the field of energy. Together with Russia, Algeria is, in fact, the country's main source of gas. Not only internally, then, but also outside of Algeria the precariousness and uncertainty surrounding the head of state is being observed with apprehension. Having been absent from institutional activities and from the public scene in general, Bouteflika only appears before the cameras during rare talks (with a faint voice) with Presidents or foreign statesmen.

 

 

An unusual meeting request came in early November from 19 political and military figures who are well-known in Algeria. Their goal is to inform the President of the serious socio-economic situation prevailing in the country, as it is almost entirely dependent on oil prices, which are currently at record lows. They are not opponents, but rather individuals who know Bouteflika intimately and who claim to be convinced there are hidden powers, "courtiers", forming a barrier around him, handling and manoeuvering him without his knowledge. The Group of 19 (four of which have, however, already withdrawn under heavy pressure, according to others) is led by Louisa Hanoune - the leader of the Workers' Party, who has been nominated for the presidency several times but is also a supporter of Bouteflika, who she has always appreciated and listened to - and includes, among others, Zohra Difr Bitat, renowned hero of the war of independence and now senator, Khalida Toumi, former Minister of Culture, and Lakhdar Bouregaa, another guiding light for Algeria, a former commander of the National Liberation Army.

 

 

The "purges" among the high ranks of the army

 

The letter mentions the danger of loss of sovereignty - the "sacred" national sovereignty won by blood and defended against all odds - in reference to the upcoming approval of the financial plan for 2016. A proposal in the document currently in progress would deny the State the right of first refusal, i.e. the ability to regain possession of a license previously issued to a foreign investor in the event that the project is terminated ("the Bouteflika I know would never approve such a thing," says Zohra Difr Bitat). The budget law is a subject that has created strong tensions in Algeria in recent weeks, as it could lead to higher prices for basic goods, kept down by the government from 2011 onwards to maintain peace and social balance.

 

The other heavy complaint concerns "the abandonment of the Algerian leaders, left to arbitrary sanctions and lobbying." No names were given, but the reference is clear to the population. It refers to the "purges" of three high-ranking generals, who are considered "heroes" of the war on terrorism from the 1990s but have been jailed in recent months. These illustrious purges were followed by an even more sensational one in September: the retirement of General Mohamed Mediène, known as Toufik, "the most mysterious man in Algeria", who was head of the powerful intelligence services for 25 years without ever appearing in public. In his 50-year career he never gave statements.

 

Again, according to the signatories of the letter, none of this can have been Bouteflika's idea, as he was particularly close to one of the generals arrested, Djamel Kehal Medjdoub.

 

In late November, another letter came, published by Algeria's major newspapers. It was written by General Toufik, who decided that, having spent so much time behind the scenes, he would take the floor to condemn the arrests of "his" generals. It is now rumored that the group of 19 is actually led by Toufik, given the long-standing friendships between Louisa Hanoune and the general. The fact that the Secretary of the National Liberation Front, the party that has been in power almost continuously since independence in 1962, responded angrily to the request of the 19 to meet the President - he even came close to ridiculing them, advising them to ask the French leader François Hollande for news on his mental state and his ability to make decisions - has further fueled the mystery on the President entourage, which, according to the pressure group which also fully belongs to the "old guard", did not even allow the letter to be delivered to the recipient.

 

 

The last battle

 

Who is really around Bouteflika today? Certainly there are the loyalists, such as his younger brother, Saïd Bouteflika who, according to some, has such a strong influence on his sick brother that he himself signs presidential decrees and appoints ministers. There is also Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, a man of absolute trust, who led the President's electoral campaign and is his mouthpiece (he was the one who met Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in Italy in May), and the director of the presidential cabinet, Ahmed Ouyahia. Who else is working in the shadow Bouteflika's ultra surveilled home-nursing home, which someone tried to enter one night in mid-July according to unconfirmed reports? Was this an attempted coup that convinced the loyalists to initiate the "purges"? These events remain shrouded in mystery. Perhaps we are facing a final showdown within the whole political-military "system" ruling the country, one last battle to determine the succession of the elderly, infirm President.

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