Despite a rhetoric centred on national independence and popular sovereignty, the Algerian state is marked by a self-referential mode of functioning. The protest movement that began in 2019 has helped to highlight its limitations
Last update: 2022-04-22 10:04:49
Despite a rhetoric centred on national independence and popular sovereignty, the modern state that was born out of independence from France is characterised by autonomous and self-referential operation. Over time, different crises have put pressure on the “power” that rules it, but this has been able to adapt to these circumstances by enacting façade reforms and sacrificing certain key figures. The protest movement that erupted in 2019 highlighted the state’s contradictions by proposing a model of citizenship that is still poorly structured but also difficult to tame.
On 8 May 2020, recently elected Algerian president Abdelmadjid Tebboune presented a new draft amendment to the constitution. Concocted by a commission of co-opted experts and submitted for review by a range of discredited parties, the latest proposed modifications to the 1996 Constitution confirmed the return of a quasi-autonomous state apparatus. After more than a year of protests and a truncated presidential election won by Tebboune in December 2019, popular sovereignty has seemed more ancillary than ever. The new president called a referendum to validate the proposed reforms, but only to transform the consultation into a plebiscite and reinforce his legitimacy, in the manner of Bouteflika in 1999 and 2005. The people thus remained a ritually summoned object, rather than the source of political power. The Algerian ruling alites are not, however, ignorant of the central role given to the people in the national political tradition, although they nevertheless seem more concerned with preserving — above all else — the capacity of the state to act by itself and for itself. In April 2019, Abdelaziz Djerad, then merely a political scientist, explained that any reform of the political order must focus on articles 7 and 8 of the Constitution, which enshrine the primacy of the people. A year later, Djerad became prime minister and he applied Tebboune’s roadmap to the letter. Popular sovereignty, as always, could wait.
Since the early 1980s, the Algerian political order has been working through a process of constant reconfiguration, alternating between periods of openness and closure. These transformations occur under pressure, through critical and sometimes dramatic episodes. They result from divisions within the ruling coalition, popular pressures that occasionally take the form of uprisings with revolutionary potential, and persistent economic difficulties. In this context, the current moment demonstrates the state’s capacity to return promptly to a form of autonomy from society. At the same time, it illustrates the incapacity of the Algerian ruling elite to accept significant change that would truly give the population any decisive political role. Therefore, the challenge is to understand the source of this resistance, but also to underline the limits to the process of empowering the state’s autonomy.
A Political Order Shaped by Crisis
Decolonisation obviously played a critical role in the propensity of the Algerian state to govern by itself and for itself. After 1962, this circular political order, in which state sovereignty nourished state sovereignty, was legitimised by the imperative to guarantee national independence. Under the leadership of Houari Boumediene (1965–1978), the Algerian state implemented a development program in a top-down and bureaucratic manner. The Algerian People’s National Armed Forces (ANP) and the bureaucracy played a central role in the enactment of public policies, with the support of the National Liberation Front (FLN), which had become an appendix of the state. Around this triptych, several satellite organisations served as transmission belts to the political leadership, such as the General Union of Algerian workers, while social structures were themselves subjected to state supervision. For example, the religious arena was organised by the Minister of Religious Affairs. The ulama were thus made to contribute to the development efforts by restoring the state religion and the Arabic language, although their individual goals often differed considerably from those of the government.
Despite its persistent divergences, the Boumediene years were a unique moment of coherence in the history of independent Algeria. The postcolonial social contract gave the government great latitude in exchange for the promise of economic, cultural, and social development. State sovereignty thus replaced popular sovereignty. The advanced autonomy of the state apparatus that resulted from this substitution shaped the ethos of the Algerian military and bureaucratic elite.
This moment of coherence ended with the death of Boumediene and the crisis of the 1980s. It was then that, faced with renewed Islamist and Berberist political contestation and the 1980s oil counter-shock, the government made its first adjustments with a series of economic reforms. These changes did not prevent the political situation’s deterioration, however, which resulted in a popular uprising in October 1988. In response, the adoption of a new constitution in 1989 and the opening up of the political and media arenas profoundly disrupted the political order. This brief phase of opening was rapidly followed by a military coup d’état in January 1992, which was a reaction to the electoral success of the Islamic Salvation Front. The “black decade” (1992–1999) clearly illustrated the inherent paradoxes in the Algerian political order: the abandonment of a one-party system and a commitment to media pluralism resulted in a brutal episode of military dictatorship in the name of saving the democracy; at the same time the brutal exercise of power by the military and their allies in the technocracy paved the way for the inclusion of new groups on the periphery of the ruling coalition (“patriot” militias, rising economic elites, moderate Islamists, Sufi brotherhoods...). In short, the opening up of the state came at a cost: “democratisation” was implemented in an authoritarian and violent manner. In fact, each episode of intense crisis experienced by the Algerian political order resulted in just this kind of double movement, as if the ruling elites recognised the legitimacy of openness while refusing to empower the people to participate effectively in the government. 2010–2011 saw a new succession of tense moments, beginning with a series of corruption scandals that touched high-ranking members of the presidential entourage, then continued with the Algerian response to the Tunisian uprising. Between January and April 2011, the ruling coalition was confronted by an urban uprising, the formation of a large protest coalition, and unprecedented student mobilisation. Faced with mounting pressure, Bouteflika quickly announced gestures in favour of the youth, lifted the state of emergency that had been in effect since 1992, and enacted a series of reforms. Yet the reforms in question were once again implemented top-down under the control of the presidency, the bureaucracy, and the military. They simultaneously guaranteed more freedoms while also opening an avenue for new forms of governmental control. For example, the new law on information decriminalised press offenses while maintaining forms of censorship in the name of national security. Similarly, the law that ensured a certain quota of women would be elected to the People’s National Assembly was put in place via a top-down approach. This state feminism aimed to demonstrate the government’s modernising and reforming role, without involving or consulting the people.
From this perspective, Tebboune’s efforts to promote a new constitutional reform and Djerad’s declarations in favour of popular sovereignty are part of a long tradition of top-down, bureaucratic, and authoritarian reforms. Since the beginning of the Hirak Movement—as in the past—Algeria’s ruling coalition has reacted under pressure. The policies that are supposed to favour the participation of the population actually confirm its exclusion. The reforms do not solve the problems but are a means of exerting domination. Even worse, while previous moments of crisis had led to the inclusion of new groups in the ruling coalition, the latter seized on the 2019 uprising to sideline its marginal components. Soldiers and technocrats now rule alone. They have used the occasion to return to an advanced form of autonomy that is reminiscent of the 1970s, an age when the myth of their benevolent rule still made sense.
A Body With Many Heads
This state’s self-enclosure testifies to the heterogeneous and labile structure of power in Algeria. The so-called nizām (system) and ‘isāba (gang) are in fact a diversified and hard-to-read coalition, one which is organised around the state, founded on the legitimacy of the revolution, and financed by the exploitation of the country’s natural resources. Under Bouteflika, several elite circles coexisted, together maintaining a tense balance and managing permanent instability as best they could by instrumentalising a number of social and economic dynamics. In order to cope with internal and external pressures, this coalition has made co-optation one of its strategic pillars. At the same time, conflict between the members of the ruling elite and the most intense moments of tension also led the coalition factions to regularly separate from each other to better survive. Like a hydra, “power” in Algeria has survived regular amputations and demonstrated its remarkable regeneration capacities.
The peripheral figures who were integrated into the ruling coalition during episodes of economic liberalisation and economic reform have remained the easiest to replace. Businessmen and political parties that have grafted themselves onto the power structure since the 1980s have also been sacrificed on a recurring basis. Between 2002 and 2004, businessmen with meteoric trajectories bore the brunt of a series of clashes in which the strengthening of presidential power was at stake. These golden boys fell as quickly as they climbed, victims of judicial settlements organised by the presidency. In a similar manner, at the height of the 2019 uprising, the judicial machine—now under orders from the army—attacked businessmen allied with Saïd Bouteflika, the president’s brother. Some of the richest men in the country, such as the public works tycoon Ali Haddad and the shipping magnate Mahieddine Tahkout, have since received heavy prison sentences.
But the Algerian ruling coalition has occasionally gotten rid of its most illustrious figures, due to internal score settling or just to ensure survival. The military coup in January 1992 led to the cancellation of legislative elections, but it also led to the forced resignation of President Chadli Bendjedid due to his willingness to negotiate with the Islamists. Benefitting from the support of various groups that mobilised to prevent the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) from coming to power, the ANP replaced the ousted president with a High Council of State (HCE), which was responsible for leading the country during the civil war and for eradicating the “threat of fundamentalism.” Liamine Zéroual, a retired general, became the leader of the HCE in 1994 before being elected president the year after. He was in turn pushed to call an early election in 1998. Suspected of laying the groundwork for his faithful counsellor Mohamed Betchine to succeed him without the backing of the ANP, Zéroual’s opponents orchestrated a media and legal campaign against him. At the end of March 2019, however, it was Abdelaziz Bouteflika who was forced to resign. After supporting the now-helpless president for several years, the military leadership orchestrated a targeted purge of his entire entourage.
Although frequently described as the true leaders of the country, the high-ranking officers of the ANP were not spared from the purges, either. In 1986, Mostefa Beloucif, the ANP’s Chief-of-Staff, was forced into retirement for having opposed an arms deal with France. He was prosecuted for corruption and sentenced to twenty years in prison by a military court in 1993. That same year, the former head of the powerful military security and short-lived Prime Minister Kasdi Merbah was captured in an ambush near Algiers and assassinated along with his brother, his son, and his bodyguards. Thus, a figure who had been de facto one of the most powerful men in the country under Boumediene paid with his life for his opposition to a project set in place by putschist generals. The purges targeting high-ranking officials also took less radical forms. For example, after his re-election in 2004, Bouteflika himself took over the ANP through the forced-retirement of several key institutional figures from the black decade, including Chief-of-Staff Mohamed Lamari. In 2019, efforts to preserve the political order by getting rid of its most despised members targeted key figures from the ANP. The former strongmen of the Intelligence Service, Generals Mohamed Mediene and Athmane Tartag, were quickly arrested and charged with treason.
Since the country’s independence in 1962, the Algerian elite has demonstrated its deep divisions and heterogeneity. This has resulted in recurring power struggles and contradictory public policies. The reconfiguration process has often been erratic, which has led many—including the most powerful—to make urgent choices in response to contingencies. These constraints have turned the ruling coalition into a political-institutional hydra with multiple heads that can be cut off without collapsing the whole structure. Nevertheless, 22 February 2019 changed the situation. During the black decade, the Democratic National Rally (RND), a new “party in power,” gathered support for the purging policy and enjoyed real backing, which offset the FLN’s momentary defection. The 2019 purges, by contrast, are the direct consequence of a popular uprising that took away Abdelaziz Bouteflika, his supporters, the FLN, and the RND. Heads rolled, and their replacements are now sorely lacking a social basis.
The Stranger’s Helping Hand
Without a social basis and lacking authority figures, the ruling coalition relies on the heart of the state apparatus more than ever: security agencies, technocrats, and a judicial apparatus under orders. Since the pandemic hit the country at the beginning of March, the government is using security and bureaucratic resources to manage the situation. Activists and ordinary citizens alike are prosecuted on false grounds for expressing themselves on social media. The decision to quarantine certain urban zones and entire provinces was made without consulting the general population or giving any advanced notice. By returning to a form of state autonomy, the government can deal with the triple political, health, and economic crisis while avoiding answering the demands of the Hirak movement.
At the same time, these authoritarian methods reinforce the image of a “power” detached from society, turned in on itself, and totally indecipherable to local and international observers alike. The fluctuations in the new president’s strategy—between openness and repression, consultation and imposition—are difficult for opponents to decipher. The arbitrariness of bureaucratic-military bodies within the state is reinforced by the prevalence of an anti-imperialist-inspired nationalist discourse. The Algerian state presents itself as if it were constantly under threat. On the other side, foreign diplomats and aid workers have long complained about the state’s security apparatus’s paranoid reflexes and the illegibility of its political decision-making circuits.
However, while Algerian state’s growing autonomisation vis-à-vis society runs counter to the former’s grandiloquent rhetoric about the centrality of popular will, nationalist postures affirming the seasoned independence of the Algerian nation-state hardly conceal its growing integration within the international system. In fact, the political order’s resistance has been largely facilitated by foreign partners who are anxious to promote the country’s economic integration and its participation in the “war on terror.” During the 1990s, international financial institutions played a leading role in the establishment of the structural adjustment plan, which reorganised the Algerian economy and contributed to the enriching of business networks. Under Bouteflika, the European Union was directly implicated in the implementation of economic reforms and the staging of the process of democratisation. As for France, it was particularly active in efforts to promote inter-state cooperation, such as developing institutional partnerships with the General Directorate of National Security (police) and the Algerian School of National Administration, organisations through which both Tebboune and Djerad passed, notably.
After the outbreak of the Hirak Movement and before Tebboune’s election in December 2019, the government, then led by another alumni of the School of National Administration, Noureddine Bedoui, hastened to pledge assurances to its Western partners, particularly the behemoths of the hydrocarbon sector (Total, ExxonMobil, etc.). Following the recommendations of international financial institutions, Bedoui also announced several structural reforms along with a return to foreign borrowing, and he opened the door to possible privatisations. In May 2020, Tebboune finally announced the partial abandonment of the so-called “51–49” rule, thus ending limitations on foreign investors’ participation in non-strategic sectors. In sum, the ruling coalition has endeavoured to demonstrate to its foreign partners that it can guarantee their economic interests, a position which would not necessarily be tenable for a government that is accountable to its people.
Algeria’s insertion into transnational spaces has also been accomplished through extra-legal mechanisms, particularly through the involvement of its politico-economic elites in tax evasion and money laundering networks. In 2016, the “Panama Papers” scandal also implicated several businessmen and senior officials, including Abdeslam Bouchouareb, the Minister of Industry and Mines. Western Europe and the United States also shelter the “ill-gotten wealth” of Algeria’s ruling elites, who are frequently forced into exile after they fall from grace. This is particularly the case in France and Switzerland, who have received no repatriation request thus far from the Algerian authorities regarding the expatriated assets of Bouteflika’s entourage, and who have also refrained, for the moment, from launching their own investigations. To summarise, the Algerian political order also owes its resistance to its insertion within global power structures, which compensates for the deep discredit of the ruling elites. The Algerian state is often described as a difficult partner, and its representatives know how to play on the competition between France, the United States, the Emirates, China, and Russia. It is at once essential to Europe’s energy independence strategy, and the keystone for regional stability. In this context, external influences are the best allies of military and bureaucratic elites who stage change without actually changing anything.
No Salvation Without Legitimacy
Despite its foreign partners’ more-or-less active support, the Algerian political order remains completely discredited. Successive governments have amply demonstrated their incapacity to find viable solutions to the systemic crisis that has plagued the country since the 1980s. During his first three mandates, Bouteflika was successful, to a certain extent, at portraying himself as the guarantor of civil peace. Following his mini stroke in 2013, those around him found themselves unable to continue to generate legitimacy. The unstable equilibrium that characterised the country up until 2019 was thus produced by a combination of repression, widespread fears of recurring violence, and other proven mechanisms for defusing political tensions. After 2019, bureaucratic-military actors tried in vain to co-opt the Hirak movement and pose as the guarantors of true democratisation. Tebboune embodies the impossible confluence of 2019’s revolutionary movement and the state apparatus. An archetypal technocrat, he is a product of the system, a long-term minister serving under Bouteflika who was co-opted by the army to occupy the highest office of the state. His primary achievement was his brief and unsuccessful opposition to Saïd Bouteflika and his relatives in 2017. This will not be sufficient to restore the credibility of institutions that have long been perceived as a sham governmental system that insults the dignity of the people it claims to represent.
The ruling coalition’s historic legitimacy has by now been completely eroded by several decades of cultural stagnation, economic scandal, and political crisis. The third world-inspired nationalism that structured the state-FLN partnership after the war of independence has come up against the conspicuous tendency of its ruling elites to live and invest abroad, the corruption of its ministers and their business associates, and the government’s cooperation with foreign states and multinationals. Since the mid-1980s, young football fans have sung “Roma wala n’touma,” or “Rome rather than you,” a hymn of exile that signifies mistrust of their leaders. This song and many others of a similar ilk were still being chanted in Algerian football stadiums on the eve of the 2019 uprising. Islam was also central to the nationalist identity project. The rise of the FIS and then the civil war of the 1990s largely stripped religion of its emancipatory significance, however. Under Bouteflika, religion had largely become one of several ways to play upon fears of destabilisation while reinforcing the coercive grip of the state apparatus.
The two essential components of the ruling coalition—bureaucracy and, of course, the army—have also suffered due to their political illegitimacy. For a long time, the ANP’s senior leaders have benefited from the aura of the struggle against France, which they have used to justify their repeated interference in the country’s political life. Yet the institution’s violence during the 1990s, the Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS)’s shenanigans, and corruption cases involving officers and some generals have reinvigorated the rejection of the ANP’s influence. The latter could have joined the Hirak after forcing Bouteflika to resign. Alas, the ANP leaders immediately began steering and limiting the movement, at the risk of being labelled as “traitors.” In response, Hirak began chanting its own slogans that reaffirmed the primacy of the political over the military (“dawla madaniyya, mashī ‘iskariyya,” “a civilian, not a military state,” and “jumhūriyya mashī caserna,” “a republic is not a military barrack”). As far as technocrats are concerned, their historic function was to enable the country’s economic development by directing its public enterprises and strategic ministries. Here again, failing public policies and networks of economic predation, particularly having to do with the strategic hydrocarbon sector, have largely undermined this technocratic elite’s reputation. For this reason, the protest movement has long targeted the inadequacies of development policies, demanding the re-engagement of a state that is considered to be absent and neglectful.
A System Entrapped by its Contradictions
In conclusion, the Algerian political order was shaped by postcolonial elites concerned with controlling the political destiny of the country. However, the conditions for its emergence within the context of urgent nation-building no longer exist. Military leaders and technocrats rule as ever in the name of a people that they view with suspicion and paternalism, as an impulsive mass whose interests the government claims to know better than they know themselves. The system isn’t dynastic or ideological. Its function depends on the sovereignty of the state apparatus, which behaves autonomously in the name of “saving the nation” if the need arises. This state sovereignty is sustained by the pragmatic—or cynical—calculations of international partners. At the same time, the Algerian political order’s greatest contradiction lies in its principle of populist and popular legitimacy. The elites govern “by the people and for the people.” This tension between the government’s methods and its founding principles was and remains the Hirak movement’s core motivation. Failing to relinquish power, the ruling elites have posed as the guarantors of “real” democratisation and protectors of the constitution. In parallel, the protestors have reaffirmed the ideal of popular sovereignty and proposed a model of horizontal citizenship. Faced with the state and its repressive reflexes, the myriad groups that make up the Hirak have set up new forms of collective organising to secure the markets, protect the environment, and structure their debates. Because of its pacifist nature and the protesters’ efforts to promote an ethos of civility, the movement cannot be discredited as easily as the FIS. Although the movement’s citizenship model is still largely under construction, it remains far more credible than the elections orchestrated under military-bureaucratic control for the past thirty years. Nevertheless, the Covid-19 pandemic provided an unexpected respite for the ruling coalition because the health crisis has momentarily legitimised the autonomous functioning of the state. However, lack of legitimacy remains the central issue. Without true popular sovereignty, the Algerian political order will remain trapped by its contradictions. Given the innumerable economic and political challenges it will face in the coming years, any respite can only be temporary.
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To cite this article
Thomas Serres, “The Hydra and its People. The Algerian Political System’s Contradictions”, Oasis, year 16, no. 31, pp. 42-52.
Thomas Serres, “The Hydra and its People. The Algerian Political System’s Contradictions”, Oasis [online], published on December 2020, URL: /en/the-hydra-and-its-people-the-algerian-political-system-s-contradictions